From 2015 to 2018, historians of policing Max Felker-Kantor and Simon Balto lived within a mile of each other in Indianapolis. At the time, both were working on book manuscripts that were under contract with the University of North Carolina Press’s “Justice, Power, and Politics” series, and were operating on roughly similar clocks toward publication. During those three years, they routinely met to talk about process and ideas, to celebrate milestones and work through frustrations.
Felker-Kantor’s Policing Los Angeles: Race, Resistance, and the Rise of the LAPD was published in November of 2018. Balto’s Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power was published in April of 2019. The Abusable Past invited them to have a discussion about their books, which are part of a new wave of scholarship offering a critical history of policing in America.
SB: Both of our books are about big-city policing in the twentieth century (though mine runs 1919 to the early 1970s, and yours from the mid-1960s to the end of the century), and the racism that’s central to the project of American policing is probably the defining through line in both studies. Very clearly, the books are in close conversation with one another. At the same time, you sent me a text after reading my book that said something to the effect of “it’s interesting that two books could cover such similar subject matter and yet still be so different.” I’m wondering if you’d care to say more about what makes the books different from one another in important ways, and then maybe later we could talk about what pairing them together tells us about policing in America.
MFK: Great question and I’m thrilled to continue to be in conversation with you about our work. I see at least three areas that differentiate our books in important ways. First, there is a difference in writing and narrative. While we both privilege stories of African Americans and their experience with racist policing, I see much of your work driven by intensely local and personal stories of Black Chicagoans and the lack of police protection. Reading your book I was struck by the emotional feelings you drew out of the material in comparison to my own. Second, to my mind we use slightly different analytical and theoretical frameworks within the common thread of racist policing. You stress the framework of overpolicing and underprotection in America to tease out the ways that Black Chicagoans faced immense police violence on the one hand and high levels of criminal violence on the other. Although this framework is not absent in my work, I stress the operation of the police power of the state to maintain social welfare as the mechanism by which the Los Angeles Police Department legitimated aggressive policing and the criminalization of Black and Brown Angelinos. Finally, we both trace racist police repression of the Black Freedom Movement. However, whereas I take the police themselves as the locus of struggle, through most of the book your narrative stresses the ways the police operated to contain campaigns for economic justice in the 1930s, open housing movements during the 1950s, and to protect white opponents of the Chicago Freedom Movement.
Which brings me to a question about the local nature of our studies before we get to thinking about policing in American writ large: what is the value of using what you call an “intensely local” approach to policing and do you see important distinctions between municipalities (Chicago and L.A. in particular) that shaped some of these differences in policing?
SB: When I set out to write a local history of policing in Chicago, I did so in part out of frustration with the preponderance of literature on criminal legal policy that privileged the federal level at the expense of the local. This isn’t to say that that federal story isn’t important, or that federal policies and politics don’t shape local conditions when it comes to policing and approaches to so-called “crime.” Obviously, they do. But people experience the police first and foremost within the context of their own block, neighborhood, and city. On the flip side, police workers organize themselves into local union lodges that are principally concerned with local issues. (The Chicago Fraternal Order of Police’s ongoing and relentless campaign against reformist Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx is one of countless examples I could name.) And just in general, policing, despite all the federal investment in support of local police in the past half-century, remains principally a local enterprise that is funded by local sources, administered by local officials, and contoured by local (as well as national, obviously) political tradewinds.
Researching racist policing–and Black people’s experiences with racist policing and their resistances to it–from the local level instead of from the federal level down opens up whole new understandings of how police power is cultivated and contested. The biggest takeaway for me is that the suggestion that American policing was fundamentally and irrevocably changed by the Wars on Crime and Drugs–which has been repeated so often as to have practically become a fait accompli–becomes less tenable if you understand how local political organizations and police departments built and buttressed a powerful and powerfully racist police machinery on their own accord prior to 1965. Of course, the Wars on Crime and Drugs gave police departments access to military-grade weapons of war and incentivized repressive measures, but forces like the CPD became full-blown, well-funded, and deeply racist instruments of repression much earlier.
As to the question of how things differed from, say, Chicago to Los Angeles, I think that there are a number of things, but for sake of space, I’ll highlight two. Your book does a really good job of showing how police power’s application can be nimble as it shifts to different populations defined as “problems” by politicians and/or police officials. I am thinking here especially of your discussion of the LAPD’s growing repression of immigrants from Central America during the 1980s and 1990s as officials began deeming them a problem. Chicago obviously has a sizeable immigrant population, too, but it doesn’t unfold in the same way and along the same timeline as L.A., so anti-immigrant policing manifests differently there. Another is politics. Part of why policing in Chicago was perhaps uniquely corrupt and unaccountable during the early- and mid-twentieth century was because of its close ties to the Democratic machine. Chicago’s Democratic machine had such a stranglehold on the city’s politics for so long – and used the police department as one of its primary patronage pools throughout that time – that it had what was probably an unmatched ability to influence police operations at both the macro and granular level. It almost invariably did so to the detriment of Black Chicagoans.
I’d love to actually ask your thoughts on what I just said about that pre- and post-1965 break. I think our books work well together and there’s nothing incompatible about their arguments. But your book’s point of entry, for the most part, is 1965–or at least the lead-up to it. Obviously, and again to the point about localization, you do this because of the unique moment of the Watts uprising, not the launch of the federal crime war. Nonetheless, if one of my book’s primary arguments for Chicago is that the CPD’s most important instruments of racial repression were formulated prior to the federal crime and drug wars, I’m wondering if you see what happens in L.A. after Watts as a stark departure from pre-’65? And do you think what happens in L.A. from 1965 to 1992 and beyond is mostly driven by local events and politics? Or is it more deeply shaped by federal policies and money?
MFK: I take the Watts uprising as a point of departure for my book but not as a stark rupture with the pre-1965 period. The LAPD had long been an agent of racist control of the city’s marginalized groups as other historians, most recently Kelly Lytle Hernandez, have shown. In this sense, my work does not argue that Watts created an entirely new role of the LAPD as a racist police force. Rather, my argument is that Watts was an explosion of discontent aimed at the decades-long impact of racist policing in the Black community. In this sense, and not to discount questions of housing segregation, employment discrimination, and educational inequality, Watts was an anti-police protest as much as anything else. In turn, the police response to the uprising became what I suggest was a police riot involving mass arrest and state violence. In short, the department certainly built on a foundation of racist policing from the pre-’65 period but used Watts to mobilize an expansion and extension of police power into new areas of social and urban life in the decades after 1965.
Using the Watts uprising as the starting point for my research also demonstrates how the LAPD used a moment of crisis and challenge to their authority to reassert their power in the city. Importantly, the uprising came at a moment when the police in Los Angeles and across the country felt their discretionary authority was under attack, especially from courts and civil rights activists. Instead of responding to a moment of anti-police protest with investigations into how to address racist police practices, the LAPD and city officials doubled down on aggressive policing. In the years after Watts the LAPD organized and positioned itself politically to gain more authority to control “crime” and “disorder” and to expand its martial capacity.
Another important aspect that becomes clear by centering the local story was the role of Black and Latinx activists. At the same time that the LAPD expanded its repressive capacity, so too did activists and residents of color organize to confront racist policing. Throughout the post-1965 period, activists, most notably those associated with the Coalition against Police Abuse (CAPA), demanded an end to police violence, greater police accountability, and community control of the police. The stories of anti-police activists are ones that often get lost through a focus on the federal level and shows the importance of the local.
Much of the support for the LAPD’s expanded martial capacity certainly came from the federal government, notably through the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) and later legislation related to the war on drugs. But, and this is where I think our books make a similar point, much of that expansion came as much or more from local initiatives and politics. As in Chicago, the Los Angeles Police budget was exponentially larger than the funds received from the LEAA and other federal crime control programs. And the LAPD organized politically and helped construct crises of crime, disorder, and drug and gang violence throughout the period from 1965 to 1992 on the local level to establish itself as an independent partisan entity in the city.
In short, federal and local events and politics often worked together in ways that released the police to target, criminalize, and control residents of color.
Thinking through the local vs. federal scale and pre-’65 and post-’65 periodization questions brings me back to something you raised at the outset. What do we learn about policing and/or the place of policing in the growing literature on the carceral state by looking at the CPD and Black resistance?
SB: Well, to answer the historiographic question first, I think it’s safe to say that policing has been comparatively under-analyzed in the carceral state literature, at least relative to prisons and federal policy. That’s not a universal truth and I’m happy that it won’t be a truth at all soon enough, thanks to all the new work that’s freshly out or in the pipeline. But there’s a lot that studying the police can tell us about the larger dynamics of the carceral state that we miss by not including them. My above point–that studying local police and taking them seriously as historic actors requires rethinking the overemphasis on 1965–is one example.
Perhaps an even more important but related one is the fact that studying police behavior and police policy closely helps explain the overwhelming racism that structures the rest of the carceral apparatus. After all, before people experience jails, prosecutors, judges, bondsmen, prisons, and so on, they almost invariably first experience the police. The police feed the rest of the criminal legal system. So, if we know that mass incarceration is an inherently racist project that dramatically over-impacts Black and Brown communities, we should be asking ourselves what it is that police have been doing (and why) that’s led them to target so many Black and Brown folks for arrest. The answer is not that the federal government suddenly gave them that idea fifty-odd years ago. It’s that the police developed systematically racist policies on their own a long time ago. The reason why mass incarceration emerged from the jump in the 1970s and 80s as a project of extreme racial disproportion is because the people it was consuming, from the very beginning, were the new victims of old racist police logics and practices that dated back decades.
The same can be said about better understanding and historicizing resistance to the carceral state. We live in an era of robust social movements that challenge the legitimacy of the criminal legal system–Black Lives Matter obviously being the most famous among many. In 2019, prison and police abolition is a political vision that most Leftists have at least probably heard of, and even liberals and some conservatives are on board with rolling back some of the excesses of the drug war and trying to lower the number of people who are locked up. In other words, ours is a moment where the system’s power is being contested to varying degrees, or at least its scope is being brought into question.
I think there’s something powerful and perhaps fortifying in knowing that we are not alone in this contestation. In my book I write about Black Communists resisting police power and authority in the 1930s, civil rights groups challenging the CPD in the 1950s and 1960s, the fight for community control of the police in the 1970s, among other moments in which community members took it upon themselves to contest police power. (As you rightly note above, this is also what many of the uprisings of the 1960s were at least partly about.) Thinking about these resistance movements, then, isn’t simply a matter of documenting the history. It’s also about having an archive that might be of use or inspiration to us and to future activists.
Your book documents resistance to the police in an even more concerted way than mine does, actually, so let me toss the question back to you. Are there particular lessons we can learn from studying an organization like CAPA? Also, given what you said earlier about the LAPD serving as its own partisan entity–which I think is true of police writ large regarding their success convincing politicians and the public of their own importance–do you have insights from your research that might suggest ways of countering the entire narrative that police have created about themselves?
MFK: CAPA is not only a crucial component of my story but was at the center of anti-police struggles from the 1970s through the end of the twentieth century. CAPA organizers viewed police abuse as a problem that transcended racial and ethnic lines, and attempted to unite all those who experienced police harassment and abuse in a multiracial coalition. The work of CAPA and other anti-police activists in Los Angeles – and similar movements in other cities – reveal a number of lessons for rethinking police power in both the past and present.
Coalition building was central and a key lesson provided by CAPA’s history. CAPA actively sought to bring together what they described as isolated efforts of Black and Latinx residents to respond to systemic police violence. This coalition model broadened the struggle against racist policing. Relying on this coalition, CAPA activists channeled their efforts into community organizing, political education, nonviolent protest, political reform, and legal redress. The efforts of activists over the course of nearly two decades set the foundation for more wide-ranging police reforms that came after the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion.
Aside from the daily work CAPA activists engaged in to combat racist policing, organizers also made a deliberate effort to counter the hegemonic and naturalized narrative of criminality and legitimacy of police violence produced by the state. This brings me to a broader point about evidence and archives. CAPA collected records of their own organizing but also an archive of the police, which is held at the Southern California Library at 6120 S. Vermont Avenue, in the heart of South Los Angeles, and which serves as a community and social justice library. Centering evidence both created and collected by CAPA activists allows us to see an alternative archive to state-sponsored ones, and to tell a story of policing and police power through the lens of those who were policed, rather than from the perspective of the police themselves. Centering the experience of those who bore the brunt of the LAPD’s racist police power allows us to see the impact of state violence and policing on people’s lives in contrast to what the state or police says it does.
This is a vitally important point for the present as well. We have to elevate the voices and archives of those who are policed and see those narratives as a valuable counter to police-created and state-sponsored stories about the legitimacy of police power that all-too-often become accepted as a dominant narrative. By centering evidence that reveals the experience of those who were policed (in particular residents of color), my book – and yours as well – exposes the core social function of the police and the police power as one centered on producing and maintaining a racially segregated and hierarchical social order that protects whiteness and property.
I think this brings us to a final point that we have often discussed and come to think is vitally important.
SB and MFK: In thinking about current movements to hold the police accountable and to fundamentally restructure the nature and challenge the premise of policing in L.A., Chicago, and other American cities–it’s important to think about them in relation to anti-police activists of the 1930s, 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and so on. To know that modern organizers in Los Angeles with the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, LA Can, Youth Justice Coalition, Black Lives Matter and so on, and their comrades in Chicago with the Black Youth Project, No Cop Academy, Assata’s Daughters, BLM-Chicago, among others–there is power in seeing their shared ancestry. They’re part of a long genealogy of struggle rooted in the Black radical tradition and the historical projects of coalition building in pursuit of a more expansive vision of freedom and equality. What this shows is also the deep history of abolition as a process and practice to envision a different world.
The legacies of resistance struggles continue to today. The stories of policing, racism, and resistance in Los Angeles and Chicago demonstrate the ways that the police have acted as the enforcers of a racist and inequitable order for generations. At the same time, resistance to police abuse has a long history, too–one that shows that police power has often been contested by those most subject to it, and that it remains contestable.
Simon Balto is an assistant professor of African American Studies and History at the University of Iowa.
Max Felker-Kantor is visiting assistant professor of History and African American Studies at Ball State University.