Policing and Resistance in the Global 1950s70s

AHA Session 228
Saturday, January 5, 2019: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Monroe Room (Palmer House Hilton, Sixth Floor)
Toussaint Losier, University of Massachusetts Amherst
David Oluwale and the Alchemy of Policing Blackness in Britain
Kennetta Hammond Perry, East Carolina University
Being Arrested in Pittsburgh in the Long 1970s
Elaine Frantz, Kent State University
Andrew T. Darien, Salem State University

Session Abstract

While much attention has gone to zero tolerance policies in the 1980s, the period from the 1950s through the 1970s was a crucial moment in the rise of the carceral state in the United States, and in transforming policing around the globe. As the destabilization brought by the cold war, decolonization, the increasingly fluid movement of individuals across national lines, and a global awareness of racial injustice brought a more strained relationship between states and those who lived within them, the police increasingly lost legitimacy in the eyes of those they were policing. Police in the 1950s-1970s are often understood as serving colonial, white supremacist, and elite ends, containing the forces of ‘disorder’ challenging racist, imperialist, capitalist systems of power. Yet, policing often failed to achieve even these ends, in large measure due to the increasing resistance of the policed. This panel brings together papers reflecting on the endemic incapacity of the armed agents of order in this period to suppress “disorderly” behavior in the populations they were set to police, despite remarkably few limitations on their authorization to use force at their own discretion.

The postwar years were a period of “autonomous police discretion.” Discretion in theory allowed police to embody local norms while enforcing “order.” Yet this encouraged regular abuse and often evoked such strong community outrage that police power was compromised. Kennetta Hammond Perry describes how officers in Leeds, England effected and operated within a system of state power that sanctioned a continuous, public, and ultimately fatal regime of harassment and brutality against Nigerian-born vagrant, David Oluwale in the late 1960s. Elaine Frantz shows that the subjects of policing in Pittsburgh suffered informal violence by police officers which lead to bystander intervention and outrage. As Jessica Elkind shows, the U.S. attempt to introduce such western policing models to South Vietnam failed to result in security, order, or public trust in the state. Our chair, Toussaint Losier, and commentator, Drew Darien, will also bring their own important work on policing beyond national lines to bear.

Four key actors hover around these papers: the state, the police officer, the subjects of arrest, and the general public. Elkind’s paper focuses most closely on the US-supported South Vietnamese state and its efforts to win over the South Vietnamese public through “professional policing” methods, despite its lack of legitimacy with the policed. Perry explores how the trial of two officers initially charged in connection with the death of David Oluwale generated an archive documenting the overlapping powers of the carceral state and the welfare state. Frantz explores the tense and carefully choreographed moments when police officers extracted the direct subjects of arrest from the general population.

Collectively, these papers suggest how the study of policing presents an opportunity to think within and beyond the nation and to understand how the police and the policed engaged and challenged the power of the state during the mid-twentieth century.They will be of interest to scholars of policing and of the emergence of the carceral state.

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