Defending the Result of a Process I Often Felt I Had No Control Over

Here’s what I’ll say at the start of my dissertation defense in a couple of days. It took me a long time to finish the manuscript, and so it was strangely cathartic to write about the process, where I began and where I ended up. At this point, I’m not sure I care if I did it right. I’m just glad I’ve arrived at the end—or rather, that I was able to ride it out until they told me I could stop.

I began the dissertation as a study of rioting. The original plan was to closely examine two riots, one in Rochester in 1964 and the other in Miami in 1968, in order to understand how the meanings of the urban rebellions changed over these five years. I knew policing was a key component of the uprisings, but primarily as a cause. I was more interested in writing a cultural history that would seek to understand how different groups of people made sense of the riots: whites and blacks, liberals and conservatives, cops and citizens, and so forth.

Then I began to pay attention to how rioting and policing appeared to work in tandem. That one’s definition or understanding of rioting was somehow linked to how one viewed the police and their purpose. That got me thinking about how rioting and policing in the United States have occasionally served the same purpose. I read a whole lot on the history of lynching and vigilantism. I discovered in the posse a riot-like police force.

As my advisor knows well, I took a long detour through the nineteenth-century history of community policing, a history of quasi-public and mostly private policing by white men who due to their power and status had the privilege of acting like police, especially against minorities. Finally, after reading and writing about the long era from the founding of municipal police agencies in the 1840s and 1850s to the early movement to professionalize police in the 1920s and 1930s, I began to realize that the history of urban police forces was crucial to understanding the sixties rebellions.

This very roundabout and theory-laden approach helped me arrive at a quite simple observation: that the purpose of policing changed dramatically in the fifty years prior to the 1960s rebellions, and that this change was worth paying attention to as not only a cause of the riots—which Americans have long recognized, at least since the 1968 Kerner Report—but as an epochal change in the way Americans have used the state to keep order in their communities.

And thus the riots were in part a response of angry young men to abusive cops. But the response itself was also notable. Gathering at an arrest, challenging police so brazenly, attempting to rescue prisoners, claiming city blocks for the community—these actions reminded me of traditional forms of community policing that had been prevalent for so long in American public culture. Thus, as I’d suspected, the police and the riot were joined at the hip, both in terms of their co-evolving meanings but also as citizen-state technologies of popular sovereignty.

So I dove into researching the police, which as you might expect was challenging. It was hard to find direct sources from the police agencies themselves. Occasionally I came across original memos or meeting minutes, usually in the files of city officials. Rather, as police scholars well know, I had to rely on the records of watchdog groups like the NAACP and the ACLU and the federal government, which in the 1960s began paying closer attention to local policing practices as a problem for “race relations” that could trigger destructive riots (which they did).

This research took me far afield from the original two cities and the narrower question of rioting. I began to look more intentionally at changes to policing practices in the two decades between two periods of terrible urban violence: 1943 and 1964-1968. To my surprise I discovered that few serious scholars—at least not historians—had done this work in the past fifty years.

Instead I found a lot of work written by social scientists, analyzing aggregate trends in arrests or whatever, or in the vein of the muckraker, shining a light on the brutal incident—the shooting, the beating, and so forth—and the subsequent protest by civil rights groups. The work of Chris Agee, who in his 2014 book examined police as independent actors within urban politics, was the rare exception when it was published—though less rare today, as a sizable and growing number of my peers now write about urban policing in the twentieth century.

Where I think my work departs from that of my peers, however, is in its scale and its core questions. I have written a national history of urban policing. I mainly focus on the North and the West, so I suppose it’s not truly national, but still the scope is fairly extensive. I’ve researched changes in street policing in Detroit, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Baltimore, Rochester, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and New York. Adding my research on the 1960s riots, I also consider policing issues in Tampa, Miami, Dayton (Ohio), various New Jersey cities (Newark, Elizabeth, Plainfield, Jersey City), and Cambridge (Maryland). In addition, I examine crowd rescues and minor riots in large cities like St. Louis and smaller towns like the St. Louis suburb of Kinloch. Though I had to cut some material from the final draft, reading the archival materials on policing problems in these various places informed my core interpretations.

The dissertation also asks different questions than I have seen raised in recent work by historians. I took the title “Battle of the Corner” from two well-known sociologists who thought it captured the relation between young black men and cops in Philadelphia in 1966. They observed that officers and the teens each saw a right to control the street corner, and that participants defined this contest in terms of manhood and honor.

That’s compelling enough, but what sold me on the phrase as an overarching frame was that the researchers noticed that police often cleared corners at the request of residents of the neighborhood. This additional layer was tough at first to digest and understand since it challenged my preconceived notion. Because I was interested in explaining rioting, and because in an important sense I sympathized with the plight and grievances of the rioters, I was inclined to believe that police chased kids off corners for the straightforward reason that they were abusive (which of course they often were).

Nonetheless, the seed was planted. Soon I began noticing patterns everywhere in the sources. I saw that middle-class black people—but not only middle-class people—were commonly annoyed and angry over chronic corner-lounging, which they saw as a public nuisance, a safety hazard, and a symptom of neighborhood decline. I found additional evidence that these concerns greatly increased as crime skyrocketed in the late 1960s, during the most intense period of rioting.

Black urban residents, I learned, typically defined the problem of crime and street disorder in a variety of ways. One dominant frame was that street violence was a product of social exclusion. Inadequate police protection was a product of social exclusion too. Noticing this law-and-order sentiment in black politics was the final piece that changed the dissertation from a rioting to a policing history.

I think the dissertation also builds on the work of Chris in expanding our sense of the rank-and-file within police departments as an independent actor with separate and often distinct interests from those of the brass. Using a handful of cities where I could find decent sources, I chronicle how police unions in the 1960s not only battled civilian review or fought for higher wages—better-known stories perhaps—but also less conspicuously how they mobilized to take advantage of Supreme Court decisions and due process clauses in union contracts to resist civilian oversight and tougher internal discipline.

This history holds obvious contemporary importance since police reform efforts today focus a great deal on changing collective bargaining agreements, or scrapping the unions altogether. But I also make a historical claim in showing how rank-and-file unions helped to shut down a moment of potentially wide-ranging reform in the late 1960s. The riots—and the threat of continued rioting—provoked some liberal city officials across the country to appoint liberal chiefs to discipline the use of force in particular. The big-city patrol associations, many of them only recently fully-fledged labor unions, used this threat to build a massive treasury to lobby for their interests, including through new statewide unions that continue to wield impressive influence in state politics.

To sum up, I think the dissertation shows how over a few decades large urban police departments transformed from the quasi-vigilante mostly lawless arm of machine politics into the top-down bureaucratic entities we know today, capable of performing stop-and-frisk on a systematic scale. Today majority-black city administrations and black police chiefs pursue corner-clearing policies that indeed many black residents desire, if not the harassment and unnecessary jailing that frequently accompanies those tactics. Big-city policing today is also dominated by an elite managerial class that bounces from city to city and frequently spars with confrontational, highly-partisan rank-and-file unions. These contemporary realities have a common origin in the history I chronicle.

One basic question I have for the committee, I suppose, is do you recognize the manuscript you have read in my description of it?

Looking ahead, I’d like to change a few things as I revise the dissertation into a book. I think I focus too narrowly on the experience of African Americans at the exclusion of other groups with similar histories of police abuse, specifically Latinos, working-class whites, and non-conforming people such as political dissidents, bohemians, and LGBT people. Even though I expanded the frame from select riot events to policing more generally, I never really moved beyond my original actors of black residents and white cops.

I’d be interested in discussing today how you think the project—and its core questions—might change by broadening its focus. For instance, my initial research suggests a similar law-and-order sentiment prevailed in Latino politics as it did in black politics, but it merits further investigation. In that vein, I don’t think I do enough on black police associations, which became more vocal and outwardly political in the 1960s to counter the more powerful white-dominated unions. Lastly, and I owe this great point to Chris, I think I need to say more about how police drew some of their authority as public officials and political actors from white people and specifically white urban neighborhoods.

That’s all. Thanks. I look forward to your comments.



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