What We Need to Know About Baltimore

Blessed are the academics, the journalists, the pollsters who now head into riot-affected Baltimore neighborhoods to ask residents what’s going on. We need information. We need to ask residents of West Baltimore in particular why they think the riot happened. We need to ask them about root causes. Specifically, we need to test our collective hunch that the practices of the Baltimore Police Department were a major factor in why some people decided to burn and smash last night.

As a historian of the 1960s rebellions, I have come to cherish the very meticulous documentation of police practices in riot-affected communities done at the time by social scientists and journalists. Captured, preserved speech from the people themselves can be invaluable for a person in my position. I’d argue it’s invaluable for democracy.

A young resident spouting off about the police to a journalist is gold for historical narrative and analysis. Same goes for the statements of activists and public officials, particularly the police. We get a sense of the temperature on the street. We learn about specific things that police do that annoy and frustrate residents. We learn how people talk about the police–what the police mean or represent to certain residents–and how police talk about the people they patrol. The speech can be raw and unfiltered, but it is not unmediated. It is not unvarnished truth. It is rhetoric, a style of speaking, a perspective that has to be analyzed, placed in context, and ultimately considered alongside other evidence.

Which is why I also greatly appreciate the many social scientific studies of on-the-street police practices in the 1960s. Some of this research was underway by the 1950s. The American Bar Foundation, with a generous grant from the Ford Foundation, organized a massive study of criminal justice from 1957 to 1960. Their research of on-the-street police practices resulted in significant articles and books in the 1960s that–for the first time–disclosed the wide discretion that officers had on the beat.

President Lyndon Johnson’s administration also threw its weight behind research on the police. In 1965, Congress passed the Law Enforcement Assistance Act. The law did two things. It set up the Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice. Its final report, Challenge of Crime in a Free Society, was published in 1967.

The law also established the Office of Law Enforcement Assistance (which under the 1968 Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act became the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration). The LEA distributed federal dollars to local law enforcement agencies to modernize their facilities and equipment and train their officers in riot control and community relations.

Some of the LEA money went to academics, for research on police interactions with citizens, particularly minority citizens, on the beat. Criminal justice heavyweights like criminologist Joseph D. Lohman and sociologist Albert J. Reiss, Jr., produced groundbreaking studies on policing in Philadelphia, San Diego, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Boston. Lohman’s two-volume study of Philadelphia and San Diego, co-authored by Gorden E. Misner, contains countless examples of captured speech from police and residents, particularly black youth.

We learn, for example, of the “battle of the corner.” Philadelphia police officers coined the phrase to articulate their custom of rapidly pulling up to street corners and scattering groupings of young black men with threats, stares, and billy clubs. Remarkably, we learn that both sides–the lawmen carrying guns and badges and the young black men–“see these encounters as challenges to their manhood.”

To make sense of the Baltimore uprising, we need this sort of story. Lots of them. In the fall, the Baltimore Sun exposed the culture of police brutality in the city. Between 2011 and 2014, the city paid $5.7 million to victims of egregious and illegal acts of police violence. That’s a significant revelation; it sheds light on the bitter anger and distrust that many in the black community feel toward the BPD. But we need to know more.

We need more facts. And we need more stories about the everyday interactions between black residents and the police, like these from City Paper:

A young black man named Jay said, “You can be walking down the street minding your own business and say something already happened in the neighborhood, I understand that you are more cautious about what’s going on, but you can’t just hop out on everybody weapon-ready. You hear me? You can’t just come at everybody all tough and rough. Just walking down the street and want to go to the store, peaceful.They need to build a better relationship with the community.”

A young black woman named Latonya said, “We can’t come out of our doors without being harassed,” she says. “I can understand a simple fact if we are doing something wrong, then, hey, correct that. But for you to just treat us the way that y’all treat us, that’s not right. Because we’re the ones that have to live here.”

These statements could have come from African-American residents of any city in the country in the 1960s. Consider this, from Lohman and Misner’s study on Philadelphia (p. 85):

“In fact, guys I’d be with, we’d just be standing on the corner, just be talking, messing around, not getting rowdy, just standing there. They [the police] ride up, they say, get off the corner, give me your corner, like it’s their corner, they just running us off our own corner. So we walk away and about fifteen minutes later somebody else might come up there, and don’t even know the police had been there. They come back and say, ‘Didn’t I tell you to get off the corner.’ Then I say, ‘I wasn’t there.’ Guy jump out and no kidding where you at. Crowd of people standing there, they start searching, patting on you, people turn around, charlie cop here, they looking at you, its embarrassing, then they get your name, tell you, go ahead and walk.”

Or this (p. 122):

“‘One time I was stopped, I was walkin’ down the street, right down there on Seventh Street, and the cop just picked me up for nuttin’. I asked him what he picked me up for, he said ’cause he wanted to. They just took me down to the station and said I was disturbing the peace. Oh, yeah, they stop you and sometimes they were stopping me in the middle of the day, asking me where I’m going, identification and things like that. Just can’t walk in the streets without being stopped for some reason or another.'”

No doubt research on police practices in Baltimore and elsewhere is underway. No doubt we’ll read great (and not-so-great) journalism on the uprising in the days and weeks to come. The stories told by residents should be front and center as we try to pick up the pieces. Hopefully this time–unlike in the 1960s–our policymakers will listen to residents, will listen to the poor and the marginalized, who encounter the state, in all its coercive power, far more directly and violently than the rest of the country.

Stories told by the people themselves can offer a powerful antidote to the anti-democratic culture of impunity that currently reigns in urban police departments. Stories told by residents are a necessary counterweight to the stories told by politicians about “thugs” and father-less young men. Stories provide a moral dimension to the facts about police-citizen contacts. They remind us of the human costs of brutal dragnet policing. They remind us that those practices are the creation of policy. And policy can be undone.

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One thought on “What We Need to Know About Baltimore

  1. Pingback: Camden Yards and Fantasies | Seth S. Tannenbaum

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