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Friday, January 13, 2017

Terror and Race

A few days ago I discovered a paper I had written in 1968 for one of my favorite courses, Intergroup Relations, by Tom Pettigrew.  Only 36 at the time, Pettigrew was already a star at Harvard and nationwide. A white Virginian, he had grown up in a relatively liberal family and had become fascinated by race relations in the south. He came to Harvard in the 1950s and studied with the social psychologist Gordon Allport, who focused on the role of prejudice in individual personalities.  He had also spent an informative year in the late 1950s in South Africa, where he found uncanny similarities to his native region.  He was known around the nation and friendly with many major figures in the civil rights movement.

Race relations were a hugely important topic in the 1960s, of course, and Pettigrew's course was one of the more popular on campus.  It was well-organized, multi-disciplinary, and thorough. As he explained in the opening lecture, we studied the racial problem from six different angles.  As a preview, he started out with two lectures on lynchings, using the same six approaches to deal with it.  I had been fascinated by the topic for some years but this was the first serious introduction I had gotten to it.

In the previous summer, I had bought and read an extraordinary piece of journalism, The Algiers Motel Incident, by John Hersey, who after the Second World War had opened the eyes of the American people to the meaning of the atomic bomb with his New Yorker essay and book, Hiroshima.  A year earlier, in 1967, the worst of a long series of urban riots had exploded in Detroit.  It took more than 40 lives, most of them innocent people shot by National Guardsmen, and it triggered massive white flight and started that city on its road to terminal decline.  On the third night of the riot, police officers and state troopers thought they heard gunfire coming from the seedy Algiers Motel, and went in to investigate. It turned out that the sounds had come from a harmless "starter pistol," but that didn't stop several cops from taking drastic action.  Discovering a number of young black men and several white girls, they lined them all up, stripped them, and beat them.  Then, three cops apparently shot three of the black teenagers, killing them.  They were rapidly arrested and when Hersey published his book, they were under indictment.

Hersey did what James Michener did three years later, after the Kent State shootings.  He went to Detroit, turned on his tape recorder, and listened to everyone involved for as long as they would talk.  His interlocutors included at least two of the three policemen, although they would not talk about the incident itself.  The picture he painted was very revealing.

For my term paper in late 1968 I decided to use Hersey's book as a case study and combine it with Pettigrew's theoretical insights to see if the incident fit the definition of a lynching.  The answer, in at least two critical respects, was yes.  Given the salience of police shootings today, what I found, I think, remains very relevant.  Indeed, there may be a straight line from the days of lynching, to the killings in the Algiers Motel, to a number of well-publicized incidents and police practices over the last 30 years.  I was very surprised.

The first critical similarity I found had to do with motive.  The lynching of black people in the Jim Crow South, Pettigrew had shown--drawing on the great southern social scientist W. J. Cash, author of The Mind of the South--often had very little to do with crime they were accused of committing.  Sometimes, indeed, the offense was not even critical, and men were lynched for trying to vote.  Instead, every lynching as a blow in an endless terror campaign designed to make sure that black people--and especially black men--stayed in their place.  Equality, white southerners argued endlessly, would lead to the mixing of the races, and eventually to the ultimate evil, miscegenation.  That was why blacks must never be allowed to mingle socially with whites, and why any black assertion of equality had to be met with the ultimate punishment.

What was striking was that at least two of the Algiers Motel policemen talked about Detroit's riots and the official response to them in very similar terms.  The mayor of Detroit, Jerome Cavanaugh--who was white, like nearly all big-city majors in 1968--had immediately issued orders that police should not fire on looters.  That, the cops argued, was a deviation from standard operating procedures and a terrible mistake.  Had they been able to shoot a few looters right away, they thought, the riot might have been nipped in the bud.  Given their own chance to take drastic action at the Algiers Motel--where there was no evidence that anyone had done anything except party with a few white girls--they took it.

Nor was this all.  Quotes from other riots--particularly in Los Angeles--suggested that much of the ghetto population had indeed felt controlled and intimidated by the police, and that they rioted in part for the sake of the sense of freedom it gave them.  That in turn brings up an aspect of the inner-city situation in cities like Los Angeles and Detroit in the 1960s.  The Great Migration, which brought millions of people north and west to work in industry, was very much a bi-racial phenomenon. White southerners, as well as blacks, trkked from Texas to California and from Alabama to Detroit during the Second World War.  Some of those whites found their way onto the police force (although none of the Algiers Motel shooters, it seems, were from the South.)

But in today's context I am most troubled by two things.  First, at least one of the cops argued to Hersey that the police had been trained to believe that when they came upon some one committing a crime--and not necessarily a violent crime--and that person tried to flee, they were expected to shoot them.  That is what has bothered me the most about some of the recent police shootings that have been so widely publicized, and I thought it was a new practice. It seems I was wrong.  But more importantly, the whole "broken windows" style of policing that Rudy Giuliani so proudly pioneered in New York strikes me as another strategy of intimidation, designed to punish populations for minor offenses in the hope of dissuading them from committing major ones.  The practice of stopping and frisking young men more or less at random, or stopping drivers who don't seem to belong in the neighborhood, could be interpreted in the same way.  If policemen come to feel that their task is to control a dangerous population, rather than to punish specific offenses, terrible offenses will result.

In the second part of the paper I found personality similarities--particularly traits of the "authoritarian personality"--among the accused policemen as well. One of them, however, did not fit that pattern.  He was the most sympathetic of the three, and by an odd quirk of fate, he was the only one to come to trial.  The other two had their cases dismissed by a sympathetic judge who argued that the evidence against them was too contradictory and confused every to secure a conviction.  The third, who had taken one black teenager alone in to a motel room and killed him with a shotgun, claimed self-defense, and a jury in another city acquitted him.  He, like so many participants in southern lynchings, seemed to have participated not out of hate, but simply out of conformity.

The election of Donald Trump seems likely to lead to a resurgence of dangerous and often lethal police practices.  It is already an article of faith among conservative commentators--echoed by some senior law enforcement officials--that crime is suddenly rising because the police have stopped being sufficiently aggressive.  Police departments may no longer have to fear Justice Department investigations if one of their officers kills some one during a traffic stop.  "This paper," I concluded in 1968, "has tried to demonstrate parallels between the lynching at the Algiers Motel and southern lynchings.  But there is one obvious difference about this modern ynching which may be more terrifying than any of the parallels: that it was executed solely by the police. This is a new and serious development in American lynching, which has previousy depended on police cooperation rather than police initiative.  It is a grim warning to our society that we may be as far from racial justice in our northern cities as we have ever been in the old South."  I leave it to readers to assess the lessons of the last few decades.


Unknown said...

One aspect of police procedure seems to create many opportunities for officers to fire their weapons. It is the 'I felt threatened' thing that police feel they can fall back on for protection from grand jury investigations.

Saw this in the Jerry Waller death in Fort Worth several years ago. Two cops were called to a wealthy area of Fort Worth to investigate an alarm at night. The two pulled up to the wrong house and walked up the driveway. The owner of the house (a 75 year old local businessman) heard commotion and, grabbing a pistol, went out into his garage (the our door was open).

The owner and the police conversed...one of the two cops (both were in their first year) quickly fired his 9mm 8 or 9 times and hit the homeowner (Jerry Waller) with bullets 6 or 7 times. The man's wife came out into the garage...saw her husband gunned down. She was quickly escorted out of the garage by the police (ostensibley to re-arrange the crime scene as needed, it is alleged).

Irony: the cop who filled the homeowner with lead was trained by his father, who was a captain in the Fort Worth police department...and was in charge of the training division.
The cop who did the shooting claims he 'felt threatened'...and thus pulled the trigger.

The Fort Worth grand jury declined to charge the officer. The 'felt threatened' routine worked. An innocent man was gunned down by a trigger-happy youn cop who was not even at the correct address. The family is in a 'wrongful death' lawsuit with the city ($6 million).

It should never have happened. The cop did not need to open fire. The man kilkled did not fire his weapon...and was killed in his own garage. Oh...and he was white.

Bozon said...

Great topic. Well reiterated here in America.

We never tire of it.

At least you point out that white northerners apparently have more or less the same racial views as white southerners.

This comes as a surprise to many liberals from the Boomer generation.

One important point is that they always did. The aftermath of the Civil War postponed northern racial backlash for 80 or a 100 odd years. As you say, plenty of white southerners went north and west too, in the 20th Century. That meant nothing racially, in my judgment. There had always been plenty of racism there, from the beginning, just almost no blacks.

All the best

Author said...

Great piece! And Bozon makes a good point, re northern racism - though, wintering down south, I would argue there is still a big difference. The extent to which white police reflect the society they are drawn comes out of your paper very strongly. Amazing you have kept it for fifty years!

Unknown said...


This could use one extra piece of context on police officers shooting fleeing suspects. The Fleeing Felon Rule originates in common law and so it is indeed quite old. Since 1968, the Supreme Court ruled in Tennessee v Garner that police may not shoot an unarmed, non-dangerous fleeing suspect but continued to allow it in the case of an armed suspect because of possibility of harm to the officer or others.

So a policy of shooting rioters probably would not pass muster anymore, we've come that far. This is also why the Taser is so critical in the Walter Scott case, as the officer would not be able to justify deadly force if Scott had not actually taken it.

PS I have an interesting theory about the prevalence of broken windows policing technique nowadays that ties in with the theories of Strauss & Howe. I'm happy to discuss it over email.

Thanks for the blog,