James Baldwin on Police

It is a commonplace these days to cite James Baldwin’s line on the police. You know the one. A white police officer in Harlem is an “occupying soldier,” he wrote in “Fifth Avenue, Uptown,” an Esquire essay from July 1960. More famously, in The Nation, in July 1966, Baldwin wrote: “Harlem is policed like occupied territory.”

That essay, titled, “A Report from Occupied Territory,” chronicled the tragic case of The Harlem Six, which I wrote about here. With this analogy, Baldwin tapped into something true and powerful but also somewhat hidden from the broader American public, in the sixties at least: there was no possibility of justice in the racial ghetto. The rule of law simply did not apply there.

Black neighborhoods were redlined. Residents could not get a mortgage or a bank loan to start a business. Housing codes were ignored or willfully violated. Merchants over-charged for inferior goods. School buildings had lapsed into disrepair, teachers were under-paid, classrooms were overcrowded, and students, as a result, were forced to attend in half-day shifts, producing a drop-out, or “push-out,” crisis. Jobs were scarce or menial. With no good jobs and bad schools, many people, young and adult men especially, stood on corners, waiting for day-work. Many played the numbers. Many scraped by.

The ghetto, as such, was characterized as much by purposeful racist design as by official neglect. Black urbanites were directly abused and left alone. These impersonal, structural forces had a corrosive effect on the police as an institution and as a body made up of individual officers. In the ghetto, the police were an oppressive force. It could not be otherwise, given the structural incentives in place. Baldwin writes:

And the police are simply the hired enemies of this population. They are present to keep the Negro in his place and to protect white business interests, and they have no other function. They are, moreover—even in a country which makes the very grave error of equating ignorance with simplicity—quite stunningly ignorant; and, since they know that they are hated, they are always afraid. One cannot possibly arrive at a more surefire formula for cruelty.

The key line in this passage is not the most eye-diverting one. It is not, I’d argue, that police are “simply the hired enemies of this population.” Rather, it is the bleak independent clause of the second sentence. Baldwin asserts that police protect white society from the black ghetto—”and they have no other function.” Although many no doubt held this view in the sixties, I believe it misrepresents how most black New Yorkers, and black urbanites generally, viewed the police at the time.

In “Report from Occupied Territory,” Baldwin writes almost exclusively about males, boys and men, the demographic most likely to be harassed and brutalized by the police. Then, as today, police justified such profiling based on crime statistics. Police pointed out that a large proportion, often a majority, of a city’s murders and robberies were committed by young black men. They argued that the typical suspect description matched this profile.

It is a familiar claim, and rightly challenged. First, police-generated crime statistics are notoriously unreliable. Police departments can suppress certain crimes by reclassifying them, usually by down-grading them to something less serious. More fundamentally, crime statistics present a chicken-and-egg problem. To a large degree, they reflect police activity than actually existing crime. This is not true for homicides. But it is true for public-order offenses like loitering for which police discretion is greatest. Under-reporting also colors the final statistics, which is why researchers in the 1960s invented victimization surveys to bypass the police filter and get a fuller picture.

For young, working-class black men in the 1960s, the police often did represent an occupying force. Very commonly, officers were brusque, authoritarian, and openly racist. One of the most common grievances I come across in black male testimonials on police violence in the sixties is police use of the appellation, “boy.” How significant, and revealing. Both the complaint and the police practice speak to the specificity of the interactions between black men and white male police officers. A lot was on the line, for both parties. For police: a demonstration of their supremacy as white men and their authority as police. For young men: a masculine rebellion against the emasculating treatment at the hands of a chronic foe and a declaration of their humanity against a brutal, uncaring system.

Baldwin treated the black male perspective as representative of “the” black experience. Too often writers today uncritically accept this (false) universalizing portrayal. This is a major oversight. Because for the majority of black urbanites in the sixties, police were nowhere to be found when they were most needed. For black women and middle-aged and and senior black adults, police were defined more by their absence than their oppressive presence. These residents, like Baldwin, understood police neglect as a condition of ghetto life. They understood police abandonment as discrimination.

In the mid to late 1960s, as crime and drugs posed more serious safety and quality-of life concerns in black neighborhoods, black residents’ single greatest complaint about the police was that there were too few cops—black cops, especially. This is true of every city with a large black population that I have studied: Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Newark, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and on. They attributed this absence to police collusion in organized vice, especially public sex-work and gambling. These allegations were often true. (For example, the raid on the blind-pig in Detroit, which set off the riot, in July 1967, had been requested by black residents of the area, who suspected, correctly, that vice officers took payola from pimps, prostitutes, and illegal bar-owners, rather than enforcing the law, as they were required to do.)

Both under- and over-policing were serious problems in Baldwin’s Harlem. Here is one example. On July 18, 1964, riots erupted in Harlem over the killing of a black teenage boy by a white police officer. Two days later, a tandem uprising took place across the river in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a working-class black neighborhood in Brooklyn. Some eight thousand people participated. Hundreds were arrested. One person, a young black man, died, shot by police. It was the first major black urban riot of the sixties, in Harlem, no less, the cultural and political capital of black America. Then, as today, the riot took on symbolic significance: the dawning of black militancy, the explosive problem of police brutality in black neighborhoods, the tragic injustice of the urban racial ghetto, etc.

Those depictions are all true and fair. But consider this: shortly before the riot, the New York Times conducted a survey of black residents in Harlem and Bed-Stuy. Blacks blamed their lot on white discrimination, and the “bad behavior” of their neighbors. They complained about poor housing, bad schools, high unemployment, etc. They also lamented police abandonment.

On the question of police brutality, 12% said there was “a lot,” 31% said there was “a little,” 20% said there was none, and 34% said they did not know. It was essentially split. A large minority, nearly half, believed police brutality existed. A slight majority denied its existence or had no opinion—for them, police brutality was not a serious concern. This makes sense, given the way that age and sex, as I noted above, colored police-citizen encounters in black neighborhoods.

The Times did not directly poll black residents’ views on crime. That would change. In a year or two, after realizing the issue’s salience for black urbanites, many pollsters began asking the question. But in July 1964, the Times assumed that black urbanites would have the strongest opinions on police brutality and discrimination. Thus they were surprised to discover: “Many volunteered the opinion that more, rather than fewer, policemen were need to cope with the high crime rate in their neighborhood.” [emphasis mine]

The Times again:

A high-ranking city official, sitting on a sofa in his cool and elegant Harlem apartment, put it this way:

‘You don’t know how much it tears me up to say this, but the most hellish problem Negroes up here have to worry about, next to bad schools and bad housing, is personal safety from muggers and thugs. I don’t let my wife go out, even to the grocery store, at night unless she is escorted or takes a cab.’

Ten blocks south, in a ramshackle apartment on 146th Street and 8th Avenue, where the bathrooms are in the hallway, a slender 19-year-old girl whose arm had recently been slashed by a wino complained:

‘There’s just too many junkies and drunks around here. It’s hard for decent people to live right. I feel like I’m smothering.’

As the last example indicates, crime and public safety were not purely elite, reactionary concerns—although, to be sure, they were and continue to be exploited by bourgeois elitists and white reactionaries to justify draconian carceral policies. Rather, for many regular black folks (as opposed to activists, city officials, etc.), crime, disorder, and drugs were an immediate threat and a fact of life—a direct outcome, they often acknowledged, of the aforementioned purposeful racial design and official neglect .

Baldwin was an eloquent, powerful critic of police brutality, who tapped into the historically constant, near-universal fear that black people have experienced when hailed by a police officer. Yet his analogy of “occupation” also obscured a significant part of the urban black experience, defined more by abandonment. He thus missed an opportunity to formulate a properly left politics to address this specific concern and condition.

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2 thoughts on “James Baldwin on Police

  1. This is a super helpful context for that often-referenced Baldwin quote. Seems like there are so many social and community histories of police in urban US begging to be written, perhaps a missing part of “long” CRM historiography. Thanks for this!

    Like

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