Like so many other Americans, I’ve spent the last week watching a chaotic, agonizing situation in Ferguson, Missouri. I’ve spent most of those days hoping for something better and fearing something worse. As tensions have risen between a black community set on demonstrating for its humanity and a police force bent on repressing those protests, as I watch the police and the National Guard dig in their heels, I keep wondering what the way out is.
These confrontations aren’t new. We’ve seen all this before. We’ve seen police violence. We’ve seen community anger. We’ve seen mass protest. We’ve seen police repression of that protest. We’ve seen calls for a more equitable society and a more accountable law enforcement apparatus. Perhaps most importantly, we’ve seen those same calls evaporate into the ethers of political malaise and racial resentment.
In the last week, many knowledgeable people have weighed in on these historical contexts – how the seething tensions between police and community are undergirded by the deeper histories of America’s mass incarceration epidemic, its militarized police forces, and the logics, practices, and inequalities that bring black and brown people into contact with law enforcement to such extraordinarily disproportionate degrees. Many have pointed out the similarities between the past week in Ferguson and the 1960s urban uprisings/riots/rebellions in impoverished black urban centers from Watts to Newark – events almost invariably ignited by police violence or the rumor thereof. Others have conjured the Los Angeles uprising after the Rodney King verdict in 1992. Still others have alluded to the post-Civil Rights Wars on Crime and Drugs and the ways they’ve invested police forces with new powers, budgets, and paramilitary equipment.
All of these comparisons are true, the analogues vitally important.
Yet the reality is that these problems between police and community run far deeper than that. The truth, in fact, is that abuse and violence have been central elements in the policing of urban areas for at least the better part of a century. Eighty-five years ago, in 1929, when the federal government commissioned a study of law enforcement lawlessness after a decade of police graft and abuse all over the country, one of the most shocking portions of their report was a part documenting the commonality of police abuses that spilled over into things more adequately termed torture. As the Commission documented, in urban police stations around the country, reports proliferated of officers banging rubber hoses across suspects’ abdomens, placing boxes over their heads and filling them with tear gas, applying acid to genitals, depriving prisoners of sleep, hanging them upside down by their ankles, beating them with poles to the point of eyeball dislocation and blindness, and so on.1 The year that report was commissioned (it wouldn’t be released until 1931), a woman writing to the Chicago Defender who lived just behind a South Side Chicago police station in a heavily-black neighborhood pleaded that she was nearly being driven toward a “nervous breakdown from hearing those poor prisoners crying like children” as police officers split lips, knocked out teeth, and committed any number of other abusive acts.2
That woman’s agonies weren’t the imaginings of fever dreams. Violence both of that sort and in the everyday has been an important element of law enforcement in majority-black communities since virtually the day that African Americans began moving to cities in large numbers during the first Great Migration of the late 1910s and 1920s. Put differently, to be black in an American city at the very moment that those cities were becoming the homeplaces for sizable numbers of black people meant to live in fear of what the police were capable of.
Those fears are knowable. It’s just a matter of looking for expressions of them. Black citizens talked explicitly about police violence in terms suggesting its systematic nature during the early decades of the last century. Their arguments—variously mournful and outraged—were rooted in evidence of abuse that was both anecdotal and statistical. In Chicago, for instance, for the years during the 1920s for which data is readily available, black people constituted more than forty percent of people killed by the police in cases that the courts ruled justifiable or excusable – a rate six hundred percent greater than their overall representation in the population (which stood at roughly seven percent at the end of the decade).3 The black-owned Chicago Defender alluded to this in a 1929 editorial criticizing the white daily Chicago Tribune’s practice of giving $100 “bravery” awards each month to a particular CPD officer – an award that “more than half” of the time was given to “killers of black men.”4 A year later, a sixteen-year-old black kid accused of breaking a store window was killed in his home in a hail of thirty-five bullets when police officers broke into his house without a warrant. In response, aged anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells (now a Chicagoan by way of Memphis) wrote a scathing editorial in the Chicago Daily News, arguing in part that, “Perhaps if the city had recognized [the consistent killing of black men by police] as a menace to her fair fame and public sentiment and then sternly demanded the removal of incompetent heads of the police department, [the boy] might not now be lying cold in death.”5
In New York, a similar story brought Harlem into a whirlwind of violence and repression by the middle of the 1930s. There, tensions between the police and the community ran high throughout the late 1920s and into the Depression years, finally spilling over into a riot in March 1935 that saw three people killed, hundreds wounded, and a couple million dollars worth of property damaged after rumors that a young Puerto Rican kid had been killed by the NYPD. As cities are wont to do, New York established a commission afterward to study what had happened, before promptly doing nothing meaningful to prevent it from happening again. The New York Amsterdam News issued a warning as such in discussing the commission’s findings in 1936, describing Harlem as a tinderbox set to ignite again at any time – precisely because of “police aggressions and brutalities [that] more than any other factor weld the people together for mass action against those responsible for their ills.”6
These stories abound. In 1934 in Richmond, Missouri, a few hours west of Ferguson, a white police officer gunned down a young black man after the latter shook the door of a restaurant he frequented to see if the night watchman might let him in to grab something to eat. News reports about the inquest after the killing sound depressingly familiar: “all indications show,” one newspaper reported, “that the dead young man seemed on trial rather than an effort of arriving at how he met his death.” At the man’s funeral, the pastor exclaimed from the pulpit: “The law enforcement agencies have failed to [offer] Negro[es] protection. If we have any protection, it must come from some other source or course.”7 In Chattanooga, Tennessee in early 1935, black citizens descended upon the police commissioner’s office to demand accountability in the wake of killings by uniformed officers of black men. In 1936, an Atlanta man wrote to the black-owned Daily Worldechoing calls from Harlem for mass protest to try to stop police violence: “The continuous, persistent and indefensible…maltreatment and killing of Negroes in Atlanta by officers of the law has reached a point that requires the urgent, immediate and positive consideration of all self-respecting citizens, white and black alike, who have the slightest regard for the sacredness and sanctity of human life….As the matter stands now, no Negro can feel safe under arrest for the reason that he is most likely to fall into the clutches of [an abusive] officer.”8
These weren’t isolated events. They weren’t anomalies in an otherwise smooth relationship. They were quintessentially, regrettably, American. They were no respecter of region. (New York to Atlanta, Chattanooga to Chicago.) Nor of a city’s political conservatism or liberalism. (Milwaukee, under Socialist mayoralties, also faced these issues.)
When the Richmond pastor or the Atlanta editorial writer or the Amsterdam Newsopinion board or Ida B. Wells spoke or wrote, they were critiquing not just individuals, butsystems – departments and municipalities they saw as actively working against their safety and best interests. Everywhere they moved, black citizens who paid taxes to fund police forces looked out on the police services that were actually rendered to them, and made the same common grievances leveled today – that black people get remarkably poorer protection from the police when they needed it, and that their rights were recurrently violated and their bodies abused when they do come in contact with the police. They understood, like the people of Ferguson, Missouri do now, that as poor people, and as a suspect minority, their rights and lives simply didn’t matter all that much in the law enforcement calculus. (The Amsterdam News in 1936: “The citizens of Harlem understand that the invasion of their rights and the slight regard that is shown for their lives is due not only to the fact that they are Negroes, but also to the fact that they are poor and propertyless and therefore defenseless.”9) And they understood, again like the people in Ferguson, that nothing was going to change on its own. That the prospects were precisely nil that the United States would fix itself of its own volition when it came to the casual disregard for black life and prosperity running rampant through the law enforcement apparatus and the broader society.
When we look at what’s happening in Ferguson – at the violence and the anger and sorrow and the repression, at the profound and agonizing questions that swirl concerning bodily integrity and people’s rights to live – we need to understand that this isn’t something new. It isn’t even something recent. It is in our nation’s fabric and in its bones.
This is who we are. It’s who we’ve been for a very long time. Godspeed to the people of Ferguson, and to everyone else out there working to fix us.
Simon Balto is a PhD candidate in History and Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
1 Hopkins, Earnest Jerome, Our Lawless Police: A Study of the Unlawful Enforcement of the Law (New York: De Capo Press, 1972 ).
2 Chicago Defender (National Edition), February 2, 1929.
3 Chicago Police Department, Annual Reports for 1923, ’26, ’28, and ’29. Chicago Public Library Municipal Reference Collection, Chicago, IL.
4 Chicago Defender (National Edition), October 26, 1929.
5 Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 249.
6 New York Amsterdam News, July 18, 1936.
7 Atlanta Daily World, July 26, 1934.
8 Atlanta Daily World, September 29, 1936.
9 New York Amsterdam News, July 18, 1936.