For decades, the U.S. has embraced a system of law and order emphasizing militarized policing and mass incarceration
Robert T. Chase: To end the cycle of racial violence, nation must instead address white privilege and economic inequality
Editor’s Note: Robert T. Chase is an assistant professor of history at Stony Brook University, State University of New York and visiting fellow at the Humanities Institute at the University of Connecticut. He is the author of the forthcoming book “Civil Rights on the Cell Block: Prisoners’ Rights Movements and the Construction of Carceral States.” All views expressed in this commentary are his own.
In his memorial speech for the five Dallas police officers slain by a deranged shooter, President Barack Obama reminded the audience of the ways in which our nation’s past has shaped the current crisis. “Centuries of racial discrimination – of slavery and subjugation and Jim Crow – they didn’t simply vanish with the end of lawful segregation. They didn’t just stop when Dr. King made a speech, or the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act were signed.”
By linking the current racial conflict to the civil rights past, Obama reminded the nation that the hard choices we face now are ones that we have faced before.
In 1968, we had to choose between following the path of “law and order America” – a prescription that called for hyperpolicing in urban communities and mass incarceration – or the alternative path of “truth and reconciliation” offered by the Kerner Commission of 1968. As the nation contends with police shootings – there have been over 500 in 2016 thus far – and now tragic shootings of police in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Donald Trump has drawn on historical memory to renew a call for a law and order America. Although this may be a seductive phrase, we need to more honestly reckon with the recent history of law and order that brought us to this violent crisis so we can make a better choice the second time around.
A history of law and order
In the tumult of the late 1960s, the nation experienced a series of urban uprisings sparked by charges of police brutality and ending in the deaths of over 100 citizens, most of them African-Americans. Shaken by such unrest, President Lyndon B. Johnson convened a remarkable presidential commission, named for its chairman Otto Kerner. Even after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights and 1965 Voting Rights Acts, the report considered white privilege and economic inequality to offer a stark conclusion: “What white Americans have never fully understood – but what the Negro can never forget – is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” Beyond the report’s famous conclusion that the nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal,” it offered a concrete legislative program to address racial violence and inequality through job creation, job training programs and affordable housing.
But rather than follow the Kerner Commission’s recommendations to address white privilege and the economic inequality that led to racial violence, the nation instead embraced a law and order America, enacting nearly five decades of punitive lawmaking and militarized policing.
Conservatives and liberals walked this path together. While Johnson is remembered for both the anti-poverty programs of the Great Society and the futile war effort in Vietnam, he should also be remembered as the president who invoked a “war on crime.” During his administration, his passage of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 created the Law Enforcement Adjustment Administration that provided over $100 million to the states for local policing and militarized riot control.
As the law and order candidate of 1968, Nixon determined that Johnson’s war on crime made even better politics for a new conservative alliance to fracture the New Deal coalition between working-class whites and blacks.
Building on Nixon’s political rhetoric, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton adopted sweeping federal policies that accelerated militarized policing and mass incarceration. Espousing a “war on drugs,” Reagan passed the 1984 Comprehensive Crime Control Act and 23 other anti-crime initiatives, including mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug crimes and the much criticized 1984 Sentencing Reform Act that replaced judicial discretion with federal sentencing guidelines.
Following his presidential campaign promise that “no one can say I am soft on crime,” Clinton passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act – a $30 billion crime-control bill that was the largest in U.S. history. The bill included the controversial “three strikes and you’re out” mandatory life sentence for repeat offenders, $8 billion to hire 100,000 new police officers and $9.7 billion to build new prisons.
The bulk of mass incarceration, however, occurred at the state level, where state legislators and governors passed their own tough-on-crime measures. The cumulative result steadily expanded the nation’s total prison population – including jails and state and federal prisons – from 187,914 people in 1968 to 2.2 million in 2014. Such startling numbers comprise the post-1960s condition of mass incarceration, where African-Americans and Hispanics now constitute over 1 million incarcerated people, or almost half the total U.S. penal population.
Militarizing the police force
These presidents also heavily contributed to the militarization of police, an erosion of the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act that denies U.S. military involvement in domestic policing. Since Clinton signed into law the 1033 military exchange program, 8,000 local law enforcement agencies have transferred $4.3 billion in military arms to local police departments, including 50-caliber guns and ammunition, tanks, weaponized aircraft and drones.
Mirroring the historical trajectory of mass incarceration, the nation’s first SWAT team started in the mid-1960s as a reaction to the 1965 Watts riot. In 1975, the United States had only 500 SWAT units, making a few hundred raids a year. But by 2005, the number of SWAT teams nationwide had increased 15,000%, and these militarized SWAT units now make over 50,000 raids a year.
When militarized policing combined with such intrusive, but routine, hyperpolicing policies as “stop and frisk,” it made urban black communities feel as if they were occupied territories and that any typical encounter with police could be fraught with the threat of harassment and arrest.
The final match to this tinderbox was the proliferation of guns in America. In the 21st century, the nation has steadily advanced “open carry” gun laws and allowed the assault weapons ban to cease – and the result is predictable: more violence.
Where do we go from here?
After bearing witness to so many police shootings and now two recent shootings of police, we can no longer claim that these shootings are the errant result of an abhorrent police department or that violence ever advances social justice. Nor can we say that this carceral state was built solely by conservatives or liberals.
More importantly, we can’t continue with business as usual, embracing law and order rhetoric that replaces poverty programs with expensive punitive measures. If we are to heal the racial divide, we need a new presidential-level commission that considers these overlapping problems of poverty, inequality, gun violence, public mental health, mass incarceration, hyperpolicing and militarization. But this time, we need more than a report.
No matter who wins the 2016 presidential race, Americans must demand from their politicians a renewed national political commitment, at both the state and federal level, to roll back the carceral state. Given the scale of the choice ahead, it is worth returning to the Kerner Commission’s call for national truth and reconciliation: “This deepening racial division is not inevitable. The movement apart can be reversed. Choice is still possible. … From every American it will require new attitudes, new understanding and, above all, new will.”
Robert T. Chase is an assistant professor of history at Stony Brook University, State University of New York and visiting fellow at the Humanities Institute at the University of Connecticut. He is the author of the forthcoming book “Civil Rights on the Cell Block: Prisoners’ Rights Movements and the Construction of Carceral States.” All views expressed in this commentary are his own.