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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The Problem of How to Interpret Black Uprisings

I remember when I started working on my dissertation — on the 1960s African American uprisings — I really had only one question in mind: What is the correct way to think of these events? It was, admittedly, an odd starting point. But looking back at my early writing, for the prospectus in particular, I can see that I was obsessed with answering this question — or at least negotiating a solution that satisfied both my committee and me. It was a very practical concern as well — how, on the page, to refer to events that I would have to describe in great detail over and over again. Continue reading

Riot v. Rebellion–Should We Still Care?

Once again, it appears, Americans are divided over whether the Baltimore uprising was a riot or rebellion. Were these criminal agitators or protesters in a just cause?

I sympathize with the argument that the events of late April were a political expression of grievances–an uprising. But I remain uncomfortable with some of the rhetoric of the “rebellion” crowd. When poor urban black residents fight the police en masse, torch and loot local stores (some of which are predatory), and defiantly posture in the streets, we should take their claims on the state seriously. We should consider their actions with a large dose of empathy. But I think it a mistake to downplay the violence and its costs, as I see some on the left doing. Aside from the obvious ethical issues, ignoring the violence misses the point of a riot–which is to strike back at perceived aggressors, to right a wrong. Continue reading

Footnotes to “The Origins of Stop-And-Frisk”

Jacobin recently published my essay on dragnet policing and the sixties rebellions. You can find it here. It was a really positive and instructive experience working with Nicole Aschoff on the edits. Nicole’s advice about structure, word choice, and clarity was spot-on. The piece is far better–and I’m far happier with it–as a result. I also must thank Shawn Gude for his last-minute revisions.

I’ve decided to post the footnotes to the piece on the blog, in case anyone wanted to follow up on the specific claims I make. I know that when I read a popular piece by a scholar I’m always curious about the sources. So here they are! (Sorry for the imperfect formatting; also I kept secondary source citations deliberately minimal.)

Feel free to post comments about the essay here. I’ll appreciate the feedback. Continue reading

What We Need to Know About Baltimore

Blessed are the academics, the journalists, the pollsters who now head into riot-affected Baltimore neighborhoods to ask residents what’s going on. We need information. We need to ask residents of West Baltimore in particular why they think the riot happened. We need to ask them about root causes. Specifically, we need to test our collective hunch that the practices of the Baltimore Police Department were a major factor in why some people decided to burn and smash last night.

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Why Do People Riot*?

That’s a silly question, historically speaking. There is no one answer. In the United States, different groups have attacked other groups and property for a wide range of reasons–toward vastly different ends. Here, I want to consider why people in Baltimore recently, and Ferguson last summer, smashed and burned things, taunted and, in rare instances, attacked police officers. The answer, I think, turns on understanding the special role of the police in American society.

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Police Politics, Then and Now

The recent police shooting deaths of African Americans and the protests they have inspired have started a conversation about racial justice and policing. To some degree, I think that conversation is richer and more promising than it was in the 1960s.

Partly I think it is a matter of information. We simply know more about what police do on the beat, how to train them in the use of force, and what sorts of tactics most offend and anger urban residents. Those were new facts in the 1960s, at least to the broader white public. Even among scholars, before 1960 it was virtually unknown what police did everyday, in what situations they used force, how they decided whether or not to make an arrest, etc. The riots drew attention to these issues. President Lyndon Johnson appointed commissions to study policing and police-community relations. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, established in 1957, and the Community Relations Service, established in 1964, also gathered data from cities across the country. Not coincidentally, the fields of rioting and policing came to prominence in the 1960s. Continue reading