My dissertation will provide the first national history of the 1960s uprisings and the rise of what I call “get-tough” policing after World War II. Generally, “get-tough” refers to a retributive, as opposed to a rehabilitative, mode of punishment.
In my dissertation, I use “get-tough” to characterize police strategy, tactics, and conduct toward African Americans after World War II. Specifically, it refers to racially retributive actions, like mass arrests and street harassment, by which police intended not only or even principally to apprehend African Americans for suspected crimes but instead to embarrass, demean, and punish them, before trial, to enforce white dominance on the street and subdue a growing urban black population boxed into ghettos by white racism.
My project can be boiled down to an effort to reconstruct and understand the everyday encounters between African American residents and police officers on the urban street corner in the two decades after World War II. These encounters tended to be fraught and racially charged, and surprisingly often they were violent. This “battle of the corner,” as the Philadelphia police called it in the 1960s, derived in part from a proactive police strategy that emphasized the prevention of crime through street stops and frisks. The implementation of this strategy by an overwhelmingly white rank-and-file was often blatantly racist and discriminatory.
Black residents of northern and western cities contested the arrival of the racial dragnet in their neighborhoods after WWII. They demanded civilian review boards and the addition of racial sensitivity courses to the training curriculum, at the academy and in-service. They held demonstrations and marches. Some also rioted by attacking police officers and trying to rescue police prisoners during arrests. By the early 1960s, bystander interventions in urban minority neighborhoods were on the rise across the country. They averaged five a day in New York City in 1961.
This struggle over the urban street corner culminated in over 300 urban rebellions all across the country from 1964 to 1968. The bulk of the dissertation examines these events and their local and national fallout in great detail. Specific riots that are discussed include Philadelphia (1964), Rochester (1964), Watts (1965), Detroit (1967), and Miami (1968). I use the files of national and local organizations, and state and private agencies, that closely studied police-community relations in dozens of cities, such as Cincinnati and Cleveland, Newark and New Haven. Class action lawsuits against unconstitutional policing fill out my account of the social, cultural, and legal dimensions of these conflicts.
The 1964 to 1968 period, I show, was a great reshuffling of the way the state governs poor urban black spaces and the way poor urban black residents interact with the state. This moment gave us “stop-and-frisk” and SWAT and initiated the demise of the common-law right to resist unlawful arrest. Thereafter, police put bars in their patrol cars to secure prisoners, started regularly using handcuffs, and armed themselves like combat soldiers. The crowd rescue is virtually unknown today.
In the aftermath, policymakers and police departments opted for procedural fixes over substantive change. They reigned in the overtly racist officer while embracing proactive police tactics, like stop-and-frisk, which remains ascendant today. Additionally, with federal support, local police departments purchased heavy artillery and deepened their reliance upon elite tactical teams. In brief, we can find the roots of our current predicament of both over-policing and under-serving poor urban black neighborhoods in the postwar “battle of the corner.”