Building The Chicago Police State: A Review Of Occupied Territory

tags: books, Chicago, Police, urban history

Davarian L. Baldwin is the Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies at Trinity College (CT). He is the author of Chicago’s New Negroes: Modernity, the Great Migration, and Black Urban Life; the co-edited volume (with Minkah Makalani) Escape From New York: The New Negro Renaissance Beyond Harlem; and the forthcoming In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities are Plundering Our Cities

Reviewed: Balto, Simon. Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2019.


By 2015, Chicago had become a symbol of the broken relationship between Black communities and the law enforcement apparatus. Outrage over the massive police cover-up of Laquan McDonald’s killing was only trumped by a major exposé on the Chicago Police Department’s off-the-books black site at Homan Square, where marginalized citizens of color were stripped of their constitutional rights and subjected to Guantanamo-styled interrogation tactics. Scholars and critics quickly pointed out that such horrid police actions were not incidental but in fact institutional: a racialized law and order apparatus firmly ensconced in the mid-twentieth century wars on Crime and Drugs. And now Simon Balto’s fascinating new book, Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power, steps into the fray. Occupied Territory pushes us to consider whether the federal government’s draconian and racist policy wars were the beginning of a new carceral way of life or were largely the result of the federalization of pre-existing local policing practices from decades earlier. Balto situates the origins of a “long history” of what we now call the carceral state within the local story of Chicago.

With scrupulous archival detail and sharp analytic focus, Occupied Territory shows how Chicago’s “powerful carceral machinery,” which present-day Black communities condemns for its under-protection and over-policing, was built in the early twentieth century. Federal and state lawmakers fashioned carceral policy but Balto reminds us that it was the police who decided how and when, and perhaps even more importantly, when not to enforce the law. In a machine party town like Chicago, this expansive amount of local discretion had profound consequences, especially for African American communities. Balto displays Chicago’s catastrophic 1919 race riots as a key touchstone. The CPD unleashed white marauders while exerting stop-and-seizure practices on Black communities where, with the help of organized crime, police contained Chicago’s vice during Prohibition. He exposes the Depression-era “Red Squad’s” terror tactics of third-degree torture to criminalize both poverty and radical organizing. Balto goes on to detail police officers’ callous inattention to white violence when Black residents fought to integrate neighborhoods while oversaturating Black neighborhoods as if white people did not commit crimes.

What I found most intriguing was Balto’s interrogation of the CPD under reform icon Orlando Wilson. Here, Balto exposes the limits of political liberalism. He points out that most endorsed Wilson’s anti-corruption approach to police professionalization, centralized authority, and data-based surveillance. However, Wilson’s focus on crime statistics could not account for a history of targeted policing and racially-selective enforcement. So, what appeared to be a value-neutral systems approach produced an even more aggressive policing regime in Black neighborhoods while offering no metrics, and hence no remedies, for police harassment. Unsurprisingly, Wilson had little patience for the civil disobedience of Chicago’s freedom and Black power activists; his metrics worldview saw not democracy in action but only a threat to civil society. Balto makes clear that Chicago’s most celebrated period of police reform came with “the institutionalization of its greatest racial repression.”

Read entire article at The Metropole

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