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.”

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Reflections on the State in the Field of Urban Policing and Mass Incarceration

This is the first in a series on left scholarship on mass incarceration, urban policing, and crime politics. I kick things off. Next I’ll post a piece by Jason Lee, a Master’s student at Harvard Divinity School and a former organizer with the Chicago Teacher’s Union.

This past weekend I attended the annual meeting of the Social Science History Association, where I was lucky to share the stage with Stuart Schrader, Marisol LeBron, Max Felker-Kantor, and Elizabeth Hinton. Despite our bizarre setting (a regular hotel room on the 14th floor of the Hyatt, one side a normal luxury suite and the other a traditional, if miniature, conference space, with stiff-backed chairs, a dais, and AV equipment), we got down to the core issues (as I see them) that will engage the field of urban policing and mass incarceration in the years to come. Thanks to an excellent question from audience-member and political scientist Michael Javen Fortner, we turned, at the end, to a prickly, ugly, but necessary concern: Is it ever legitimate for the state to use force? If not, how does that change our conception of the state (traditionally defined, via Max Weber, as possessing a monopoly on the legitimate use of force)?

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Respectable white folk could be racist as hell

Lately I’ve been writing about the Rochester rebellion of July 1964. For riots from this era the best primary sources come from the news media. They are not always reliable–sometimes they are plainly inaccurate–so you have to check them against reports and testimony from local organizations and prominent leaders, etc. Even these sources skew toward somewhat elite opinion. Although journalists have a good ear for quotable material from people in the street, they typically reported what fit the narrative. In the 1960s one dominant narrative about the riots was that they were civil rights demonstrations run amok. The most common quote from rioters therefore tended to be a variation on “We Want Freedom.” Another narrative was that the riots were anti-white, i.e. racist. So another popular quote was: “Get Whitey.” Continue reading

Frisks, Force, and the Fight Over Civilian Review Before the Rebellions

Continuing the trend, this post is another excerpt from the dissertation. It comes at the end of an overly long introduction to an overly long chapter on police reform, patrol practices, and street riots from 1961 to 1964 (up to but not including the mid-July Harlem uprising). It’s a draft so the usual caveats apply. In fact, the ink is barely dry. I wrote the final few paragraphs this morning. I’m posting it because a) I always appreciate feedback and b) the material is relevant for the police reform movement today. Let me know what you think. (Yes, I know it’s probably too long as a chapter intro.)

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