Q&A: Simon Balto Uncovers the History of Racist Policing and the Futility of Reform

Historians in the News
tags: racism, policing

When Simon Balto moved to Chicago in 2007 as a 20-something recent college grad, he couldn’t help noticing that police seemed to operate very differently in impoverished Black neighborhoods than in wealthy white neighborhoods. It was six years before the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement, and most Americans weren’t thinking much about police unless they belonged to the communities bearing the brunt of police violence and harassment, Balto said.

So when Balto returned to Madison in 2008 for graduate school at UW's Afro-American studies program, he set out to understand the history behind discriminatory policing, studying first Milwaukee’s police department and then, for a Ph.D. in the history department, Chicago’s. His research on Chicago became a book, “Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power,” which details 50 years of repressive policing and efforts by Black activists to push for change.

Today, after a summer in which police violence triggered the largest protest movement in U.S. history, many Americans are calling for fundamental changes to policing and a rethinking of what keeps communities safe. But if we want to plan the future of policing, Balto argues, we need to understand the past, including where our police departments came from and why they’ve proven so hard to reform. 

An assistant professor of history at the University of Iowa, Balto usually splits his time between Iowa City and Madison, where his wife works, but he’s on leave for this semester, so he’s in town full-time. He spoke to the Cap Times about what history tells us about police reform, why he thinks we need to rethink public safety and how his love of songwriting fits with his research.

We’ve been hearing a lot this year about the Spanish flu pandemic, but your book explores a different event that happened in the same period: the 1919 “Red Summer” race riot sparked when a white man killed a Black child on a Chicago beach while police stood by. Should we read anything into the fact that in both 1919 and 2020, pandemics have been accompanied by some sort of racial tension or reckoning, or is that a silly stretch to make?

I would not call it a silly stretch. I would also not say that there's a causal effect. But I think that, during these types of pandemics, everyone is on edge. Crisis manifests other crises. We have seen earlier, if smaller, versions of what happened in 2020, dating back to Ferguson especially, but I do think that (the pandemic) perhaps helps explain why the protests in 2020 have become the largest in American history. I think that it's people pursuing justice as something that we can control and can demand in a period of time in which it seems like there's very little that we can control and can demand. 

You argue that we’ve been “reforming” police for about as long as police forces have existed. From your research, what do you think it would take to break out of that cycle?

What it would take to break out of that cycle is for people to abandon the idea that police departments can be reformed. One of the things that I've been thinking and talking a lot about recently is the fact that people have a misconception of why American police departments were founded. The Chicago Police Department was not founded because there was some widespread generic interest in promoting public safety. The reason that the police department is founded in the 1850s is primarily because a lot of elites in the city are worried about the behaviors of European immigrants who are basically engaging in social behaviors — primarily public drinking — that they don't think is good. And then they're also concerned about controlling and and rebuffing the rising tide of labor activism that is going on in the city in the latter half of the 1800s. 

I think you could make a very, very clear argument that the police are just doing what they were founded to do. And so when people say that they want to reform the police, I don't know what they mean, because how do you reform something that is actually operating largely as designed? 

Read entire article at Capital Times (Madison, WI)

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