Throughout the 1950s and '60s, police forces both South and North assured the public that at all times and in all ways they enforced the law in a fair, just, and impartial manner. Their claim was repeated and reinforced by white politicians, community leaders, school systems, the mass media, and the entertainment industry. But in nonwhite communities, cops were widely seen as the defenders and perpetuators of a racist and deeply unjust social order. People of color knew by bitter, first-hand personal experience that on real- life streets urban police departments — who were almost entirely white and male — had two sets of laws and behaviors, one for whites and a very different one for nonwhites.
More than any other issue, perceptions of the police — and attitudes towards them — divided American whites from nonwhites. For most whites, the police were assumed to be knights of truth, justice, and the American way who they trusted and believed without question. For Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans, cops were the brutal arm and face of white-supremacy, repression, and persecution.
In the urban North, many police departments operated in ghetto areas as if they were an occupying army stationed there to subdue and control a hostile, subjugated population. By their actions they made clear that their overriding purpose was to keep nonwhites "in their place" — which they did through harassment, hostility, arrogance, aggressive interpretation of the law, arrests on false charges, and official violence. Nonwhites who failed to show proper deference and submission to official bullying were treated as incipient rebels, quickly and brutally suppressed. In the hands of white police, prosecutors, and judges, laws against disorderly conduct, failure to obey, vagrancy, suspicious behavior, and possession of whatever, were weapons used to enforce social inferiority and subservience.
And outside the ghetto, nonwhites stopped by cops in white communities were assumed to be guilty of something unless they could conclusively prove themselves innocent of everything.
In some cities, police force corruption was both pervasive and notorious. Cops on the take were paid to turn blind eyes to the depredations of criminal organizations who exploited and terrorized residents with impunity. Crime victims deeply resented both the gangsters who abused them and the cops who failed to protect them. Local businesses who were forced to pony up weekly payoffs to both the precinct and the local organized crime enforcer passed those costs on to their customers who, confined to the ghetto by the customs of segregation and lack of transportation, had no choice but to pay excessive prices for low-quality goods and shoddy service.
North and South, local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies saw the Civil Rights Movement as rebellion against the traditional racial order of white-supremacy — which it was — and they did all they could to suppress it. While northern mass media provided some partial coverage of repression and brutality in the South, they largely ignored it in the North. So northern whites found it easy (and convenient) to believe that their Northern police departments were fundamentally different from those in the South with their Bull Connors and Jim Clarks.
In reality, though, the main North/South difference was not so much in law enforcement attitudes — which as a general rule were uniformly racist and hostile to the Freedom Movement regardless of region — but rather in the local legal system. In the South, segregation was the law of the land and anyone who defied it was guilty of criminal offense. Moreover, southern legislators, judges, and law enforcement officers had never accepted that radical Yankee notion that 1st Amendment free speech rights applied to nonwhites. So unconstitutional anti-parade and picketing ordinances along with laws prohibiting boycotts were available for police and judges to use against nonviolent protesters who challenged white- supremacy. In the North, where the U.S. Constitution held at least some sway, while cops often harassed legal, nonviolent demonstrations they could not simply smash them or make wholesale arrests as they did in the South.
In the South, white civilians frequently engaged in violence to maintain their cherished "southern way of life" — everything from mob attacks to terrorist bombings and assassinations. The local police and courts supported and enabled them. In the North, however, violence by white civilians was rare and usually suppressed by the cops — except where housing and school segregation were concerned. On some occasions, Freedom Movement open housing & neighborhood integration efforts in the North were met with large-scale mob violence and/or harassment and terrorism against nonwhites who dared to move into a white area. In some instances, northern police departments acted to quell such white-violence. In others they did not.
The Freedom Movement consistently protested patterns of harassment and humiliation, unequal treatment under the law, and egregious police violence and murder. All of which was encompassed by the generic terms "police brutality and police malpractice." But without the kind of video evidence available today, the mass media, white district attorneys, and white juries almost always accepted law enforcement's version of events no matter how many credible witnesses testified otherwise. So the Movement had scant success in winning any form of justice for the victims of police misconduct or sanctions against racist killer cops.
Through protests, public pressure, and lawsuits, the Freedom Movement also demanded the hiring of more nonwhite officers and equal treatment and promotion for the few who had finally been added to the force over the objections of police commanders and patrolmen. In some locales, demands for hiring and promoting women were also raised. With the slow, almost imperceptible speed of a glacier grinding through a mountain of stone, under Movement-generated public pressure police departments gradually increased the number of female and nonwhite officers and began assigning cops of color to white neighborhoods rather than restricting them to ghetto assignments only.
Most controversial of all were Movement demands for civilian review boards to oversee police behavior and investigate complaints of brutality and malfeasance. Police commanders, many white politicians, and the politically powerful police unions ferociously opposed any and all outside oversight, claiming that only cops could investigate or hold other cops accountable — as they still do to this day.
In regards to race, civil rights, and corruption, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) was one of the worst in the nation outside of the South. In the two years before the Watts uprising, L.A. cops shot and killed 60 black men — 27 of them in the back — an average of one police killing of a Black man every two weeks. (Statistics on the number of Latinos shot to death in the same period are not available.)
The LAPD was officially segregated until 1962 when Chief Parker reluctantly issued a formal desegregation order under threat of legal action. Prior to that date, the few Black and Latino cops on the force were not allowed to work as partners with whites, they were limited to jobs and assignments in the various ghettos, and almost none were allowed in command positions because white cops resented having to salute and take orders from a nonwhite — customs, attitudes, and practices that informally remained for some time after the desegregation order of 1962.
Police Chief Parker went out of his way to recruit white southerners because of their racial attitudes and supposed "expertise" in controlling Blacks. He hired white Texans for the same reason with regard to Latinos. Their inclination (and orders) were to keep nonwhites "in their place." To that end, white cops governed through fear and intimidation just as they did in the South.
Parker made little effort to disguise his personal racism. It was widely believed in the Afro-American community that he had once declared that the function of the LAPD was "To keep the jigaboos down." He attributed criminal activity among Latinos to their, "not being too far removed from the wild tribes of ... the inner mountains of Mexico." In 1965, when the Watts ghetto exploded in a violent revolt against police brutality his explanation was, "One person had thrown a rock, and then like monkeys in a zoo, others had started throwing rocks. ... This thing is very much like fighting the Viet Cong ... We're on top and they're on bottom."
As L.A. author and commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson put it, "When you heard Chief Parker talk, it was almost you heard ropes, crosses, white sheets, a hard-bitten, Jim Crow, plantation mentality. This man had total contempt for the African-American community."
Copyright © Bruce Hartford.