The Hague Case: A Different View of Police Misbehavior in Pre-World War II America

By Donald W. Rogers, PhD

During the winter and spring of 1937-1938, police officers clashed with members and supporters of the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) in streets and parks of Jersey City, New Jersey, manhandling demonstrators, punching a few, and bodily expelling others from city limits. Those notorious instances of police coercion contributed to the U. S. Supreme Court decision Hague v. CIO (1939) known for constitutionalizing the right to assemble and speak in urban public places. As my new book Workers against the City shows, however, those clashes also shed fresh light on the reasons for violent police misconduct in the decades before World War II. While historians are solidly at work documenting racial, ethnic, gendered, and class-based reasons for police misbehavior through the twentieth century, Workers demonstrates in this instance that police coercion emanated out of a mix of other causes–the political needs of a city boss, the broader law enforcement culture of the time, and the distinctive industrial union and civil liberties struggles of the 1930s. 

Mainly concerned with public assembly and free speech struggles that led to Hague v. CIO, Workers reveals much about early twentieth-century American policing and its reform. When big-city police emerged in the American urban North back in the mid-1800s, they developed as appendages to urban political boss systems that arose to bring order out of the decentralized, ward-based, aldermanic structure of nineteenth-century city governments. Police departments supplied bosses with thousands of lucrative patronage jobs to give out, but in the decentralized patronage system that rewarded political loyalty more than public service, the minimally-supervised, mostly Irish patrolmen of New York, Chicago, and other big cities acted out social prejudices on their beats, administered rough curbside justice, and succumbed to corruption. In reaction, turn-of-the-century Progressives, from New York police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt to Berkeley police chief August Vollmer, sought to depoliticize and professionalize police forces with higher mental and physical requirements, centralized military command structures, modern crime prevention techniques, and special squads. Nonetheless, as police historian Robert Fogelson wrote, such reforms foundered, since police departments remained inherently political agencies determining “which laws were enforced, whose peace was kept, and which public was served.” Progressive municipal reforms did not eliminate boss influence.  As late as the 1920s and 1930s, newly centralized and professionalized city police forces remained captives of political machines and practitioners of excessive force, just as happened in Jersey City under its long-time boss, Mayor Frank Hague.

Born in Jersey City’s Irish immigrant ghetto and rising politically in the city’s Democratic machine, Hague built his career as mayor and boss on his early position as public safety director in the city’s new commission government, a Progressive reform of 1913. Blending bossism with Progressivism, safety director Hague overhauled Jersey City’s police and fire departments. He removed unqualified patrolmen, centralized command, ousted the allegedly corrupt police benevolent association, and created special squads. Moreover, as both a Progressive “coercive moral reformer” and a staunch Roman Catholic, he fused police reform with morality, directing Jersey police not only to suppress crime, but also to crack down on prostitution, narcotics, and saloon culture, and rid local bookstores of disfavored literature (although still allowing horse race betting). In what had been a brawling, crime-ridden, but conservative Catholic immigrant city, Hague cultivated a strict law-and-order policy of “no vice, no crime, no racketeering.” His police reforms were popular, but they came along with notorious political uses of strong-arm tactics to harass political opponents, cover up election frauds, and suppress labor organizers. By the 1930s, the Hague machine’s vision of a moral city and its tight hold on power dominated police work in Jersey City, earning the mayor a reputation as a virtual dictator.

Meanwhile, late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century law facilitated a general spirit of police lawlessness around the country. The jurisprudence represented by the U. S. Supreme Court’s Davis v. Massachusetts (1897) decision sustained conservative post-Reconstruction notions of federalism, keeping federal courts out of civil rights and liberties on the local level and affirming local municipalities’ exclusive police powers. State and local courts in turn interpreted municipal powers broadly, and state lawmakers increased that authority with a host of disorderly persons, crime, and criminal anarchy statutes. This was an era of exclusive and tough local police control over street activity. Local police departments freely used sidewalk obstruction, unlawful assembly, disorderly conduct, and disturbing the peace charges to subdue loiterers, vagrants, social minorities, labor radicals, and political dissidents. 

Mayor Hague of Jersey City lighting cigar with Constitution and Bill of Rights. Ellis, “I am the Law,” Daily Worker, December 1, 1937, Prints and Photographs Division Library of Congress.

And law enforcement culture nationally grew even tougher during the 1920s and 1930s in response to public fears of a prohibition-era crime spree and then Depression-era labor unrest. State crime commissions, the 1929-1931 National (or Wickersham) Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, Congressional committees, and Ernest Jerome Hopkins’s popularized Our Lawless Police (1931) all exposed ineffective crime control and widespread police misconduct. They demonstrated that police in New York City (with its long history of police violence) and other municipalities regularly violated criminal due process rights and deployed the “third degree” (enhanced interrogation techniques) against gangsters, poor people, social minorities, labor organizers, and political radicals, often in collaboration with the Ku Klux Klan in the South and businessmen in the North. Reformers sought better crime prevention, but coercive police practices flourished.

Given its proclivity toward strict law enforcement under Mayor Frank Hague, Workers against the City shows Jersey City’s police department thrived in this environment. Municipal ordinances and state law enlarged city powers, especially in amendments to New Jersey’s 1898 Disorderly Persons Act that enhanced police discretion over people “on foot or in any automobile, vehicle or public conveyance, who cannot give a good account of themselves…” Jersey police used such laws to detain suspects in Pulaski Skyway and Holland Tunnel dragnets, pick up “undesirables” and “suspicion characters,” take picketers and leafletters off the streets, and arrest political dissidents. “Nothing escapes the ‘Eagle Eyes” of Jersey City Police,” a police magazine boasted. Indeed, Jersey City created virtually a cult of muscular police work with a physical training academy, a speakers’ bureau to extol police work, and the public erection of a seven-foot bronze statue honoring local police officers.

During the 1930s Depression era, however, working-class protests collided with aggressive big-city policing nationwide. From unemployment league rallies and spontaneous strikes in the early-1930s to CIO industrial union mass rallies and sit-down strikes by the middle of the decade, disgruntled workers took to the streets, partly under the protection of new state and federal laws such as the New Deal’s 1935 National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act. The clash between labor insurgency and traditional police practices led to the New York City police department’s wild crackdown on communists at a Union Square rally in 1930, and Chicago officers’ bloody Memorial Day Massacre against striking steel workers in 1937. Industrial turmoil was one of the biggest causes of urban disorder in the 1930s, prompting municipal officials to rethink the police role in industrial disputes. In the 1937 booklet of essays The City’s Role in Strikes, published by the Chicago-based International City Managers’ Association, employers continued to defend the police role of guarding business property, but labor spokesmen urged city police to protect workers’ right to picket and strike as well, while city administrators contended that municipal police should serve as an “impartial agency” to see that labor disputes unfolded in a legal and nonviolent way. 

Boss politics, the legal environment and law enforcement culture all predisposed Hague’s Jersey City to deploy police forcefully against rising labor unrest in the 1930s, but Workers adds that fierce anti-labor sentiment among local manufacturers, clashing ethnic and working-class notions of “Americanism,” pervasive anti-communism among residents, and especially the Hague administration’s determination to crush political challenges all generated an especially violent law enforcement reaction to emerging industrial unionists of the 1930s, especially CIO organizers “invading” the city from outside. Jersey City police disrupted picketers at a furniture factory strike in 1934. They deployed horseback riding officers and teargas to break up pickets in a 1936-1937 East Coast seamen’s strike, subjecting a clergyman watching the fray as a civil liberties observer to a sock in the face with brass knuckles. (Across the Hudson River, New York City police gave striking seamen similar treatment.) Most notoriously, Jersey police forcibly disrupted the efforts of CIO organizers and sympathizers from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Workers Defense League (WDL), and socialist groups to unionize the city’s workers and hold protest rallies during the winter of 1937-1938.  Police formed flying wedges to break up lines of laborers handing out handbills, interfered with local organizing efforts, deported organizers and their supporters (including a congressman and the socialist Norman Thomas) on the Hudson River ferry, and slugged CIO rally participants, sending one unconscious to the hospital.

Editorial cartoon, “Wings over New Orleans” from the CIO News, July 9, 1938, on depicting the spirit of Jersey City Mayor Hague’s alleged dictatorial reign, including police brutality. Courtesy of AFL-CIO records, University of Maryland Libraries.

Notably, the evidentiary record portrays participants in the Hague-versus-CIO struggle as a white, multi-ethnic, overwhelmingly male cast. Neither newspapers, civil liberties exposés, court transcripts, nor photographs identify or indicate Black participants on either side, even though African Americans constituted around four percent of Jersey City’s population and eventually emerged as an important group within the CIO. One exception came from interviews with ordinary Black workers not part of the protests by a Daily Worker reporter investigating Jersey City’s squalid laboring conditions. Otherwise, the Hague v. CIO record leaves Blacks invisible. And the same is true for female actors, except for several Italian sweatshop workers called to testify in the court case and a few middle-class labor rights activists from the New Jersey Civil Liberties Union and WDL, who supported CIO assembly and speech guarantees.  The general experience of Black residents and women with the Jersey City police operation, and especially their vulnerability to police violence, remain obscure in this episode and beyond the scope of the legal story in Workers, but clearly deserve further attention. 

Ultimately, in Hague v. CIO federal courts addressed Jersey City’s police misconduct in the context of public assembly and free speech rights, sidestepping labor rights, but changing the policeman’s role in public assembly cases. Although divided on constitutional reasoning, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a district court injunction that prohibited Jersey City from removing CIO operatives from the municipality or interfering with their efforts to meet and, by implication, banned the use of police to accomplish these goals. Very notably, the Supreme Court affirmed neutral constitutional protection for assembly and speech, regardless of the identity of those who gathered. The Court reconceived municipal police powers over public meetings, treating cities now as trustees for public speaking rights, rather than simply guardians of social order. By the 1960s, the Court extended such protection to African American civil rights protestors in Edwards v. South Carolina and Cox v. Louisiana, a potential new federal restraint on police misconduct toward racial minorities.

The Hague decision immediately changed Jersey City police behavior, Workers against the City shows. The ruling abrogated Jersey City’s public assembly restrictions and induced the city administration to accommodate labor activists. Having previously harassed CIO organizers and supporters, Jersey police suddenly became facilitators of their assembly and speech rights. After Hague, the ACLU staged a “monster public meeting,” and Jersey City’s public safety director gave full cooperation. When the CIO held its own public rally a few weeks later, the city assigned sixty officers to patrol the gathering, but they were left to stand by as CIO ushers kept order. When the rally ended, a CIO official thanked the policemen for their patient support, and the crowd cheered as officers escorted speakers to their cars. Jersey City police conduct toward labor organizers turned on a dime when Hague changed legal and political circumstances. And CIO unions prospered thereafter in Jersey City during the 1940s.  Whether the Jersey City police department’s new disposition toward CIO unionists affected persisting gendered and racial hierarchies, however, remains unclear. That, too, demands further research.

Donald Rogers is retired adjunct lecturer in history at Central Connecticut State University and author of Workers against the City:  The Fight for Free Speech in Hague v. CIO (University of Illinois Press, 2020).

Featured image (at top): Evolving Jersey City police dress as displayed by a local law enforcement magazine. The Police Reporter, April 1936, Courtesy of New Jersey Room, Jersey City Free Public Library.

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