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Military Industrial Sexuality

Ryan Reft

In March 1992 the nineteen-year Navy veteran and founder of the Veterans Council for American Rights and Equality (C.A.R.E), Chuck Schoen penned an open letter in the Redwood/Sacramento branch’s newsletter to the then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, protesting the military’s ban on homosexuals. While he thanked Powell for rejecting sexual orientation as a security risk, he lamented Powell’s continued stance opposing gay men and women in the military. He informed Powell, “We know how to separate our professional life from our sexual life. We have proven this during the past fifty years, by our honorable service.” Due to an investigator’s discovery of his homosexuality during a security clearance investigation, Schoen had been forced to resign in 1963 or else face a dishonorable discharge. Schoen believed security clearances unfairly targeted gay service members. “[T]housands of investigators spent millions of man hours and millions of dollars ruthlessly seeking out harmless homosexuals,” he wrote Powell. “Even with all their expertise and money, they had only about one percent success rate. All during this time they thought we were the spies. What a costly error based only on conjecture and hatred.”[1]

That same month, then head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and future Secretary of Defense Robert Gates responded to a letter from the William and Mary Gay Alumni Association (WMGAA). President Michael Pemberton and Thomas P. Rowan had congratulated Gates upon his appointment to the directorship of the CIA in December while also raising concerns about the agency’s ability to ensure “equal opportunities for all current and prospective employees.” Gates thanked them for their letter and assured Pemberton and Rowan that the “[a]gency does not reject, disqualify, or assign people, or make any other personal decision on the basis of sexual orientation.” He went on to note that, “Indeed, CIA has homosexuals in its workforce.”[2]

Though the overlapping dates of these correspondences might be coincidental, the motivations behind each were not. Since President Eisenhower’s issuance of Executive Order 10450 in 1953, which banned homosexuals from government employment and labeled them a threat to national security, along with the military’s history of purging gay and lesbian service personnel homosexuals struggled to gain equal rights in the government and the military. Both letters preceded real government reform in this area. The Pentagon enacted the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in 1993 and two years later President Clinton issued Executive Order 12968, which stated for the first time in an executive order that sexual orientation could not be grounds for denial of a security clearance. Yet gay men and women both within and without the government had long protested what they saw as unequal treatment, including security investigations that delved unfairly into the sexual lives of service personnel and employees. The advances witnessed in 1995, and to a far lesser extent 1993, stemmed from such efforts over the course of four decades, not least among them was the case of Otis Francis Tabler, a Rancho Palos Verdes resident and missiles systems analyst working within the expanding military industrial complex of Southern California.

“In a precedent setting action, the Industrial Security Clearance Review Office (ISCRO) of the Department of Defense today withdrew its appeal… finding issuance of a Secret-level security clearance to Otis Francis Tabler, Jr., an open, self declared Homosexual, to be ‘clearly consistent with the national interest,’” announced the Mattachine Society of Washington D.C. (MSW) in August 1975.[3] Tabler challenged both the federal government’s security clearance system and California state law banning sodomy and “perversion,” thereby opening up new job opportunities for homosexuals in the state’s booming defense industry while also contributing to the fight to eliminate unconstitutional legislation.[4]

Though Tabler’s case unfolded at the Federal Building on Wilshire Boulevard, its success existed as a confluence of factors, individuals, and geography that stretched over the course of two decades. It took the advocacy and activism of Washington D.C.’s foremost gay activist, Frank Kameny, a World War II veteran who for years fought discrimination against homosexuals in government hiring. At the same time, the establishment of the original Los Angeles Mattachine Society by Harry Hay in 1951 enabled Kameny and other activists across the country to establish their own local versions from which to operate while Southern California’s expanding defense industry offered employment and opportunity to carry out new struggles against discrimination. Kameny would cut his teeth in such struggles as leader of the MSW and would bring this experience to bear on behalf of Tabler in the early 1970s.

While often seen as the most conservative of American institutions, the military, the vast defense industry that supports it, and veterans themselves have operated, intentionally and unintentionally, in conjunction to advance the rights of ethnic, racial, and sexual minorities.

During the 1970s, Los Angeles’s vibrant gay liberation movement inspired Tabler and gradually shaped public opinion toward a more favorable view of homosexuality and, by 1976, a repeal of the state legislation Tabler had challenged. Finally, Kameny and Tabler’s fight to open up the security clearance process for gay men and women preceded the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy by nearly two decades and helped to lay the ground work for President Bill Clinton’s 1995 Executive Order 12968. Over forty years later, Tabler’s battle demonstrates how the intersection of the military, California, and the nation’s capital led to the expansion of opportunity and rights for gay men and women across the nation. While often seen as the most conservative of American institutions, the military, the vast defense industry that supports it, and veterans themselves have operated, intentionally and unintentionally, in conjunction to advance the rights of ethnic, racial, and sexual minorities.


A Military State, World War II, and California

World War II radically reshaped California. First, it led to a boom in population and a demand for greater infrastructure in nearly every area of urban life from water systems to road construction. Single women, Blacks and Latinos all flocked to cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco to work in defense factories. Men of all races joined the military as a means to demonstrate their sense of patriotism. Minorities tired of dealing with discrimination and second-class citizenship used service as a means to demand equality from a nation demanding that they sacrifice for the war despite existing inequalities.

Women too contributed to the war effort in countless ways. Some by working in the numerous factories that dotted the Los Angeles, Orange County, San Francisco, and San Diego landscapes, while others served in the Women’s Army Core (WACS) or Women Accepted for Voluntary Service (WAVS, the women’s branch of the Naval Reserve). Women’s experiences in the war would lay the groundwork for the feminist movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

The war also created the space and opportunity for gay men and women to realize their own sexuality and build community in the process.  The stress of military training, the common purpose of working toward victory in the war and the crucible of combat encouraged camaraderie and trust. For those attracted to the same sex, working, sleeping, and relaxing with one another in gender segregated military environs proved an imperfect yet opportune chance at romance and community.[5]

At the same time, the military cracked down on homosexuality. As Daniel Hurewitz specifies in his 2007 work Bohemian Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics, “The war mobilization laid the groundwork for a national effort to eliminate homosexuals from public life.” Hurewitz further states, “During the war, itself, a host of psychologists and psychiatrists had convinced military leaders that they could help limit the number of soldiers suffering from psychological ailments as a result of the fighting.” Looking to prevent gay men and women from serving, officials questioned recruits about their sex lives as they tried to “weed out” those the military believed to be sexually active labeling them, “mentally unfit.”[6] These kinds of categorizations went far to frame homosexuality as a psychological malady rather than a sexual preference. As demonstrated, the military took the issue of homosexuality seriously, often issuing verbal warnings about Los Angeles’ gay permissiveness. “We were solemnly told that all queers in California wore red neckties and hung out at the corner of Hollywood and Vine, a myth we all accepted,” noted one former Marine and World War II veteran. Such warnings probably helped to pique the interest of closeted service personnel, suggests historian Allan Berube.[7]

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Though the armed services targeted men mostly, in the late 1940s and 1950s, after the war, women also came under scrutiny. In the early Cold War military, notes historian Margot Canaday, “the state did not ignore, conflate, or subsume lesbianism, but was instead focused upon it.” Despite women making up less than one percent of the military during this period, the military’s anti-homosexual agenda targeted women in a particular way. “Military officials maintained that homosexuality among women was more disruptive to morale and discipline then homosexuality in men, and they attributed a far higher rate of homosexual activity to female than male personnel,” she concludes.[8]

Simultaneously, the Los Angeles Police Department increased their surveillance of homosexual activity. State law had long considered sodomy a felony, but in 1915 California legislators adopted legislation outlawing fellatio after authorities arrested thirty-one men for engaging in oral sex following a 1914 Long Beach raid.[9] Predictably, officials used such laws largely to regulate homosexual activity rather than that of heterosexuals. Even worse, gay men especially could not count on city police officers for basic protection. “Gay men could not escape the knowledge that the LAPD regarded them not only as laughable, but as ultimate criminals,” note Faderman and Timmons. Despite, or perhaps due to, a growing gay community of men and women, the LAPD viewed lesbians and homosexual men with the utmost hostility.[10]

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the LAPD raided gay bars, surveilled known cruising sites and attempted to entrap gay men and women, all in an effort to persecute patrons. The city attempted to shut down various magazines seen as homosexually-oriented including ONE, Physique Pictorial, and Adam, only to be rebuffed on appeals by the courts all while vendors across the town sold Playboy magazines without incident. No matter how many legal defeats the city endured, it continued to prosecute. “Los Angeles officials expressed their overt intent to continue the persecution of queer texts through obscenity charges,” noted Whitney Strub.[11]

Cinemas too struggled under the thumb of authorities. Venues such as the Coronet (La Cienga Blvd in West Hollywood), the Lyric (Huntington Park) and Vista Theater (Silver Lake) served as gathering places for gay Angelenos. Such venues frequently screened art films with “queer undertones,” writes Strub. In particular, the Coronet played Kenneth Anger’s “Fireworks” in 1957, arguably one of the most provocative queer films of the period. The LAPD filed obscenity charges soon after. In the end, the Lyric and Vista Theaters all endured legal challenges similar to that of the Coronet, which ultimately resulted in closure, even when they emerged victorious on judicial grounds. Yet, when the film Deep Throat achieved national popularity, it too flashed across Los Angeles movie screens and authorities did nothing to prevent it, which further illustrates these pervasive double standards.[12]

Gay panic even served to influence debates regarding the role of outdoor leisure in Los Angeles. The city’s beaches endured accusations of homosexual infiltration. During the 1940s a number of establishments began catering to a homosexual clientele thereby enabling the growth of a notable gay public sphere along a stretch of Santa Monica beachfront between Hollister and Strand. Known as “Crystal Beach” among locals, the area became subject to police surveillance in the early 1950s when a number of gay bars and taverns opened for business. “Now more visible, the perceived threat posed by the gay beach going community was heightened by the Cold War,” writes historian Elsa Devienne, “a time when any challenge to the heterosexual nuclear family model was perceived as a direct attack on American values.” During the campaign for municipal elections in 1955, candidates openly accused the Santa Monica beaches of “fostering and protecting homosexuals.”[13]

Gay panic even served to influence debates regarding the role of outdoor leisure in Los Angeles. The city’s beaches endured accusations of homosexual infiltration. During the 1940s a number of establishments began catering to a homosexual clientele thereby enabling the growth of a notable gay public sphere along a stretch of Santa Monica beachfront between Hollister and Strand.

In the face of such hostility, Harry Hay and others formed the Mattachine Society in 1951 in what was then known as Edendale,—Silver Lake today. Emerging from a milieu populated by bohemians, communists, and homosexuals who shared ideas, strategies, and beliefs, Hay constructed what would become the homophile movement and the Los Angeles Mattachine emerged as its first real organization. It enabled gay men and women to form a community and present a collective identity to a hostile questioning public. “What Mattachine offered was a different kind of camaraderie: non-sexual family camaraderie… that was well organized and increasingly more defined,” argues Hurewitz. “This was camaraderie about sexual desires that was not constituted by those desires… it was new and transformative; it was how a communal identity—a shared self perception—was constructed.”[14]

Government purges contributed to Hay’s motivation notably in the influence that federal policies cast over private sector employment. Having worked for large aircraft manufactures dependent on government contractors for work, Hay realized the chilling effect such policies might impose. Hay’s own supervisors had encouraged him to pursue systems engineering. But Hay, fearing that his support of the Communist Party threatened his ability to receive a security clearance, declined.[15]

In the decade that followed World War II, half of Southern California’s economic growth depended on defense contracts. This dependency meant Hay and others like him faced dismissal from current employment and dramatically fewer job opportunities. At the same time, the Korean War delivered a surge in government spending, particularly in the area of research.[16] Though many defense industry jobs at the outset of the war remained blue collar, the expansion of atomic weaponry, the increased influence of the Air Force, and technologically advanced weapons systems placed a greater emphasis on a college-educated workforce. Hay organized the Mattachine Society, in part as a means to organize Southern California homosexuals in response to wide spread societal discrimination, including impending governmental purges.[17]

Unfortunately, the L.A. Mattachine struggled with internal divisions and Hay would be ousted from leadership within a few years of its establishment. Still, it persisted and inspired the growth of Mattachines across the U.S. and perhaps most importantly the creation in 1961 of the MSW under the leadership of Frank Kameny. Though later eclipsed by organizations in San Francisco and New York, the MSW would be “the leader in the homosexual rights movement.” In its efforts to battle workplace discrimination during the 1960s, the MSW “took the entire gay movement in a new direction,” argues David K. Johnson. To paraphrase John D. Emilio: Kameny spearheaded the new militancy in the homophile movement.[18] Indeed, a decade before Otis Tabler’s hearing, Kameny and the MSW cast a national influence by protesting the Civil Service Commission’s (CSC) hiring practices or organizing Remembrance Day protests outside Philadelphia’s Freedom Hall as a means of recognizing homosexuality in the public sphere. After the famed Stonewall Uprising of 1969, Remembrance Days migrated north to New York where it transformed into the Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day and would become known as the Gay Rights or Gay Pride Parade. Ultimately, Kameny’s influence would reach California but only after gutting out legal in battles in the nation’s capital.

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D.C.

During the Red Scare of the 1950s, communism and homosexuality became intertwined as threats to national security. A major congressional inquiry in 1950 explored the “Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts” in government and ten years later institutions like the State Department “divided security risks into ‘homosexuals’ and ‘nonhomosexuals’, with the former outnumbering the latter two to one,” noted Johnson. “Throughout the 1950s and 1960s the term ‘security risk’ in fact functioned largely as a euphemism for homosexual.”

In the government’s civil service commission and elsewhere, gay men and women who refused to resign were drummed out on charges of “immoral conduct,” a clause that dated back to the 1800s but most often found usage as a means to target homosexuals. Thousands of employees lost their jobs due to their sexual orientation. New York Post columnist Max Lerner described the policy as a witch-hunt, derisively labeling it the “panic on the Potomac” while senators endorsing the action referred to it the “purge of the perverts.”[19]

Few understood the effects of the policy than WWII veteran, Frank Kameny, who in 1957 was fired from his job in the Army Map Service for being a homosexual. Kameny filed a petition to the Court of Appeals District of Columbia Circuit Court protesting his firing on discriminatory grounds. It eventually reached the Supreme Court, but the justices refused to hear the case. He would not relent.

Lilli Vincenz, who had been discharged (ironically, honorably) from the Army WAC in 1963 for lesbianism, joined the MSW soon after and described the organization’s single-minded focus under Kameny’s leadership. “The Mattachine Society of Washington is not a social group—but rather an ascetic one,” she wrote to a friend in 1965. “The CAUSE is all and don’t you dare speak of trivial matters like an occasional social get-together.”[20]

By 1961, Kameny had re-established the MSW and used it as a platform to achieve equality in government hiring for homosexuals. From 1961 through the 1970s, Kameny criticized the government’s “war on gays and lesbians” at every opportunity, even picketing the White House and Civil Service Commission Headquarters among other Washington institutions over their policies in 1965.

Aware of Cold War rhetoric depicting homosexuality as subversion and a security threat, MSW members and picketers went to great lengths to demonstrate that while they were homosexuals they deserved the same rights accorded their fellow Americans. They identified as “homosexual citizens,” thereby arguing that one need not reject their sexuality in order to claim the rights of national membership.[21]According to the lone newspaper that covered the April picketing of the White House, ten protesters carried signs that said, “We want Federal employment, Honorable Discharges and Security Clearances,” and “Gov. Wallace Met With Colored Citizens, But Our Government Won’t Meet With US.”[22]

Participants were keenly aware of the risks. Jack Nichols and Elijah Clarke stayed up late the night before making picket signs only to have a roommate warn them about potential violence. “You guys are crazy. People are going to attack you,” he told Nichols and Clarke. Another protester, Gail Green, admitted the biggest fear among protesters was loss of employment. Nichols prevented his partner Clarke from attending since Clarke worked for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and would likely be fired. Two other participants wore sunglasses in an effort to conceal their identities. [23]

Vincenz, who would appear on the cover of the October 1965 issue of The Ladder picketing the Civil Service Commission, concurred that many of them were “between careers” or could “afford to do it.” Next to her wedding day, “that was the most important day of my life… It was a defining moment for all of us. It was very empowering.”[24] They picketed six times that summer, three times at the White House, once each at the State Department, CSC, and Pentagon. Initially the protests received paltry media coverage. However, by the end of the summer, due to the protests, Kameny and the MSW had developed an effective media strategy that would boost participation and increase coverage of their efforts in outlets such as Reuters and Confidential. Looking back, Kameny claimed the summer of 1965 established a “mindset for public displays of dissent by gay people” which would later make Stonewall possible.[25]

That same year, a legal victory in the U.S. District Court of Appeals forced the CSC to define closeted homosexuals as acceptable employees.[26] Still, Kameny and others remained understandably unsatisfied and California would serve as another key testing ground to push sexual equality further.

Unlike Hay, whose approach to gay rights was rooted in Marxism leading to organizational anarchy, Kameny framed his fight in the context of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the protests of suffragists like National Woman’s Party leader Alice Paul.


Southern California

After World War II, due to its room for expansion, diverse geography, and mild weather, California drew increased military spending. Historian Richard White concluded, “[i]t was as if someone had tilted the country: people, money and soldiers all spilled west.”[27] Los Angeles and Orange County drew new installations and defense industries, the latter particularly in aerospace. By the early 1960s, forty-three percent of manufacturing employment in the two counties was tied to government aerospace contracts. This process persisted into the 1970s, by which time L.A. and the surrounding region “had come to rely to an extraordinary degree upon the related industries of defense aircraft space and electronics,” notes historian Roger Lotchin.[28] Even today, the presence of the military and private defense industries contributes significantly to Orange County’s ranking as the nation’s largest suburban employment center.[29] Simultaneously, the city’s gay population expanded to an estimated 140,000 gay men and women in metropolitan L.A., which was a number that would only expand over the ensuing decades.[30] Government expansion corresponded with demographic growth, by the mid-1950s 250,000 Californians labored as federal workers, which led many to describe the Golden State as a “second U.S. capital.”

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Ironically, U.S. military action contributed to the development of the Mattachine Society. If Harry Hay had refused to enter the “the new discipline of systems engineering” largely because he feared denial of a security clearance due to his communist affiliations and homosexual lifestyle, that did not mean he couldn’t use the burgeoning conflict as a means to recruit for the Mattachine Society. During the summer of 1950, Hay and others canvassed city beaches asking beachgoers to sign a petition protesting the Korean War. Hay believed most people would refuse to sign on to such a radical statement, but it would allow him to introduce a more moderate proposal: the formation of a gay organization. “Then we’d get into the gay purges in U.S. government agencies of the year before and what a fraud that was,” he noted. Ironically, most people signed the petition, but eschewed the idea of a gay rights society. Still, as Johnson notes, by Autumn he had the germ of what would become the Mattachine Society, and it all began on Los Angeles beaches with a discussion of the U.S. military industrial complex.[31]

Unlike Hay, Otis Francis Tabler did pursue systems engineering. Born in 1942 in Hampton, Virginia, Tabler eventually moved to Philadelphia where he graduated in 1963 from the University of Pennsylvania with an Bachelor’s degree in engineering. He moved to Denver where he worked for General Electrics and Martin-Marietta Company until later decamping for Los Angeles in the late 1960s for a position with Logicon, located in San Pedro.

From 1966-1969 Tabler studied missile defense systems at Logicon as a computer scientist, from which position he was granted a Secret security clearance. However, during the first background investigation that led to his clearance, he neither concealed nor highlighted his homosexuality. He briefly left Logicon for employment with another company where he did not return to the San Pedro company until 1971‑ at which point he sought a new clearance. During the new investigation, Tabler openly apprised investigators of his sexuality, telling them “I am an overt, practicing homosexual who prefers to obtain a clearance without concealing his personal life from the investigative process.”[32]

Tabler released an Interoffice Correspondence relating his personal history to his superiors and co-workers. The packet included a psychological evaluation by a former U.S. Air Force psychologist that upheld Tabler’s trustworthiness and reliability.[33] Based on their testimony at his hearing, Tabler’s peers agreed with the report. According to his coworkers and supervisors, Tabler demonstrated considerable skill in carrying out his responsibilities, but due to his inability to secure the necessary security clearance, his talents were not being adequately utilized and the company was forced to let him go as a result. His former supervisor, U.S. Air Force Captain Larry Wayne Kern believed Tabler to be honest, trustworthy, and reliable and said that Tabler had “a specific and unique contribution to make in the field.”[34]

While Tabler mounted his defense, the push for equality of sexual orientation had begun to coalesce to a greater degree than in previous decades. By the 1970s, the gay liberation movement had become a dominant force, one undoubtedly shaped by other social movements of the day. For example, in Los Angeles, Morris Kight founded the city’s chapter of the Gay Liberation Front in 1969.[35]

During the 1960s, anti-Vietnam war militancy exhibited by the New Left, the “counterculture,” and Chicano, feminist, and Black Power advocates inspired gay activists as well. On 12 May 1966, L.A. residents witnessed their first gay parade in history, the “First National Homophile Protest” to end the ban on gays in the military. The protest snaked along a twenty-mile route that stretched from Downtown Los Angeles to Hollywood. Participants carried signs that cajoled onlookers to “Write LBJ Today” and pointed out the fact that  “Ten Percent of all GI’s are Homosexual.” The National Conference of Homophile Organizations had planned demonstrations in five cities across the county, but only Los Angeles held a parade. Unfortunately for organizers, the media paid little attention. The Los Angeles Times declined to cover the demonstration unless reports of injuries surfaced.[36]

Agreement within the gay community regarding efforts like that of Tabler was not universal. Not all members of the Gay Liberation Movement believed that gay men and women should be pursuing employment in fields such as the military or defense industry. The ideology of movements that leaned left of center or in some cases fully left, combined with the residue of the Vietnam War, created an internal debate among activists. Why would an ostensibly liberal, politically aware gay man or woman want to work for a warmongering United States government or the various agencies that were seen as (at best) complicit in domestic and foreign policies that victimized minorities and the poor?

Not all members of the Gay Liberation Movement believed that gay men and women should be pursuing employment in fields such as the military or defense industry.

Others like Richard Gayer, a colleague of Kameny’s and a lawyer who represented numerous gay men and women in security clearance cases, believed such efforts served a larger purpose. Gayer had brought his own case regarding discrimination over security clearances earlier in the 1970s, and also sought Kameny’s aid. He explained the importance of such a struggle years later: “There are some among us who argue that because no one should work for agencies as questionable as the CIA, we shouldn’t litigate anti-Gay discrimination by them,” he wrote. “If the government says that Gays are not to be trusted with sensitive information and are otherwise unreliable, then we are likely to be excluded from any employment (private or governmental) that involves such information or requires reliability and dependability.” Whether or not one supported the military industrial complex was beside the point. Anti-gay governmental policies begat anti-gay policies society-wide, he argued. For Gayer, Tabler and others, it came down to a simple fact: “Gay people, like any other class of citizens, should be free to choose their careers without fear of discrimination as they advance their chosen fields.” The inability to do such reverberated throughout society in ways that further circumscribed life for homosexuals.[37]

During the 1970s, newly aggressive gay organizations and activists began to dominate the movement, such as PRIDE and the Gay Liberation Front Los Angeles (GLFLA), formed to push for a place in the public sphere for gays.[38] “As you may know, Gay Liberation Front Los Angeles has become the center of military resistance for the gay community,” GLFLA leader Mark Lareau wrote Kameny in 1971.[39] The GLFLA viewed Kameny as uniquely skilled in battling discrimination against homosexuals in the military and government, sending him dozens of letters from G.I.s; some from military personnel trying to escape service due to homophobia in the armed services and others attempting to hold on to the career they had built in the military now under threat due to their homosexuality. In other ways, the city’s gay community began to assert itself more openly even opening the Gay Community Services Center in 1971. The intersection of the Vietnam War and the city’s vibrant gay liberation movement made Los Angeles a hotbed of activism.

Swept up in this fervor, Tabler too became politically active, at one point joining forces with GLFLA leader and founder Morris Kight to challenge the state’s anti-sodomy and fellatio legislation. Tabler, along with five others, formed the “Felons Six,” a group that “confessed” to engaging in “oral copulation of each other.” When authorities refused to prosecute them, Kight made a citizen’s arrest in front of the L.A. Press Club and brought them to authorities. Law enforcement continued to refuse to prosecute the group, thereby demonstrating California laws governing the private sexual activity of adults to be baseless. Kight testified on Tabler’s behalf at his clearance hearing and explained that the point of the demonstration was to “create a court test case with which to challenge and hopefully strike down Sections 286 and 288A of the California penal code,” which made anal and oral sex illegal. Since the city’s attorney general declined to pursue the case, the problem remained that as long as the law persisted it could be used against homosexuals in certain circumstances as in the case of Otis Tabler’s security clearance investigation and other gay men and women seeking similar clearances.[40]

With a growing political awareness and having been denied a security clearance earlier in 1973, which resulted in job loss, Tabler appealed the decision and forced an open hearing with the Western Division Field Office of the Department of Defense, the first of its kind in U.S. history. The hearing held over four days in late July and early August of 1974, roughly two months after the “Felons Six” demonstration, at the Federal Building on Wilshire Boulevard revealed a clearance process, at least in relation to homosexuality, beset with contradictions that reflected broader societal biases of the day. Government counsel James E. Stauffer told the Los Angeles Times that “as long as these type of activities are determined to be criminal according to statues and high decisions,” the security clearance program had no choice but to conduct investigations accordingly. [41]

The testimony of witnesses at Tabler’s hearing demonstrated that the government’s enforcement of sodomy and perversion laws proved both selective and discriminatory. Logicon security officer Helga Angela Kuczora testified that Tabler notified her early on of his sexuality, which to her mind demonstrated his insusceptibility to blackmail. She noted that everyone else at Logicon knew about Tabler’s sexuality due to the fact that the presence of an open homosexual in a company of three hundred employees amounted to a “small Watergate.” Kuczora further critiqued the clearance process pointing out “a heterosexual is never questioned as to his sexual preferences.” She herself had engaged in sexual acts outlawed by the state but nonetheless held a Top Secret clearance. “I think the main thing here being that why [a] homosexual’s sexual activities and not a heterosexual’s activities are questioned.” Christian Julia Robinson, who had known Tabler for eight years and even carried on a sexual relationship with him at one time drew similar conclusions noting she had engaged in sodomy and oral sex with Tabler but still had qualified for a Secret clearance.[42]

Even a government investigator testified that officials only inquired about an individual’s sexual history when they were a suspected or an admitted homosexual. Michael Roussel Dupre, a special investigator who had conducted the review of Tabler’s case admitted that he perceived Tabler as “responsible, discreet, loyal, and trustworthy “ and insusceptible to blackmail. He acknowledged that in his experience heterosexuals were almost never investigated for “consensual sexual acts,” but when an allegation of homosexuality was leveled and substantiated that “yes, the holders of security clearances who are homosexuals have their clearance taken away from them.” [43]

Tabler testified on his own behalf. When the government’s lawyers inquired about his sexual history notably any prevalence of one-night stands, Kameny objected, pointing out the same would not be asked of heterosexuals. Tabler told Government Examiner Richard Farr that while he believed in a strong, sound, well administered clearance system, the one he encountered had been perverted by “a very, very mentally disturbed homophobic attitude on the part of the Industrial Security Clearance Review Office and extending all the way up through and into a number of people on Capitol Hill….” In regard to state sodomy laws, Tabler viewed them as “merely words written on statue books. I believe that they do not exist.”[44]

Tabler’s mother added emotional tenor to an already contentious hearing. She made an impassioned plea telling the government that her son was a loyal American and that as the widow of a disabled U.S. Air Force veteran, she loved her country, “But I’m horrified to find out that the Defense Department does not honor the Constitution of the United States.” She then broke down in tears.[45]

The government could not reasonably claim that Tabler represented a blackmail risk. He was an open homosexual. His mother knew, as did all his coworkers; over twenty affidavits from colleagues attesting to this fact were submitted into evidence.[46] Tabler even sent letters confessing to his sexuality and violation of state sodomy laws to the Los Angeles County Sheriff and District Attorney.[47]

Though not a lawyer, Kameny represented Tabler and employed an unorthodox and unconventional approach. His opening statement lasted over ninety minutes. He called the security clearance program bigoted, politically corrupt, and vile. He accused the Department of Defense (DOD) and federal government of conducting a war on gays that both waged “relentlessly, remorselessly and mercilessly.” The homosexual community did not want to fight, but “if they want a war they will get it,” he told the government examiner.[48]

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The case drew welcome publicity. One of the most difficult aspects of the early gay liberation movement related to the mainstream media’s tendency to ignore protests, particularly those of the GLFLA.[49] Tabler and Kameny went out of their way to force the case into the public sphere despite attempts by the DOD to avoid an open hearing. Drawing on his experiences from the 1960s, Kameny successfully attracted local and national media attention. Articles before and after the hearing appeared in numerous outlets including the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the Washington Star, The New York Times, The Palos Verdes Peninsula News, and Newsweek, among others. Radio and television also covered the hearing including Radio-News West, KNBC, and KTTV. KTTV broadcast the closing statements of the hearing and the case even garnered attention overseas in London’s Gay News.[50]

Though many of the articles featured headlines such as, “Homosexual in Fight to Regain U.S. Clearance,” or “Homosexual Gets Security Clearance,” in a letter to LGBT activist Barbara Gittings, Kameny expressed great satisfaction with the end result. Describing the hearing as “the much publicized California case,” Kameny believed that the “de-facto change in [DOD] policies” represented a real victory. He wrote Gittings, “[T]he war which I started formally about 1959, and which you and I fought together in its more formal stages starting about 1965 has now ended with victory.” Having won triumphs at the CSC and DOD, Kameny believe that two of the three “Federal Government battles going on since time immemorial” had been resolved, leaving the Armed Services as the last hold out. Then again, Kameny’s exuberance obscured the fact that the State Department and intelligence services remained very much resistant and would continue to be so into the 1990s. Still Kameney was correct; the ruling represented significant progress.[51]


Change

At the same time, organizations like the Gay Community Alliance (GCA) formed to encourage Los Angeles homosexuals to “register, vote, and think of themselves as a political force.” The GCA drafted voter slates and campaigned for gay friendly candidates. In 1973, one year after Harvey Milk had become the first openly gay individual in the state to be elected to office, in San Francisco, Burt Pines won election to become city attorney. Though not homosexual, Pines’s victory was due in great part due to his courting of the gay vote. Pines immediately pushed through reforms that more or less ended city prosecution of gay bars and promised that the LAPD would hire qualified homosexual officers.[52] In 1975, Assemblyman Willie Brown wrote the Consenting Adults bill, which passed, repealing “all laws against homosexual acts.”[53] While the LAPD remained hostile under the leadership of Chief Ed Davis, even continuing to conduct the occasional raid, open hostility to the city’s homosexual population had begun to recede. Granted, obstacles remained, like 1978’s anti-gay Proposition 6, but much had improved. Nationally, however, by 1975 only eleven states had decriminalized adult consensual sexual activity between same sex partners. Government officials acknowledged that members of the LGBT community in states with such laws still on the books made approval of clearances for such individuals deemed “more difficult.”[54] The 1986 Supreme Court ruling in Bowers v. Hardwick, in which by a 5-4 vote the court upheld a Georgia anti-sodomy law, demonstrated how deeply embedded such notions were within American society and jurisprudence.[55]

For Tabler, good news followed, although once again not without a fight. On 17 December 1974, government Examiner Richard S. Farr, who had supervised the hearing, ruled in Tabler’s favor, judging him worthy of a security clearance. However, the Department of Defense appealed the decision and even attempted to disqualify Kameny as his counsel. Still, almost exactly a year to the day, the DOD reversed course and dropped its appeal notifying both Kameny and Tabler that it had changed its policies regarding homosexuals.[56]

Tabler became the first openly homosexual person to gain a security clearance. In contrast to his more celebratory remarks to Gittings months earlier Kameny acknowledged in the Mattachine newsletter that much work was left to be done, since now it needed to be determined that such policies would be followed. In addition, the FBI. and CIA conducted their investigations and continued to discriminate against homosexuals.[57] Nonetheless by the 1990s, homosexuals would even be welcomed into the CIA as noted by none other than former C.I.A. Director and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates who in response to correspondence from the William and Mary Gay and Lesbian Alliance argued the CIA. did not discriminate and in fact “has homosexuals in its workforce.”[58] Undoubtedly, Otis Francis Tabler’s fight contributed to such developments.

Often the military and its related private defense contractors are seen as inherently conservative institutions. Historians like Lisa McGirr have documented how the growth of the defense industry in Orange County contributed directly to the establishment of the New Right and modern conservatism.[59] Yet, as demonstrated, for all its moral ambiguities, the military industrial complex has also provided a space for resistance and the assertion of rights and community for gay men and women across the U.S. but especially in California.

“Sexual orientation is unrelated to moral character. Both patriots and traitors are drawn from the class American citizen and not specifically from the class heterosexual or the class homosexual.[60]

Tabler’s case and others eventually forced the government to evaluate its assumptions regarding gay and lesbian employees. During the 1985 Senate hearings, FBI and CIA officials stuck to their narrative regarding the susceptibility of LGBT employees to blackmail yet could not muster a single example. In 1991, a government commissioned studied found that of one hundred seventeen documented cases of espionage only six involved gay men or women, and none of those half dozen had committed espionage due to blackmail. The report’s author came to the following comprehensible conclusion: “Sexual orientation is unrelated to moral character. Both patriots and traitors are drawn from the class American citizen and not specifically from the class heterosexual or the class homosexual.[60] In the end, all it took was passionate efforts from a thirty-one-year-old systems analyst in California and a militant World War II veteran in Washington D.C., but the moral arc of the U.S. government finally began to bend toward justice after decades of protest fueled by the aims of reaching a state of love, respect, and acceptance.

image 5

Notes

[1] Chuck Schoen, “General Colin Powell Makes Rash a Rash Statement Based Only on Conjecture,” The Newsletter Veterans Council for American Rights and Equality, March 1992, Service Academies Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Alumni Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Craig Anderson, “Discharged veteran, 65, still battles for gay military rights,” The Press Democrat, 11 March 1991, Service Academies Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Alumni Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[2] Robert Gates to Michael A. Pemberton and Thomas P. Rowan, 6 March 1992, Folder 3, Box 42, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[3] Mattachine Society of Washington D.C., “Homosexual wins final award of security clearance,” Press Release, 4 August 1975, Folder 9, Box 158, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[4] Kathy Burke, “Homosexual in Fight to Regain U.S. Clearance,” Los Angeles Times, 4 August 1974.

[5] John D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983); Alan Berube, Coming Out under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II (New York: Free Press, 2000).

[6] Daniel Hurewitz, Bohemian Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics (Oakland: University of California Press, 2007), 232.

[7] Berube, Coming Out under Fire, 123.

[8] Margot Canaday, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 175.

[9] Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons, Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 30.

[10] Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A., 84.

[11] Whitney Strub, “The Clearly Obscene and the Queerly Obscene: Heternormativity and Obscenity in Cold War Los Angeles,” American Quarterly 60 (2008): 381-382.

[12] Strub, “The Clearly Obscene and the Queerly Obscene,” 382, 383, 387, 389.

[13] Elsa Devienne, “Urban Renewal by the Sea: Reinventing the Beach for the Suburban Age in Postwar Los Angeles,” Journal of Urban History, 29 March 2018, accessed 15 May 2018, https://doi.org/10.1177/0096144217753379.

[14] Hurewitz, Bohemian L.A., 254.

[15] Stuart Timmons, The Trouble with Harry Hay: Founder of the Modern Gay Movement, (Boston: Alyson Publications, 1990), 117-118, 130-31. During World War II, Hay worked on developing a pilotless aircraft at Interstate Aircraft in Los Angeles. He soon moved on to Avion Aircraft where his supervisor made efforts to convince Hay to enroll in Cal Tech to study systems engineering, but his inability to get a security clearance due to his communist affiliations resulted in a career of lower level manufacturing work such as his position at a downtown firm following the war, Leahy Manufacturing.

[16] Margaret O’Mara, Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 202.

[17] David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 170-71.

[18] David K. Johnson, “‘Homosexual Citizens’: Washington’s Gay Community Confronts the Civil Service,” Washington History 6 (1994/1995): 62; David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 174, 184.

[19] Johnson, The Lavender Scare, 106-7.

[20] Lilli Vincenz to Sister Mary Agnes, 13 October 1965, Folder Personal Correspondence 1965, Box 3, Lilli Vincenz papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[21] Johnson, The Lavender Scare, 200-201.

[22] “10 oppose Gov’t on homosexuals,” Washington Afro American, 20 April 1965, Folder 4, Box 15, Lilli Vincenz papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[23] Brian Moylan, “Pivotal Protest”, The Washington Blade, 8 April 2005, Folder 4, Box 15, Lilli Vincenz papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Johnson, The Lavender Scare, 206-207.

[27] Richard White, “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”: A New History of the American West (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993), 496.

[28] Roger W. Lotchin, Fortress California, 1910-1961: From Warfare to Welfare (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 65.

[29] Thomas Hill, “The Securitization of Security: Reorganization of Land, Military, and State in the Pentagon’s Backyard,” Journal of Urban History 41 (2015): 76.

[30] Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A., 145.

[31] Johnson, The Lavender Scare, 170-171. Several U.S. governmental agencies had begun purging homosexual employees years before the 1953 executive order.

[32] Otis Francis Tabler, Interoffice Correspondence: Request for your support in maintaining my right to hold an Industrial Security Clearance, 4 August 1973, Folder 4, Box 149, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. The underlined portion of the letter was written by Tabler.

[33] Ibid.; Franklin Drucker M.D., Re: Otis Frank Tabler, 14 November 1972, Folder 4, Box 149, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[34] Larry Wayne Kern, testimony, Otis Francis Tabler Jr. v. OSD 73-86, 30 July 1974, Folder 1, Box 35, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[35] Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A., 165.

[36] Ibid., 153-154.

[37] Richard Gayer, Press Release “The Green vs. CIA Settlement–A New Way to Gay Equality,” 25 October 1984, Box 40, Folder 8, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[38] Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A., 170-72.

[39] Gary M. Lareau to Frank Kameny, 11 March 1971, Frank Kameny Papers, Folder 3, Box 92, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[40] Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A., 180; Morris Kight, testimony, Otis Francis Tabler Jr. v. OSD 73-86, 30 July 1974, Frank Kameny Papers, Folder 1, Box 35, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[41] “Pentagon Opens Security Review,” The New York Times, 4 August 1974; Kathy Burke, “Homosexual in Fight to Regain Clearance,” Los Angeles Times, 4 August 1974.

[42] Christian Julia Robinson, testimony, 31 July 1974, Frank Kameny Papers, Folder 2, Box 149, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[43] Kathy Burke, “Homosexual in Fight to Regain Clearance,” Los Angeles Times, 4 August 1974; Michael Roussel Dupre, testimony, Otis Francis Tabler Jr. v. OSD 73-86, 31 July 1974, Folder 4, Box 149, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Helga Angela Kuczora, testimony, Otis Francis Tabler Jr. v. OSD 73-86, 31 July 1974, 198-99, Folder 1, Box 35, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Christine Julia Robinson, testimony, Otis Francis Tabler Jr. v. OSD 73-86, 31 July 1974, 360, Folder 1, Box 35, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[44] Otis Francis Tabler, testimony, Otis Francis Tabler Jr. v. OSD 73-86, 30 July 1974, 476, Folder 1, Box 35, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[45] Mary Aull Tabler, testimony, Otis Francis Tabler Jr. v. OSD 73-86, 30 July 1974, 46-50, Folder 1, Box 35, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, 166-67.

[46] Ronald Den Hartwick, Affidavit, 28 June 1974, Folder 4, Box 149, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Frank Terrio Cummings, Affidavit, 28 June 1974, Folder 4, Box 149, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Wray Davison Bentley, Jr., Affidavit, 28 June 1974, Folder 4, Box 149, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. These are three examples from over twenty submitted.

[47] Otis Francis Tabler to Sheriff Peter J. Pitchess, 17 December 1973, Folder 4, Box 149, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Otis Francis Tabler to Honorable Joseph J. Busch, District Attorney, County of Los Angeles, Folder 4, Box 149, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[48] Frank Kameny, opening statement, i, 30 July 1974, 46-50, Folder 1, Box 35, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[49] Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A., 177.

[50] Kathy Burke, “Homosexual in Fight to Regain U.S. Clearance,” Los Angeles Times, 4 August 1974; “Pentagon Opens Security Review,” The New York Times, 4 August 1974; “Homosexual Gets Security Clearance”, Washington Post, 2 February 1975; “Gay Liberation,” Newsweek, 3 February 1975; Vernon A. Guidry, Jr., “Pentagon Easing Gay Curbs,” Washington Star, 15 August 1975; Frank Kameny to Gay News, 4 March 1975, Folder 14, Box 34, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Otis Francis Tabler Jr. v. OSD 73-86, 30 July 1974, Folder 1, Box 35, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[51] Frank Kameny to Barbara Gittings, 31 July 1975, Folder 1, Box 4, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[52] Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A., 215.

[53] Ibid., 180.

[54] Vernon A. Guidry, “Pentagon Easing Gay Curbs,” Washington Star, 15 August 1975.

[55] Michael J. Graetz and Linda Greenhouse, The Burger Court and the Rise of the Judicial Right (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016), 208-211.

[56] Mattachine Society of Washington D.C., “Homosexual wins final award of security clearance,” Press Release, 4 August 1975, Folder 9, Box 158, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Robert M. Gates, Letter to William and Mary Gay and Lesbian Alliance, 6 March 1992, Folder 3, Box 42, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[59] Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New Right (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002).

[60] Paul M. Rosa, “Gays and the Security Myth,” Washington Post, 10 July 1998; Theodore R. Sarbin, “Homosexuality and Personnel Security” (Monterey, CA: Defense Personnel Security Research and Education Center, 1991), 25, 30, 32.

 

Ryan Reft is a historian of the modern U.S. in the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress. He is a contributor to and co-editor of the forthcoming anthology East of East: The Making of El Monte, 1700-2017 and writes regularly for KCET. His work has appeared in the Journal of Urban History, Souls, California History, and Southern California Quarterly among other publications and anthologies.

Copyright: © 2018 Ryan Reft. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Articles

The Golden State’s Scientific White Supremacist

Zachary Warma

In their June 2018 report, “Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy,” the Southern Poverty Law Center identifies over one-hundred Confederate symbols that have been removed across the United States in the wake of the 2015 murder of nine black parishioners at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina and the fatal violence perpetuated by white nationalists in 2017 opposing the potential removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia.[1] Public markers to the Confederacy—of which 1,740 remain—are coming under heightened scrutiny, driven both by the supportive tweets of Donald Trump and the increasing publicity of white nationalist groups, as well as high-profile removal of monuments, whether sanctioned by official government decree or conducted by activists tired of institutional inaction, as evidenced by the August destruction of the “Silent Sam” statue honoring the Confederacy at the University of North Carolina. Monuments and memorials to the Confederacy, which sprang up after the end of Reconstruction, were intended to rewrite history as well as to reassert the social and political control of white over black Americans. In his speech discussing the 2017 removal of Confederate monuments from New Orleans, Mayor Mitch Landrieu spoke of the very specific aims of Confederate memorials: they “purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for” and “were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge.”[2]

These symbols honoring the “Lost Cause” are not exclusive to the Deep South. Three days after the chaos in Charlottesville, Los Angeles’s Hollywood Forever Cemetery, better known for hosting summer outdoor movie screenings and its celebrity gravesites, quietly removed a plaque sponsored by the United Daughters of the Confederacy honoring Confederate troops “who have died or may die on the Pacific Coast.” Commenting on the cemetery’s actions, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti remarked, “Public Confederate memorials I think have no place in our nation any more than you would put up a memorial to other acts of hate or division in this country. People can learn that history, but they don’t need to lionize it.”[3] The Hollywood Forever plaque is far from the only reminder of California’s embrace of racial intolerance. The natural and man-made structures honoring Joseph Le Conte that dot California’s landscape are a sobering indicator of how the Sierra Club and the University of California—among the state’s most esteemed institutions—extolled and lionized white supremacists to the benefit of their own image, and how by ignoring the bigotry of their early leaders they are ultimately complicit in fostering the same racially disfigured vision of the past perpetuated by monuments to the Confederacy.

They “purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for” and “were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge.”

Born in 1823 in Liberty County, Georgia, professor Joseph Le Conte did not step foot in California until the age of forty-six. Educated at the University of Georgia, New York’s College of Physicians and Surgeons (now part of Columbia University), and Harvard University, Le Conte taught at the University of Georgia and South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina), where he chaired the Chemistry and Geology Department from 1856 until 1868. It was this opportunity to join his brother John as one of the first hires at the newly formed University of California that ultimately brought Le Conte west. While John served as the University’s first interim president and a professor of physics, Joseph was the university’s first botanist, natural historian, and geologist. Over the course of his three-decade tenure at the University of California, Joseph Le Conte established a national reputation as an academic and public figure. Publishing on a range of subjects, including geology, biology, evolution, and religion, Le Conte attained membership into the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Sciences, of which he served as president in 1892.

Le Conte’s notoriety in post-Civil War America also stemmed from his work as an environmentalist. An enthusiastic outdoorsman, Le Conte joined a Berkeley student trip to Yosemite in 1870, where he first encountered the famed naturalist, John Muir. The two men became close friends, and Le Conte co-founded the Sierra Club with Muir, serving on the club’s Board of Directors from 1892-1898. It was on his tenth Yosemite trip, and the Sierra Club’s first Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows outing, that Joseph Le Conte passed away on 6 July 1901 at the age of seventy-eight.


Imprinting Le Conte on the Natural and Built Environment  

In death, Le Conte was hailed as a visionary academic and thinker. Writing on the Le Conte brothers months after Joseph’s death, John Muir remarked, “Their writings brought them world-wide renown, and their names will live, but far more important is the inspiring, uplifting, enlightening influence they exerted on their students and the community, which, spreading from mind to mind, heart to heart, age to age, in ever widening circles, will go on forever.”[4] Le Conte was memorialized not in words alone—his name would find its way on an array of places and objects across the country, both natural and man-made. Le Conte Glacier in Alaska, Mount Le Conte in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Le Conte Divide in the Sierra National Forest, and Le Conte Falls in Yosemite National Park all are named in his honor.[5] Three years after Le Conte’s death, the Sierra Club opened the Joseph LeConte Memorial Lodge in Yosemite National Park, with a bas-relief of Le Conte proclaiming him a “Scientist and Savant” placed centrally above the fireplace. The University of Georgia’s LeConte Hall, now home to the school’s history department, was dedicated in 1905, and a large portrait of the UGA graduate and former professor hangs in the foyer. The University of South Carolina’s LeConte College is named for both Joseph and his brother John, “nineteenth-century faculty members who were among the most renowned scientists of their day,” according to the school.[6]

Due to the influence of the University of California, Le Conte’s memory remains deeply enshrined in the Golden State. Professor Eugene Hilgard, a colleague and friend at the University of California, wrote that “it was Le Conte through whom the University of California first became known to the outside world as a school and center of science on the western border of the continent; and for a number of years he almost alone kept it in view of the world of science.”[7] Le Conte Hall is home to Berkeley’s Physics Department and was central to the university’s research in atomic science and nuclear weaponry; Le Conte Avenue, which runs a few blocks north of Le Conte Hall, dates to at least 1890; and until recently-renamed this year, LeConte Elementary, one of Berkeley Unified School District’s original schools, less than two miles from the heart of the university. In Los Angeles, a city in which Le Conte neither lived nor taught, Le Conte Avenue divides the University of California Los Angeles campus from Westwood Village,[8] while Le Conte Middle School, a magnet school of the Los Angeles Unified School District, is located in East Hollywood.

To this day, Le Conte’s contributions to the University of California are widely publicized. A biography that appears in near-identical form on the webpages of UC Berkeley’s Department of Integrative Biology, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, and the Museum of Paleontology claims Le Conte impacted the school “in three ways: he lectured and wrote on geology and on evolution and life of the past, he acquired collections of fossils for the University, and he influenced students greatly with his enthusiasm for learning,”[9] and the Department of Integrative Biology bestows the annual Joseph LeConte Award in Natural History to students who have shown deep interests in natural history.

The numerous memorials and plaudits for Le Conte, from those in his era and our own, omit a central component of the professor’s legacy – as a slave owner and Confederate scientist, a bitter opponent of Reconstruction, and a multi-decade peddler of “scientific” racism, Joseph Le Conte spent the entirety of his life advocating and advancing the cause of white supremacy.


Slave-Owning Family and the Instruction of Louis Agassiz

Joseph Le Conte was born, raised, and educated in a world of racial inequality. Le Conte’s childhood home, The Woodmanston plantation in Liberty County, Georgia, held in his estimation roughly two hundred enslaved persons. Writing in his memoirs about his father Louis, Le Conte notes, “The negroes were strongly attached to him, and proud of calling him master. He cared not only for their physical but also for their moral and religious welfare…. There never was a more orderly, nor apparently a happier, working class than the negroes of Liberty County as I knew them in my boyhood.”[10] The image of docile, contented slaves is consistent with Le Conte’s gauzy image of antebellum Georgia—“I linger with especial delight on this early plantation life, far from town and the busy hum of men; a life that has passed forever. It will live for a time in the memory of a few, and then only in history. It was, indeed, a very paradise for boys.”

While Le Conte first studied at the University of Georgia and the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York, it was his fifteen months at Harvard that he credited with his “second and higher intellectual birth,” thanks to the tutelage and instruction of principally one man—Louis Agassiz. A noted intellectual of the nineteenth century, the Swiss-born zoologist was months into his position as a professor of natural history at Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School when Le Conte arrived in Cambridge in August 1850. According to Le Conte’s biographer Lester Stephens, Le Conte “eventually claimed that ‘more than any other’ person, Agassiz had ‘inspired’ his subsequent life.”[11] The two men spent numerous hours together daily, traveled on field expeditions to New York and Key West, and were friends until Agassiz’s death in 1873.

While making major strides in the classification and cataloguing of animal species, Louis Agassiz also pushed pseudo-scientific claims to support the idea that blacks and whites had separate origins, and later, that blacks were a distinct, inferior species from whites.[12] In an 1847 lecture in Charleston, South Carolina, Agassiz claimed, “The brain of the Negro is that of the imperfect brain of a seventh month’s infant in the womb of a White.”[13] While touring slave plantations around Columbia, South Carolina in March 1850, Agassiz commissioned daguerreotypes of seven enslaved persons, all naked, sitting or standing, whom he had personally selected. The intent of the project was to serve as “evidence” of Agassiz’s racial theories. Brian Wallis, writing in American Art, notes the daguerreotypes “were designed to analyze the physical differences between European whites and African blacks, but at the same time they were meant to prove the superiority of the white race.”[14] Agassiz’s efforts to deploy “scientific” principles as a means of supporting discrimination and white supremacy would echo in his star pupil’s later writings.

The intent of the project was to serve as “evidence” of Agassiz’s racial theories. Brian Wallis, writing in American Art, notes the daguerreotypes “were designed to analyze the physical differences between European whites and African blacks, but at the same time they were meant to prove the superiority of the white race.”


The Confederate Nitre and Mining Bureau, and Opposition to Reconstruction

During the Civil War, Joseph Le Conte lent his full support and services to the cause of the Confederacy. While South Carolina was debating secession in December 1860, Le Conte was chair of Chemistry and Geology department at South Carolina College in Columbia. In his memoirs, Le Conte reverently recalled the proceedings – the Convention was “the gravest, ablest, and most dignified body of men I ever saw brought together. They were fully aware of the extreme gravity of their action.”[15] Due to enlistment and South Carolina’s draft, the college’s enrollment dragged until instruction was suspended in 1862. While Le Conte continued his academic studies, he longed to aid in the war efforts. “The College was suspended; I must do something,” Le Conte reminisced. “I felt that I must do something in support of the cause that absorbed every feeling.”[16] In 1863, Le Conte served as a chemist aiding in the manufacturing of medicinal products before being appointed to the Confederate Nitre and Munitions Bureau, in which his brother John also served. Using his former laboratory at South Carolina College, Le Conte became one of the select scientists charged with inspecting nitre caves and beds across the Confederacy for the purpose of manufacturing gunpowder.[17] The academic backgrounds of the Le Conte brothers were put to work for the physical production of the South’s war-making capacity.[18]

The end of the Civil War was a bleak period for the Le Conte family. Writing in her diary in late February 1865, seventeen-year-old Emma Le Conte, Joseph’s eldest child, lamented, “We have lost everything, but if all this—negroes, property—all could be given back a hundredfold, I would not be willing to go back to them. I would rather endure any poverty than live under Yankee rule… anything but live as one with Yankees—that word in my mind is a synonym for all that is mean, despicable and abhorrent.”[19] While Joseph Le Conte managed to evade capture from William Sherman’s Union troops advancing into South Carolina (an experience he chronicled that was posthumously published by the University of California in 1937), his brother John was captured, and ultimately paroled. Emma Le Conte recounts that after his release, John, the future President of the University of California, threatened a Union officer with continued violence if the South was vanquished. “Well, suppose we defeat and disperse his (Lee’s) army?’ ‘I suppose then we will have to resort to guerrilla warfare.’ The officer looked surprised and shocked.”[20] The Le Contes would find some cause for celebration in 1865, however, with the news of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. “We were all in a tremor of excitement,” Emma wrote. “At home it was the same…. The first feeling I had when the news was announced was simply gratified revenge. The man we hated has met his proper end.”[21] Writing twenty-four years after the end of the Civil War, Joseph Le Conte would still describe the rebellion in near mythic-terms: “There was never was a war in which were more thoroughly enlisted the hearts of the whole people—men, women, and children—than were those of the South in this. To us it was literally a life and death struggle for national existence.”[22]

It was the onset of Reconstruction and its attempts at racial equality—which Le Conte bitterly opposed—that ultimately led to his arrival in California. In 1866, South Carolina College was reopened as the University of South Carolina. Under the auspices of the state’s racially diverse legislature, the university opened its doors to all students regardless of race, and earned the distinction of being the only public university in the Reconstruction South to achieve full integration, boasting black Boards of Trustees, black professors, and by 1876 a predominantly black student body.[23] Le Conte, who had resumed teaching at the university, found the pending changes to the university a moral affront. In a letter to his sister-in-law about the actions of the state legislature, Le Conte wrote, “A bill has been introduced by one of the animals, Sarspartas by name, a negro, the purport of which is to declare the chairs of this University vacant.”[24] Le Conte’s daughter Caroline, providing the introduction to ‘Ware Sherman, her father’s journal from the last months of the Civil War, recounts his sentiments toward the transformation of the university: “The South Carolina Legislature, through its negro board of trustees, was taking the first steps to declare the chairs vacant and to convert the University into a school for illiterate negroes. Now, indeed, emigration was imperative: England, Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, were all discussed in turn.”[25] The Le Conte brothers, having difficulty obtaining employment due to their work for the Confederacy, considered fleeing the United States rather than teach at a school that admitted non-white students. Even months before his death, Le Conte’s disdain for Reconstruction remained: “The iniquity of the carpet-bag government was simply inexpressible. The sudden enfranchisement of the negro without qualification was the greatest political crime ever perpetrated by any people, as is now admitted by all thoughtful men.”[26]

With assistance from powerful friends, the Le Contes obtained employment outside of the Reconstruction South, courtesy of the recently formed University of California. Louis Agassiz, Le Conte’s former mentor, along with Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, and Benjamin Silliman, the founder of the American Journal of Science, among others, wrote in support of the brothers’ candidacies, with John being the very first elected member of the University of California faculty in November 1868, and Joseph less than a month later. It was the University of California, recalled Caroline LeConte, which “when every worthwhile academic door was closed against them, saved the LeConte brothers from exile to a foreign land.”[27] Three years after the end of the Civil War, the University of California welcomed with open arms two slave-owning Confederates scientists to help lead the new institution.


Le Conte’s “Scientific” White Supremacy

Firmly ensconced at Berkeley, Joseph Le Conte used the imprimatur of the University of California and his academic standing to repeatedly advocate for the disenfranchisement and repression of communities of color. In “The Genesis of Sex” published in the December 1879 edition of Popular Science and “The Effect of Mixture of Races on Human Progress” in the April 1880 Berkeley Quarterly, Le Conte builds upon the ideas articulated by his mentor Louis Agassiz and argues that sexual reproduction in plants and animals explains the perils of racial intermixing. “I regard the light-haired blue-eyed Teutonic and the negro as the extreme types,” writes Le Conte, “and their mixture as producing the worst effects. The mixture of the Spanish and Indian in Mexico and South America has produced a physically hardy and prolific race; but I think it will be acknowledged that the general result on social progress has not been encouraging. It seems probable that the mixture of extreme races produces and inferior result.”[28]

In his 1889 article “The South Revisited” and his 1892 lecture turned book The Race Problem in the South, Joseph Le Conte combines his scientific racism with his nostalgia for the antebellum South and animosity toward Reconstruction to present an unambiguous case for white supremacy. In Le Conte’s view, the institution of slavery, for which the South was not responsible—“the slaves were not brought in her ships, but in those of other countries of other parts of our own country”[29]— and with its planter class “a kind of aristocracy,”[30] was beneficial for African Americans, who were uplifted by their interactions with whites. “Not only has the Negro been elevated to his present condition by contact with the white race,” asserts Le Conte, “but he is sustained in that position wholly by the same contact, and whenever that support is withdrawn he relapses again to his primitive state.”[31] The political ramifications of this racial distinction is clear to Le Conte: “The Negro race as a while is certainly at present incapable of self-government and unworthy of the ballot; and their participation without distinction in public affairs can only result in disaster.”[32] Therefore, the South “is solid for self-government by the white race, as being the self-governing race and as a whole the only self-governing race.”[33]

To enforce white-rule, Le Conte unreservedly called for the suppression of black voting rights. Writing little more than a decade after the end of Reconstruction—the “brief reign of the carpet-baggers sustained by Negro votes after the war” that produced “disastrous results”[34]— Le Conte viewed the enacting of property and education requirements for voters as “perfectly just and perfectly rational.” Le Conte concedes such restrictions would allow for some black voters, “but only such as ought to vote.”[35] Given the supposed inherent inferiority of blacks, and the policy consequences of Reconstruction, the limitation of voting rights strikes Le Conte as justifiable policy. To achieve the ends of white domination, Le Conte rationalized the use of racial violence and the abrogation of the Reconstruction Amendments, passed specifically to protect voters of color. Le Conte expressed little concern for violence wrought against blacks exercising their right to vote, and found that kind of violence to be in service of the greater good. “Doubtless intimidation has been used in the South as elsewhere; perhaps more than elsewhere, for the motive was stronger—viz., the existence of a civilized community.”[36] As for the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, intended to secure the rights of newly freed blacks, should those laws conflict with the South’s “right” of white domination, writes Le Conte, “so much worse for the fundamental law and the constitutional amendments, for it shows that these are themselves in conflict with the still more fundamental laws of Nature, which are the laws of God. If it be so, then the South is very sorry, but it can’t be helped.”[37]

Throughout his works, Le Conte asserted that his racism is grounded in Darwinism and evolutionary science. “The laws determining the effects of contact of species… among animals may be summed up under the formula, ‘The struggle for life and survival of the fittest.’ It is vain to deny that the same law is applicable to the races of man also,”[38] asserts Le Conte. White supremacy, therefore, is simply following the laws of nature. “Given two races widely different in intellectual and moral elevation, especially in the capacity for self-government, in other words very different in grade of race-evolution…the inevitable result will be, must be, that the higher race will assume control and determine the policy of the community.”[39] Bigotry, in the view of Le Conte, is simply an extension of evolutionary self-preservation. “Race-prejudice, or race-repulsion, to use a stronger term,” writes Le Conte, “is itself not a wholly irrational feeling. It is probably an instinct necessary to preserve the blood purity of the higher race.”[40]


Le Conte’s Legacy Revisited

In late 2015, Aaron Mair and Michael Brune, the then-President and Executive Director, respectively, of the Sierra Club, wrote to the Director of the National Park Service with a request—that the NPS change the historic and common name of a National Historic Landmark located in Yosemite National Park, the LeConte Memorial Lodge. The Lodge, which has been operated by Sierra Club volunteers since its 1904 construction by the club, served as Yosemite’s first visitor center. The Sierra Club’s Board of Directors voted in October 2015, however, to request that Joseph Le Conte’s name be removed from the center. The reasoning for the request—the increased awareness of Le Conte’s racist ideology. “A generation or two ago,” writes Mair and Brune, “this aspect of Mr. Le Conte’s legacy was virtually unknown to the public. More recently, however, the public is beginning to learn more about Le Conte’s racial politics, and public pressure is mounting to change the name of a number of places that were originally named in his honor.”[41] With greater understanding of Le Conte’s legacy, Mair and Brune note, “those who visit the LeConte Memorial Lodge in Yosemite Valley are more likely to be horrified and offended to learn that this public building is named in honor” of the professor. [42]

PSM_V12_D270_Joseph_Le_Conte2

Missing from Mair and Brune’s letter is even a tacit acknowledgement of the Sierra Club’s role in Le Conte’s racism being “virtually unknown.” Mair and Brune’s letter notes that in the wake of the 2015 murder of nine Charleston churchgoers at the hands of a white supremacist, U.C. Berkeley’s Black Student Union called on the school to change the name of Le Conte Hall. Berkeley residents raised the question with Berkeley Unified School District officials about renaming LeConte Elementary. Mirroring the letter, the Sierra Club webpage addressing Le Conte and the Lodge renaming claims his “racist theories came to light in 2015.”[43] Contrary to the organization’s assertions, Le Conte’s racism did not somehow disappear after his death 117 years ago. In addition to his ample writing output while living, Le Conte’s chronicle of his flight from Sherman’s army, ‘Ware Sherman, was published in 1937 by the University of California Press; his daughter’s Civil War-era diary was first published in 1957; The Race Problem in the South was reprinted in 1969; and a biography of his life was released in 1982. On a biography page linked to “People Important to John Muir,” the organization even provided an online link to Le Conte’s autobiography. But the Sierra Club was not passively ignoring Le Conte’s racism—they were propagating a highly sanitized version of his life that scrubbed away any stains of bigotry.

On 3 July 2004, the Sierra Club hosted the centennial and rededication of the LeConte Memorial Lodge in Yosemite National Park. Dr. Bonnie Gisel, curator of the Lodge and a John Muir scholar, provided the opening remarks. The Lodge, Dr. Gisel noted, was “built upon the worldview of Dr. Joseph LeConte, his thoughtful scientific study, and love for the natural world.” A “beloved” academic, Le Conte was “passionate yet simple. He possessed an articulate unaffected character, dedicated to making his ideas animate and forceful in the practical world.”[44]On hand for the festivities was a Le Conte re-enactor, and Le Conte’s great-grandson. As for providing a fuller picture of Le Conte’s background, a “Historical Profile” produced by the Sierra Club Member Services that linked to the Centennial Celebration webpage  mentioned, “During the Civil War, he taught chemistry and geology at South Carolina College. After the war, because ‘rebels’ were not eligible for employment, Le Conte traveled west and, with his brother John, took part in the organization of the University of California.”[45] Joseph Le Conte, according to the Sierra Club, was not a former slave owner who peddled racist demagoguery masked as evolutionary science, but rather “one of the most respected scientists in the United States in his day.”[46] There is a reason why, as Mair and Brune noted in their 2015 letter, Le Conte’s repugnant views “were virtually unknown”—the Sierra Club promulgated an incomplete and hagiographic vision of their bigoted co-founder.

Near the end of their 2015 letter to the National Park Service, Mair and Brune take great pains to differentiate Le Conte’s legacy from other monuments honoring notable Confederates, on the basis of Le Conte’s continued advocacy for white supremacy decades after the end of the Civil War: “Changing the name of the Sierra Club’s lodge would not set a precedent that calls into question every image of the Confederate flag or every statue of Robert E. Lee. Those are very different.”[47] Nearly three years later, these words haven taken on a deeply ironic twist. While the Sierra Club strove to separate Le Conte from other notable Confederates, the 2017 violence in Charlottesville tied to the city’s statue of Robert E. Lee has rightfully called into question every public memorial to the Confederacy, including those honoring Joseph Le Conte.

Both Joseph Le Conte’s decades of scientific racism and the Confederate monuments built across America after Reconstruction were components of the national program of “reconciliation,” which in the second half of the nineteenth-century sought to strip the Civil War of its explicit racial implications in favor of a narrative the valorized the struggles of both North and South. In Race and Reunion, his seminal work chronicling the struggle over national remembrance of the war, David Blight outlines the centrality of the South’s racist historical revisionism in dictating national reconciliation, as well as the collective memory around the Civil War. “The Lost Cause,” writes Blight, “became an integral part of national reconciliation by dint of sheer sentimentalism, by political argument, and by recurrent celebrations and rituals. For most white Southerners, the Lost Cause evolved into a language of vindication and renewal, as well as an array of practices and public monuments thigh which they could solidify both their Southern pride and their Americanness. By the 1890s, Confederate memories… offered an asset of conservative traditions by which the entire country could gird itself against racial, political, and industrial disorder… it also armed those determined to control, if not destroy, the rise of black people in the social order.”[48] Le Conte’s academic career, similarly to monumental horseback statues of Lee, sought of to recast the Confederacy from a rebellion dedicated to the preservation of slavery to a noble “Lost Cause,” and both were explicit in their efforts to project white hegemony over terrorized communities of color. The Sierra Club and the University of California may not have erected monuments physically analogous to UNC’s Silent Sam or the statues in New Orleans or Charlottesville, but by elevating an incomplete legacy of Joseph Le Conte, they participated in the very same pernicious revisionism that enabled the flourishing of white supremacy in California and across the country. The Sierra Club leadership was mistaken—there is no difference between continuing to honor Joseph Le Conte or any Confederate leader.

In the three years that have passed since the transmission of the Sierra Club’s letter, Le Conte’s bigotry has come under greater scrutiny, and organizations have sought to distance themselves from his views. The LeConte Memorial Lodge was successfully renamed “Yosemite Conservation Heritage Center,” with the Sierra Club publicly stating “it is unacceptable to continue to have a public education center in the park named in honor of a man who advocated for theories about the inferiority of nonwhite races. To do so would be counter both to our values and to our desire to promote inclusivity in our parks.”[49] In May 2018 LeConte Elementary was rechristened Sylvia Mendez Elementary after the civil rights activist whose family’s legal action ended segregation in California’s public education system in 1947, predating the Brown v. Board Supreme Court ruling.[50]

In the wake of the 2015 protests, former Berkeley chancellor Nicholas Dirks convened “the Building Naming Task Force,” whose April 2017 report recommended the university “promptly begin the process of revising the UC Berkeley Principles for Naming.”[51] The report, however, mentioned Le Conte Hall only once.[52] Under continued criticism for their ponderous response, the now-chancellor Carol Christ setup in March 2018 a twelve-member Building Name Review Committee.[53] Proposals, which the committee will review before sending recommendations to the chancellor, must “explicitly address” whether the “the legacy of the namesake is fundamentally at odds with the mission of the University.”[54]

These moves by the University of California, the Sierra Club, and Berkeley Unified School District are positive steps in acknowledging their past support for Le Conte, but they will ultimately be inadequate if no serious effort is undertaken to properly explain why they chose to honor a noted white supremacist for decades. To quietly blot Le Conte from the history of California’s premier institutions would be a pernicious act of historical revisionism not dissimilar to Le Conte’s efforts to whitewash slavery from the Civil War. The Georgetown Slavery Archive chronicling the school’s sale of 227 African slaves, Brown University’s Committee on Slavery and Justice Report, and National Geographic’s recent work documenting their history of racism offer examples of institutions fully grappling with their past that both the Sierra Club and the University of California should look to in considering how to properly contextualize their complicity in upholding some of the most malignant strains of racism embedded in this country. Removing Joseph Le Conte from a college lecture hall or a Yosemite cabin is simply not enough—Le Conte’s life and legacy are a powerful testament to California’s deep intertwining with the rest of American history. Better understanding Le Conte’s role in early California helps to illuminate uncomfortable realities about historical revisionism and white supremacy that affect us to the modern day.

Le Conte’s life and legacy are a powerful testament to California’s deep intertwining with the rest of American history. Better understanding Le Conte’s role in early California helps to illuminate uncomfortable realities about historical revisionism and white supremacy that affect us to the modern day.

The Sierra Club and University of California’s veneration of Joseph Le Conte is unfortunately not an aberration within California. Eugene Hilgard, Le Conte’s fellow Berkeley professor and Confederate scientist, has streets named for him in Berkeley and Los Angeles; Louis Agassiz, Le Conte’s mentor and early pioneer in scientific racism, is honored with a statue prominently displayed at Stanford University, atop a building named after another of Agassiz’s pupils, Stanford’s first president David Starr Jordan, who was a major force in the American eugenics movement. If California, and its leading institutions, truly wish to serve a model of inclusivity for the rest of the country, we must topple our monuments to men like Joseph Le Conte, and the numerous others like him who spent their lives advocating for a racial hierarchy that has denied untold number of Californians their basic human and Constitutional rights. In the end, we must understand why we celebrated these men in the first place and for so long.


Notes

[1] “Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy,” Southern Poverty Law Center, 2018. https://www.splcenter.org/20180604/whose-heritage-public-symbols-confederacy.

[2] Mitch Landrieu, “Mitch Landrieu’s Speech on the Removal of Confederate Monuments in New Orleans,” The New York Times, 23 May 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/23/opinion/mitch-landrieus-speech-transcript.html.

[3] Logan Byrnes, “Confederate monument at Hollywood Forever Cemetery removed,” Fox 11 LA, 15 August 2017, http://www.foxla.com/news/local-news/274054184-story.

[4] John Muir Bibliography Resource, “Reminiscences of Joseph LeConte” (1901), John Muir Bibliography, 213, http://scholarlycommons.pacific.edu/jmb/267.

[5] Ann Lange, “The Peaks and Professors—University Names in the High Sierras,” Chronicle of the University of California (Spring 2000): 95, http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/uchistory/pubs_resources/journals/chronicle/issue3/Lage.pdf.

[6] “University of South Carolina University Map–LeConte College,” University of South Carolina Board of Trustees, 2002, http://www.sc.edu/uscmap/bldg/leconte.html.

[7] Eugene Hilgard, “Biographical Memoir of Joseph Le Conte 1823-1901,” National Academy of Sciences (18 April 1907): 211, http://www.nasonline.org/publications/biographical-memoirs/memoir-pdfs/le-conte-joseph.pdf.

[8]  Herbert B. Foster, The Role of the Engineer’s Office in the Development of the University of California Campuses (Berkeley: University of California, 1960), 120-121, California Digital Library, https://archive.org/stream/roleengineeroff00fostrich#page/n285/mode/2up.

[9] “Integrative Biology Department Awards,” UC Regents | Integrative Biology, https://ib.berkeley.edu/undergrad/departmentawards.

[10] Joseph Le Conte, The Autobiography of Joseph Le Conte: Edited by William Dallam Armes (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1903), 12-13, Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1998, http://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/leconte/leconte.html.

[11] Lester Stephens, Joseph LeConte: Gentle Prophet of Evolution (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982), 34.

[12] Louis Menard, “Morton, Agassiz, and the Origins of Scientific Racism of the United States,” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 34 (Winter 2001-2002): 112.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Brian Wallis, “Black Bodies, White Science: Louis Agassiz’s Slave Daguerreotypes,” American Art 9 (Summer 1995): 40.

[15] Le Conte, The Autobiography of Joseph Le Conte, 180.

[16] Ibid., 183-184.

[17] Ibid., 184.

[18] Eugene Hilgard, Le Conte’s future colleague at Berkeley, was engaged in similar work in Mississippi, assisting in the Confederate defenses of Vicksburg. Edward P.F. Rose, C. Paul Nathanail, Geology and Warfare: Examples of the Influence of Terrain and Geologists on Military Operations (London: Geological Society of Science, 2000), 88.

[19] Emma LeConte, When the World Ended: The Diary of Emma Le Conte (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987), 66.

[20] Ibid., 76.

[21] Ibid., 93.

[22] Le Conte, The Autobiography of Joseph Le Conte, 181.

[23] “Reconstruction 1865-1873,” University of South Carolina Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, https://www.sa.sc.edu/omsa/1865-1873-reconstruction.

[24] Caroline LeConte, “Introduction,” in Joseph Le Conte, Ware Sherman: A Journal of Three Months’ Personal Experiences in the Last Days of the Confederacy: With an Introductory Reminiscence by His Daughter Caroline LeConte (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1937), xxiii.

[25] Ibid., xvii.

[26] Le Conte, The Autobiography of Joseph Le Conte, 238.

[27] Caroline LeConte, “Introduction,” xxx.

[28] Joseph Le Conte, “The Effect of Mixture of Races on Human Progress,” Fortnightly Club: Berkeley. Berkeley Quarterly: A Journal of Social Science 1 (April 1880): 100-101, HathiTrust Digital Library, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.31175023737573;view=1up;seq=91.

[29] Joseph Le Conte. The Race Problem in the South (Miami: Mnemosyne Publishing, 1969), 354.

[30] Joseph Le Conte, “The South Revisited,” The Overland Monthly, Volume XIV, Second Series, 79 (July 1889): 24, Making of America, http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/moajrnl/ahj1472.2-14.079/37.

[31] Le Conte, The Race Problem in the South, 367.

[32] Ibid., 376.

[33] Le Conte, “The South Revisited,” 29.

[34] Le Conte, The Race Problem in the South, 364.

[35] Le Conte, “The South Revisited,” 30.

[36] Ibid., 376.

[37] Ibid., 364.

[38] Ibid., 359.

[39] Le Conte, “The South Revisited,” 27.

[40] Le Conte, The Race Problem in the South, 365.

[41] Letter from Aaron Mair and Michael Bruce to Jonathan Jarvis and Stephanie Toothman, 2015, p. 2. The Sierra Club, http://www.sierraclub.org/sites/www.sierraclub.org/files/program/documents/LeConte%20Letter.pdf.

[42] Ibid.

[43] “Dr. Joseph LeConte,” The Sierra Club Yosemite Heritage Conservation Center, http://www.sierraclub.org/yosemite-heritage-center/dr-joseph-leconte.

[44] Bonnie Johanna Gisel. “Remarks at the LeConte Memorial Lodge Rededication Ceremony, 3 July 2004,” The Sierra Club, https://vault.sierraclub.org/education/leconte/centennial/rededication/bonnie_gisel_opening.asp.

[45] “Joseph Le Conte Sierra Club Historical Profile,” The Sierra Club, https://vault.sierraclub.org/education/leconte/pdf/joseph_leconte_factsheet.pdf.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Letter from Aaron Mair and Michael Bruce to Jonathan Jarvis and Stephanie Toothman (2015), 2.

[48] David Blight, Race and Reunion–The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 266.

[49] “History of the LeConte Memorial Lodge,” The Sierra Club, https://www.sierraclub.org/yosemite-heritage-center/history.

[50] Cade Johnson, “Le Conte Elementary renamed after Sylvia Mendez, a key figure in California desegregation.” The Daily Californian, 25 May 2018, http://www.dailycal.org/2018/05/25/le-conte-elementary-school-renamed-sylvia-mendez-key-figure-california-desegregation/.

[51] Revati Thatte, “‘Reckoning with that history’: UC Berkeley revisits concerns over controversial building names,” The Daily Californian, 28 August 2017, http://www.dailycal.org/2017/08/28/campus-revisits-controversial-building-names/.

[52] University of California, Berkeley, “Building Naming Project Task Force Summary Report and Recommendations,” April 2017, https://diversity.berkeley.edu/sites/default/files/building_naming_project_task_force_report_final_4-3-2017.pdf.

[53] Ella Colbert, “‘Histories of racism, colonialism and exclusion’: UC Berkeley considers changing controversial building names,” The Daily Californian, 22 March 2018, http://www.dailycal.org/2018/03/22/uc-berkeley-moves-forward-attempts-change-controversial-building-names/.

[54] “Building Name Review Committee–Submit a Proposal,” UC Berkeley Office of the Chancellor, https://chancellor.berkeley.edu/building-name-review-committee/submit.

 

Zachary Warma is a graduate of Stanford University, where some of his fondest memories were the hours spent as an Assistant Student Archivist for Stanford’s Department of Special Collections, compiling a fraternity’s recently donated historical papers. He currently lives in Los Angeles, where he works in political polling and strategic communications.

Copyright: © 2018 Zachary Warma. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

 

Articles

Last Stands

Tony Platt

1 CUSTERS LAST STAND

Remembering to Forget

One day in 2017, a woman taking a yoga class at a senior center in Oakland noticed a large painting on the wall that depicted “Custer’s Last Stand.” She found it offensive and racist, and fired off emails to city officials asking for it to be removed.

In response to this complaint, Jennifer King, director of the Downtown Oakland Senior Center, convened a public forum on 17 January 2018 to discuss the issue. A panel, of which I was a member, presented a variety of viewpoints. Ms. King saw Custer getting his comeuppance, and Toby McLeod of Sacred Land Film Project thought the artist had demonstrated some sympathy to the Native point of view. Roberto Bedoya, Oakland’s manager of Cultural Affairs, noted that local government has a commitment to make sure that public buildings represent the city’s cultural diversity and legacy of struggles for social justice. Tony Gonzales from the American Indian Movement and Corrina Gould (Chochenyo Ohlone) made the case that the painting glorifies Custer and should be removed, a position with which most people in the audience concurred.

I argued that people who work at and use the Senior Center should determine what to do about the painting, but the information I presented made clear that I personally would not want to look up from a downward-facing dog to see a glorified image of Custer standing on higher ground in a dazzling light beneath the U.S. flag, his receding hair miraculously luxuriant.

There has been much debate in recent years about what to do with memorials to the Confederacy in the South, with the legacies of slaveholders whose fortunes launched Ivy League universities in the East, and with the statues of great men who did great harm. Efforts are also under way to do something about the gender imbalance in the sparse public representation of women. Of some 5,200 statues in the United States depicting historical figures, fewer than 400 are women. Only five public statues in New York honor women.[1]

There is no need to travel very far to engage these issues. We have plenty of cultural skeletons in our own backyard, as California’s official narratives typically represent the state as superior to the South with its history of slavery, conveniently sanitizing the state’s own blood-drenched origins in conquest and war. Academic historians have documented in relentless and scrupulous detail that what was done to Native peoples in California constitute genocide. Yet the guardians of our public history prefer upbeat stories that emphasize a narrative of progress and civilization.[2] How else to explain the glaring absence of memorials, plaques, ceremonies, rituals, days of mourning, elementary and high school textbooks, and sites of memory to remind us how the past bleeds into the present?

Unlike universities such as Princeton, Yale, and Georgetown that are trying to come to terms with the paradox of enlightened knowledge coexisting with the trade in enslaved Africans, the University of California has not yet examined its own complicity in institutionalized racism, such as how Berkeley’s Anthropology department rose to international prominence by promoting the enthusiastic grab of thousands of Native graves in order to accumulate artifacts and human remains for display and science.[3]

The Custer painting is one of several current controversies about historical amnesia taking place in California. In San Francisco, organizations led by Native American groups lobbied the Arts and Historical Preservation Commissions to remove a section of the “Early Days” memorial in Civic Center that depicts a vaquero and missionary standing over an almost naked Indian, presumably offering to uplift him into a civilization that almost liquidated his people.

For years, activists at Stanford have been urging the university to erase the name of Father Junipero Serra from buildings, given his role as a key architect of a Mission system that laid the foundations of California’s genocide. Down south at Long Beach State University, the descendants of the Tongva people who lived here from time immemorial are deeply offended by the campus’ mythic statue of Prospector Pete, a celebration of manly conquest.[4]

Up the coast in the town of Arcata, activists petitioned the city council to remove a statue of President McKinley from the public square, and a marker outside the historic Jacoby building constructed in 1857. They object to McKinley as a civic icon, given his racial politics and war against the Philippines that marked the rise of American imperialism.

A similar monument to Admiral Dewey in San Francisco’s Union Square glorifies war and expansionism in a city with a reputation for antiwar activism.

 

The Jacoby plaque in Arcata commemorated a building that “served periodically as a refuge in time of Indian troubles,” a refuge for Gold Rush settlers and speculators. This seemingly neutral statement makes a mockery of genocide by turning victims into perpetrators. It perpetuates the fable that the good citizens of the region did not participate in, support, or fund military campaigns that reduced once thriving tribal communities to one thirtieth of their population by the end of the nineteenth century; or that well into the twentieth century they had nothing to do with the commerce in Native women, children, artifacts, and human bones that played a significant role in the economic development of northwest California.

In Berkeley, a campaign is under way to change the name of a building in which the law school is housed. In May 2017, Charles Reichmann, a university lecturer, published an opinion in the San Francisco Chronicle that exposed John Henry Boalt, after whom Boalt Hall is named, as a “virulently racist” proponent of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, who was “instrumental in catalyzing California opinion in support of this law.”[5] Berkeley’s new law school dean, Erwin Chemerinsky, appointed a committee to explore how the name might be changed, and how to juggle the competing demands of Chinese-American law students, academics from China, anti-racism activists, conservative alumni who identify themselves as “Boalties,” and university lawyers worried about the fine print of a bequest.

What these examples have in common, aside from a shared racial narrative about civilization and savagery, is that many memorials were created around the same time: “Custer’s Last Stand” was painted in 1883, “Early Days” erected in 1894, the Dewey monument in 1903, the McKinley statue in 1906, and Boalt Hall named in 1911. There are exceptions to this timeline: Long Beach State branded Prospector Pete in 1949, and the Arcata plaque was installed in 1963, testimony to the staying power of imagery that was popularized in nineteenth century tropes about hardy settlers and “Indian troubles.”

The destruction of Native communities was well known and publicized in the second half of the nineteenth century. Reformers spoke out against the “sin” of the “brutal treatment of the California tribes,” and lamented the uncivilized behavior of the civilizers. “Never before in history,” wrote a popular journalist in the early 1870s, “has a people been swept away with such terrible swiftness, or appalled into utter and whispering silence forever and forever.”[6] But by the early twentieth century, as direct experience of the horrors of genocide faded from public memory and as the state looked for an origins story more suitably heroic, agents of genocide were remade into founding fathers.

The production of the state’s revisionist history was a popular enterprise, incorporated into grandly produced “theatres of memory,” such as world fairs and local spectacles, into travel books, memoirs, adventure stories, textbooks, and magazines that exported the California Story around the country, long before Hollywood entered the picture.[7]

The creation of a public narrative of the past both excused and legitimated racist images of Native peoples, making it easier for future generations to sleep untroubled and evade a reckoning with the region’s “Early Days.” The logic of late nineteenth and early twentieth century scientific racism was central to framing the attempted extermination of hundreds of thousands of people as a natural rather than social history, and as a process of inevitable erosion and decline rather than the result of human intervention and aggression.

By the early twentieth century, as direct experience of the horrors of genocide faded from public memory and as the state looked for an origins story more suitably heroic, agents of genocide were remade into founding fathers.

The California Story imagined Native peoples as a “disappearing race,” predestined to extinction as a result of their own biological inferiority, the survivors characterized as child-like and in need of the firm hand of civilizing institutions, such as the vaquero and priest in the San Francisco tableau. Literary images of California Indians generally emphasized the passivity of victims, thus implying complicity in their own demise (reminiscent of 1950s depictions of Jews as sheep being too easily led to their slaughter during the Holocaust), despite a long history of resistance, from guerilla warfare during the Gold Rush, to young men and women in boarding schools plotting revolts, to political organizing against the looting of graves.

The effectiveness of this remaking of history meant that by the 1930s a popular book could relegate the ruin of California’s Native peoples to a footnote. As late as 1984, an elementary school text transformed the bloody horrors of the 1850s into a mild case of culture conflict: “The people who came to look for gold and to settle in California did not understand the Indians. They made fun of the way the Indians dressed and acted.”[8]

The upbeat version of the California Story that turned profound injustices into a narrative of Progress served to erect a cultural firewall between the bloody past and present, thus numbing many generations of schoolchildren to our sorrowful history.


Civilization and Barbarism

“Custer’s Last Stand” was a national story that resonated in California as both a vindication of expansionism and a warning against the dangers of barbarism. The painting that hangs in Oakland’s senior center evokes a battle scene in 1876 in which General George Armstrong Custer died along with some 263 soldiers of the 7th Cavalry at Little Big Horn, Montana. You might reasonably think that the term “Last Stand” refers to the resistance of Plains Indians to the U.S. Army’s onslaught before, as Philip Deloria observes: “a mechanized, train-riding, machine-gunning military rapidly subdued native people, forcing them to reservations.”[9]

Perversely, the “Last Stand” refers to Custer’s role in his final battle. Custer was a military man all his short life (1839-1876). He graduated from West Point and fought in the Civil War. After that war was over, he fought Indians. He died at war. Given how well his name is known (though inevitably paired with “Last Stand”), you might also think that he was an unblemished military leader who had a bit of bad luck at Little Big Horn, or that he was a warrior of extraordinary courage—the last one standing in the battle. Historical evidence suggests neither is true.

Today, Custer’s reputation is mixed, with one military historian characterizing him as a “gallant idiot.” In the 1860s, in large part due to his knack for self-promotion through published articles and a book (My Life on the Plains), and for attracting a favorable press, the youngest divisional commander in the Cavalry Corps became known as “The Boy General with the Golden Locks.” As historian Richard Slotkin observes, Custer “took direct charge of the making of his own public persona.”[10]

After the Civil War, Custer’s career was up and down.

In 1867, during the Kansas-Colorado campaign, he ordered deserters shot without trial and left his post without permission, for which he was sentenced to a one-year suspension from the military without pay. In 1868 he returned from exile to defeat the Southern Cheyenne at the Washita, and was rumored to have encouraged his soldiers to rape women captives.[11]

The upbeat version of the California Story that turned profound injustices into a narrative of Progress served to erect a cultural firewall between the bloody past and present, thus numbing many generations of schoolchildren to our sorrowful history.

If, as the Sioux chief Sitting Bull put it, “the love of possessions is a disease among them,” Custer was somebody who enthusiastically spread the virus. In violation of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, signed by the Sioux and U.S. government, Custer led an expedition looking for gold into the Black Hills of Dakota in 1874. He regarded Indians as a once “noble race” who had degenerated and were doomed to extinction: “The Indian cannot be himself and be civilized: he fades away and dies.”[12]

In 1876, as a sort of poetic justice, Custer blundered into the largest gathering of Plains Indians fighters ever assembled in central Montana. With the story of the “Last Stand,” he became the celebrity in death that he never fully achieved while he was alive.[13]

We know from military and Native histories that the term is not an accurate description of what took place at Little Big Horn. The battle was chaotic and overwhelming, with Custer and his men swept away quickly in a rout. The actual fighting took about “as long as it takes a hungry man to eat a meal,” according to one account. There was no heroic Last Stand at the Battle of the Greasy Grass, the much less romantic name that Native fighters used. Like war in general, it was nasty and brutal, with the defeated fleeing in panic. According to an oral history with Wooden Leg, a Northern Cheyenne fighter, the battle “looked like thousands of dogs might look if all of them were mixed together in a fight.” A day or so later, Custer and his men were found strewn about in the stifling heat, naked and torn apart, their bodies covered in flies and swollen with gas.[14]

So how did a leader associated with one of the nation’s worst military defeats become a national hero? According to Slotkin, the celebration of the United States centennial in Philadelphia on 4 July 1876, nine days after the battle of Little Big Horn, provided an opportunity to remake Custer’s humiliating death into a “redemptive sacrifice” on behalf of the nation’s quest to “bring light, law, liberty, Christianity, and commerce to the savage places of the earth.” The myth of “Custer’s Last Stand” became a cultural icon, popularized in the media as a stand-in for the need to overcome anxieties about rebellions from below, whether Indian tribes fighting back, or a labor movement demanding workers’ rights, or a capitalist civilization threatened by barbarian immigrants.[15]

Some credit for the popularity of the Custer myth can also be given to his wife’s relentless publicity campaign that persisted for fifty-seven years after his death, similar to the role played by Beatrice Patton who appointed herself the guardian of the official memory of another self-promoting general, George Patton, after his death at the end of World War II.[16] Until 1991, when Native activists forced Congress to make changes, the National Park Service glorified a fictional Custer by turning the Custer Battlefield National Monument into a shrine that elevated him above the tribes that defeated him.[17]

Custer, 1876

Custer, 1876

The making of the myth of the Last Stand was, like the making of the California Story, a massive literary and artistic production. In “Death-Sonnet for Custer,” written a couple of weeks after the general’s death, Walt Whitman represented him as a Christ-like figure who gave his life in the “fatal environment” of the “Indian ambuscade,” and left an example of “fighting to the last in sternest heroism,” at his “most glorious in defeat.”[18]

It is this image of Custer in the mold of Daniel Boone that stars in the painting in Oakland. The building in which it hangs was constructed in 1927 for the Veterans’ Administration, and the painting was donated in the 1930s as a gift in honor of veterans of the Spanish-American War. For years the city has owned the Veterans’ Memorial Building that is now primarily used as a center for seniors, though four veterans’ organizations still retain a small presence.[19]

The painting is dated 1883 and signed “A.D. Cooper.” Astley David Middleton Cooper was born in St. Louis in 1856 and came of age during the Civil War. He moved to the Bay Area in 1870 when the military phase of the genocide against California tribes was taking place, where he made a living as an artist churning out as many as one thousand paintings until his death in 1924. He specialized in romantic images of an imagined Native past, as well as cheesy nudes. His “Last Stand” was part of a booming cottage industry that made the myth seem like real history to millions of people and helped to frame the West as the land of last stands. Even as killing expeditions, enslavement of women, cultural annihilation, and looting of thousands of graves took place around him in California, he chose to conjure up exotic, faraway savages as subjects for his paintings.

San Jose likes to claim Cooper as one of their preeminent celebrities and “a legendary local figure,” but in reality he was, according to art historian Annie Ronan, a relatively minor figure in American art. Today, in comparison with peers such as Frederic Remington and C.R. Russell, Cooper’s work has little commercial value.[20]

Cooper was also a flimflam artist and, like Custer, embellished his public reputation. He said that at the age of twelve he had learned his trade in Paris, “where he studied under the best masters,” that he had taken medical courses in anatomy, that he had lived with the Lakota, that he traveled with Custer, and so on. [21] In fact, there is no evidence for any of these claims or that he had any direct experiences living or working with Native peoples.

Moreover, the painting of “Custer’s Last Stand” has little resemblance to the real Custer, and there is a good possibility that Cooper was not even its artist. Custer liked to model his appearance—buckskins included—on William Cody. Popularly known as Buffalo Bill, Cody was a former military scout who made his name in Wild West performances. After Custer’s death, Cody returned the compliment and performed as a Custer lookalike.[22] The Custer in “Custer’s Last Stand” looks less like the real Custer, with his thinning and graying hair, and more like Buffalo Bill performing “The Boy General with the Golden Locks.”

Cooper usually signed his work as “A.D.M. Cooper.” He also encouraged his apprentices to copy his paintings and sign his name. Given that “Custer’s Last Stand” is signed “A.D. Cooper” and, according to Ronan, is “more cartoonish and compositionally different” than Cooper’s other pieces, the work that hangs in the Oakland senior center is likely a copy, and should be more accurately titled, Buffalo Bill Performing Custer’s Last Stand, attributed to A.D.M. Cooper.[23]


To Be Determined

The celebration of efforts to pacify and assimilate Native tribes—as evoked in the art of “Custer’s Last Stand” and the memorial to “Early Days”—set a standard for other chapters in the California Story’s racial narrative: making an advocate of the ethnic cleansing of Chinese immigrants into a founding father of a law school; and honoring the men who subjugated the Philippines with statues in city centers. As Carey McWilliams observed, to understand “race attitudes” in the United States, “one must begin at the beginning,” starting with racism against Native peoples as the “point of departure.”[24]

Recent campaigns to remove or replace images, memorials, and statues that glorify conquest or erase struggles for social justice have had mixed results. Arcata’s city council quickly moved to remove the plaque that identified a building as a refuge from “Indian troubles.” Its effort to take down the McKinley statue from the town’s plaza, however, met national opposition and a vigorous local campaign to preserve the landmark. A ballot initiative in November may decide this issue, but the town’s deep political divide will endure. Meanwhile, Admiral Dewey still towers over San Francisco’s Union Square.[25]

Despite legal efforts by a group opposed to “destroying a part of history,” as dawn broke on 14 September, city workers hauled away the 2,000-pound “Early Days” statue from San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza. Ohlone tribal leaders witnessed this victory. Similarly, Stanford University will soon expunge Junipero Serra’s name from its buildings, and Prospector Pete will no longer “strike the gold of education” at Long Beach State University.[26]

At Berkeley, a committee appointed by the dean of the law school called for dishonoring the nineteenth century lawyer who once made the case that “the Chinaman… excites in us, or at least in most of us, an unconquerable repulsion.” If the committee’s recommendations prevail, the law school building will no longer be named Boalt Hall, after a man whose “principal public legacy is one of racism and bigotry.”[27]

These struggles over history and memory are not easily resolved. The Boalt committee at Berkeley, a university known globally as a bastion of liberal thought and activism, surveyed some 2,000 members of the “law school community” about how the law school building should be named. As many as one-third of respondents wanted no change in the status quo, while another eleven percent argued that the Boalt name should remain in honor of John Boalt’s wife who made the bequest after her husband’s death. Less than fifty percent of respondents agreed with the committee’s findings. Some eighteen months after Charles Reichmann published his essay exposing John Boalt’s unvarnished racism, we have not yet reached the more difficult second stage of the struggle: How and what to rename the building?

Meanwhile, as of October 2018, Custer still makes his Last Stand in Oakland’s senior center.

I welcome the current debates about how we name the places in which we live, work, and go to school, a process that until now has never been subject to democratic governance. It takes concerted and sometimes lengthy efforts to remove symbols of racism and superiority from public squares and buildings. Still ahead is the more difficult and messy challenge of how to publicly do justice to the tragic past, represent today’s profound inequalities and injustices, and recognize the social movements and activists who have tried and continue to try to make the United States, in the words of Langston Hughes, into “the land that has never been yet.” These challenges remain to be determined, as we must too.

 0218_Docket_Name TBD.jpg

Notes

[1] Maya Salam, “America’s Public-Statue Gender Gap,” The New York Times, international edition, 15 August 2018.

[2] Benjamin Madley, An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).

[3] “Princeton History Project: History and Slavery,” https://slavery.princeton.edu/stories/princeton-and-slavery-holding-the-center; “Yale, Slavery and Abolition,” http://www.yaleslavery.org/YSA.pdf; “Georgetown University: Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation,” http://slavery.georgetown.edu/; Tony Platt, Grave Matters: Excavating California’s Buried Past (Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2011).

[4] Nanette Asimov, “Stanford Renaming Serra Sites Over Treatment of Tribes,” San Francisco Chronicle (16 September 2018); Tony Platt, “Sainthood and Serra: It’s An Insult to Native Americans,” Los Angeles Times, 24 January 2015; Jose A. Del Real, “Divisive College Figure, Prospector Pete Statue Is Set to Be Removed,” The New York Times, 4 October 2018.

[5] Charles Reichmann, “The Case for Renaming Boalt Hall,” San Francisco Chronicle, 18 May 2017.

[6] Barbara A. Davis, Edward S. Curtis: The Life and Times of a Shadow Catcher (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1985), 70; Stephen Powers, Tribes of California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 404.

[7] Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture (London: Verso, 1994).

[8] A.A. Gray, History of California From 1542 (Boston: D.C. Heath, 1934), 338; Durlynn C. Anema et al., California Yesterday and Today (Morristown, New Jersey: Silver Burdett, 1984), 167.

[9] Philip J. Deloria, Playing Indian (Yale University Press, 1998), 104.

[10] Richard Slotkin, The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800-1890 (Wesleyan University Press, 1986), 7, 385, 409.

[11] Ibid., 402-403.

[12] George Armstrong Custer, “The Red Man” (1858), cited in Slotkin, The Fatal Environment, 410.

[13] Deloria, Playing Indian, 104.

[14] Peter Nabokov, ed., Native American Testimony: A Chronicle of Indian-White Relations from Prophecy to the Present 1492-2000 (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), 110; Slotkin, The Fatal Environment, 431.

[15] Slotkin, The Fatal Environment, 8, 531; William H. Truettner, ed., The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820-1920 (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art, 1991), 297.

[16] Tony Platt, Bloodlines: Recovering Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws, From Patton’s Trophy to Public Memorial (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2006), 140-141.

[17] James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory (New York: The New Press, 2006), 172; Kenneth E. Foote, Shadowed Ground: America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003).

[18] Slotkin, The Fatal Environment, 10-11.

[19] Personal communication from Jennifer King, Director, Downtown Oakland Senior Center.

[20] Gary Singh, “San Jose’s Most Notorious Painter Exhibits at Cantor Arts Center,” Metro News, 12 August 2015. Evaluation of Cooper’s artistic merit relies on interviews with art historian Annie Ronan, Earlham College, and Emily Godby, “Trilby Goes Naked and Native on the Midway,” in The Trans-Mississippi and International Expositions of 1898-1899: Art, Anthropology, and Popular Culture at the Fin de Siècle, ed. Wendy Jean Katz (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018), 161-194.

[21] “Trilby’s Artist,” Omaha Daily Bee (16 September 1898).

[22] Slotkin, The Fatal Environment, 408.

[23] Personal communication with Annie Ronan.

[24] Carey McWilliams, Brothers Under the Skin (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1944), 50, 67.

[25] Kimberly Wear, “McKinley Statue Debate Making the Media Rounds,” North Coast Journal (3 April 2018) Thaddeus Greenson, “Arcata Council Sends McKinley Initiative to Voters,” North Coast Journal (2 July 2018).

[26] Dominic Fracassa, “Disputed Statue Taken Down Before Sunrise,” San Francisco Chronicle (15 September 2018); Nanette Asimov, “Stanford Renaming Sierra Sites Over Treatment of Tribes,” San Francisco Chronicle (16 September 2018); Jose A. Del Real, “Divisive College Figure, Prospector Pete Statue is Set to be Removed.”

[27] Charles Cannon et al., “Report of the Committee on the Use of the Boalt Name,” U.C. Berkeley Law (25 June 2018); Nanette Asimov, “Cal Law School Reconsiders Boalt Name,” San Francisco Chronicle, 12 September 2008.

 

Tony Platt is Distinguished Affiliated Scholar at the Center for the Study of Law and Society, UC Berkeley, and the author of twelve books, including Beyond These Walls: Rethinking Crime and Punishment in the United States (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2019). Thanks to Kathryn Heard for research assistance; to anonymous reviewer and Cecilia O’Leary for critical feedback, and to Sara Wadford for permission to use her image “To Be Determined,” Photo illustration by ABA Journal/Shutterstock.

Copyright: © 2018 Tony Platt. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Articles

Greetings from Bakersfield!

Shawn Schwaller

“Greeting from Bakersfield California” reads an early twentieth century postcard touting the various tourist attractions in the city and greater region. Bakersfield is mostly known as the home of the “Bakersfield Sound,” a style invented by country music legends such as Buck Owens and Merle Haggard in the 1950s and 1960s, and as a destination for migrants who came from places like Oklahoma during the Great Depression’s Dust Bowl. It is located in the southern part of California’s Central Valley, a multibillion-dollar agricultural region that provides a significant portion of the nation’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts. When Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, Bakersfield was on the frontlines of racism and extremism, and a city located in a county where police corruption and law enforcement official-involved deaths ranked among the highest in the country.

Bakersfield, and Kern County as a whole, is the heart of California’s “Deep South” when it comes to race relations, the immigration debate, and the politics of white minoritization. Unlike the Deep South, where African Americans have faced a long legacy of white supremacy, Latinx peoples who are composed of mostly Mexican-Americans, make up over fifty percent of Kern County’s population. Importantly, the Latinx population faces the brunt of white supremacist and neo-Nazi racial violence, corruption in county law enforcement agencies, and a white working- and middle-class public who openly shared their racist view of Mexican-Americans as they boldly pledged support for Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential contest.

In the 2012 presidential election, fifty-seven percent of Kern County’s population voted for Mitt Romney. Four years later, a majority voted for Donald Trump. This is in a state where over sixty-one percent of the population voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the Latinx population in the county increased dramatically. Bakersfield, the urban center of the county, is home to approximately 360,000 residents, of which nearly half are of Latinx. Among California counties, it is home to the state’s fastest growing population and much of this growth is due to the increase in the Latinx population.

Despite the undeniable importance and visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement as the twenty-first century took off, the county with the highest number of the kinds of deaths protested by the movement is Kern County, and the victims tend to be Latinx. Between 2008 and 2014, Kern County law enforcement officials killed 3.54 residents per 100,000 on average each year, the highest number among all counties in the U.S.[1] In 2015 alone, fourteen people were killed by law enforcement officials in the county, equaling 1.5 deaths per 100,000. That’s three times the total in Los Angeles County, which ranked forty-fifth in the U.S. During the same year, New York Police Department officers policing the five boroughs—a population ten times larger than Kern County—killed only ten people.[2] While a vast majority of the victims were Latino, most of the deaths came at the hands of white males who compose approximately seventy-five percent of law enforcement officials in the county.

Looking_west_on_19th_Street_at_K._St.,_Bakersfield,_Calif_(73331)_ed_dark

Although protest and candlelight vigils followed these deaths, the lack of a “Latinx Lives Matter” type of movement, or multiethnic and racial alliance against police brutality on a broader level, illustrates the vulnerable state of the population in red California’s urban center.

The high rate of law enforcement-related deaths garnered a national media spotlight and prompted attention from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). In December 2016, State Attorney General Kamala Harris and the State Department of Justice began a civil rights investigation based on “excessive use of force and other serious misconduct” committed by law enforcement officials employed in the county. The announcement regarding the investigation failed to mention that most of the victims of this possible excessive force and misconduct were Latino males. Although protest and candlelight vigils followed these deaths, the lack of a “Latinx Lives Matter” type of movement, or multiethnic and racial alliance against police brutality on a broader level, illustrates the vulnerable state of the population in red California’s urban center.

In Kern County, the Latinx population is burdened with worry about not only police brutality, but also racist violence from the general public and anti-immigrant sentiments that place the lives of undocumented peoples in danger of incarceration and deportation. The lack of attention paid to the systemic racism and law enforcement related deaths in Kern County faced by the Latinx population also stems from two other issues. One of these is the fact that race relations tends to be viewed in binary terms as a black-and-white problem. This continues to marginalize Latinx peoples from the broader narrative of race and ethnic relations throughout history, and prevents an accurate understanding of the diverse multicultural society that is twenty-first century California. The second issue is the mainstream U.S. American social and cultural notion that Latinx peoples are only recent arrivals. This misconception stretches even further to wrongfully rationalizing that Latinx peoples have no meaningful history or roots in the present-day U.S., and as such make little contributions to society. The presence of a vulnerable undocumented population, as well as flawed notions of race relations and the Latinx-American experience, fuels a collective inability to bring greater oversight to the law enforcement corruption and systemic racism in Kern County.

Within the first few hundred days of his administration in 2017, Donald Trump sent U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials deep into the heart of even the smallest towns in central and northern California to round up undocumented immigrants. Passed in April 2017, Senate Bill 54 classified California as a “sanctuary state” and guaranteed that state resources would not contribute to the detainment and deportation of undocumented immigrants. Elected in 2006, Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood had proposed to go against the California state government and make it a “non-sanctuary county.” However, the Latinx community has faced more dangerous and time-spanning social conditions that have threatened their lives and well-being in Kern County.

Law enforcement-involved deaths of Latinx residents of Kern County was not new in 2015. Between 2005 and 2015, most of the seventy-nine law enforcement-involved killings occurred on the southeast side of Bakersfield, which is an area where Latinx peoples are the majority. On the evening of 7 May 2013, Kern County Sheriff’s deputies approached David Silva as he slept across the street from the Kern County Medical Center waiting to get help for bouts of depression. Upon their approach, Sheriff’s officers attempted to wake him up, then proceeded to handcuff him as he woke up, fearing he was on PCP. As Silva tried to stand up, likely in somewhat of a state of shock after being abruptly awoke by Sheriff’s deputies, the officers unleashed a police dog, which bit him thirty times. Sheriff’s deputies then struck him several times with batons, hog-tied him, and placed a shield on his head. Before leaving the scene, Sheriff’s deputies confiscated phones used by witnesses to record their treatment of Silva. After vomiting throughout the evening in custody of the Sheriff’s Department, the 33-year-old father of four stopped breathing and died just after midnight the next day.[3] In May of 2016, Kern County agreed to pay $3.4 million to settle a suit brought on by Silva’s family.

Another one of the more controversial law enforcement-related killings came in November of 2014 when Bakersfield Police Department officers pursued James Villegas in a high-speed chase. After wrecking his vehicle, the 22-year-old Villegas was fired upon and killed by police officers. According to officers on the scene, he approached them in a confrontational manner and reached for his waistband after exiting the wrecked vehicle.

Witnesses of the incident involving Villegas told a different story. At least two witnesses testified that he put his hands in the air after exiting the wrecked vehicle and was waiting for the officers to approach him as they abruptly fired their weapons at him. As was the case with a majority of law enforcement-related deaths in Kern County that occurred both before and after the Villegas incident, the officers who killed him were cleared of any wrongdoing.[4] A few days after Villegas’s death, 200 community members held a candlelight vigil with signs that read such things as, “Hands Up. Don’t Shoot.” “We just want to raise awareness,” claimed David Silva’s brother Christopher at the vigil. Silva passionately continued with this strong message: “There’s something very wrong in this town.”[5]

 Silva passionately continued with this strong message: “There’s something very wrong in this town.”

As if the police-related killings in early twenty-first century Kern County were not enough, the disturbing behavior exhibited by law enforcement officials sheds light on a wide range of social and cultural problems in the region’s law enforcement community. Following the death of James Villegas, veteran officer Aaron Stringer entered the coroner’s office, reached under the sheet covering his deceased body, fondled him, and tickled his toes in front of other officers. He then proceeded to twist Villegas’s neck while joking about the human body in the condition of rigor mortis, while stating, “I love playing with dead bodies.”[6]

In what was at the time not made public, the City of Bakersfield paid the Villegas family $400,000 to settle the case shortly after the incident. The Public Records Act allows city and county law enforcement agencies to keep settlements private, but if a member of the public asks for the records they must be provided. In 2017, after requesting records of settlements stemming from possible police misconduct, Bakersfield area news agencies broke a story that uncovered an expensive history of payouts. Between 2010 and 2017, the police department paid out over $5 million to settle cases involving police while the County Sheriff’s Department paid out $22 million.[7] In April of 2018, Sheriff Youngblood was caught on video stating that it was better, from a financial standpoint, to kill a suspect than “cripple” them, “because if you cripple them you have to take care of them for life, and that cost goes way up.”[8] Similar to the investigation launched by State Attorney General Kamala Harris in 2016, Youngblood’s comments were covered in the national media; but the fact that most victims were Latinx was left out. In June of 2018, Youngblood was re-elected as Kern County Sheriff by over sixty-four percent of the population. “I feel good,” stated the sheriff at his election night party held at the legendary Buck Owens Crystal Palace. “This is exactly what we thought would happen. We’re just going to go back to work and serve this community.”[9]

A few years before the Villegas incident, officer Stringer plead no contest to misdemeanor reckless driving and was able to get charges dropped on a 2010 hit-and-run and driving under the influence charge. Stringer, who retired following the Villegas incident, was not exactly a model citizen himself amongst other law enforcement officials. Unfortunately, he was not alone.

Other local law enforcement officials exhibited similar behavior that certainly does not rest within the bounds of what Donald Trump, and other presidents before him like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan referred to as “law and order.” In 2011, Bakersfield police officer Scott Drewry left the department after he was charged with a misdemeanor for throwing a rock through the window of a local business because of a civil depute the business owner had with one of his family members. In July 2012, Officer Albert Smith received a thirty-day jail sentence and three years of probation after he pled no contest to a misdemeanor charge of engaging in sex with a prostitute. Smith reportedly engaged in sex acts with at least three local prostitutes while on duty in his patrol car, as well as other undisclosed locations. The court dropped six of the seven charges he faced and Smith resigned shortly before the hearing.

“The 357 other men and women that work at the Bakersfield Police Department are here and dedicated to public safety,” claimed Chief Williamson after the Smith conviction, stating also that “they’re dedicated to serving our community” and “they are committed to going out every day, day in and day out, and putting their lives on the line to keep our citizens safe.”[10] Police and sheriff-involved deaths, incarceration rates that exhibited institutional racism, county and city law enforcement payouts, and criminal activities conducted by law enforcement figures, however, told a different story.

In 2013, former Bakersfield police detective Christopher Bowersox began a ten-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to possessing images of child victims of sexual abuse.[11] In May of 2017, Kern County Sheriff’s deputies Logan August and Derrick Penney pled guilty to conspiring to steal and distribute marijuana. August had participated in numerous drug busts with the narcotics division. After stealing, trimming, and bagging confiscated marijuana, he distributed over twenty-five pounds of the drug at a street price of $15,000. In a video issued to Kern County residents, August claimed “I am sorry” and that “I made a decision based on Satan playing games with me.”[12] August and Penny pled guilty to federal drugs charges, and received three years of probation and 250 hours of community service.

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August and Penney worked with former Bakersfield police detective Patrick Mara and others to steal marijuana from Kern County Sheriff’s office storage facilities between June and October of 2014. Mara began his five-year prison sentence in October 2014 after pleading guilty to conspiracy to distribute methamphetamines. His former partner Damacio Diaz started a five-year prison sentence two years later on charges that he accepted bribes from a drug trafficker, sold methamphetamine he confiscated and stole from the department, and filed fraudulent tax returns.

In August 2016, Officer Rick Wimbish and his partner responded to a break-in at a Subway restaurant. Upon their arrival they fired on the perpetrator, twenty-nine-year-old Jason Alderman, as he crawled out of the glass front door he had smashed in. Alderman died at the scene after being struck by seven bullets. After an unsuccessful attempt by the Bakersfield Police Department to confiscate the video camera footage and hide it from the public, it was released and a wrongful death lawsuit was filed by Alderman’s family.[13] Alderman’s death was the first officer-involved shooting reviewed by the District Attorney’s office, which prompted State Attorney General Kamala Harris to launch an investigation on law enforcement officials in the county later that year. The most significant difference between Alderman and a majority of the other victims of police-involved deaths is that he was white.

Officer Wimbish, one of the figures who fired on Alderman, was the son of a former Kern County Sheriff and a twenty-five-year veteran of the Bakersfield Police Department. Prior to his encounter with Alderman, he was involved in four fatal shootings in a two-year period, firing with other officers in one instance on an unarmed confidential informant and member of his own department, Jorge Ramirez, during a planned operation. None of these shootings, however, prevented Wimbish from earning a salary and benefits package that totaled $200,000 annually as he continued to work as a police officer, while also instructing other officers and teaching local schoolchildren about the important role performed by law enforcement officials in the community.

In December 2016, Bakersfield police officers fired seven shots at Francisco Serna, an unarmed seventy-three-year-old man with dementia who was taking a walk one evening. They killed him right across the street from his home in southwest Bakersfield. Like the two residents who called 9-1-1 to reports Serna’s supposedly bizarre behavior, police officers mistook a dark colored plastic crucifix he was carrying for a revolver. Following his death, Serna’s family cited that he often took evening walks around the neighborhood to help himself go to sleep.[14] In July 2017, Police Chief Lyle Martin called Serna’s death “unfortunate” and “tragic,” while also stating that the police officer who fired the shots was working within the department’s, as well as state and federal, guidelines. At least six officers approached Serna after he was identified by the neighbors who called 9-1-1 on him, but only one responded to his actions with gunshots.

In addition to the rash of police-involved deaths faced by the Latinx community, incarceration statistics also highlight a broader racist criminal justice system in Kern County. In 2004, Kern County had the highest third strike incarceration rate in the state with 59 per 100,000 residents. Passed by California voters in 1994, Proposition 184 mandated that three nonviolent felony convictions brought a sentence of twenty-five years to life. It was the strictest “three-strike” policy in the country and contributed greatly to the over-population of California prisons, as well as the disproportionate incarceration of Black and Latinx residents. According to a 2004 Justice Policy Institute study, Kern County’s Latinx third strike incarceration rate, at 53.7 per 100,000, was the highest in the state and nearly three times the rate of Los Angeles County.[15] Overall, Latinx incarceration rates in Kern County are nearly double the state rate.

In addition to the systemic racism in the criminal justice system, in July 2017 several civil rights groups including the Dolores Huerta Foundation, reached a settlement with the Kern County High School District regarding a lawsuit which alleged that Black and Latinx students were unfairly targeted for suspension and expulsion. In 2009, the district reported 2,205 expulsions, the highest number in California. This is in a school district where the Latinx population comprised sixty-four percent of the student population.[16] These findings and the lawsuit against the school district illustrate the way in which Black and Latinx students are tracked from the schools to the prisons at a much higher rate than the white community. Between the 1990s and the 2010s, funding for prisons and jails in California rose three times faster than spending on schools, and allotment for higher education in the state remained relatively flat.[17]

Some white county and city residents, like so many other places hard hit by economic changes in the last few decades, expressed belief that a Trump presidency would revive the local economy. At the start of 2016, the unemployment rate in Kern County was over eleven percent more than double that of California as a whole. Likewise, at approximately forty-nine thousand, the median income in the county was nearly twenty thousand dollars less than the state average and one in five families in Bakersfield lived below the poverty line during the 2016 presidential race. Roadways and front yards across the county were lined with Trump’s signature “Make America Great Again” signs.

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In October 2016, Joe Arpaio, the former Sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona, headlined one of the largest pro-Trump rallies held in the county. During his speech, Arpaio joked that President Obama didn’t like him because of his incredibly vocal support of the Birther Movement. The sheriff was widely known to encourage racial profiling by law enforcement figures under him during his time in office in Arizona.

At the very moment he addressed the crowd in Bakersfield, Arpaio faced federal charges that he defied a judge’s order to stop targeting Latinx peoples in traffic stops and other activities conducted by the Maricopa County Sherriff’s Department. In addition to the federal lawsuit, Arpaio also refused to allow the Sheriff’s Department to recognize President Obama’s decision to grant temporary immunity to undocumented peoples who came to the U.S. as children. “They hate me, the Hispanic community, because they’re afraid they’re going to be arrested,” Arpaio boasted in a 2009 television interview, “and they’re all leaving town, so I think we’re doing something good.” [18] “As Arizona has become center stage for the debate over illegal immigration and the civil rights of Latinos,” explained Joe Hagan in an August 2012 edition of Rolling Stone, “Arpaio has sold himself as the symbol of nativist defiance, a modern-day Bull Connor bucking the federal government over immigration policy.”[19] The crowd at the Bakersfield Trump rally numbered in the thousands and was almost exclusively white. President Trump pardoned Arpaio in October of 2017 and in March of 2018, he announced he was running for Senate and vowed to revive the Birther Movement.

Despite the profound level of social divisions in the county and Trump’s highly divisive rhetoric, one Kern County native cited that he would help end social divisions. The same individual argued without providing any examples or context—and without being provoked—that “I cannot stand being called a racist, a bigot. I have nothing against anyone. Don’t tell me what I feel or what I think. I am so sick of that narrative being shoved down my throat.”[20] While many public intellectuals, writers, politicians, and voters pushed the narrative that they voted for Trump because of “economic anxiety,” the talk of ending social divisions did not include people of color in Bakersfield and the rest of the country, just as the slogan “Make American Great Again” struck a particular chord in white identity politics with its implicit embrace of the “good old days” when white male supremacy was even more entrenched in American society than it was in 2016.

Donald Trump’s racist claims that Mexican immigrants were drug dealers, criminals, and rapists during speeches, illustrate that his campaign, as well as the support he received, was based on much more than just “economic anxiety.” Kern County residents expressed sentiments which illuminated the point that their support of Trump went far beyond economic concerns to embrace racist worldviews. Residents in Oildale, a predominantly white and Republican unincorporated suburban community a few miles north of downtown Bakersfield, overwhelmingly supported Trump during his run for office. The community is over 75% white and has a long tradition of racism.

In the 1960s, when African Americans represented a larger portion of the non-white population in the Bakersfield area, white residents hung a sign on the bridge that crosses the Kern River between Bakersfield and Oildale. The sign stated the following: “Nigger, Don’t Let the Sun Set on You in Oildale.”[21] In the mid-1970s, over a dozen black students enrolled at Taft Junior College were escorted out of the southwestern Kern County community by law enforcement officials after they were attacked by a white mob shouting, “Kill the Niggers!”[22] The incident eventually prompted the State Attorney General at the time to launch an investigation regarding the violation of civil rights. This was long before Kamala Harris pushed for the investigation of excessive force and misconduct among law enforcement officials in the county. In Boron, a town east of Bakersfield, three Ku Klux Klan members were arrested in 1981 for burning a cross in the front yard of a black family’s residence and in the 1990s several black motorists were attacked on the streets of Oildale by white residents.[23]

In one instance, the car windshield of a black motorist was smashed by a white woman shouting racist insults. In another, two white residents were charged with federal civil rights convictions for stabbing a black man. Black cab drivers in greater Bakersfield also avoided Oildale in the 1990s, as one reportedly entered a bar to notify a customer of his arrival only to be told, “We don’t like niggers in here.”[24] A watermelon was placed in the front yard of one black family who moved into Oildale and racist literature regularly appeared on doorsteps and in mailboxes throughout the 1990s.[25]

Members of the Chamber of Commerce actively tried to improve the image of Bakersfield in the early 1990s, and many were in denial that places like Oildale were seething with racist hatred. “There’s no more bias here than anywhere else” explained David Brandon of the Chamber of Commerce.[26] “The community is more diverse and more accepting today,” cited North High School principle Bill Bimat, who also explained that “thirty years ago a black couldn’t buy a house, couldn’t work here, and literally would’ve been run out of town.”[27] These civic and business leaders expressed a different reality than the former leader of the Bakersfield chapter of the NAACP in the early 1990s who explained that “if you’re black, you’re always looking over your shoulder,” and also that while there were some good people in Bakersfield, “there are also others who are looking for some hate. For years, it’s been blacks.”[28] While racism against African Americans was prominent in the city in the 1990s despite the level of denial expressed by some white community leaders, from the 1990s onward; the growing Latinx population became the new target.

While racism against African Americans was prominent in the city in the 1990s despite the level of denial expressed by some white community leaders, from the 1990s onward; the growing Latinx population became the new target.

The racist billboards in the 1960s, a cross burning in 1981, and the white supremacist violence of the 1990s, is only the tip of the iceberg. Racism was imported to the region in the late 1800s and early 1900s by whites who migrated to California from the lower Midwest and American South. Klan violence was common on the streets of Bakersfield in the 1920s. Similar to the American South in the early twentieth century, a plethora of local businessmen and politicians counted themselves as members of the racist terrorist organization. The mayor’s office, police departments across Kern County and the County Sheriff’s Office, local judgeships, school districts, and the county board of supervisors were controlled by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Prominent business owners also counted themselves as members of the organization.[29] The power of the Klan in early twentieth century Kern County coincided with a fairly rigid system of public Jim Crow segregation. For example, African Americans could only reside in eastern and southeastern parts of Bakersfield—neighborhoods now home to mostly Latinx peoples—and their children were forced to attend “colored schools.” Working and middle-class white suburban areas, especially those located near the oilfields, were off-limits to people of color, as were oil industry jobs. From the early twentieth century onward, oil companies tended to only hire white employees who lived in segregated all-white communities. Although the industry has gone through cycles of boom and bust, historically speaking these were the best jobs that many white working and middle residents could hope for.

While of course not every Trump supporter during the 2016 election race exhibited xenophobic, misogynistic, and racist tendencies, Oildale was one of those places where Confederate flags flew, and where white nationalist and neo Nazi gangs roamed the streets. White working and middle class residents spoke openly about their racist beliefs.

The population in Bakersfield changed a great deal between the 1960s and the early twenty-first century. Between 1970 and 2010, the Latinx population increased from ten percent to forty-five percent, at the same time as African Americans decreased from thirteen percent to eight percent. Just like the openness in regards to racist beliefs of white residents in earlier decades, some were open about their disliking of the Latinx population while Donald Trump ran for president in 2016. “I don’t like Mexicans. I don’t like them,” cited fifty-eight-year-old Oildale resident Betty Robinson in an April 2016 article in the Los Angeles Times.[30] “To me, if you can’t speak English, why be here? Go back to where you come from,” continued Robison.[31] Robinson’s ignorant comments related directly to, and mirrored in some ways, Trump’s racist comments about Mexican-Americans and spoke to notions of white supremacy in Oildale.

Over the course of just a few weeks in the spring and summer of 2009, three racially motivated incidents occurred in Hart Park, a large public park a few miles east of Oildale. In May of that year, members of the white supremacist group known as the Oildale Peckerwoods pleaded no contest to the charge of violation of civil rights and assault after they attacked a group of Mexican-Americans in the park while yelling racial epithets and white supremacist slogans. The incident resulted in two state prison sentences for assault and violation of civil rights and a misdemeanor assault charge, leaving four people injured. One required fifty stitches. A similar incident took place a few weeks later, leading to two arrests of white supremacists. “Apparently, they’ve picked that park as part of their territory,” claimed Kern County prosecuting attorney Michael Vendrasco, who continued, saying, “they’re not shy about yelling that stuff.”[32] In addition to the three attacks in the summer of 2009, five other race-related hate crimes against Mexican Americans took place in Hart Park between January and June of 2009. It is reasonable to believe that many more went unreported to law enforcement officials.

The content shared on public Facebook profiles of people who identify as Oildale Peckerwoods blatantly illustrate Vendrasco’s statement that members are not shy about sharing their racist beliefs. Specific references to Facebook content, however, were not included in this essay to respect the privacy of peoples concerned, and to prevent any ethical concerns and issues related to authenticity of sources. However, there are concrete examples of white supremacist and neo-Nazi hate in the region’s culture. One example is the acoustic pre-teen folk-pop duo known as Prussian Blue, popular in the early 2000s.

Lamb and Lynx Gaede, the twin sisters that made up Prussian Blue, were homeschooled by a mother who claimed that she was a white nationalist, and that it was her goal to share that part of her life with her daughters. Born and raised in Bakersfield, the duo took the white supremacist and neo-Nazi world by storm in the early 2000s by releasing four albums. Prussian Blue’s lyrical content praised white victory in a racial warfare, white victimhood in a new era of multicultural diversity, and the threat of black violence against white people. In their 2004 song “Aryan Man Awake,” they wax nostalgically about loss of land and wealth among whites that evokes images of the Reconstruction period in American history and the mythical threat of armed black violence ever-present in D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation. “Aryan man Awake,” sing the duo, “How much more will you take, Turn your fear to hate, Aryan man awake.”

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In an early 2000s interview on ABC’s Dateline, Lamb and Lynx Gaede explained, “we must secure the existence of our people and our future for white children.” The two girls also referred to nonwhite people as “muds” and Adolf Hitler as an individual who possessed “a lot of great ideas.” The girls also shared with the ABC journalist Cynthia McFadden some of ways in which they had fun. Included in this list was a computer game entitled “Ethnic Cleansing,” a first-person shooter game where the player gets to travel around an urban environment posing as either a neo-Nazi, skinhead, or Klansman. They are then tasked with killing African, Latinx, and Jewish Americans who roam the streets making gorilla-like sounds. The game was created in 2002 by the white supremacist organization known as the National Alliance, which also signed Prussian Blue to its recording company, Resistance Records. The young twins also expressed that they enjoyed a game referred to as “dancing around the swastika,” which they demonstrated on their kitchen floor with a swastika composed of black electrical tape.

David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard who ran on the Republican ticket for president in 1992 and served as a representative in the state of Louisiana in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was one of Prussian Blue’s more prominent and vocal fans. After the group opened for him at one event, Duke said they were “examples of what we really want for our kids.” The musical duo also appeared at events with Tom Metzger, the leader of the Southern California based neo-Nazi and white supremacist organization known as White Aryan Resistance (WAR). In an early 2000s BBC documentary on neo Nazism and white supremacy in the U.S., Lamb and Lynx’s mother April said that “they’ve got to start some time,” when she was asked about why she got her children into racial politics at such a young age. The girls were eleven years old at the time of the filming. April also explained, “I think that Lamb and Lynx’s music and their appeal, especially as they just get a little bit older, they’re going to be an example, and they are going to show… how being, proud of your race is something that would be very appealing to young teenage girls. You know, I mean, what young man, red-blooded American boy, isn’t going to find two blonde twins, sixteen years old, singing about white pride, and pride in your race… very appealing.”

April’s father, Bill Gaede, also appeared in the episode of Dateline. When Prussian Blue was formed and began to perform live and release records, he owned a ramshackle ranch off State Route 180 on Elmwood Road east of Fresno. He had a reputation as someone to avoid, despite the fact that his home was about ten feet from the windy road around which he continually fed and ran pigs and cattle with no regard for the fecal matter they left behind, nor the traffic they backed up. The cattle brand for his ranch, which was adhered to the side of his full-size white Chevrolet truck, included a swastika, as did his favorite belt buckle that he wore around town regularly. Gaede was rumored to park his truck near communities of color just to intimidate residents. In 2002, after a tree burl became popular in the Latinx community because if its resemblance to the Virgin Mary, Gaede chopped the tree down and allegedly shouted “You Catholics! There’s your virgin!”[33] In 2012, he started selling his Swastika Brand Honey. He raised the pop duo’s mother in the same fashion as she raised her children, a clear case of the multigenerational nurturing of white racist hatred in California’s Central Valley.

The threat of white supremacist and neo-Nazi-inspired hatred and violence, however, goes beyond intergenerational nurturing, racist attacks at Hart Park, and Prussian Blue to simple matters of life and death. In April 2017, Justin Cole Whittington, a twenty-five-year-old member of the Oildale Peckerwood gang received a fifteen-year federal prison sentence for firing a sawed-off shotgun at a Latino man in his Oildale front yard. The incident occurred on 19 December 2012. Before firing one round at the victim and driving away, Whittington exited a vehicle near the man’s property and shouted the words “fucking nigger” and “get the fuck out of Oildale.” The pellets did not strike the victim, but he heard them pass by his head. He and his family moved out of the area shortly after the incident. Following this, Whittington fired his shotgun from his vehicle at a convenience store owned by a person of Middle Eastern descent. The perpetrator had a “P” and “W” tattooed on his shin and “23” on his stomach to signify “W” for white power.[34] Before the sentencing, Whittington was convicted of misdemeanor child abuse in 2015 after surveillance footage at a local market caught him punching out his toddler and picking him up by the neck.

Kern County’s history of racism and social injustice was around a century old when Donald Trump was elected to office in 2016. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the county was a hotbed of law enforcement-involved deaths and law enforcement corruption. It was a place where Latinx peoples were incarcerated and killed by law enforcement officials more than anywhere else. Not just in California, but in the country. White residents openly expressed their racist distaste for Latinx peoples, which at times turned violent. A new generation of white supremacists and neo-Nazi millennials embraced the uneducated and ignorant view of their parents’ and grandparents’ generation. Kern County was the southern-most county in California to pledge a majority of votes for Trump and race relations in the region harken back to the Deep South.

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Notes

[1] Conor Friedersdorf, “Police Officers Killed over 610 People in 6 Years,” The Atlantic, 5 October 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/10/police-in-california-killed-more-than-610-people-over-6-years/407326/ (accessed 1 June 2017).

[2] Conor Friedersdorf, “The Deadliest County for Police Killings in America,” The Atlantic, 2 December 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/12/the-deadliest-county-for-police-killings-in-america/418359/ (accessed 1 June 2017).

[3] Richard Winton, “Kern County Pays $3.4 Million to Settle a Wrongful Death Suit Against Sheriff’s Department,” Los Angeles Times, 5 May 2016, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-kern-county-wrongful-death-20160505-story.html (accessed 1 June 2017)

[4] Jon Swaine and Oliver Laughland, “The County: The Story of America’s Deadliest Police,” The Guardian, 1 December 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/dec/01/the-county-kern-county-deadliest-police-killings (accessed 2 June 2017)

[5] Steve Mayer and Lauren Foreman, “Police Shooting of Unarmed Man Draws Hundreds to Site,” The Bakersfield Californian, 14 November 2014, http://www.bakersfield.com/news/police-shooting-of-unarmed-man-draws-hundreds-to-site/article_e31835d8-213a-5405-9c5f-c06bda4bdbad.html (accessed 5 June 2017).

[6] Swaine and Laughland, “The County: The Story of America’s Deadliest Police,” The Guardian, 1 December 2015.

[7] Kristin Price, “17 News Investigation: Secret Settlements,” KGET 17, 25 July 2017, http://www.kerngoldenempire.com/news/local-news/17-news-investigation-secret-settlements/772970029 (accessed, 26 July 2017).

[8] AJ Willingham, “Tape shows CA sheriff saying it’s ‘better financially’ to kill suspects than to ‘cripple’ them,” CNN, 10 April 2016, https://edition.cnn.com/2018/04/10/us/donny-youngblood-kern-county-california-trnd/index.html (accessed 25 August 2018).

[9] Joseph Luiz, “Young poised to retain Kern County sheriff seat,” Bakersfield.com, 5 June 2018, https://www.bakersfield.com/news/youngblood-poised-to-retain-kern-county-sheriff-seat/article_6071837a-693c-11e8-8851-6f98043f8dcd.html (accessed, 25 August 2018).

[10] Jason Kotowski, “Officer Arrested on Suspicion of Engaging in Sex Acts With Prostitutes,” Bakersfield Californian, 11 February 2011, http://www.bakersfield.com/news/officer-arrested-on-suspicion-of-engaging-in-sex-acts-with/article_0f5840f9-e0e0-551d-900f-ee3eebd9353c.html (accessed, 6 June 2017).

[11] Swaine and Laughland, “The County: The Story of America’s Deadliest Police,” The Guardian, 1 December 2015.

[12] Veronica Rocha, “’I am despicable’: Kern County lawman convicted in drug plot blames Satan,” 6 May 2017, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-kern-deputy-drug-plot-satan-playing-games-20170516-story.html (accessed 25 August 2018).

[13] Friedersdorf, “The Deadliest County for Police Killings in America,” The Atlantic, 2 December 2015.

[14] Associated Press, “Deadly Shootings Prompt State Civil Rights Probe of Kern County, Bakersfield Policing” Los Angeles Times, 22 December 2016, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-policing-review-20161222-story.html (accessed 1 June 2017).

[15] Scott Ehlers, Vincent Schiraldi, and Eric Lotke, “An Examination of the Impact of California’s Three Strikes Law on African-Americans and Latinos,” Justice Policy Institute, October 2004, http://www.justicepolicy.org/uploads/justicepolicy/documents/04-10_tac_caracialdivide_ac-rd.pdf (accessed 5 June 2017).

[16] Jane Meredith Adams, “Settlement in Kern discrimination lawsuit calls for new school discipline policies,” EdSource, 24 July 2017, https://edsource.org/2017/settlement-in-kern-discrimination-lawsuit-calls-for-new-school-discipline-policies/585212 (accessed 28 July 2017).

[17] Christopher Ingraham, “The states that spend more money on prisons than college students,” The Washington Post, 7 July 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/07/07/the-states-that-spend-more-money-on-prisoners-than-college-students/?utm_term=.c5ac2e0e6ef2 (accessed 28 July 2017).

[18] Joe Hagan, “The Long, Lawless Ride of Sheriff Joe Arpaio,” Rolling Stone, 2 August 2012, http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/the-long-lawless-ride-of-sheriff-joe-arpaio-20120802 (accessed 24 June 2017).

[19] Hagan, “The Long, Lawless Ride of Sheriff Joe Arpaio,” Rolling Stone, 2 August 2012.

[20] Brittny Mejia, “Conservative Oildale Could Be A Bellwether of How Trump’s Message Translates in California,” Los Angeles Times, April 4, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-adv-trump-bakersfield-20160404-story.html (accessed 5 June 2017).

[21] James Loewen, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, “Oildale,” http://sundown.tougaloo.edu/sundowntownsshow.php?id=1058 (accessed 25 July 2017)

[22] Michael Essinger, “Kern County: California’s Deep South,” 2011 essay delivered at the “Critical Ethnic Studies and the Future of Genocide: Settler Colonialism/Heteropatriarchy/White Supremacy” conference at the University of California, Riverside, http://www.academia.edu/1519415/Kern_County_Californias_Deep_South (accessed 13 July 2017).

[23] Essinger, “Kern County: California’s Deep South.”

[24] Mark Evans, “Kern County Town Struggling to Overcome Its Racist Image,” Los Angeles Times, 9 August 1992, http://articles.latimes.com/1992-08-09/local/me-5918_1_kern-county (accessed 20 July 2017).

[25] Evans, “Kern County Town Struggling to Overcome Its Racist Image,” Los Angeles Times, 9 August 1992.

[26] Evans, “Kern County Town Struggling to Overcome Its Racist Image” Los Angeles Times, 9 August 1992.

[27] Evans, “Kern County Town Struggling to Overcome Its Racist Image” Los Angeles Times, 9 August 1992.

[28] Evans, “Kern County Town Struggling to Overcome Its Racist Image” Los Angeles Times, 9 August 1992.

[29] Edward Humes, Mean Justice: A Town’s Terror, A Prosecutors Power, A Betrayal of Innocence (Simon and Schuster: New York, 1999), 24.

[30] Mejia, “Conservative Oildale Could Be A Bellwether of How Trump’s Message Translates in California,” Los Angeles Times, 4 April 2016.

[31] Mejia, “Conservative Oildale Could Be A Bellwether of How Trump’s Message Translates in California,” Los Angeles Times, 4 April 2016.

[32] Steven Mayer, “Hart Park Seeing Hate Crime Spree,” Bakersfield Californian, 18 June 2009, http://www.bakersfield.com/news/hart-park-seeing-hate-crime-spree/article_417a7502-06be-5a4e-ad6b-878749facfc3.html (accessed 11 June 2017).

[33] Diana Marcum, “Man Says He Cut Virgin Mary tree,” Fresno Bee, 10 September 2002, http://www.religionnewsblog.com/758/man-says-he-cut-virgin-mary-tree (accessed 29 June 2017).

[34] Bill Morlin, “Skinhead Who Fired Shotgun in Racial Assault Gets Prison,” Southern Poverty Law Center, April 12, 2017, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2017/04/12/skinhead-who-fired-shotgun-racial-assaults-gets-prison (accessed 29 June 2017).

 

Shawn Schwaller received his Ph.D. in history from Claremont Graduate University in 2015, and is currently a lecturer in the Department of History at California State University, Chico. His work engages California history, questions around identity politics, race and ethnic relations, and popular culture.

Copyright: © 2018 Shawn Schwaller. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Articles

African-American Muslims and the LAPD

DoD2

Nick Shindo Street

“We don’t want to walk into a kumbaya situation,” said Umar Hakim. The sixteen men and women gathered around a conference table in Inglewood simultaneously nodded in agreement. “We need training,” Hakim said, “because we already know who’s holding the power.”

One of the men at the table was Khalid Shah, a veteran activist and organizer in South L.A.’s African-American Muslim community.

“I wanted to be a police officer at one point,” Shah said as people began recounting stories about encounters with the LAPD. “Then the police killed my friend in the projects.”

He shook his head and his eyes clouded over as he relived the preventable event.

“Why?” he wondered, his pain a bridge between past and present.

The community-development organization that Umar Hakim leads—Intellect, Love and Mercy (ILM) Foundation—convened the group to prepare for an upcoming public forum between African-American Muslims and the LAPD at Masjid Bilal Islamic Center in South Central. The meeting would be the first of its kind in recent memory between local law enforcement officers and the constituencies that Hakim and Shah represent.[1]

At a time when public officials often view both Muslims and African-Americans solely through the lenses of policing and security, the event at Masjid Bilal presented an opportunity for L.A.’s African-American Muslims to challenge and dispute that narrow perspective on their lives. It was also a chance for the community to exert agency over the way that law enforcement officers approach their work in neighborhoods where tensions between residents and the LAPD continue to run high and unresolved.

“I’ve heard so many stories of kids being dehumanized by police,” Khalid Shah stated, eliciting murmurs of recognition from everyone around the table. Shah added that his decades-long history of activism has paradoxically both reinforced and softened his suspicion of the LAPD.[2]

“I’ve also meet good, honest individuals who happen to be wearing the uniform,” he said. “That’s enabled me to balance things. I’ve even invited police to talk to some of the young people we work with.”

At that point Delonte Gholston stepped in to guide the conversation. Gholston and his co-facilitator, Eddie Anderson, were fresh from their work on the Trust Talks, a series of dialogues between residents of Skid Row and the LAPD. Umar Hakim had invited Gholston and Anderson to the meeting in Inglewood to help Hakim’s team prepare to steer the event at Masjid Bilal toward practical outcomes and away from both unproductive rancor and “kumbaya”—a feel-good form of dialogue that avoids hard truths and thus fails to move the conversation forward.[3]

“The name of the game is stories to solutions,” Gholston emphatically declared. “That means knowing your story, knowing what you want and knowing where you want to go with it.”

Anderson jumped in, lean and dapper in contrast to Gholston’s broad-shouldered casualness.

“If they hear our stories,” Anderson added, “they have to see our pain. Teach them how you want to be treated—show the problem and the solution in the same story.”

With that said, Delonte wrote the words “story” and “solution” at the top of two columns on a whiteboard at the head of the table.

“Now stories,” he said to the group. “What are your experiences with the police?”

 

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“If they hear our stories,” Anderson added, “they have to see our pain. Teach them how you want to be treated—show the problem and the solution in the same story.”

Trauma weaved through the narratives that followed like an electrified wire. Abdul Ali, a barber who grew up in Watts, recalled the National Guard occupying his high school in the 1960s. Gerald Thompson, who came of age in South L.A. in the 1970s and 80s, recounted being hassled and even thrown against the side of a car by the police “just because I was hanging out.” Rashida Rogers, a sign-language interpreter, said she had intervened on several occasions when she witnessed LAPD officers “running up on” young people in her neighborhood.

Rogers said, “I have gotten out of my car and said, ‘What’s going on?’” when she observed police intimidating children who were on their way to school.

“The officer was like, ‘They were loud, they were making noise’,” Rogers said. “Holding up children from school because they were being loud! To me, they’re placing fear in them—the same oppressive mentality that they’ve always tried to instill in our young people.”

Gholston’s roster of words and phrases under the “story” heading painted a grim picture that depicted pure trauma, fear, deficient accountability, lack of trust, prejudice, and a preceding command-and-control culture. Stepping to the side of the whiteboard where he had written “solutions,” he asked, “How do we address this?”

“True community policing will only happen when police live in the community,” Eddie Anderson said. “We want officers who live within a five-mile radius of the communities where they work.”

Sadiq Davis, whose reentry story is depicted in the documentary “The Honest Struggle,” remarked, “If officers are friendly, it has a positive effect.” He added, “Some of them are just as afraid as we are.”

Others spoke about the importance of regular psychological evaluations for officers—especially those who have served overseas in the military—as well as the need for greater civilian oversight of the police department. In response to the latter point, Gholston mentioned Measure LL in Oakland, an initiative to create a civilian-run police commission and invest subpoena power in an agency responsible for investigating complaints of police misconduct. The measure won overwhelming support from voters when it appeared on local ballots in 2016, and Gholston believed it could be a model for similar initiatives in L.A.

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“We also have to change our culture,” Khalid Shah interjected. “It’s cool to go to the penitentiary but not cool to become law enforcement officers. We have to become part of the effort to change that.”

Several people around the table looked dubious. Shah shrugged, conceding the complexity of the point.

“I fear the cop; I don’t respect him,” he said, playing Devil’s advocate against his own assertion. “Why would I want to become something I don’t respect?”

As the prep session wrapped up, participants took cellphone pictures of the stories and solutions that Gholston had written on the whiteboard. Umar Hakim hung back as everyone said their goodbyes.

“A lot of the men and women in the room had some deep history,” he said. “A lot of the new organizers make the elders feel like they’re obsolete. I want to build on where they left off.”

Hakim was also looking toward the upcoming meeting with the LAPD as a turning point.

“During the course of CVE”—shorthand for law enforcement initiatives that fall under the heading of countering violent extremism—“a lot of misconceptions are presented about the Muslim community, and particularly the African-American Muslim community,” Hakim said. “I have to use these relationships for more than saying you’re wrong. This is an opportunity to push back on those ideas.”

***

A couple of weeks later, on a warm Wednesday evening, the courtyard of Masjid Bilal—the seminal African-American mosque in Los Angeles[4]—was abuzz with conversation. About a hundred people were divided among ten tables. At each table there were two or three LAPD officers, a volunteer mediator from Days of Dialogue (an organization that facilitates challenging discussions between constituencies in Los Angeles) and about half a dozen members from Masjid Bilal and other predominantly African-American Muslim congregations. Participants from the prep session in Inglewood were thrown in the mix as well.

Andrea Martinez Gonzalez, a mediator from the city’s Department of Consumer and Business Affairs, ended up at a table where a woman from Sub-Saharan Africa was an unexpected ally for a young white LAPD officer who looked defensive and uncomfortable.

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“The African woman created an interesting dynamic at our table,” Gonzalez said. “She was coming from a law-and-order culture that had respect for the police. She was really on the officer’s side!”

Gonzalez said that the other people at the table were polite, but kept bringing up the problems related to police violence that were plaguing their neighborhoods, as well as other communities across the country. In telling his story, the officer said people regularly shouted at him and disrespected him while he was trying to do his job—and that he was frustrated because nothing he tried seemed to diffuse those situations.

“That might change with more of these dialogues,” Gonzalez said later. “There are bad apples in every profession. But a lot of why people are angry is that these young officers are the inheritors of what went on in the old days.”[5]

She added that the officer also complained that news outlets only produce stories about what law enforcement officers do wrong. Still, she was sympathetic to the counter-narrative offered by the community members at her table.

“It’s incredible how much injustice is out there,” she said. “People feel the police are there for anything but protection.”[6]

Gonzalez said that she was optimistic about the prospects for further meetings between the groups represented that night at Masjid Bilal.

“I’m impressed from the first dialogue that this group is really trying to build a bridge to the LAPD,” she said. “The more dialogues they have, the better it is. It’s noble work.”

Officer Jim Buck, a community liaison with the LAPD’s Counter-terrorism and Special Operations Bureau who sat at a different table, echoed Gonzalez’s cautious optimism. He also knew the sources of tension in the room, along with the possibilities for progress, as well as anyone else.

“It’s been a real journey with Umar,” Buck said. “The first time I met him, he didn’t want to have much to do with me. Since then, he and I have had many conversations about policing. We’ve agreed to disagree on many issues, but I consider him a very close friend.”

A decade ago, Buck was serving as a drill instructor at the Los Angeles Police Academy when the then-Chief of Police asked him to become a liaison between the LAPD and communities like Masjid Bilal. The assignment was in some ways an odd fit—Buck described himself as a “conservative Republican.” But his gregarious personality turned out to be the most important asset in his effort to allay fears and build trust among people who were wary of his intentions as a representative of a police counter-terrorism bureau.

“When the community has issues,” Buck said, “they come to us. We’re the most visible form of government. My unit has to understand how Islam expresses itself in Los Angeles. People have invited my unit into their homes, mosques, businesses and schools.”

Referring to the event at Masjid Bilal, he said, “All of this is what we do, how we do it, why we do it. We want to create a resilient community.”

Like Gonzalez, Buck said he saw the event as the first step on a long but hopeful road.

“It gives us a positive starting point,” he said. “But the easy part is getting communities together. The challenge is moving forward.”

Rashida Rogers, the sign-language interpreter who attended the prep session in Inglewood, was mostly pleased with her experience at Masjid Bilal. From her perspective, the key benefit was the opportunity for members of the community to present their story in their own words and to lay the groundwork for future events that could move the conversation in a positive, evolutionary direction.

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“It gives us a positive starting point,” he said. “But the easy part is getting communities together. The challenge is moving forward.”

“Sometimes the story gets twisted,” she said. “This was my first time speaking up and saying that the information you have about us portrayed us wrong. What I heard in response to that at my table makes me hopeful.”

She said it was the officers’ apparent willingness not just to hear, but to really accept what she was saying that left her optimistic.

“If people can change the condition of their hearts,” she concluded, “who am I to think that change can’t happen?”

A few weeks after the meeting at Masjid Bilal, Umar Hakim was savoring success.

“People feel like an opening was made,” he said. “It broke a lot of ice in our own community and showed us that we can address our problems in a diplomatic way when people are trained and given the tools to promote accountability.”

The key to that positive outcome was the storytelling strategy that the prep session participants brought to the tables where they sat during the event.

“It was good to work out the kinks in talking about your trauma behind closed doors,” Hakim said. “Then when you get to the public square, you say what you need to say. People felt like they were actually heard. That’s what I really wanted—to help my community to establish its voice.”

Hakim said he envisions future dialogues between the LAPD and the city’s Muslim communities—achieving concrete changes like the police reforms enacted through Measure LL will take sustained effort. He also wants to see meetings between community leaders and the developers who are driving gentrification in South Los Angeles, particularly around the site of Inglewood’s new football stadium.

“We’ve trained around twenty leaders at this point,” Hakim remarked, referring to community accountability programs developed through the Intellect, Love and Mercy Foundation. “I would like to get to forty, sixty, one hundred. We need a platoon of people to address development! Enhancing the community is cool, but I want to be sure our people don’t get left behind in the process of progress.”

Whether it’s confronting tensions between citizens and police or managing development in a community where residents have historically been denied agency over their lives, Hakim is optimistic that the strategy that yielded signs of progress at Masjid Bilal can be replicated as a means of tackling other challenges.

“Out of this I hope people will see that there’s more than one way to approach a problem,” he said. “You’ve got to engage it from all angles.”

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Notes

[1] The Pew Research Center’s first-ever national survey of American Muslims (“Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream”), conducted in 2007, found that African-Americans account for roughly twenty percent of the total Muslim population in the U.S.

[2] Andrew J. Grandage, Britt S. Aliperti, and Brian N. Williams refer to this historical overlay of past practice that distorts police-citizen collaboration in the present as a “shadow effect.” See Grandage et al., “Leveraging the Intersection of Politics, Problem, and Policy in Organizational Change: An Historical Analysis of the Detroit, Los Angeles, and Atlanta Police Departments,” in James D. Ward, ed., Policing and Race in America: Economic, Political, and Social Dynamics (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2018), 57.

[3] Dialogue is generally acknowledged as the key process involved in successful conflict resolution—specifically, as a prerequisite for de-essentializing the “other” and building trust between conflicting groups. See, for example, Ivana Markova and Alex Gillespie, eds., Trust and Conflict: Representation, Culture and Dialogue (New York: Routledge, 2011) and Daniel Yankelovich, The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict into Cooperation (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001).

[4] Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and Jane I. Smith, eds., Muslim Communities in North America (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), 166.

[5] Following the Rodney King beating in 1991 and the riots that followed the acquittal of the officers involved in the incident a year later, Mayor Tom Bradley formed the Christopher Commission to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the LAPD’s operations. Among other findings, the commission determined that nearly two hundred officers were implicated in repeated instances of excessive use of force. A few years later, officers in the elite Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) program figured prominently in the Rampart Division violence and corruption scandal. After a 12-year period of reform mandated by the U.S. Department of Justice, the LAPD was finally freed from federal oversight in 2013. See Grandage et al., “Leveraging the Intersection of Politics, Problem, and Policy in Organizational Change,” 71.

[6] According to the Pew Research Center’s 2017 Demographic Portrait of Muslim Americans, “American-born black Muslims are more likely than other U.S. Muslims to say it has become harder in recent years to be Muslim in the United States. Nearly all American-born black Muslims (96%) say there is a lot of discrimination against Muslims in America, almost identical to the share who say there is a lot of discrimination against black people in the U.S. (94%).”

 

Nick Shindo Street is the senior writer with the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California. His reporting on religious movements, politics, sexuality, popular culture and news media has appeared in Religion & Politics, Nieman Reports, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, Al Jazeera America, Global Post, Religion Dispatches, The Jewish Journal and Patheos.

Copyright: © 2018 Nick Shindo Street. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

 

Articles

Policing an Internal Border

Max Felker-Kantor

While deportations of undocumented immigrants declined slightly in the final years of the Obama administration after a decade of record-high removals, recent federal initiatives have aimed to crack down on unauthorized immigration and expand the authority of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).[1] Zero tolerance policies targeting immigrants and refugees seeking asylum on the U.S.-Mexico border have resulted in high rates of removal and family separation.[2] U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has also demanded the cooperation of municipal police departments in arresting and turning over undocumented immigrants to ICE for detention and deportation. Yet, a number of cities and police departments, including the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), have said they will not cooperate with ICE.[3] Such opposition to federal directives has raised significant questions about the role of local police departments and officers in the enforcement of federal immigration law. However, these debates are not new. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, in fact, the LAPD both cooperated with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to target undocumented immigrants and also resisted enforcing federal immigration law. In the process, police officers often played an important role in the policing of immigrants, the construction of racialized categories of illegality, and in defining the boundaries of citizenship.

During the post-War period, LAPD officers often arrested undocumented immigrants for unauthorized entry and transferred them to the INS. The rise of unauthorized immigration in the 1970s, pressure on local police budgets from a growing population, and demands from Mexican Americans fearful of being targeted as “illegal,” however, challenged the LAPD’s cooperative relationship with the INS and willingness to enforce federal immigration laws. While police officials viewed undocumented immigrants as a source of rising crime rates in the 1970s, they also recognized that enforcement of immigration status violations made immigrants who were witnesses or victims of crime wary of reporting crime or cooperating with the police out of fear they would be handed over to INS for deportation. In turn, police officials attempted to incorporate immigrants into the war on crime by revising department policy to make arrests based solely on immigration status outside the purview of officers. Department officials also established programs to encourage immigrants who were victims of crime to report such incidents to the police. In short, hopes that immigrants and Latinx residents would support the police and report crime required limiting the discretion of officers to make arrests based solely on immigration status and reducing cooperation with INS agents. The LAPD, in other words, took a step back from policing immigration status violations and cooperating with the INS when such efforts became too financially burdensome or else undermined the department’s crime-fighting mission.

Although LAPD officials nominally accepted limits placed upon officers’ authority to police immigration status violations, in practice the department followed two strategies to sidestep such self-imposed restrictions on officer discretion that blurred the lines between the INS and LAPD. First, the department often sent officers to the scene of INS raids, and by their very presence LAPD officers lent police authority to the federal agents. The presence of uniformed LAPD during these raids demonstrated that the police—and by extension the city of Los Angeles—approved of and legitimized INS raids, and, at times, were active participants. Second, the department did not abandon its assumption that undocumented immigrants were a source of crime. Rather, officers circumvented policies limiting their discretion by creating a new category of criminality called the “criminal alien,” which is separate from the generally non-criminal undocumented population. Using the “harm principle,” which justified policing of those activities that physically or materially potentially threatened to harm others, the police framed the “criminal alien” as a potential threat to both law-abiding citizens and the social order more generally, while at the same time hoping to ensure non-criminal immigrants would continue to trust and cooperate with the police. In doing so, officers maintained substantial discretion to cooperate with the INS and to target and arrest individuals who were suspected of being in the country without proper authorization.

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Police and 18 undocumented residents with hands tied outside raided house. Although the LAPD had committed to the nonenforcement of immigration law in order to ensure trust in the police, they found means of extending the police power and authority into new areas of social life. Los Angeles Times Photographic Archives (Collection 1429). Courtesy of Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

The LAPD, then, was certainly motivated by a belief that immigrants (especially the undocumented) represented a significant crime threat. Yet, the efforts to circumvent restrictions on officer discretion also rested heavily on the desire to retain the police power to enforce order in the city. Rooted in theories of prevention and security, the police power of the state granted the police (as this institution of local government) discretion to pacify threats to the social order. Broad discretionary authority allowed officers to define what types of activities (in this case unauthorized immigration) constituted disorderly, improper, or criminal behavior. This police power, in short, enabled the LAPD to aggressively discipline perceived threats to social order, in this case both documented and undocumented immigrants. In the process, the police produced and enforced a hierarchical racial order.[4]

Indeed, the police often portrayed this criminal alien as an undocumented Mexican immigrant. The racialized construction of categories of illegality and exclusion led to violations of the rights of immigrants and such discriminatory treatment of Mexican migrants and Mexican-American citizens as labeled potentially “illegal” and criminal. Aggressive immigration enforcement thereby treated all Mexican-American residents as perpetual foreigners. By constructing a racialized category of the “alien criminal” as any ethnic Mexican in need of supervision, the LAPD simultaneously avoided violating its own policy of non-enforcement of immigration status and expanded its authority to enforce order and define exclusionary boundaries of citizenship.[5]

After the 1960s, the growing number of immigrants arriving in Los Angeles threatened the LAPD’s interpretational vision of social order. Capitalizing on fears among residents and policymakers that immigrants contributed to a drain on public resources and rising crime rates, the LAPD carved out new areas of police authority within the framework of non-enforcement of federal immigration law during the 1970s and 1980s. By the early 1990s, the LAPD’s approach to the enforcement of immigration law brought the police and punitive policy into the daily lives of the city’s immigrant population. In doing so, the LAPD policed an internal border delineating access to the benefits of full social membership in American society.


A Multiracial Metropolis and the Immigration Crisis

Following the 1965 Hart-Cellar Immigration Act, Los Angeles experienced profound demographic changes. Mexican immigrants came in large numbers between 1970s and 1990s due to demands for cheap labor in the city’s burgeoning service economy as well as to vast economic pressures in Mexico. While Mexican immigrants represented the largest migrant stream, the 1965 act’s removal of discriminatory national origins quotas opened up new sources of immigration that contributed to an increasingly diverse metropolitan region. Los Angeles experienced rapid growth during the 1980s with immigrants from Central and South America and Asia, particularly China and Korea. In 1980, whites accounted for 68 percent of the county population, African Americans represented 12.6 percent, Latinos 27.6 percent, and Asian and Pacific Islanders represented 5.8 percent. By 1990, whites represented 56.8 percent of the population in the county, while blacks represented 11.2, Latinos 37.8, and Asian and Pacific Islanders represented 10.8 percent. Los Angeles had quickly become a world city.[6]

Local officials and law enforcement doubled down on fears of immigrant invasion, often describing undocumented Mexican immigrants as a drain on the region’s social services and a strain on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime; thus, expanding the ability of the police to target migrants.

Growth in immigration coincided with a series of economic crises during the 1970s. Recession and unemployment followed the 1973 oil crisis, and the Los Angeles region’s manufacturing base experienced a significant decline upon losing tens of thousands of jobs over the decade. Despite global economic forces and U.S.-backed counterinsurgency wars in Latin- America that forced Mexicans and Central Americans to flee to American cities where they faced low-wage and exploitative labor conditions where local and national media blamed immigrants for the economic crisis. The Los Angeles Times fanned such fears and attributed local budget woes on immigrants and even published negative stories like one with this headline: “Aliens Reportedly Get $100 Million in Welfare.” Local officials and law enforcement doubled down on fears of immigrant invasion, often describing undocumented Mexican immigrants as a drain on the region’s social services and a strain on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime; thus, expanding the ability of the police to target migrants.[7] Rather than an accurate reflection of the immigrants who came to Los Angeles due to economic dislocation or fleeing violent conflict, the police viewed them as potential criminals and a threat to social order. In the process, the policies established by the LAPD to manage the growing immigrant population between the 1970s and 1990s linked immigrants with criminality.


From Immigrant Crime Victims to Criminal Aliens

Tension between the LAPD and both Mexican-American residents and Mexican immigrants increased during the early 1970s, significantly due to a pattern of police harassment and abuse. Police and city officials feared that immigrants would lose trust in the police and become reluctant to report crime. If officer discretion to enforce immigration law was limited, officials reasoned that immigrants would be willing to approach the police when they were victims of crime. Recognizing the problem, Chief Ed Davis issued Memorandum Number 9 in 1970, which made it so that “arrests for illegal entry [to the United States] shall be considered subordinate to police activities directly related to the interests of the people of Los Angeles.”  Such language, however, left officers with significant discretion. Two years later, Davis strengthened the limits on officers with Special Order 68, stating that “officers shall not initiate police action where the primary objective is directed toward discovering the alien status of a person.” But the policy still allowed officers to contact INS to determine the status of a person involved in criminal investigations. It also did not prevent officers from making arrests based on status. It merely emphasized that “arrests for illegal entry should be considered less important than other police activities.” While narrowing discretion, the reforms aimed to soften the image of the police in immigrant neighborhoods and incorporate residents into the fight against crime.[8]

However, in the mid-1970s, the LAPD and city officials worried that an element within the undocumented population was responsible for a rise in crime. A survey conducted by the Hollenbeck Area commanding officer used police data to examine the connection between “illegal” immigrants and “alien criminals.” It specified that “a high percentage of crimes in Hollenbeck Area are being committed by members of the illegal entry faction.”[9] While recognizing that many undocumented immigrants were hard-working and industrious, motivated to make a better life for themselves and their families, the report also framed the “illegal alien” as a criminal threat. LAPD and city officials pointed to a department study of three immigrant neighborhoods (Hollenbeck, Harbor, and Rampart) after INS sweeps to support claims that undocumented immigrants were responsible for rising crime rates.[10] Deputy Mayor Grace Davis reported the following: “During the sweep, repressible crimes fell 32 percent in Hollenbeck, 17.4 percent in Harbor, and 18 percent in Rampart.” Essentially, “Although there were a number of variables involved in these statistics, they do tend to indicate a correlation between the sweep of undocumented aliens and the decrease in crime.”[11]

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Many law enforcement personnel and city officials advocated for greater cooperation with the INS to contain undocumented immigrants. “In view of the severity of the social and economic problems generated by the illegal alien element in our society,” an LAPD report explained, “the recommendation was made that the Department actively cooperate with the Immigration and Naturalization Service by arresting illegal aliens solely for their unlawful status and releasing them to the Immigration Service for immediate deportation if these individuals were not involved in criminal activity.” Despite pressure to broaden officer discretion, the report concluded that Special Order 68 should remain policy because police cooperation with the INS threatened the department’s crime-fighting mission, which relied on the support and trust of the Mexican community.[12]

Fears of the impact of growing numbers of immigrants on crime rates and police resources influenced the LAPD’s stance on immigration law enforcement. Although recent studies have shown a negative relationship between immigration and crime, the LAPD often linked immigrants and crime and even drug trafficking in particular.[13] Chief Davis reported to Attorney General Edward H. Levi in 1976 that illegal aliens brought a surge of crime and “added to the dope problem” in Southern California.[14] When taking into consideration the potential growth of the immigrant population, the police estimated (from a speculative survey of officer opinions) that undocumented residents would account for 18.7 percent of crimes committed in the city. The department’s Illegal Alien Committee argued, “Whether this crime level extrapolation is higher or lower than the actual is not as significant as the fact that any crime committed by an illegal alien should not be occurring in the City of Los Angeles.” In other words, undocumented immigrants were a criminal threat that the LAPD was increasingly unable to contain. As the committee summarized, “there are increasing reports of illegal alien involvement in crime, including street gang activities, narcotics trafficking and usage and organized criminal activities.”[15]

The LAPD employed statistics to mobilize fears that undocumented immigrants would have a detrimental impact on the department’s resources and ability to fight crime. A 1977 LAPD Illegal Alien Committee report warned of a wave of undocumented immigrants predicted to reach over one million by 1981. The LAPD used the number of “illegal aliens” to reinforce the claim that the department was underfunded and understaffed, especially in relation to other departments across the country. Based on per capita expenditures, the LAPD reported that the cost of providing police services to illegal aliens was $37 million annually. The department lamented how the ratio of officers to residents (“‘thin blue line’ of police coverage”) was 18.6 percent less than “commonly accepted” in terms of accounting for undocumented aliens in the said population. If fully counted, the number of undocumented immigrants in the city would reduce the officers per 1,000 people from 2.63 to 2.14. To make up for the difference in ratio, the city would have to hire 1,703 officers at an annual cost of nearly $60 million. The committee warned that an already woefully understaffed police force was even more weakened and under-resourced than previously thought. As Deputy Mayor Grace Davis concluded in testifying to Congress, “the undocumented aliens do cause a substantial drain on police resources.”[16]

The burden of immigration enforcement on police resources led the LAPD to push for a federal crackdown on undocumented immigration. Chief Davis called for a shift in national policy away from “benign neglect” wherein federal law enforcement did not interfere in state or local immigration enforcement, to a more rigorous federal enforcement of border laws and efforts to reduce the incentive for immigrants to come to the United States. The LAPD’s Illegal Alien Committee also recommended intensified enforcement of immigration laws when undocumented immigrants were suspected of criminal activity. “In special problem areas of the City where illegal aliens are inordinately contributing to the crime rate, vice or gang activities,” the committee further explained: “intensified enforcement by Immigration and Naturalization personnel should be requested for the purpose of removing deportable alien criminals.”[17]

Demands for more federal resources to combat immigration did mean that the LAPD’s Illegal Alien Committee recommended removing the department from policing immigrants altogether. The Committee also made recommendations to expand the department’s ability to contain immigrant crime and broaden officer discretion. Alongside requests for the hiring of more officers to contain the illegal alien crime surge, the committee proposed a surveillance project to monitor undocumented immigrants involved in criminal activity. They believed that maintaining a database of file cards on known criminal aliens would allow easy identification of deported aliens who “upon their reentry, [can] be arrested for a felony violation of the U.S. immigration laws.” The creation of an “alien criminal” category fueled a surge of public fears on the topic of undocumented immigrants as the source of rising crime and enhanced the department’s discretionary authority of exclusion to control and contain undocumented immigrants within the framework of non-enforcement of immigration law.[18]


Police Discretion and Limits on Immigration Enforcement

For all the efforts to limit local enforcement of immigration laws in order to gain the trust and cooperation of the city’s immigrant population, the LAPD continued to carve out discretionary authority to target “criminal aliens” and to collaborate with INS agents as part of its crime-control and order-maintenance prerogative. As Chief Davis reported to Mayor Tom Bradley in 1976, INS officials “agreed to assist the Police Department in deporting career criminal illegal aliens who are identified by this Department.” In return, the LAPD could “assist his Department [INS] by publicly calling attention to the illegal alien problem.”[19] Department officials planned joint actions with the INS. Over the course of three days in September 1974, for instance, the LAPD and INS conducted a Joint Crime Suppression Task Force in Rampart Division. Officers justified their participation (which resulted in 428 arrests) based on evidence that “arrest after arrest has repetitively demonstrated that many illegal aliens are members of the criminal element within the City of Los Angeles.” The LAPD claimed that officers targeted only vice and narcotics violations while the INS agents enforced immigration laws.[20] Such collaboration with the INS represented police enforcement of immigration status by another means.

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When immigrant rights activists claimed that the department routinely violated its policy related to the non-enforcement of immigration status violations, Chief Davis responded that the LAPD neither targeted undocumented immigrants nor cooperated with the INS. Davis asserted that when he became chief in 1969, nearly 25 percent of felony arrests were for illegal entry but, “I said, ‘Let John Mitchell (then U.S. Attorney General) enforce these laws.’ We have no obligation to enforce federal laws.” Davis acknowledged that his officers observed INS raids to ensure public safety and made sure that they did not assist INS officers in making arrests.[21]

Police presence during INS raids was not only common, but also suggested that the LAPD approved (and at times participated) in enforcing immigration law. Testimony at hearings held by the Los Angeles County Bar Association in 1974 on the Deportation and Removal of Aliens highlighted police collaboration with INS and enforcement of immigration status violations. For example, one individual recounted a 1974 raid in which uniformed police officers accompanied plainclothes INS agents to raid a bar on 7th and Wilshire. The predominantly Latinx clientele was made to exit the bar one-by-one and show legitimate proof of legal status to INS agents as LAPD officers stood by. Based on such testimony, the Bar concluded that the LAPD’s cooperation with the INS was widespread, intentional, and created a climate of fear in the Spanish-speaking community.[22]

When INS residential raids ramped up in 1979, city officials criticized the racialized assumptions of the arrests and demanded clarification of the limits of local enforcement of immigration law. In response, the Board of Police Commissioners adopted a formal policy instructing officers that immigration status alone was not a basis for arrest. Newly-appointed Chief Daryl Gates claimed the reform signified a change from an era “when our officers engaged in wholesale arrests of illegals, merely for their immigration status.”[23] Gates, recognizing the continued need for immigrant cooperation with the police to fight crime, established a nationally significant policy in 1979 that further officer discretion in the realm of policing immigration status, which came to be known as Special Order 40. “It is,” Special Order 40 affirmed, “the policy of the Los Angeles Police Department that undocumented alien status in itself is not a matter for police action.” Under Special Order 40, officers were directed to enforce the law in an equal manner regardless of “alien status” because of the need for immigrants to report crime and cooperate with the police. While the policy operated to protect the immigrant crime victim, it left the ability to arrest the “criminal alien” intact.[24]

The use of these categories reinforced boundaries of citizenship based on racialized assumptions of illegality and criminality that would be hardened as the LAPD associated Latinx immigrants with the rise of drug crime and gang violence in the 1980s.

By the early 1980s, city officials believed Special Order 40 effectively limited police power to ensure cooperation from the city’s growing immigrant communities. A briefing memo to mayor Bradley, for example, praised LAPD policy in relation to undocumented immigrants. “The L.A.P.D. is progressive with respect to our policy regarding the local enforcement of U.S. immigration laws,” the memo stated. “This policy is sensitive to the principle that effective law enforcement depends on a high degree of cooperation between the department and the public it serves.”[25] Yet Special Order 40 divided immigrants into the law-abiding and the criminal. The use of these categories reinforced boundaries of citizenship based on racialized assumptions of illegality and criminality that would be hardened as the LAPD associated Latinx immigrants with the rise of drug crime and gang violence in the 1980s.


Policing a City of Immigrants Amid the War on Gangs and Drugs

During the 1980s, law enforcement officials emphasized the problem of the criminal alien as a law-and-order threat to reassert officer discretion and to expand police authority to enforce immigration law. In order to demonstrate compliance with Special Order 40, LAPD officers portrayed undocumented immigrants as the source of rising crime, especially narcotics and gang activity.[26] The Rampart Division Narcotics Task Force, for example, found that out of more than two thousand drug-related arrests in 1986, 78 percent were undocumented immigrants and, at the time, “much of the crime involving undocumented aliens is gang related.”[27] Police argued that since gang crime and drug violence represented a threat to law-abiding residents, officers required greater discretion to arrest and remove the criminal alien element.

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Despite reassurances that the department adhered to Special Order 40, during the mid-1980s, the INS district office cooperated with local agencies to identify and remove undocumented immigrants involved in drug and gang activity. Gang activities section commander Robert Ruchoft launched a program in conjunction with the INS to deport undocumented immigrant gang members. Accompanied by a four-man INS team, specialized anti-gang CRASH units also circumvented Special Order 40 by focusing on immigrants involved in gang violence. “We don’t arrest people for being illegal aliens,” a department spokesperson stated, “but it is a pilot program in our campaign to obliterate violence by gangs.” The INS agents made arrests while on patrol with LAPD officers because, according to Ruchoft, “we know who they are, and where they are, and the criminal activities in which they are taking part.”[28]

Joint LAPD-INS efforts to deport criminal aliens suspected of being involved in gang activity often relied on the use of immigration status to justify arrests. Blurring the lines between crime control and immigration control enabled officers to legitimize arrests that may have violated Special Order 40. Deportation, for example, often occurred even if LAPD officers were unable to charge the individual with a crime. “If a gang member is out on the street and the police can’t make a charge,” assistant district director for the INS John Brechtel explained, “we will go out and deport them for being here illegally if they fit that criteria.” Deputy Chief Bernard Parks praised the task force because using deportations allowed “our officers to concentrate on gang members in another fashion.” Police, according to Parks, could remove undocumented gang members from the streets without having to bring criminal charges against them.[29] In effect, the LAPD used the war on gangs and drugs to reassert their authority to police immigrants within the specialized framework of Special Order 40.

However, sweeps aimed at finding and deporting undocumented drug dealers and gang members relied on dragnet policing that reaffirmed racialized views of illegality. For example, during a three-month operation in the summer of 1985 called Retake the Streets, the LAPD arrested more than 1,700 people in an anti-drug sweep. Deputy Chief Clyde Cronkhite reported that 63 percent of those arrested were “illegal aliens,” mostly originating from Mexico and El Salvador. Cronkhite suggested that such widespread policing of undocumented immigrants whom, he believed, were at the center of a growing drug trade, “will continue until they get the message, ‘You come to Los Angeles to sell drugs, and you’ll be in big trouble.’” The anti-drug sweep relied on close cooperation between LAPD officials and INS agents who met with residents in the target area to address fears of blanket arrests based on race or ethnicity.[30]

As the police used their authority to target “criminal aliens” as the source of gang violence and drug trafficking, they reaffirmed a connection between racial identity and illegality.

Joint operations blurred the line between legitimate police raids based on evidence of criminal activity and immigration raids focused on apprehending unauthorized immigrants. “But when the INS and Police Department conduct joint raids, the operations necessarily become immigration raids,” the Latino Community Justice Center’s (LCJC) Antonio Rodriguez stated in response to a 1989 raid. “They may apprehend some criminals, but they target and capture in their net many innocent persons who are taken prisoner by INS agents if they are undocumented.”[31] As the police used their authority to target “criminal aliens” as the source of gang violence and drug trafficking, they reaffirmed a connection between racial identity and illegality. In effect, local law enforcement policed the boundaries of citizenship. Responding to the growing number of immigrants during the 1980s, the LAPD operated on racialized assumptions of illegality and created new avenues of supervisory discretion and criminal categories to circumvent policy restricting enforcement of immigration status.


The War on Crime as Immigration Control

When the families of some twenty-six undocumented immigrants were held hostage for $1,000 each by smugglers in a South Central “drop house” contacted the Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) in June 1990, they reignited debates about the proper limits to the LAPD’s cooperation with INS. Later, CARECEN reported the hostage situation to the LAPD and within hours eight LAPD officers rescued the hostages. While the smugglers escaped, the immigrants’ ordeal continued. In the name of helping those victimized by smugglers, the LAPD turned them over to INS for deportation.[32] Chief Gates, engaging in misdirection to shift attention from the consequences of the raid on the undocumented immigrants to the smugglers, claimed the department was engaged in rooting out illegal smuggling operations. “This department makes absolutely no effort to seek out undocumenteds in responding to calls for service and otherwise protecting people in Los Angeles,” Gates argued. “But, when we are confronted by serious criminal actions involving feloniously conspiring to violate the laws of the United States, kidnapping, hostage taking, threats of great bodily harm, extortion and bondage, we cannot look the other way.”[33]

If the LAPD hoped cooperating with the INS would help stop smuggling operations, their actions undermined the immigrant community’s faith in the police. The Board of Police Commissioner’s Hispanic Advisory Council criticized the department, calling the actions a “flagrant violation of policies” for handling undocumented immigrants and could lead to a potential deterioration of the “positive relationship” with the Latinx community. One Los Angeles Times editorial entitled, “How to Make Allies Into Enemies,” suggested that in order to maintain the trust of the immigrant community police officers had to ensure that immigrants recognize the difference between the LAPD and INS. But the LAPD’s actions did little to allay the fears of the Latinx community.[34] “The feeling in the immigrant community,” stated Madeline Janis, executive director of CARECEN, “is that the police and the INS are the same thing and that they have no recourse if they’re victims of a crime.”[35]

Cooperation between the LAPD and INS allowed the police to circumvent both the spirit and letter of Special Order 40. Protest from immigrant rights groups, such as CARECEN and the Coalition for Human Immigration Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), demanded an end to police cooperation with INS.[36] The publicity led to city council hearings on the department’s immigration policy. Councilman Michael Woo responded to the department’s actions with a proposal that the LAPD should not “assist or cooperate with any Immigration and Naturalization Service investigation, detention, or arrest procedures.” Woo was concerned that the actions of officers in the June raid threatened the status of Los Angeles as a “city of refuge.”[37] Councilman Richard Alatorre and Woo proposed new guidelines because, “Those crimes [against immigrants] go unreported for one simple reason: people are afraid of being turned over to the INS.”[38]

Chief Gates opposed the new restrictions. He claimed the regulations “would seriously endanger our ability to ensure public safety in the city.” While the chief expressed understanding of the concerns raised in the council motion, which would have barred police cooperation with an INS investigation, detention, or arrest except in service of a search warrant or arrest, he defended the expansive discretionary authority of the LAPD: “I believe all residents of Los Angeles are best served,” Gates explained, “when its Police Department is able to work cooperatively with all segments of government to provide for the public’s safety.”[39]

Framing immigration control as crime control enabled extensive cooperation between police and INS. As the council’s Public Safety Committee learned, the LAPD’s cooperation with INS agents was widespread and included handing children, victims of crime, and people arrested for minor misdemeanors over to INS.[40] The Council approved a motion recommending the department clarify the limits of Special Order 40 and the police department’s relationship with the INS. The recommendations centered on ensuring narrow discretion by leaving “little room for interpretation by individual officers.” Yet the changes were not meant to “prevent the LAPD from upholding its responsibilities to enforce the law.” The proposals reiterated that arrests should not be made based solely on alien status and the police should not turn arrestees over to the INS “EXCEPT for felony, drug or gang (STEP Act) Misdemeanors.”[41] The recommended clarifications to LAPD policy, in other words, continued to recognize the “criminal alien” category, which ensured the police authority to target immigrants and cooperate with the INS.

Concern for the ability of the police to ensure safety by arresting and detaining undocumented immigrants outweighed demands aimed at limiting police power and discretion. Although, the motion meant to clarify and update departmental policy to limit officer discretion surrounding arrests based on “alien status,” it did not remove the police from questions related to immigration status. Even after the efforts of CARECEN and liberal city council members to limit the actions of the police in the realm of immigration law, suspected undocumented immigrants were routinely arrested and turned over to the INS.[42]

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Policing Race and Citizenship Today

The LAPD’s policing of immigrants and cooperation with INS during the 1980s and early-1990s contributed to distrust between immigrant communities and the police. Programs aimed at enhancing collaborative efforts between the LAPD and undocumented immigrants who had been victims of crime worked at cross purposes with the department’s reliance on racialized categories of illegality and criminality to target immigrants for arrest and deportation during the war on drugs and gangs. Community relations programs and initiatives to provide equitable police services to Latinx communities required narrowing officer discretion on the street in order to enhance the LAPD’s ability to work with communities to combat crime. But the department’s construction of the “criminal alien” category developed an alternative means for the police to expand its authority by enforcing immigration status violations during an era of rapidly changing demographics.

Although the LAPD remains committed to Special Order 40 and the non-enforcement of immigration status, the history of the LAPD’s policies regarding immigrants is instructive during an era of intensified ICE raids and requests for the help of local law enforcement agencies.[43] Even as LAPD policy narrowed officer discretion to police immigration status and nominally refused to collaborate with the INS during the 1980s and 1990s, department officials turned to areas where they retained authority to contain the perceived threat that the rapidly growing immigrant population posed to the city’s social and racial hierarchy. The police attempted to square their ability to work with immigrant crime victims to combat crime with efforts to expand their authority by targeting the criminal alien. In the process, the police contributed to the construction and enforcement of racialized categories of citizenship that even today continues to delineate who has access to the full benefits of political and social membership in American life.


Notes

[1] Ana Gonzalez-Barrera and Mark Hugo Lopez, “U.S. Immigrant Deportations Fall to Lowest Level since 2007,” Pew Research Center, 16 December 2016, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/12/16/u-s-immigrant-deportations-fall-to-lowest-level-since-2007/.

[2] Miriam Valverde, “What You Need to Know about the Trump Administration’s Zero-Tolerance Immigration Policy,” Politifact, 6 June 2018. https://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2018/jun/06/what-you-need-know-about-trump-administrations-zer/; The Editorial Board, “Trump Keeps Implementing Incompetent Zero-Tolerance Immigration Policies. He Also Keeps Losing in Court,” Los Angeles Times, 11 July 2018. http://www.latimes.com/opinion/editorials/la-ed-trump-child-separation-20180711-story.html.

[3] The question of cooperation between ICE and local police departments is complicated. Public statements of refusal to cooperate with ICE are often contradicted by the policies stated in operating manuals. Joel Rubin and Ruben Vives, “Immigration Arrests in L.A. Spark Fear, Outrage, but Officials Say They Are Routine,” Los Angeles Times, 10 February 2017; James Queally, “Police Departments Say They Don’t Enforce Immigration Laws. But Their Manuals Say Something Different,” Los Angeles Times, 12 April 2017.

[4] Mark Neocleous, The Fabrication of Social Order: A Critical Theory of Police Power (London: Pluto Press, 2000); Nikhil Pal Singh, Race and America’s Long War (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2017).

[5] Natalia Molina, How Race Is Made in America: Immigration, Citizenship, and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013); Doris Marie Provine and Roxanne Lynn Doty, “The Criminalization of Immigrants as a Racial Project.” Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 27 (2011): 261-277; Christopher Lowen Agee, The Streets of San Francisco: Policing and the Creation of a Cosmopolitan Liberal Politics, 1950-1972 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

[6] U.S. Census, 1980; U.S. Census, 1990; Phil J. Ethington, W.H. Frey, and D. Myers, “The Racial Resegregation of Los Angeles County, 1940–2000,” Race Contours 2000 Study (University of Southern California and University of Michigan, 2001); Mae M. Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 227-239.

[7] On economic crisis see Jordan T. Camp, Incarcerating the Crisis: Freedom Struggles and the Rise of the Neoliberal State (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2016), 104-5; James C. Hankla letter to Each Supervisor, “Impact of Undocumented Aliens on Los Angeles County,” 23 December 1985, folder 4, box 980, Papers of Edmund D. Edelman, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California (hereafter EDE); Ruben Castaneda, “Studies Paint Confusing Picture of Illegal Aliens,” Los Angeles Herald Examiner, 12 January 1986, folder 4, box 980, EDE; CJM letter to Ed Edelman, “Comments about Illegal Alien Costs to County and Revenues Generated,” 23 January 1986, folder 4, box 331, EDE; “Aliens Reportedly Get $100 Million in Welfare,” LA Times, 27 January 1973, sec. Part I; Roger Waldinger, “Not the Promised City: Los Angeles and Its Immigrants,” Pacific Historical Review 68 (1999): 253-272.

[8] Edward Davis, “Special Order No. 68: Illegal Entry Arrests,” 24 November 1972, folder 18, box 29, Frank Del Olmo Collection, California State University, Northridge, Urban Archives Collections, Northridge, California (hereafter FDOC).

[9] E.M. Davis, “Pertinent Matters of Interest in Police Affairs,” 31 March 1974, folder Mayor’s Report 272 through 279, box B-2272, LAPD Bureau of Special Investigations, Los Angeles City Archives, Los Angeles, California. See also Joint Crime Suppression Task Force, “Los Angeles Police Study of Impact of Illegal Aliens on Crime in L.A.—Ramparts Division Case Study,” 3 September 1974, HV 7595.L71j, Vertical Files, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Library (hereafter USCIS).

[10] Community Relations Section Office of the Chief of Police, “Illegal Aliens: Composite Profile,” January 1975, folder 19, box 29, FDOC.

[11] “Testimony of the City of Los Angeles before the House Subcommittee on State, Justice, Commerce and The Judiciary of the Appropriations Committee,” 24 February 1978, folder 10 box 115, Grace Montanez Davis Papers, 39, UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, University of California, Los Angeles (hereafter GMDP).

[12] Community Relations Section Office of the Chief of Police, “Illegal Aliens: Composite Profile.”

[13] Graham C. Ousey, and Charis E. Kubrin, “Immigration and Crime: Assessing a Contentious Issue,” Annual Review of Criminology 1 (2018): 63-84.

[14] “Crime Surging Over Mexican Border into U.S., Chief Davis Says,” Los Angeles Times, 24 October 1976, sec. PART ONE.

[15] The Illegal Alien Committee, “The Illegal Alien Problem and Its Impact on Los Angeles Police Department Resources: Briefing Paper Prepared for Staff Officers’ Mini-Retreat,” January 1977, folder 1, box 36, Urban Policy Research Institute Records, Southern California Library, Los Angeles, California (hereafter UPRI).

[16] The Illegal Alien Committee, “The Illegal Alien Problem and Its Impact on Los Angeles Police Department Resources”; John Kendall, “L.A. to Have Million ‘Illegals’ by ’81 at Present Rate: Police Study Calls Peaceful Image False L.A. May Have 1 Million Illegal Aliens by 1981,” Los Angeles Times, 30 January 1977, sec. PART II; House Subcommittee on Appropriations, Undocumented Aliens: Hearings before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations, 1978, 276; Peter J. Pitchess, “The Impact of Illegal Aliens on Los Angeles County A Compendium Compiled by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department,” April 1977, Vertical Files: California Illegal Aliens California, USCIS; Grace Davis, “Testimony of the City of Los Angeles before the House Subcommittee on State, Justice, Commerce and The Judiciary of the Appropriations Committee,” 24 February 1978, folder 10, box 115, GMDP.

[17] The Illegal Alien Committee, “The Illegal Alien Problem and Its Impact on Los Angeles Police Department Resources.”

[18] “The Illegal Alien Problem and Its Impact on Los Angeles Police Department Resources”; Patt Morrison, “Illegal Aliens Blamed for Increasing Crimes: Officers Compile Data on Gangs of Transient Burglars RISE IN ILLEGAL ALIEN CRIME,” Los Angeles Times, 30 January 1977, sec. PART II.

[19] Edward M. Davis, “Pertinent Matters of Interest in Police Affairs, Attachment 1, Part 1,” 25 July 1976, Notebook #1, box 2276, Police Department Records/82, Los Angeles City Archives, Los Angeles, California.

[20] Joint Crime Suppression Task Force, “Los Angeles Police Study of Impact of Illegal Aliens on Crime in L.A.-Ramparts Division Case Study,” 3 September 1974, HV 7595.L71j, USCIS.

[21] Immigration Coalition, “Plight of Undocumented Immigrants in America,” 7 February 1977, folder 8, box 23, Herman Baca Collection, MSS 649, University of California, San Diego, The Library, San Diego, California; Kenneth Reich, “LAPD Doesn’t Go After Illegal Aliens, Davis Says,” Los Angeles Times, 27 November 1975, folder 18, box 29, FDOC.

[22] Ad Hoc Committee of the Los Angeles County Bar Association, “Public Hearings on the Deportation and Removal of Aliens,” 18 December 1974, folder 12, box 123, GMDP; Los Angeles Bar Association, “Report on the Deportation and Removal of Aliens,” 1976, folder 19, box 115, GMDP.

[23] Evan Maxwell, “LAPD Eases Policy Toward Illegal Aliens: Officers Won’t Question Status Except in Serious Crimes,” Los Angeles Times, 21 March 1979, sec. PART II.

[24] Daryl F. Gates, “Special Order No. 40: Undocumented Aliens”, 27 November 1979, folder 17, box 29, FDOC.

[25] Rose Ochi letter to Tom Bradley, “Attached Briefing Memo. Also Attached for Background – Immigration,” 16 April 1981, folder 10, box 2175, Mayor Tom Bradley Administration Papers, University of California, Los Angeles Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA, Los Angeles, California (hereafter MTBAP).

[26] United States General Accounting Office, “Criminal Aliens: INS’ Enforcement Activities – Report to the Chairman, Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and International Law, Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives,” GAO, November 1987.

[27] Los Angeles City Task Force on Immigration, “Interim Report of the Los Angeles City Task Force on Immigration,” April 1987, folder 13, box 1172, MTBAP.

[28] Jerry Belcher, “Police Launch Program Against Illegal Aliens: L.A. Seeking to Deport Gang Members,” Los Angeles Times, 5 September 1986, sec. Part II; Richard B. Dixon letter to Each Supervisor, “Projects to Identify Alien Drug Offenders,” 15 May 1987, folder 13, box 331, EDE; United States General Accounting Office, “Criminal Aliens: INS’ Enforcement Activities – Report to the Chairman, Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and International Law, Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives,” GAO, November 1987.

[29] Stephen Braun, “U.S.-L.A. Task Force Deports 175 With Ties to Drug, Gang Activity” Los Angeles Times, 12 April 1989, A3.

[30] Leonard Greenwood, “1,700 Arrested in LAPD Anti-Drug Sweep,” Los Angeles Times, 14 August 1985, sec. Part II; United States General Accounting Office, “Criminal Aliens: INS’ Enforcement Activities–Report to the Chairman, Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and International Law, Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives.” GAO, November 1987.

[31] Antonio H. Rodriguez, “L.A. Police and La Migra—an Overbearing Partnership,” Los Angeles Times, 18 July 1989.

[32] Hector Tobar, “27 Hostages Turned Over to INS After Police Rescue,” Los Angeles Times, 16 June 1990, sec. Metro; CARECEN, “What Is CARECEN?,” 1990, folder 2, box 1164, MTBAP.

[33] Daryl F. Gates, “Statement by Chief Daryl F. Gates Re: Undocumented Being Held Hostage,” 19 July 1990, folder 8, box 1170, MTBAP.

[34] Hispanic Advisory Council, “Newsletter,” December 1990, folder 7, box 1169, MTBAP; “How to Make Allies Into Enemies,” Los Angeles Times, 15 August 1990, folder 9, box 1170, MTBAP.

[35] Hector Tobar, “27 Hostages Turned Over to INS After Police Rescue,” Los Angeles Times, 16 June 1990, sec. Metro.

[36] CHIRLA, “Stop the Cooperation Between the Police and the INS,” 16 October 1990, folder 9, box 1170, MTBAP.

[37] The Los Angeles City Council passed a limited sanctuary policy in 1985 in response to the growing number of refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala. Hector Tobar, “Woo Seeks Curbs on INS Cooperation: Law Enforcement: His Proposal Follows Incident in Which L.A. Police Rescued 27 Illegal-Alien Hostages and Turned Them over to Federal Agents,” Los Angeles Times, 21 June 1990, sec. Metro News.

[38] Hector Tobar, “Proposed Curbs on LAPD Fought,” Los Angeles Times, 31 July 1990, p. B1, folder 18, box 29, FDOC; Richard Alatorre and Michael Woo, “Motion,” 20 June 1990, folder 8, box 1170, MTBAP.

[39] Hector Tobar, “Proposed Curbs on LAPD Fought,” Los Angeles Times, 31 July 1990, p. B1, folder 18, box 29, FDOC; Hector Tobar, “Gates Opposes Bar to Police, INS Cooperation,” Los Angeles Times, 22 June 1990, sec. Metro News.

[40] Public Safety Committee letter to Los Angeles City Council, “INS-LAPD Memo,” 13 November 1990, folder 8, box 1170, MTBAP.

[41] Los Angeles City Council, “Motion Adopted Relative to Modification of Los Angeles Police Department’s Cooperation Policy with Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in Its Treatment of Undocumented Persons,” 15 November 1990, folder 8, box 1170, MTBAP; Public Safety Committee letter to Los Angeles City Council, “INS-LAPD Memo,” 13 November 1990, folder 8, box 1170, MTBAP; “Fact Sheet – Background on the Los Angeles Police Department’s Relationship and Collaboration with the Immigration & Naturalization Service,” 1990, folder INS-Police Cooperation Declarations & Testimony, Carton 1681, RG #5, Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund Records, Stanford Green Library, Special Collections, Stanford, California.

[42] Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Governmental Affairs, Criminal Aliens in the United States (Washington: 1993), 22-23; Edward J. Boyer, “Immigrants Sent to INS by Police, Suit Alleges,” Los Angeles Times, 8 May 1991, sec. Valley.

[43] Southern California Public Radio, “LAPD Chief Beck: ‘Immigration Is Not the Job of Local Law Enforcement,’” Southern California Public Radio, 16 November 2016, http://www.scpr.org/programs/airtalk/2016/11/16/53089/lapd-chief-on-policing-immigration-policy-trump-pr/.

  • This essay is adapted from the forthcoming Max Felker-Kantor, Policing Los Angeles: Race, Resistance, and the Rise of the LAPD (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

 

Max Felker-Kantor is an American historian specializing in areas of race, politics, and the carceral state. He is the author of Policing Los Angeles: Race, Resistance, and the Rise of the LAPD (University of North Carolina Press, 2018), and currently teaches American and African American history at Ball State University.

Copyright: © 2018 Max Felker-Kantor. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Articles

Howard Thurman and the Arc of History in San Francisco

Paul Harvey

The theologian, mystic, and minister Howard Thurman visited San Francisco for the first time in the late 1920s, according to an account he later gave to a friend. In his published reminiscences, he recalled attending staff meetings of the national YWCA held in Asilomar, California in the mid-1930s. One summer, he remembered, “when I disembarked from the Oakland ferry and walked down Market Street, I had a sense of coming home that I never felt any place else in the world.”[1]

I once had almost exactly that same experience, and feeling, admittedly after disembarking from a VW van rather than the Oakland ferry. But the same sense of “coming home” for the first time was there.

Last year, I decided I might be interested in writing a biography of Howard Thurman, someone who long has interested me. When I read this sentence in his autobiography, I suddenly felt “called” to do so, using the language of the Baptist tradition in which both Thurman and I grew up. “It was a cold, foggy day in July when Sue and I shivered into San Francisco,” he remembered of moving there in July 1944, “but the city loomed before us as the loveliest sight we had ever seen.” He felt that he and his wife Sue Bailey Thurman “shared a sudden awareness that destiny rode with us right into the city.”[2]

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Image of Thurman courtesy of Noah Griffin; modified, Jacquelyn Campaña.

He was a private man and an intellectual. He saw spiritual cultivation as a necessary accompaniment to social activism. And he tested out his ideas in San Francisco… where he risked everything to pursue his central idea—a religious community beyond race.

Thurman was not an activist, as Martin Luther King was, nor one to take up specific social and political causes to transform a country. He was a private man and an intellectual. He saw spiritual cultivation as a necessary accompaniment to social activism. And he tested out his ideas in San Francisco from 1944 to 1953, a key period in his life where he risked everything to pursue his central idea—a religious community beyond race.

Thurman moved to San Francisco to pursue what he considered one of the great adventures of his life: to establish an interracial congregation that would defy the conventions by which the great majority of American churches operated. He came during an era of rapid transition. San Francisco was a city of some 630,000 just before World War Two; of those, only about 5,000 were African American. By the end of the war, thanks to a migration westward, approximately 32,000 African Americans lived in the city, and a distinct black neighborhood had developed. Many lived in areas with small rooms and apartments recently vacated by Japanese Americans; about 5,000 Japanese Americans from San Francisco ended up in internment camps. One local NAACP leader in San Francisco noted that “Caucasian San Francisco turned to the machinery already at hand for the subjugation of the Oriental and applied it to the Negro,” referring to residential segregation and unequal treatment in nearly all areas of municipal life.[3]

The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, originally located in the Filmore and thus identified as a congregation in a black neighborhood, eventually found its home at 2041 Larkin Street in San Francisco, where it still exists today. It lives now in a very different city than the one Thurman came to towards the end of World War Two. Those stories, that of Thurman in the 1940s and the eventual results of his great experiment, suggest much about what Thurman did and did not accomplish with his dream of a cosmopolitan American Christianity. His venture in San Francisco did not have the long-term results he hoped for; but his life’s work, including his congregation in San Francisco, proved influential in the broader movements of American religion after World War Two.

Born in 1899 in West Palm Beach, Florida, Thurman lost his father when he was seven years old and spent a somewhat lonely childhood communing more with nature than with people. His mother and grandmother were major influences, and he grew up in a Baptist church. But he was somewhat wary of it given that a local Baptist minister initially had refused to give his father, a somewhat-outspoken agnostic, a proper burial. Through hard work and years of struggle and malnourishment, Thurman made his way to a black Baptist high school in Jacksonville, where he was the valedictorian. Early on in his life, he staked his success on books—academic success. His success led him to his early affiliations with the YMCA, and to Morehouse College, which he attended from 1919-1923.

After receiving theological training in Rochester, New York, he served as a nationally prominent minister and educator at Howard University in the 1930s and 1940s. From his post there, he crisscrossed the country on speaking engagements, began some of his first significant writing endeavors, and struggled to balance his thoughts on both the potentialities as well as the limitations of Christianity. He also investigated the dilemmas of the universal message of Christianity and the particular expressions of it within the American racial hierarchy.

During these years, Thurman gradually developed his ideas about nonviolence and religion, and how Christian nonviolence could be part of the Christian solution to the race problem. He pondered how to counter the everyday racial violence endemic in the South. And during this time he developed ideas about what it meant to hate, and the costs of hatred on both sides. For blacks, fighting hatred posed the danger that it was possible to “hate people so bitterly that one becomes like them.”[4]

One focal point in Thurman’s life came in 1935-36, when he traveled to India for six months. He went there with his wife Sue Bailey Thurman as part of a four member “Negro delegation” of the American Christian Student Movement. Initially, he was reluctant. He did not want to be put in the position of defending indefensible practices in American Christianity. Once persuaded, he sought out audiences with prominent Indian thinkers and writers, including Rabinandanth Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi.

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The India trip was the turning point, with its two key moments. The first came at the law school of the University of Ceylon, where the principal took him aside after an address and asked him what he was doing there. The principal concluded, according to the account provided in Thurman’s book, Footprints of a Dream, “I am a Hindu. I do not understand. Here you are in my country, standing deep within the Christian faith and tradition. I do not wish to seem rude to you, but sir, I think you are a traitor to all the darker peoples of the earth. I am wondering what you, an intelligent man, can say in defense of your position.” In other cities, people queried him—“why is the church powerless before the color bar? … From a 10,000-mile perspective, this monumental betrayal of the Christian ethic loomed large and forbidding.” [5]

When Thurman finally met Gandhi, February 1936, much of the conversation hinged on the meaning of the word “nonviolence,” originally Ahimsa in the Sanskrit. Gandhi explained how the word did not come across fully in English, with the negative non- at the beginning. In reality, nonviolence was a metaphysical force, a truth that underlay the seemingly endless violence of human life. Always given to a love for the mystical, Thurman was fascinated. Sue Thurman, however, pushed Gandhi on how to apply these ideas in a context where black Americans faced lynching. By some accounts, at the end of the talk, Gandhi mused that “if it comes true it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of non-violence will be delivered to the world.” By Thurman’s account, Gandhi ended the meeting by pointing out that the greatest enemy of Jesus in the United States was Christianity itself. Leaders at the founding meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference two decades later remembered it; they understood themselves to be carrying out Gandhian principles of social struggle.[6]

By some accounts, at the end of the talk, Gandhi mused that “if it comes true it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of non-violence will be delivered to the world.”

During the same trip, Thurman traveled along the Khyber Pass, and while looking into Afghanistan and trains of camels bringing good along the roadways used by ancient conquerors, he noted the following:

All that we had seen and felt in India seemed to be brought miraculously into focus. We saw clearly what we must do somehow when we returned to America. We knew that we must test whether a religious fellowship could be developed in America that was capable of cutting across all racial barriers, with a carry-over into the common life, a fellowship that would alter the behavior patterns of those involved. It became imperative now to find out if experiences of spiritual unity among people could be more compelling than the experiences which divided them.[7]

By the early 1940s, Thurman was growing restless in his post of Dean of the Chapel at Howard University. In mid-1940s, he staked his life and future on a risky endeavor: the creation of an experimental interracial congregation in San Francisco. He later said, “There was kindling in my mind the possibility that this may be the opportunity toward which my life had been moving.”[8] He thought the vision he had at Khyber Pass might be coming to pass.

In 1943, the Reverend Alfred G. Fisk, a Presbyterian minister and college professor at San Francisco State University, contacted Thurman about finding a part-time divinity student who might be interested in participating in an experiment together to form an interracial congregation in San Francisco. He had been put in contact with Thurman by A. J. Muste, a doyen of peace and pacifist groups. At first, Thurman later said, he did not see a connection between himself and the church, but later realized this was the right time and place, especially in San Francisco, “with its varied nationalities, its rich intercultural heritages, and its face resolutely fixed toward the Orient.” San Francisco was the “ideal center” for his religio-racial experiment.[9]

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Together with Fisk, Thurman helped to plan what soon came to be called the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples. It was one of the first self-consciously multi-racial congregations in American history. There were predecessors from the nineteenth century, including Tremont Temple in Boston, and more recently there had been a variety of interracial religious experiments in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and other cities. But Thurman had something more permanent in mind. Just before his arrival, Thurman wrote to Fisk that “we must keep in mind constantly that the kind of church that we are building has never been built in the United States before. We must not hamper the creative form that the spirit of God may inspire, by clinging to the patterns with which we are ordinarily familiar.”[10]

His work with the Fellowship Church seemed to embody his thoughts in “The meaning of Commitment,” wherein he wrote the following:

Commitment means that it is possible for a man to yield the nerve center of his consent to a purpose or cause, a movement or an ideal, which may be more important to him than whether he lives or dies. The commitment is a self-conscious act of will by which he affirms his dentification with that he is committed to. The character of this commitment is determined by that to which the center or core of his consent is given.[11]

He got the itch to “establish empirical validation for what to me is a profound religious and ethnical insight concerning the genius of the church as a religious fellowship.” He further wanted to “find out for myself whether or not it is true that experiences of spiritual unity and fellowship are more compelling than the fears and dogmas and prejudices that separate men.” He believed that if every community had such a venture as this congregation, “the Church itself would once again set in motion those spiritual processes which gave to it its original impetus and power.” [12]

The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples had a rocky start. Originally connected with, and heavily subsidized by, the Presbyterian Church, Thurman quickly pushed it towards a different vision. The last thing he wanted was a mission church, and even less so a “neighborhood church” when it was clear that racial segregation defined American neighborhoods. If the church remained in the Fillmore district of San Francisco (where it originally was located), he realized, it would quickly become a black church, and non-black congregants would disappear, defeating the entire purpose of the enterprise. In any event, the church soon outgrew its original location, and it became necessary to move simply for practical reasons of space. He continued resisting being made the object of “charity and condescension” by Presbyterians, however well-meaning they might be, because in that case

the crippling disease that has dogged the vitality and the health of the Christian enterprise would have overtaken us—the deadly disease of condescension. Very quickly we would have become a dumping ground for uplifters and the challenge of the development of an integrated religious fellowship would have bounced off the conscience and hearts of the people. For herein lies the great temptation: If a man can feel sorry for you, he can very easily absolve himself from dealing with you in any sense as an equal.[13]

Eventually, Thurman moved the church out of the orbit of the Presbyterians. It became an independent congregation, subsidized in part by a national group of supporters (including Eleanor Roosevelt) and also by fees from Thurman’s near-constant speaking engagements. Thurman lived on trains as much as he lived in the city itself. His star was in its ascendancy.

Thurman consistently resisted several models he had seen in the past: the mission church, which invariably became an object of condescension; the social mission or activist institutional church, which could easily lose its spiritual moorings; and the church with no connection to social life, which could easily lose its ethical imperative. His vision was of a church with strong spiritual grounding that would prepare, strengthen, and fill with God’s love those who would carry on a struggle for justice in the social world. The church had a social mission, but not one that was direct; it was not the job of the church to organize protests, to become social service agencies, or to directly involve themselves in political life. Rather, as Thurman saw it, individuals in the thick of the struggle should have a place to “be able to find renewal and fresh courage in the spiritual resources of the church. … The true genius of the church was revealed by what it symbolized as a beachhead in society in terms of community, and as an inspiration to the solitary individual to put his weight on the side of a society in which no person need be afraid.”[14]

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By 1949, the church numbered about 285 members, with whites about sixty percent of the total; a few years later, whites made up about half, and blacks about forty percent, of its 345 members. Some congregants envisioned the church as a center for social activism and protest, more so than was ever the case with Thurman. After an initial period of co-pastoring with Alfred Fisk, the church became Thurman’s own, a kind of trial project for his ideas. The initial commitment spoke of congregants seeking “after a vital interpretation of God as revealed in Jesus of Nazareth whose fellowship with God was the foundation of his fellowship with men,” and of people desiring “to have a part in the unfolding of the ideal of Christian fellowship through the union of men and women of varying national, cultural, racial, or creedal heritage in church communion.” The Declaration of the Church called it a

creative venture in interracial, intercultural, and interdenominational communion. In faith and genius it is Christian. While it derives its inspiration primarily from the source of Hebrew-Christian thought and life, it affirms the validity of spiritual insight wherever found and seeks to recognize, understand, and appreciate every aspect of truth whatever the channel through which it comes. It believes that human dignity is inherent in man as a creature of God, and it interprets the meaning of human life as essentially spiritual.

Over the first few years, several versions of “the commitment” evolved, at first more Christian oriented, and then less so over time, reflecting in part Thurman’s own move away from the Christianity of his youth and towards a more universal vision of cosmopolitan spirituality, humanitarianism, and what he called “sensitiveness”—what we might call a kind of mindfulness oriented towards social action.[15]

Thurman also used the church as a venue for experimentation in worship aesthetics, especially music and dance. With the help of noted musician and arranger Corrine Williams, Thurman developed a music program at the church, later to be led by Raymond Fong. Thurman took pride in the choir as evidence of his ideas about worship as “the highest act of celebration of the human spirit,” in which the “worshiper sees himself as being in the presence of God. In His presence, the worshiper is neither male nor female, black nor white, Protestant nor Catholic nor Buddhist nor Hindu, but a human spirit laid bare, stripped to whatever there is that is literal and irreducible.” The key to the church was not the mixture of peoples but rather the “duality of the individual’s religious experience achieved through worship and the effect of that experience on daily behavior.” He saw Sunday morning as a time that “for each person present” was “a moment which becomes his moment in the presence of God.” This was consistent with Thurman’s larger vision of churches as centers of spiritual nourishment, from which people could then be empowered to pursue social transformation.[16]

“As I moved more and more into the center of the process at the church I began feeling the urge to put into written form some of the things that were stirring within me,” he later wrote in his account of the church, Footprints of a Dream. One of those things stirring was the “weekly meditation written out of the heart of my own spiritual struggle,” which appeared in the weekly church calendar. Soon people demanded them for wider distribution, and his written words became a “means for a wider participation in the fundamental idea and an ideal upon which we had set our course.”[17]

In the long-since-gentrified milieu of contemporary San Francisco, it stands more as a symbol of an honored past than as a beacon into any future.

In part through the venue of his church, Thurman was becoming a national celebrity. He and the church were featured in Life magazine, and in 1953 he would be listed as one of the twelve most influential preachers in the country (at a time when such a list still had currency, still mattered). By that time also, he had become known for his book Jesus and the Disinherited, his most powerful work, and one that influenced the thought of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ironically, it was precisely that growing national prominence that made him the object of a number of tempting offers, including the one from Boston. Thurman’s church project over the years tended in the direction of becoming a majority black congregation, something he decidedly did not have in mind. In the long-since-gentrified milieu of contemporary San Francisco, it stands more as a symbol of an honored past than as a beacon into any future.

In 1953, the president of Boston University wooed him away to become the first African American to serve as Dean of Marsh Chapel at BU. By that time, Thurman sensed his major work in San Francisco was at a point of transition, and he sought the opportunity to work again with students. He remained at BU until 1965, and then retired from public life. He lived out his days in San Francisco until 1981, writing his last books, creating the Howard Thurman Educational Trust, and compiling his papers, recordings, and addresses into an archive that is now available online and at the Howard Thurman Papers at Boston University.[18]

Thurman always attempted to balance his mysticism with activism, his reveries toward God with an emphasis on what should happen in this world because of that connection to God. For Thurman, the “true purpose” of spiritual discipline was to “clear away whatever may block our awareness of that which is God in us. The aim is to get rid of whatever may so distract the mind and encumber the life that we function without this awareness, or as if it were not possible.”[19] As well, he emphasized the importance of the “moral essence of vital religious experience” in preparing “those most engaged in sustaining democracy.” Love of God and working to him would strengthen congregants to understand others; they would become “apostles of sensitiveness.” As he told the Christian Century in 1973, “I didn’t have to wait for the revolution. I have never been in search for identity, and I think that [all] I’ve ever felt and worked on and believed in was founded in a kind of private, almost unconscious autonomy that did not seek vindication in my environment because it was in me.”[20]

One of the ironies of Thurman’s work is that his universalist cosmopolitanism ended up exercising its greatest influence on those who came specifically from the tradition of the African American Church, and whose internally focused and ethnically-based churches then empowered the civil rights movement. And this happened in spite of the fact that Thurman was not well known then, and is even less known now, by a large number of African American religious leaders. His influence came from his deep well of intellectual thought, personal mentorship, and quiet prodding, far more than from any public role. Thurman’s universalist vision eventually came to pass in the civil rights years in religious institutions that preached an idiomatic black American theology, and in ways that the leaders of those institutions often did not recognize. One of the aims of the Howard Thurman Papers Project and its corresponding institutions and research facility (also housed at Boston University), in fact, has been to make his work accessible to a generation who did not have personal contact with him, and in many cases would not have studied him in universities or seminaries.

And yet ultimately Thurman moved history. He did so less through his creation of interracial visions such as the Church of the Fellowship of All Peoples, but more through his translation of universalist ideas to an American religious idiom. Thurman was a “seeker” before we had such a term, and paved the way for contemporary ideas of religious pluralism. In that sense, he really was (and is) America’s pastor, as much if not more so than Billy Graham. That is because American religious ideals, Trump evangelicals notably excepted, look more like Thurman’s than Graham’s. Thurman labored under anonymity, but ultimately the arc of history is bending his way. His years in California helped to bend them that way.

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Notes

[1] Howard Thurman, With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Jovanovich, 1981), 98-9.

[2] Ibid., 141-42.

[3] “Biographical Essay,” in The Papers of Howard Washington Thurman, vol. III, The Bold Adventure, September 1943—May 1949, eds. Walter Fluker et al. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Pres, 2015), xxiii.

[4] Howard Thurman, “Relaxation and Race Conflict,” from 1929, reprinted in The Papers of Howard Washington Thurman, ed. Walter Fluker, et al., vol. I, My People Need Me (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2009), 145.

[5] Howard Thurman, Footprints of a Dream: The Story of the Church of the Fellowship of All Peoples (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1959), 24.

[6] For a fuller account, see Quinton Dixie and Peter Eisenstadt, Visions of a Better World: Howard Thurman’s Pilgrimage to India and the Origins of African American Nonviolence (Boston: Beacon Press, 2011).

[7] Thurman, Footprints of a Dream, 24.

[8]  Dixie and Eisenstadt, Visions of a Better World, 167.

[9] Thurman, Footprints of a Dream, 31.

[10] Thurman to Alfred G. Fisk, 19 May 1944, in The Papers of Howard Washington Thurman, vol. III, The Bold Adventure, September 1943—May 1949 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2015): 64.

[11] Howard Thurman, “Commitment,” in For the Inward Journey: The Writings of Howard Thurman, ed. Anne Spencer Thurman (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), 13.

[12] Inward Journey, 13, 21; Thurman, “The Fellowship Church of All Peoples,” Common Ground 5 (Springs 1945): 29-31, reprinted in The Papers of Howard Washington Thurman, III: 125-27.

[13] Thurman, Footprints of a Dream, 44-45, 47.

[14] Thurman, With Head and Heart, 160-61.

[15] Thurman, Footprints of a Dream, 52.

[16] Thurman, Footprints of a Dream, 70.

[17] Footprints of a Dream, 97.

[18] See the Howard Thurman Listening Room at http://archives.bu.edu/web/howard-thurman/virtual-listening-room.

[19] From Inward Journey, 280.

[20] “Racial Roots and Religion: An Interview with Howard Thurman,” The Christian Century 90 (9 May 1973): 533-35.

 

Paul Harvey received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1992, and since 1996 has taught history of the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. He is presently writing a biography of Howard Thurman for the Eerdmans Library of Religious Biography series. For more, see www.paulharvey.org/about.

Copyright: © 2018 Paul Harvey. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

ArticlesPhotography/Art

RE-Present

Contemporary tile fixes intermingle with original adobe construction to maintain the romanticized notions of the Spanish Missions at Mission San Miguel Arcángel.

Matthew Gush

Years spent exploring the Americas and documenting Pre-Columbian civilizations’ remains eventually brought my work back to Southern California. Through my travels I saw how advanced these societies had become, only to be confronted with the complications that few knew about or understood. Growing up in Whittier as a product of California’s public school system, I inherited the notion that American History started with a blank slate at 1492 and in fourth grade received the romanticized indoctrination of the Alta California mission system. It wasn’t until I started grappling with the colonial underpinnings of this continent that I realized my work with the past segued from the historical to the contemporary—colonization significantly accounting for why these societies were destroyed and why their legacies continued to be suppressed.

My subsequent exploration of the Alta California missions system exposed layers of complexity and irony. How could Mission San Antonio de Padua, sitting so rustically idyllic in the rolling green hills of central California, be the home of a mass grave of Natives? How could these architecturally simple yet striking places be the vehicles of cultural destruction and, ironically, salvation? How does Junípero Serra propagate such a sprawling system, yet harm the people he was trying to save? How do we understand the pain and suffering inflicted in and around these missions, yet still celebrate modern Quinceñeras or weddings in them?

It is easy to be seduced by the romanticized façades of these places, but even more important to understand their complexities and relevance for understanding contemporary California, the land where we dwell. Native history and the missions matter: from the role the missions played in the destruction of Native lives and culture during the Spanish conquest and colonization of Alta California, to the mission revival, and their function as expressions of faith today. We must look at these places and understand their complexities and contradictions, in hopes of more critical conversations that might serve as vehicles of understanding California.

Mission Soledad, with its simple yet poignant architectural lines, was a nexus for the subjugation of indigenous coastal peoples.

Visitors to Mission San Juan Capistrano explore the ruins of the mission church that was destroyed in an 1812 earthquake.

Native inspired flower and nature motifs decorate the mission walls at Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa.

Shining midday sun illuminates the gardens planted around Mission Santa Clara de Asís.

Votive candle offerings burn in Mission Santa Cruz’s church.

Modern traffic streams by Mission San Luis Rey de Francía.

The first of the Alta California missions, Mission San Diego de Alcalá opens for an evening mass.



Note

This photographic essay is part two of a diptych on the Alta California missions. For part one, see Matthew Gush and Robert M. Senkewicz, “Seeing California’s Missions Today.”

 

Matthew Gush is the university photographer at California State University, Fullerton, and is the Boom California 2017-2018 Photographer in Residence. His work focuses on Pre-Columbian Native America and chronicles interjections of Colonial Empires. For more of his work see https://www.humanexp.co/.

Copyright: © 2018 Matthew Gush. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

 

ArticlesPhotography/Art

Seeing California’s Missions Today

Indigenous Oaxacan Folklorico dancers perform outside of the San Gabriel Mission during a community festival.

Matthew Gush
Robert M. Senkewicz*

When I left my native New York City to begin graduate school in California almost five decades ago, many things about my new home region struck me as strange. It seemed odd, for instance, that a local Safeway supermarket had the same kind of tiled roof as I could see on Mission Santa Clara, a scant three blocks away. And it seemed unbearably grandiose to call a local street, whose defining characteristics appeared to be used car lots, gas stations, and strip malls, El Camino Real, which I soon discovered meant the Royal Road. But I eventually realized that missions and Spain were apparently crucial parts of California’s popular identity. Combined with another never-far-from-the-surface part of that identity, the Gold Rush, my new home seemed to be constantly trumpeting a kind of California exceptionalism. Things happened here, everything seemed to say, that never happened anywhere else in the U.S. California is different—and by “different,” what’s clearly meant is “better.”

A visitor to the northern most outpost Spanish Mission San Francisco Solano observes the reed and adobe construction of the awning.

I began to wonder about that exceptionalism, but the doubts really came into focus when I was writing my dissertation on gold rush San Francisco. It seemed that the social processes alive in that 1850s instant city were quite similar to developments and tensions that were simultaneously occurring in places like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. The vigilantism that wracked the city twice (in 1851 and 1856) during this era seemed to have more in common with Eastern violence than with “we’re going to have to take the law into our own hands” vigilantism in places like Montana or other frontier venues.

After I finished with gold rush San Francisco, like a good historian, I went back in time. I ended up focusing on California and the Southwest before the U.S. takeover. And here I saw California exceptionalism strongly at work. Even some scholarly work seemed to be written with scant regard to the origins and foundations of Spanish California. Those origins stretched back over three centuries, but you would never know it by learning that San Diego had been founded in 1769 by a party led by two individuals who seemed to materialized out of nowhere, Gaspar de Portolá and Junípero Serra. And the fact that California had once been part of Mexico was apparently quite embarrassing. This embarrassment was solved in textbooks by focusing almost exclusively on Anglo-Americans who began to arrive in California in the 1820s and began to bring culture and civilization to this benighted region.

Popular understanding of California’s pre-U.S. past still suffers from two crucial absences: the absence of context and the absence of people.

First, context. The U.S. state of California was one of the last regions to experience settler colonialism in a Spanish Imperial context. That colonialism had a long and varied history. The Spanish presence worked itself out differently in the Valley of Mexico, the highlands of Peru, the sugar islands of the Caribbean, the Southern Cone, and the arid regions of what is now northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. The indigenous cultures the Spanish invaded and disrupted were radically different and the combination of resistance and strategic accommodation varied region to region. Survival often depended on flexible and creative strategic alliances with other groups and, at times, with dissident elements of the invading group. As was the case with British colonialism along the eastern coast of North America, not all colonial officials saw eye to eye, and indigenous leaders attempted to exploit those differences. European maps showed huge regions as controlled by “ Spain,” but this was hardly the case, as large and powerful indigenous peoples from many regions persisted well into the nineteenth century.

California was heir to all of these developments and the Spanish colonialism that took root there was diverse, messy, and at times contradictory. It was anything but a story of Spanish control and indigenous acceptance. The extensive writings of the Franciscan missionaries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries bear eloquent testimony to the fact that, even in long-established mission compounds, missionaries knew that they could never assume that external conformity implied indigenous acceptance of subservient status. This part of the story was completely ignored during the “Spanish revival” era, when self-sacrificing, heroic missionaries and happy, contented Indians dominated the narrative. The assumption that California was exceptional meant that California identity could exist in blissful isolation from the issues and tensions that dominated the rest of the Spanish Empire.

Second, people. One of the most striking things about the photographs and paintings that were created concerning the California missions during the latter part of the nineteenth century by artists like Carlton Watkins and Edwin Deakin, is that they were generally bereft of people. The focus is on the structures, generally in various states of disrepair, but hearkening back to their days of glory and prosperity. In this, these later artists were quite different from artists who portrayed the missions who had had actual experience with them. People like Louis Choris, Ferdinand Deppe, and Edward Vischer always foregrounded indigenous, Spanish, and Mexican people in their portrayal of the missions. They knew what contemporary pastoral ministers will be happy to tell you: The “church” is not the building, but the people.

The logical, and sad, outcome of all of this was the fourth grade project that Matthew Gush describes in his introductory essay that follows this one. The focus of that project for elementary school children was on getting the buildings right, the angles precise, the bell towers in the correct place, that sort of thing. When I first learned of this project many years ago, I was as puzzled as I originally had been when I saw that supermarkets looked like churches. After all, we had never made sugar cube models of the Empire State building or the George Washington Bridge when I was in grammar school in New York. When the nuns at St. Columba on West 25th Street showed us New York pictures, they were always pictures of people—of immigrants crowding onto the deck of a boat and weeping for joy when they first saw the Statue of Liberty, of crowds in Times Square celebrating the end of World War II, or of Lou Gehrig saying goodbye at Yankee Stadium. The message was that New York was its people. That was a quite different message from the one that was contained in the fourth grade exercise, that California was its buildings.

Fortunately, this fourth grade project has been discontinued in California schools. I myself hope that its abandonment will lead to the abandonment of another California cottage industry: Picture books, travel guides, and brochures that are filled with “honey shots” of mission façades set against a pure blue sky, bell towers dominating the landscape, and incredibly lush gardens. These productions, in other words, are filled with images of California’s missions that bear absolutely no resemblance to the actual missions that existed from 1769 into the 1840s. These pictures, just like the fourth grade project, do not offer any indication that the California missions were overwhelmingly indigenous locations. Two priests, a handful of soldiers, and hundreds or thousands of native peoples populated the spaces. These venues were places that were as varied, diverse, and contradictory as the three centuries of Spanish colonialism that gave birth to them had been. They were places of pain and joy, of suffering and hope, of violence and survival, of death and birth. Matthew Gush’s photos, which deliberately focus on these places from unusual angles, invite us to enter these locations from different places of our minds. He includes the people who currently worship in these churches, and whose presence demonstrates that the California missions continue to be re-created anew in each generation. Matthew does not tell us in his essay why he decided to begin photographing these missions, but I for one am very glad that he did.



Notes

  • Photography and image descriptions by Matthew Gush; essay by Robert M. Senkewicz.

This is part one of a diptych on the California missions. For part two, see Matthew Gush, “RE-Present: Seeing California Missions Through A Contemporary Lens.”


Matthew Gush
is the university photographer at California State University, Fullerton, and is the Boom California 2017-2018 Photographer in Residence. For more of his work see https://www.humanexp.co/.

Robert M. Senkewicz is professor of History at Santa Clara University. With Rose Marie Beebe he has written a number of books on pre-U.S. California, including most recently, Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary, and a contribution to Steven W. Hackel, ed., The Worlds of Junipero Serra Historical Contexts and Cultural Representations (UC Press, 2018).

Copyright: © 2018 Matthew Gush and Robert M. Senkewicz. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Articles

The Geography of Gold

Oliver Wang

In the summer of 2006, my family and I moved from the Bay Area to Los Angeles. Having grown up in the San Gabriel Valley for most of the 1980s, technically I was moving back to L.A. But like many kids living in the ‘burbs, I had no real sense of “The City.” I knew about the world within my three-mile BMX biking radius, but every other neighborhood was just a name on a Thomas Guide page. Coming back after 16 years meant re-learning Los Angeles from the ground up: Its tempos and temperaments, its tangle of mini-metropoles, its physical and cultural terrains.

I decided to let my stomach lead. I’ll go a long way for good food, so I began to ease myself back into L.A.’s geography by chasing meals in whatever corners I had to. That meant, inevitably, turning to Jonathan Gold.

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Gold began writing about Los Angeles restaurants in the mid-1980s (when he wasn’t busy profiling N.W.A), but I had no idea about any of this as a kid.[1] By the time I came across his “Counter Intelligence” columns in that ’06 summer, he had already been writing them for nearly twenty years. No matter: Both in the newspaper and in his 2000 compendium by the same name, his reviews felt like a revelation.

It wasn’t simply that Gold was a gifted writer, though he absolutely was. His Los Angeles Times colleague Carolina Miranda said it best when she wrote that his reviews “were both erudite and joyous—his glee over a good dish was always infectious.”[2] Seriously, tell me this passage from his 2012 guide to Koreatown dishes doesn’t make you want to immediately run out to Vermont Avenue: “hwe dup bap is one of those dishes where each bite is subtly varied in spice, marine savor and green crunch, with the smelt roe crackling under your teeth, the raw fish melting into the hot rice.”[3]

There was always a palpable exuberance in Gold’s attempts to relate the sensory experience of eating a meal. Yet more than just how Gold wrote about food, what made him so important, so indispensable to the city, is where he went looking for it.

He wanted to embrace its complexity and contradictions. Everything that others find off-putting and unruly about the city is where he found kaleidoscopic, resplendent beauty.

One of the stories Gold liked to tell audiences was how in his early twenties, before his days as a food writer, he decided to explore every eatery along Pico Boulevard, beginning at a downtown pupuseria and moving west, intending to end at a Santa Monica burger shack. If you’re not familiar with the thoroughfare, it’s a rather prosaic 14-mile stretch that runs through a dizzying number of neighborhoods, including Pico-Union, Koreatown, Beverlywood, Rancho Park, etc. No one street can possibly contain all the multitudes of the many Los Angeleses out there but if you wanted an inkling of the Southland’s overlapping, distinct, and disparate communities, you could do worse than a Pico perambulation.

Gold never made it all the way to the beach, but he got two-thirds the way there, and more than anything the attempt alone says much about the insatiable curiosity that gripped him when it came to understanding food and place. In 1998, he wrote a Counter Intelligence column recounting, “The Year I Ate Pico Boulevard.”[4] It’s one of his very best pieces—which is saying a lot—and this passage is worth quoting in all its giddy, run-on glory:

Pico is home to Valentino, which specializes in preparing customized Italian food for millionaires, and to Oaxacan restaurants so redolent of the developing world that you half expect to see starved chickens scratching around on the floor; to Billingsley’s, a steak house, which could have been transplanted whole from Crawfordsville, Indiana, and to the Arsenal, a steak house decorated with medieval weaponry; to chain Mexican restaurants, artist-hangout Mexican restaurants and Mexican restaurants of such stunning authenticity that you’re surprised not to stumble outside into a bright Guadalajara sun. Greek and Scandinavian delis still flourish on stretches of Pico that haven’t been Greek or Scandinavian since the Eisenhower administration.[5]

It’s all there: Gold’s gift for deep description, the rhythmic pulse of his writing, and most of all, an earnest ethos of inclusion and exploration. He wasn’t trying to sum up Los Angeles in a tidy turn of phrase. He wanted to embrace its complexity and contradictions. Everything that others find off-putting and unruly about the city is where he found kaleidoscopic, resplendent beauty.[6]

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More than any other part of L.A., though, I always saw Gold as the champion of the San Gabriel Valley, a massive swath of neighborhoods that begin near the L.A. River and sweep eastward towards the Inland Empire. Gold and his family lived in the SGV—Pasadena to be exact—for decades, not far from where I grew up. Back in the 1980s, I don’t recall any of my friends ever bragging about coming from “The SGV” let alone wearing “626” emblazoned on a t-shirt (this was still the 213/818 era at the time).

By the mid/late 20-aughts, this had changed as a younger generation were now claiming the SGV like it was Brooklyn or East Oakland. Much of that pride is rooted in the region’s astounding food cultures, a result of decades of Asian and Latinx immigrant communities settling across its dozens of cities.[7] The critical masses of those diasporas meant that restaurants could cater to palates not yet assimilated by anodyne American tastes; that reality is what drew Gold, again and again, to explore the SGV’s myriad offerings.

His columns became completely indispensable for me coming back to what I thought were my old haunts, only to realize I had never really explored the region at all. Through Gold, I ended up in more Valley Blvd. and Garvey Blvd. strip malls than I can remember, chasing Taiwanese beef noodle soup in San Gabriel, Vietnamese bun bo hue in South El Monte, Xinjiang cumin lamb ribs in Rosemead, Guerrero-style lamb barbacoa in Highland Park. The day he passed, I happened to be on Valley for dinner and I knew that if I just strolled around one single block, I could find at least half a dozen restaurants with his review turned into a plaque on their wall.

I also thought about one of my favorite memories of Gold’s influence: my parents, who still live in the SGV house I lived in during high school, invited me and my family out to dinner at one of the newer Sichuan restaurants to recently land in Alhambra. My parents, while they eat out on occasion, have never been on the front lines of trends so I asked them how they heard about the restaurant. As it turns out, my dad’s best friends Peter and Alice had taken them there previously. But that couple lived out in Pacific Palisades, on the other, far side of town. “So,” I asked, “how did they learn about this place?” It turns out they had read a review of it… in the Los Angeles Times. And sure enough, I glanced towards the lobby and there was a framed review with a byline for Jonathan Gold.[8]

“So,” I asked, “how did they learn about this place?” It turns out they had read a review of it… in the Los Angeles Times. And sure enough, I glanced towards the lobby and there was a framed review with a byline for Jonathan Gold.

An easy way to understand the uniqueness of Gold’s culinary geography of Los Angeles is found by comparing his orientations to those of many of his colleagues. Pick up any older, middlebrow guide to “food in Los Angeles,” and it’s as if there is no L.A. south of the 10 or east of the 5. We’re not talking about “pockets” of the region being skipped over. We’re talking about massive geographic and demographic parts of the Southland rendered invisible. Gold was astutely aware of all this. In one of the most oft-quoted parts from the acclaimed 2015 documentary about him, City of Gold, he says, “you’re used to having your city explained to you by people who come in for a couple of weeks, stay at a hotel in Beverly Hills, and take in what they can get to within ten minutes of their rented car.”[9] Perhaps he was too polite to add that those myopic “explainers” also included people from L.A., not just out-of-town Zagat editors. Case in point: I recently picked up the annual “best of” issue of a long-running Los Angeles magazine and in their food section, out of twenty-five primary entries, only one was located in the SGV and absolutely none in either South or Southeast Los Angeles.

It may seem odd to say this about a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic who worked for two of the area’s biggest newspapers but in his thirty-two years of food writing for the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly, Gold created a definitive alternative guide to Southland food culture, one in which East Hollywood mattered as much as West Hollywood, where Huntington Park and Monterey Park carried greater cachet than Hancock Park, and where Koreatown could be more interesting and vibrant than downtown. As Danny Chau wrote for The Ringer, “there is no one true Los Angeles. Perhaps the closest we’ve ever gotten to finding that core is the vision of L.A. through the eyes, ears, and stomach of Jonathan Gold.”[10]

For all these reasons, it’s impossible to deny fellow food critic Gustavo Arellano’s claim that Gold was “one of our greatest and most important literary voices” because “our food in his hands became the prism through which outsiders could finally see the real SoCal.”[11] Gold wasn’t simply a consummate food writer, he was also a quintessential Los Angeles writer, using meals as a way to probe and comment on the city’s innumerable frictions and fantasias. The inevitable—and necessary—Jonathan Gold anthologies and readers that will come are likely to cement what many of us already know: Gold’s writing has shaped a collective idea of Los Angeles to rival those of earlier scribes such as Reyner Banham, Joan Didion, or Mike Davis.

Importantly though, as Chau insists, “the vision of Gold’s true L.A. doesn’t belong to any one person.”[12] It would be, of course, hubristic folly to assume that an individual could replace Gold as a singular figure. But Gold had transformed the entire landscape of food writing here long before his passing. His influence isn’t only reflected in individual writers who work in the same milieu but it’s embedded in the public imagination of how we think and talk about food in the Southland, whether that comes in the form of a high-production documentaries on immigrant restauranteurs in L.A. or random strangers debating soup dumplings on a message board.[13] Jonathan Gold didn’t “discover” a Los Angeles that no one else knew about, but column after column he built us new maps to help navigate it. In his time, too brief it truly was, his lasting gift was to invite us into his city of Gold and so we could find different ways to break bread within it, together.

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Notes

[1] Gold began his career not as a food critic but as a music critic and journalist. His profile of N.W.A, for the LA Weekly is still considered one of the important, early examples of West Coast rap journalism. Jonathan Gold, “NWA: Hard Rap and Hype From the Streets of Compton,” LA Weekly, 5 May 1989, www.laweekly.com/news/jonathan-gold-meets-nwa-2385365.

[2] Carolina Miranda, “To Be a Writer in Los Angeles Is to Contend with the Words of Jonathan Gold,” Los Angeles Times, 22 July 2018, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/miranda/la-et-cam-tribute-jonathan-gold-20180721-story.html.

[3] Jonathan Gold, “Jonathan Gold’s 60 Korean Dishes Every Angeleno Should Know,” LA Weekly, 1 March 2012, www.laweekly.com/restaurants/jonathan-golds-60-korean-dishes-every-angeleno-should-know-2383348.

[4] Jonathan Gold, “The Year I Ate Pico Boulevard,” LA Weekly, 23 September 1998, http://www.laweekly.com/news/the-year-i-ate-pico-boulevard-2129883.

[5] Ibid.

[6] In the 2015 documentary, City of Gold, Gold describes Los Angeles this way: “the thing that people find hard to understand is the magnitude of what’s here. The huge numbers of multiple cultures that live in the city that come together in this beautiful and haphazard fashion. And the fault lines between them are sometimes where you can find the most beautiful things.” City of Gold, directed by Laura Gabbert, 2015.

[7] Wendy Cheng, The Changs next Door to the Diazes: Remapping Race in Suburban California (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

[8] Jonathan Gold, “The Restaurant Is Called Legendary. But Is It? Jonathan Gold Sits down for Showstopping Sichuan,” Los Angeles Times, 30 December 2016, http://www.latimes.com/food/dailydish/la-fo-gold-legendary-restaurant-review-20161208-story.html.

[9] Gabbert, 2015.

[10] Danny Chau, “The Gateway and the Gatekeeper: In Memory of Jonathan Gold,” The Ringer, 23 July 2018, https://www.theringer.com/2018/7/23/17601794/jonathan-gold-food-critic-la-times-obituary-in-memoriam.

[11] Gustavo Arellano, “We All Live in Jonathan Gold’s Southern California,” Los Angeles Times, 21 July 2018, www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-arellano-jonathan-gold-20180721-story.html.

[12] Chau, 2018.

[13] “The Migrant Kitchen” is a documentary series about food and immigrant communities in Los Angeles. Food Talk Central is a message board with a robust sub-section devoted to Los Angeles restaurants. The Migrant Kitchen, KCET, 2016, Food Talk Central, http://foodtalkcentral.com/c/usa-west/los-angeles.

 

Oliver Wang is a professor of sociology at California State University, Long Beach and co-editor of Journal of Popular Music Studies. He writes about culture, music, and food for KCET, the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books and National Public Radio.

Copyright: © 2018 Oliver Wang. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.