Our first entry in The Metropole/Urban History Association Graduate Student Blogging Contest considers “A New Season,” the contest theme, through an examination of New York City Mayor John Lindsey’s creative attempts to reshape the public sector. The city, in the midst “of social, economic, and political distress” during the 1970s, presented an opportunity for a new season of “wild experimentation.”
By Ryan Donovan Purcell
It was difficult to believe such a story at first. I rechecked my sources multiple times, and it was clear. In the summer of 1973 New York City Mayor John Lindsay announced a program to privatize the NYPD. I found the story strange not because of New York’s historically tenacious municipal unions. Transportation, sanitation and education disputes riddled Lindsay’s mayoral career. The police were no different. Nor was the weirdness of this story due to the fact that Lindsay himself was such an unusual politician. As the first Republican Mayor since Fiorello LaGuardia, John Lindsay was quite progressive—a social democrat in all but name.
What made this story so bizarre was that it read like a science fiction plot of that era. Films like Soylent Green (1973) presented New York as it might appear in the near future. Set in 2022, Soylent Green shows us a city that is falling apart. The city’s dilapidated infrastructure and housing have long since served its swollen population, now 40 million. Most New Yorkers live on the streets, homeless and unemployed. The lucky few with jobs survive on rations produced and distributed by the Soylent Corporation. Public services are virtually non-existent. The subways don’t run; the water doesn’t work. The NYPD barely hangs on as an impotent remnant of the city’s forgotten past. Detective Frank Thorn, the story’s central protagonist, has a two-year backlog of unsolved murders, which is characteristic of the public sector’s inefficiency more broadly. In this narrative, a private corporation supplants the role of the government in sustaining a population— in this case through food manufactured from the bodies of populace itself.
And it is hard to separate this depiction from the actual physical condition of New York in the 1970s. Housing literally disintegrated. Residents were denied basic public utilities. New York’s park system and roads were in ruins. To many, graffiti that began to mark subway trains in the early 1970s signaled the end of times.
Escape From New York (1981) envisions a slightly different urban history set in 1997. In this film, the U.S. government converts Manhattan Island into the country’s largest maximum-security prison following a 400% increase in crime during the 1980s. Here, New York’s municipal government is absent—conceivably relocated to the urban periphery. An organized criminal government has emerged in its place. The city, in this way, functions less like a prison than a separate country ruled by inmates. The city is in ruins, and as in Soylent Green, public services do not exist. When a terrorist attack aboard Air Force One forces the President of the United States to crash-land in Manhattan, the police commissioner hires a private contractor to perform the rescue, not the police or even the military.
Oddly enough, these films contextualize Mayor John Lindsay’s crime policy. From 1966 (the year that Lindsay took office) to 1974 (when Mayor Abe Beame assumed office) New York City’s crime index increased 49.5%–not quite the 400% imagined in Escape from New York. Struggling to manage a dwindling municipal budget, the Lindsay administration experimented with ways of improving public sector productivity while cutting operating costs. The 1973 proposal to privatize the police was one such experiment that nearly took hold. The initial phase would be implemented gradually. It called for a fifty-man private security force to supplement the municipal anticrime effort in Midtown. Armed with walkie-talkies, and some with guns, contractors were not authorized to make arrests, but would act as surveillance units with direct communication with the police, reporting trouble or suspicion. The plan also employed private building workers, superintendents, and doormen who would use code numbers to preserve their identities. At first the force would be assigned to follow police beats from 42nd to 59th Streets, between Second and Seventh Avenues, from 6pm to 1am. Upon successful implementation of the initial phase, the program would expand, and ultimately encompass all five boroughs. “This is a very important development,” Lindsay declared at the inaugural ceremony in front of the Time-Life building on 6th Avenue and 50th Street. A formation of armed security contractors stood behind him. “[T]he involvement of the public is essential in fighting crime,” he continued. “The worst thing that can happen is an apathetic public. Here we have proof of an aware public.”
The Association for a Better New York, a consortium of New York-based corporations, pledged an “open checkbook” to finance the program, according to chair Lewis Rudin. “We have come to realize that the proliferation of crime— specifically crime against persons—is what is hurting our city more than anything else,” Rudin explained at the ceremony. “We have decided than an all-out commitment of our resources to stop crime is mandatory if we want to make New York better.” It made sense to see the executive leadership of the Building Owners and Managers Association standing next to Rudin on the speaker’s platform. It must have been strange, however, to see Sanford Garelik, former NYPD chief inspector, and representatives from the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. “The fact that we are using the security guards in this fashion is not to be construed as criticism of the police,” Rubin qualified. “We worked with the police in setting this up and will continue to coordinate our activities with the police.”
Others were less reserved. To Alton G. Marshall, president of Rockefeller Center Inc. and former executive secretary to Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, Lindsay’s program signaled a turn toward more effective city governance. The blustery ex-Marine could hardly contain his excitement while talking to reporters after the ceremony: “This is the kind of attitude the city has wallowed in for years—let the government do.” His animated bushy brows punctuated his speech from behind his iconic thick wide-framed glasses. “There is no reason, for instance why 30,000 private security people can’t be organized to supplement the police,” he said, adding, “At Rockefeller Center we have our own security force.”
Lindsay’s plan to privatize the NYPD never fully materialized. That spring, after an unsuccessful presidential campaign, he announced that he would not run for a third term as Mayor. Democrat Abe Beame, who was elected mayor in November, did not renew Lindsay’s program. In October 1973, the Arab oil embargo began to shock the American economy, nudging New York City along a path of fiscal insolvency. By June 1975 the city had run out of cash and it nearly declared bankruptcy.
This story struck me as so unusual because it was like an urban dystopian fiction that could have become very real. And in some ways it did. The principal architect of the privatization program, Lindsay’s deputy administrator E.S. Savas, went on to found the Central Park Conservancy, a public-private partnership that continues to steward the park. By 1980, he was advocating privatization on a federal level as Assistant Secretary of HUD during President Reagan’s first term. Where else might we find the legacy of these initiatives?
“The seventies,” Kim Phillips-Fein suggests in Fear City, “marked the moment before the rise of neoliberal New York, the emergence of Donald Trump, the stock market’s climb—a time when New York (and America) still felt open, when one could dream of a different future in a way that no longer seems possible.” To make sense of Lindsay’s plan to privatize the NYPD we might say that it was a product of this feeling of “openness” and “possibility.” We might say that it emerged out of a particular cultural logic, of which the films Soylent Green, Escape from New York, and the advent of subway graffiti were part. Each was a product of wild experimentation during a time of social, economic, and political distress. The fabric of American culture was in flux, and New Yorkers struggled to recreate meaning through new ideas, cultural forms and ways of life—some of which remain with us, while others are forgotten. If nothing else, however, this story illustrates the fact that sometimes history can be just as strange as fiction.
Ryan Donovan Purcell is a history PhD candidate at Cornell University, where he studies 20th century American popular culture and urban history. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, College Art Association, and Hyperallergic, among other venues.
 For more discussion on 1970s New York and film see: Stanley Corkin, Starring New York: Filming the Grime and the Glamour of the Long 1970s (Oxford UP: 2011); Carlo Rotella, Good With Their Hands: Boxers, Bluesmen, and Other Characters from the Rust Belt (U. Cal. Press: 2002), chapter 3 particularly analyzes the depiction of New York’s “grittiness” in 1970s film.
 See David Rogers, “Management versus Bureaucracy,” and Charles R. Morris, “Of Budgets, Taxes, and the Rise of a New Plutocracy,” in Joseph P. Viteritti ed, Summer in the City: John Lindsay and the American Dream (John Hopkins U. Press, 2014)
 Murray Schumach, “Private Security Guards to Join Midtown Patrols,” NYT, June 8 1973
 Kim Phillips-Fein, Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and The Rise of Austerity Politics (NY: Metropolitan Books, 2017): p. 307
Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?
I’m currently writing my dissertation about the development of black politics in Atlanta in the 1970s and 1980s by examining how members of the black political class–namely, mayors Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young as well as people on the city council and county commissions, in the Georgia Assembly, in the Department of Public Safety, and within the the black business community–governed through issues of crime and urban development. More specifically, I investigate how these figures responded to rising crime rates, in particular what they identified as “black-on-black crime,” and escalating fear of crime, as well as deepening inequality with punitive public safety policies and market-based economic development programs based in notions of law and order, personal responsibility, and the sanctity of capital. I argue that these leaders accomplished this with the approval of much, though not all, of Atlanta’s black electorate by drawing on a black reformist liberal tradition that emerged in the late 19th century, a political moment of revanchism similar to that of the 1970s and 1980s. More broadly, I consider the ways in which shifts in black politics on the urban level provide insight into the broader rightward shift of the post-Great Society Democratic Party.
I came to this topic in the aftermath of the murder of Freddie Gray and the uprising in Baltimore. I wanted to understand how putatively liberal, Democratic black political officials could come to condone systems of policing and urban redevelopment that criminalized poor black people and exacerbated racial inequality. My research shows that black leaders not only condoned these practices, they designed them, and furthermore, they defended them by appealing to traditional ideals in black political culture.
Describe your current public history work. How does what you are working on relate to your scholarship?
This year, I’m working as an editorial assistant with the Washington Post’s “Made By History” blog. It’s a forum that enables historians to share insights about current events and their historical context with a broad audience. It has been really fun as a historian to learn about the work other people are doing and to read fascinating pieces outside of my field. It has also been really rewarding as a scholar committed to dismantling barriers between the academy and the wider world to help other scholars make their work accessible and cogent for a broader audience.
What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
When I’m not writing my dissertation or editing pieces for the blog, I’m working on an article that provides a genealogy of the concept of “black-on-black crime.” It has really surprising origins in black progressive politics that provide insight into the role of African Americans in constructing the carceral state. As for the work of other scholars, Brian Goldstein’s The Roots of the Urban Renaissance: Gentrification and the Struggle Over Harlem has been really instructive for me as I try to untangle the messy politics of development within black politics. I also really enjoyed Kim Phillips-Fein’s Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics, which is not only a well-researched historical study, but is a real page-turner. I think it would make a great movie a la The Big Short.
What advice do you have for graduate students preparing a dissertation project related to urban history or urban studies?
As I was struggling to write my dissertation prospectus, Nathan Connolly advised me to spend some time reading the records of city council proceedings. This really helped me to get a sense of what issues were really important to city legislators and their constituents and what they believed was at stake in how the city governed on particular issues. Issues that I thought would be really significant based on the secondary literature–affirmative action and animosity between the mayor and the business community, for example–were not nearly as inescapable or as contentious as the crime issue, which of course was inextricable from the development issue and the push to make Atlanta the “next great international city.” This realization changed the entire project. So my advice would be to start by spending a good amount of time with city council records to see what people actually cared about and how they went about addressing their concerns.
You have served as a teaching assistant and editor with the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project, in which Emory University undergraduate students are examining unsolved and unpunished racially motivated murders from the modern civil rights era. What was one of the most memorable moments–either experienced by you, or a student, or shared as a class–from the time you worked on the project?
The Cold Cases Project is an important initiative and I’m very happy to been able to contribute. There isn’t quite one particular moment that stands out because the course, and the project itself, was very much a process of discovery. We spent the semester examining one case, the murder of James Brazier in southeastern Georgia. Each week the students examined different components of the case and gradually they were able to put the pieces together. As a teacher, I enjoyed helping students do the real work of history–examining different kinds of evidence such as autopsy reports and witness statements, putting these pieces of evidence in conversation with each other and the secondary literature, and creating a narrative that provides an informed explanation of the case.
On February 7, 2017, the Los Angeles City Council ruled against colleagues on the Cultural Heritage Commission. After a lengthy and emotional public comment period, the Council decided not to designate Parker Center, the longtime headquarters of the Los Angeles Police Department, a local historic monument. The following month, the Council approved a new master plan for the Civic Center that included a 27-story tower on the Parker Center site. These decisions ended years of wrangling by preservationists, neighbors and city leaders about the future of the building.
Built in 1955, the police department abandoned Parker Center 54 years later when a new headquarters was constructed a few blocks away. The site’s large size and proximity to City Hall made it a target for redevelopment and many city leaders supported demolition of the “outdated” and “inefficient” building. The city’s goal for the site was to consolidate departments scattered around the downtown area and to reduce the amount spent on leased space.
Parker Center may have been bright and shiny when originally built, but its construction and the legacy of its namesake cast a long shadow over the preservation debate. The building was a complicated symbol for Los Angeles; representing the problematic history of the LAPD and the loss of a significant portion of the Japanese neighborhood of Little Tokyo. The fight to preserve it had divided allies and pitted communities that usually worked together against each other.
Parker Center as Scar
Preservation documents prepared for the Cultural Heritage Commission briefly mention the buildings that occupied the Parker Center site before its construction. The reports described the area simply as “residential with small clusters of commercial and industrial enterprises.” Newspapers from the period gave a slightly fuller view, suggesting that the number of buildings removed to accommodate Parker Center was “enough to meet the business needs of a good-sized city, among them landmark structures that were notable in Los Angeles’ pre-metropolitan days.”
Parker Center occupies some of the oldest blocks in Los Angeles. In the 19th century, the land was used for cattle and planted with grape vines. As the city urbanized, the neighborhood was settled by a racially and ethnically diverse mix of African American, Jewish, Irish, German and Chinese newcomers. After 1900, Japanese families established businesses along First Street and by 1920, the area was the “undisputed center” of Southern California’s Japanese community. Twenty years later, on the eve of World War II, approximately 35,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans lived and worked in what had become known as Little Tokyo.
In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 and the Japanese community of Los Angeles was forcibly removed. They were released from the internment camps three years later and returned to the city. In the years they were gone, Little Tokyo had become home to thousands of African American migrants who were drawn to Los Angeles’ industrial jobs. After the war, Japanese Americans began to re-establish businesses in the area. However, in 1948 the city council identified the heart of Little Tokyo as the location for the new police headquarters. The area bounded by First Street, San Pedro, Market Street and Los Angeles Street was designated part of the Los Angeles Civic Center and the City Attorney’s office began to acquire property through eminent domain proceedings. Forty-three individual parcels were condemned and the site was cleared.
Designed by Welton Becket and Associates, in collaboration with architect J.E. Stanton and landscape architect Ralph E. Cornell, the new “Police Facilities Building” was nationally recognized when it opened in 1955. Like many of his other projects, the building represented the architect’s commitment to the idea of Los Angeles as a “city of tomorrow.” For the LAPD, Becket created an 8-story International style building with crisp right angles and spare detailing. Sitting away from the street, the landscape that initially surrounded the building occupied an entire city block with sprawling lawns, decorative river rock and gardens inspired by a Japanese Zen aesthetic. The design received an Award of Merit from the AIA in 1956 and a contemporary review suggested that the building represented a “brand-new design category” of centralized public facilities. Drawings were displayed by the Architectural League of New York and the building was entered in the League’s 61st National Gold Medal Exhibition of the Building Arts in 1960. Becket’s success with the Police Facilities Building earned the firm additional commissions in the Los Angeles Civic Center, including the Federal Building next door and the various buildings for the Music Center on the top of Bunker Hill completed in the 1960s.
While acknowledged as an architectural icon, city staffers received numerous letters against preserving Parker Center. More than 3,000 African Americans had been displaced by the condemnation proceedings of the 1940s, and yet most letters recalled the losses of the Japanese American community. Letter writers described a pre-war world of rich familial and social connections. They talked about shopping in stores now demolished and included family photos with smiling siblings and relations in front of restaurants and small businesses. The letters also told stories of grandfathers who participated in sumo wrestling at a dohyo on the block and uncles who founded the still extant Rafu Shimpo Newspaper in a building on the corner of First and Los Angeles Street.
For many Japanese Americans, saving Parker Center meant preserving a scar. It was a reminder of years of disconnection and “mass displacement.” The building’s presence in the neighborhood inspired anger. In his comments before the Planning and Land Use Commission, Chris Komai of the Little Tokyo Community Council suggested that the building represented an “unfair seizure.” He went on to say that while its architecture might be admired, the LAPD building had cut Little Tokyo off from the Civic Center and the rest of the city, “Look at it. All we see is its back.” Kanji Sahara, another opponent of preservation, spoke for many when he told the commission, “the city said they needed the land for a ‘public purpose’ – to build Parker Center. Now that the public purpose has gone away, the Japanese people want that land back”.
In arguing against preservation, some letter writers found themselves in an uncomfortable position, noting that they would normally be on the side of those trying to save a building. The break with the Los Angeles Conservancy was particularly difficult. The Conservancy was a strong and vocal supporter of the Little Tokyo National Register District that protected several blocks of the neighborhood’s early commercial core. More strategically, the Conservancy was an essential and necessary ally. Due to gentrification pressures, local landowners had begun to sell older properties to developers and there were concerns that Little Tokyo would not “survive”. While Parker Center was an issue, local leaders still considered preservation to be an important tool to control growth.
The Historic American Landscape Survey for Parker Center prepared by the city’s Department of Public Works emphasized the building’s architectural legacy and defended the structure using the technical language of preservation. The report had not addressed the site’s previous Japanese and Japanese American users. The documents also failed to acknowledge issues important to other communities of color in Los Angeles. While innovation described the structure, social conservatism defined the LAPD that filled the offices.
Chief Parker Divides the City
Early Parker Center preservation documents described the Los Angeles Police Department in glowing terms. Later comments by staff of the Cultural Heritage Commission suggested that the department’s legacy among Los Angeles’ non-white communities was “complicated.” The Los Angeles Conservancy acknowledged that the building was named for the “controversial” Chief William H. Parker. All three sources credit Chief Parker for professionalizing the department, however the abuses of power that accompanied this professionalization are hard to ignore.
William Parker joined the Los Angeles Police Department in 1927. He became its leader in August 1950 and served in this capacity until his death in 1966. During his tenure, Parker established strict new standards for the recruitment and training of officers. According to the Historic American Landscape Survey, Parker was a “policeman’s policeman.” He “inspired in all who served the department the higher ideals of service and justice, as well as a new sense of pride, professionalism and self-discipline.” The Chief’s efforts in this area earned him a national reputation that he capitalized on through his friendship with the actor Jack Webb, who played Sgt. Joe Friday in the 1960s television show, Dragnet.
While he may have inspired the department’s rank and file, in private Chief Parker was an impatient and ambitious man. He was also quick to attack. Like a “horse charging toward the apocalypse of our times”, Parker was critical of anyone who disagreed with his strict law and order prescription for society.  He resisted political oversight of the LAPD and attempted to undermine the credibility of his detractors. According to Parker, only the “criminal, the Communist and the self-appointed defender of civil liberties” called for restrictions on police authority. Parker’s impatience was accompanied by a sustained and irrational paranoia. He attributed his failures to local democrats, the Truman administration and to communist sympathizers who he imagined had personal vendettas against him. To balance the scales, Parker created a “mysterious and highly secret” intelligence gathering unit within the LAPD that reported directly to him. The group served as his personal “Pretorian guard” and, before it was disbanded by court order, the unit had amassed thousands of records on 5×8 note cards. The files contained data on known criminals, as well as political and public figures.
Parker coined the term, the “thin blue line” to describe the police as an institution that stood between “civilization and barbarism”. However, Parker’s LAPD was capable of its own brand of barbarity. Records from the department’s Internal Affairs Division show that in 1951 alone, the police received 848 complaints of brutality. Internal investigations substantiated 298 of these complaints and yet just 10 officers faced disciplinary action. Only two officers were removed from the force due to the complaints.
Newspapers frequently reported incidences of police violence while Parker was in command. Patrolmen fired their weapons at a doctor in East Los Angeles who had apparently failed to yield because he was rushing to the bedside of a sick child. A local bus driver was hospitalized after officers attempted to “subdue” him during an arrest. Among other injuries, the driver sustained a blow that ruptured his bladder. A shoemaker was approached in his car by two plain clothed officers with their weapons drawn. The officers pulled the man from the car, threw him to the ground and repeatedly kicked his head. The man was taken to the hospital and later informed that the officers had mistaken him for a suspect.
On Christmas Day 1951, seven young men were arrested on misdemeanor charges and taken to the city jail where they were savagely beaten for hours by somewhere between 15 and 50 police officers. When the incident came to light, Parker claimed to be “vigorously” pursuing an internal investigation. However, the allegations against officers were so appalling that they could not be contained. A judge ordered a grand jury and public inquest. During the hearings, police officials were asked to describe the night. According to the judge, their testimony stunk, “to high heaven and all of the perfumery in Arabia cannot obliterate its stench.” Thirty-six officers were disciplined by the LAPD, while 8 others were indicted for assault with a deadly weapon. Of the eight, five officers were found guilty and sentenced to either one or two years in the Los Angeles County Jail.
Despite public commitments to reform, the brutality continued. In 1959, Herbert Greenwood, the only African American Police Commissioner, resigned citing the “unhealthy attitudes” of the LAPD leadership regarding race. Then, on a hot August night in 1965, Marquette Frye was arrested in Watts for suspicion of driving drunk. During his arrest, Frye, his mother and brother fought with an officer of the California Highway Patrol. Hundreds of residents were drawn to the scene and anger spread through the crowd. Frye’s arrest sparked six days of fighting, looting and rebellion during which thirty-four people were killed. Chief Parker saw this and other protests against the police as a personal attack. To Parker, it was the complaints, rather than the police, that were “wrecking” the LAPD. Over time, his lack of transparency and repugnant comments in the aftermath of Watts worsened relations with Los Angeles’ communities of color.
However, while Parker was unpopular for some, his strongman rhetoric was lionized by others. After his death, members of the City Council unanimously recommended that Becket’s Police Facilities Building and the ground on which it stands be named in his honor. The name change was enthusiastically supported by the city’s business elite and residents who described Parker as a “great American” and “champion of law and order.” The Sentinel, the city’s largest African-American newspaper, reported the Chief’s death, but remained silent on the issue of renaming police headquarters in his honor.
Parker was succeeded by new chiefs. However, relations between the police and Los Angeles’ communities of color did not improve and the lawn in front of Parker Center was the location of countless demonstrations against police misconduct. The issue became especially charged when Parker’s prodigy, Daryl Gates assumed the position of Chief. Gates, perhaps even more than Parker, became a symbol of the racism and prejudice that permeated the LAPD. Over the years, Parker’s thin blue line had become thicker. By 1992, it was an impassable chasm, so that when four LAPD officers were acquitted in the nighttime beating of an African American motorist on a lonely highway, the city exploded. Again.
The Police Department’s relationship with Los Angeles’ citizens of color was a quiet bass note that sounded throughout discussions about whether to save the building. Most African American leaders were silent on the issue, however a few voices sought to use and reinterpret this history by adaptively re-using Parker Center. Gail Kennard, an African American member of the city’s cultural heritage commission acknowledged that, “preserving Parker Center won’t resolve L.A.’s troubled policing history. But restored and reopened, it can remind us how far we’ve come and how much more there is to do.”
Future of the Parker Center Site
In retrospect, it is not surprising that the effort to preserve Parker Center failed. The Cultural Heritage Commission received a handful of lukewarm letters in support of preservation, but the fame of its architect could not overcome the building’s legacy of division. Parker Center sliced through the neighborhood that surrounded it, its namesake divided the city along racial and ethnic lines and the effort to save the building created rifts between the city’s preservation community.
Documents prepared by preservation planners articulated the building’s architectural value. They acknowledged Chief Parker’s problematic leadership but did not address the community that had been destroyed for Parker Center to be built. Yet, it was this origin story that ultimately persuaded members of the city council to reject cultural monument status.
City Councilman Jose Huizar, who represents the Little Tokyo district spoke during the final preservation hearing. He suggested that to save Parker Center “dismisses the injustices done to many communities.” Huizar, who as a young man had delivered papers for the Rafu Shimpo Newspaper, specifically connected the history of the Japanese in Los Angeles to his experiences of prejudice as an immigrant, “I did get a bit emotional in the committee when I was talking about the injustices to the Japanese-American community…It just kind of hit me what that would have been like for those residents. And I put that into the context of what is happening today.” The councilman’s testimony was persuasive and his colleagues unanimously denied the motion to designate Parker Center.
With demolition imminent, plans have been made to save a large sculpture that was attached to Parker Center’s exterior façade and to reuse a tile mosaic that decorated the building’s foyer. No plans have yet emerged to memorialize the Chief. As Richard Barron, President of the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission suggested, Parker Center is simply “not an easy building to love.”
Meredith Drake Reitan is an Associate Dean in the Graduate School and Lecturer in the Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California. Her work has been published in the Journal of Planning History, the Journal of Urban Design, the Journal of Architectural and Planning Research and in Planning Los Angeles, an edited volume for Planners Press. She writes for KCET’s Lost LA and has a blog, called the LAvenuesProject, that uses the thousands of mundane decisions that define the look and feel of LA streets to talk about the long history of the city as a planned environment.
Acknowledgements: The author wishes to thank Emily Gersema and Hillary Jenks for their comments and feedback on early drafts of this post.
 City of Los Angeles Council. Information Technology and General Services Commission. Motion 2/17/2006
 Foote, Kenneth Shadowed Ground: America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy. University of Texas Press 1997, Austin
 Cohan, Charles “City to Erect Two Modern Structures: Large Area East of the City Hall Being Cleared for Projects” Los Angeles Times Sep 3, 1950; pg. E1
 Wild, Mark. Street Meeting: Multiethnic Neighborhoods in Early Twentieth Century Los Angeles, University of California Press, 2005, Berkeley; Jenks, Hillary. Home Is Little Tokyo”: Race, Community, and Memory in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles. Dissertation. University of Southern California, Los Angeles. ProQuest/UMI, 2008.
 __________ “Council Fixes Sites of Two New Buildings”, Los Angeles Times. Sep 21, 1948; pg. A7
 __________ “Police Building Wins Place at N.Y. Exhibit” Los Angeles Times. Sep 27, 1959, pg. F10
 City of Los Angeles, Planning and Land Use Committee. Correspondence from Alan Kumamoto 2/17/2017, Chris Komai, 2/7/2017, Nancy Kyoko Oda 2/6/2017, Yukio Kawaratani no date, Joanne Kumamoto 11/28/2016 and Jonathan Takeo Tanaka, 2/7/2017.
 Komai, Chris. Statement before the City of Los Angeles, Planning and Land Use Management Committee Meeting. February 7, 2017
 Sahara, Kanji Emailed communication to City of Los Angeles, Planning and Land Use Management Committee. February 17, 2017
 Tsukada Simonian, Irene. Letter to City of Los Angeles, Cultural Heritage Commission. January 10, 2017
 A light rail station has recently been erected in Little Tokyo and another is in the works. Several buildings were demolished to make way for these stations and the area is seeing increased land speculation. See Lue, Ryan. “Can Little Tokyo Survive the Growth of Downtown LA?” Planetizen. April 12, 2012. https://www.planetizen.com/node/56145
 Hertel, Howard and Berman, Art. “Thousands Mourn at Funeral Rites for Chief Parker” Los Angeles Times; Jul 21, 1966. pg. 1
 Webb, Jack. The Badge. Prentice Hall Engelwood Cliffs NJ. 1958
 Blanchard, Robert “Democratic Leader Raps Chief Parker” Los Angeles Times May 23, 1956; pg. 1
 Buntin, John. “L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City” Three Rivers Press 2009, New York
 Fogelson, Robert. “Big City Police: An Urban Institute Study” Harvard University Press 1977. Boston, MA;
 __________ “FBI Probing L.A. Police Brutality: Grand Jury Attention Indicated; Department Pushes Own Inquiry” Los Angeles Times, Mar 14, 1952; pg. 2
 __________ “Chief Parker Hits Brutality Stories: Unsubstantiated Complaints” Los Angeles Times. Feb 28, 1952, pg. 7
 __________ “Parker Hits at Charge of Brutality: Prisoner’s Claim Unfounded, Says Chief of Police” Los Angeles Times Jun 24, 1952; pg. 2
 __________ “$125,000 Suit Accuses Police of Brutality” Los Angeles Times Jan 28, 1958; pg. 5
 __________ “Judge Urges Jury Inquiry on Brutality” Los Angeles Times Mar 13, 1952, pg. 1
 __________ “Judge Urges Jury Inquiry on Brutality” Los Angeles Times Mar 13, 1952, pg. 1
 __________ “36 L.A. Policemen to Face Discipline for Brutality” Los Angeles Times, Jun 17, 1952; pg. 1
 __________ “Police Board Member Flays Parker, Quits” Los Angeles Times Jun 19, 1959, pg. 1
 __________ “Chief Parker Hits Brutality Stories: Unsubstantiated Complaints” Los Angeles Times. Feb 28, 1952, pg. 7
 Fogelson, Robert. “Big City Police: An Urban Institute Study” Harvard University Press 1977. Boston, MA; Buntin, John. “L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City” Three Rivers Press 2009, New York; Shaw, David. “Chief Parker Molded LAPD Image–Then Came the ’60s” Los Angeles Times May 25, 1992
 Mrs. Luther Liebenow. Letter to Mayor Yorty, August 16, 1966; Calvin E. Orr. Letter to Mayor Yorty. July 17, 1965. Los Angeles City Archives and Records Center. Box CC-01-1989, A-1989
Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?
My research focuses on the substantial growth of the carceral state throughout the Crack Era, the contingency of missed opportunity for police to cooperate with grassroots anti-crack and anti-crime activists in the Bronx, and the subsequent militarization of urban policing. Moreover, to borrow a phrase from the leading scholar of the field, I follow how local activists made sense of and struggled with the criminalization of urban space. In addition to the local, my book project explores the bipartisan panic spurred by the emergence of crack and the overdose death of Len Bias. As a cadre of scholars continue to probe carceral studies we are learning to train our gaze towards the deeper historical roots of mass incarceration. However, analyzing passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 is an important tipping point in cementing governing logics of hyper-punishment. Since the advent of #BLM I have been particularly interested in the ways in which old conversations about policing and punishment are suddenly “new” and ahistorical. Hopefully my work can highlight this unfortunate reality and underscore the continuity of activism regarding issues of policing and policy.
Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship? How does what you are working on relate to your scholarship?
This fall I will be teaching a course on the rise of mass incarceration that examines the concurrent wars on crime and drugs. I also routinely teach a course entitled “The Crack Era in Context” which allows me to offer students an in-depth seminar using ethnography, historical monographs, and the interdisciplinary articles that got me started in the field. Additionally, I teach a general requirement Postwar United States history course that takes students away from narratives of American Exceptionalism and investigates how policy and place shaped inequality and rights to citizenship. It is incumbent that students and instructors grapple with the social, political, and economic consequences of the burgeoning carceral state in order to properly understand the latter half of the Twentieth Century.
What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
While I am genuinely excited for my forthcoming review essay in the JUH on informal economies, my preference is to point readers to the current and forthcoming work of scholars that have been invaluable to my understanding of my own research. For the less patient, I implore members to read Julilly Kohler-Hausmann’s book, Getting Tough: Welfare and Imprisonment in 1970s America which arrived at my door last week. Moving forward I am particularly excited about two forthcoming monographs: Matthew Lassiter’s The Suburban Crisis: The Pursuit and Defense of the American Dream and Max Felker-Kantor’s book project, Battle for the Streets: Policing, Politics, and Power in Los Angeles.
What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies?
Apply to and attend relevant conferences, ask questions, and get to know what I have found to be highly accessible, thoughtful scholars working in the field. Make and maintain connections with other graduate students pursuing research in urban history, and try to join a writing group. Perhaps most importantly, do not be afraid to submit your work, and write as frequently as possible. I also find applying our expertise and engaging the public sphere to effect change both rewarding and sustaining.
What book would you like to put in the hand of elected officials or policy makers who are trying to ameliorate the opioid epidemic?
This past year our community suffered a profound loss with the passing of Eric Schneider. To understand addiction, heroin culture, and unsuccessful punitive roads taken by elected officials and policy makers, Schneider’s Smack: Heroin and the American Cityis indispensable. This brilliant scholar, mentor, and somehow, even better human being will be sorely missed. I first met Eric in 2012 at the UHA conference where he chaired a panel with another scholar that subsequently took me in—Michael Javen Fortner. I think I can speak for Michael in saying that Eric improved our work—and my confidence—in immeasurable ways.
In his 2003 work, The Contradiction of American Capital Punishment, University of California law professor Franklin E. Zimring suggested that a correlation existed between lynchings and capital punishment; states with more of the former participated at higher rates in the latter. Zimring’s statistics, Elaine Cassel argued, “should give pause to anyone who believes that the death penalty is somehow the product of reasoned deliberation, rather than simple mob vengeance.”
The connection between vigilantism, specifically lynching, and state sanctioned executions points to the possibility that America’s judicial and law enforcement infrastructure has internalized a disturbing set of values that have historically been shaped discriminatorily by race and class. Despite this possibility, no real database accounting for the nation’s history of lynching exists. A new a joint project between Northeastern University and its Civil Rights and Restorative Justice clinic is attempting to create a public digital accounting of this history.
Though the project is ongoing, historian and lead researcher Jay W. Driskell believes not only have historians not fully identified the number of lychings that occurred throughout U.S. history but that the practice might have been subsumed and obscured by the nation’s law enforcement structures. The Metropole sat down with Driskell to discuss the role of lynching in our national history, the methods used in documenting this violent past, and what the results of his study might mean in regard to the American legal system.
Can you tell us a little about yourself, how you ended up doing this kind of research? How has it informed your own views on history?
I am a historical consultant and researcher based in Washington D.C. I got involved in this project because my first book was a history of the Atlanta NAACP in its early years, so I was familiar with the organization and its records. This project is being jointly conducted between the Northeastern University School of Law and its Civil Rights and Restorative Justice (CRRJ) clinic. It is the result of a 2007 conference organized by NEU Law Professor Margaret Burnham on cold cases of the 1960s. After that conference, Prof. Burnham and MIT political science professor Melissa Nobles decided to look backwards to the Jim Crow era. The scope of the research covers 13 southern states chronologically from 1930 to 1954 picking up from where Stewart Tolnay and E. M. Beck left off in their widely-used inventory of lynchings. This database is part of each scholar’s respective research on racial violence in the Jim Crow period.
My part in this project is to uncover every lynching I could discover between 1930 and 1954. We are initially focusing on three main repositories: the NAACP Papers in the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress; Department of Justice (DOJ) records located at the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA); and eventually records of the FBI. So far I am deep into the first two; the F.B.I., however, is of course it’s own beast.
What have I learned about history from all this? As somebody who has studied both labor and African American history, I always knew history was really violent. It wasn’t until I looked at the history of lynching in a very concentrated way that I came to reckon with the brutal nature of our nation’s history. Through this research, more than ever I understand what this violence looks like on an individual basis, case after case after case—and I’ve looked at hundreds of cases. When I uncover a new case, I sometimes think about my father and how old he was at the time of this killing. For example, in 1948, a political activist named Robert Mallard was murdered by a mob in Toombs County, GA for driving black voters to the polls in the recent gubernatorial election. In 1948, my dad was 14 years old. This was not that long ago. There have been mobs of thousands of angry white people, attacking a jail and killing an African American man and this happened in our parents’ lifetimes. Some of the perpetrators and participants in these lynch mobs are still alive – and unpunished. The kind of violence that the Ku Klux Klan and others unleashed was really just yesterday, and I am nowhere near certain that it won’t come back. This sort of history makes the world seem very fragile to me.
What have you learned about navigating these collections and these archives? Do you have any tips for other historians in regard to archival research?
Let me start with the NAACP. The thing I’ve learned about the NAACP is that when you get to the 1930s and early 1940s, every week they are about to close their doors because it’s run on a shoestring. Yet, there’s this moment where they realize in many parts of the country, they are the only organization doing civil rights work. Sure there’s the International Labor Defense (ILD), the Communist Party, and other groups, but the NAACP is often the only game in town. And this means that everyone is writing the NAACP asking them to take their case. Their resources are stretched so incredibly thin that they can’t do it all. For example, in 1934 NAACP president Walter White read an account of an oil field worker named Ed Lovelace, who was beaten and then burned alive in the town of Wink, TX. White wired the president of the San Antonio branch to investigate. Given that Wink is nearly 400 miles from San Antonio, and it was the site of a violent mob murder of a black man, it would take a tremendous amount of courage for another black man to take this risky journey. Instead, the San Antonio branch looked in the local newspapers for any coverage. Finding none, the case was closed as far as the NAACP was concerned. But, I can’t help but wonder had the local branch made the journey or if the national office had the resources to send an investigator, the murder of Ed Lovelace might well have been counted as one of the fourteen lynchings that the NAACP recorded in 1934.
After World War II, the organization has almost the opposite problem. The relative prosperity of the war years and the impact of the Great Migration caused the NAACP’s membership to surge. They grow so quickly that the bureaucracy sustaining the organization becomes so complex that things get misfiled, overlooked and lost in the records. So even though the papers look like they are in order – and in many ways they are—there is a lot of chaos in them. If you are patient and willing to do the work, there is a lot of new material to be harvested.
Also, many researchers focus too much on the microfilmed portion of the NAACP papers. What’s available on microfilm is really a small slice of the larger collection.
With that in mind, everything I said about the NAACP goes double for the DOJ at NARA. The DOJ is a vast, vast, agency and NARA is a massive archive. What gets recorded often depended upon how much the secretary or clerk working that day felt like filing. The main thing about working at NARA is that you have to work with the archivists. There is no way to productively navigate NARA’s holdings without the help of these archivists and their highly specialized knowledge of their subject areas. No historian, no matter how smart, will have mastered these records as they have. The NARA archvist I’ve been working with most, Haley Maynard, has been indispensable to the success of this project so far.
Why is MIT creating this lynching database?
The CRRJ intends it to become a public history resource.
How does a historian go about gathering and organizing all this data? What has been your method? Did it change as you visited different archives?
When I started this project, I thought the NAACP had done a very good job of reporting on lynchings. In many ways they had. For its time, the organization was very thorough. The problem, however, was that the character of lynching changes over the course of the 1920 and 1930s. In the words of Howard Kester who worked with the NAACP as a white southerner and thus could do undercover investigations of lynchings, it went “underground.” It became less spectacular and ritualistic and, as a result, harder to find because these killings are no longer showing up in press accounts.
So to address this part of my methodology involves recreating the event itself in my head. When you do this it really reveals how lynchings, despite their horrific nature, could be obscured. For example, who are the people who knew the most about this event? First, obviously, the victim, but unless they survived, that voice is forever silenced. The second tier is the perpetrators. When lynching was brazen and public, you can find the perpetrators in the press bragging about it. Sometimes, knowing when they are going to get off, they even sell it to the media as in 1955 when J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant killed Emmett Till and sold their story to Look Magazine. Over the course of the 1920s and 1930s as the NAACP ratchets up public pressure for anti-lynching legislation, lynchers fall silent and stop bragging.
This brings us to the third tier of people who are paying relatively close attention to who is being killed and by whom. This comprises the universe of law enforcement officials, at both the local and the federal level. There are two big reasons that law enforcement is paying attention. First, are those cases where law enforcement is either sanctioning or participating in the lynching. Second, they opposed lynching because it interrupted their monopoly on violence. While lynchers were technically breaking the law by committing murder, this act of killing was also a direct challenge to police prerogatives as the only legitimate purveyors of such violence. That’s the police. Notice, we haven’t even gotten to the NAACP yet.
The fourth tier is the press, often newspaper reporters. Small town reporters were often members of the community committing the lynching and were often members of these lynch mobs – either as participants or observers – so they give very detailed accounts. This is where modern newspaper databases have really helped my research. Chronicling America, ProQuest historical newspapers, and other newspaper digitization projects have really changed the game. For example, the NAACP had to depend on local townspeople sending them clippings; otherwise the organization had no real way to know about lynchings that occurred. So today we have access to identified lynchings that appeared in the local press at the time but the NAACP did not know about because maybe they didn’t have a branch in that town or no one in the town was brave enough to go the post office to mail a clipping to a New York address. You get the idea. This includes the black press too; shockingly the NAACP did not have full access to the black press. In fact the black press was harder to get at since they were often under-capitalized and over-extended, perhaps only issuing one publication a week. Also, even if there were lynchings, the local black press might not have covered it because these presses operated under local conditions and were sometimes unable to report freely.
Then finally, at last you get to the outer tier comprising groups like the Tuskegee Institute and the NAACP, but as you can see they are all very removed from the center of the event. It’s almost like they are the external valence shells on this historical atom. So my goal as a researcher became not to bounce around the outer most orbit of that atom, but rather to determine how to get to the center. The key has turned out to be tier three, the police and law enforcement, because they are the ones, for reasons explained already, paying attention and–crucially–keeping records. If those records wind up in the FBI or DOJ, they are at NARA. That’s the road that will take you to the center of that atom.
In turn, that changed the way I structured the research project. To begin, I went through all the names of lynchings we had already collected. I then made a name database of lynching victims, but as I discovered in the newspapers, they also often listed the names of the perpetrators, more frequently than one would think. In addition, the DOJ often lists cases under the name of the killer, so in some places you only have th name of the killer. You can then use the DOJ litigation index at NARA to find the case number that is linked to that particular killer’s name, which hopefully reveals something about the event that was otherwise lost to time. So far, it has proven pretty fruitful; I’ve even discovered a number of cases the NAACP did not know about.
For example, I found a file in the DOJ records with a 1933 letter from Corinne Banks to FDR. Banks, who lived in Chicago, was the sister of Hirsch Lee, who had been lynched earlier that year. Lee was a 14 year old boy who lived with (and possibly worked for) a white family and had a friendship with a white girl in that family. A rumor spread that it was more than friendship and the family (along with other white men in the area) took Lee to the woods and killed him. They dismembered his body and left it in the woods. The DOJ wrote back to Banks to say they had no jurisdiction in this murder case. There is no indication that the NAACP or any other civil rights group ever found out. What struck me the most was the similarities to the 1955 Emmett Till case. How many Emmett Tills were there?
So in regard to what historians have argued, many historians suggest that lynchings peaked after WWI with another spike during the Great Depression, but then it goes into a long term decline. However, and please keep in mind this is still preliminary and based on this early research, while I think lynching did decline, it did not decline as much as we like to think it did.
Now I’m going to expand on this but keep in mind this is mostly just my opinion and not that of the CRRJ. That being said, I am willing to theorize that based on this research there is a baseline level of anti-black violence in US history that has proven very difficult to reduce. Some historians have discussed this, like Michael Pfeifer in his 2006 book, Rough Justice. He theorizes lynching declines because the death penalty takes its place. However, what I am discovering is that maybe the form of this baseline anti-black violence changes from lynchings to police killings. Lynch mobs became less necessary for the maintenance of white supremacy because officers of the law are serving the same function in killing mostly black or Latino men. When confronting black or Latino suspects they use excessive force that leads to death far more often than they do with whites. This was something very clear to those counting lynchings in the 1930s through the 1950s. A 1934 letter from a local NAACP investigator in Alabama to the NAACP describes this relationship:
“If we listed all of the cases where officers go with the intention of killing the man, we would have many more lynchings than any other organization lists. I was told by a teacher in Selma, Ala. that ‘the reason we have no lynchings around here is this: when a Negro gets out of line the officers go and bring him in dead – that is the general rule here’.”
So I am also looking at police brutality files in the NAACP and DOJ records. When the US goes from being predominantly rural to predominantly urban in the 1920s, it changes a great deal about American life particularly in how populations are surveilled and policed. You have the Great Migration bringing African Americans into cities in record numbers but also rural whites moving to urban America (to say nothing of European immigrants who came in the preceding decades). What used to get solved by lynching in the countryside starts getting addressed by professional or semi-professional police forces. Just to complicate this further, I think an older definition of lynching as popular justice, as spectacular, as carnivalesque, and this idea that historians have bracketed its era as ending in 1930, has prevented people from seeing the possible connection between the decline in lynchings and the increase in police killings and brutality. To test that out you would need a reliable adequate number of how many people killed by police over the past century and that work has not been done.
Is it safe to assume that the shift from lynchings to police brutality was due to political changes that resulted in anti-lynching campaigns (particularly by the NAACP) and the growing civil rights movement? Would you explain this shift another way or add to it?
Another complexity to think about is when lynchings do begin to decline, the NAACP and others link this decline to their repeated attempts to pass anti-lynching legislation. Though the NAACP never managed to pass an anti-lynching law, there is at least some evidence that keeping the issue of lynching before the public reduced the number of lynchings. In 1938, as Congress is debating an anti-lynching bill, at least four lynchings are averted by sheriffs explaining to the mob that a lynching would only empower the NAACP and other supposed enemies of the South.
But, there’s not enough solid evidence that it was the NAACP’s efforts to pass anti-lynching laws that led to lynching’s decline. It’s very possible that the NAACP increasingly needed to justify why it was prosecuting a fight, which they never win, at least in terms of legislative victories. Since the failure of the Dyer Bill in 1921, all attempts to pass anti-lynching legislation foundered in the face of a southern, white supremacist filibuster. But an anti-lynching law is NAACP President Walter White’s baby. The NAACP has a finite amount of resources and White must show his board of directors and others that there is a reason to pursue this anti-lynching campaign. White’s argument, at the risk of being too simplistic, is that the campaign, even if a failure legislatively, did marginalize lynching as an act such that it declined. White and the NAACP need to generate a narrative of success along the lines of “this hasn’t been a fruitless battle”; using these resources for anti-lynching makes sense particularly when for most of its history, the NAACP is a resource-strapped, zero sum institution. Because the NAACP starts to believe this narrative, I think they wind up undercounting the actual number of lynchings–particularly into the 1930s and 40s.
One last thing to add: I’d caution people who are doing this sort of research that it is emotionally impossible to distance yourself from the topic. You might see hundreds of dead bodies each week on television but it’s not the same. It’s case after case—and some cases go into great, disturbing detail. For instance, in NAACP investigative reports I came across the phrase “beaten to a pulp or jelly” again and again. I realized that this is not just a metaphor, but a literal physical state. I’ve asked some doctors I know if this was possible, and it is. If beaten hard enough, for a long enough time, flesh and blood and bone coagulates into a something like a jelly. That can make it hard to sleep at night. It’s something you can’t just harden yourself to; it takes a heavy emotional and physical toll. So, give yourself time to breathe, and carry on the work.
Driskell also runs a historical consulting business for institutions and individuals who require access to the wealth of historical resources in the DC-area. Major clients have included the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, the Smithsonian Institution Archives, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and the National Labor College
New Orleans, and the state of Louisiana more generally, are often held up as the worst examples of policing and criminal justice. It’s where the Angola 3 were incarcerated, alongside Zulu Whitmore, as political prisoners. It’s where Amnesty International has focused much of its anti-carceral state activism. Angola often gets held up as “a modern day slave plantation” and Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) is constantly in the news, most recently for healthcare-related violations. I’m not arguing that these offenses aren’t bad and that they should go unrecognized. But in many ways, all these statistics and examples from Louisiana perpetuate ideas about the backward South, the eternal other of the great United States. For this reason (and many others) many historians of the carceral state have shifted their focus to incarceration and policing in the North and West (Captive Nation by Dan Berger , Heather Thompson’s Blood in the Water, Kali Gross’s two books on Philadelphia). This is laudable and these stories need to be told. But for those of us who want to write the stories of the South, how do we do this without reinforcing false notions of southern exceptionalism and northern innocence? (This is not to say that people are not successfully doing this: David Oshinsky’s Worse than Slavery and Robert Parkinson’s Texas Tough). In “Blinded by the Barbaric South: Prison Horrors, Inmate Abuse, and the Ironic History of American Penal Reform” from the edited edition The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism, Historian Heather Ann Thompson writes “First and foremost, interpretations that emphasize the “exceptional” nature of the southern justice system obscure the extent to which historical penal practices in northern and western states also have been inhumane and deeply racialized. Seeing criminal justice practices in the South as divergent from national standards fundamentally distorts understandings of how race and power played out across the United States after the Civil War.”
Instead of focusing on the many instances of inhumane treatment and abuse in the Louisiana prison system, especially against people of color, I am focusing on prisoner rights activists inside and outside of prison and their creative and intellectual production, their prisoner-rights organizing, and their spaces of activism. I aim to write about anti-carceral activism in New Orleans without furthering mythical notions about the South as “other.” I hope to avoid making New Orleans out to be the bad guy, when in fact the entirety of the United States is the “bad guy” when it comes to incarceration. From Lead Belly’s performances to lawsuits brought by the ACLU to Robert Hillary King’s memoir From the Bottom of the Heap, New Orleanians have fought incarceration in Louisiana. Though I’m writing a story of activism and agency now, I came to this project because I thought Angola was the “worst prison” and, in the way of an immature, budding historian, I thought something was only worth writing about if it was the worst. Tasked with choosing a research paper topic in my first semester of graduate school, I did exactly what I was told not to: I googled it. I landed on the Wikipedia page for the Louisiana State Penitentiary, which included a short paragraph on the Angola 3. While oft written about in popular culture, there didn’t seem to be much academically written about these men, locked in solitary confinement in the “worst” prison. I expected to write a tale of gross human rights violations and the aberration of the South. Instead I found a story of strength, activism, art, and love in the face of brutality. A story of friendship and organizing and people fighting for the lives and rights of these men at great personal risk. I wrote my thesis on the Angola 3, but as I traversed archives across Louisiana and conducted oral histories with activists across the country, I decided that I would focus on the uncommon strength and organizing of these men and women instead of dismissing an entire region as backwards.
Like many urban historians, sociologists, and other scholars, my focus is on the carceral state. I’m writing about activists, both historical and modern, who have fought for the rights of incarcerated people in New Orleans. In many cases, these activists had little in common beyond the commitment to the rights of the incarcerated. When prisons were being created across the country in the late 19th century, some of these activists fought for the creation of the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Others belonged to the NAACP and focused on the racial injustice embedded within Louisiana’s jails and prisons. Still more were involved with Black Power, education reform, and anarchist organizing. My project will follow prisoner rights activism in New Orleans from the late 19th century through to modern day organizing.
How did people of color and other prisoner rights activists use writing, art, and music to express the injustice of the carceral state? How did they carve out spaces, often informal, to fight these injustices politically? These people are exceptional: not because they are Southerners, but because they are fighting, every day, to end incarceration and injustice in Louisiana. By focusing on these activists and their stories, I hope to add nuance to the stories of incarceration in the South. Louisiana has Angola and the OPP, but it also has the longest continuously active chapter of the NAACP, Women with a Vision, NOLA to Angola, and Books to Bars. These organizations, and the activists who make them work remake the story of incarceration in New Orleans every day. It’s a story of injustice, civil rights violations, and abuse, but is also one of art, strength, and organizing.
Holly Genovese is a PhD student and public historian at Temple University interested in Southern history, Intellectual history, Gender, and the Carceral State. She is also a blogger for the Society of U.S. Intellectual History and a contributing editor at Auntie Bellum magazine. You can read her work at https://www.hollygenovese.com/ and follow her on Twitter @HollyEvanMarie.
Although Professor Holly Tucker wrote her new book for a non-academic audience, City of Light, City of Poison: Murder, Magic, and the First Police Chief of Paris begins with a scene uniquely suited to evoke terror and handwringing from historians. The preface, which Tucker entitles “Burn Notice,” is set in the palace of Versailles in 1709. King Louis XIV and his minister Louis de Pontchartrain stand before the hearth in the counsel room, where “Page by page, Pontchartrain handed … documents to the king, who fed each of them into the hungry flames. The two men watched the parchment curl and catch fire.” The king and Pontchartrain thought they were destroying all evidence of a seventeenth century scandal amongst the nobility, the Affair of the Poisons. “[T]he king silenced the horrors of the affair and the screams of its victims for good,” we read, before Tucker deftly assures us, “Or so he believed.”
Thankfully, the man who uncovered the scandal kept his personal papers separate from the archive of incriminating records that Louis XIV burned. Nicolas de La Reynie, Tucker’s central subject and the chief of police of Paris, was an obsessive note taker and recorder of information—indeed, this attention to detail was what made him so well suited to the job. From these papers and the records of the Bastille prison, Tucker painstakingly revived the characters and events of the Affair of the Poisons. In La Reynie’s investigation, noblewomen, debtors, renegade priests, and discarded mistresses were prime suspects in the epidemic of attempted poisonings so pervasive that not even the king was safe.
The captivating figure of La Reynie not only enlivens the story and creates a natural narrative tension, but he also makes City of Light, City of Poison so essential to historians of the carceral state. More than 160 years before British politician Robert Peel wrote the “Principals of Law Enforcement,” considered by many to be the foundational text of modern policing, La Reynie assembled a network of spies, a bureaucracy of commissioners, and a corps of officers to fight crime in Paris. Resembling a hybrid of municipal police forces and domestic intelligence services like the FBI or the French Gendarmerie, La Reynie and the Paris police defended the monarchy and the French state with the same vigor with which they defended Parisians from crime. I spoke with Holly Tucker about the parallels between pre-enlightenment and modern policing, what historians can learn from the Affair of the Poisons, and how humanities scholars should approach writing for a non-academic audience.
Avigail Oren (AO):City of Light, City of Poison tells the story of Nicolas de La Reynie, appointed lieutenant general of police by King Louis XIV of France in 1667 to clean up the city of Paris and improve public safety. The job seemed to be equal measures Director of Sanitation as Chief of Police. Why were sanitation and public safety so interrelated in seventeenth-century Paris?
Holly Tucker (HT): I think that although Louis XIV made Nicolas de La Reynie police chief, he was also really looking for someone who would serve, in a way, like Mayor of Paris. There had really been no one in Paris looking after the day-to-day aspects of life for Parisians. Jean-Baptiste Colbert was one of Louis XIV’s ministers, the prime interior minister, who was responsible for the construction of some of the eye-popping buildings built in seventeenth-century Paris. In the book I focus a lot on sanitation, but Nicolas de La Reynie was also responsible for responding in times of flooding. The Seine River flooded a lot. La Reynie dealt with the problem of bridges being swept away, and then the attendant problems of transportation. He was also very involved in food provisions, and policed and oversaw Les Halles, which was the main (huge) market for Paris. He looked as well at pricing mechanisms. In all, there was very little about Parisian infrastructure that he did not concern himself with.
AO: Although Nicolas de La Reynie was put in control of Paris in this hybrid role of police chief/mayor/bureaucrat, and he successfully implemented policies to light the city at night and have the streets cleaned by day, from your story it seemed that there were limits to how much control he was able to exert over Parisians. The Montorgueil quarter, for example, was a part of the city where La Reynie struggled to assert control over vice—to such an extent that it became the node, or the point of origin, in the web of events that became the Affair of the Poisons that you so vividly describe in the book. I was wondering if you could tell me what La Reynie would have seen while walking the streets of Montorgueil in the 1670s, in terms of both sights and sensory experiences?
HT: First, it’s really up for debate whether La Reynie physically went into the quarter. There’s some legend that he took a group of officers with him under the cover of night and went into the Court of Miracles [Ed: the name for the headquarters of beggars and organized criminals in Paris]. And that may indeed be apocryphal, but he did have a fair number of spies and other officers who would come into the quarter. But anyone who would have walked into that neighborhood would have seen abject poverty. They would have seen houses that were made out of wood, basically makeshift homes. And then at the same time, there was a major church and a few better-off residences, some homes made of stone—that still actually exist, there are a few seventeenth century homes that are still there. The bulk of the buildings on that street now are mostly eighteenth century residences, but the street grid is still the same. Of course, like the rest of Paris it would have been very dirty, perhaps even dirtier. Keep in mind that it’s just about five to eight minutes walking, assuming no obstacles, from that neighborhood to Les Halles, the main market, which was busy, crazy, stinky, and filled with thieves and prostitutes, and then from there only 10 minutes away from the Louvre, Louis XIV’s Paris Palace. I can walk from Montorgueil to the Louvre in 12 minutes.
AO: So this is really in the King’s backyard.
AO: In terms of geographic distance it seems incredibly close, but Montorgueil was in stark opposition to the opulent court of King Louis XIV, where much of the book takes place. Could you describe the Affair of the Poisons and how it demonstrates that the social distance between nobility and poor Parisians was closer than most people would suspect?
HT: Most inhabitants who would have been associated with the court weren’t living in the Louvre. The king himself was rarely at the Louvre. Louis XIV tended to be at a palace called Saint-Germain-en-Laye and the nobility themselves were over in the arrondissement that would have been about 20 minutes away. For as close as it is to many of the major landmarks, physically it would have been unlikely that we would have seen a lot of intersection between these two communities. But the Affair of the Poisons was basically a scandal—a very well known scandal in seventeenth-century history and amongst French historians—in which La Reynie, the police chief, discovered there was this cabal of poisoners, midwives, abortionists, so-called witches, and also renegade priests who were performing services for the nobility. And there was some question over time whether or not the nobility, particularly some of the king’s mistresses, were employing them in order to reach the king—either to have the king fall in love with them or to punish the king. And of course La Reynie wanted to clean up the city of crime, but he also wanted to protect the king to whom he was very, very dedicated. He ended up arresting over 400 people, over 200 people were tried in a secret tribunal, 30 people were executed, and among those many people were tortured. But what it showed was just how permeable the social spaces between the nobility and the lower classes actually were in the seventeenth century.
AO: I was really struck by that while reading the book. It didn’t seem so difficult for these noblewomen, whether they were the lower nobility or a mistress of the king like Athénaïs de Montespan, to seek out and get connected to some of these shadier characters.
HT: A number of people from the lower classes of course worked in the households as servants to these noblewomen. That was one of the “rewards” that could be had, that through these connections that the herbalists and midwives made, they gained an opportunity to place some women from the lower classes into jobs in noble households. And in fact, one of the king’s mistresses, Madame de Oeillets, the superstar actress who had been in the court of Montespan, came from Montorgueil. So as much as we’d like to think that these communities were so distinct, both physically in how the city was laid out, and socially, they were not as distinct as we would imagine.
AO: When translated to policing, I imagine that this social interplay lessened the distinction between controller and controlled. That could create confusion: what rules applied to whom, and who had the power to punish and enforce? You write a lot about how La Reynie exerted his control over the lower classes, but the King must have exerted control over the nobility and the members of his court as well. Ostensibly, until the Affair of the Poisons, it was not through the use of the police. Why did Louis XIV decide that a police force was necessary for Paris, but limit its reach into the King’s court?
HT: Actually the monarchy had been in great jeopardy not too long before, between 1648 and 1653 with La Fronde, the civil war. There was an uprising of the noble classes represented through the parliament, which is the main legal body of France. Louis XIV was only 5 years old and his mother, Anne of Austria, was regent. At the heart of the uprising was the very sustainability of the monarchy. Who would control the State? Louis XIV kept in mind throughout his adult years that, if not properly controlled, the nobility could bring about the end of the royal political structures. He also remembered being frightened as a child by death threats during the civil war that lasted five years. That’s also where we begin to see his reluctance to be in Paris. He was taken out of his bed in the Louvre when he was a very, very small boy and then taken to the palace of Saint-Germain, where he was born, and I think that he’d always seen Paris as being this unruly city. To the extent that we can speculate, I think for a while he was willing to let Paris go down its own path, it was just this necessary evil. Then in 1665, when two of the main proactive lawmen of the city—the criminal lieutenant and the civil lieutenant—were both killed, I think Louis XIV realized that by international reputation, Paris was out of control. I think it also was his call to action to make sure that the city did not give him more trouble, personally as monarch, than the nobility did years earlier. That’s why he gave La Reynie such broad powers, because my sense is he really wanted La Reynie to be acting as his physical proxy. La Reynie was very dedicated to the king, but Paris was his kingdom in a way, on behalf of the King.
AO: Although La Reynie was the lieutenant general of police, I was surprised that the force he oversaw did not seem to resemble the modern police departments familiar to most American readers. Most notably, La Reynie used a system of local commissioners to enforce his orders. In what ways did the seventeenth century police force differ from the professionalized police departments that would develop in the nineteenth century?
HT: I think we’re in the mid-range there, because the commissioners were part of the ad-hoc police force. There would be one or two commissioners per quarter responsible for receiving the complaints of the citizens who had already experienced some sort of crime or felt that they had experienced a crime. And La Reynie still engaged those commissioners in that he relied on them to collect the mud taxes, to mobilize their quarter according to his rules to clean and light the streets. But he brought in several hundred, if not up to one thousand, new officers, who were typically on horseback conducting surveillance in the city. He also had the Royal Musketeers as well, whom he would call in from time to time. So I wouldn’t call it the kind of modern police force that we might imagine, but La Reynie was definitely leaning in that direction. He ends up putting this all together in the matter of just a couple of years, which is really quite remarkable.
AO: In addition to these officers and commissioners, La Reynie collected intelligence “from a web of civil servants, lawyers, judges, doctors, and merchants,” and became known for his detailed reports about the goings-on in the city (p. 20). Indeed, King Louis XIV and his ministers came to trust and rely on La Reynie on the basis of the information he was able to collect and provide to them. This complex interrelationship between La Reynie, intelligence, and the state reminded me more of the FBI than a traditional urban police force. What does this early history reveal about how the relationship between national or state and local policing developed?
HT: I’ve also been really fascinated by spies and spying. Because so much of it was under the radar, it’s hard to know with great certainty what was going on. Information could be transmitted via little pieces of paper or parchment, folded and put in buttons that would be covered over in fabric. It’s only in the 1660s that Louis creates the French postal system, which came primarily out of an interest in wanting to know what was happening and what the citizens were talking about. In the king’s palaces, it has been documented that for letters that were going among the nobility within the palace, to have a centralized postal service the letters would have to go to special room where there would be several people who had all different types of ways of opening the letters. So at the same time that La Reynie is starting his police force, the king has started the postal service—and all of this is for the purpose of spying and keeping an eye on things. In fact I stumbled upon several letters—some are at the University of Pennsylvania actually—letters between La Reynie and Colbert where Colbert was saying, “Hey, I’ve been hearing at court that this person or that person, they’re riding around Paris in these extremely elaborate carriages. Help me figure out what’s going on.” Or, “the king is very unhappy about this, help us stop it.” Another thing that La Reynie did is he made it illegal to gamble in private homes, in favor of requiring people to gamble in public spaces. Why? So he could actually put spies in there to get a sense of who was doing what, what they were talking about, who was losing tons of money and who was gaining tons of money. Now what he did specifically with that information, we can’t be sure, but knowledge gathering during this time period went hand and hand with state building.
AO: I think that comes out really clearly in the book, and raises very interesting questions for historians to think about the carceral state and about state discipline across more levels of policing, from local to national.
HT: Toward the end of the Affair of the Poisons, when it was clear that La Reynie’s investigations were getting closer and closer to some of the people who had direct contact with the king, the fact that Louis XIV, who wanted to know everything about everything, instructed La Reynie to stop the investigation and to put under seal the most incriminating documents—and then, years later, to burn those documents—shows a clear recognition that public knowledge of certain events could be extraordinarily dangerous and powerful. And that means private knowledge can also be equally powerful, if not more powerful.
AO: In the book’s epilogue, you quantify the impact of the Affair of the Poisons. You mentioned some of these numbers already, but 442 people were questioned and 218 were imprisoned—28 of them for life—and 34 were executed for the crimes. It seems from your narrative that justice was not meted out equitably, and that the accused’s class affected the punishment they received, with some very notable exceptions. We see similar patterns of racial and class bias in policing and in the justice system in America today, and I assume in France as well. Yet most histories of the carceral state do not extend back to the seventeenth century. What insight can the Affair of the Poisons, as a lens into early policing, provide to historians interested in the history of policing and incarceration in the 19th and 20th century?
HT: I do think that there’s been, in reception studies, work that has shown both the contributions and also the disservices that Foucauldian approaches to incarceration and policing have given us, and I do think that studies like this help make the thesis much more complicated—in ways that others have also done through the whole debate twenty years ago about Foucault. There is still a lot that we can do to provide welcome nuance. The very fact that you’ve got different prison systems for different groups, the nobility were more likely to be in the Bastille, the lower classes were more likely to be at the Chåtelet. The Conciergerie in Paris were for very high-level cases and were typically tried by the Parliament. But that doesn’t exclude, either, the ecclesiastical courts. So the court and particularly the prison system in early modern France was extraordinarily complicated. And it was complicated both from the legal point of view, of course, but also because of the socioeconomic standing of those on trial.
AO: I wanted to conclude with two questions about writing for a non-academic audience. City of Light, City of Poison is the second book you have published with a trade press. How did you begin writing non-fiction? What are the advantages of publishing with a press like W.W. Norton?
HT: I think that, as humanists, we often do ourselves a disservice by not recognizing that we are storytellers. So I gave myself the freedom to think of myself as an academic-slash-researcher-slash-teacher-slash-storyteller, because that’s what we also do in our classes—for those of us who teach history or cultural studies or literature, we are re-creating something for our students that’s based on scholarship. So when I started thinking about what my next book would be, and this was after tenure, I stumbled on an interesting story. I’d been teaching the history of medicine for a while and I was teaching about William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood in 1638 and I really wanted to pep up the lectures somehow. I decided to show some primary documents, so I started going through the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society and searching for references to blood. And that’s when I stumbled on these blood transfusion experiments. And the more I looked into them, the more I thought, oh my gosh, this is all about a modern biomedical technology that most people can’t imagine medicine without, and it’s got this fraught history because the first experiments were animal to human. And one of the first blood transfusion patients was actually murdered in the 1670s and the transfusionist was put on trial for what appeared, for all practical purposes, to be one of the first malpractice trials. Blood transfusion was effectively banned after that trial and in the court record it said, “the three doctors responsible for the patient’s death will come to justice shortly.” I read that and thought, “Oh my, what? There’s a cabal of doctors who have done what?” And I discovered that the patient had actually been poisoned. And so when I was thinking about how I wanted to write this—this was going to be my promotion book—the story was so rich and the characters were so amazing and the implications were huge because, underlying the murder was this concern that if animals were being transfused to humans there could be a real possibility of creating chimeras.
AO: I mean, clearly.
HT: Right? So I decided that I didn’t want to write for a small handful of people. So whether or not I was going to get promoted, it didn’t matter, and so I did my research to figure out how one goes about publishing for a larger audience and so I pitched agents. Then I picked an agent who worked really well with me and then she pitched it to different publishers and actually we had a number of publishers interested in it. And so that’s why, it was an amazing story. The challenge was trying to figure out, so what does this mean? Because I was used to writing academically, and it’s a completely different experience to write for a larger audience than it is for an audience of one’s peers. And I will say these last two books that I’ve written have been the hardest intellectual research experiences that I’ve ever had. You really have to get into cultural documents to find ways to bring readers into that period. So it’s not just about the ideas, it’s not just about the events that occurred, it’s about providing an accurate as possible snapshot of the time period so that readers can live the experience. It’s really hard to do that.
AO: How would you recommend scholars who have an idea for a non-fiction project begin to pursue non-fiction writing? How should they go about acquiring an agent or a publisher?
HT: I think the advantage we have as scholars is that we know how to ask questions and we know how to get information, and so when I had this idea I just started Googling. And then also, as far as writing style, I read books targeted to larger audiences that I really appreciated for the scholarship, like those by Jill Lepore, Jane Kamensky, Stephen Greenblatt, and a book I really enjoyed called The Most Famous Man in Americaby Debby Applegate. It won the Pulitzer Prize, so I got that book. I got Seabiscuit. We, as researchers in the humanities, we’re used to looking at texts carefully, digging through and looking at narrative structure, not just what’s being said but how it’s being said. I don’t think we give ourselves enough credit! If there was one good book I’d tell everyone to start with, it’s Susan Rabiner’s Thinking Like Your Editor. It’s a little bit older but I just looked at it again not too long ago and it gives extraordinarily good advice about how to know whether your idea is appropriate for an audience, and how to go pitching that, and what agents and editors are looking for, and how one goes about putting together a book proposal that is targeted for larger presses.
The Metropole is excited to debut a new series on urban policing, edited by Matthew Guariglia, a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Connecticut.
“The basic mission for which police exist is to prevent crime and disorder as an alternative to the repression of crime and disorder by military force and severity of legal punishment.” With this statement, British politician Robert Peel began his “Principals of Law Enforcement,” often considered the foundational text of modern policing. The nine points, published in 1829, create the framework for a system of coercive governance that relied on “persuasion, advice, and warning,” and sometimes the state’s monopoly on violence, to protect the developing liberal capitalist state. “The police at all times should maintain a relationship with the public,” Peel writes, “that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police.” In a society that declared civil liberties sacred, police were to be a constant reminder of what the consequences could be when an individual failed to maintain “public respect.”
The history of urban policing, however, is plagued by a continuity of brutality. The recent highly publicized killings of urban residents of color by police and the international Movement for Black Lives that arose in response have made more people around the world aware of a problem many people of color have always known. Almost as quickly as Peel wrote that police should operate by “offering individual service and friendship to all members of society without regard to their race or social standing,” police across the Atlantic world and its colonies were deployed to create and enforce legal and extralegal regimes of control in the name of public safety and with the full support of less vulnerable members of society.
This continuity also obscures a long history of change and experimentation as police departments across the world developed and shared new tactics to control urban spaces and new rationales to justify that control. Technology changed, the racial and gendered makeup of police departments became more diverse, crimes were invented or disappeared from enforcement, and a fearful public continually renegotiated its relationship to policing in exchange for the promise of protection and safe streets. “The institution of the police,” said Michel Foucault, “which is so recent and so oppressive, is only justified by that fear. If we accept the presence in our midst of these uniformed men, who have the exclusive right to carry arms, who demand our papers, who come to prowl on our doorsteps, how would any of this be possible if there were no criminals?”
Disciplining the City: Policing and Incarceration in Urban Space is open to historians from all fields and time periods, and will explore the multifaceted and complex history of policing, crime, and incarceration in urban and suburban spaces. We are soliciting submissions to the series concerned with a number of topics, including: analysis of both change over time and continuity in the history of policing; the relationship between policing and racial and gender formation and sexuality; the classed, ethnic, racial, and gendered make up of the police force; policing as labor; the act and challenges of policing specific spaces and populations within the urban landscape; the technology and material culture of policing; urban incarceration; medicine and criminality; crime and the law; methods of preserving law and order in slave and colonial regimes; activism, police reform, and prison abolition; and, finally, the history of policing cities through an international or global lens.
Studying the history of policing in urban spaces is a complicated endeavour filled with ambiguous and often purposely-obscured archives. The series is therefore interested not just in publishing original research, but also posts that involve archive stories and close readings of specific primary sources central to one’s research. Historiographies and bibliographies of topics related to the history of policing, crime, and incarceration, book reviews, and author interviews are also encouraged in order to help readers follow the emerging field of carceral studies.