Policing Social Movements in the Twentieth Century

Endorsed by the Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA)

Saturday, April 4, 2020, 8:00 AM - 9:30 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; Politics; Urban and Suburban


The relationship between law enforcement and social movements remains one of the most contested but least understood arenas in U.S. political history, one in which citizens have regularly challenged state power and state officials have accordingly sought to undermine citizens’ power. Restrictions on access to law enforcement records, even those that are supposedly available through public records laws, limit scholars’ avenues for understanding the policing of movements. Meanwhile, contemporary media mistakenly portray Black Lives Matter as a “new civil rights movement” and treat the FBI’s focus on “Black Identity Extremists” as evidence of newly frayed relations between activists and law enforcement.

This panel, by contrast, will discuss how these developments are nothing new, as we explore activist efforts to curtail police power and law enforcement surveillance from the early twentieth century onward. Our panel investigates a variety of ways in which law enforcement agencies sought to understand and undermine social movements, including through public hearings, postwar demobilization legislation, police publications, and the surveillance of women activists long thought to be overlooked by COINTELPRO. Indeed, as our panel shows, a much longer history of surveillance and social control endured by black and brown communities prefigures today’s tactics for policing movements.

Shannon King’s paper will explore New York City Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia’s 1935 commission on that year’s riots in Harlem as a political battleground where citizens, police, and organizations such as the Communist Party and the NAACP all confronted each other. Out of the commission’s hearings emerged calls to end the police occupation of Harlem as well as a nascent social justice movement—comprised of black nationalists, liberals, and the black left—against anti-black violence in New York.

Using difficult-to-find sources in policing professional literature, Stuart Schrader’s paper will examine how the GI Bill and post-World War II demobilization sought to enhance repressive capacities of the state and close off avenues for veterans to express political discontent and participate in social movements. A largescale effort to channel thousands of veterans into law enforcement careers was designed effectively as a means of controlling labor organizing and anti-racist activism.

Joshua Davis’s paper explores the discourse about civil rights activism found in law enforcement publications. This paper scrutinizes the language police used to describe the movement, identifying aspects of the movement police described as permissible and others they described as criminal. In so doing, Davis’s paper reveals how police developed a “both sides” analysis that wrongly treated the civil rights movement and white supremacist groups such as the White Citizens’ Council as ideological adversaries who nonetheless practiced equivalent forms of disorderly, extremist politics.

Finally, Ashley Farmer’s paper identifies gender-specific tactics the FBI used to attack black women radicals from the 1950s to the 1970s and examines how these women combatted surveillance. Her paper reinserts black women into histories of surveillance and imprisonment and challenges long-held ideas that CONTELPRO was focused overwhelmingly on men, offering valuable insight into how we might think about the Bureau’s contemporary efforts to track and undermine black communities.

Papers Presented

Repression of Social Movements at the End of the Second World War: From Wartime Mobilization to Peacetime Demobilization

This paper will examine the reversal of wartime mobilization at the end of World War II. How did the social, political, and economic effort of fighting the war transform into the demobilization of peacetime? This shift was not easy, particularly as the war created new social-movement energies, including among women war workers and African American soldiers. This paper will look at informal and institutionalized efforts to help demobilized soldiers become police officers at the end of World War II in the United States as a way to kill two birds with one stone. Faced with a labor surplus and growing social and economic discontent in the immediate aftermath of the war’s end in 1945, federal as well as municipal officials sought to streamline the hiring process to enable returning soldiers to become cops. This process enhanced the repressive capacities of the state, while closing off avenues of discontent and social movement participation for some returning veterans. Even as the G.I. Bill is considered a landmark piece of legislation in creating the conditions for urban and suburban social transformation and economic prosperity in the postwar period, scholars have not adequately examined the way police forces grew as a means of controlling labor and antiracist organizing. Both white and African American veterans became police, as I detail. This paper will contribute to debates around the rise of the carceral state, the civil rights movement, urban governance, and Cold War labor history.

Presented By
Stuart Schrader, Johns Hopkins University

Police on the Movement: What Cops Said about Civil Rights

Historians have long analyzed the relationship between law enforcement and the civil rights movement in the 1960s by examining police treatment of protesters, or by exploring the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr. and other prominent activists. In this paper, I probe police departments’ handling of the movement by raising an entirely different set of questions. What did police officials say about civil rights activists when they were communicating among themselves in their own publications? What language did they use to describe civil rights activism? And which aspects of the movement did they describe as permissible, and which as criminal? First, police almost exclusively focused on protests and demonstrations, virtually ignoring the wide breadth of civil rights activism that included meetings, petitions, media appearances, and lawsuits. Second, police frequently engaged in a misleading “both sides” discourse that treated civil rights activists and white supremacists such as the White Citizens’ Council as ideologically counterbalanced adversaries who operated at equal distances from a reasonable political center. Third, police publications regularly mentioned civil rights demonstrators and rioters in the same paragraph, if not the same sentence. Even when they claimed to draw a contrast between legal protest and illegal destruction of property, law enforcement writings often suggested a correlation between the two. By scrutinizing the discursive patterns of law enforcement publications on civil rights activism, this paper seeks to reveal a different set of insights into police-movement relations than what examinations of protest control and surveillance have produced.

Presented By
Joshua Clark Davis, University of Baltimore

Occupied Territory and the Making of the Black Popular Front

Days after Harlem’s first major riot on March 19, 1935, Gotham’s liberal mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia put together a biracial commission not only to explain the cause of the unrest but also to offer recommendations on how to prevent more. While scholars have written about the Harlem rebellion of 1935, about the roles of the Communist party during the Great Depression, and, more generally, about black politics during the depression, historical examinations of police brutality and the politics around it remain peripheral. This paper contextualizes the politics around LaGuardia’s commission and centers the problem of antiblack violence and political debates about and around policing in Harlem. Throughout the year of the report—which was released not by the mayor but the black newspaper the New York Amsterdam News—the New York Police Department occupied Harlem. This paper is two-pronged. First, it centers the commission’s hearings as the battleground upon which citizens, the police, and representatives of organizations such as the Communist party and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People struggled to explain the riot. Second, it uses the commission’s hearings and report to highlight the nexus between calls for safety from white proprietors and black and white Harlem denizens, on the one hand, and the police occupation of Harlem and the emergence of the nascent social justice movement—comprising black nationalists, liberals, and the black Left—against police antiblack violence in New York City, on the other.

Presented By
Shannon King, Fairfield University

Tracking Minds, Tracking Lives: The FBI’s Past and Present Surveillance of Black Women Activists

According to a recently leaked Federal Bureau of Intelligence report, the agency is now watching “Black Identity Extremists (BIE).” The bureau asserts that BIE groups are motivated by “perceptions of police brutality against African Americans” and have “spurred an increase in premeditated, retaliatory lethal violence against law enforcement.” This new iteration of the FBI’s targeting of black Americans has its roots in the bureau’s origins. Their attacks on black leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X are well known. Less studied, however, are the many black women who endured similar practices and costs. This paper explores how the FBI perfected many contemporary programs on a range of progressive and radical black women activists from the 1950s to the 1970s. It argues that black women organizers were susceptible to the patriarchal impulses of both the government and the public—a position that caused many to overlook the impact of bureau tactics on them, on the one hand, and caused agents to develop gender-specific schemes that targeted them, on the other. The paper identifies gender-specific tactics the FBI used to attack black women radicals and how these women combated surveillance. Reinserting black women into histories of surveillance and imprisonment challenges long-held ideas about the male-dominated focus of CONTELPRO. A focus on black women’s survival in the face of such tactics also offers valuable insight into how we might think about the bureau’s contemporary efforts to track and undermine black communities.

Presented By
Ashley D. Farmer, University of Texas at Austin

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Simon Balto, University of Iowa
Simon Balto is an Assistant Professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Iowa. He is the author of Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power (University of North Carolina Press, 2019). His writing has appeared in a range of scholarly and popular publications, including the Journal of African American History, Labor: Studies in Working-Class History, TIME Magazine, and the Washington Post. He is currently co-editing a volume with Erik Gellman that explores new histories of Black Chicago, and is also working on two new solo-authored studies: one on the history of white criminals using blackface in the commissioning of crimes, the other on former Illinois Black Panther leader Fred Hampton.

Presenter: Joshua Clark Davis, University of Baltimore
Joshua Clark Davis is an assistant professor of United States history at the University of Baltimore. His book, From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs (Columbia University Press, 2017), explores how small businesses such as organic food stores, head shops, feminist businesses, and African American bookstores emerged from social movements in the 1960s and '70s. His research has been supported by fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Fulbright Scholar Program. He's written for the The Washington Post, Jacobin, and The Atlantic, and his work has been featured in Time, Slate, Chronicle of Higher Education, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and USA Today.

Presenter: Ashley D. Farmer, University of Texas at Austin
ASHLEY D. FARMER, is a historian of black women's history, intellectual history, and radical politics. She is currently an Assistant Professor in the Departments of History and African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Her book, Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era (UNC Press, 2017), is the first comprehensive study of black women's intellectual production and activism in the Black Power era. She is also the co-editor of New Perspectives on the Black Intellectual Tradition (NUP Press, 2018)

Farmer's scholarship has appeared in numerous venues including The Black Scholar and The Journal of African American History. Her research has also been featured in several popular outlets including Vibe, NPR, CSPAN, and The Chronicle Review .

Dr. Farmer earned her BA from Spelman College, an MA in History and a PhD in African American Studies from Harvard University.

Presenter: Shannon King, Fairfield University
Shannon King is Chair and Associate Professor of History at The College of Wooster and author of Whose Harlem Is This, Anyway?: Community Politics and Grassroots Activism during the New Negro era (NYUP 2015). His research and teaching interests include African American urban and cultural history, black freedom studies, and criminal justice and carceral studies. His work has been published in the Journal of Urban History and History: Review of Books and awarded a residency at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. He is working on a book manuscript on race, crime, and punishment in New York City during the 1930s and 40s, tentatively title, Policing the Crisis: Black Protest and Law and Order in New York City during the Riot Era.

Presenter: Stuart Schrader, Johns Hopkins University
Stuart Schrader received his PhD in American Studies from New York University in 2015. After that, he was a Postdoctoral Fellow in Global American Studies and a Fellow in Crime and Punishment in American History at Harvard University, as well as a Agnese N. Haury Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center For the United States and the Cold War at the Tamiment Library in New York City. He is currently Lecturer/Assistant Research Scientist in Africana Studies and Sociology at Johns Hopkins University. His book Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing is forthcoming from University of California Press in the American Crossroads Series.