Liberals and the Police in the 1960s

[I presented this paper at the 2018 US Intellectual History Conference in Chicago.]

The “Bearded Professor” and the Police: How the Social Scientists of the Kerner Commission Helped Bolster Police Authority and Power after the Urban Rebellions of the 1960s

In November 1967 the Kerner Commission invited big-city police chiefs to D.C. to discuss the past, present, and future of policing. At this meeting, Los Angeles Police Chief Thomas Reddin shared his worry that the Commission had the worldview of “a bearded professor.” For Reddin and conservative defenders of police, the “bearded professor” was a stand-in for left-wing and elite.

In contrast, Reddin praised his arch-conservative predecessor, William Parker, for “keeping some people attuned to the fact that the reality of the street is different from the reality of the drawing room where you have an intellectual discussion.” Intellectualism in this context was a smear. Yet, in this same meeting, Reddin called 1967 the “year of the cop” in recognition of the greater resources and power given police by Congress, state legislatures, and municipalities responding to urban unrest. Even Reddin could see that liberals supported and, in some cases, led this change.[1]

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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.

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Del Rio in Detroit 1967

James Del Rio, a black Michigan state legislator, mortgage broker, and judge, recounted his run-in with Detroit police during the riot of July 1967 in an interview with investigators for the Kerner Commission, the executive body appointed by President Lyndon Johnson after the summer riots of 1967. The interview took place on January 9, 1968, roughly five months after the incident.

I present a long excerpt on the 50th anniversary of the uprising, and I present this excerpt because I think it captures the hyper-masculine racial chauvinism of many members of Detroit’s overwhelmingly white and male police force who used the riot as an opportunity to “get even” with the black community after several years of liberal police reforms under a liberal mayor who had made a very public effort to solicit the support of black civil rights activists and black politicians like Del Rio who were vocal critics of the Detroit Police. In July of 1967, Del Rio was a Democratic state representative.

Source: Deposition of James Del Rio, January 9, 1968, 14-18, Series 32, Box 3, Records of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library, Austin, TX.

It was either Monday or Tuesday morning. I believe it was Tuesday morning. I was called by Julian Witherspoon, he is President of the Inner-City Voters League to attend a meeting of community leaders and elected officials over at some school which was one block east of Twelfth Street on Woodrow Wilson, and buildings had been burned out and streets cordoned off, so the only way you could get there was to go down Dexter Avenue, up the Boulevard and down Twelfth Street.

Now, to get to this building, that was the method by which you had to go, so I did, and I came down Twelfth Street and about two blocks before the street on which I had to turn to get over to the school, I had noticed a colored man, very thin colored man walking along the street with a lunch pail, as I had to do many years ago, and he was walking along the street, wasn’t bothering anybody, and I continued and the traffic was very slow, and about a half a block, maybe a quarter of a block from the street where I really had to turn to get to the school area, I saw three, between three and four policemen standing around two people and near a supermarket, and there must have been, I don’t know, eight or ten or fifteen policemen there, and eight or ten cars, and a couple of paddywagons, and these two policemen were there with two colored people, and one I learned later, I found, was the husband of the lady, and they were standing about two feet apart, and one policeman had a shotgun that you hunt pheasants with, that type that you hunt pheasants with, and he was jabbing her in the belly with this shotgun, and the other one was slamming the man across the back with the gun, and they were directing them to do something.

Well, there were eight or ten people standing there, and I was literally parked because you couldn’t move until they moved the cars, and they knew, of course, I was a public official and that I was witnessing brutality, and so I got out and identified myself to the officers and I asked them their names and they told me they were not allowed to give me their names and I asked them their badge numbers because they had no badges on and they said they didn’t wear badges during riots, and I asked them, “Well, what do you want these people to do,” and they told me, “I want this women to,” and they used other language, of course, “to pick-up this bread,” and whatnot, “which she stole and dropped and I saw her drop it, I want her to pick it up and get in the wagon,” and they indicated they wanted the man to do the same thing. So, I told them, I said, “Well, if you just stop slamming her in the belly, you know, with that shotgun maybe she can,” and I turned to her and told her, “This man is going to kill you if you don’t pick-up this,” you know, “these groceries and get in that paddywagon and this is what I think you ought to do,” and she heard the complete conversation between myself and the officer and she picked it up and she got in the wagon. Her husband got in the wagon too, and they were between 50 and 60 years of age, both persons, so about that time this very small colored fellow that I had seen walking down the street came by and one of the policemen who was standing there with the shotgun wheeled and slammed him in the back, across the back with the gun and said, “All right, nigger, you get in,” and so the man burst into tears immediately and said, “I wasn’t doing nothing, I wasn’t doing nothing, I wasn’t doing nothing,” and I turned to the officer and told him that I had seen, I had seen him walking down the street, and I told the man to open his lunch pail, open his pail and show the officer what was in there, and he did and in there there was an orange and a couple of sandwiches, and the officer saw it and so he told him, “Nigger, go on,” like that, and the man almost took off like a jet, and then the Sergeant came over. I don’t know, he must have been five or ten or fifteen feet away from us, he came over and said, “All right, nigger, you take his place,” and so I turned to see, you know, was he talking to me. I was the only colored man around close enough to him to address, and so he said, “I mean you, nigger, take his place,” so at that point he put a 30-30 rifle between my eyes, my chest first and then in my eyes, between my eyes and said, “I told you, nigger, to get in,” so I turned and I got in the paddywagon. His officers, the officers around him began to explain to him how I just helped them get, you know, who I was and I just helped them get this woman and man in the paddywagon, and he said, “I heard him on the radio last night and he is with them,” I remember because I wrote the statement down, I just recall it.”
Q: What statement?
A: The statement that he made at that time.
Q: I see.
A (Continuing): You know, I was just reviewing my notes here.
Q: I see.
A (Continuing): And so then I asked him for his name and he refused to give me his name, and I asked him for his badge number and he refused to give me that. I asked him for a pencil and he refused me the pencil, and when we stopped, that is, when the paddywagon stopped about four blocks up on the corner of Twelfth, Twelfth Street and Clairmount, he literally ran around in the street talking to State Troopers saying, “I got Del Rio in there, I got Del Rio in there,” you know, just happy and gleefully bragging about the fact that he had Del Rio in the paddywagon.”

What’s Going On?

So. I’m still alive. I’ve been away from social media to focus on finishing the dissertation. I’m now revising the chapters. I completed the first three chapters more than two years ago.  Since then the project has changed. I’ve changed, too. So, like everything about this dissertation, the rewriting, er, I mean the revising is taking a lot longer than I thought it would. Here’s what I’ve learned about this process. These are not general lessons that will apply to everyone. These are things that I’ve figured out about myself while writing a dissertation, with more universal aspects that I’m sure others will find familiar. It is definitely not a “how-to guide to finishing your dissertation in five years.” Nope. That’s not me.

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The Dilemmas of Police Unions

Police unions are everywhere these days. Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police, which represents a majority of the department’s members, recently held an election. The winner, Kevin Graham, ran on a Jeff Sessions platform: against reform, against DOJ consent decrees, against critics of policing practices. Elsewhere, many police unions advocate cooperation with ICE to enforce Trump’s deportation agenda and support laws to make violence against police a hate crime and to limit accountability in shooting investigations and public access to body camera footage.

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Walled Cities: Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside, Part III

Ghettoside is fundamentally a book about segregation. Previous posts (Part I and II) have examined how Jill Leovy builds a case for the vigorous policing and prosecution of violent crime, especially murder, as a critical means to suppress historically high black homicide rates. By the end of the book, perhaps as the reader’s expectation for concrete “solutions” bears down, Leovy shifts gears to discuss more explicitly the costs and ramifications of hyper-segregation—the walled city of the racial ghetto.

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In Defense of Incarceration: Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside, Part II

Jill Leovy has written an astonishing book in ways that I don’t think many have appreciated. Reviewers commonly noted that Leovy brought to light an under-recognized aspect of law enforcement. She emphasizes the importance of under-enforcement in poor segregated neighborhoods, low homicide solve rates in particular, when so much public attention—and anger—has been directed at over-enforcement of low-level drug and property crimes and public-order offenses. Yet, what Leovy is really doing in Ghettoside is building a moral case for incarceration.

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