Policing Black Radicalism

AHA Session 305
Sunday, January 7, 2018: 11:00 AM-12:30 PM
Virginia Suite B (Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level)
Shannon King, College of Wooster

Session Abstract

Since their inception, urban police forces have been as much about controlling marginal populations as enforcing the law. The relationship between police and black Americans has been especially tense with black accused suspects being victims of some of the worst police abuses. The 1950s and 1960s were decades of reform for the criminal justice system. From Supreme Court-driven enhanced constitutional protections of the accused to greater scrutiny of such practices of police brutality and racism, policing became more transparent, more professional, and less overtly racist.

The decades that followed, however, saw the construction and entrenchment of a system of mass incarceration, driven by changing laws, sentencing policies, and policing practices. Police departments became more militarized with new tactics and tools, while many continued to alternately neglect and intensely surveill entire black communities. More and more black and brown men were imprisoned, primarily in the drug war. Recent scholarship has explored several aspects of the rise of the carceral state in the late 20th century, including analyzing changing politics, new laws, the human effects of the new system, and its potent racism. Scholars have added significantly to our understanding of the continuities and ruptures between the longer historical treatment of African Americans by the criminal justice system and the modern system supporting mass incarceration.

This panel joins and expands upon this scholarship by examining the connection between violence, black radicalism, and policing during the decades of transition between the reforming era and the full establishment of the carceral state. Black freedom movement activists, including those with more radical ideologies played key roles in publicizing police violence and reforming policing tactics in the 1960s. Yet, they were also some of the most prominent targets of policing, in part due to their perceived association with violence. This panel examines the complex and multifaceted relationship between violence, black radicalism, and policing. It considers how police used violence against radicals or even apparent radicals, how the appearance that black radicals committed violent actions themselves engendered additional police force, and how radicals fought back against police repression. The papers further consider how public attention and media coverage or absence thereof, could both reinforce and challenge attempts to undermine black radical movements. Max Felker-Kantor investigates the controversy surrounding the Los Angeles Police Department’s Public Disorder Intelligence Division operations in the 1970s to show how police surveillance targeting black radicals and anti-police abuse movements mobilized activists to confront portrayals of themselves as criminal and disorderly. Christine Lamberson examines rumors surrounding the San Francisco Zebra Murders and the Nation of Islam to consider the role of perceptions surrounding violent black radicalism, whether real or imagined, and public approval of urban policing tactics in the 1970s. Finally, Timothy J. Lombardo explores the roots of Philadelphia’s 1985 MOVE bombing to show how a longer history of police misconduct enabled one of the most catastrophic encounters between black radicals and urban police by propelling an otherwise marginal organization to a central position in local protests against police abuses.

See more of: AHA Sessions