Please be aware that this episode contains references to racism and violence.

Marissa: In 1937, a man named Page Harris was interviewed at his home for an oral history project. The interview was part of the federally funded Works Progress Administration, an aspect of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal designed to provide federal jobs to a wide variety of workers while also bolstering or preserving aspects of American culture. In the interview, Harris recalled his experience growing as an enslaved child on a farm in Maryland. The farm was called Blood Hound Manor – so named because the man who owned Page raised and trained blood hounds that were used all around the south to track enslaved people attempting to run from bondage.

Sarah: Harris was a little child when his master, Mr. Stafford, freed his family, but family stories had kept the memory of the dog breeding operation clear in his mind. Mr. Stafford might have as many as one hundred dogs on the farm at any time. He trained the dogs by having an enslaved person run along a set course, then climb up into a tree. Guided by a more experienced tracking dog, younger dogs would learn to track the scent then bark at the base of the tree until called off by their handler. According to Harris: “Mr. Stafford’s dogs were often sought to apprehend runaway slaves. He would charge according to the value and worth of the slave captured. His dogs were often taken Virginia, sometimes to North Carolina, besides being used in Maryland. I have been told that when a slave was captured, besides the reward paid in money, that each dog was supposed to bite the slave to make him anxious to hunt human beings.”

Marissa: In another interview that same year, a woman named Mary James recalled that the plantation where she grew up on the James River in Virginia had a high rate of runaways. “The patrollers were many in the county,” she remembered, “they would whip any [Black] person caught off the place after night.” Dennis Simms, who was born on a tobacco plantation in Maryland, recalled that “sometimes Negro slave runaways who were apprehended by the patrollers, who keep a constant watch for escaped slaves, besides being flogged, would be branded with a hot iron on the cheek with the letter “R.”[1]

Sarah: These stories are abhorrent, and they seem foreign from our 21st century experience, centuries separated from the immoral practice of enslavement. But if you look closer, something in these stories is uncomfortably familiar. Each of them is an example of the work of slave patrols, the police force of the slaveholding South. Further, each story suggests that patrollers weren’t used just to find runaways or check travel passes, but that they used violence to punish and deter others from bad behavior. These are stories, then, of police brutality.

In this final series on the 5- nope, 6 – C’s of historical thinking, we’re considering the concept of continuity. We’re much more accustomed to thinking about history as the study of change over time, but we must also consider the ways in which things do not change, or maybe, how they shift and morph in their details while staying, largely, consistent. In the United States, police brutality is, unfortunately, a constant. The contours and context change, extralegal violence at the hands of law enforcement does not. Today, we’re talking about long and in many ways unchanging history of police brutality in the United States.

I’m Sarah

And I’m Marissa

And we are your historians for this episode of Dig.

Sarah: As always, I want to start by acknowledging our sources for today. The stories that we gave at the top of the episode all come from the Federal Writers’ Project, that WPA program that we mentioned. Thanks to the Library of Congress, all of those oral histories are digitized on their website, which I’ve linked in the transcript. I also relied on the work of several historians, such as Monica Muñoz Martinez, Sally Hadden, Tyler Wall, and Jared Leighton. I also used a recently published volume called The Routledge History of Police Brutality in America, edited by Thomas Aiello, featuring something like forty chapters on various histories of policing and police brutality. It’s really a fantastic resource. As I refer to those individual chapters throughout the episode, I’ll name check the author of the chapter. If this episode piques your interest, I highly recommend checking all of these texts out.

Marissa: Because this is an episode focused on continuity, it could it be hours and hours long to accommodate every region, time period, and community. So we’ll be looking at case studies across time and place to explore the ways in which police brutality has not changed over the centuries. Let’s start in early America with a basic introduction to policing in the United States. The British colonies in America adopted the British system of law enforcement, which relied on the ‘buy in,’ so to speak, of all the men in a particular community. In medieval Great Britain, communities were divided up into smaller groups called “tithings,” which constituted ten families. The men in these tithing over the age of 15 pledged to come to the assistance of another family in the case of emergency or crime when they heard to call for help – called the ‘hue and cry.’ Each tithing was headed up by a man – the tithingman – who organized the response. Then of these tithings was a hundred (wowee), which came under the authority of a man called the shire-reeve – or, as we better recognize it today – the sheriff. The sheriff could call up that ‘hundred’ to serve as a posse comitatus, which was essentially a police force gathered up in times of need. (This is, of course, the basis for the term posse, which comes to have the connotation of a vigilante law force; in some ways, this early form is kind of like that in that they weren’t formally officers, but at the same time, they were recognized as official whereas posses in our current use refers to unofficial attempts to seek justice.) The Latin phrase posse comitatus meant “the force of the county” or “the force of the region,” indicating that even though the group was temporary, they were official and worked at the behest of authorities, going all the way up the chain to the King.

Sarah: The American colonies adopted this same tradition, but often organized a system where cities might have a paid position of ‘constable,’ then consider all able-bodied men the police force. Most colonies had militias, populated by those same able-bodied men, which meant they received some amount of training and drilling for discipline. Still, it wasn’t really understood as job as much as a community duty. In most northern cities, like New York, militias essentially wree the law enforcement. They served as night watch men and were expected to report in case a posse comitatus was summoned. And a posse comitatus could be called up for any number of reasons, from fires to attacks from wild animals to crimes to rowdy drunks. But as cities grew and population soared into the nineteenth century, this ad hoc system no longer worked. In the 1840s, New York City created a formal, professional police force. Each ward within the city had its own police district, who still watched for fire and warded off wild animals, but also tried to prevent crime. This is often referred to as the Peele or “bobby” system, named for the British politician Robert Peele, who pushed through the Metropolitian Police Act in Brtain that created this system in Great Britain, which Northern states used as a model to create their own systems. 

Marissa: The south, though, maintained the reliance on community policing using the posse comitatus in part because of the need for all white men to present a unified front against enslaved people. According to historian Glenn McNair, “For a criminal justice system to be considered legitimate, all had to be bound by its rules and all had to be protected by them….[Slaves] represented the principal threat from which Whites had to be protected, so they would be ruled and policed by force, not through their voluntary cooperation.” The race-based policing that existed in the South, in other words, defined who was a member of the community and who was a threat. The logic of slavery also by necessity informed policing, in particular, its reliance on violence to maintain. James Henry Hammond, one of the absolute ghouls of the antebellum, slaveholding south, wrote in response to critiques of slavery’s violence: “[critics] complain that our slaves are kept in bondage by the ‘law of force.’ In what country or condition of mankind do you see human affairs regulated merely by the law of love? Unless I am greatly mistaken, you will, if you look over the world, find nearly all certain and permanent rights, civil,social, and I may even add religious, resting on and ultimately secured by the ‘law of force.’”[2]

Sarah: Another slavery apologist, the wacko George Fitzhugh, wrote that “physical force, not moral suasion, governs the world,” and that because of this, “the negro sees the driver’s lash, becomes accustomed to obedience and cheerful industry, and is not aware that the lash it the force that impels him.”[3] This logic was carried to its furthest extremity in punishing enslaved people who tried to escape or committed crimes. A South Carolina law in 1712 called for the intentional disfigurement and disablement of those who tried to runaway, including branding, cutting off an ear, castration, or cutting the Achilles tendons. In Virginia, repeated runaways could have one leg amputated. Some slaves were also executed, by hanging or burning, and in some states, their mutilated bodies used to deter potential runaways.[4] These were horrific punishments, meant to send a message to other enslaved people. But they were most often implemented after an enslaved person had been brought to justice – in other words, they were the punishments sanctioned by a local judge or justice of the peace. Most  slavers preferred to maintain their investment in a bonded person, and used punishments that were less deadly.

Marissa: With this in mind, while Southern states continued to use the system of sheriffs and constables to enforce of laws among whites, they also added on slave patrol in the mid 18th century to specifically enforce race-based laws known as slave codes. Patrols were usually pretty small, ranging from about 4 to 7 men, but with the expectation that, as with the hue and cry for a posse comitatus, all able-bodied white men would come when summoned. This was especially critical in the case of a slave uprising. Slave codes heavily regulated the mobility of slaves, for instance. One of a slave patrol’s main daily tasks would be simply checking the passes that enslaved people would carry for authorized travel. In addition, all white people – whether they were formally on a slave patrol or not – were authorized to check passes, break up unauthorized gatherings, return enslaved people to their owners or to a justice of the peace, and even mete out punishment. One South Carolina law read, “If any slave who shall be out of the house or plantation where such slave shall live, or shall be usualy employed or without some white person in company with such slave, shall refuse to submit or undergo the examination of any white person, it shall be lawful for any such white person to pursue, apprehend, and moderately correct such slave, and if any such slave shall assault and strike such white person, such slave may be lawfully killed.”[5]

Sarah: Patrollers were usually expected to return runaways or slaves without a pass to their master or a justice of the peace for punishment. But they were authorized to exact their own punishments. Most patrollers carried weapons, whips and ropes but also firearms. One formerly enslaved man named Sabe Rutledge recalled to a WPA interviewer that his uncle Andrew had one of his eyes shot out by a patroller while trying to escape. More often, though, patrollers used painful and damaging but not deadly methods such as whipping and used their guns to intimidate. And as we sort of suggested before, in some states, such Virginia, patrols were required to bring a captured slave to a justice of the peace before they could whip them. In others, though, such as the Carolinas, there was no such requirement and patrollers exacted whatever punishment they wanted. In some cases, contracts laid out expectations for patrollers. In an 1856 contract in Salisbury, North Carolina, a man named Horace Robards was assigned Captain First Class of a patrol for the month of January by the county clerk. The contract, while outlining the captain’s duties in leading the patrol, also authorized patrols to whip enslaved people up to 15 times as long as they were in the presence of the Captain. They could deliver further blows if they had permission from another authority, such as a judge or slave owner. In the event they killed an enslaved person while trying to catch or punish them, in some places, the owner could be reimbursed by the local government.[6]

Gordon, an enslaved man who displayed his scars from whippings to doctors in a federal army encampment, 1863 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Marissa: Patrollers were also authorized to raid slave cabins to check for banned items or break up unauthorized mass gatherings. One enslaved woman, named Charity Bowery, explained to abolitionist Lydia Maria Child what this was like: “In the course of my conversations with this interesting woman, she told me much about the patrols, who, armed with arbitrary power, and frequently intoxicated, break into the houses of colored people, and subject them to all manner of outrages.” These cabin raids placed enslaved women at particular risk, as white men forcefully entered intimate spaces. One enslaved interviewee recalled that sometimes after they whipped enslaved men, sometimes patrollers raped their wives. Not infrequently, patrollers made it clear that they enjoyed both the power and violence of their work. Patrollers waited outside churches to catch people they knew didn’t have passes to go out; night patrols timed their rides at odd times to ensure enslaved people couldn’t rely on a pattern. In North Carolina, one patrol regularly visited between one and three cabins a night. While most of these visits took place on evenings when slaves had freedom of movement to visit family (usually Saturday and Sunday nights), Sally Hadden found that a third of their visits were randomly spaced throughout the week. And some slavers disliked having patrollers around, whether irritated that they had a tendency to inflict physical punishment – thereby damaging the labor potential of their property – or because they considered them uncouth, rowdy, and socially inferior.

Sarah: Slave patrols were tasked with keeping every day order – enforcing slave codes, checking homes and breaking up gatherings, meting out small-scale punishments when the mood struck them. And it was of course used to catch and return slave owners’ property when enslaved people ran away. But the real intention behind all of this was the suppression of potential revolts – creating and maintaining a culture of fear and surveillance over enslaved people to prevent they never tried to rise up. When revolts did take place, the normally tiny patrols of 4 to 7 men were bolstered by militias and posses. After the Nat Turner uprising in the summer of 1831, white patrol units strengthened by enraged and terrified white men from around Virginia and neighboring North Carolina called up for posse service summarily and indiscriminately executed dozens of enslaved people without trials or even investigation, assuming their general guilt because of their race. Henry Brown, who famously escaped from bondage by putting himself into a large box and essentially mailing himself to abolitionists in Philadelphia, recalled that in the aftermath of the Nat Turner uprising, “many slaves were whipped, hung, and cut down with swords in the streets, and some were found away from their quarters after dark, were shot…. Great numbers of slaves were loaded with irons; some were half-hung, as it was termed, that is, they were suspended from some tree with a rope about their necks, so adjusted sa not quite to strange them, and then they were pelted by men and boys with rotten eggs.”  In one case, a white patrol was about to kill an enslaved man named Hubbard when a white woman who had survived the uprising intervened – Hubbard wasn’t part of the rebellion, but had actually helped her survive. Patrollers didn’t much care for such details. Extralegal killings by patrollers and posses were so widespread after Nat Turner’s uprising that militia head General Richard Eppes had to issue a general order asking citizens to “abstain … from any acts of violence to any personal property.”

Slave patrols may seem distinct from police to us now, but while the ‘bobby’ system often gets credit as the basis of policing in the United States, historians of policing slavery argue that slave patrols were perhaps even more foundational to creating the American system of law enforcement that exists now. Today, patrolling – just sort of being constantly present, driving or walking around in a community – is central to modern policing. Patrolling is in its essence just constant surveillance. According to Glenn McNair, “it is inconceivable to think of modern policing without oficers on foot or car patrol, but the first Americans to do so were on horseback riding the roads and fields of the South to keep whites safe from the enslaved Blacks in their midst.”

Marissa: After emancipation, while the legal system of enslavement no longer existed, it was replaced by the reign of terror known as Jim Crow. States passed Black codesthat replicated the old slave codes, especially concerned vagrancy and mobility, designed specifically to ensure supervision by white bosses and to control Black people’s ability to move about freely. These laws were race specific and were often vague or arbitrary, making it illegal to do things like “mischief” or make “insulting gestures.” Black codes also required that Black men show proof of employment. While justices were supposed to oversee the enforcement of these laws through trials, typically sheriffs or other lawmen wouldn’t bother going through those steps, instead exacting justice themselves. This changed during Congressional Reconstruction, when federal military presence and congressional oversight meant a repeal of Black codes – but in 1877 when Reconstruction formally ended, most went back into place, nicknamed “Jim Crow” laws in reference to the popular minstrel character. White supremacy was enforced by vigilante groups, most famously the Ku Klux Klan, but also the Order of the White Camellia and other smaller paramilitary groups known as ‘rifle clubs.’ Such groups used inimidation, terror, and violence to enforce racial hierarchies.

Sarah: But the existence of such groups did not mean that formal policing didn’t also continue to exist, and indeed, like slave patrols, work alongside white posses and vigilante groups to control the Black population with the use, or threat, of violence. In New Orleans in the late 19th century, police acted with complete impunity against Black residents, even in cases where there was no indication of a crime taking place. Police locked up a woman named Emma Robinson in 1884 because she was running down the street and wailing after learning about her father’s death. In 1886, another woman named Eliza Williams was violently attached by a police officer who saw her sitting on her own doorstep, even after she explained it was her own house. In 1887, a Black man tried to report a robbery to the New Orleans police only to have the officers beat him instead.[7] Southern police officers – not unlike Klansmen – also summarily killed Black people. A Colonel Murphy shot and killed a Black man named James Weiss because Weiss observed and then followed Murphy while he dragged another Black man into a police precinct house. A South Carolina constable named Eisen shot a Black man named Jim Long after Long had stolen a bag and attempted to run away. His justification was that the gun had gone off unexpectedly. Two Alabama officers shot an unnamed Black man in the back after they burst into his home while he slept to accuse him of stealing five dollars.[8] But police and vigilantes worked in concert to exact justice against Black people. In 1896, for instance, a Black man already in the custody of the police was shot by a white man who approached the scene – police did nothing to stop the killing, nor did they pursue the shooter afterwards.

Marissa: Other police groups in other regions and time periods used incredibly similar tactics as slave patrols, long after emancipation. As historian Maria Muñoz Martinez argues, “despite popular assumptions that vigiliantism in the nineteenth century occurred primarily in regions where law enforcement institutions lacked structure and social influence, vigilantism was in fact practiced in places where criminal justice systems were well established.” Judges and jailers allowed prisoners to be taken from jails, and law enforcement officers encouraged and took part in lynchings. At the same time, extralegal violence at the hands of the police is often not interpreted as lynching, even though that’s exactly what it is. During the period between 1910 adn 1920 in Texas, Martinez has found, “law enforcement officers, soldiers, and vigilantes claimed the lives of hundreds more ethnic Mexicans … Estimates of the number of dead range from as few as 300 to as many as several thousand.”[9]

Sarah: Take, for instance, the so-called ‘bandit war’ of 1915, in which Texas Rangers led a series of raids against Mexicans and Mexican-Americans who they believed were rebels. While white Texans saw this conflict as evidence of the Texas Rangers effectively protecting the border, ethnic Mexicans saw it as a race war and massacre. Within this context, Antonio Longoria and Jesus Bazán had several of their horses stolen from their ranch, along with supplies. The two men had to decide whether or not to alert authorities – if they did, bandits could come back to seek revenge; if they didn’t, they could be accused of supporting the bandits. They finally decided to report the robbery to the Texas Rangers. They met with a ranger named Henry Ransom, who listened to their story. According to witnesses, the two men then rode off toward home. But the rangers they had just talked to waited until they had ridden a few hundred yards away, then followed behind them in their Ford Model T. When the car was close enough, one of the rangers reached out the window and shot both men in the back. The rangers left the bodies there, and even came back a few days later to warn neighbors and witnesses not to move the bodies – Ransom explained he wanted the bodies to stay there to “intimidate all who witnessed them.” The bodies remained there for weeks before a friend worked up the courage to remove them for burial. The murders went unremarked on in Ransom’s official reports, the coroner never issued death certificates, and was more or less ignored by the press.[10] 

Marissa: The murders of Jesus Bazán and Antonio Langoria happened amidst white American’s anxieties about the Mexican Revolution, a protracted and widespread war that took place between 1910 and 1920. In response to residents’ call for greater military presence along the Texas-Mexico border, the population of soldiers in the region rose sharply from about 300 in 1913 to about 100,000 in 1916. Combined with messaging in newspapers, the military presence heightened panic about encroaching “border Mexicans.”[11] Military presence wasn’t enough to ease the minds of white ranchers, who petitioned for more and more Texas Rangers to also police the border. Between 1913 and 1915, the Texas government poured money into the Rangers and the force swelled from about 13 in the entire state to about 1350 just a few years later. The force was given more or less carte blanche authority against any ethnic Mexicans in the region. In fact, the governor had “given [Captain Henry Ransom] instructions to go down there and clean it up if he had to kill every damned man connected with” banditry or theft.[12] The result was essentially ethnic cleansing of the region. To quote Maria Muñoz Martinez, the Rangers “profiled any ethnic Mexican as a Mexican bandit and made arrests and then left prisoners vulnerable to mob violence.”[13] Anyone could be a bandit if the Rangers wanted them to be, and they used methods that helped reinforce easy assumptions about a victim’s guilt. Rangers relied on something called la ley de fuga, or the law of flight, to retroactively prove a victim’s guilt. They made certain to shoot men in the back, so they could later justify the killing by arguing that the suspect had tried to flee. A Texas resident living in the area during 1915 said that bodies that had been shot in the back by the Rangers were regularly found left in fields, and that “nearly every day you could hear about people being killed by Rangers.”[14]

Sarah: The Ranger who killed Bazán and Langoria, Henry Ransom, developed quite the reputation for summarily killing Mexicans without evidence of their commiting a crime, let alone a trial. When Mexican raiders derailed a train, Rangers rounded up ten men. They had no evidence that these men had actually been part of the raiding party, nor did they make any effort to go through the justice system, and killed them almost immediately. Then the Rangers, assisted by local police, rounded up several more men. The local sheriff later recalled that Ranger Henry Ransom invited him to take part in killing the men, saying “I’m going to kill these fellows, are you with me?” The sheriff refused and Ransom accused him of ‘having no guts.’ The sheriff retorted: “That takes a whole lot of guts, four fellows with their hands tied behind them, it takes a whole lot of guts to do that.” The sheriff then left to investigate whether two of the arrested men – who he kept safe in his custody – had actually taken part in the raid, and found that they were innocent. But by the time he returned, Ransom had killed the men remaining in his custody. The sheriff was so concerned about Ransom that he actually went to the governor of Texas, James Ferguson, to complain. Ferguson replied “Ransom will make you a good man if you warm up to him.” To quote Martinez again, “the systematic killing of ethnic Mexicans without criminal trials signaled the collapse of the Texas judiciary into the ‘reckless’ collaboration of civilians and state officers, who executed subjects at will.” This was, essentially, an official, sanctioned practice of the state of Texas.[15]  

Marissa: Police utiized violent mobs to assist them in policing racial hierarchies around the country. In Los Angeles in 1871, police interpreted an interpersonal disagreement between two Chinese men as evidence of crime and violence within the city’s Chinatown. To extend their manpower, historian Stephanie Hinnershitz writes that they deputized a mob to search Chinatown for criminals, “forcing residents out of their homes, setting fire to their businesses, and expelling them from the city, but not before lynching eighteen Chinese men.”[16] Chinese communities formed tongs, more or less like gangs. Initially, these were sort of like benevolent societies, but over time became more like criminal gangs,  offering protection to certain businesses for kickbacks, for instance. Gangs are obviously not ideal, but they were a reaction to the lack of protection and law enforcement from white police officers – tongs provided business owners an added layer of protection from mob violence and police raids.

Texas Rangers in the late 19th century | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: But the creation of tongs only raised the official police sense of threat. The San Francisco police, for instance, created a Chinatown squad devoted solely to surveilling Chinese men suspected of being in tongs. These cops wore plainclothes so as not to arise suspicion and enforced tiny crimes – things like “obstructing the sidewalk” or “washing a balcony” at the wrong time of day – in order to disrupt Chinese communities. The squad regularly raided private homes and businesses, smashing private property without evidence of crime. Police also issued more widespread, sweeping raids. In 1925, after a tong murder raised police concern about gang activity in Cleveland, Ohio, the police used it as an opportunity to essentially clear the city of its Chinese population. Cleveland director of public safety Edwin Barry ordered the city’s police to “arrest every Chinaman in the city of Cleveland.” Police rounded up, without exaggeration, nearly every Chinese person in the city, arresting 612 of the population of 700. Barry argued that this was necessary because “it’s no use questioning them because they can’t talk English. But they know who did the killing, and every Chinaman we can get our hand on is going to stay in jail until the slayers are turned up.” How the Cleveland police would be able to figure out among this huge number of prisoners who the murderer actually was wasn’t clear – and of course, that wasn’t really the point. It was to send a clear message that Chinese people were not welcome in the city of Cleveland.[17]

Marissa: Police also used violence to police political radicals and dissenters. In 1886, during a labor rally outside of the McCormick reaper plant in Chicago, a fight broke out between striking workers and strikebreakers. Police then fired indiscriminately into the crowd, killing several workers. August Spies, a labor organizer who had been speaking at the rally, used the clash to further mobilize strikers, saying in a circular distributed to strikers: “Workingmen, to Arms!!! Your masters sent out their bloodhounds – the police – they killed six of your brothers at McCormick’s this afternoon.” Later, Spies stated, “I knew from experience foe the past that this butchering of people was done for the express purpose of defeating the eight-hour movement.”[18] Local anarchists answered the call and organized another rally, this time in Haymarket Square in Chicago. The Chicago police showed up, marching in as if they were a military unit, and demanded the crowd to disperse. At some point, someone threw a homemade bomb into the gathered police, killing at least one officer. In response, the police opened fire into the crowd of gathered protesters. The demonstration descended into a melee, resulting in the deaths of at least two more police officers and three protestors, and wounding dozens more. After Haymarket, the police relentlessly pursued anarchists, raiding newspaper offices and arresting over a hundred people without warrants.

Sarah: Police response to political radicals intensified during the socialism panics of the Red Scare (in the 1910s and 20s) and the era of McCarthyism (1950s). Empowered by the Immigration Act of 1917 – which granted power to deport any non-citizen for being associated with anarchism, and the Espionage and Sedition Acts (of 1917 and 1918) which made it illegal to express support of a foreign government or criticize the government, flag, Constitution, or the military, law enforcement began raiding groups associated with radical politics. These raids were undertaken by a new police force – the Bureau of Investigation, later renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI. In 1919, the FBI raided a labor union called the Union of Russian Workers, arresting 1182 people without warrants. One man, Nicaoli Melikoff, later testified that the offcers had used undue violence in the raid, saying: “Outside of the classroom there were two detecetives tsanding and everyone that passed out fo the room was beaten, I was struck on my head, and being the last one to to go out, was attacked by one detective, who knocked me down again, sat on my back, pressing me down to the floor with his knee and bending my body back until blood flowed out of my mouth and nose. After this, I was thrown down stairs where I fell with my head down to the ground floor.”[19]

Marissa: Following the example of this raid, the FBI worked with local police departments to execute a series of raids across the country during the late fall and early winter of 1919-1920 known collectively as the Palmer Raids. They rounedd up thousands foreign nationals and radicals, arrested people without warrants and detained them in overcrowded jails. To get information from arrested radicals, agents and police sometimes turned to violence. In New York City, Italian immigrant Gaspare Cannone was arrested without a warrant and beaten by FBI agents in an attempt to get him to reveal information about a bombing. When he refused to sign a statement, the officers forged his signature. Through the following decades, the FBI and police routinely disrupted peaceful political gatherings of anarchists, communists, and socialists around the country. In 1931, the LAPD interrupted a gathering in the Los Angeles Philharmonic building using gas bombs and clubs. In January 1932 – the height of the Great Depression – officers interrupted a gathering of unemployed people by hitting attendees with clubs, slingshots, and brass knuckles.[20] Such attacks on communist and socialist gatherings continued until the mid-1950s, argues historian Regin Schmidt, during the McCarthy years while the federal government used Congress to root out Communists, police and the FBI turned their violent attention to the Civil Rights movement and anti-war movements.

Sarah: We all know that police violence played a huge role in the Civil Rights movement, particularly in moments when large numbers of activists gathered in marches or demonstrations. In fact, some of the most famous photographs of the Ciivl Rights movement are the images of police dogs attacking teenagers in the Birmingham Children’s March – and yes, the Birmingham police used dogs against literally children marching. Notorious commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham, Bull Connor, thought dogs were a particular strength of his police force, saying “Dogs have been of invaluable assistance to us here in keeping down violence in connection with the racial demonstration.” Dogs were used almost exclusively against Black protests, recalled a NAACP organizer in the mid 1960s. According to historian Tyler Wall, “the spectre of “disorderly” Black “mobs” certainly galvanized many police dog units, and at various times, the elderly, children, and even pregnant women were bitten.”[21] The police in Jackson, Mississippi, after whites attacked Black students staging a sit-in a public library resulted in large demonstrations, borrowed two police German shepherds to use in crowd control. A newspaper reported – excitedly! – that the dogs were trained by Harry Naworth, “the former Nazi stormtrooper who trained killer Dobermans to guard Hitler’s airports.”[22]  I think it’s no accident that slave patrols and fugitive hunters were notorious for using specially trained bloodhounds to track and immobilized escaping enslaved people, as in the example we gave earlier.

One of several images of police dogs being used against teenagers in the Children’s Crusade march, 1863 | Police Dogs Attack Demonstrators, Birmingham Protests, copyright Charles Moore, as accessed at the National Museum of African American History

Marissa: Police and federal agents were also deeply invested in destabilizing and disrupting later civil rights movements, using surveillance and sabotage such as the COINTELPRO program, targeted harassment and arrests for petty crimes, and outright violence. Of course, credible theories exist that the FBI was involved in the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. In the wake of King’s murder, grieving protesters broke out in uprisings across the nation. In Chicago, an uprising was met with both the Chicago police and the national guard. But the police response was criticized – not because it had resulted in violence, but because it wasn’t violent enough. Citizens called for rioters to be shot on sight: “No decent person wants looting. All over the world, the order ‘shoot to kill all looters’ has always been the only effective deterrent to this dastardly crime.” As a result of the criticism to his response, Chicago mayor Richard Daley ordered his police department that in the future, they were to “shoot to kill” anyone lighting fires, and “shoot to maim or cripple” those suspected of looting.[23]

Sarah: This directive was tested later that year when the Democratic National Convention was held in Chicago, bringing with it large numbers of leftists protesting the Vietnam War and the failings of the Democratic party. Daley tried to prevent large gatherings by refusing to provide permits for demonstrations and parades and ordering police to strictly enforce a curfew and increase patrols. Normally around 6000 officers roamed the city at any one time; this increased to 11,900 working 12 hour shifts to ensure maximum manpower – this was before anything even happened. Suffice it to say, the police were primed for action when protesters actually started to do stuff, like take down an American flag in a park. Police began to beat the young man, which in turn made the crowd chant anti-police and anti-war slogans. To disperse the crowd, the police used tear gas and beating those who didn’t leave quickly enough. In other words – police use of force created a riot where there wasn’t one before. And it’s no question that just the next year, the Chicago Police department killed Fred Hampton, the 21 year old rising star of the Black Panther Party in 1969 after breaking down an apartment door and opening fire on the sleeping residents. In the late 1960s, police also used violence against political radicals in the pursuit of ‘law and order.’

Marissa: In the late 20th century, another group was at the mercy of violent police: LGBTQ people. The shared experience of police brutality served as a point of connection between the Black Panther party and LGBTQ people in California. In 1969, a leaflet distributed at a BPP conference in Oakland, California  read “Vice pigs in Los Angeles beat a homosexual to death a few months ago. In Berkeley, vice pigs shot and murdered another homosexual in his own car. In Oakland, a ‘straight’ professor the pigs thought was ‘queer’ was beaten, and later died. The Homosexual Revolution is part of the whole street revolution fighting fascism in the US. By locking arms with our brothers and sisters in the movement, we can ALL win our freedom. POWER TO THE PEOPLE!” According to historian Jared Leighton, this referred to three police murders: “Howard Efland, a black gay man killed by the police in Los Angeles…Frank Bartley, a white gay man killed by police in Berkley … and Philip Caplan, a white heterosexual man police presumed to be gay, killed by officers in Oakland.”[24] Each of these people was killed when police were patrolling men soliciting consensual sex in public hookup locations, such as hotels or restrooms. Howard Efland had been beaten to death by police who later claimed they were trying to arrest him for public lewdness with another man in the hotel – but later, the hotel clerk argued that Efland was alone and his companion hadn’t even checked into the hotel yet. Frank Bartley, an activist for the Society for Individual Rights, a gay rights organization, was entrapped into soliciting sex by an undercover officer; during the arrest, he was shot in the head. Philip Caplan was a straight, white, married leftist professor who was killed while police arrested him for what they argued was “public masturbation” in a bathroom stall. (They later denied the police had beaten him, but that Caplan had died because he injured himself while trying to get out of his handcuffs – which makes absolutely no sense.) Gay people were at high risk for violent policing, explained one columnist in a newsletter called Gay Sunshine, “all of us are unapprehended felons.”[25] In 1970, the LAPD shot a black trans woman named Laverne Turner after an undercover officer picked her up in order to arrest her for selling sex. Police argued that Turner panicked when she realized that she was going to be arrested and had shot at officers, but witnesses at the scene stated that Turner was running away from the police when she was shot.

Sarah: The pathbreaking oral history Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold  by Madeline Davis and Elizabeth Kennedy, about lesbian life and culture in Buffalo during the 1950s also documents the ways that the Buffalo police harassed and brutalized gay men and women in public space. One woman named Piri told Kennedy and Davis: “To me, back in the ‘50s, being gay was brutal. I don’t know how it was at the time for whites. I think it was worse for Blacks, being gay. Because I’ve got a brother that’s gay too, and he wore woman’s clothes. Like on weekends and stuff he’d go out and he’d be dressed and the cops used to lay some brutal beatings on him, y’know? I mean, they used to beat him, throw him in jail … and sometimes he’d get away from them, and sometimes he wouldn’t and it was really chaos then. And like, I have been stopped. I was ready to go upstairs, me and two other girls. And the police station was right in the next block and they walked up, poked us in the back … they like, hit us in the back with their night sticks. “Ok, you [racial slur}, walking the streets all times of the night.’ They took us to jail. And I was right on the corner where I live at, right.” Another Black lesbian named Lonnie was repeatedly arrested for no cause while standing on a street corner. “[They treated me] cold, very cold and cruel. Very much so … Got hit in the stomach. I’ll never forget it. That’s why I don’t like cops, I hate them. I’d rather die than go to the police to help me. I mean that. It hasn’t changed much. If you’re not gonna be a [racial slur] you’re gonna be a bulldyke, and I hate those words. I’m a ladylover, myself.”[26]

Marissa: With the war on drugs and the political rallying cry of “law and order” came an influx of cash for police departments and an increase in active policing around the United States. This was disproportionately aimed at Black Americans, who were regularly stopped for impromptu searches or approached for petty crimes in the hopes of finding evidence of drugs. One such person was Rodney King. The police attack on King would bring the reality of police brutality to the nation’s attention in a way that almost no other incident had to this point. King was Black and 25 years old, struggled his entire life with alcoholism and drug addiction. In the spring of 1991, King and two friends were speeding and driving recklessly on the way home after watching a basketball game with friends. A California Highway Patrol car tried to pull them over, but King sped up and tried to get away without pulling over. (Btw, the cops in the CHP car are MARRIED? Isn’t that, like, inappropriate???) They called in backup, and several additional police cars entered the chase, including officers from the LAPD.

Sarah: When they finally pulled King over, they ordered him and his passengers to get out of the car and lay on the ground. Almost immediately, the police started to use force. According to Douglas Linder, a law professor who used to blog about famous trials in American history, the police were frightened of King because he seemed “spaced-out,” or high. One of the officers began to suspect “that King was ‘dusted’ – a user of the drug most feared by police departments, PCP. Police believed that the drug made individuals impervious to pain and gave them almost superhuman strength.” As a result, the police felt it necessary to use overwhelming force. They shot King with a taser, but after he failed to stay on the ground, they started beating him with batons, at first taking turns, using what they later called “power strokes,” or sharp, hard strikes followed by stopping and stepping back. But when King still seemed to attempt to stand, the officers swarmed around him, beating him continuously with batons. While they beat King, an officer threatened his friend and passenger Freddie Helms, saying “You want to end up like your homeboy?”  Little did the police officers know that across the street, a man named George Halliday picked up his camcorder and started shooting video of the beating. He offered the tape to the police, but when they expressed no interest in it, he gave the tape to LA television station KTLA, who aired the tape. The fact that the beating was caught on film and then disseminated took what would have been just another incident of police brutality to a national crisis. Four of the cops involved were ultimately charged and tried for excessive use of force, but in April 1992, all four were acquitted. Almost immediately, Los Angeles descended into violent chaos as people protested the injustice of the jury’s decision. The riots only teed up more conflict between the LAPD and Black residents.

Grafitti from the L.A. riots, 1992 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Marissa: The Rodney King beating made police brutality visible to Americans who otherwise had the privilege of being unaware of the realities of policing in the United States. But while people may have been shocked, most white, middle class Americans were had their sensibilities offended by the rioting and were able to justify the police actions with racist theories about criminality and drug use – King was high, he was breaking the law, he was a threat to others, he was resisting arrest. While people have certainly been harmed and indeed killed at the hands of the police between 1992 and 2015, the issue came raging back into the public consciousness with the high profile police murders of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, with periodic outbreaks of riot and uprising, especially in connection with other aspects of structural racism in the United States, such as Confederate iconography.

Sarah: There are, of course, lots of different kinds of continuities in history, as evidenced by this series. But the more that I read for this episode, the more I found it striking, and incredibly depressing, that police brutality is simply woven into the fabric of the United States. In fact, in the time that I was reading and preparing for this episode, a woman here in Western New York was killed by the police. Basically ACAB.

As always, we invite you to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at dig_history, or join our Facebook group – Dig History Pod Squad. We’re also on TikTok! If you have a comment or question or want to share some kind words with us, you can always email us at – we love listener mail! If you’re an educator, we’ve got a compendium of episodes you can use in the classroom – and free teaching resources, including full lesson plans! – on our website, We realize that recent changes to curriculum in states like Florida and Texas will complicate being able to use our podcast episodes in the classroom, so please reach out if there’s something we can do to be helpful to you and your classroom. You’ll also find full bibliographies, the scripts for all of our episodes, resources, and a link to our swag store at And don’t forget to preorder Spiritualism’s Place NOW at Three Hills Press or wherever you buy books!


Aiello, Thomas, ed. The Routledge History of Police Brutality in America. London: Taylor & Frances Group, 2023.

Barclay, Jen. The Mark of Slavery: Disability, Race, and Gender in Antebellum America. Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2021.

Green, James. Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing That Divided Gilded Age America. New York: Anchor Books, 2006.

Hadden, Sally. Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Kennedy, Elizabeth Lapovsky  and Madeline D. Davis. Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: A History of a Lesbian Community. London: Routledge, 1993.

Leighton, Jared. “All of Us are Unapprehended Felons:” Gay Liberation, the Black Panther Party, and Intercommunal Efforts Against Police Brutality in the Bay Area,” Journal of Social History 52 (Spring 2019): 860-885.

Martinez, Monica Muñoz. The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018.

Wall, Tyler. ”For the Very Existence of Civlization”: The Police Dog and Racial Terror,” American Quarterly 68 (December 2016): 861-882.

[1] Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, Volume 8, Maryland, Brooks-Williams, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

[2] Glenn McNair, “Transformation of Southern Policing,” The Routledge History of Police Brutality in America, ed. Thomas Aiello (London: Taylor & Frances Group, 2023), 16.

[3] McNair, “Transformation of Southern Policing,” 17

[4] Jen Barclay, The Mark of Slavery: Disability, Race, and Gender in Antebellum America (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2021),67-68.

[5] McNair, “Transformation of Southern Policing,” 18.

[6] Sally Hadden, Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 123.

[7] Adam Malka, “Mob Brutality in Robert Charles’ New Orleans “ The Routledge History of Police Brutality in America, ed. Thomas Aiello (London: Taylor & Frances Group, 2023), 40-41.

[8] Malka, “Mob Brutality in Robert Charles’ New Orleans,“ 41.

[9] Monica Muñoz Martinez, The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018), 7.

[10] Martinez, The Injustice Never Leaves You, 76-79.

[11] Martinez, The Injustice Never Leaves You, 86

[12] Martinez, The Injustice Never Leaves You, 89.

[13] Martinez, The Injustice Never Leaves You, 89.

[14] Martinez, The Injustice Never Leaves You, 90.

[15] Martinez, The Injustice Never Leaves You, 90.

[16] Stephanie Hinnershitz, “Vigilante Policing in Asian American Communities in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,” The Routledge History of Police Brutality in America, ed. Thomas Aiello (London: Taylor & Frances Group, 2023), 152.

[17] Hinnershitz, “Vigilante Policing in Asian American Communities in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,” 156.

[18] James Green, Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing That Divided Gilded Age America (New York: Anchor Books, 2006),170-171.

[19] Regin Schmidt, “From A. Mitchell Palmer to Joe McCarthy: Police Brutality in the Fight Against Communism,” The Routledge History of Police Brutality in America, ed. Thomas Aiello (London: Taylor & Frances Group, 2023), 198.

[20] Schmidt, “From A. Mitchell Palmer to Joe McCarthy: Police Brutality in the Fight Against Communism,” 202.

[21] Tyler  Wall,”For the Very Existence of Civlization”: The Police Dog and Racial Terror,” American Quarterly 68 (December 2016), 872.

[22] Wall, ”For the Very Existence of Civlization,” 872.

[23] Frank Kusch,”Beyond the Billy Club: Chicago Police and the Violence at the 1968 Democratic National Convention,” The Routledge History of Police Brutality in America, ed. Thomas Aiello (London: Taylor & Frances Group, 2023), 212.

[24] Jared Leighton, “All of Us are Unapprehended Felons:” Gay Liberation, the Black Panther Party, and Intercommunal Efforts Against Police Brutality in the Bay Area,” Journal of Social History 52 (Spring 2019), 860-861.

[25] Leighton, “All of Us are Unapprehended Felons,” 862

[26] Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: A History of a Lesbian Community (London: Routledge, 1993), 127-128.


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