A Long View of Policing in America

About this Episode

Guests
Marcus Nevius, Lilia Fernández, Clay Howard

How we understand policing in the United States depends not only on what issues we focus on but also how far back we look. In this episode of History Talk, hosts Leticia Wiggins and Patrick Potyondy sit down with the historians Marcus Nevius, Lilia Fernández, and Clay Howard to take a longer and broader view of the matter. They discuss how modern policing problems are connected to a range of historical issues such as slave patrols, the spectacle of lynching, mental health problems, the War on Drugs, as well as controlling publicly-acceptable behavior, labor, immigration, and gender.

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Cite this Site

Leticia R. Wiggins, Patrick R. Potyondy , "A Long View of Policing in America" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective
February, 2015
https://origins.osu.edu/index.php/historytalk/long-view-policing-america?language_content_entity=en.
February, 2015

Transcript

Patrick Potyondy 

Welcome to History Talk the history podcast for everyone produced by Origins at Ohio State. I'm your host Patrick Potyondy.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

And I'm your other host Leticia Wiggins.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Engraved on the facade of the United States Supreme Court building in Washington DC is the famous clause equal justice under the law. To fulfill that lofty promise at the end of this past year 2014, President Barack Obama signed an executive order to establish the Task Force on 21st Century Policing. And there was to put it mildly, very good reason for this.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

Early last year street protesters flared up in Albuquerque after the police fatally shot James Boyd, a homeless man with a history of mental illness. This event triggered a scathing review of the local police department widely criticized for its abuse of extreme force.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Then, just this past August, the lethal shooting of Michael Brown, a black teenager by Darren Wilson, a white police officer in the St. Louis suburb, Ferguson, Missouri brought widespread protests against police violence once again to the national stage. In this event's, aftermath, questions policing and racial profiling came to the fore.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

In the wake of the non-indictment of the police officer who killed Eric Garner and who was caught on video doing it to name just one other killing on a long, long list, President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing seeks to fight crime and reform police departments by building public trust and examining how to foster strong collaborative relationships between local law enforcement and the communities they protect.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Things are now coming to a head, but these concerns are sadly, nothing new. Indeed, issues of policing have been with us since this nation's very founding.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

So today, three historians will explore the long history of policing with us pointing to a long past where some communities have been policed more harshly than others. This begs the question, when will we see "equal justice under the law?" Stay tuned.

 

Marcus Nevius  

Thank you for having me. It's definitely a pleasure. I am Marcus Nevius, PhD candidate in African American history here at The Ohio State University.

 

Dr. Clay Howard   

Hi, it's great to be here again, my name is Clay Howard and I'm an assistant professor of history here at OSU.

 

Dr. Lilia Fernández 

Hi, I'm Lilia Fernández, associate professor in the Department of History at Ohio State.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Alright, thanks for joining us today. So to get started, most of the news media covering the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and other black men doesn't usually delve into the longer history that contextualizes these events, if it delves into history at all. So what can we learn about policing, if we take a longer view bringing the focus back to the early 1800s? And Marcus, if you want to get us started here.

 

Marcus Nevius  

Absolutely. Recent scholarship has shown us that policing is nothing new in the United States. In fact, since the 1970s, we have come to understand that the United States has been long been an incarceration nation. We know that, for instance, styles of policing are rooted in slave patrols that were very common in the antebellum American South. And we know also that policing of racialized groups, for instance, slaves or free blacks in the north dates to the antebellum era, as well. One primary example of this is the 1854 case, the rendition of Anthony Burns, who was an escaped slave from Virginia and spent some significant time in Boston before he was identified as a fugitive slave as it were, and spirited back to Virginia. What we do know about this particular case is that the mayor of Boston hired an ad hoc group of Irishman playing on the racial environment of the city of Boston at the time, to both capture Anthony Burns and ensure his return to Virginia. And to also ensure that the people who supported anti-slavery at the time in Boston would not interfere with the rendition. Similarly, recent scholarship has shown us that in terms of slave patrols in the antebellum south, two very important fears were at the core of the reasons. One was a fear of slave revolt, and that was patrollers were to control the movements of enslaved people to ensure that they could not organize and revolt against the system. And secondarily, if you take an even longer view to the 17th century, competition between imperial powers, the Spanish, the English, and the Dutch, in particular, created a need also for patrollers to ensure that Imperial interlopers would not attempt to take back the settlements.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Do we think these slave patrols have kind of a parallel in the more modern period?

 

Dr. Lilia Fernández 

Well, you know, one thing that the slave patrol patrols bring to mind is the fact that law enforcement or policing has really been historically about controlling labor. Right? As Marcus is pointing out. In the case of enslaved African American workers, this was about maintaining a workforce that was obedient and you know, disciplining them and keeping them in line essentially, and preventing revolts or uprisings. But even later, in the 19th century, during the era of industrialization, policing, and patrolling urban communities was really about controlling urban industrial workers, and maintaining the social order and really protecting the interests of capital. So anyone who was you know, striking or protesting or advocating radical political ideas, was seen as threatening to, you know, an obedient and well behaved labor force and as threatening to the social order and of course, maintaining the social order was the other aspect of that.

 

Dr. Clay Howard   

One of the things that the question made me think of is, you know, one of the definitions of modern life is that people live amongst a sea of strangers. People, they'll never, they'll never meet, but they'll they know, they're always there. And that police forces have really been a modern phenomenon to kind of manage what people at the time saw as a problem, or people still see as a problem. So police forces were created in the 19th century, and professionalize whatever you know, to varying degrees, to manage the growth of cities, and to try and control the kind of different kinds of people in public space. And so there's responses to what you might call actual crime or responses to fear of crime, which are always related to fears of difference.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

So these fears of difference and even looking at this long legacy that we see, we watch Twitter in the aftermath of these multiple killings of African Americans by police, and a lot of folks are recognizing these certain parallels between these events and the spectacle of lynching that happened in the late 1800s and early 1900s and is there some potential explanation as to why folks are making these parallels? And do you think that there's truth in this comparison?

 

Marcus Nevius  

That's a very interesting question. First of all, and I think that yes, there is some truth. The truth, from my particular point of view is based in racial difference, or, and if you take an even earlier view to the 17th century, ethnic difference. Difference is at the core, that is to say. If you take the example of the antebellum south, if you take the example of the actual groups of militia or slave patrollers, the public space was the plantation in many cases, and so patrollers primary duties were to invade, if you will, slave quarters, to ensure that the enslaved people, to ensure that enslaved people were acting as laborers who would do nothing more than contribute that value into the plantation system. If people are making making the case, that they're feeling that these professionalized police forces are actually attempting to control and attempting to control that sort of difference. I think that that's a very strong case.

 

Dr. Lilia Fernández 

I think one of the parallels perhaps, that people are pointing to also is state sanctioned violence against certain racialized populations, right? In the case of lynching, we know that oftentimes, lynching occurred at the, at the hand of mobs as a result of mob violence, of meting out vigilante justice, right? When someone was, you know, locked up in a local jail, they might come and take that, you know, often African American men, but sometimes others out of jail and you know, mete out their own form of justice. In the cases that we've seen recently, though, what we're witnessing is police themselves committing that violence and essentially doing it with impunity, right? Not having and not having any consequences for their actions.

 

Dr. Clay Howard   

I at first, that when you ask the question, I was a little nervous about making too casual a comparison of the two in par. I mean, if for nothing else, you know, most of the officers involved in any of these shootings have used self-defense as an explanation for why they did it. And then there's a debate about what is self-defense? You know, does it apply in these circumstances? Which is something that would never show up in a lynching case, right? That in most of those cases, the people involved saw them as they were acting out justice, and there really wasn't much debate about it and whatever alleged crime had occurred had already occurred, and that the people doing the lynching were themselves not acting in the heat of the moment.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

And I'm wondering if there's kind of a connection here, between kind of the popular culture of lynching, right? I'm thinking of things like postcards that folks would take and send across the country and the videos, right? We have some videos, right? Of these now that people take with their phones and things like that, that go viral, and people watch across the country as well. Do you think that's part of the explanation for this comparison?

 

Dr. Lilia Fernández 

It might be. I mean, I think there's an element of public spectacle to this, right? You know, lynchings in the past were, could be community events that people came out to witness. In this case, now, when you know, all of us have easy access to video cameras and can record things on our phones, then and this gets distributed very rapidly on the internet, then it does also become something to consume and, of course, in our context, today, it's often met with a tremendous amount of outrage.

 

Marcus Nevius  

And I agree with the example of public spectacle, what actually comes to mind is the Emmett Till case of 1955 and the way that his mother particularly used his open casket picture, to generate the sentiment that ultimately was wrapped into the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century. I don't know to what degree people are actually recalling that sort of strategy, but I think that there's something to be said there.

 

Dr. Clay Howard   

Yeah, I wonder if the better analogy isn't not the postcards that were sent out by the Lynchers themselves to either advertise it or commemorate it in some way, so much as like someone like Ida B. Wells, who was, you know, a journalist, trying to bring wider attention to a social problem, lynching. And I wonder if those you know, in an age of citizen journalists, right, where anyone can videotape something, the people involved aren't themselves trying to draw attention to what they see as a larger, larger problem.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

And so building on our conversation so far, it's making me wonder who or what groups have been the primary targets of policing historically in the United States? We've really been talking about it as an African American issue so far and I'm wondering what other groups including African Americans have been targets of policing in America?

 

Dr. Lilia Fernández 

Well, as I mentioned earlier, I think a large part of law enforcement purpose has been historically to control labor, and to maintain the social order. So anyone that was seen as threatening to either, you know, the economic system, or the social mores of the times, were generally, you know, scrutinized, put under surveillance and watched much more carefully. In the late 19th century, this would have included political radicals, labor organizers, you know, Union advocates, those types of groups. In the early 20th century, as well, this might include sex workers, which I know Clay might be able to talk more about, in terms of the way that public spaces were policed along the lines of sexuality, for example. But in the 20th century, in American cities, particularly as a growing numbers of racial minorities migrated to cities, African Americans coming from the south to the north, Mexican Americans migrating either from Mexico or from Texas, Puerto Ricans coming from the island to cities like New York, Chicago, Cleveland, for example, as neighborhoods underwent racial succession and racial change, police became very important in maintaining the racial boundaries of those communities, and either keeping racialized minority groups out of particular neighborhoods, predominately white neighborhoods, or keeping them in line and letting them know that they were not welcome in certain communities.

 

Dr. Clay Howard   

You know, I also feel like implicit in the question is not like, who have the police then focused on right? Because I feel like most for most of the 20th century, which I know best, there's been a consensus that police are necessary that police do a public function like teachers and healthcare workers and so forth. And so the debate is usually about who is disproportionately policed rather than whether or not there should be police in the first place. So one thing that your question brings to mind this is an ongoing, yeah, we've been talking a lot about race and class, but also, gender has been a kind of central thing that police have, disproportionately and perhaps unfairly policed over, over time. So there's cases in the '50s of women wearing slacks to bars being arrested for gender nonconformity. There's also kind of public health campaigns during World War II, where Women in bars alone, regardless of whether they're wearing slacks or not would be picked up as part of anti-prostitution campaigns. And that kind of sense that people need to conform to certain gender norms is kind of played out in the more recent past, when gender nonconforming individuals transgender people have been really disproportionately policed and harassed and there's a statistic that Lambda Legal compiled that one out of five transgender or gender nonconforming people who were surveyed in 2011, who would interact with the police said that they had been harassed, and sometimes even violently so, by the police.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

When we look at these groups and kind of look at these controversies surrounding police, and you're kind of hinting at these, but they reflect larger social problems, it seems like racial inequality or issues surrounding urban change and when do they reflect issues that are unique specifically to law enforcement, as well as these controversies surrounding police?

 

Dr. Clay Howard   

You know, in some ways, the police reflect the society in which they live, right? The police officers are people, but also they are part of an institution, police forces that are tied to federal budgets that are tied to city budgets, and so forth. So one thing that comes to mind to me is the ways in which these fights about policing are tied into the larger questions of urban and metropolitan inequality. So you know, Albuquerque either leads the nation in terms of police shootings, or is one of the leaders and that's a city that recently had to go through a hiring, you know, a hiring upsurge to try and get more police officers, in which they had to kind of cut corners to get police officers who were rejected by suburban police departments around Albuquerque, to try and get the numbers that they were looking for. And a lot of the people who have been shot or harassed by the police, are mentally ill, right? And the fact that their very presence on the street is tied into larger issues around housing, mental health facilities, and so forth. So in some ways, the police shootings don't operate in a vacuum and the kind of the ethical questions that come out of them are bigger than just whether or not the police should have pulled the trigger.

 

Dr. Lilia Fernández 

The issue of police community relations and excessive use of force by certain police officers is absolutely tied to larger social issues, like mental health that Professor Howard points to. And he reminds me a case of a Native American man whose name is escaping me right now, in Seattle, I believe, who was an artist. He was featured in this documentary called Honor Totem, but he was an artist a woodcarver and he had some mental health issues and was shot in the street in the back, actually by a police officer, because he was seen as threatening, he was carrying a carving knife out in public, a wood carving knife. So the violence that police have brought down upon the mentally ill definitely has to do with the kinds of the lack of support that we've had for mental illness, the closing of facilities and the lack of resources for people who need that kind of health care, absolutely. But in thinking about other issues, and what I know best of the mid-20th century and neighborhood change in Chicago, for example there a couple different things, right, that we need to keep in mind. One is that police, as Clay said do reflect the prejudices of the larger society, the community around them. And so in neighborhoods where African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans, other groups, were not welcomed by white residents for example, police were often the front line, the state's sanction line to reinforce racial boundaries to keep people out or to keep people in their place, so to speak. But oftentimes, some of the tensions that happened between new incoming communities in urban areas and law enforcement had to do with cultural misunderstandings, very basic things. Not being able to communicate to people because of language barriers, for example, or criminalizing certain activities that for some populations are seen as perfectly legitimate and normal and socially acceptable, like congregating in public on the front stoop or hanging out in a street corner, you know, playing dice or, you know, playing cards, that kind of thing. So, when these kinds of cultural misunderstandings or, you know, differences of opinion about what was publicly acceptable behavior came to a head in these communities, and oftentimes they would result in, you know, very public conflicts and, unfortunately, in some cases, violence.

 

Marcus Nevius  

There is also a parallel in the 19th century when it comes to what Professor Fernandez explains as the front line. In cases of conspiracy, in cases of enslaved people planning revolt or actual revolt, Nat Turner's rebellion, for instance, comes to mind in 1831, the patrollers and the local county militias were mobilized against, or to corral, to bring under control these instances and so militias in particular, were locally sanctioned, in some cases state sanctioned.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

And I'm wondering if these conversations about, you know, police brutality or excessive force of whether it's modern police or earlier militias and things, how these things occurring today are similar to those that occurred in the past? And you know, things like urban uprisings of the '60s and '70s are coming to mind as is kind of the urban crisis of the mid-20th century and it seems like there might be some parallels between today and that period.

 

Dr. Clay Howard   

One of the things that happened in the '60s, with the exception of the riots that took place after Martin Luther King's assassination. Most of the riots that took place were in response to police misconduct, and there was like a, there was a federal study of Detroit in the mid-60s before the big riot in '67 that showed that about 42% of the police force, which was almost entirely white was described as anti-Negro. And part of what police forces have struggled with are residency requirements. And so on one hand, if you don't have a residency requirement, police forces often draw from predominantly white suburbs. But then in the '60s, a lot of the white police officers were living in transitional neighborhoods, neighborhoods that were predominantly white, but were slowly being integrated and becoming predominantly black, which then translated into the ways in which they policed the larger cities. So I was just thinking about how Ferguson, which is a suburb, right? But it's a suburb that is racially transitioning and so there's a predominantly white police force that's sort of leftover from an earlier era. And you can kind of see a similar pattern playing out as neighborhoods flip from one race to another, white flight moves farther out into the county or back into the city somewhere else.

 

Dr. Lilia Fernández 

Yeah, if you, if we want to talk about the larger social context, with these recent episodes, we absolutely have to mention the war on drugs, of course, right, and our drug policy. That has been at the center of a lot of this policing, and tensions in police community relations in many inner-city communities. But to touch upon the issue of urban riots in the 1960s, and '70s, for example, they were very much often about police brutality, about the frustration and anger that black and brown communities had with a very hostile police force in many cities in the country that were constantly raining down on, particularly African American and Latino men, with impunity and this was widespread. I mean, I can't overstate just how difficult it was to be, you know, a person of color in inner cities undergoing racial transition, experiencing deindustrialization and witnessing the demographic changes that were happening in the mid-20th century and how this played itself out, the social anxieties about this played themselves out in the contact between police and these communities.

 

Marcus Nevius  

I think if we think of the 19th century, and I'll draw upon Nat Turner's rebellion of 1831 again. We're not speaking as much of the types of demographic shifts in the American South that we think about in the 20th century. But what we are thinking about in many ways, is the violence that was at the core of controlling enslaved people and the ways that enslaved people responded to this violence, responded to vicious whippings or responded to other mutilations against the body, in particular. And the most recent work on Nat Turner's rebellion explains very clearly, that this was something that was drawn upon by an individual who in turn inspired others to join. And so on the one hand, you had the rebels themselves, Nat Turner and the other slaves who rose in Southampton county in that year, but the militia, the sheriff's, posses, and the like, were also drawn from certain segments of the society. They too were certain ethnic groups or certain class of people who are not particularly the state itself, if you will. They were not particularly the governing officials, if you will. They were poorer, white individuals who were mobilized by the state to protect the state and in so doing, they could draw a line in the sand and reinforce the difference that I think we've been seeing.

 

Dr. Clay Howard   

At another level of controlling labor right? In front of a different dynamic. So.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

And when we look at this historically, and you all have brought up amazing kind of examples of, of this kind of history of police community, police, you know, state relations, in the past, what do these offer us to, for thinking and currently addressing these dilemmas we see today?

 

Dr. Lilia Fernández  

I think the first thing we have to keep in mind is that these dynamics are not new, right? As unfortunate and tragic as these cases are the killing of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and other young African American men. Anyone who was around in the 1960s will tell you that this, you know, occurred frequently in many cities throughout the country. You know, back then and going back even further, we know that there's been this longer history of this kind of state sanctioned violence against certain racialized populations. I think, you know, the media has a particular interest in drawing you in and giving you news, something that's new, that's novel that's interesting, that will, you know, attract viewers or listeners or readers and I think as historians what we, one of our roles in society is that we remind people that we need to look to the past and look to the lessons from the past to help inform our responses to current day dilemmas and phenomena that we struggle with.

 

Dr. Clay Howard   

One of the consequences of police misconduct has been social movements that have organized to try and reform the police and government in general. That's true of gay activism. I know in San Francisco, historians commonly say that harassment of gay bars led to a kind of coherent gay community that then became a social movement that later not only reformed the police, but elected people like Harvey Milk to office. You know, it's too soon to say but it feels to me like the conversation around first Trayvon Martin and then Michael Brown and Tamir Rice and so forth, Eric Garner, is different than Arthur McDuffie in the early '80s. Or even Rodney King in the early '90s. Where there was a brief moment, where people were talking about the, you know, the question of police violence and whether or not you know, "it actually happened"  to the more recent history, like in the last year or two, where people seem to accept that it is happening and that the question is to what extent is it happening and what needs to be done about it. So we might be living in the early stages of a social movement built around civil rights, maybe also gender and sexual rights as well.

 

Marcus Nevius  

What we are speaking of and what we are witnessing is not necessarily new, and that what we can learn from the history that we seek to tell are ways that we may be able to deal with what we are experiencing in the present.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Dr. Lilia Fernández is author of Brown in the Windy City and a history professor at Ohio State. Clayton Howard is a history professor at Ohio State as well and researches the history of American cities and suburbs and Marcus Nevius is a PhD candidate here at OSU studying the agency of enslaved runaways in eastern North Carolina. Thank you all for joining us today on History Talk.

 

Dr. Clay Howard   

Thank you.

 

Dr. Lilia Fernández 

Thanks for having us.

 

Marcus Nevius  

Thank you.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

This edition of the Origins podcast History Talk was brought to you by the Public History initiative and the Goldberg Center in the History Department at The Ohio State University. Our main editors are Steven Conn and Nicholas Breyfogle. Our executive producer is David Staley, our audio and technical advisor is Paul Kotheimer. Our audio producers and hosts are Patrick Potyondy and Leticia Wiggins. Song and band information can be found on our website. You can find our podcasts and more at our website origins.osu.edu on iTunes and on soundcloud, and as always, you can find us on Twitter, Facebook, and tumblr. Thank you for listening.

 

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