Tag: Politics

Reviews

Exhausting, But Not Exhaustive: A Review of Rick Perlstein’s “Reaganland”

Peter Richardson

Reaganland is the final installment of Rick Perlstein’s critically acclaimed history of the modern conservative movement. Beginning with Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign, continuing through the Nixon years, and culminating with Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory, the four-volume saga furnishes an enormous amount of period detail culled from a wide variety of sources. Focused mostly on electoral politics, it chronicles the period’s key campaigns, surveys the social movements that shaped the political landscape, and encapsulates countless contemporary issues. Perlstein’s commentary is sparing but refreshingly tart. Although he elsewhere describes himself as a European-style social democrat, he clearly admires the conservative movement’s passion and resolve, and he is especially tough on liberal pundits and operatives who dismissed or underestimated their adversaries. For these and other reasons, Perlstein’s magnum opus is the most comprehensive introduction to the Age of Reagan.

In my review of the third volume, I noted that Perlstein’s style was exhausting but not quite exhaustive. That pattern is even more evident in Reaganland. Unlike its predecessors, it does not use an explicit theme or organizing device to shape and direct the story. Moreover, it violates a basic narrative convention by steadily expanding the size of the cast. On almost every page of this lengthy book, Perlstein introduces several new characters, many of whom appear only once. As a result, the final volume sprawls more than an Orange County suburb. Perlstein marches through the major events, issues, and news items of the Carter presidency: Panama Canal, OPEC, Iran, SALT II, Moral Majority, Three Mile Island, Afghanistan, tax revolt, affirmative action, supply-side economics, and so on. He also details the shifting rivalries and alliances, both major and minor, within and between the two parties. Although his determination to map every twist in the road is impressive, the steady accumulation of detail does not always lead to a deeper understanding of the period or its major figures. Indeed, I often felt that I was reliving, rather than reassessing, a four-year period that was not especially enjoyable the first time around. Even as the curtain falls on his lengthy series, Perlstein draws no conclusions about the movement he has chronicled. Instead, he quotes Reagan’s inaugural speech (“In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem …”) and adds that the fur coats at the inaugural balls “so overloaded the coatracks that they resembled great lumbering mastodons out of the prehistoric past.” It is a nice touch but not a helpful summation of a lengthy, complicated narrative.

Something else is missing as well. Having read the entire cycle, I now believe it is related to the story’s provenance. Thousands of minor characters come and go in Perlstein’s epic, but its chief protagonists emerged from a relatively small region— Southern California and Arizona—which had exercised little political influence at the national level. Perlstein documents the rising power of the Sun Belt, but one can read this entire series without learning why Southern California produced the two most important American politicians in the second half of the twentieth century. When posed directly, that question calls our attention to Perlstein’s grasp of the region’s history and political culture. Although one does not expect complete mastery in a story of this scope, his portrait of California has several gaps and flat sides. It would have benefited, I think, from Kathryn S. Olmsted’s analysis in Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism (2015), which argues that California agribusiness served as the state’s political crucible during that turbulent decade. Businessmen forged a new kind of populism that combined corporate funding for grassroots efforts, sophisticated media campaigns, systematic intelligence-gathering on adversaries, and coalitions between religious and economic conservatives. That form of corporate populism was also characterized by its virulent anti-communism, which eventually spread from the state’s fields and canneries to Hollywood and the University of California. It is no accident, Olmsted notes, that Nixon and Reagan launched their political careers by attacking Communists real and imagined. Perlstein touches on related material, but Olmsted puts the movement’s origins into sharper focus.

Also absent are critiques by California leftists. Chief among them is Carey McWilliams, who has been described as “the state’s most astute political observer” (Kevin Starr) and “the California left’s one-man think tank” (Mike Davis). Although McWilliams was known back east for editing The Nation magazine, he was also tracking Nixon and Reagan as early as the 1940s. When Nixon ran for the Senate in 1950, McWilliams tagged him as “a dapper little man with an astonishing capacity for petty malice.” In the mid-1960s, when the conservative movement began to flex its muscles, McWilliams regularly challenged Nixon and Reagan in the pages of The Nation. In 1966, for example, he called out Reagan in an article called “How to Succeed with the Backlash.” In it, he described that year’s gubernatorial race as “one of the most subtle and intensive racist political campaigns ever waged in a Northern or Western state.” In the aftermath of the Watts Riots and the state’s fair-housing ordeal, McWilliams took note of Reagan’s dog whistles:

There won’t be much plain talk from Californians about the racism that they know permeates the Brown-Reagan contest. Most of them won’t talk about it at all if they can escape it. They don’t want the nation to know—they don’t want to admit to themselves—that the number-one state may elect Ronald Reagan governor in order to ‘keep the Negro in his place.’

Despite his perspicacity, or perhaps because of it, McWilliams never appears in Perlstein’s epic. He certainly did not play the part of the clueless liberal, one of Perlstein’s favorite types. Barely two years after Goldwater’s crushing defeat, McWilliams was well aware of the conservative movement’s growing power in California. Indeed, he warned that Pat Brown, the two-term incumbent, was in danger of losing to a former B-movie actor who had never held public office. Mainstream outlets largely ignored his charge of racism, preferring the weak sauce of consensus journalism, but McWilliams and others saw through Reagan in real time.

Perlstein’s most remarkable omission, however, concerns the Los Angeles Times. Quite simply, one cannot understand Southern California history or politics without a thorough consideration of that newspaper and its owners. For three generations, aspiring Republicans curried favor with the Chandler family. Norman Chandler later conceded that the Times strongly supported the GOP—not only on the op-ed page, but also in its news coverage. In fact, the newspaper had sabotaged Democratic candidates, including Upton Sinclair, whom the Times smeared regularly during his 1934 gubernatorial campaign. The paper’s political editor, Kyle Palmer, told a colleague, “We don’t go in for that kind of crap that you have back in New York—of being obliged to print both sides. We’re going to beat this son of a bitch Sinclair any way we can. We’re going to kill him.” That pattern changed in the 1960s, when Otis Chandler turned the Times into a respectable news organization. The Times became a less reliable advocate for GOP candidates, but it occupied an even larger niche in the national media ecology. Bitter about the newspaper’s new orientation, President Nixon ordered an investigation of Otis Chandler’s taxes. Perlstein probably understands the newspaper’s centrality; a note in the first volume recommends David Halberstam’s history of the Times during its early years. By my count, however, the newspaper receives only 13 passing mentions in all four volumes. Otis Chandler is cited once—in a passage about the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Buff and Norman Chandler, who exerted enormous political, commercial, and cultural influence in Los Angeles, likewise receive one brief mention each.

When Perlstein focuses on California politics, the results are mixed. Howard Jarvis’s tax revolt receives ample discussion in Reaganland, as does Governor Jerry Brown’s response to it. Perlstein’s summary of the property tax issue is on point, but his depiction of Brown conforms to the Governor Moonbeam stereotype. “Jerry Brown was a strange man,” Perlstein asserts. “He drove his own used Plymouth sedan, slept on a mattress on the floor of his bachelor apartment, and spent his spare time at the San Francisco Zen Center.” Brown was by no means a conventional politician, but even now, nothing in Perlstein’s description seems especially odd to me. Nor does it capture Brown’s appeal. His trademark emphasis on limits and fiscal restraint, which Perlstein suggests were trumped by Reagan’s blue-sky optimism, turned out to be useful after the global economic meltdown of 2008. A byproduct of the Reagan revolution’s penchant for deregulation, that crisis brought California to the brink of insolvency, but Brown helped clean up the mess. Perhaps it is a matter of taste, but a figure like J. Edgar Hoover, who appears frequently in the early volumes, seems far stranger to me than Jerry Brown.

Reaganland also gives ample space to the Briggs Initiative, which sought to ban gays and lesbians from teaching in California. Harvey Milk figured prominently in that episode, and Perlstein quotes his Gay Freedom Day speech at length. Although Milk begged President Carter to denounce the initiative, it was Reagan who surprised everyone by taking a relatively soft line on the issue, and Orange County state senator John Briggs blamed him for the measure’s defeat. That outcome seems sane enough, but 200 pages later, Perlstein doubles down on his portrait of “oddball California.” He returns to the gay rights movement, recounts the assassinations of George Moscone and Harvey Milk, and features Dan White’s trial. Relying heavily on Warren Hinckle’s coverage, he mistakes Hinckle for “a former New Left radical” and scrambles the sequence of the two events that staggered San Francisco: “Then came those assassinations, then Jonestown, within the space of ten awful days.” In fact, the Jonestown massacre preceded the City Hall slayings. Perlstein closes the episode with an interesting irony. The word neighborhood, he notes, was one of the “five simple, familiar, everyday words” that Reagan believed should guide every GOP message. After describing the Castro district riots that followed the White verdict, Perlstein adds that Reagan’s insight was a sound one: “Just look at how many people were willing to spill blood for their neighborhoods in San Francisco.” Of course, such conflicts were unthinkable in Reaganland. Although sparingly applied, Perlstein’s piquant sense of irony is one of his major assets.

Behind Perlstein’s project is a deceptively simple question: How did Ronald Reagan become the dominant American politician of his era? Reaganland is the most obvious place to address that question directly, but Perlstein largely coasts on his earlier claim that, in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, Reagan’s political success sprang from the tension between American optimism and pessimism. Reaganland recounts Jimmy Carter’s failed attempts to harness that tension, but as Perlstein notes in the previous volume, Reagan had already resolved it with a single (if dubious) theological stroke. In Reagan’s sunny view, even the country’s gravest mistakes, crimes, and sins were trivial compared to America’s divinely ordained role as leader of the free world. He considered the U.S. effort in Vietnam a noble cause, stood by Richard Nixon long after the Watergate scandal destroyed his presidency, and seemed untroubled by even the ugliest forms of racism. In Perlstein’s view, Reagan had “the capacity to cleanse any hint of doubt regarding American innocence. That was the soul of his political appeal: his liturgy of absolution.” When other conservatives spouted racist remarks and violent threats, that capacity was especially useful.

For all the differences between the two men, Reagan also endorsed Nixon’s peculiar sense of inculpability. Discussing the president’s role in national security, Nixon famously claimed, “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” In effect, Reagan extended that immunity to the nation as a whole. In Reagan’s imaginary republic, America could do no wrong. If a person thought that about himself, we would consider him a sociopath. Now, four decades after Reagan’s victory, even the most casual observer can see that pathology on full display in the White House. This degeneration is perhaps the most dispiriting aspect of American political history since 1980. As political commentator Charles Pierce likes to say, that was the year the GOP ate the monkey brains. Despite its foibles, Reaganland shows exactly how that table was set.

“A good deal about California does not, on its own preferred terms, add up,” Joan Didion wrote about her home state. The same was true of Reagan’s fantasies and simplifications. In the end, we paid for all of them, though Perlstein’s monumental work will not document that reckoning.


Peter Richardson teaches humanities at San Francisco State University, where he also coordinates the American Studies and California Studies programs. His books include No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead (2015); A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America (2009); and American Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams, which the University of California Press published in paperback in 2019.

Copyright: © Peter Richardon. 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

California’s COVID-19 Prison Disaster and the Trap of Palatable Reform

Hadar Aviram

Eighteenth-century prison reformer John Howard was endowed not only with a considerable fortune but with an inquisitive eye and a compassionate heart. In 1777, following his tour of more than one hundred prisons in England and Wales, Howard published The State of the Prisons, which opens as follows:

There are prisons, into which whoever looks will, at first sight of the people confined there, be convinced, that there is some great error in the management of them; the sallow meagre countenances declare, without words, that they are very miserable; many who went in healthy, are in a few months changed into emaciated dejected objects. Some are seen pining under diseases, “sick and in prison;” expiring on the floors, in loathsome cells, of pestilential fevers, and the confluent small-pox; victims, I must say not to the cruelty, but I will say to the inattention, of sheriffs, and gentlemen in the commission of the peace…. The cause of this distress is, that many prisons are scantily supplied, and some almost totally unprovided with the necessaries of life.[1]

The connection Howard made between incarceration and disease was fortified by his later adventures: after a brief stint as prison reform administrator, he returned to his travels, experiencing people’s fear of the plague and finding himself imprisoned at a lazaretto in Venice. Miasma and contagion are not only metaphors for the prison experience: they have been part and parcel of the reality of incarceration, to the point that the architecture of early American prisons was explicitly designed to prevent disease spread.[2]

Recently, at a press conference held in front of the San Quentin gates, Dr. Peter Chin-Hong from the University of California, San Francisco, eerily echoed Howard’s conclusions. Facing the COVID-19 crisis that has ravaged California prisons, and remembering the years-long struggle with valley fever infections in the same prisons,[3] he remarked that “prisons are incompatible with healthcare.”[4]

At the time of writing this particular essay, more than half of the incarcerated population of San Quentin has been infected with COVID-19.[5] There are 8,429 cases of the virus in California prisons—eight times the infection rate in the general state population—and only a little over half of the prison population has been tested. Fifty people have died, twenty-two of them at San Quentin and sixteen at the California Institute of Men in Chino. The crisis at San Quentin, brought about by a botched transfer of untested people from Chino,[6] has provoked outrage from advocates, activists, health care and criminal justice professionals. After the San Quentin press conference, which featured lawmakers and elected officials as well as formerly incarcerated people and loved ones of people directly impacted by the contagion, Governor Newsom announced the upcoming release of up to 8,000 prisoners.[7] Albeit a welcome initial step to alleviate virus-ravaged state prisons, I argue here that the strategy proposed by the Governor and CDCR will not suffice to stop the contagion and save lives.

My analysis places the Governor’s announcement in the context of California’s political culture and its historical struggle with overcrowded prisons and inadequate healthcare. Against a backdrop of decades of neglect, abuse, and iatrogenic disease and death, after pressure by federal courts the state released large numbers of prisoners starting in 2011. This was accomplished primarily via two statutory amendments: the Criminal Justice Realignment,[8] which shifted the responsibility for nonviolent, nonserious, nonsexual offenders (the “non-non-nons”) to the counties; and Prop. 47,[9] which reclassified some common felonies as misdemeanors. The good intentions behind these efforts, however, backfired in creating vague standards for overcrowding and in decentralizing the responsibility for people’s health by placing people in ill-prepared contexts. In addition, the focus on less-controversial categories of prisoners as reform targets, which made them more palatable to the public, ignored robust literature on the risk of reoffending. These well-intended reforms, against the backdrop of the horrors that preceded them and the political culture in which they were implemented, are at the root of today’s prison COVID-19 crisis; moreover, the reforms proposed now echo these flaws, and are therefore insufficient and ineffective to combat the pandemic threat, or offer any kind of comprehensive and compassionate reform.

In other words, not only is the COVID-19 crisis in prison a function of persistent structural, administrative, and persistent cultural-political conditions, but the proposed solution reflects and exploits these same weaknesses.

Context: California as a Populistic, Polarized State

 In her book The Politics of Incarceration Vanessa Barker compares the political cultures of three states: California, Washington, and New York.[10] Barker attributes the different degrees of punitiveness in these three states to their levels and styles of civic engagement and to their political makeup. California’s political culture, which Barker refers to as “polarized populism,” is characterized by great contrasts between right and left, and by an emotion-driven referendum system, which is used frequently by parties with private interests and the ability to fund expensive public campaigns. In contrast to Washington’s political culture, which features a town-hall style deliberate democracy, and to the elitist-pragmatic principles characterizing New York, California’s culture renders it vulnerable to arguments based on high emotional valence.[11] In this environment, “redball crimes”—violent, heinous crimes, which are as rare as they are shocking—have a strong rhetorical pull, which is effectively utilized to introduce punitive voter initiatives,[12] particularly by California’s powerful prison guard union and its connections with victims’ rights organizations.[13] These characteristics prime our state conversations about criminal justice to revolve around, on one hand, a laissez-faire attitude and, on the other, a fear of crime (and so-called “criminals”), and particularly a reluctance to seriously consider nonpunitive reforms to sentencing and incarceration of people convicted of crime—especially “violent crime.”

These tendencies were exacerbated by California’s pioneering transition to a system of determinate sentencing in 1977, which removed the judges’ ability to sentence defendants by using a breadth of considerations and greatly limited the authority of parole boards to set prisoner release dates. Before this reform, California’s prisons, by contrast to Arizona and Texas’ “cheap justice” farm- and plantation-like institutions, were large bureaucratic creatures, driven by ideas of correction and rehabilitation fostered by employees from therapeutic professions who toiled in obscurity within the prison. The transition to a determinate sentencing model shifted the power from these professionals to elected officials: legislators, who responded to public emotions and demands by proposing punitive bills, and prosecutors, who had the power to choose charging offenses. Gradually, felony sentencing in California increased in length, largely due to the creation of sentencing enhancements and aggravating conditions, resulting in the largest prison population in the United States and in grossly overcrowded institutions.

Healthcare in California Prisons Before Brown v. Plata

The Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Plata (2011),[14] which upheld a federal three-judge-panel order to alleviate prison overcrowding under the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996 (PLRA), was the culmination of a decades-long litigation effort on behalf of incarcerated people seeking relief from the abysmal prison healthcare system. This drastic measure was adopted after several less extreme reforms failed, including placing the entire prison healthcare system in the hands of a federal receiver.[15] Despite eating up more than a fourth of the California correctional budget,[16] the healthcare system was a reign of chaos and neglect. Every six days, a prisoner would die from a preventable (sometimes iatrogenic) condition.[17] The case’s namesake was emblematic: Marciano Plata hurt himself in 1997 in the course of working in the prison kitchen and was unable to continue working in the prison kitchen. Unable to get adequate medical attention because of insufficient medical staffing, Plata’s condition worsened to the point that his knee required surgery, which took years to schedule.[18]

Throughout the Plata litigation, California prisons were grossly overcrowded at near 200% of their design capacity. “Bad beds”—triple bunks and makeshift beds in hallways and gyms—were a common sight in the system. These conditions hindered the system’s ability to provide basic healthcare for several reasons. Correctional medical personnel were (and still are) difficult to hire and retain, because of California’s unattractive correctional geography: large institutions in remote, rural locations.[19] Providing for necessities such as housing, clothing, and feeding on such a scale required considerable compromises in quality, making it difficult to introduce preventative health measures.[20] This problem was compounded by California’s increasingly lengthy sentences: as a consequence of repeated “public safety” legislation adding sentencing enhancements, one fourth of the current prison population has a life sentence, producing an aging population in increasingly poor health, which requires more chronic and expensive healthcare.[21] Under these circumstances, registration and pharmaceutical services became disorganized and dated. Even when people were finally taken to medical appointments, they would be required to wait for long hours in tiny holding cages without access to bathrooms. Taking prisoners to medical appointments often required lockdowns, which in turn created more delays and administrative hassles. And the prisoners’ medical complaints were regularly trivialized and disbelieved—not, usually, out of sadism, but out of fatigue and indifference in the face of so much need. Indeed, by 2006, the Federal Receiver overseeing the prison medical system and the Special Master overseeing the mental health system reported that overcrowding was impeding their ability to effectuate change, and Gov. Schwarzenegger proclaimed a state prison crowding emergency.[22] The link between the severe overcrowding and the conditions of the prison medical system was an important step toward the resolution of Plata. The PLRA, under which incarcerated people and their advocates sought relief, places numerous hurdles on prison rights litigation in general, and on population reduction orders in particular; such orders may be entered only by a three-judge district court, after the panel ascertains that prior attempts to alleviate prison conditions have failed to bring prison conditions into compliance with constitutional requirements, that overcrowding is the primary cause of the violation, and that no other relief will remedy the conditions.

The Era of Plata: Recession-Era Reforms and Their Limitations

The late 2000s were years of transformation not only in California, but nationwide, due to a confluence of events. The advent of the 2008 financial crisis plunged state and local governments into a deep recession, which awakened interest in local budgets, of which correctional expenditures were a considerable share.[23] The realization that incarceration on such a scale was financially unsustainable created the opportunity for bipartisan coalitions at the state and federal levels,[24] dovetailing with the Obama Administration’s focus on criminal justice reform and racial justice.[25] Part and parcel of these coalition-building efforts was the need to focus the proposed reforms on low-hanging fruit, in the form of politically palatable populations, such as nonviolent drug offenders, which received the bulk of reformist attention both from the right[26] and the left.[27]

Against this backdrop, the litigation in Plata hurtled forward, and the PLRA conditions for population reduction were finally met. In 2009, the three-judge panel found overcrowding to be the primary cause of the health care system’s dysfunction and acknowledged that prior attempts to improve the situation had failed. Consequently, the panel ordered a reduction of California’s prison population to 137.5% of system-wide design capacity—admittedly, a drastic population cut that the state would continue to fight tooth and nail all the way to the Supreme Court—but shied away from specifying how the population reduction was to be done.[28] Theoretically, the state could have built more prisons to alleviate overcrowding, but recession-era cuts impeded this course of action; another possibility, relying on private contractors, was blocked by conflicting political interests.[29] In 2011, as Plata made its way to the Supreme Court, Gov. Brown continued the path charted by his predecessor, Gov. Schwarzenegger,[30] and signed extensive legislation that many considered “the greatest experiment” in American corrections.[31] Under the Criminal Justice Realignment,[32] people convicted of “non-non-non” offenses—nonviolent, nonsexual, nonserious—would serve their sentence in county jails, rather than in state prisons. This would internalize the costs of incarceration and eliminate the problem that several scholars have referred to as the “correctional free lunch”: prosecutors asking for, and judges meting out, lengthy prison sentences in county courts, oblivious to the “price tag”—the costs of incarceration, which would be borne by state agencies.[33] Judges were given more discretion regarding sentencing, to alleviate incarceration and, in most cases, the state system’s parole supervision functions were transferred to community probation offices, which would now handle both probation (a sanction, typically viewed as an alternative to incarceration) and parole (post-incarceration supervision).

From State to Counties

The implementation of Realignment meant that tens of thousands of people, who were under the auspices (and financial responsibility) of the state, would now be housed, clothed, and fed at the county level. Many scholars and policymakers who welcomed this jurisdictional shift thought that counties would be better positioned to connect people with rehabilitation and reentry services because of their stronger ties to the home communities of incarcerated people, and that healthcare at the state level was so dire that the counties would surely do better.[34]

But the assumption that jails would be an improvement neglected to consider several factors. The first of these, which law professor Margo Schlanger referred to as the “hydra problem,” was concern about the impact that a decentralized health care system would create, making it more difficult to monitor and implement improvement: i.e., rather than following the health care instructions and practices in one jurisdiction (the state), prison rights advocates would now have to obtain information about conditions and mismanagement in each of the counties as well, and possibly begin new, separate litigation efforts against each county. In addition, there were the inherent limitations of county facilities. Jails, originally built to house people only for short terms (pretrial or for less than a year), were ill-equipped to deal with a population in need of both acute and chronic healthcare. The extent to which counties proved equal to the task varied greatly: while some counties made efforts to prevent incarceration well ahead of the anticipated legislation and court decisions, others, in panic, started building jails[35] or changing revenue structures to roll expenses onto the inmates themselves. Such structure include “pay to stay” jails, in which people pay for their own incarceration (as if they were staying in a hotel) through liens on their post-incarceration earnings, or more opaque practices: monetizing and charging for haircuts, food, and some healthcare services.[36] The gaps in implementation were also reflected in divergent reliance on incarceration among judges in different counties.[37] These divergent patterns were unfortunately exacerbated by the formula for funding the newly burdened county systems, which was initially based on the counties’ respective incarceration rates; this funding mechanism rewarded counties that relied more on incarceration and penalized those who developed alternatives to it, disincentivizing courts, sheriff’s departments, and probation services from investing more in non-carceral options.[38]

Bifurcation and the Violent/Nonviolent Dichotomy

Related to the “hydra problem” was the fact that the new sentencing and jurisdictional rules applied only to the “non-non-nons,” which were considered an easier “sell” from a public appeal perspective. Realignment was not unique in that respect. Generally speaking, recession-era reforms were characterized by a bifurcation element: they applied to nonviolent offenders and retrenched negative public opinion about so-called violent offenders.

This distinction was based on several empirically unfounded myths, the first of which was that the American correctional predicament was due mostly to the incarceration of non-level offenders. In fact, drug offenders—the recipients of bipartisan sympathies, and justifiably so given the racial disparities in drug enforcement—have constantly been no more than a fourth of the state prison population nationwide, whereas people convicted of “violent” offenses constituted a majority of those in state prisons.[39] In California, especially after the legislative changes in 2011 and 2014, three quarters of the prison population are people convicted of “violent” crimes.[40] A related myth was the perception that violent offenders posed a greater risk to public safety—which, when empirically tested, proved to be untrue.[41] In California, specifically, the focus on the crime of conviction led the legal system to ignore a fourth of the prison population—the people serving the state’s three most extreme sentence: incarceration on death row, life without parole, and life with parole. Because of the rarity of executions in California and the rarity of release on parole, these three punishments merged into an “extreme punishment trifecta,”[42] consisting of decades behind bars. Greatly overlapping with this category were prisoners aged fifty and above[43] who, as a consequence of serving extremely lengthy sentences, had not only aged out of crime,[44] but also incurred disabilities and chronic health conditions. Well-meaning reforms, therefore, calcified public opinion against the people who were wrongly perceived, because of their crime of commitment, to pose risks to public safety while, at the same time, facing increased risks to their own health because of their age and the prison conditions they have endured during their lengthy sentences. California’s aforementioned political culture[45] tends to emotional arguments building on heinous (albeit very rare) violent crimes, and public opinion has been remarkably resistant to the idea of distinguishing between, and extending compassion to, people convicted of violent crimes.

System-Wide Population Reduction

Another well-meaning aspect of the Plata reforms was that the court order required a population reduction in the system as a whole, rather than per individual institution. Part of the vagueness of the order was due to the already-extreme measure of relying on the PLRA to require an enormous state-wide effort. However, the choice of litigation strategy also mattered. By contrast to European and international standards, which measure humane incarceration standards based on a minimal square area per prisoner,[46] the order in California did not go so far as to ensure that each inmate would have adequate space—only that the average inmate in the entire system would. For years after the Plata decision, there was considerable variety in the occupation rates of state prisons, with some prisons still at pre-Plata capacity while others were at capacity or even slightly below. The impact of the decision, therefore, was not inclusive of all inmates.

Crisis and Mismanagement

Against the backdrop of these vulnerabilities—fragmented correctional institutions, rising to divergent standards and accountable to different local governments, a legacy of challenges providing minimal healthcare, uneven occupancy rates, and the perception that public opinion is dead-set against the releases of violent prisoners—came the triggers: the pandemic and a few crucial mismanagement steps by CDCR and by county jails. Some of these problems are evident from CDCR’s own tracking tool, but some we know about only from journalistic exposés—especially the ones pertaining to local jails. As of July 13, CDCR has tested 43.4% of its prison population, but testing rates have widely ranged between institutions. In the first two weeks of July, 55% of the California Correctional Center population was tested, but only 2% of the Kern Valley State Prison were tested, and percentages of tests ranges from 97% at Amador to 11.4% at Chuckawalla. More than half of San Quentin’s population tested positive, with nine deaths since mid-July, most of them being individuals on death row.[47] Bizarrely, if death row isolation, where people are housed in single-occupancy cells, is not sufficient protection from contagion, it is unclear where and how the prison can prevent contagion through social distancing.

The contagion on death row raises unique issues. In 2019, after decades in which the state had sentenced people to death only to see them languish for decades on death row, waiting for legal representation to enable them postconviction litigation, Gov. Newsom placed a moratorium on the death penalty. During these decades—and even now, because the death penalty is still on the books—the state has spent billions of dollars “tinkering with the machinery of death” by litigating minute technicalities of executions, such as the type and number of drugs to be injected.[48] Extensive appellate proceedings have gotten into the minutiae of convicts’ physical and mental health, to ensure that they are healthy enough to be killed by the state. This endless technical litigation seems particularly absurd as hundreds of inmates may face a death sentence via COVID-19. Even those who might secretly harbor the thought that such a sentence on death row might be appropriate would be surprised to know that capital trials are notoriously arbitrary and inefficient, and do not effectively single out “the worst of the worst” for capital punishment.[49] Even to the extent that it is possible to qualitatively differentiate between more or less heinous homicides (our Penal Code does so through lists of aggravating circumstances), who ends up on death row is not necessarily a function of the heinousness of the crime, but rather of the quality of the theatrical spectacle for the jury. The recent jury decision to sentence Joseph DeAngelo, the notorious “Golden State Killer,” to life without parole reflects the pragmatic realization that, with the death chamber dismantled, any meaning attached to a symbolic death sentence, as well as the costly expenditure of time and finances that will flow from postconviction litigation, is unnecessary.[50]

An additional trigger is the mismanagement of transfers between institutions during the pandemic. Reportedly, the outbreak at San Quentin is a function of a botched transfer of prisoners from the California Institute of Men in Chino, the site of a serious (and now almost abated) contagion. The prisoners were not tested before being transferred.[51] This scenario then replicated itself: prisoners from San Quentin, in turn, were transferred to the California Correctional Center (CCC) in Susanville and not tested or quarantined upon arrival,[52] resulting in hundreds of cases, with the infection unabated as of mid-July. While another prison in Susanville, High Desert State Prison, has only seen four cases as of mid-July, testing rates there are remarkably low and it is overcrowded at 154% of its capacity, raising concerns about the possibility of preventing much worse outcomes through social distancing.

Beyond the concerns for people behind bars are the concerns for the effect of prison contagion on the surrounding communities. CDCR confirms 1,243 cases among its staff, 205 of which are at San Quentin. Comparing CDCR data about infections within the prison with the Los Angeles Times statistics[53] for the neighboring counties shows a temporal link between the outbreak at San Quentin and the soaring number of cases in the surrounding community.[54] Similarly, the spike in cases in Lassen County occurred after the outbreak at CCC. In both cases, without contact tracing, it is impossible to provide an airtight causal story; the temporal link, however, raises serious concerns that attempting to incubate the virus in prisons puts the entire community at risk.

The interplay between the prison and the community seems to have finally driven home the point that prisoners reside in the county in which the prison is located for the duration of their incarceration, whether or not they are (or should) being “counted” as such for purposes such as the US Census.[55] Realizing that Lassen County people’s health depends, in part, on health outcomes inside Lassen County’s prisons, Brian and Megan Dahle, respectively a Senator and an Assembly Member for Lassen County’s First District wrote a letter to CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz asking him “to provide answers on questionable protocols that have led to a surge of inmate #COVID19 cases in Lassen County.”[56] Reportedly, despite arguments about jurisdiction, the prison and county are finally working together to test the prison population.[57] This collaboration is less likely to play out in Marin County, where the identity and livelihood of the community is less tied to its local prison than at Susanville, “Prison Town, U.S.A.”[58]

The concerns about prison outbreaks, at this point, go beyond the extreme outbreaks at San Quentin, Avenal, CIM, and CCI. A careful look at the CDCR contagion data reveals several locations at which the status of contagion is still unclear given the lack of testing and the paucity of information about transfers—what Donald Rumsfeld referred to, in a different context, as the “known unknowns.”[59] In some prisons, the outbreak seems to have reached its peak and abated; in others, it continues unabated. In some prisons, there have been new outbreaks after previous waves had seemingly abated. Some prisons have only a handful of cases; because these prisons, for the most part, have tested only a small percentage of their population, it is impossible to know whether contagion has been contained or the few cases are the beginning of a serious outbreak. And while several prisons have had no cases at all, it remains to be seen whether administrative blunders in the form of population transfers or insufficient staff protocols will introduce the virus into these institutions and their environs.

Finally, there is the matter of another “known unknown”: the situation in California’s county jails. As outbreaks were reported in several jails, notably at Alameda,[60] San Bernardino, Riverside,[61] Fresno, and Tulare counties,[62] the respective Sheriff’s Departments did not provide statistics on infections and hospitalizations on their webpages. Indeed, UCLA’s new data collection project on COVID-19 in correctional institutions led by Sharon Dolovich impressively covers state and federal prisons, but only a handful of jails, because information has been so scant.[63] The five-month delay in obtaining reliable statistics on county jail infections statewide is an important social fact, which undergirds Schlanger’s “hydra problem”: by contrast to CDCR, which provides an informative tracking tool, the fifty-nine counties have had different approaches as to reportage, and even those who report statistics do not do so in a uniform manner. Only as late as five months into the crisis, the Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) finally required county sheriffs to provide contagion statistics on jails.[64] The resulting database offers partial information, with no historical or cumulative data.[65] The gaps between official COVID-19 policies as listed on county sheriffs’ websites and the realities on the ground became a matter of public record when the Orange County Sheriff was sued for providing inadequate precautions. After the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the Sheriff to enforce social distancing and provide the inmates with soap, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, stayed the injunction, thus temporarily relieving the Sheriff from these obligations. The decision was surprising, to say the least, because stays are not usually granted when the Supreme Court is unlikely to grant certiorari and reverse the decision on the merits; it was particularly surprising because there was ample proof of substantial harm to the jail population. In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor wrote:

Although the Jail had been warned that “social distancing is the cornerstone of reducing transmission of COVID–19,” inmates described being transported back and forth to the jail in crammed buses, socializing in dayrooms with no space to distance physically, lining up next to each other to wait for the phone, sleeping in bunk beds two to three feet apart, and even being ordered to stand closer than six feet apart when inmates tried to socially distance. Moreover, although the Jail told its inmates that they could “best protect” themselves by washing their hands with “soap and water throughout the day,” numerous inmates reported receiving just one small, hotel-sized bar of soap per week. And after symptomatic inmates were removed from their units, other inmates were ordered to dispose of their belongings without gloves or other protective equipment. Finally, despite the Jail’s stated policy to test and isolate individuals who reported or exhibited symptoms consistent with COVID-19, multiple symptomatic detainees described being denied tests, and others recounted sharing common spaces with infected or symptomatic inmates.[1][66]

Beyond the distressing fact that the county preferred to spend its resources petitioning the Supreme Court for a stay, rather than providing its jail population with adequate amounts of soap, the case raises concerns about the situation in other jails. While it is impossible to make definitive extrapolations from the Orange County example, the divergence between the jail’s “health and safety” protocols per its website and the practices on the ground as reported by the jail populations suggest that the official policies are no assurance that people serving short sentences—and people who are in pretrial detention, and thus presumed innocent—are receiving adequate protections from infection.

StopSanQuentinOutbreak

The Proposed Solution: Case-by-Case Releases of Non-Non-Nons?

On July 10, a day after activists and elected officials held a press conference before the San Quentin gate, Gov. Newsom announced impending releases of 8,000 people. In the heels of his announcement, CDCR issued a press release detailing the plan.[67] The plan closely resembles the strategies adopted in 2011 and 2014 to trim the prison population: it focuses on the relatively less controversial moves of hastening the release dates of people sentenced for nonviolent crimes who are nearing the end of their sentences. More particularly, the plan consists of the following steps:

  1. Release 4,800 people with 180 days left on their sentences, who are not serving time for violence or domestic violence, nor are to register as sex offenders.
  2. Release an undetermined number of people with a year left on their sentence for a nonviolent, nonsex crime, who are incarcerated at an outbreak epicenter: San Quentin State Prison (SQ), Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF), California Health Care Facility (CHCF), California Institution for Men (CIM), California Institution for Women (CIW), California Medical Facility (CMF), Folsom State Prison (FOL) and Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility (RJD). Those aged 30 and over are immediately eligible; younger people will be reviewed case-by-case by CDCR.
  3. A 12-week programming credit (hastening the date of release) to all those not on death row or serving life without parole who don’t have a serious violation on their record since March 1. “Serious rules violations” while in prison range from murder to possession of a cellphone. This category of those who have no serious violations since March 1 encompasses 108,000 people, out of which 2,100 would advance to the point of being eligible for release between July and September.
  4. Case-by-case assessment for release of people aged over 65 with a chronic medical condition or with respiratory illnesses, who have been assessed as low risk for violence and who are not on death row, serving life without parole, or high-risk sex offenders.
  5. Individual assessment for release of people in hospice or pregnant, as well as expediting release for people who have been granted parole (including the governor’s approval.)

The plan, regardless of its particulars, is an important first step. For the individuals who will be released, the plan could spell relief from illness and death; the gradual release schedule, albeit not ideal from a pandemic prevention perspective, offers a silver lining that might allow some people to better plan their future on the outside, especially against the backdrop of a terrible economy. Nonetheless, it is woefully insufficient to stop the virus in its tracks, for four reasons: it is too modest, too late, too reactive, and too restrictive.

First, the overall number is far too modest. 8,000 releases—a mere 6% of the current prison population of approximately 125,000—would not allow prison healthcare officials to institute appropriate social distancing measures. In some institutions, the need to release massive numbers of people is even more pressing. In mid-June, a team of physicians specializing in prison healthcare published a report about a site visit to San Quentin,[68] in which they recommended that, due to San Quentin’s age and decrepitude, the population there specifically be reduced to 50% of current capacity. Many of the problems are not endemic to San Quentin: according to the July 8 population count,[69] 26 facilities—24 for men, 2 for women—are overcrowded beyond design capacity. Nine facilities are overcrowded above the 137.5% Plata standard (had the standard been applied to individual prisons, rather than systemwide), and ten more are overcrowded above 120% of their design capacity. Under these conditions, releasing a total of 8,000 people will not even nearly allow the kind of social distancing necessary to halt pandemic spread.

Second, the plan relies heavily on individualized, case-by-case evaluations. The time to take such careful measures has long passed; for months, criminal justice scholars issued warnings of prison contagion, to no avail.[70] Given the spread of the epidemic, CDCR must resort to triage measures, which approach people in broader categories of age and risk.

Third, the plan is reactive to the point of being already dated at its publication. The list of prisons that CDCR prioritizes for releases, published on June 10, already overlooked new outbreaks at several prisons. Moreover, the plan excluded places in which the pandemic had seemingly abated, even though testing levels were partial and unsatisfactory, and did not provide a true sense of pandemic activity. The prisons listed in the press release already are already ravaged by a robust outbreak, and releasing vigorously from those particular locations, while helpful in terms of treating people, would not help with prevention.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the plan’s restrictions on categories for release echoes previous efforts to curb unfounded public backlash at the expense of actual facts and public health. The release plan targets, yet again, a version of the “non-non-nons”: nonserious, nonviolent, nonsexual offenders. Before and after the 2011 and 2014 releases, prison scholars in California and elsewhere conducted robust research on risk assessment and have concluded time and again that there is no correlation between the crime of commitment and the risk to public safety.[71]

The choice to focus, yet again, on “non-non-nons” is particularly worrisome in the current crisis because it stubbornly evades addressing the most obvious category of people for release: people who have been serving lengthy sentences for violent crimes committed decades ago. As robust literature on life-course criminology shows,[72] people age out of violent street crime by their mid- to late-twenties, and by the time they are fifty years old, pose virtually no public safety risk; indeed, parole officers repeatedly express a preference for working with former lifers because they are such a low-risk population.[73]  This category, which constitutes a quarter of the prison population,[74] is an ideal target for release: they do not pose significant risk to public safety and, at the same time, they face enhanced risk to their own health and, by extension—if the virus is incubated in the prisons—to the health of others if they remain incarcerated.

Conclusion

It is hard to contemplate the grim picture in California’s prisons and not feel frustration with the lack of progress since John Howard indicted prisons of being incubators of disease in 1777. Whether the COVID-19 crisis in California prisons can be attributed to “cruelty” or “inattention,” a question that did not matter to the horrified Howard, is one that might matter in litigation, but at this point it suffices to say that much of it was preventable and foreseeable. The well-meaning champions of Plata can hardly be blamed for seeking a remedy that seemed, at the time, to address a systemic ill; but against the backdrop of prison conditions and of the limitations of the Plata remedy, state authorities should have acted as early as March to release people from prison and alleviate overcrowding, particularly in antiquated, decrepit facilities. The late and tepid reaction in July reverts to our state’s characteristic approach to crime and punishment. California’s populistic, polarized political culture has led elected officials, time after time, to seek solutions that raise as little controversy as possible—and time after time, such solutions have proven inefficient. This time, too, officials might be hoping that, by cobbling together palatable candidates for release, the numbers will somehow add up to sufficient prevention. Unfortunately, they won’t.

The Governor must make use of the many “levers” that open prison doors at his disposal. In a universe of moratorium, it is not beyond imagination to commute all death sentences, and all life without parole sentences, to life with parole, and speed early release policies, commutations, parole hearings, and resentencing. It is imperative to let go of concerns about the optics of releasing people who, decades ago, were sentenced for violent crime, and to follow risk assessments that prioritize aging and failing health.

It is equally essential to make a concerted effort to dramatically ramp up testing, so as to test as close to 100% of the prison population as possible. The muddled picture of infection needs to clear up considerably before the points of contact between prisons and the community can accurately be pinpointed and further transfer fiascos avoided. For a voluntary testing program to be effective, it is crucial to communicate that no retaliatory or negative consequences will stem from testing positive—and that includes refraining from the use of death row and solitary confinement cells, which carry terrifying connotations, for the purpose of medical isolation.[75]

Prison authorities must also exercise extreme caution when transferring people between facilities. No transfers must be made to institutions that have no active cases. Similarly, messaging and instructions to staff must take into account their crucial role in prevention.

Finally, county jails are a hidden but important dimension of the COVID-19 challenge. Counties must liaise with CDCR and install matching tracking tools for each county jail.

Where the blame lies, and whether it is cruelty or inattention, matters less than the pressing need to overcome this crisis; mostly, it is paramount to understand that prisons are not separate from the communities in which they are located. Prisons are part of the community, and prisoners are members of the community, and prevention strategies must see them as such.

Notes

[1] John Howard, The State of the Prisons in England and Wales, with an Account of Some Foreign Prisons (1977), cited in Andrew Barrett and Chris Harrison, eds., Crime and Punishment in England: A Sourcebook (London: UCL Press, 1999), 173.

[2] Ashley Rubin, “ Prisons Were Once Designed To Prevent Disease Outbreaks,” Honolulu Civil Beat, April 27, 2020, https://www.civilbeat.org/2020/04/prisons-were-once-designed-to-prevent-disease-outbreaks/.

[3] Kerry Klein, “California Prisons Fight to Reduce Dangerous ‘Valley Fever’ Infections Among Inmates,” KQED, February 15, 2017, https://www.kqed.org/stateofhealth/291413/california-prisons-fight-to-reduce-dangerous-valley-fever-infections-among-inmates.

[4] Dr. Chin-Hong spoke at San Quentin on July 9, 2020. Abené Clayton, “‘Make things right’: criminal justice officials urge California to release prisoners amid Covid-19 surge,” The Guardian, July 9, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jul/09/california-governor-urged-release-prisoners-coronavirus-surge.

[5] California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Population COVID-19 Tracking, accessible at https://www.cdcr.ca.gov/covid19/population-status-tracking/.

[6] Megan Cassidy and Jason Fagone, “Coronavirus tears through San Quentin’s Death Row; condemned inmate dead of unknown cause,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 25, 2020, https://www.sfchronicle.com/crime/article/Coronavirus-tears-through-San-Quentin-s-Death-15367782.php.

[7] Jason Fagone , Megan Cassidy and Alexei Koseff, “Newsom to Release 8,000 Prisoners in California by End of August amid Coronavirus Outbreaks”, San Francisco Chronicle, July 10, 2020, https://www.sfchronicle.com/crime/article/Newsom-to-announce-8-000-new-prison-releases-15399956.php.

[8] Public Safety Realignment Act (AB 109) (2011).

[9] California Proposition 47, the Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative (approved Nov. 2014).

[10] Vanessa Barker, The Politics of Imprisonment How the Democratic Process Shapes the Way America Punishes Offenders (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[11] California’s culture can also be seen as somewhat overlapping the punitive politics of what Mona Lynch refers to as the “sunbelt: Mona Lynch, Sunbelt Justice: Arizona and the Transformation of American Punishment, Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2009. It alsoshares some characteristics with Florida’s culture: Heather Schoenfeld, Building the Prison State: Race and the Politics of Mass Incarceration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018).

[12] Hadar Aviram, Yesterday’s Monsters: The Manson Family Cases and the Illusion of Parole (Oakland: University of California Press, 2020).

[13] Joshua Page, The Toughest Beat: Politics, Punishment, and the Prison Officers Union in California (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[14] Brown v. Plata, 563 U.S. 493 (2011).

[15] Joe Infantino, “California Turns a Corner in Effort To Regain Prison Health Care Oversight”, California Healthline, October 15, 2015, https://californiahealthline.org/news/california-turns-a-corner-in-effort-to-regain-prison-health-care-oversight/.

[16] The most recent CDCR budget, totaling $13.4 billion, devotes $3.6 billion to healthcare. California Public Safety Budget 20-21, http://www.ebudget.ca.gov/2020-21/pdf/BudgetSummary/PublicSafety.pdf.

[17] Adam Liptak, “Justices, 5-4, Tell California to Cut Prisoner Population,” New York Times, May 23, 2011, https://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/24/us/24scotus.html#:~:text=A%20lower%20court%20in%20the,Plata%2C%20No.

[18] Jonathan Simon, Mass Incarceration on Trial: A Remarkable Court Decision and the Future of Prisons in America (New York: The New Press, 2014).

[19] Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Oakland: University of California Press, 2006).

[20] Emily Widra, “Incarceration shortens life expectancy,” Prison Policy Initiative, June 26, 2017, https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2017/06/26/life_expectancy/.

[21] Heather Harris, Justin Goss, Joseph Hayes, Alexandria Gumbs, “California’s Prison Population,” Public Policy Institute of California, July 2019, https://www.ppic.org/publication/californias-prison-population/#:~:text=Criminal%20Justice-,California’s%20Prison%20Population,system%20was%20built%20to%20house.

[22] Jennifer Warren, “State Prison Crowding Emergency Declared,” Los Angeles Times, Oct. 5, 2006, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2006-oct-05-me-prison5-story.html

[23] Hadar Aviram, Cheap on Crime: Recession-Era Politics and the Transformation of American Punishment (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015).

[24] David Dagan and Steven M. Teles, Prison Break: Why Conservatives Turned Against Mass Incarceration (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[25] Barack Obama, “The President’s Role in Advancing Criminal Justice Reform,” Harvard Law Review 130/811 (2017), https://harvardlawreview.org/2017/01/the-presidents-role-in-advancing-criminal-justice-reform/.

[26] Dagan and Teles, Prison Break.

[27] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010). For a critique of Alexander’s excessive focus on drug crimes, see James Forman, “Racial Critiques of Mass Incarceration: Beyond the New Jim Crow,” New York University Law Review 87/101-150 (2012).

[28] Coleman v. Schwarzenegger, NO. CIV S-90-0520 LKK JFM P, Plata v. Schwarzenegger, NO. C01-1351 THE, Three Judge Court Opinion and Order, August 4, 2009, http://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/general/2009/08/04/Opinion%20&%20Order%20FINAL.pdf.

[29] This was not so much out of a principled resistance to private entrepreneurs, but due to fierce objection on the part of California’s prison guards’ union, which protested against a prison built by a private company on speculation: Page, The Toughest Beat, . In 2013, the state did, however, enter a contract to operate this speculative prison, the California City Correctional Center (CAC). Christine Bedell, “Cal City Prison to House State Inmates,” Bakersfield.com, October 25, 2013, https://www.bakersfield.com/news/cal-city-prison-to-house-state-inmates/article_41af12cd-3acf-5a21-9485-30b7ce8af4cb.html.

[30] Joan Petersilia, “A Retrospective View of Corrections Reform in the Schwarzenegger Administration,” Federal Sentencing Reporter 22/3 (2010): 148-153.

[31] Charis Kubrin and Caroll Seron, eds., The Great Experiment: Realigning Criminal Justice in California and Beyond, the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 664/1 (2016.

[32] Assembly Bill 2019.

[33] Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins, The Scale of Imprisonment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 211; W. David Ball, “Defunding State Prisons,” Criminal Law Bulletin 50 (2014): 1060-1089.

[34] Margo Schlanger, “Plata v. Brown and Realignment: Jails, Prisons, Courts, and Politics,” Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review 481 (2013): 165-215.

[35] Alex Emslie, Julie Small, Lisa Pickoff-White, “Realignment 5 Years On: Counties Build Jails for Inmates With Mental Illness,” KQED—The California Report, September 29, 2016, https://www.kqed.org/news/11107949/realignment-5-years-on-counties-build-jails-for-inmates-with-mental-illness#:~:text=Realignment%20aimed%20to%20satisfy%20a,nonviolent%20or%20non%2Dsex%20offenses.&text=It’s%20been%20about%20a%20%242.5%20billion%20windfall%20for%20jail%20construction%20in%20California.

[36] Michael Carona, “Pay-To-Stay Programs in California Jails,” Michigan Law Review First Impressions 106/104 (2007).

[37] Magnus Lofstrom and Brandon Martin, “ Public Safety Realignment: Impacts So Far,” Public Policy Institute of California, September, 2015, https://www.ppic.org/publication/public-safety-realignment-impacts-so-far/.

[38] David Ball, “Tough on Crime (on the State’s Dime): How Violent Crime Does Not Drive California Counties’ Incarceration Rates—And Why it Should,” Georgia State L. Rev. 28 (2012): 987-1084.

[39] John Pfaff, Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform (New York: Basic Books, 2017). The only setting in which this is not true is the federal prison population, which is approximately one tenth of the national prison population.

[40] “Offender Data Points: Offender Demographics for the 24-Month Period Ending December 2018,” California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, p. 11. https://www.cdcr.ca.gov/research/wp-content/uploads/sites/174/2020/01/201812_DataPoints.pdf.

[41] Susan Turner, “Moving California Corrections from an Offense- to Risk-Based System,” UC Irvine Law Review 8 (2018): 97-120 (2018).

[42] Aviram, Yesterday’s Monsters, 38.

[43] Harris et al., “California’s Prison Population.”

[44] The relationship between age and crime is one of the most stable findings of life-course criminology. For a useful summary see Marc Mauer, “Long-Term Sentences: Time to Reconsider the Scale of Punishment,” The Sentencing Project, November 15, 2018, https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/long-term-sentences-time-reconsider-scale-punishment/.

[45] Barker, The Politics of Imprisonment.

[46] Holly Cartner, Prison Conditions in Romania, Human Rights Watch (1992), 8. Eric Goldstein, Prison Conditions in Israel and in the Occupied Territories, Human Rights Watch (1991), 29.

[47] Cassidy and Fagone, “Coronavirus Tears Through San Quentin’s Death Row.”

[48] Hadar Aviram and Ryan S. Newby, “Death Row Economics: The Rise of Fiscally Prudent Anti-Death-Penalty Activism,” Criminal Justice 28 (2013): 33-41.

[49] Sarah Beth Kaufman, American Roulette: The Social Logic of Death Penalty Sentencing Trials (Oakland: University of California Press, 2020); Paul Kaplan, Murder Stories: Ideological Narratives in Capital Punishment (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books), 2012.

[50] George Skelton, “In California, the Death Penalty is All but Meaningless: A Life Sentence for the Golden State Killer Was the Right Move,” Los Angeles Times, July 2, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-07-02/skelton-golden-state-killer-capital-punishment-death-penalty#:~:text=In%20California%2C%20the%20death%20penalty,in%20Sacramento%20on%20June%2029

[51] Cassidy and Fagone, “Coronavirus Tears Through San Quentin’s Death Row.”

[52] Staff, “COVID-19 Outbreak Infects Inmates, Staff at Susanville’s Two Prisons”, Lassen County Times, June 26, 2020, https://www.lassennews.com/lassen-cares-hosts-facebook-event-thursday/.

[53] Los Angeles Times Staff, “Tracking the Coronavirus in California,” continuously updated in the Los Angeles Times, https://www.latimes.com/projects/california-coronavirus-cases-tracking-outbreak/.

[54] Hadar Aviram, “Are Outbreaks in Prisons and Surrounding Counties Correlated?” July 20, 2020, https://www.hadaraviram.com/2020/07/20/are-outbreaks-in-prisons-and-surrounding-counties-correlated/; Hadar Aviram, “CA Prisons as COVID-19 Incubators: Data Analysis,” July 5, 2020, https://www.hadaraviram.com/2020/07/05/ca-prisons-as-covid-19-incubators-data-analysis/.

[55] For more on the question of counting prisoners and its impact on voting, see Tim Henderson, “Counting Prison Inmates Differently Could Shift Political Power to Cities,” Stateline, Pew Center on the States, January 2, 2019, https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2019/01/02/counting-prison-inmates-differently-could-shift-political-power-to-cities.

[56] Megan Dahle for Assembly Facebook Page, post dated June 26, 2020, https://www.facebook.com/voteMeganAD1/posts/843803776144240.

[57] Staff, “Prisons Cooperate with Local Officials in COVID-19 Testing,” Lassen County Times, June 26, 2020,

https://www.lassennews.com/prisons-cooperate-with-local-officials-in-covid-19-testing/?fbclid=IwAR3uWyG1kqltM2qARI29oGUbHdnBlxkv3AGQCupgzdNhMh3tMRtJrSuyDvk.

[58] Prison Town, USA [film]. PBS, 2007; dir. Katie Galloway, Po Hutchins.

[59] Donald Rumsfeld, Department of Defense Briefing, February 12, 2002, quoted in David A. Graham, “Rumsfeld’s Knowns and Unknowns: The Intellectual History of a Quip,” The Atlantic, March 27, 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/03/rumsfelds-knowns-and-unknowns-the-intellectual-history-of-a-quip/359719/.

[60] Angela Ruggiero, “Record Numbers of Coronavirus Cases Reported at Santa Rita Jail,” San Jose Mercury News, July 16, 2020, https://www.mercurynews.com/2020/07/16/biggest-outbreak-of-coronavirus-reported-at-santa-rita-jail/.

[61] Rich Tarpening, “Coronavirus Cases Increase in Both San Bernardino and Riverside County Jails,” KASQ Channel 3, June 27, 2020, https://kesq.com/news/2020/05/09/coronavirus-cases-increase-in-both-san-bernardino-and-riverside-county-jails/.

[62] Anthony Galaviz, “Positive Tests in Tulare County, Death at Avenal Prison Add to Coronavirus Inmate Toll,” The Fresno Bee, June 27, 2020, at: https://www.fresnobee.com/news/coronavirus/article243850527.html.

[63] See https://law.ucla.edu/academics/centers/criminal-justice-program/ucla-covid-19-behind-bars-data-project.

[64] Letter from Linda Penner, Chair of BSCC, to Sheriffs and Chief Probation Officers, July 15, 2020, https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/6989449-COVID-19-Data-Dashboard-BSCC-7-15-2020.html.

[65] BSCC, “COVID-19 Data Dashboard,” http://www.bscc.ca.gov/covid-19-data-dashboard-landing-page/.

[66] Barnes v. Ahlman, 591 U.S. ___ (2020) (J. Sotomayor, Diss.), 3.

[67] Press Release, “CDCR Announces Additional Actions to Reduce Population and Maximize Space Systemwide to Address COVID-19”, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, July 10, 2020, https://www.cdcr.ca.gov/news/2020/07/10/cdcr-announces-additional-actions-to-reduce-population-and-maximize-space-systemwide-to-address-covid-19/?fbclid=IwAR2RDYnBij0JyG-fIyZTLTwInzvZFeFe27s8FTZn-vZQZwKMHk04-yBLZw8.

[68] Sandra McCoy, Stefano M. Bertozzi, David Sears, Ada Kwan, Catherine Duarte, Drew Cameron, Brie Williams, “Urgent Memo–COVID-19 Outbreak: San Quentin Prison,” AMEND: Changing Correctional Culture and UC Berkeley School of Public Health, June 15, 2020, https://amend.us/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/COVID19-Outbreak-SQ-Prison-6.15.2020.pdf.

[69] California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Weekly Report of Population As of Midnight July 8, 2020, https://www.cdcr.ca.gov/research/wp-content/uploads/sites/174/2020/07/Tpop1d200708.pdf.

[70] Margo Schlanger and Sonja Starr, “Four Things Every Prison System Must Do Today,” Slate, March 27, 2000,

https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2020/03/four-steps-prevent-coronavirus-prison-system-catastrophe.html; Sharon Dolovich, “Every Public Official with the Power to Decarcerate Must Exercise That Power Now,” The Appeal, April 20, 2020,  https://theappeal.org/every-public-official-with-the-power-to-decarcerate-must-exercise-that-power-now/.

[71] For a summary of this body of literature see Susan Turner, “Moving California Corrections from an Offense- to Risk-Based System.”

[72] Robert Sampson and John Laub, “Life-Course Desisters? Trajectories of Crime Among Delinquent Boys Followed to Age 70,” Criminology 41 (2003): 555-592.

Caitlin V. M. Cornelius, Christopher J. Lynch, and Ross Gore, “Aging Out of Crime: Exploring the Relationship between Age and Crime with Agent-Based Modeling,” Society for Modeling and Simulation International, 2017.

[73] Aviram, Yesterday’s Monsters, 134.

[74] Heather Harris, et al., “California’s Prison Population.”

[75] See the physicians’ caveat about this regrettable practice in McCoy et al., “Urgent Memo – COVID-19 Outbreak: San Quentin Prison.”

Hadar Aviram is Professor of Law at UC Hastings and a frequent media commentator on politics, criminal justice policy, and civil rights. She is author of Cheap on Crime: Recession-Era Politics and the Transformation of American Punishment (UC Press, 2015) and Yesterday’s Monsters: The Manson Family Cases and the Illusion of Parole (UC Press, 2020) and her blog, California Correctional Crisis, covers criminal justice policy in California. She served as President of the Western Society of Criminology and on the Board of Trustees of the Law and Society Association, and is currently the Book Review Editor of the Law & Society Review.

Copyright: © 2020 Hadar Aviram. 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

California and the 1918–1920 Influenza Pandemic

 

CH_97_03_North_Fig_01-troops-marching-in-masks

“Victory Parade, ca. 1918.” Van Covert Martin, photographer. Soldiers march along East Main Street, Stockton, California, in front of Tredway Brothers store during the influenza pandemic. Many Californians were among those the United States sent to East Asia as part of the Siberian Expedition. Scholars do not know if Californians carried the disease with them, contracted it in Siberia, or both.
Courtesy Holt-Atherton Special Collections (Western Americana), University of the Pacific Library,

Published in collaboration with California History 

Diane M. T. North

The 1918–1920 influenza pandemic remains the deadliest influenza pandemic in recorded history. It began in the midst of World War I (1914–1918), as millions of combatants fought on the battlefields of Europe, Africa, the Middle East, the Far East, and at sea. The exceptionally contagious, unknown strain of influenza virus spread rapidly and attacked all ages. Whereas previous epidemics had affected those under five years of age or the elderly, the new virus especially targeted young adults, ages twenty to forty-four—the age range of sailors, marines, soldiers, pilots, physicians, nurses, and support staff. Influenza spread from person to person by close contact, especially through sneezing, coughing, or sharing items such as drinking cups. Key transmission vectors within the military included training camps, in transit aboard trains or ships, and along the front lines of battlefields. Key transmission vectors for civilians included refugee camps, crowded cities, transportation services, factories, and public gatherings. There were no ventilators, vaccines, antibiotics, or antiviral medicines to help the pandemic’s victims. An estimated 50–100 million people died worldwide, many from complications of pneumonia. Approximately 500 million, or one-third of the world’s population, became infected.[1] More U.S. military personnel died from influenza than from battlefield wounds.[2]

This article examines the evolution of four waves of the 1918–1920 influenza pandemic, emphasizes the role of the U.S. Navy and sea travel as the initial transmitters of the virus in the United States, and focuses on California as a case study in the response to the crisis. Although the world war, limited medical science, and the unknown nature of the virus made it extremely difficult to fight the disease, the responses of national, state, and community leaders to the 1918–1920 influenza pandemic can provide useful lessons in 2020, as the onslaught of the novel coronavirus (or SARS-CoV-2) that causes the disease, COVID-19, forces people worldwide to confront a terrible illness and death.

CH_97_03_North_Fig_02-nurses-marching-in-masks

“Victory Parade, ca. 1918.” Van Covert Martin, photographer. American Red Cross (ARC) nurses march during the influenza pandemic along North Hunter Street, Stockton, California, in front of the Boston Rooms, Hunter Square Café, and the Willard Hardware Company. In addition to serving with the ARC on the home front, California women served with the ARC and the U.S. Army in Europe and Siberia and with the U.S. Navy aboard ships at sea.
Courtesy Holt-Atherton Special Collections (Western Americana), University of the Pacific Library)

Problems with 1918–1920 Data

From the outset, it is important to acknowledge several difficulties in understanding the historical complexity of the influenza pandemic: its geographic origin, the precise arrival times as the contagion spread worldwide, and its deadly impact. Scholars continue to debate the geographic origin of the pandemic—the battlefields of western France, the United States, or the Far East.[3] Another challenge is related to charting the path of infection as it reached different populations at different times. The same dilemma exists with the COVID-19 pandemic. After the virus spread from China, U.S. health officials originally thought that the first U.S. COVID-19 death occurred in Washington state on February 26, 2020, but new evidence suggests that the first death occurred in Santa Clara County, California, on February 6, 2020. Dr. Sara Cody, the county’s health officer, recognized that the virus had gone undetected in the United States during January and early February 2020.[4] This news will change as physicians learn more.

More importantly, scholars today warn that the worldwide morbidity and mortality numbers for the 1918–1920 influenza pandemic are understated.[5] In the United States, the available statistics give an incomplete picture of the magnitude of the disease. Between 1918 and 1920, the U.S. population grew slightly, from 103 million to 106.5 million. During that time, an estimated 850,000 people died from influenza and pneumonia. However, out of forty-eight states, only thirty contributed to the 1918 Bureau of Census Mortality Statistics, and only twenty-four states contributed to the 1919 report. In 1920, the bureau was able to count only an estimated 82.3 percent of the U.S. population, including the Territory of Hawaii.[6] In California, with an estimated population of 2.3 to 3.4 million between 1918 and 1920, approximately 29,738 died of influenza and pneumonia during those years, but these data also are unreliable (Table 1).[7] 

Table 1 (2)

Not until the last week of September 1918 did the surgeon general of the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) designate influenza as a “reportable” disease and request that all public health officials telegraph weekly reports of incidences, even though, by then, the disease had spread to twenty-seven states, including California. Responding to the federal directive, the executive officer of the California State Board of Health (CSBH), Dr. Wilfred H. Kellogg, wrote to all city and county health officers on September 27, 1918, advising that the communicable disease, influenza, now qualified as “reportable and isolatable” under Section 2979 of the Political Code. Kellogg authorized California health officials to “require the isolation of cases appearing in your community, it being hoped in this manner to check the rapid spread of the disease, which otherwise appears inevitable.”[8]

Evolution of the First Wave: The United States and the World, January–July 1918

Scholars now generally accept that the influenza pandemic arrived in the United States in three waves, in spring 1918, autumn–winter 1918, and winter–spring 1919. More recent research identifies a possible fourth wave in the winter and spring of 1920.[9] Some sources suggest that the initial U.S. outbreak appeared at U.S. Army bases in Kansas in March or April of 1918.[10] However, a careful reading of contemporary reports issued by the U.S. Navy and the USPHS provides more precise and generally overlooked information about the infection’s first-wave arrival times in the United States and around the world. Naval records are particularly germane to California, with its 1,200-mile coastline, significant seaports, U.S. Navy and Army installations, and the constant movement of people and goods on ships traveling around the entire Pacific Rim and through the Panama Canal.

CH_97_03_North_Fig_03-USS Minneapolis 1918 NH 46179

U.S.S. Minneapolis (Cruiser # 13), with the ship’s commander, Captain Rufus Z. Johnston (seated right of center), and the ship’s surgeon and hospital corpsmen, 1918. The navy recorded the first outbreak of “suspicious” influenza aboard this ship in January 1918 when twenty-one sailors became ill. Photograph NH 46179.
Courtesy U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command

The U.S. Navy’s surgeon general described the first “suspicious outbreak of influenza” on board the U.S.S. Minneapolis at the Philadelphia Navy Yard in January, 1918, where twenty-one sailors became ill.[11] By February 1918, as the navy continued to train sailors and marines and protect U.S. merchant ships carrying food and supplies to Europe from German submarine attacks, medical officers recorded approximately 700 influenza cases, including at the navy yards in Portsmouth, NH, Boston, and New York. Of the 700 cases, 350–400 occurred at the U.S. Naval Radio School at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.[12] Physicians treating patients at the radio school observed eleven influenza cases with complications due to streptococcus pneumonia. Here, the navy’s description presents another dimension to the disease—the acute role of pneumonia in the 1918–1920 influenza pandemic—and demonstrates the importance of keeping accurate, detailed records during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the complex presence of pneumonia in certain of its sufferers.[13]

The geographic areas affected by influenza expanded in March 1918. The navy reported approximately 300 cases on ships stationed along the U.S. eastern seaboard.[14] By April 1918, as the United States trained and transported more troops, influenza numbers among navy personnel rose to over a thousand, including sailors and marines aboard ships along the southeastern and Gulf coasts and in Cuba, France, and California. In the latter state alone, there were 450 cases (and one death) on the U.S.S. Oregon in the Mare Island Naval Shipyard, 120 cases at the submarine base in San Pedro, and 410 cases at the San Diego Naval Training Camp (for further details, see below).[15]

CH_97_03_North_Fig_04-USS Oregon NH 63387

U.S.S. Oregon (BB-3). During April 1918, at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard, 410 sailors stationed aboard this ship suffered from influenza and one died. Photograph NH 63387.
Courtesy U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command

As military operations intensified, the navy’s 478 influenza cases chronicled in May 1918 show that the disease’s geographic area swelled to ships and shore stations in Ireland, Scotland, England, France, and Gibraltar.[16]

During the summer of 1918, the first wave of the pandemic continued to spread. Many Californians were among those the United States sent to Russia as part of the ill-fated Siberian Expedition. Scholars do not know if they carried the disease with them, contracted it in Siberia as the men mingled with local residents, or both. However, as navy ships traveled across the Pacific in June, the surgeon general recorded first-wave incidences at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and Vladivostok, Siberia, in June 1918. In the former, 125 sailors on the U.S.S. Monterey—or 66 percent of the crew—suffered from influenza. In the latter, the disease remained prevalent among the crew of the U.S.S. Brooklyn for eight weeks, with no morbidity or mortality figures given.[17]

By July 1918, the first wave had struck seamen aboard ships at Key West, Florida (U.S.S. Tallahassee, 76 cases), and the Azores (U.S.S. Galatea, 30 cases). Reflecting the escalation of U.S. participation in the war and the changes in war technology, influenza reached military personnel at naval air stations at Wexford and Queenstown, Ireland, and in four French ports.[18] The navy also stated that an influenza pandemic “was evident” in Spain, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, France, and Great Britain.[19]

The First Wave in California: February–June 1918

Although the data lack narrative details, it is important to point out that the USPHS calculated a somewhat elevated or “excess” rate of mortality from influenza and pneumonia in early 1918 in fifty U.S. cities with a population over 100,000, including three in California: San Francisco from February through June; Los Angeles from March through May; and Oakland (located across the bay from San Francisco) from March through April.[20] These were not classified as outbreaks but are noteworthy because the disease was evident.

By April 1918, seven known first-wave influenza outbreaks occurred in separate locations throughout the state. Military physicians attributed three—in San Pedro, San Diego, and Linda Vista—to the arrival of two Japanese training cruisers, the Asama and the Iwate, with a thousand sailors, commanded by Vice Admiral Kantarō Suzuki. The ships docked in San Francisco on March 22 as part of a goodwill tour among allies. During World War I, Japan was allied with the United States, France, and Britain. California military and civilian dignitaries welcomed and socialized with Japanese officials at receptions and dinners. The Japanese cadets toured the Bay Area and attended athletic and cultural events where they mixed with the general public. The cruisers left San Francisco on March 29 and sailed south along the California coast.[21]

The Iwate and Asama docked at Los Angeles harbor on Monday, April 1. On Thursday, April 4, the Chambers of Commerce of San Pedro and Long Beach entertained a hundred officers and midshipmen at a banquet ashore. The next afternoon, Vice Admiral Suzuki welcomed these same officials plus delegates from the mayor’s office, and their wives, to afternoon teas held aboard both cruisers. Four hundred people attended.[22] The Japanese then sailed to San Diego. On April 9, the army training center, Camp Kearny, located in Linda Vista, north of San Diego, held a “Grand Review” in honor of “the Allied Countries.” Admiral Suzuki attended, along with representatives from the French and British militaries.[23]

CH_97_03_North_Fig_05-grand-review

On April 9, 1918, Camp Kearny (near San Diego, California) held a “Grand Review” for “the Allied Countries.” That April, 560 soldiers at the training camp became ill with influenza.
Courtesy Library of Congress

Following the ships’ visit to Los Angeles, medical officers at the submarine base in San Pedro recorded 120 cases in an outbreak of ten days’ duration that April. The connection was clear to the navy’s surgeon general, who in 1919 reported that the outbreak followed the visit of a Japanese ship “on board which the disease was prevalent.”[24] Soon after the Iwate and Asama departed San Diego, the medical officers at the U.S. Naval Training Camp reported that 410 sailors, or 9 percent of the base complement, were infected with influenza. The origin of this outbreak, too, was obvious to navy doctors: it came “following the visit of a Japanese Squadron.” Pneumonia complicated twelve cases.[25] Camp Kearny’s medical officer—responsible for 560 infected soldiers—also linked the arrival of Japanese ships carrying influenza-infected sailors to his camp’s outbreak.[26]

Four additional first-wave influenza cases, of unknown origin, appeared in California in April 1918—on Mare Island, at Camp Fremont, at Stanford University, and in the state prison at San Quentin. In the April outbreak at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard, located on a peninsula across the Napa River from the town of Vallejo, 450 sailors or “two-thirds of the ship’s company” aboard the battleship U.S.S. Oregon became infected with the influenza virus. One sailor, Harry McKinley Johnson, a musician first class in the U.S. Navy Reserves, died on April 12.[27]

South of San Francisco, U.S. Army medical officers at Camp Fremont, located in Menlo Park, reported another first-wave attack. Camp Fremont hospitalized 1,045 men as officers moved quickly to prevent the spread of the disease. They prohibited indoor assemblies and improved camp sanitation, including disinfecting affected patients’ tents and clothing. The surgeon sprayed the men’s noses and throats with an antiseptic, but these methods proved ineffective. Nineteen men died.[28] In addition, at Stanford University, immediately adjacent to Camp Fremont, administrators counted 260 influenza cases. Patients were isolated and hospitalized, but six died.[29]

North of San Francisco, another first-wave incident occurred in April 1918, in the California state prison at San Quentin. Dr. L. L. Stanley, the resident public health officer at the prison, carefully noted its first influenza infection on April 13. Stanley attributed the arrival of the disease to “the entrance into the institution of a [sick] prisoner who had come from the county jail in Los Angeles, where, he stated, a number of other inmates had been ill.”[30] From April 14 until May 26, Stanley treated “an epidemic of unusual severity” at San Quentin, with 101 patients hospitalized. Seven of these developed bronchopneumonia and three died. He noted that prisoners became ill within two to three days of contact with an infected prisoner. Stanley tracked the course of the disease, which peaked on April 23–24. At least 1,450 people, over 76 percent of the institution’s 1,900 prisoners, reported sick at the height of the outbreak.[31]

The Second Wave in California Naval Stations and Army Camps: August–December 1918

Influenza spread quickly throughout U.S. ships and military installations at home and overseas. Between June 1917 and November 1918, the United States trained nearly two million men and then shipped them overseas. Accompanying those men were at least 15,000 women from the navy, army, American Red Cross (ARC), and private agencies, who served as physicians, nurses, physical and occupational therapists, reconstruction aides, switchboard operators, casualty searchers, and clerks.[32] Late in August 1918, navy doctors observed that a second, more severe wave had evolved: “The type of cases changed; the disease began to spread progressively from one community to another. The percentage of pulmonary complications increased beyond comparison with regard to the earlier epidemics, and influenzal pneumonia frequently began very early in the disease.”[33]

According to the navy’s surgeon general, “in the United States, the first cases of this phase of the pandemic” were recognized on August 27 aboard a ship that housed new recruits at Commonwealth Pier in Boston.[34] The navy transferred those patients to the U.S. Naval Hospital in Chelsea, Massachusetts. Starting with three cases, fifty-eight were ill only two days later, on August 29.[35] The navy reported that “epidemics of like character occurred almost simultaneously in most parts of the world.”[36] As scholars now know, this was the beginning of a second, even more severe wave of the pandemic. According to the scientists David M. Morens and Anthony S. Fauci, the “identit[ies] of viruses during [the] first and third waves are not known.” However, recent research indicates that “at least 2 virus variants [emerged and spread] during the second wave.”[37]

With the onset of the more fatal second wave of influenza in California, 5,188 soldiers became ill and 129 died at Camp Kearny in Linda Vista, near San Diego, from September 24 to December 8, 1918. Unfortunately, officials were slow to respond. Fourteen days after the first case was reported, camp leaders closed all indoor post exchanges (retail operations) and amusement halls. On October 9, they quarantined the camp. New arrivals were detained for five days and examined daily for signs of infection. For ten days—November 2 to 12—authorities ordered everyone in the camp to wear gauze masks. At the 1,280-bed hospital, dishes were boiled, linens were sterilized, and screens were placed between the cots. The camp then established a separate convalescent area for soldiers discharged from the hospital.[38]

The disease also recurred in fall 1918 at the U.S. Naval Training Camp at San Diego, which trained, housed, and fed an average of 4,932 personnel. New infections peaked between September 8 and 30. The final tally was 628 cases with nineteen fatalities for the period from September 21 to December 14.[39]

When the second wave attacked Camp Fremont in Menlo Park, medical officers improved upon their first-wave response in April by quickly closing theaters and post exchanges and canceling YMCA meetings and all assemblies, except for drill formations. Medical staff wore masks, and patients were assigned separate cubicles. Despite these heightened efforts, from October 8 to November 7, doctors treated 2,778 soldiers for influenza and pneumonia; 149 died.[40]

CH_97_03_North_Fig_06-Captain Harry George, Mare Island Naval Shipyard, NH 119808

Captain Harry George, USN, and staff, Mare Island Naval Shipyard, California, February 1, 1919. When an influenza outbreak started on Mare Island in September 1918, Captain George instituted a modified quarantine. Navy corpsmen, in cooperation with Dominican nuns, took care of influenza patients in the nearby town of Vallejo. Photograph NH 119808.

On September 24, 1918, Captain Harry George, the commandant at Mare Island, ordered precautions “in anticipation of an epidemic of influenza”.[41] With 7,657 navy personnel assigned to the yard, Mare Island was unusually permeable to infection. Between 8,000 to 10,000 civilians entered the shipyard daily, most of whom lived in Vallejo and the surrounding towns, typically in overcrowded, unsanitary rooming houses.[42] Additionally, with the nation at war, the navy routinely sent new recruits and draftees to Mare Island to be trained and assigned to ships. Under these circumstances, George believed, an absolute quarantine was unfeasible. He called instead for a modified quarantine and instructed all personnel to take precautions.[43] George ordered new recruits into detention for twenty-one days. Officials redesigned the sailors’ and marines’ sleeping quarters and allocated each man a sleeping area of fifty square feet within the barracks. Curtains hung between the bunks, cots, and hammocks formed cubicles that offered a measure of isolation. George closed on-base theaters (both live performances and “moving pictures”), recreation and reading rooms, classrooms, and churches. The commandant ordered strict isolation for influenza patients. Medical personnel were ordered to wear gowns and face masks, and to disinfect their hands after treating patients. Additional sanitary measures included steam-cleaning clothing and boiling all eating utensils and mess gear in dishwashing machines for at least five minutes.[44]

Despite these efforts, by the end of November 1918, physicians treated 1,536 navy personnel during the second wave. To supplement the permanent, 200-bed Navy hospital, workers at Mare Island constructed thirteen hospital buildings with 550 beds. When this proved inadequate, medical staff set up emergency tents to care for the additional sick during the peak period in October and requested additional nurses and medical officers.[45]

As the second wave overwhelmed navy physicians and corpsmen on Mare Island, civilians in the nearby town of Vallejo turned to the navy for help. In moves that would be familiar during the COVID-19 pandemic, the navy prohibited sailors and marines from leaving the shipyard and urged civic leaders to close their public buildings. To reduce contact between churchgoers, the navy encouraged congregations to hold services out of doors. From November 3 to 30, 1918, Navy corpsmen operated an emergency hospital for civilian employees on the grounds of the navy shipyard, caring for 287 patients. As the crisis worsened and Vallejo city officials were unable to manage, a local order of Dominican nuns temporarily lent the navy its new school building for a hospital, which patients quickly named “St. Vincent’s Navy Hospital.” Beginning on November 2, the nuns served as nurses alongside four navy physicians, twenty-four corpsmen, and fifty-eight support personnel. This hospital also remained open until November 30, ultimately caring for 190 patients.[46]

CH_97_03_North_Fig_07_Yerba Buena Island

Naval Training Station, San Francisco, California (Yerba Buena Island). View looking southward over the wharf area, from the eastern end of Yerba Buena, 1921. The isolated position of the training station allowed the commandant to quarantine all military personnel from September 23 to November 21, 1918, keeping the station free from influenza. Photograph NH 100361.
Courtesy of U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command

At San Francisco’s U.S. Naval Training Station, located on Yerba Buena Island, a different story unfolded. On September 23, the commandant imposed an absolute quarantine, recalling all officers, enlisted men, and civilians to base and requiring them to remain on the island. In the barracks, a muslin screen extended around the head and along the side of each man’s cot. The navy implemented what, in 2019–2020, would be called “social distancing”: the station curtailed all contact with San Francisco and Oakland except to collect supplies and welcome recruits and those who “necessarily had to be received.” The navy restricted the actions of tugboat crews and ordered them to stay twenty feet away from people on the dock. Passengers donned gauze face masks before boarding tugboats bound for the island.

Yerba Buena doctors administered then-standard measures designed to prevent contagious disease transmissions. The navy’s surgeon general, for example, reported that anyone arriving from the mainland had his “pharynx and nasal passages thoroughly sprayed with a 10 per cent solution of Silvol,” a solution of silver in water.[47] Parke, Davis & Company, makers of the product, touted it as an antiseptic and germicidal effective in combating infection.[48] Newcomers to Yerba Buena entered a quarantine camp for several days, where they continued to wear masks, received three daily treatments of Silvol spray, and kept a distance of twenty feet from each other.[49] Outside the quarantine camp, everyone on the station had his pharynx and nasal passages sprayed once daily with the same solution. Drinking fountains were “flamed with a gasoline torch, and all telephone transmitters were disinfected twice daily.”[50] The medical staff inoculated everyone on the island with three successive doses of “a mixed bacterial vaccine” on October 12, 15, and 18.[51]

CH_97_03_North_Fig_08-NH 2654, Yerba Buena

Naval Training Station, San Francisco, California (Yerba Buena Island), ca. November 1918. Once the navy lifted its initial quarantine, over 100 sailors became ill. The navy improvised crowded arrangements on the Drill Hall floor, Main Barracks. The bunks were arranged in columns, with patients placed head to foot by row. Photograph NH 2654.
Courtesy U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command

At the time, the navy’s surgeon general recognized that “this was not a pure quarantine experiment.” Yet as long as the quarantine remained in effect, the island remained free of infection. When the station resumed open contact with San Francisco and Oakland on November 21, the pandemic’s second wave battered Yerba Buena. On December 6, sixteen days after the navy lifted the quarantine, the medical officer reported the island’s first influenza case. During December, the navy counted 148 cases of acute bronchitis, thirteen of bronchopneumonia, four of lobar pneumonia, and twenty-five of influenza on Yerba Buena. Three men died of “influenza (influenzal pneumonia)” and two men died of pneumonia.[52] As the photographs illustrate, medical staff gradually obtained the cloth material to keep infected patients isolated from each other on the Drill Hall floor of the Main Barracks.

Naval Training Station, San Francisco (Yerba Buena Island), ca. December 1918. The navy erected sneeze screens between patients on the Drill Hall floor, Main Barracks.

Naval Training Station, San Francisco (Yerba Buena Island), ca. December 1918. The navy erected sneeze screens between patients on the Drill Hall floor, Main Barracks. Sign on wall at left reads: “DO NOT SPIT ON THE FLOOR[,] TO DO SO MAY SPREAD DISEASE.” Photograph NH 41871. Courtesy of the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command

The Second Wave in California Communities: August–December 1918

California newspaper coverage of what would become the most severe influenza wave began haltingly. Only a few California papers reported on the presence of the second wave of influenza in August and September 1918. On August 31, the Sacramento public health officer advised “Sacramento girls” to cover their kisses with a handkerchief to avoid spreading influenza, “which has gained quite a footing in the cities in the East.”[53] On September 25, one news item announced an unknown number of cases on a coast steamer arriving at Los Angeles from San Francisco, twelve cases in Laverne, near Los Angeles, and an unknown number of cases in San Luis Obispo County. However, Dr. Kellogg, the CSBH’s executive officer, did not think these accounts were genuine.[54] He soon learned otherwise. Californians were somewhat oblivious to, and unprepared for, the second wave of a deadly disease.

As explained above, the USPHS did not declare “influenza” as a reportable disease until the last week in September 1918, when it required public health officers nationwide to send in weekly reports by telegram. Immediately after receiving orders from the USPHS, Kellogg contacted all public health officials in the state on September 27 and requested their compliance with official policy. Recognizing the severity of the disease and its threat to public health, Kellogg advised his fellow physicians that “the disease in the present pandemic seems to exhibit an unusual virulence, and is extremely prone to pneumonic complications.”[55] By the time the federal and state notices arrived in local communities, citizens in twenty-seven states, including California, had suffered from the more severe second wave of influenza.[56]

Just as crowded World War I military transports, stations, and camps—and the military’s interaction with local communities—clearly served as breeding grounds for the transmission of influenza, other vectors spread the disease. In California, these included railroad travel, railroad and highway construction camps, and steamship and ferry travel, as individuals moved up and down the coast and around the bays. Dunsmuir, a community near the Oregon border with approximately two thousand residents, was the site of a sizable Southern Pacific Railroad roundhouse used to service and turn its passenger and freight trains. By October 5, Dunsmuir’s first case, reported on September 21, 1918, had multiplied: 109 railroad workers and townspeople were sick.[57]

CH_97_03_North_Fig_10-Dunsmuir Roundhouse

Southern Pacific Railroad, Dunsmuir, California, Roundhouse, ca 1910. Railroads and railroad towns served as vectors for the transmission of influenza. Dunsmuir, population approximately 2,000, was located near the Oregon border on the main rail line to the Pacific Northwest. By October 5, 1918, 109 railroad workers and townspeople were ill with influenza.
Courtesy Northeastern California Historical Photograph Collection, Meriam Library, California State University, Chico

On October 1, 1918, federal authorities acknowledged the rapid spread of the second wave of influenza throughout the nation. Congress responded by appropriating $1 million ($16 million in 2020 dollars) to enable the USPHS and local boards of health to combat and suppress the influenza pandemic. Congress advised the army, navy, and USPHS to work together to fight the virus.[58] After urging local health authorities to report influenza cases, the surgeon general of the USPHS, Rupert Blue, organized a nationwide campaign warning people of the dangers of the disease, and designated the states’ chief health officers to direct doctors and nurses to serve in areas with high morbidity and mortality.[59]

CH_97_03_North_Fig_11-wear-a-mask--CSBHWilfred H KelloggM.D Influenza A Study of Measures Adopted for the Control of the Epidemic Special Bulletin No 31 Sac State Printing Office 1919 2

“To Avoid Influenza, Wear a Mask.”
California State Board of Health and Wilfred H. Kellogg, M.D. Influenza: A Study of Measures Adopted for the Control of the Epidemic, Special Bulletin No. 31 (Sacramento: State Printing Office, 1919), 16.

By October 12, 1918, the USPHS, with the aid of the ARC, had organized a volunteer medical corps. Eighty-eight California communities requested assistance, and 180 California nurses and sixty physicians offered their help. Kellogg clarified “simple isolation” to mean that sick patients should remain in a private room within their homes, and he confirmed that local health officials had the authority to impose a ten-day “detention period.” He ordered doctors, nurses, patients, family members, and those with a cold to wear gauze face masks; and he recommended that barbers, dentists, druggists, and “many others” wear them as a public duty. Newspapers published the CSBH’s instructions for making, cleaning, and disposing of masks, along with guidelines called “What To Do Until the Doctor Comes”. These included staying in bed, keeping warm, and eating nourishing food, such as plain milk, egg and milk, or broth, every four hours. The CSBH reminded people to avoid crowded places and sick people, to walk to work rather than ride public conveyances, to wash hands before eating, and to spend time outdoors in the sunshine.[60] The USPHS distributed over six million pamphlets informing citizens about the perils of the highly contagious virus and circulated posters throughout the country explaining how influenza was transmitted and what precautions to take.[61]

CH_97_03_North_Fig_12-nlm_nlmuid-101453499-img-1

“Influenza Spread by Droplets Sprayed from Nose and Throat,” Public Health Service, U.S. Department of Treasury.
Courtesy U.S. National Library of Medicine, Digital Collections, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

And still Californians kept dying of influenza, with complications from pneumonia. By the end of October, California reported 124,167 cases of influenza and pneumonia, and the number of deaths had climbed to 5,381. These comprised 3,541 males (or 65.8 percent of fatalities) and 1,840 females (34.2 percent). Nearly two-thirds (64.6 percent) of those who died were between the ages of twenty and thirty-nine. The CSBH also noted the racial characteristics of the October deaths: 5,080 were whites (listed as “Caucasians”); 162 Japanese; 57 Negroes (sic); 46 Chinese; and 36 Indians.[62]

California’s two major cities—Los Angeles and San Francisco—responded to the pandemic threat differently. L.A. authorities acted quickly to combat the virus. Their precautions were wise, given the city’s rapidly growing population, which ballooned from 319,198 in 1910 to 576,673 in 1920.[63] Los Angeles counted seven new cases on September 21.[64] Later scholars would identify fifty-five Polytechnic High School students as among the city’s earliest suspected cases.[65] Recognizing the threat to public health, the city’s health commissioner, Dr. Luther Milton Powers, conferred with the mayor, Frederic Thomas Woodman. On October 11, the mayor declared a state of emergency. Taking actions that would be repeated throughout California during March 2020 in the COVID-19 pandemic, the L.A. City Council passed an ordinance closing public gathering places. Citizens who failed to comply could receive a misdemeanor conviction, six months in jail, and a $500 fine ($8,083 in 2020 dollars).[66] The city closed schools, amusement parks, theaters, movie houses, dance halls, concert venues, exhibitions, and religious services. The county health officer ordered schools closed in a dozen nearby communities. City officials canceled two major World War I–era pathways for transmission of the virus: a parade and a Liberty Loan bond fundraiser. Even though Herbert Hoover, head of the U.S. Food Administration, had designated the film industry as “official purveyors” of publicity for his agency, producers and actors agreed to temporarily halt film production, including filming crowd scenes. L.A. officials also organized several hospitals.[67]

Not everyone agreed with the city’s measures. Residents objected to the conversion of Mount Washington Hotel into a convalescent hospital for influenza patients and to the city spending $10,500 ($169,754 in 2020 dollars) to do so.[68] On December 4, the L.A. City Council voted to lift the ban on public gatherings, even though second-wave infection rates confirmed that the contagion continued to spread. By mid-December, a reported 38,382 people were ill.[69]

Community leaders in San Francisco resisted implementing the kinds of draconian measures undertaken in L.A. San Francisco’s population had grown more slowly than that of Los Angeles, with 416,912 residents in 1910 and 506,676 in 1920. Yet the city experienced a higher proportion of influenza morbidity and mortality than its neighbor to the south. The death rates from influenza and pneumonia in the United States overall, in California, and in L.A., San Francisco, and Oakland are summarized in Table 2.[70]

CH_97_03_North_Fig_13-San Francisco Police Court

San Francisco Police Court officials hold a session in the open as a precaution against spreading influenza, 1918.
Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration

On October 17, 1918, with 21,000 diagnosed influenza cases, a group in San Francisco—including the mayor, James Rolph; city health officer William C. Hassler, MD; and representatives from the USPHS, the ARC, and the military—met to discuss ways to contain the pandemic. The city’s Board of Health closed schools and public amusements, canceled dances and lodge meetings, and prohibited social gatherings. However, it allowed a Liberty Loan bond drive and parade to take place. Officials recommended that church gatherings be held outside. Some city services met outside, such as Police Court. On October 18, Hassler recommended that citizens wear gauze face masks. The following week, despite loud public protest, the city passed an ordinance mandating masks in public or when two or more people were together.[71] ARC volunteers made and distributed 100,000 gauze masks by October 25.[72] The next day, the ARC quickly started converting the Civic Center into a hospital for three hundred influenza patients and appealed for more nurses to care for the sick.[73] Also during October, some San Francisco women learned to drive cars to help physicians and patients; and, just as people in the United States would someday use technology at home for school, work, and socializing during the COVID-19 pandemic, in October 1918 the telephone company installed more phones, a relative novelty, in households with influenza sufferers.[74] By November 2, firemen volunteered to assist the coroner as deaths increased.[75] Due to the generosity of its supporters, the San Francisco chapter of the ARC spent $100,000 ($1.5 million in 2020 dollars) by mid-November to combat influenza in the city and provide relief for the needy.[76]

CH_97_03_North-Table-2-death-rates-per-100000

San Francisco lifted the ban on public gatherings in some parts of the city on November 16. Five days later, officials permitted residents to remove their face masks. On November 25, the city reopened schools, movie houses, theaters, and sports facilities, but the disease continued to spread.[77] According to California Public Health Department data, between October 5, 1918, and January 25, 1919, approximately 39,000 San Franciscans suffered from influenza and pneumonia; 3,600 died.[78] Chart 1 shows the death rates in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Stockton, and Sacramento during the second wave.[79]

CH_97_03_North_Chart_1, Influenza Deaths, Four California Cities, 1918-1919

In another example of the arrival of the epidemic’s second wave, the public health officer at San Quentin, Dr. Stanley, recorded that the prison’s autumn occurrence followed the October 3, 1918, entrance of a prisoner from Los Angeles whose guard was sick. The prisoner became ill the next day and was hospitalized, but not before exposing others (he had spent the preceding night in a receiving room with ten other men, and ate meals in the dining hall with an estimated 1,900 men).

To safeguard the prisoners’ health, Stanley closed the prison’s indoor “picture show” and invited the Oakland Municipal Band to perform an open-air concert on October 20. Influenza cases peaked the following day. For the next eleven days, Stanley took care of sixty-nine second-wave influenza patients; 8–12 percent of these developed pneumonia, and two died.[80] When Stanley submitted his final report on the outbreak to the USPHS, he concluded: “The most effective means available for combating the spread of the disease in this prison were hospitalization, quarantine, isolation, and the closure of congregating places.”[81] The conclusions reached by the San Quentin doctor are especially important in relation to COVID-19 because the state’s 2020 prison population of approximately 240,000 is difficult to protect.[82]

As scientists and historians now recognize, the influenza epidemic’s second wave struck California during the fall and early winter of 1918 and proved more lethal than the first wave. The new outbreak of infection both caused and revealed a shortage of physicians, nurses, and hospitals. In response, volunteer members of the state’s well-organized Women’s Committee of the Council of Defense shifted from war work to caring for influenza victims. Earlier in the year, the Women’s Committee had established twenty-two Children’s Health Centers statewide. Committee members used information from these centers to identify sick children and their families. Volunteers nursed the sick, obtained beds and bedding, and purchased medicines, fuel, and groceries and delivered them to the ill; they cooked meals for patients and even cleaned their homes. Members of the Women’s Committee set up a motor corps and located drivers to take patients to and from hospitals.[83]

The Third Wave in California: January–May 1919

At the beginning of the new year, Mrs. Bernard T. Miller of Oakland and her six children lay ill with influenza. Her husband, an army captain, was stationed in Virginia. On January 9, 1919, their youngest child, seventeen-month-old Robert, died from the disease.[84] The Oakland Tribune announced “137 New Flu Cases Here in 24 Hours,” with twelve deaths in the same period, including little Robert.[85] Oakland called for more volunteer ARC nurses to care for local cases.[86]

As the third wave of influenza struck, the city of Berkeley, adjacent to Oakland, still debated how to protect its residents. Amid the same kind of arguments that would echo across the United States in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Berkeley City Council failed to pass a mask ordinance despite the recommendations of Berkeley’s city health officer, Dr. J. J. Benton, and a University of California physician and professor of hygiene, Dr. Robert T. Legge. The city’s commissioner of public health and safety, Charles D. Heywood, a prominent businessman, opposed the ordinance.[87]

At the beginning of 1919, influenza cases and deaths increased in San Francisco and Los Angeles. In response, Los Angeles, in early January 1919, passed a series of strict quarantine measures, including ordering influenza patients to remain in their homes, and hired quarantine inspectors.[88] By the end of January 1919, the City of Los Angeles had spent all of the funds intended for the entire fiscal year: $247,000 ($3.8 million in 2020 dollars).[89] Later studies reveal that it was money well spent.[90]

In early January 1919, at the onset of the third wave, San Francisco pleaded for more ARC nurses to volunteer at San Francisco Hospital to care for influenza victims, and the mayor even requested help from the navy.[91] On January 19, San Francisco restored its mask ordinance and did not rescind it until February 1.[92] As the third wave continued to expand around the state, the California legislature allocated $55,000 ($840,000 in 2020 dollars) to enable the CSBH to control contagious diseases.[93]

Table 3 (1)

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a total of 189,326 people died of influenza and pneumonia in 1919. In California, the total number of deaths from influenza and pneumonia for 1919 was 7,240.[94]

The third wave again led to cooperation between military and civilian populations. During the third wave, the naval training station on Yerba Buena reported 127 cases and seventeen deaths. Mare Island recorded 271 cases and nine deaths.[95] Civilians employed at the shipyard again asked the navy for help. In January 1919, the Dominican nuns reopened St. Vincent’s Hospital, where they cared for fifty-five patients, one of whom died. The hospital closed on January 28, shortly after Vallejo lifted the order shuttering public places.[96] It is clear that the second wave proved deadlier than the first and third, but a fourth wave, less deadly than the previous three, struck in 1920, as officials had warned (see Tables 1 and 2).

CH_97_03_North_Fig_14-Childrens Ward San Jose Convalescent Hospital Courtesy of History San Jose

Children’s Ward, San Jose Convalescent Hospital during the influenza pandemic, 1918. Townspeople donated the beds, bedding, clothing for the patients, as well as flowers and toys.
Courtesy of History San José

A Fourth Wave in California: January–March 1920

By the start of 1920, Californians were experienced influenza fighters. In San Francisco, as another wave of the pandemic struck, city officials once again called for ARC nurses to volunteer their services.[97] Long Beach and Los Angeles physicians did not request a ban on public gatherings or close schools, but they did call for preventive isolation.[98]

The U.S. Census Bureau provides evidence of a fourth wave of the pandemic in its analysis of 1920 mortality statistics: “An epidemic of considerable proportions marked the early months of 1920—an epidemic which caused 33 percent as many deaths as the great pandemic of 1918–1919.” In the United States, 182,205 people died from influenza and pneumonia in 1920, including 5,725 Californians.[99]

CONCLUSION

The 1918–1920 influenza pandemic alarmed everyone—physicians, scientists, public officials, the military, and citizens—with the rapidity of its spread, the severity of its effects, the extraordinary morbidity and mortality counts, and the insidious way that the disease lingered and flared up again. Ship movements during World War I transported influenza from port to port, nation to nation (just as, in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic swept through aircraft carriers such as the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt and among crews and passengers of international cruise ships).[100] One hundred years ago, all efforts to produce a cure, a vaccine, or drugs to alleviate victims’ suffering failed. Although Congress appropriated money for the military and the USPHS, and the latter advertised the dangers of influenza extensively and helped coordinate physicians and nurses, most states and communities devised their own strategies for dealing with the crisis. Some responded more sensibly and effectively than others. Despite the staggering death rate—the most conservative estimate was 850,000 deaths in the United States—no national planning for future emergencies or a national health care plan emerged from the catastrophe.

The influenza pandemic began in the last year of a devastating world war that claimed at least ten million military lives (and twice that many wounded). The pandemic ended as the war’s survivors and refugees struggled to return home and rebuild their lives.[101] It took scientists more than seventy years to recover and reconstruct the 1918 pandemic virus and to begin decoding its genetic characteristics. Scientists continue to learn more about the 1918–1920 influenza pandemic, though many questions remain unanswered.[102]

As the pandemic raged, especially by the onset of what we now know as the second wave, the military pioneered the most effective responses, leading the way in attempts to slow the rate of infection. Wherever possible, military leaders ordered absolute or modified quarantines, enlarged existing hospitals and built new ones, and demanded both better personal hygiene and improved sanitation of facilities. When quarantine orders were lifted too soon, rates of infection escalated. The quick and forthright decisions made by Los Angeles officials, in contrast to those in San Francisco, serve as instructive examples. Also instructive is the cooperation that developed between the U.S. Navy at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard and the Dominican nuns in Vallejo. The spirit of voluntarism displayed by members of the Women’s Committee of the California Council of Defense and the American Red Cross demonstrate how ordinary citizens rose to the challenge of caring for the sick in unprecedented numbers. As the world suffers today with the onslaught of COVID-19, we must look to the lessons of the 1918–1920 influenza pandemic.

 

 

Notes

[1] J. K. Taubenberger and D. M. Morens, “1918 Influenza: The Mother of All Pandemics,” Emerging Infectious Diseases 12, no. 1 (2006), http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/12/1/05-0979_article.htm#; M. van Wijke et al., “Loose Ends in the Epidemiology of the 1918 Pandemic: Explaining the Extreme Mortality Risk in Young Adults,” American Journal of Epidemiology 187 (2018): 2503–2510. The United States declared war against Germany on April 6, 1917. A more comprehensive article will appear in August 2020: Diane M. T. North, “California and the 1918-1920 Influenza Pandemic,” California History  97, no.3 (Summer 2020).

[2] Congressional Research Service, American War and Military Operations Casualties: Lists and Statistics, comp. Anne Leland and Mari-Jana Oboroceanu (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2010), 2. During U.S. involvement in World War I (1917–1918), a total 4,734,991 Americans served. Of the 116,516 total deaths, (including approximately 4,000 Californians), 53,402 were battle deaths and 63,114 deaths were listed as “Other,” mainly from influenza. Carol Byerly, “The U.S. Military and the Influenza Pandemic of 1918–1919,” Public Health Reports 125, Supplement 3 (2010): 83.

[3] J. A. B. Hammond, W. Rolland, and T. H. G. Shore, “Purulent Bronchitis: A Study of Cases Occurring amongst the British Troops at a Base in France,” Lancet 2 (1917): 41–45; Michael Worobey, Jim Cox, and Douglas Gill, “The Origins of the Great Pandemic,” Evolution, Medicine, and Public Health 2019 (January 21, 2019): 18–25; Mark Osborne Humphries, “Paths of Infection: The First World War and the Origins of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic,” War in History 21 (2014): 55–81.

[4] New York Times, “Coronavirus Live Updates,” April 22, 2020, 5:30 p.m. ET, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/22/us/coronavirus-live-coverage.html?action=click&module=Spotlight&pgtype=Homepage#link-7cf633cc.

[5] Niall P. A. S. Johnson and Juergen Mueller, “Updating the Accounts: Global Mortality of the 1918–1920 ‘Spanish’ Influenza Pandemic,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 76 (2002): 105–115..

[6] U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Census, Mortality Statistics 1918, Nineteenth Annual Report (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1920) (hereafter cited as Mortality Statistics 1918): in the text, on page 27, the census bureau lists 477,467 deaths from influenza and pneumonia (all forms); however, on p. 30 in the unnumbered table, the census bureau lists 367,433 deaths. I selected the higher number for the totals. Bureau of Census, Mortality Statistics 1919, Twentieth Annual Report (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1921) (hereafter cited as Mortality Statistics 1919): in the text, on page 28, the census bureau lists 189,326 deaths from influenza and pneumonia (all forms); however, on the unnumbered table on the same page, the census bureau lists 143,548 deaths. I selected the higher number for the totals. Bureau of Census, Mortality Statistics 1920, Twenty-First Annual Report (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1922) (hereafter cited as Mortality Statistics 1920), 5, for percent of registration area; see 17 and 31 for 62,097 influenza deaths; see 51 for 120,108 pneumonia deaths (all forms) and the combined total of influenza and pneumonia (all forms): 182,205.

[7] Mortality Statistics 1918, 30: mortality for influenza and pneumonia (all forms), 16,773; Mortality Statistics 1919, 28: mortality for influenza and pneumonia (all forms), 7,240; Mortality Statistics 1920: 5,725 deaths; 314 (influenza: 2,185 deaths); 315 (pneumonia: 3,540 deaths).

[8] “Epidemic Influenza (‘Spanish Influenza’): Prevalence in the United States,” Public Health Reports 22, no. 29 (September 27, 1918): 1625–1626 (previously reportable diseases in the United States included smallpox, tuberculosis, malaria, measles, mumps, typhoid fever, whooping cough, diphtheria, scarlet fever, poliomyelitis, chickenpox, meningitis, pellagra, and venereal diseases); California State Board of Health and Wilfred H. Kellogg, Influenza: A Study of the Measures Adopted for the Control of the Epidemic, Special Bulletin No. 31 (Sacramento: State Printing Office, 1919) (hereafter cited as Kellogg, Influenza: A Study of Measures), 26. In addition, not until 1930 did the USPHS publish a detailed study of the 1918–1920 excess mortality data. See Selwyn D. Collins, W. H. Frost, Mary Gover, and Edgar Sydenstricker, “Mortality from Influenza and Pneumonia in 50 Large Cities of the United States, 1910–1929,” Public Health Reports 45, no. 39 (September 26, 1930): 2277–2363.

[9] Howard Markel, Alexandra M. Stern, J. Alexander Navarro, and Joseph R. Michalsen, “A Historical Assessment of Nonpharmaceutical Disease Containment Strategies Employed by Selected U.S. Communities during the Second Wave of the 1918–1920 Influenza Pandemic” (Fort Belvoir, VA: Defense Threat Reduction Agency, January 31, 2006), 27–32; Johnson and Mueller, “Updating the Accounts: Global Mortality of the 1918–1920 ‘Spanish’ Influenza Pandemic,” 107; Nancy K. Bristow, American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 3; Alfred W. Crosby, America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 203–204.

[10] For the March cases at Camp Funston, Fort Riley, Kansas, see “1918 Influenza Pandemic Historic Timeline,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (page last reviewed March 20, 2018), https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-commemoration/pandemic-timeline-1918.htm (accessed March 26, 2020); Crosby, America’s Forgotten Pandemic, 18. For April 5, 1918, cases in Haskell, Kansas, see “1918 Influenza Pandemic Historic Timeline,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (page last reviewed March 20, 2018); https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-commemoration/pandemic-timeline-1918.htm (accessed March 26, 2020). For March and April 1918, see Carol R. Byerly, Fever of War: The Influenza Epidemic in the U.S. Army during World War I (New York: New York University Press, 2005), 71. The army also reported influenza cases in March 1918 at training camps in New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Oklahoma, but that information has been overlooked because of the emphasis on Kansas. U.S. Army, Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Army 1919, 2 vols. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1919), vol. 1, 784 (hereafter cited as Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Army 1919).

[11] U.S. Navy Department, Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Navy 1919 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1919), 367 (hereafter cited as Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Navy 1919); U.S. Department of Navy, Naval Historical Center, “Casualties: U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Personnel Killed and Injured in Selected Accidents and Other Incidents Not Directly the Result of Enemy Action,” https://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/NHC/accidents.htm (accessed March 18, 2020).

[12] Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Navy 1919, 367.

[13] Richard Levitan, “The Infection That’s Silently Killing Coronavirus Patients,” New York Times, April 20, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/20/opinion/coronavirus-testing-pneumonia.html; John F. Brundage and G. Dennis Shanks, “Deaths from Bacterial Pneumonia during the 1918–1919 Influenza Pandemic, Emerging Infectious Diseases 14 (August 2008): 1193–1199.

[14] Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Navy 1919, 367–368.

[15] Ibid., 368.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid, 368.

[18] Ibid., 368.

[19] Ibid., 370.

[20] Collins et al., “Mortality from Influenza and Pneumonia in 50 Large Cities of the United States, 1910–1929,” table A: “Excess Monthly Death Rates (annual basis) per 100,000 from Influenza and Pneumonia in Each of 50 Cities in the United States, 1910–1929”: Los Angeles, 2310; San Francisco, 2317; Oakland, 2313.

[21] San Francisco Examiner, “2 Japanese Training Ships Pay a Visit,” March 23, 1918, 6; San Francisco Examiner, “Japanese Training Ships Visit Port,” March 24, 1918, 3; San Francisco Examiner, “Consul to Entertain Japanese Officers,” March 25, 1918, 2; San Francisco Examiner, “S.F. Japanese Hold Big Field Day Show,” March 25, 1918, 8; Oakland Tribune, “Honor Japanese,” March 28, 1918, 4; San Francisco Examiner, “Japanese Admiral Tells Nippon Aims,” March 29, 4; Eric Lacroix and Linton Wells II, Japanese Cruisers of the Pacific War (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997), 552, 657–658.

[22] Long Beach Daily Telegram, “Jap Training Ships in L. A. Harbor,” April 2, 1918, 9; Long Beach Press, “Japanese Guests Feted by Local Organizations,” April 5, 1918, 2; Long Beach Daily Telegram, “Jap Officers Return Courtesies,” April 6, 1918, 16.

[23] History of the Fortieth (Sunshine) Division, 1917–1919 (Los Angeles, CA: C.S. Hutson, 1920), 65; Bakersfield Morning Echo, “Kearny Division Men Reviewed by Allied Officers,” April 10, 1918, 10.

[24]Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Navy 1919, 368.

[25] Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Navy 1919, 368.

[26] U.S. Army, Medical Department, Office of Medical History, and Maj. Milton W. Hall, “Inflammatory Diseases of the Respiratory Tract,” in The Medical Department of the United States Army in the World War, vol. 9: Communicable and Other Diseases (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1928), 133 (hereafter cited as Communicable and Other Diseases).

[27]Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Navy 1919, 367–368 (The medical officer did not list a possible source for the disease.); “Died of Accident or Other Causes, Including Camp Deaths,” Yolo in Word & Picture (Woodland, CA: Woodland Daily Democrat, 1920), 10; “Harry McKinley Johnson,” Find a Grave, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/125036704/harry-mckinley-johnson (accessed March 25, 2020). See also Diane M. T. North, California at War: The State and the People during World War I (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2018), 29–66, 109–177.

[28] Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Army 1919, vol. 1, 784.

[29] Kate Chesley, “100 Years Ago, the Spanish Flu Hit the Stanford Campus,” Stanford News, March 14, 2018, https://news.stanford.edu/thedish/2018/03/15/100-years-ago-the-spanish-flu-hit-the-stanford-campus/.

[30] L. L. Stanley, “Influenza at San Quentin Prison, California,” Public Health Reports 34, no. 19 (May 9, 1919): 996.

[31] Ibid., 996–997.

[32] Frank M. McMurry, The Geography of the Great War (New York: Macmillan, 1919), 31; North, California at War: The State and the People during World War I, 43–46, 81–105.

[33] Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Navy 1919, 370. See also David M. Morens, Jeffery K. Taubenberger, and Anthony S. Fauci, “Predominant Role of Bacterial Pneumonia as a Cause of Death in Pandemic Influenza: Implications for Pandemic Influenza Preparedness,” Journal of Infectious Diseases 198 (October 1, 2008): 962–970.

[34] Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Navy 1919, 370.

[35] Ibid., 371.

[36] Ibid., 370.

[37] Morens and Fauci, “The 1918 Influenza Pandemic: Insights for the 21st Century,” 1019.

[38] Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Army 1919, vol. 1, 746, 634 (table 304); Communicable and Other Diseases, 138.

[39] Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Navy 1919, 372, 374 (table 1), 375, (table 3), 376 (table 4). The medical officer speculated that the intense nature of the disease in the spring modified its course in the autumn.

[40] Communicable and Other Diseases, 138.

[41] Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Navy 1919, 429; see 445–446 for “Commandant’s Order No. 386, Mare Island, Cal., September 24, 1918.”

[42] Capt. Thomas L. Snyder, MC, USNR, “The Great Flu Crisis at Mare Island Navy Yard, and Vallejo, California,” Navy Medicine 94, no. 5 (September–October 2003), 26.

[43] Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Navy 1919, 445.

[44] Ibid., 445–446.

[45] Snyder, “The Great Flu Crisis at Mare Island Navy Yard, and Vallejo, California,” 26; Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Navy 1919, 35.

[46] Snyder, “The Great Flu Crisis at Mare Island Navy Yard, and Vallejo, California, ”27–28; San Francisco Examiner, “Vallejo Asks Navy Aid with 1,000 Flu Cases,” October 31, 1918, 13; “Receipts of the Secretary General’s Office,” Catholic Education Association Bulletin 16 (November 1919), 26, mentions the Dominican sisters in Vallejo.

[47] Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Navy 1919, 428.

[48] “Silvol—A Useful Germicide,” Texas Medical Journal 33 (January 1918): 335.

[49] Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Navy 1919, 428.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Navy 1919, 429. The “first wave” of the pandemic appears to have missed Yerba Buena.

[53] The Sacramento story was reported in the Santa Barbara Daily News and Independent, “If You Must, Use a Kerchief,” August 31, 1918, 2.

[54] Sacramento Bee, “Spanish Influenza Spreading in South,” September 25, 1918, 5. Because Spain witnessed well-published high morbidity and mortality cases during the first wave of 1918, the disease earned the popular name “Spanish Influenza” or “Spanish Flu.”

[55] “Epidemic Influenza (‘Spanish Influenza’): Prevalence in the United States,” Public Health Reports 22, no. 29 (September 27, 1918): 1625–1626; Kellogg, Influenza: A Study of Measures, 26.

[56] “Epidemic Influenza (‘Spanish Influenza’): Prevalence in the United States,” 1625–1626, 1644.

[57] California State Board of Health, Monthly Bulletin 14, no. 7 (January 1919): 226; Jessica Skropanic, “Bon Voyage: Make Tracks to California Train Stations, Part Three,” Record Searchlight, June 19, 2014, http://archive.redding.com/lifestyle/bon-voyage-make-tracks-to-california-train-stations-part-three-ep-375171960-354445101.html; Richard J. Orsi, “Railroads and the Urban Environment: Sacramento’s Story,” in Christopher J. Castaneda and Lee M. A. Simpson (eds.), River City and Valley Life: An Environmental History of the Sacramento Region (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013), 89–90.

[58] Public Resolution, No. 42, U.S. Statutes at Large 40, Ch. 179 (October 1, 1918): 1008; U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, “CPI Inflation Calculator,” http://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm (accessed May 1, 2020; hereafter cited as “CPI Inflation Calculator”).

[59] Gary Gernhart, “A Forgotten Enemy: PHS’s Fight against the 1918 Influenza Pandemic,” Public Health Chronicles 114 (November–December 1999): 559–560, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1308540/pdf/pubhealthrep00024-0077.pdf.

[60] California State Board of Health, Monthly Bulletin 14, no. 7 (January 1919): 221, 226; Kellogg, Influenza: A Study of Measures, 16–18, 26; San Francisco Examiner, “State Doctors Are Mobilized,” October 11, 1918, 4; Sacramento Bee, “Everyone with a Cold Must Wear a Mask,” October 22, 1918, 1.

[61] Gernhart, “A Forgotten Enemy: PHS’s Fight against the 1918 Influenza Pandemic,” 560.

[62] California State Board of Health, Monthly Bulletin 14, nos. 5 and 6 (November–December 1918): for October morbidity, see 173; for September and October mortality and other data, 189.

[63] U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Census, Thirteenth Census 1910, vol. 2: Population (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1913), 157; and Fourteenth Census 1920, vol. 1: Population, detailed tables (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1921), 95–96 (table 49); 151 (table 50); 183–185 (table 51).

[64] “Epidemic Influenza: Prevalence in the United States,” 1688. The USPHS noted seven influenza cases in the city of Los Angeles by September 21.

[65] “Los Angeles, California,” in The American Influenza Epidemic of 1918–1919, A Digital Encyclopedia, ed. J. Alex Navarro and Howard Markel (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine and Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2016) (hereafter cited as “Los Angeles, California”), https://quod.lib.umich.edu/f/flu/cities/city-losangeles.html (accessed March 30, 2020).

[66] Ibid; “CPI Inflation Calculator.”

[67] “Los Angeles, California”; North, California at War: The State and the People during World War I, 169.

[68] Ibid.; “CPI Inflation Calculator.”

[69] “Los Angeles, California.”

[70] Thirteenth Census 1910, vol. 2: Population, 157; Fourteenth Census 1920, vol. 1: Population, detailed tables, 95–96 (table 49); 151 (table 50); 183–185 (table 51); Mortality Statistics 1920, 29–30.

[71] W. H. Frost, “The Epidemiology of Influenza, 1919, with a commentary by Thomas M. Daniel, Public Health Reports 121, Supplement 1 (2006): 148–159 (Frost’s study was first published in 1919); “San Francisco, California,” in The American Influenza Epidemic of 1918–1919: A Digital Encyclopedia (herefter cited as “San Francisco, California”), https://quod.lib.umich.edu/f/flu/cities/city-sanfrancisco.html (accessed March 28, 2020).

[72] San Francisco Chronicle, “Red Cross Gives Out 100,000 Gauze Masks,” October 25, 1918, 7.

[73] San Francisco Chronicle, “Red Cross Rushes Quarters at Civic Center for Use as Hospital to Fight Influenza,” October 26, 1918, 1.

[74] San Francisco Examiner, “Women Drive Cars to Aid Doctors,” October 25, 1918, 7; San Francisco Chronicle, “Phones Added for Influenza Sufferers,” October 23, 1918, 1.

[75] San Francisco Chronicle, “Firemen Volunteer to Assist Coroner,” November 2, 1918, 1.

[76] San Francisco Examiner, “$100,000 Spent to Fight ‘Flu,’ ” November 21, 1918, 11; “CPI Inflation Calculator.”

[77] “San Francisco, California,” 91–120.

[78] Arseny K. Hrenoff, “The Influenza Epidemic of 1918–1919 in San Francisco,” Military Surgeon 89 (November 1941): 807, table 1A: 2,257 died from October through December 1918 and 1,379 died in the first two months of 1919.

[79] Kellogg, Influenza: A Study of Measures, 5.

[80] Stanley, “Influenza at San Quentin Prison, California,” 999–1001.

[81] Ibid., 1007.

[82] Prison Policy Initiative, “California Profile,” https://www.prisonpolicy.org/profiles/CA.html (accessed April 25, 2020).

[83] California State Council of Defense, Report, Women’s Committee of the State Council of Defense of California from June 1, 1917 to January 1, 1919 (Los Angeles, 1919), 36.

[84] Oakland Tribune, “Flu Takes Baby as Six Others Improve,” January 10, 1919, 3.

[85] Oakland Tribune, “137 New Flu Cases Here in 24 Hours,” January 10, 1919, 3.

[86] Ibid.

[87] Oakland Tribune, “Single Vote Able to Kill Masking Law,” January 10, 1919, 3.

[88] “Los Angeles, California.”

[89] Ibid.; “CPI Inflation Calculator.”

[90] Howard Markel, Harvey B. Lipman, J. A. Navarro, Alexandra Sloan, Joseph R. Michalsen, Alexandra M. Stern, and Martin S. Cetron, “Nonpharmaceutical Interventions Implemented by US Cities during the 1918–1919 Influenza Pandemic,” Journal of the American Medical Association 298 (August 8, 2007): 644–654.

[91] San Francisco Examiner, “Need of Nurses at S. F. Hospital Declared Vital,” January 3, 1919, 5; San Francisco Examiner, “Rolph Calls for Navy Nurses,” January 4, 1919, 5.

[92] “San Francisco, California,” 91–120.

[93] California, The Statutes of California and Amendments to the Codes, 43rd session, 1919 (Sacramento: State Printing Office, 1919), 838: Chapter 449, May 22, 1919; “CPI Inflation Calculator.”

[94]Mortality Statistics 1919, 28. The government’s data for separate influenza and pneumonia numbers for the entire United States contain inconsistencies in the tables in relation to the overall number of mortalities explained in the text. For California cities, by type of disease, see 200 for influenza and 201 for pneumonia (Los Angeles: 637 influenza deaths and 418 pneumonia deaths; Oakland: 234 influenza deaths and 273 pneumonia deaths; San Francisco: 763 influenza deaths and 659 pneumonia deaths).

[95] U.S. Navy, Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Navy 1920 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1920), 206 (hereafter cited as Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Navy 1920), 206.

[96] Snyder, “The Great Flu Crisis at Mare Island Navy Yard, and Vallejo, California,” 28.

[97] San Francisco Examiner, “City to Join State Board in ‘Flu’ War,” January 30, 1920, 3.

[98] Long Beach Press, “Influenza as Epidemic to Be Met by Isolation,” January 27, 1920, 9; Long Beach Press, “Same Measures in Los Angeles as Long Beach,” January 27, 1920, 9.

[99] Mortality Statistics 1920: percent: 5; quote: 29–30; total: 31; influenza: 31 (62,097 deaths); pneumonia: 51 (120,108 deaths); Californians, total: 314–315; influenza: 314 (2,185 deaths); pneumonia: 315 (3,540 deaths).

[100] Gordon Lubold and Nancy C. Youssef, “U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt Outbreak Is Linked to Flight Crews, Not Vietnam Visit,” Wall Street Journal, April 15, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/uss-theodore-roosevelt-outbreak-is-linked-to-flight-crews-not-vietnam-visit-11586981891; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Public Health Responses to COVID-19 Outbreaks on Cruise Ships—Worldwide, February-March 2020,” March 27, 2020, at https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6912e3.htm.

[101] Antoine Prost, “The Dead,” in Jay Winter (ed.), The Cambridge History of the First World War, vol. 3: Civil Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 587–591. The exact numbers for civilian casualties are unknown; conservative estimates suggest ten million.

[102] Douglas Jordan, Terrence Tumpey, and Barbara Jester, “The Deadliest Flu: The Complete Story of the Discovery and Reconstruction of the 1918 Pandemic Virus,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (page last reviewed Dec. 17, 2019), https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/reconstruction-1918-virus.html (accessed March 18, 2020); Jeffrey K. Taubenberger, Ann H. Reid, Karen E. Bijwaard, and Thomas G. Fanning, “Initial Genetic Characterization of the 1918 ‘Spanish’ Influenza Virus,” Science 275 (March 21, 1997): 1793–1796; Jeffrey K. Taubenberger, David Baltimore, Peter C. Doherty, Howard Markel, David M. Morens, Robert G. Webster, and Ian A. Wilson, “Reconstruction of the 1918 Influenza Virus: Unexpected Rewards from the Past,” mBio 3, no. 5 (September–October 2012): 1–5, https://mbio.asm.org/content/mbio/3/5/e00201-12.full.pdf; John S. Oxford and Douglas Gill, “Unanswered Questions about the 1918 Influenza Pandemic: Origin, Pathology, and the Virus Itself,” Lancet Infectious Diseases 8, no. 11 (published online, June 20, 2018), https://www.thelancet.com/pdfs/journals/laninf/PIIS1473-3099(18)30359-1.pdf.

 

Diane M. T. North is an award-winning professor of history at the University of Maryland Global Campus and the author of California at War: The State and the People during World War I (University Press of Kansas, 2018).

Copyright: © 2020 Diane M.T. North. 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 “Lost Cause” Goes West: Confederate Culture and Civil War Memory in California

This essay was originally published in California History, Vol 97, No. 1

Kevin Waite

Where the monument once stood, only a gentle divot in the earth remains. Visitors to Hollywood Forever Cemetery today could easily pass over the spot without realizing that, for the better part a century, this quiet corner of Los Angeles housed a six-foot granite tribute to the dead soldiers of the Confederacy. The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) erected the monument in 1925 to honor their rebel ancestors, buried in the surrounding cemetery plot. It was the first of its kind anywhere in the Far West. And it remained the most significant Confederate marker in California until it was removed from the cemetery grounds in the wake of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. That rally—which began with a tiki-torch-lit vigil around a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee and ended in the murder of one of the counterprotesters—sparked a national backlash against Confederate iconography and the history it represents.[1] In the weeks that followed, numerous Confederate monuments across the country came down. If only fleetingly, California played an important part in this reckoning with Civil War memory and the legacies of American slavery.

The Hollywood memorial was not the only one of its kind in California. In fact, no other state beyond the South contained as many monuments, markers, and place-names honoring the Confederate States of America (1861–1865) and its soldiers.[2] In addition to the Hollywood Forever memorial, Californians paid homage to the Confederacy with a large granite pillar in Orange County’s Santa Ana Cemetery; schools in San Diego and Long Beach named for Robert E. Lee; the township of Confederate Corners in Monterey County; mountaintops in the Sierra Nevada range commemorating Confederate president Jefferson Davis and General George E. Picket; the Robert E. Lee redwood in Kings Canyon National Park, plus three other large trees that bear the rebel general’s name; a scenic network of rock formations near Lone Pine named for the CSS Alabama, one of the Confederacy’s most feared warships; a small monument to Robert S. Garnett, the first rebel general killed in the Civil War; and five markers to the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway.[3] Many of the monuments were removed or renamed following events in Charlottesville. But for much of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, they stood as totems to the slave South in the American West.

Why did a free state, far beyond the major military theaters of the Civil War, host such a collection of rebel monuments and memorials? The answer lies partly in the Golden State’s long-standing affinity for the Old South. That transregional relationship dates back much further than 1925, when the first of these monuments appeared in California. Although admitted to the Union as a free state in 1850 and populated primarily by migrants from northern states and territories, California was coopted by southern-born politicians. They occupied a majority of California’s high offices and steered the state along a conspicuously proslavery path in the final decade before the Civil War. Many of these leaders faded from the scene after slave emancipation in 1865. But those who replaced them nurtured a nostalgia for the plantation South and hostility toward the progressive, Republican policies of Reconstruction. Due to their efforts, California became the only free state that refused to ratify both the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution—the measures that, respectively, extended citizenship rights to most natural-born Americans and granted suffrage to black men.[4]

In the coming decades, thousands of migrants from the former Confederate states arrived in California, strengthening the bonds between South and West. Although they represented a dwindling proportion of the state’s overall population, these migrants wielded an outsized cultural influence in the West.[5] By the turn of the century, they had formed numerous chapters of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the UDC. As California’s Union veterans and their ancestors celebrated the preservation of the United States, these Confederate memorial associations crafted an alternate memory of the conflict. Through various commemorative activities, they advanced a revisionist interpretation of the Civil War known as the “Lost Cause.”

The Lost Cause is almost as old as the Civil War itself. The Southern partisan Edward Pollard laid out some of its major themes in his 1866 work of the same name.[6] Over the coming decades, writers, orators, artists, filmmakers, and memorial associations would build upon the major themes of the Lost Cause, as they sought to craft a sympathetic public memory of the war and imbue their rebellion with romance and dignity. Each Lost Cause warrior celebrated a slightly different aspect of the Confederate past but, over time, most came to embrace a common set of arguments. They denied the central role of slavery in triggering secession; they blamed the war on abolitionists in the North, rather than fire-eaters in the South; they exalted the gallantry of the common Confederate soldier and the virtues of their commanders; they dismissed the Union victory as a nearly inevitable consequence of superior numbers and resources; and they looked back nostalgically on the era of plantation slavery. The Lost Cause lives on in hundreds of Confederate markers and memorials across the country.[7]

Despite a vast literature on the origins, evolution, and enduring influence of the Lost Cause, little has been written on how this ideology impacted the political culture and physical space of the American West.[8] Historians have ably described California’s proslavery origins as well as its postwar record of white supremacy.[9] But how those politics played out through a decades-long struggle over historical memory within the state is only dimly understood. By surveying the Confederate landscape of California, this essay attempts to address that historical lacuna. As an introduction to the subject, rather than a detailed analysis of the Lost Cause in the American West, it also suggests avenues for further research. Hidden in plain sight for generations, the Confederate memorials of California have an important history to tell. Together, they testify to the continental reach of the Lost Cause.

The contest over Civil War memory and the Western landscape was always that—a contest. To carry the Lost Cause into California required enormous effort and organization from dozens of Confederate memorial associations. Monuments, after all, would not dedicate themselves. And while most Californians remained ignorant of the rebel markers that dotted their state, Confederate apologists rarely had an easy time of it. They faced funding shortfalls and preoccupied local governments. Even a small group of outraged Union veterans could spell doom for a Confederate marker, as they did for an obelisk honoring Jefferson Davis, erected in San Diego in 1926. Meanwhile, Union memorial organizations dedicated monuments and renamed geographic sites in California at an even faster rate than their Confederate counterparts. Whether cast in bronze, carved in stone, or paved in asphalt, these memorials raised a thorny set of questions: Who belongs in the American pantheon? Who deserves a place on the American map? And, crucially, who does not? Recently, these questions have prompted dramatic and sometimes violent responses in the public spaces of the South. But for nearly a century, the struggle over Civil War memory has been quietly brewing in the infrastructure, graveyards, and natural landscape of the West as well.

Confederate Culture Takes Root

Shortly after the war, and decades before any permanent monument to the Confederacy was erected in California, the language of the Lost Cause migrated west. It made an early appearance in the pages of the San Francisco Examiner, the leading Democratic newspaper in the state. The paper’s editor, Benjamin Franklin Washington, came by his Southern sympathies naturally. Born on a Virginia plantation in 1820, Washington could trace his family lineage to the nation’s first president. He retained his allegiance to the slaveholding class even after moving to California in 1849. There, he rose to prominence within the Democratic Party and assumed the editorship of the Examiner in 1865. Washington filled his columns with invective against Republicans in Congress, federal Reconstruction, and black enfranchisement. He also articulated some of the major tenets of an emerging Lost Cause ideology. Unlike many other proponents of the Lost Cause, Washington was not himself a veteran of the war. His writings, therefore, focused less on military themes than on the ills afflicting the South in the immediate postwar years. But collectively, his columns amounted to perhaps the most forceful apologia for the Old South anywhere in the postbellum West.[10]

As slavery’s staunchest postmortem defender in California, Washington looked on the emancipated South with a shudder and upon its antebellum days with longing. Slavery, he wrote shortly after the war, was the “negro birthright.” The institution, he continued, granted each black person in the South “the protecting care and guardianship of his master who provided for all his wants, and made him a useful member of the community.” Republicans—whom he lambasted as “Abolitionists, Free Lovers, and the rag-tag-and-bobtail of the entire fanatical tribe of New England”—had “robbed” blacks of these protections, throwing the South into disarray.[11] In Washington’s view, African-descended people were “not only totally incapable of self-government, but wholly unfit to be free.”[12] His frequent paeans to human bondage led the San Francisco Elevator, one of California’s African American newspapers, to conclude that Washington “would doubtless like to see the old era reestablished, and slavery triumphant over the land.”[13]

Washington’s nostalgia extended to the leaders of the Old South and soldiers of the Confederacy. He penned tributes to deceased slaveholding luminaries such as John C. Calhoun and defended Jefferson Davis, calling his trial for treason a “shameful, disgraceful and contemptible farce.”[14] Like many other Confederate apologists, Washington blamed Northern abolitionists, rather than Southern rebels, for the outbreak of the war. “We believe now, and always shall believe,” he wrote in 1869, “that the recent war was unnecessary, uncalled for, and wicked in its inception.”[15] As for the white Southerners who waged that war, Washington had only praise. “No men ever embarked in a cause with a more thorough conviction of right and justice than did they,” he argued. “No men conscious of wrong could ever have made the heroic and prolonged resistance against such overwhelming odds.”[16] Washington directly echoed the sentiments of Robert E. Lee’s so-called farewell address of April 1865, which anticipated one of the major themes—Southern courage versus sheer Northern numbers—of the Lost Cause.[17]

While politicos like Washington gave voice to certain tenets of the Lost Cause in the immediate postwar years, the mythology of the Old South reached full flower within California only in the early twentieth century. As was true in the South, women played the leading role in California’s Confederate renaissance. They did so primarily through the UDC, a heredity organization dedicated to commemorating the Southern war effort and its soldiers. Members of the UDC perpetuated this memory through a number of initiatives. They hosted gatherings for rebel veterans; sponsored school textbooks that put a Southern spin on the Civil War; and erected memorials to the leaders and common soldiers of the Confederacy. Riffing on a common Lost Cause trope, the UDC said that its mission was to “tell of the glorious fight against the greatest odds a nation ever faced, that their hallowed memory should never die.”[18] The first chapter was founded in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1894, but within just a few years the UDC had gone continental.

By the turn of the century, several UDC chapters had formed in California, including the Jefferson Davis Chapter (1899), the Emma Sansome Chapter (1899), and the Stonewall Jackson Chapter (1901). Like their counterparts in the South, California’s Daughters dedicated themselves to the care of Confederate veterans, a number of whom had relocated to the Pacific Coast after the war, and to commemorating their military service. Although particularly active in Southern California, the UDC’s Pacific network ran the length of the state. In fact, during this period, no other part of the country beyond the former slaveholding regions contained as many chapters as California.[19]

Despite their prominence, these western chapters have received little attention from academic historians. Without a more extensive study of the origins of the UDC in California, the broader history of the Lost Cause and Civil War memory in the American West will remain incomplete. Fortunately, future scholars have several important archives available to them. Extensive paper collections related to these early California chapters can be found in major repositories across the state, including the University of the Pacific; campuses of the University of California at Davis and Santa Barbara; and California State University, Fullerton.[20] Through these records, historians might explore how the Lost Cause was manifested, not only in the physical landscape, but in popular culture, in school curricula, and in the political orientation of the American West.

The UDC and related Confederate associations played a particularly active role in the cultural life of Los Angeles County. Their prominence within the community was the product of both postwar migration and the state’s deep antebellum roots. Beginning with the gold rush, Southern California attracted a disproportionate share of migrants from the slave states. The major overland road that ran westward from the American South ended in Los Angeles. And while some of these migrants continued north into the gold diggings around Sacramento, a number of them settled in Los Angeles and the surrounding areas, where they soon constituted a majority of the U.S.-born population of the county. These migrants wed the region’s political fortunes to the Democratic Party and the slave South, even after California entered the Union as a free state in 1850. At the helm of the city’s political machine sat Joseph Lancaster Brent, a Maryland native and future Confederate general. According to one contemporary observer, Brent carried antebellum Los Angeles in “his vest pocket.”[21] In concert with the large Mexican-born population of the county, Brent preserved a monopoly on power for the Chivalry, the proslavery wing of California’s Democratic Party.[22]

When war erupted between North and South in 1861, a wave of secessionist scares swept across the West. Los Angeles was the beating heart of disunionism in California. Hundreds of rebel sympathizers, including Brent himself, fled Southern California to enlist in the Confederate Army. Among those in the exodus were the Los Angeles Mounted Rifles, a group of eighty secessionists who would become the only organized militia from a free state to fight under a Confederate banner.[23] Other rebel sympathizers stayed put in Southern California, where they constituted a Confederate “fifth column” within U.S. territory. As U.S. authorities attempted to preserve their fragile command over the region, these California rebels demonstrated their disloyalty in a number of ways, from unfurling the Confederate flag in public spaces, to hurrahing Jefferson Davis and his generals, to openly brawling with federal soldiers. As one of Southern California’s rare Unionists recalled in his memoirs, “The leading men of the county were for the Jeff Davis government first, last and all the time.”[24] The threat became so dire that Union officials established a large military garrison outside Los Angeles to prevent the region from slipping into rebel hands. Although California, on the whole, remained loyal to the United States, secessionists in the southern counties presented a near-constant threat.[25]

Given its long proslavery history and enduring Southern connections, Los Angeles was a fitting location for the West’s first major Confederate memorial. In 1925, the Confederate Monument Association of Los Angeles, in conjunction with the UDC, erected a six-foot granite structure in Hollywood Cemetery. It was a tribute to the wartime services of several dozen Confederate veterans who settled in the region after the war and took their final rest under Southern California soil.[26] In anticipation of the monument’s unveiling, California chapters of the UDC hosted several large gatherings. That spring in Pasadena, for instance, a hundred Southern women, “all bubbling with typical Southern hospitality,” hosted the president of the UDC, who entertained the crowd with “a number of southern stories in the negro dialect,” according to the Los Angeles Times.[27] The UDC and the Confederate Monument Association of Los Angeles would eventually purchase seventy-five plots around the monument for soldiers and their families. For years to come, the region’s memorial associations decorated the graves of their fallen soldiers and hosted commemorative gatherings on the cemetery plot.[28]

image001

Erected in 1925, this memorial to Confederate soldiers “who have died or may die on the Pacific coast” stood in Hollywood Forever Cemetery until 2017. It was removed shortly after the white supremacist riot in Charlottesville that August. Photo courtesy of Kevin Waite

Southern California’s Daughters tended to the living as well as the dead. In 1929, the UDC established Dixie Manor, the first and only Confederate veterans’ rest home beyond the former slave states and territories.[29] Located outside Los Angeles in leafy San Gabriel, Dixie Manor was a large, stately structure, leased from the former chief justice of the California Supreme Court and the secretary of the Navy under President Calvin Coolidge. By February of that year, the first veterans had moved in. In April, some five hundred guests gathered for the dedication of the home. Over the next seven years, twenty-one former rebels would pass through the home before they died, most of them bound for the Confederate section of Hollywood Cemetery.[30]

Although not a particularly large operation, it was an expensive one, especially in the midst of a global economic meltdown. Dixie Manor ran on contributions from UDC chapters across the state, whose funds covered food, medical care, allowances for residents, salaries for workers, upkeep for the home, and the cost of frequent celebrations. Hundreds of visitors came to the home each year to pay tribute to the last rebels of the West and, in the process, to perpetuate the memory of the Lost Cause. In 1936, the five remaining veterans died and Dixie Manor was closed.[31]

Jefferson Davis in California

Jefferson Davis came to California with the automobile. The former Confederate president never set foot in the state during his lifetime, but he enjoyed a posthumous presence there in the form of a vast road system named in his honor. Like so many other Lost Cause initiatives, the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway was the brainchild of the UDC. Beginning in 1913, UDC members began lobbying to put their old president on the American map. They conceived of the Davis road as a rival to the recently announced Lincoln Highway from New York to San Francisco, which had been bankrolled by Yankee capitalists. Rather than building new roads, members of the UDC instead threw their collective energy into renaming already-existing auto trails. By designating enough individual highways in Davis’s honor, they hoped to stitch together a continental thoroughfare of Confederate memory. Over the coming decades, the UDC lobbied state governments, erected markers, and mapped out a road system to run the length of the country.[32]

Although Davis would not live to see the age of the automobile, the motorway was a fitting tribute for a man who had championed major transportation projects during his lifetime. As secretary of war and a U.S. senator in the 1850s, Davis spearheaded a decade-long campaign for the nation’s first transcontinental railway. The railroad of his fantasies was to run from the slave states all the way to the Pacific Coast, thereby bringing the South and West into a political and commercial embrace—and perhaps extending the institution of slavery across the American continent. Davis took a particular interest in California, the proposed terminus of his railroad, which he hoped to tether to the slave South with a bond of iron.[33]

Debates over the proposed railway’s route became deeply entangled in the controversy over slavery and the American West. Critics of Davis’s preferred route recognized its ominous potential and dubbed it the “great slavery road.”[34] In the rancorous political atmosphere of the 1850s, Northern politicians closed rank against virtually all proposed southern routes, while Southern leaders struck down numerous bills for northern lines. The result was political quagmire. Only with the secession of eleven slaveholding states in 1861 could plans for a Pacific railroad begin again in earnest. Congress swiftly capitalized on the Southern rebellion and the decisive Republican majority that it produced by passing the Pacific Railroad Act for a line between Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Sacramento. Abraham Lincoln signed the act into law in July 1862.[35] Davis never got his great slavery road.

Yet Davis’s nineteenth-century vision received a twentieth-century reboot in the extensive road system that bears his name. The end result, while not the continuous highway its architects initially envisioned, was a monumental achievement nonetheless. To this day, stretches of the Davis Highway run for hundreds of miles through the South, while dozens of markers to the old rebel can be found across the West, including California. Taken together, the Jefferson Davis Highway is the largest Confederate monument in the country, and it will likely remain the most indelible homage to the Lost Cause.[36]

The UDC erected the first California marker to the Davis Highway in San Diego in 1926. The Daughters thumbed their collective noses at the Union by placing a large stone obelisk dedicated to Davis in Horton Plaza, directly across from the U.S. Grant Hotel, which had been built by the war hero’s son. W. Jefferson Davis, a local attorney and distant relative of the Confederate president, helped to underwrite the cost of the monument. Almost immediately, Union veterans began protesting the presence of this rebel tribute in one of San Diego’s premier locations, and they succeeded in having it carted off later that year. But three decades later, the Confederate South rose again in San Diego, when local members of the UDC reinstalled a Davis Highway marker in Horton Plaza. The new plaque celebrated San Diego as the “Pacific terminus” of the Davis Highway.[37] The marker doubled as a thinly veiled critique of Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the landmark school desegregation case recently decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.[38]

Four other Davis Highway markers remain, scattered across the state. One of them, now located in a Bakersfield museum, pays tribute to Davis’s antebellum efforts on behalf of infrastructural development, albeit with a touch of hyperbole. Erected in 1942 by the Mildred Lee Chapter of the UDC, the monument salutes Davis as “The Father of National Highways.” That honorific is a reference to his work, as secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce, in overseeing four major transcontinental railroad surveys in 1853–1854. Unsurprisingly, the marker fails to mention that Davis exploited his position in an attempt to extend slavery westward. In his official report, Davis formally endorsed the southernmost of these routes, despite numerous obstacles, while dismissing all routes across free soil as untenable.[39] This Davis monument originally stood in the Central Valley north of Los Angeles, along U.S. 99, until the highway was modernized in the 1960s, at which point the marker was moved to the Kern County Museum in Bakersfield. Another marker to the Davis Highway was erected nearby in 1956 but has since been removed to Fort Tejon State Park. Two other Davis Highway markers currently sit in Hornbrook and Winterhaven, at opposite ends of the state.[40]

No building materials were necessary for some of the grandest California tributes to Davis and his rebel associates. Confederate veterans and members of the UDC simply used the state’s majestic natural landscape to celebrate their old cause. Spanning roughly thirty thousand acres, a scenic range of rock formations known as the Alabama Hills honors one of the Confederacy’s greatest warships. The area, near Lone Pine, was named for the CSS Alabama by Southern sympathizers in the 1860s. The mountains of California also carry the names of rebel commanders. When a number of Confederate veterans settled in Alpine County after the war, they named a nearby peak after their former president. Another mountaintop in the same range commemorates General George E. Pickett, who ordered the bloody, failed charge at Gettysburg in July 1863.[41]

image003

The Alabama Hills, at the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada mountain range near Lone Pine, were named for the Confederate warship CSS Alabama.
Photo courtesy of Bobak Ha’Eri.

Of all the Confederate markers in California, trees named for Robert E. Lee are perhaps the best known and most frequently visited. There are four in total, including the fifth-largest tree in the world (the twelfth-largest excluding reiterations and branches), located in Kings Canyon National Park. It was named by a former Confederate officer in 1875. Other sequoias bearing Lee’s name can be found in Yosemite National Park, Giant Sequoia National Monument, and Sequoia National Park. The UDC formally dedicated the “General Lee” Sequoia with a commemorative gathering in 1937. A handful of California redwoods are named for Union commanders, including Lincoln, Grant, and William Tecumseh Sherman.[42]

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The Robert E. Lee tree in Kings Canyon National Park is one of four California redwoods named for the rebel general. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia public domain

Education has long been a centerpiece of the Lost Cause tradition, so it is not entirely surprising that several schools in California should be named for rebels. When a Long Beach school took Robert E. Lee’s name in 1935, it elicited some grumbling from local residents. But others, including a commentator as far off as Warren, Pennsylvania, applauded the school. “Northerners have been able to see more and more clearly that the character and knightly manhood of Lee constitute one of the country’s most precious possessions,” read a glowing column in the Warren Times-Mirror.[43] Roughly twenty-five years later, another elementary school named for the Confederate general opened in San Diego, amid a national backlash over school desegregation. In attendance at the school’s dedication were officers of the Stonewall Jackson Chapter of the UDC, who presented a portrait of Lee for the occasion.[44] In East Los Angeles, a middle school bears the name of filmmaker D. W. Griffith. Although Griffith was not a Confederate veteran himself, his 1915 film epic Birth of a Nation did more to romanticize the Lost Cause than anything before it, not to mention reinvigorating the Ku Klux Klan, which had been more or less dormant since the 1870s.

The Vanishing Confederate in Twenty-First-Century California

Like their counterparts in the South, most of California’s Confederate markers were products either of the Jim Crow era or of pushback against civil rights activism in the mid-twentieth century. And as in the South, the Confederate culture of California has recently come under attack for its deep-rooted associations with white supremacy. Nevertheless, the Lost Cause in California lives on, even if diminished in stature. Memorial associations continue to gather, to dispense scholarships to descendants of rebel veterans, and to mobilize politically for the preservation of their monuments. The tide of public opinion may be against them now, but pockets of California have nurtured their Confederate connections into the twenty-first century.

One of the most audacious Confederate monuments in the West was erected as recently as May 2004. It was a curious one: a nine-foot granite pillar in an Orange County cemetery bearing the names of numerous rebels, including some, like Stonewall Jackson, who had never set foot in the state. Inscribed on the monument’s pedestal was characteristic Lost Cause rhetoric, with a Western twist: “to honor the sacred memory of the pioneers who built Orange County after their valiant effort to defend the Cause of Southern Independence.” Some of these Confederate veterans were buried in the Santa Ana cemetery where the monument stood. In this regard, the Orange County marker was not unlike the Hollywood memorial, erected nearly a century earlier. Also like the Hollywood marker, it drew little criticism when a local Confederate memorial association unveiled it. The dedication ceremony, organized by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, was a celebratory affair, with patrons and supporters posing proudly for the occasion in period costume, including Confederate gray.[45]

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The Sons of Confederate Veterans erected this nine-foot granite monument to the rebel veterans of Orange County in 2004. It stood in Santa Ana Cemetery until its removal in August 2019.
Photo courtesy of Gustavo Arellano

At the turn of the twenty-first century, rebel memorial associations were still thriving across California, despite their geographic and temporal distance from the Civil War. While the Sons of Confederate Veterans scored perhaps the greatest contemporary coup for the Old South in the Far West with their Santa Ana monument, the UDC maintained a robust presence in California as well. A 1999 national register of the UDC lists eighteen chapters within California alone. For comparison, the next closest free states in terms of UDC activity, Ohio and New York, each had only three chapters. California was also home to more UDC chapters than several former slave states, including Missouri, Kentucky, and Arkansas.[46] UDC membership in California has dipped slightly in recent years, but as of this writing there are still fourteen active chapters within the state, according to the California Division’s official website.[47]

While still numerous, California’s Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy have become more circumspect in recent years. Once a sunny haven for rebel veterans and their offspring, California is now largely hostile to open displays of Confederate heritage. In 2014, the legislature passed a law that prohibits the state from displaying or selling the Confederate battle flag or related imagery, unless for educational purposes. That law, however, drew a First Amendment challenge a year later, after organizers of the Big Fresno Fair, an annual event on state property, barred a Civil War–themed painting showing the Confederate flag. The artist successfully sued, claiming that his depiction of the 1864 Battle of Atlanta, featuring Confederate troops and their flag, had been unlawfully rejected. In the settlement, the state agreed that the ban does not apply to individual citizens, who are free to display and even sell the flag, either on private or public property.[48]

A new Confederate monument on the scale of the Santa Ana pillar would be nearly impossible to erect in present-day California. In the fifteen years since that monument’s dedication, Confederate iconography, and the slave regime it represents, has come under a sustained national attack. Violent neo-Confederates are themselves to blame for the turn in opinion. The anti-Confederate backlash began in 2015 in response to the murder of nine black worshippers, including the senior minister, at one of the nation’s oldest African American churches. The murderer, Dylann Roof, had proudly displayed the Confederate flag in his racist online manifesto before the attack in Charleston. In response, the South Carolina legislature agreed to take down the Confederate battle flag that had flown over their state house for a decade and a half.[49] This was followed by the fiercely contested removal of several monuments to Confederate leaders within New Orleans in spring 2017. Later that summer, the connection between racial hatred and the Confederate flag was again made explicit by an angry crowd of white supremacists who rallied around an equestrian statue to Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia. In the ensuing clash between white supremacists and counterprotesters, a Nazi sympathizer drove his car through the crowd, killing a young woman. Numerous Confederate monuments, including several in California, came down in the wake of her death.[50]

Due to its long history and size, the Hollywood memorial received more media coverage than any other Confederate monument removal in California. The story made national headlines and generated several features on National Public Radio and extensive local print and television coverage.[51] While the monument had stood uncontested for nearly a century, its removal came surprisingly swiftly, just days after the violence in Charlottesville.[52] Both the proprietor of the cemetery and the Long Beach Chapter of the UDC, the owner of the monument, yielded to a growing wave of outrage. Activists flooded the Hollywood Forever administration with calls and emails, while an online petition quickly generated more than 1,900 signatures demanding the monument’s removal.[53] A day before it was carted out of the cemetery, the memorial was vandalized with the word “NO” scrawled in black marker across its bronze plaque. When workers packed the Hollywood memorial onto a truck and drove it to an undisclosed location, they purged Los Angeles of its last Confederate link.

Activists have recently challenged Jefferson Davis’s presence in California as well. On the same day that the Los Angeles memorial was hauled out of Hollywood Forever Cemetery, the mayor of San Diego ordered the removal of the Davis Highway marker in Horton Plaza. While the four other Davis Highway markers within the state have not been targeted for removal, none are in their original locations. Other Davis markers in the Far West have been more imaginatively targeted. In August 2017, activists with a particular flare for historical shaming rituals tarred and feathered a Davis Highway monument east of Phoenix, Arizona.[54] The Jeff Davis Peak near Lake Tahoe, California, has retained its name for well over a century, but that too may soon change. The Hung-A-Lel-Ti Woodfords Washoe tribe has proposed a Native name, “Da-ek Dow Go-et” (or “saddle between two points”), in place of the Confederate president’s. The proposal is pending with the U.S. Board of Geographical Names.[55]

Like his rebel commander-in-chief, Robert E. Lee is no longer as prominent in California as he once was. The Confederate general’s name still graces four redwoods within the state, but his schools in Long Beach and San Diego have since been rechristened. After fifty-seven years, Robert E. Lee Elementary in San Diego is now, rather innocuously, Pacific View Leadership Elementary. The renaming occurred in May 2016, largely in response to the events in Charleston. Also in 2016, Lee’s name was stripped from the Long Beach school. It was renamed for Nieto Herrera, a local Mexican American activist and longtime ally of Cesar Chavez in the fight for migrant farmworkers’ rights. Proponents of the name changes argued that within such diverse communities it was incongruous, if not offensive, to continue honoring a man who fought to maintain white supremacy and race-based slavery.[56] There have also been recent calls, including an online petition, to rename D. W. Griffith Middle School in East Los Angeles.[57] To date, however, the school retains its associations with The Birth of a Nation filmmaker.

The Santa Ana cemetery monument may be the shortest-lived Confederate marker in California history. Erected in 2004, the monument was gone by August 2019. As with the memorial in Hollywood Forever Cemetery, the Orange County pillar became a casualty of rising local activism as well as vandalism. Just days before its removal, someone defaced the monument with red paint, spraying the word “racists” in large letters down the face of the granite pillar. According to cemetery officials, the monument had become “an unsightly public nuisance” (not to mention a political liability). A one-hundred-foot crane was required to remove the granite structure, which weighs several tons, at an estimated cost of $15,000. For the Sons of Confederate Veterans who erected the monument, the action was tantamount to “Santa Ana spit[ting] on its own history.” For others, though, the removal was more akin to a cleansing, purifying the California landscape of its long association with a slaveholders’ rebellion.[58]

Conclusion

Within the space of a few years, monuments tended by memorial associations for decades have been dismantled or renamed. The oldest and the largest man-made Confederate monuments—those in Hollywood and Santa Ana, respectively—are now gone. So too is the first California marker to the Jefferson Davis Highway, as well as the name of Robert E. Lee from all schools in the state. California, of course, still contains some relics of its Confederate past, including four markers to the Davis Highway, although no California motorists refer to any of their roads by the Confederate president’s name. And while the natural monuments to the Confederacy—Lee’s trees, Davis’s peak, and the Alabama Hills—retain their old names, those too may change.

Perhaps, though, the most surprising aspect of this history is not how quickly these monuments have come down, but how long they survived. For nearly a century, a six-foot granite structure paid tribute to the Confederacy and its soldiers in the heart of Los Angeles. In the teeth of the Great Depression, patrons kept open the doors of Dixie Manor and provided food, housing, and medical care to over twenty ailing veterans. Directly in front of the U. S. Grant Hotel, members of the UDC erected a large obelisk to the Confederate president. And after Union veterans had it hauled away in protest in 1926, the Daughters persisted until it was reinstalled in the mid-1950s. To this day, far more Confederate memorial chapters can be found in California than in any other free state. Physical monuments to the rebellion may be vanishing from California, but these Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy continue to celebrate their peculiar version of the Civil War. Through them, a small part of the slave South lives on in the Far West.

Notes

[1] The perpetrator, James Fields Jr., was convicted of first-degree murder in December 2018; Jonathan M. Katz and Farah Stockman, “James Fields Guilty of First-Degree Murder in Death of Heather Heyer,” New York Times, December 7, 2018.

[2] See the statistics on Confederate markers across the country compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center: https://www.splcenter.org/20190201/whose-heritage-public-symbols-confederacy. Oklahoma contains about as many Confederate monuments and place-names as California, but because the major Native nations of Indian Territory (roughly the present state of Oklahoma) had legalized slavery and officially sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War, I have included Oklahoma in my designation of the “slave South.” The detailed national map of Confederate markers and place-names, compiled by the SPLC, actually misses several in California, including the memorial in Hollywood and another in Orange County.

[3] For a succinct catalog of these monuments and their histories, see Mike Moffitt, “Are All the Monuments to White Supremacy in California Gone Yet?” SFGate, April 7, 2019; and Kevin Waite, “California’s Forgotten Confederate History,” New Republic, August 19, 2019.

[4] California would not ratify the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments until 1959 and 1962, respectively. For the state’s long proslavery history, see Stacey Smith, Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation and Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013); Leonard Richards, The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War (New York: Vintage, 2007); Rudolph M. Lapp, Blacks in Gold Rush California (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977); Kevin Waite, “The Slave South in the Far West: California, the Pacific, and Proslavery Visions of Empire,” PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2016.

[5] By 1870, there were roughly 21,000 migrants from the former Confederate states in California, far more than could be found in any other Far Western state or territory at the time. For figures, see Francis A. Walker, A Compendium of the Ninth Census (June 1, 1870), Compile Pursuant to a Concurrent Resolution of Congress, and Under the Direction of the Secretary of the Interior (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1872), 378–388; Eugene H. Berwanger, The West and Reconstruction (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981), 19–20; Doris Marion Wright, “The Making of Cosmopolitan California: An Analysis of Immigration, 1848–1870,” California Historical Society Quarterly 19 (December 1940), 339.

[6] Edward A. Pollard, The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates (New York: E.B. Treat, 1866).

[7] For useful introductions to the history and evolution of the Lost Cause, see Gary W. Gallagher, “Introduction,” and Alan T. Nolan, “The Anatomy of the Myth,” both in Gallagher and Nolan (eds.), The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000).

[8] The literature on the Lost Cause and Civil War memory is vast. For some of the most important works on the subject, see Charles Reagan Wilson, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865–1920 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980); Gaines M. Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2001); Karen L. Cox, Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003); Caroline Janney, Burying the Dead but Not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008); Caroline Janney, Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013); Thomas L. Connelly and Barbara L. Bellows, God and General Longstreet: The Lost Cause and the Southern Mind (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995); Kirk Savage, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, new ed., 2018). On the recent debates over Confederate iconography in particular, see Catherine Clinton (ed.), Confederate Statues and Memorialization (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2019). For important recent studies that address Civil War memory in other parts of the West, see Matthew Christopher Hulbert, The Ghosts of Guerrilla Memory: How Civil War Bushwhackers Became Gunslingers in the American West (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2016); and Matthew E. Stanley, The Loyal West: Civil War and Reunion in Middle America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017).

[9] See Smith, Freedom’s Frontier; Richards, California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War; Lapp, Blacks in Gold Rush California; Kevin Waite, West of Slavery: The Continental Crisis of the Civil War Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, forthcoming); Joshua Paddison, American Heathens: Religion, Race, and Reconstruction in California (Berkeley and San Marino: University of California Press and the Huntington Library, 2012); D. Michael Bottoms, An Aristocracy of Color: Race and Reconstruction in California and the West, 1850–1890 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013).

[10] Kevin Waite, “The West and Reconstruction after the Civil War,” in Andrew L. Slap (ed.), Oxford Handbook on Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020); Waite, “Slave South in the Far West,” ch. 6.

[11] San Francisco Examiner, July 24, 1865; June 12, 1865.

[12] San Francisco Examiner, January 11, 1869.

[13] San Francisco Elevator, July 28, 1865.

[14] San Francisco Examiner, July 8, 1868; November 23, 1868.

[15] San Francisco Examiner, April 21, 1869.

[16] San Francisco Examiner, July 23, 1867. For more tributes to the South and southerners, see San Francisco Examiner, July 8, 1868; January 16, 1869.

[17] General Lee’s Farewell Address to the Army of Northern Virginia, April 10, 1865 (Petersburg, 1865), Library of Congress.

[18] Quoted in W. Stuart Towns, Enduring Legacy: Rhetoric and Ritual of the Lost Cause (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2012), 31; see also Cox, Dixie’s Daughters.

[19] This early history is briefly recounted in UDC, United Daughters of the Confederacy Patriot Ancestor Album (Paducah, KY: Turner, 1999), 23–24. The United Confederate Veterans also organized a Pacific Division at the turn of the century. It was headquartered in Los Angeles; see “Organization of Camps in the United Confederate Veterans Association, Prepared Expressly for Use of Delegates to the Thirteenth Reunion and Meeting of the Association” (New Orleans, 1903).

[20] Smaller collections related to the California UDC can be found at the Seaver Center for Western History Research and the Huntington Library.

[21] Joseph Lancaster Brent, Memoirs of the War between the States (New Orleans: Fontana Printing, 1940), 22–23. See also Daniel Lynch, “Southern California Chivalry: Southerners, Californios, and the Forging of an Unlikely Alliance,” California History 91 (Fall 2014); Waite, “Slave South in the Far West,” ch. 3; John Mack Faragher, Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles (New York: W.W. Norton, 2016), 376.

[22] Daniel Brendan Lynch, “Southern California Chivalry: The Convergence of Southerners and Californios in the Far Southwest, 1846–1866,” PhD diss., UCLA, 2015.

[23] Faragher, Eternity Street, 385–386.

[24] Horace Bell, On the Old West Coast: Being Further Reminiscences of a Ranger, ed. Lanier Bartlett (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1930), 72.

[25] On the secessionist presence in Civil War California, see Official Records of the War of the Rebellion (hereafter “OR”), series I, vol. L, part 1, pp. 563–566; Sumner to Colonel E. D. Townsend, Assistant Adjutant-General, Department of the Pacific, April 28, 1861, OR, series I, vol. L, part 1, p. 472; [San Francisco businessmen] to Simon Cameron, August 28, 1861, OR, series I, vol. L, part 1, 589–591; San Francisco Bulletin, September 13, 1862; Los Angeles Southern News, March 1, 1861. See also John W. Robinson, Los Angeles in Civil War Days, 1860–1865 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1977, 2013); Glenna Matthews, The Golden State in the Civil War: Thomas Starr King, the Republican Party, and the Birth of Modern California (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012); Helen B. Walters, “Confederates in Southern California,” The Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly 35 (March 1953); Ronald C. Woolsey. “The Politics of a Lost Cause: ‘Seceshers’ and Democrats in Southern California during the Civil War,” California History 69 (Winter 1990/1991); Woolsey, “Disunion or Dissent? A New Look at an Old Problem in Southern California: Attitudes toward the Civil War,” Southern California Quarterly 66 (Fall 1984); Albert Lucian Lewis, “Los Angeles in the Civil War Decades, 1850–1868,” PhD diss., University of Southern California, 1970.

[26] Staff correspondent, “U.D.C.,” Los Angeles Times, June 3, 1925.

[27] Staff correspondent, “Fete Chief of United Daughters,” Los Angeles Times, May 17, 1925.

[28] Connie Walton Moretti, Dixie Manor Days: The Confederate Veterans Who Lived There and the UDC Members Who Made It Possible (Redondo Beach, CA.: Mulberry Bush, 2004), 5.

[29] In addition to numerous homes within the former slave states, there was also one in Ardmore, Oklahoma, part of Confederate-held Indian Territory for much of the war. For more on these Confederate soldiers’ homes, see Rusty Williams, My Old Confederate Home: A Respectable Place for Civil War Veterans (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2010); and R. B. Rosenburg, Living Monuments: Confederate Soldiers’ Homes in the New South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993).

[30] Los Angeles Times, April 20, 1936.

[31] Los Angeles Times, April 20, 1936; Moretti, Dixie Manor Days, 9–44.

[32] Euan Hague and Edward H. Sebesta, “The Jefferson Davis Highway: Contesting the Confederacy in the Pacific Northwest,” Journal of American Studies 45 (May 2011), 281–301.

[33] Kevin Waite, “Jefferson Davis and Proslavery Visions of Empire in the Far West,” Journal of the Civil War Era 6 (December 2016), 536–565. See also Jefferson Davis, “Report of the Secretary of War, December 3, 1855,” in Dunbar Rowland (ed.), Jefferson Davis, Constitutionalist: His Letters, Papers and Speeches (Jackson: Mississippi Department of Archives and History, 1923), vol. 2, 567–570; James Gadsden to Jefferson Davis, May 23, 1853, Jefferson Davis Papers, Special Collections & Archives, Transylvania University, Lexington, Kentucky.

[34] See the speech of Thomas Jefferson Green near Marshall, Texas, excerpted in the Texas State Gazette, July 29, 1854.

[35] Congressional Globe, 37th Congress, 2nd session (May 5, 1862), p. 1948; and 37th Congress, 2nd session (May 6, 1862), p. 1950. See also Robert R. Russel, Improvement of Communication with the Pacific Coast as an Issue in American Politics, 1783–1864 (Cedar Rapids, IA: Torch Press, 1948), 294–307.

[36] This argument first appeared in Kevin Waite, “The Largest Confederate Monument in American Can’t Be Taken Down,” Washington Post, August 22, 2017, which was later anthologized in Clinton, Confederate Statues and Memorialization, 132–136.

[37] Roughly a century earlier, slaveholding railroad developers also eyed San Diego as the most desirable terminus for their proposed transcontinental railroad. See Waite, “Slave South in the Far West,” ch. 2.

[38] San Diego Union-Tribune, August 16, 2017.

[39] Jefferson Davis, Report of the Secretary of War on the Several Pacific Railroad Expeditions (Washington, DC: A.O.P. Nicholson, 1855), 8–34; 37–39; and Waite, “Jefferson Davis and Proslavery Visions of Empire,” 542–544.

[40] Bakersfield.com, August 23, 2017, https://www.bakersfield.com/news/artifact-of-confederate-figure-rests-mostly-unnoticed-at-kern-county/article_2525c98a-8859-11e7-82dc-d34e857dbee0.html.

[41] Matt Johnson, “Roust the Rebels from Our Mountains,” Sierra Splendor, April 10, 2016, http://sierrasplendor.com/2016/04/10/roust-the-rebels-from-our-mountains/.

[42] Detailed information on the Lee trees can be found at http://famousredwoods.com/robert_e_lee/.

[43] “A Fine Example,” Warren Times Mirror, December 17, 1935.

[44] Maureen Magee, “Robert E. Lee school name changed,” San Diego Union-Tribune, May 23, 2016.

[45] Gustavo Arellano, “California’s Last Confederate Monument Is at Santa Ana Cemetery—and It Was Erected in 2004,” OC Weekly, August 17, 2017.

[46] UDC, United Daughters of the Confederacy Patriot Ancestor Album, 5–10.

[47] For a list of active chapters and further information on the UDC’s activities within the state, see the website of the California Division: http://californiaudc.com/.

[48] “California Confederate flag ban excludes individuals, state says,” Associated Press, May 2, 2017; see also “Editorial: Taking a ban on Confederate flag displays to an absurd extreme,” Los Angeles Times, September 2, 2016.

[49] Sarah McCammon, “2 Years after S.C.’s Flag Came Down, Cities Grapple with Confederate Symbols,” National Public Radio, July 10, 2017.

[50] Leanna Garfield and Ellen Cranley, “More Than a Year after Charlottesville, These Cities across the US Have Torn Down Controversial Confederate Monuments,” Business Insider, January 15, 2019.

[51] For a sampling of that news coverage, across the political spectrum, see Alene Tchekmedyian, Irfan Khan, and Veronica Rocha, “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Removes Confederate Monument after Calls from Activists and Threats of Vandalism,” Los Angeles Times, August 16, 2017; “Does Los Angeles Have a Confederate Monument problem?” KCRW radio, August 16, 2017; “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Removes Confederate Monument,” KPCC radio, August 16, 2017; Ian Lovett, “Landmark Cemetery in Los Angeles Removes Confederate Monument,” Wall Street Journal, August 16, 2017; Joel B. Pollak, “Threats Force Hollywood Cemetery to Remove Confederate Memorial,” Breitbart, August 16, 2017.

[52] The monument first came to public attention roughly a week before the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, when the Los Angeles Times published my op-ed, “The Struggle over Slavery Was Not Confined to the South, L.A. Has a Confederate Memorial Problem Too,” Los Angeles Times, August 4, 2017.

[53] “Remove the Confederate Monument from Hollywood Forever,” Change.org petition, https://www.change.org/p/remove-the-confederate-monument-from-hollywood-forever.

[54] William Hughes, “Somebody tarred and feathered a memorial to Jefferson Davis,” AV Club, August 18, 2017.

[55] Mike Moffitt, “Confederate landmarks near Tahoe could get Native American name,” SFGate, May 15, 2018 (https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Confederate-landmark-Tahoe-Jeff-Davis-peak-12917085.php). In June 2019, another Jeff Davis peak, this one located in Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada, was renamed “Doso Doyabi,” what the local Shoshone people have long called it; Dailykos.com, June 14, 2019, https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2019/6/14/1856404/-You-have-a-new-mountain-America-USGS-changes-name-of-Nevada-s-Jeff-Davis-Peak-to-Doso-Doyabi.

[56] Magee, “Robert E. Lee school name changed,” San Diego Union-Tribune, May 23, 2016; Soren Sum, “Robert E. Lee Elementary renamed after Long Beach activist with ties to Cesar Chavez,” Long Beach Post, November 3, 2016.

[57] Change.org petition: “Change the name of D.W. Griffith Middle School in East Los Angeles,” Change.org petition, https://www.change.org/p/los-angeles-unified-school-district-change-the-name-of-d-w-griffith-middle-school-in-east-los-angeles-there-is-no-room-for-racism-in-our-schools.

[58] Alicia Robinson, “Confederate Monument Defaced Last Month Has Been Removed from Santa Ana Cemetery,” Orange County Register, August 1, 2019; “Confederate Monument Removed from Santa Ana Cemetery after Being Vandalized,” KTLA 5, August 2, 2019, https://ktla.com/2019/08/02/confederate-monument-removed-from-california-cemetery/.

Kevin Waite is an assistant professor of history at Durham University in the U.K. His first book, a history of slavery and the Civil War in the American West, will be published by University of North Carolina Press next year. Alongside Sarah Barringer Gordon, he is codirector of a major National Endowment for the Humanities–funded project, “The Long Road to Freedom: Biddy Mason and the Making of Black Los Angeles.” He has written about California’s place in the controversy over Confederate monuments for the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the New Republic, among other popular publications.

Copyright: © 2020 Kevin Waite. 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/

Postcards Series

South Bakersfield’s Confederate Remains

With “Postcards,” creative non-fiction stories grounded in place, we aspire to create a new cartography of California. For us, literature and language are as much about marking and representing space, as they are about storytelling.


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Nicholas Belardes

I. The Battle of Chester Avenue

We gather south of Chester Avenue’s railroad tracks. Air murmurs with violence. Everyone’s hungry for the blood of what’s taken place, a battle between freight train and car. We gaze at the aftermath. A hellscape. A nightmare. A car mangled in near darkness a few dozen yards from where Dad often takes us for burgers. A&W Root Beer. This is the periphery of how far me and my siblings are allowed to wander from our home on Geneva Avenue.

We heard the crash from our living rooms and front yards and now the community mobs the street. Years later I think this must have been what watching the Civil War was like: a community coming together to observe the collision of gunpowder, steel and flesh. Only, this is our poor man’s take. The barrio version. The working class.

It will be decades before I have any kind of worldview or identity. This is the summer of ‘77. California’s Central Valley. South Bakersfield. A few months before a gargantuan dust storm swallows everything.

Our mixed community as a whole doesn’t seem conscious of itself. Not tonight as we fume and buzz over the train wreck.

I’m small in the crowd. A thing. A feeling. A spore. A lost boy, decades from his struggle to fight political and social forces much greater than this metaphor of rails and blood. Before all the immigration reform marches and rallies. I’m in fourth grade. I don’t realize I’m fighting against this train. It’s smashing into my identity every day, the same way it barrels through Russian thistle and ghosts of. I’m not aware of my hopelessness. I don’t realize I’m the car. I only know I’m here. I want to see the remains of this disaster.

The police won’t allow anyone near the tracks. Not unless you’re a firefighter or detective. From the driver’s seat of our van, Dad, a self-professed ex-Bay Area cop watches the scene with a kind of calm. A vato with a mission. Somehow wanting to teach his kids that our world is violent, mercurial, dangerous. He seems attracted to the pull of violence, like he has to be in the middle of it. And since my brother, sister and I feel safe around him, we’re eager as we slowly park alongside this mass of bodies that fills this usually busy thoroughfare.

The freight train sprawls across Chester Avenue in semi-darkness. The car twisted and smashed against its engine. Detectives hunt with flashlights further down the tracks.

Parents, teenagers, and kids have congregated. What makes this crowd special is all the forgotten hate between neighbors. These people live next door to each other but never talk. They secretly throw rocks at each other’s windows when they’re not home. All the bullies are here too. The ones who pick on me at school—friendly during this snapshot of violence. All making up stories as fast as their mouths can yammer. They want to be heard. Even if only a half peckerwood like me is listening.

Necks crane to see what might happen next, whether ghosts might rise from rocks and dirt. Whether bodies might slip out of the mangled car and stumble herky-jerk down the rails.

“They’re looking for a hand,” says Ruben, a bully with a mouth scar that looks like his lips had once been sewed together.

Other rumors fly like bats. The train smashed into the car on purpose. The car flew across the tracks on a dare. A semi pushed the car into the train. Black, white, Japanese-American, Mexican-American—doesn’t matter who makes up each conspiracy. This could have been a meteor strike or space alien invasion and these people would have banded together to talk shit like it really happened. This is something I’ve never seen in the neighborhood. Something I will never see again except at South High School football games when families from the projects and low-income housing come to root on their racist mascots made in the image of Confederate militants. It’s insane if you think about it: Confederate imagery in the mixed-race neighborhoods of South Bakersfield.

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The Belardes family in the 1970s. Photograph courtesy of author.

II. A White Mythology

Confederate and Civil War imagery surround me. It’s 1982. I’m fourteen, a freshman at South High School. Home of the Rebels. The Blue & Gray. The Merrimac Yearbook. Johnny and Jody yell leaders in military-style grey uniforms and Confederate hats. Our mascot is a cartoon Confederate soldier. I don’t understand what I’m seeing. I don’t understand racism, slavery, war, who fought what or when, and for what cause. I’m so caught up in our school spirit I pin a tiny Confederate flag to a Confederate soldier hat my Mexican-American dad brings home from a swapmeet. He thinks it’s cool. I think this is what high school is all about. Rebel soldiers. Like Star Wars. Like The Empire Strikes Back. I don’t realize a cartoon mascot is a symbol for retaining an economic system that allows for the horrific right to own slaves. I somehow think I’m one of the good guys.

Street names around South High are all Civil War-inspired. Sumter, Merrimac, Monitor, Rebel, Raider, Evelyn. Evelyn might be Evelyn Magruder DeJarnette, a white nineteenth-century writer. She taught slave kids on a Virginia plantation. She culturally appropriated them by writing stories in slave dialect. Her husband was a captain for the Confederate Army, a farmer who owned slaves.

Take a turn down White (Supremacist) Lane onto Monitor Street and you’ll reach Plantation Avenue. An elementary school by the same name still stands there (So do the street names).

III. The Gridiron Race Riot

Sometime between 1984 and 1986 I’m in the stands above our school’s sunken gridiron battlefield for a matchup between North and South high schools. I’m tossing confetti, chanting cheers. I’m really into it when both football teams transform gridiron to full-on mob violence. Karate jump-kicks. Flying fists. Helmets swung like morning stars. A football coach gets smacked with a clipboard. Students and parents run from the stands. Not to break up the fight but to join in. If ever there’s a melee fueled by racism this is it, our twisted fabrication of North versus South. On one side, South High—empowered with its white mythology, though a mixed race school. On the other, North High, embedded in a mostly white community called Oildale, firmly empowered with its own white superiority complex and racist intentions.

While this is a mixed-race school versus a white school, I suspect South High football players of color had images in their heads of being shot if they enter the wrong side of town, of crosses burning in yards, of kids getting lynched outside the dirt-floor shanties of Oildale, California. This is the fear fed to us about the northern suburbs of Bakersfield. If you’re brown, you stay out of that town.

I can only imagine what’s been said on the field, what parents of either team have been feeding the minds of their children. Decades later a Black former South High football star tells me the n-word had been dropped regularly by North High’s feeder teams in years prior during peewee games. “We knew the level of hatred against our melting pot of a school,” he said. “That [North-South] game had been eagerly anticipated.”

IV. A Racism Origin Story

By the time Dad moves us to Geneva Avenue in 1976, the area is fairly mixed: Black, Mexican-American, Japanese-American, white. A wave of Vietnamese immigrants is on the way.

Our neighbors are Mexican-American on one side and white on the other. After the Mexican-American couple moves out, a Black man moves in. Dad doesn’t use that word when referencing him. He uses the n-word. There’s a clear hatred from my old man. Our neighbor avoids Dad, avoids all of us. You can see it in how quickly he enters his house, how he’s never outside, never greeting us. We never have a conversation in the four or five years we share the neighborhood.

I always wonder if Dad had ever really been a cop. In 2019, two decades after his death, one of my uncles says Dad’s cop stories were lies. I’d already seen photos of him in a uniform. Then a retired cop checking in to see if former academy members had died, phoned. Dad’s name had been on a list. Dad had definitely enrolled at the San Jose Police Academy in the 1960s. One of the first Latinos there, no less. Proof that he hung out with and had been influenced by powerful white men.

IMG_0640

But had he been an actual cop?

And if he had been a cop, why hadn’t he stuck with it? One family member said he couldn’t pass the height requirements at the time. Maybe he didn’t want some low-paying security gig as a result. That wasted police education maybe not only put that killer look in his eye, perhaps it transformed him into the assimilationist he was.

That means I was assimilated. No Spanish was taught in the home. Dad constantly told me I was white. He bought Confederate flags for my bedroom wall. Mostly American foods were put on the dinner table. Racist epithets were used in conversation and jokes. “Chicano” was never uttered.

Truth is, we’re a dual-ethnic family in our south Bakersfield neighborhood during those mid 1970s and early 1980s. The streets are rough for me as a result. Neighborhood fights get fueled by kids with giant boy egos and petty racial differences. More than a few punches get thrown. I usually just receive them. Terrified, I stand my ground, take some licks, never really understanding why fists matter. I toss a lunchpail at one kid’s head who fights my brother over us “peckerwoods” being in their hood. I’m too stupid to argue that I’m Mexican-American, Latino, or Hispanic. I think I’m white though my father’s brown as an oak-stained table. I run for my life. I hide in my room. I’m afraid of black vampires outside my window.

Dad just wants me to fight. He’s bragged for years that he was a cop. I want him to be a cop, my cop. But he doesn’t help or show me how to fight. He orders me to “straighten up,” to “be tough” with those n-word boys down the street. He talks tough, but what else is he? A brown cowboy? Some white image he’s pulled from American cinema? He loves John Wayne, Charles Bronson. He worships Dirty Harry, Billy Jack. Blazing Saddles. He wears a black cowboy hat. He drives a tanker truck hauling gas for an oil company. I later refer to him as mothertrucker. He carries a gun in a shoulder holster. He buys me and my brother cowboy hats and boots. He wants us to be him. He wants us to be what he isn’t.

V. Yell Leaders, Mascots and Monuments

Johnny and Jody Rebel stand on podiums on the edge of a stadium racetrack. All eyes on them in their Confederate uniforms as they lead cheers. It’s 1986. Johnny is a Mexican-American kid named Gabe. Jody is a Black girl named Georgia. Together they upend the image of the Confederate South. At the same time, they become a mockery, performing a bizarre cultural appropriation of oppressive white heritage that transforms students into puppetry. An entire mythology has been reproduced on the backs of Black and Mexican-American children. In this white thuggish military garb that literally screams enslavement, kids are transformed. They lose self-identity in the supremacist imagery before the crowd. They’re reduced to monuments. Symbols of a war meant to oppress, that sought to continue a way of life that made Southern planters wealthy.

The Confederate flag once flew over South High School. It was banned in 1968, the year I was born. No Confederate imagery is retired during my education there. Not the school mascot. Not the rebel military uniforms on yell leaders. Not the street names. Not the school names. Not even Plantation Elementary School.

Killing a flag wasn’t ever going to erase its shadowy image of oppression. Not with all the blue and grey. Not with all the misplaced school pride placed upon so many high school kids screaming rebel chants. A school’s fanatical pride isn’t unlike Southerner pride suggesting that times have changed when they haven’t.

VI. Marching

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Author, second to the right, marching.

On March 30, 2006, students from Bakersfield area high schools, including South High pour into downtown. I’m documenting the march for my blog wishing I’d been one of these high school kids as their throng enters a wide plaza outside the Rabobank Arena and Civic Auditorium.

Part of me is ashamed. Not for the kids. For me. But I don’t have time to reflect on South High, why it’s still seeped in Confederate mythology, or why my past haunts me. Right now it’s just me and a KERO news crew. We’re the only ones documenting this historic moment akin to the 1968 East L.A. blowout.

Then a car speeds alongside the curb. Out jumps Kern County’s controversial District Attorney Ed Jagels, mastermind of 25 false convictions during the Satanic Panic. Well-known for his ridiculous media posturing, he plants his face in his hands in mock desperation, as if the kids now swarming the plaza are about to climb the battlements and lay siege to a fountain.

A few days later I’m at Jastro Park documenting another rally alongside an AP news photographer. We’re on the same stage as Dolores Huerta. An ocean of red farm worker flags wave in front of her as she she dances with CSU Bakersfield professor Gonzalo Santos during a ranchera melody. I’m pulled into this. I’m feeling this intersection between farm workers, immigrant rights and the Chicano Movement. There’s something here I need to fight for.

By May 1st I’m taking part as an honored poet, hands shaking on stage at Beach Park, reading “Immigration! Interrogation!” to a sea of 10,000-15,000. It doesn’t enter my mind to think, Here I am, former South High Student on stage! Not at all. By this time, South High is lost to me, a place that should have corrected itself long ago. I take no pride in my connections to that institution, only shame. If anything, I close my eyes and see my street, Geneva Avenue. I see the paths I walked to school. I see the dirt fields and hear the train crashing over and over again.

Eleven years later it’s May 1, 2017. I text my youngest son Landen to see if he’ll come to Mill Creek Park to listen to me present, “The Mother of All Bombs,” a poem less about Donald Trump’s propaganda war machine, and more a revelation about ironies of oppression, the anger that is connected to it in relation to the southern Central Valley. I realize that one portion of the lengthy poem feels so much like it’s from where I grew up in South Bakersfield. Though about the oppression of place, I’ve generalized my own streets. I’ve hidden my old school, my old haunts, even my old living room on Geneva, with Dad inside telling me how white I am.

The Mother of All Bombs is the woman down the street
laughing at my words then waking up tomorrow realizing
she’s felt the heavy weight of America too.
How long did it take her to understand
she’d taken on the characteristics
of the oppressor, that she was insane, drooling
with madness in the Church of Intolerance,
while her own children were hungrier than ours
under the continued shame of Make America Great Again,
which here in the San Joaquin Valley is a
new special blend of McCarthyism.

After a long line of us march downtown, those of us who carried the American flag walk onto the stage. Music blasts from speakers. Some start dancing. I gaze into the crowd and see my son. I feel a pride I can’t explain. A connecting point. A circle re-attached. Landen and I were part of that march nearly eleven years before. He’d walked out with all those high school kids in 2006. We’d both later attended President Obama’s speech at La Paz, a historic dedication of Cesar Chavez’ resting place as a National Monument.

Prior to, and after that day in 2017, my son and I continue to share father-son discussions about art, words, music, taking risks, about not being afraid to make a statement about the world, and to the world. He’s often working on songs and sends rough cuts. Sometimes we call each other afterwards, talking about his latest lyrics, drum beats and guitar riffs. As we often do, we shift our focus to peoples and behaviors, to speaking up for others, to ways in which we can inject a more purposeful truth into our art. Inevitably, during these moments, I drift. Sometimes for only a second. That’s all it takes. The place is usually the same. I’m back in that old living room on Geneva Avenue. I see Dad’s face but I don’t hear anything as he talks to me. I see his eyes. I see that grim mouth. And I see change coming.

 

 

Nicholas Belardes’ work has appeared or is forthcoming in Latino Rebels, The Latinx Archive: Speculative Fiction for Dreamers (Ohio State University Press), Southwestern American Literature (Texas State University), Carve Magazine, and others. Read more at nicholasbelardes.com. Follow him on twitter @nickbelardes

Copyright: © 2020 Nicholas Belardes. 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/.

Postcard Series:

  1. Jenise Miller, “We are our own Multitude: Los Angeles’ Black Panamanian Community”
  2. Toni Mirosevich, “Who I Used To Be”
  3. Myriam Gurba, “El Corrido del Copete”
  4. Jennifer Carr, “The Tides that Erase: Automation and the Los Angeles Waterfront”
  5. Melissa Hidalgo, “A Chumash Line: How an old email and five PDFs revealed my Native Californian Roots” 
  6. Brynn Saito with Photographs by Dave Lehl, “Acts of Grace: Memory Journeys Through the San Joaquin Valley”
Interviews

Rise Against the Machine: Interview with Adam Goodman

The rampant spread of coronavirus throughout the United States has illuminated undocumented migrants’ role as essential workers as well as their precarious position in this country. Indeed, Trump’s administration continues to find novel measures to expel undocumented migrants and asylum seekers. In The Deportation Machine: America’s Long History of Expelling Immigrants, Adam Goodman traces the United States’ efforts to expel and terrorize migrants as well as people’s efforts to stop the deportation machine. Historian Elliott Young spoke with Goodman about his new book and this long history. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Elliott Young (EY): What led you to this particular book project and how do you think it responds to the present immigration crisis?

Adam Goodman (AG): My interest in immigration started to deepen when I was living and teaching high school on the U.S.-Mexico border in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas. Seeing the ways that migration policies shaped both the region and the lives of my students and their families piqued my interest in learning more about migration history. When I got to graduate school, the historiography and the literature really captured my imagination. That was at the start of Obama’s first term, when there was a lot of attention on his immigration enforcement actions. The issues that have dominated news headlines in recent years are not unique to Trump and they didn’t start with Barack Obama, George W. Bush, or Bill Clinton either; the origins of the deportation machine date back to the late nineteenth century.

EY: One of the big arguments you make in your book is that we need to consider all forms of deportation. That term deportation is used colloquially, but as you show the immigration bureaucracy divides these up into what are “voluntary returns” and so-called self-deportations where conditions are such that people are pushed out, along with formal removals that are done through a legal process. What kinds of insights does this more holistic view of these forms of deportation provide?

AG: Having this broader understanding of deportation sheds light on expulsion’s importance throughout the twentieth century, the fashioning of state power, and how deportation—or the possibility of being deported—shapes people’s lives. It also shifts the chronology. Deportation isn’t something that just emerges after the Immigration Act of 1996, which led to a spike in formal deportations, or after 9/11. There are a tremendous number of people who have been removed through formal deportations—8 million or so throughout US history. (The vast majority during the past 25 years.) But there are 48 million people who have been deported via voluntary departure, and an uncountable number of others who have left in response to self-deportation campaigns. So, if we want to understand the history of deportation, we need to expand our time frame and look at how 85-90% of the expulsions throughout U.S. history have happened. Which, in turn, reveals that Mexicans have been even more disproportionately targeted than we thought.

EY: Given that so many scholars start by looking at formal deportations to make the argument that everything changes in the 1980s and beyond, what do you think the qualitative differences are between the informal or voluntary returns versus the formal and legal deportations?

AG: It’s important to distinguish and delineate the different types of expulsion. I argue that we shouldn’t conflate them, but should instead understand how they work in conjunction with one another, because that’s how the deportation machine functions. Formal deportations, historically, have carried more severe penalties and consequences, including bans on re-entry of five, ten or twenty years, or sometimes even lifetime bans. You also might have to spend an extended or indefinite period of time in detention. Many people recognized that’s not a very appealing option and immigration authorities used the threat of bans on re-entry and of indefinite detention to coerce people into accepting administrative removals via voluntary departure. In the book, I equate this to the role plea bargains play in the criminal justice system. If officials threaten someone with 25 years in prison, they might take a plea for four years to mitigate the risk. It’s somewhat similar as to why someone would accept voluntary departure. I recognize the important difference between types of expulsion, while also arguing that voluntary departures have been punitive in nature. They weren’t simply part of a nod-and-wink system in which immigration authorities let people come and go in a pattern of circular migration while employers were able to maintain a cheap exploitable supply of workers. The stereotype of Mexicans as “illegal aliens” has been created, in part, through repeated apprehension and deportation via voluntary departure.

EY: Why does the government turn to the tactic of voluntary removal in the early twentieth century?

AG: Immigration officials never had the resources they needed to carry out the enforcement actions that Congress charged them with implementing. At different moments officials wanted to apprehend and deport more people, but they didn’t have the resources to do so. Congress wasn’t willing to provide them, and perhaps the United States public didn’t have the stomach for such actions either. This led to voluntary departures and informal means to deport people, which depended on giving discretion to low level immigration authorities who, within the system as a whole, had very little power, but had complete or near total power over any one individual migrant. That’s largely still the same today.

Goodman_DM_JJM

Activist and organizer José Jacques Medina speaks to a crowd of more than 200 people at the Embassy Auditorium in Los Angeles, March 1977, Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

EY: You show in the book how the well-publicized workplace raids and other kinds of raids that happened in the 1930s, 1950s, and 1970s are calculated campaigns that sowed fear and terror in immigrant communities to provoke them to “self-deport.” Do you think the workplace raids in recent years are done for the same purpose? In other words, are these principally propaganda campaigns to instill fear in immigrant communities?

AG: This administration has ratcheted up the fear campaigns and is doing everything it can to instill fear in immigrant communities. That’s happening through public proclamations by officials; it’s happening by leaking things to the press and carefully placing stories; it’s happening by relying on an extensive network of restrictionist think tanks and policy groups that promote an anti-immigrant agenda within Washington in hopes of making it more mainstream. I should point out here that in spite of such self-deportations campaigns, the majority of people have stayed. When Trump took office there were an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. Most of those people are still here. It’s important to recognize the way pervasive fear campaigns not only lead to self-deportation, but also affect and shape the lives of people who remain in the country.

EY: In one of your chapters, you describe the resistance by a group of shoe factory workers in South El Monte, right outside of Los Angeles. They refused to answer immigration agents’ questions and thereby blocked deportation efforts. This led to a lawsuit that in 1992 resulted in the recognition that immigrants are protected by certain elements of the Constitution and that immigration agents have to make immigrants aware of such rights when they’re being arrested. So, it’s a kind of success story in your book. But following that success story is a tremendous rise in the numbers of immigrants deported. I’m wondering whether legal strategies have been successful in protecting immigrants.

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Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

AG: I’m interested in how people have endured, adapted, and fought against the machine. The chapter you’re referring to looks at the 1970s, in particular, what I call the dawn of the age of mass expulsion, when we see the number of deportations rise exponentially and reach 900,000-plus people per year (which continues until the end of the century). This was a different era. Building on the Chicano/a and civil rights movements, they took to the streets. They also took their fight to the courts, and the case of the shoe factory workers is an inspiring story because of how people organized. That was one of the key takeaways: It wasn’t individuals engaging in random acts of resistance, it was the joint efforts of immigrant workers, labor organizers, activists, and lawyers that threatened to bring the deportation machine to a halt.  The deportation machine was vulnerable and it remains so today. Part of the job of undocumented immigrants and their allies is to identify how the machine works and where its points of vulnerability are, and to press on them.

EY: Is the trend we see since 2000 positive, in that we have a decreasing number of total deportations even though formal removals have increased significantly, reaching their height under President Obama? How do you interpret the last two decades of deportation history?

AG:  How many people are deported each year matters, of course, but what also matters is how people are expelled and how the consequences of being deported have changed over time. What we see is that deportation has become more punitive and separation more permanent, because of the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, the explosion in enforcement funding, and the rise in formal deportations. I’m interested in the experiences of deportees and understanding things from their perspective. Simply looking at the number of expulsions and stopping there isn’t sufficient.

EY: I want to bring you to the point where historians never want to go, which is thinking about policy. You’ve talked about how deportations have been a bipartisan policy for more than a century. And, you argue that no particular party or president is responsible for the creation of this deportation machine, something I would definitely agree with. That being said, what kinds of immigration policies would you advocate?  And do either the major political parties offer a way to turn the United States into a nation of immigrants, rather than a deportation nation as you described in your epilogue?

AG: The Trump administration has made immigration policy more partisan. Whereas Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, and Republicans and Democrats in Congress supported policies ramping up enforcement, today we see Democrats trying to stake out a different position. I’m a little skeptical about whether that will lead to real change; I’ll defer judgment. That being said, there are reforms that would solve a lot of the problems related to immigration policy. So much now is focused on national security and the needs of the nation, without reckoning with the fact that the migrants—the people these policies affect most—are very much a part of this nation. Allowing people to reunite with families, allowing people to come fill the country’s labor demands, creating more visa slots for Mexicans and doing away with the one-size-fits-all 20,000-person-per-year country quota are just some common sense proposals. Many people in the United States face real economic hardship, there’s no denying that. But scapegoating migrants is not the answer.

EY: The idea of prison abolition has been a powerful political way of conceptualizing the campaign against mass incarceration. I’m wondering if you think there should be a similar campaign to abolish immigration detention and deportation?

AG: Yes, and people are doing this work already. Groups like Organized Communities Against Deportations (OCAD) here in Chicago, the Detention Watch Network, and many others. A lot of community-based, grassroots organizations across the country are advocating bold policy reforms and their voices need to be heard; those possibilities need to be on the table. Whether or not we see such radical change in our lifetime is up in the air. But one thing history teaches us is that sometimes, when we’re least expecting it, transformative change happens, and it usually isn’t by luck—it’s through organizing and through sustained struggle.

Goodman_Deportation.Machine_Jacket_FINAL (with border)

Adam Goodman teaches in the Latin American and Latino Studies Program and in the Department of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His writing on immigration history and policy has appeared in outlets such as the Washington PostThe Nation, and the Journal of American History. Goodman is a faculty advisor to UIC’s Fearless Undocumented Alliance, a co-convener of the Newberry Library’s Borderlands and Latino/a Studies seminar, and a co-organizer of the #ImmigrationSyllabus public history project. The Deportation Machine: America’s Long History of Expelling Immigrants (Princeton University Press, 2020) is his first book.

Elliott Young is Professor in the History Department at Lewis and Clark College. Professor Young is the author of Alien Nation: Chinese Migration in the Americas from the Coolie Era through WWIICatarino Garza’s Revolution on the Texas-Mexico Border, and co-editor of Continental Crossroads: Remapping US-Mexico Borderlands History, and a forthcoming book “Forever Prisoners: How the United States Built the Largest Immigrant Detention System in the World.” He is co-founder of the Tepoztlán Institute for Transnational History of the Americas. He has also provided expert witness testimony for over 250 asylum cases.

Copyright: © 2020 Adam Goodman and Elliott Young. 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/.

 

Reviews

Lunch Ladies and the Fight for School Food Justice: A Superhero Origin Story

Christine Tran

Plagued by unsavory stories in American popular culture, the lunch lady has been a mocked and villainized figure for decades. Yet, as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds in real-time, lunch ladies across the country are emerging as unassuming superheroes feeding millions across the United States.

Because of school closures and an economic downturn, school food is assuming a major role in providing emergency meals for their communities. Some are doing so independently and others have partnered with local food banks, faith-based organizations, and the Red Cross. With nearly 75 million children under the age of eighteen across the country,[1] coupled with families losing their incomes at a startling rate, more and more people are in need of food. In the first three weeks of shelter-in-place orders, sixteen million Americans filed for unemployment[2] while in nearly the same three-week period, the Los Angeles Unified School District served five million meals to children and adults.[3]

Arroyo Knights. El Monte.

Arroyo High Schools in El Monte, California

Yet unlike the origin stories of comic book heroes, the history of the lunch lady has been almost entirely erased. Moreover, their collective stories have fallen victim to historical amnesia. As a result, school food, as a sector, is invisible to and undervalued by society. For decades, most lunch ladies held some of the lowest paying jobs in school systems, making hourly wages with little to no benefits—creating a lasting impact on their economic and social worth. This is the underappreciated workforce that the United States now looks to for support.

More than ever, it is important to elevate the origin story of the lunch lady. As comic books have taught us, we can’t undo the past but we can learn from it as we move on to create future narratives, where lunch ladies (and gentlemen, or more gender non-conforming “food folks”) are acknowledged and respected for the essential workers that they are, during and outside of a pandemic. To bring those narratives to light, Jennifer Gaddis gives us their origin story in The Labor of Lunch: Why We Need Real Food and Real Jobs in American Public Schools (UC Press, 2019).

In her book, Gaddis addresses implicit biases the reader may hold about lunch ladies by guiding us through a richly-layered history of school food and labor. Using archival photos and first-hand stories, she connects us with narratives that have been withheld from our collective consciousness. She addresses the inequities of this work head on by laying out the historic role that racial and economic discrimination, capitalism, and patriarchy played in perpetuating stereotypes of school food service workers.

Gaddis sets the stage for the book not in faraway time or even in a cafeteria. She starts the book in 2004 with Lisa, a 48-year-old assistant cook, testifying in front of a local school board: “Good evening, distinguished board members and all in the room who have an ethical obligation to our children. I see some faces whose children I have had the honor of personally feeding. I use the word honor because it is the highest trust a parent can give, letting someone else care and nurture their children” (1). In her own words, Lisa addresses the board as an advocate and labor union member, identities not often associated with lunch ladies.

Gaddis_Fig3

UNITE HERE Local 1 workers gather in protest outside Chicago Public Schools head-quarters in April 2012 as part of a series of actions in their real-food, real-jobs campaigns.Courtesy UNITE HERE

Further so, she aptly titles the first chapter of the book, “The Radical Roots of School Lunch.” This foundational section to the book disaggregates the history you may find on the internet when you search for “school lunch.” Gaddis tells a history of a movement that began half a century before the passing of the 1946 National School Lunch Act, by firmly rooting school food history alongside feminist history, calling it a “product of generations of women’s activism.” In fact, school lunch started out in the 1890s  as a localized “penny lunch” program as part of a “nonprofit school lunch movement.” It was born out of a public necessity to feed extremely poor children, “not as private, gendered responsibility” (18). School lunch, along with kindergarten and public kitchens, were just some approaches advocates used to create new forms of public caregiving to support the changing roles of women during this industrializing era.

A federal policy that paves the way for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) can appear to be a win, but who is actually benefiting from the program? Gaddis examines the systemic racial inequities that excluded many populations of color under the federal school lunch program. In the chapter, “The Fight for Food Justice,” Gaddis discusses the role of the Black Panther Party in organizing local support for poor black communities whose needs were unmet by the government. In 1968, a group of Oakland mothers worked alongside the Panthers to start the very first Free Breakfast for Children Program. This program resulted in a national movement of localized expansion in poor black communities that would feed tens of thousands of poor black children across the country while exposing inequities, and demonstrating to the American public “a working example of how social reproduction could be collectivized at the neighborhood scale in a truly egalitarian fashion” (62).

In addition to social and political movements, the chronology of school food is also heavily influenced by the industrialization of food and rise of the cheap food economy, as well as the government’s role in regulating what goes into school meals. In 1981, the Reagan administration reduced the school food budget by one-third, resulting in the need to cut costs by changing regulations to include cheaper substitutes. A task force was convened to discuss cheaper alternatives to certain meal components: “Suddenly corn chips, pretzels, doughnuts, and pies could all pass as ‘bread’ in the NSLP” (98). Gaddis also describes the shifting labor of school lunch, as more central kitchen models were being constructed and for-profit Big Food factories began receiving more contracts to turn commodity foods like chicken into nuggets. These shifts led to reheating already prepared foods and diminishing a school cafeteria’s capacity to cook from scratch. This period, according to Gaddis, had a stark effect on the school food programming across the country.

Gaddis_Fig1

Workers making prepack sandwiches in a central kitchen facility. Records of the Office of  the Secretary of Agriculture, 1974-ca. 2003, National Archives and Records Administration.

Despite the challenges that exist in school food, Gaddis positions a lofty goal for the school food sector: “Empowering school kitchen and cafeteria workers to cook real food from scratch using locally sourced and school-grown ingredients can transform the entire culture of [NSLP]” (174). Rather than one-off solutions or one-size fits all approaches, Gaddis offers several examples to realize this “real food economy.” One approach is farm-to-school, by which schools can connect and buy directly from local farmers. This type of programming effectively builds relationships with food so that we know where it comes from. This requires coordinated efforts and investments: “Establishing comprehensive farm-to-school programs that combine local food procurement, school gardening, and classroom education takes significant effort that is difficult to sustain without grant funding and personal donations” (196). Identifying and working with local partners is key to making this change. Gaddis reminds us of this shared responsibility: “The NSLP is a public program. And we, the public, can reimagine and ultimately transform it into an engine for positive social and economic change” (214). We must remember that to feed children, we must also employ people to serve, cook, transport, and grow food. In effect, this would stimulate the economy, not take away from it.

Making these sweeping changes to the school food system requires a greater shift in society. Gaddis positions the notion of a real school food system into a new economy of care. How do we care about school food and the labor behind it? Gaddis reminds us that the value of school food and labor is dependent on our collective respect for it: “It’s up to us to change the paradigm. Cheapness is not synonymous with public value.” (228). Now more than ever, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, food service workers across the country need this paradigm shift as they risk their own health to feed millions of children. By valuing their labor and school food we can better support them on the frontlines of this public health crisis.

Notes

[1] https://www.childtrends.org/indicators/number-of-children

[2] https://apnews.com/20a7e14dada836862b250b54a11305dd

[3] https://civileats.com/2020/04/07/with-schools-closed-some-districts-are-feeding-more-people-than-food-banks/

 

Christine Tran is a food and education advocate from South El Monte, California. She is passionate about people, places, food, and stories that connect us all. Her diverse background in education, food justice, communities, and policy has taken her across the country and around the world. As a multimedia storyteller, she aspires to spark dialogues to deepen our understanding of each other, the food we eat, and the world we share. Christine is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington studying Educational Leadership, Policy & Organizations. She obtained her bachelor’s degrees in Asian American Studies and English, as well as a Master of Education from UCLA. She also holds a Master of Arts in sociology from Columbia University in the City of New York.

Copyright: © 2020 Christine Tran. 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/.

Excerpts

Chinese Workers and the Transcontinental Railroad

Manu Karuka

The Central Pacific Railroad transformed California from an overseas possession to a continental possession of the United States. Chinese railroad labor, organized under contract and disciplined by racial violence, was situated at the war-finance nexus. After completion of the railroad, Chinese exclusion formalized racial violence and labor control on a continental scale, evacuating models of relationship governing the movement of people across Indigenous lands and waters. The railroad, and exclusion, were core infrastructures of continental imperialism.

Racial dimensions of the war-finance nexus manifested in the snarling rhetoric of Leland Stanford’s 1862 inaugural speech as governor of California: “While the settlement of our State is of the first importance, the character of those who shall become settlers is worthy of scarcely less consideration.” Stanford’s fear of an Asian invasion grew out of racial and class anxieties, that California would act as an escape valve for the “dregs” of Asia. Racial, class, and cultural qualities of imagined future Asian migrations threatened Stanford’s vision of California as a space of settler accumulation. He voiced a colonialist anxiety about dispossession, a racial paranoia centering on fears of invasion and divestment. The colonization of California, accomplished by constant, ongoing, and overwhelming violation of Indigenous life, proceeded through relationships with Asia’s “numberless millions,” threatening, in Stanford’s perspective, to undermine the stability of the colonial order. Chinese labor was an instrument, not a subject, of colonialism. Stanford urged the California government to request land and credit from the U.S. federal government, to support the construction of a transcontinental railroad, to remake California as a site of continental imperialism. Stanford’s rhetoric was not without precedent. In his 1851 inaugural speech as the first U.S. civil governor of California, Peter Burnett had called for a “war of extermination” against Indigenous peoples in California. From the base of their “mountain fastness,” Burnett argued, Natives engaged in irregular warfare that made settlers always vulnerable to random attack, and made it impossible for settlers to distinguish Indigenous combatants from noncombatants.[1] Colonialist race war fueled the fears for colonial futures.

Five weeks after Stanford gave his speech, the U.S. Congress approved “An Act to prohibit the ‘Coolie Trade’ by American Citizens in American Vessels.” The act prohibited U.S. citizens and residents from transporting “the inhabitants, or subjects of China known as ‘coolies,’” defined as individuals “disposed of, or sold, or transferred, for any term of years or for any time whatever, as servants or apprentices, or to be held to service or labor.” U.S. law associated coolie status with indenture, a status marked in time, distinct from slavery. A distance from “freedom” was visible through categories of labor and relationships of exploitation rather than geographic origins, a suspicion of not quite being free. The act enumerated conditions for “free and voluntary emigration of any Chinese subject,” requiring men arriving from China to carry a certificate of freedom, issued by a U.S, consular official at the port of emigration. Although the law made it illegal to bring Chinese people to the United States as “coolies,” it would remain practically unenforced.[2]

Two months later, in April 1862, the California state legislature passed an Anti-Coolie Act, instituting a monthly tax on Chinese people working gold mines and owning businesses, a new cost for being identified as Chinese in California. Against the logic of the federal law, which presented “coolie” status as a condition of labor, California legislated in racial terms. “Coolie,” in the logic of California law, meant “Chinese,” a racial status, not a debt and labor structure. Where in the federal anti-coolie law, the U.S. government asserted territorial prerogatives to control borders, in the California law, the state distinguished Chinese people as a significant source of state revenue. The racial logics of California state revenue betrayed colonial origins, echoing an 1847 law mandating that Indigenous people’s employers issue passes and certificates of employment for Indians who wished to trade in California towns.[3]

The Price of a Ticket

In an interview with the historian Hurbert Bancroft, Kwong Ki- Chaou, a California-based representative of the Chinese government, described Chinese migrations to the United States: “Chinese coming to this country are as free as European immigrants- they come here free.” Kwong framed Chinese migrations (and freedom) in relation to the transformation of European provinciality into New World whiteness, distancing from the legacies of slavery on life in North America, claiming participant status in the creation of a New World. Contra Stanford, Kwong presented Chinese people not as alien invaders, but as constituents in the colonial pageant of California. Freedom was a claim to belong, a claim to possession, predicated on the ongoing occupation of Indigenous lands. Kwong continued, saying that Chinese people in North America “have no masters” with one exception: “Only those persons who came to work for the railroad came under contract but most of them ran away when they got here. Those who brought them lost money’ but all others came free.”[4] Were those who came from China to work for the railroad free?

U.S. authorities had inherited labor structures from Spanish colonial California. Toward the end of the 1840s, whites were organizing hunting parties that systematically attacked entire Indigenous communities, a particularly gendered form of violence that targeted Indigenous women. Amidst colonialist race war, with the high cost of labor during the Gold Rush, the California legislature passed one of its first laws, the 1850 Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, legalizing debt peonage to force Indigenous children and adults into compulsory labor for large-scale agricultural interests, under the guise of indenture. The U.S. military government in San Francisco had already begun enforcing compulsory Indigenous labor in 1847. The area north of San Francisco Bay was home to over 100,000 Indigenous people in 1846. Early U.S. military campaigns against communities branded as “horse-thief Indians” established U.S. authority over the region, a point of commensurability between the Mexican ranching elite, newly arrived settlers from the United States, and the U.S. military. Race war and overseas imperialism shaped the development of San Francisco. As a port of arrival, San Francisco was linked to Singapore and Penang, points of entry for Chinese workers to tin and gold mines in southeast Asia. En route to San Francisco, ships stopped in Manila, Guam, and Honolulu. Gold fields near Marysville, as well as Union Pacific construction, drew Chinese people, following Kānaka Maolis who had arrived to a place that was already deeply imbued with Oceanic histories and relationships.[5]

On arrival in California, most of the migrants from China found work through family or social connections, or through district associations, the huiguan. Known in San Francisco as the Six Companies, district associations functioned as mutual-aid societies where new and indigent arrivals could find shelter and basic amenities, following organizational models among Chinese communities in Southeast Asia. The huiguan entrenched the power of merchants in Chinatown communities, institutions to localize and delegate functions of community upkeep and policing, operating through solidarity and control, linking mercantile economy spanning southeast Asia, the Philippines, and Hawai’i.[6]

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Chinese camp, Brown’s Station. Photograph by Alfred A. Hart, between 1865-1869. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Sucheng Chan described Chinese merchants’ main assets in California: working knowledge of English and ready access to laborers. Merchants developed business around arrivals to California and departures to China, situated strategically between Chinatown communities and major corporations. Chinese merchant capital in California could not shake off constraints on its reproduction and valorization. Its primary economic function was to provide and provision Chinese labor on demand. Labor contractors recruited and organized Chinese workers into gangs of twenty-five to thirty men. The Central Pacific kept accounts by gang, disbursing wages to a headman, who then divided the wages. Charles Crocker, who oversaw construction on the Central Pacific, told the U.S. Senate, “we cannot distinguish Chinamen by names very well.” According to Crocker, the names of Chinese workers sounded too much alike for railroad authorities to distinguish between individuals, constituting instead a homogenous mass in the railroad company’s wage accounts. “We could not know Ah Sin, Ah You, Kong Won, all such names. We cannot keep their names in the usual way, because it is a different language. You understand the difficulty. It is not done in that way because they are slaves.” To be a Chinese worker on the Central Pacific was definitely not to be a slave, the property of another. It was, however, a reduction to the status of a tool for grading earth and drilling a mountain. It was to be expendable, interchangeable, replaceable. Chinese workers were instruments of labor, constant capital for the Central Pacific Railroad Company. The quality of their lives interfered with their essential function, as a quantity of labor.[7]

State and corporation supplied the organizational basis for colonialism in nineteenth-century California. Neither could be disentangled from the other. Leland Stanford was president of the Central Pacific Railroad while serving as the first Republican governor of California. The first locomotive in service for the Central Pacific was christened the “Governor Stanford.” In 1863, Governor Stanford appointed Edwin Bryant Crocker, elder brother of Charles (the superintendent of Central Pacific construction), as a justice of the California Supreme Court. A year later, E.B., “the Judge,” as his associates hailed him, became chief counsel for the Central Pacific, joining the circle of directors including Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Collis Huntington, and Charles.[8]

Testifying later before the U.S. Senate, Charles Crocker would stress wages to argue that Chinese labor in the Central Pacific was free labor. “You cannot control a Chinaman except you pay him for it. You cannot make a contract with him, or his friend, or supposed master, and get his labors unless you pay for it, and pay for him.” The Central Pacific recruited Chinese labor through labor contractors, combining wages with coercion, resting on the power of contractors to control mobility and immobility at the same time. According to Crocker’s Senate testimony, the Central Pacific procured Chinese workers through the services of Chinese and white labor contractors alike. One firm, Sisson, Wallace & Co., eventually “furnished pretty much all of the Chinamen that we worked.”[9] Clark Crocker, brother of Charles and E.D., was the “& Co.” in question.

Leland Stanford, in his 1866 report of the president of the Central Pacific, assured investors there was no system similar to slavery among Chinese workers, whose wages and provisions were distributed by independent agents: “We have assurances from leading Chinese merchants, that under the just and liberal policy pursued by the Company, it will be able to produce during the next year, not less than fifteen thousand laborers.” Employing Chinese workers as a racially distinct labor force, whose labor was cheaper than white, was not inevitable for the Central Pacific. The directors arrived at these hiring strategies only after considering other sources of labor, such as Confederate prisoners working under guard. Across the South, African Americans competed with Confederate veterans for railroad jobs. In Virginia, in August 1865, such competition sparked violent confrontation between Black workers and white workers (the latter backed by a Maryland militia sent to break up the fighting). That October, the Committee on Industrial Pursuits at the 1865 California State Convention of Colored Citizens forwarded a resolution to send three representatives to present to Central Pacific directors “the expediency of employing from twenty to forty thousand freedmen on the Great Pacific Railroad” and to petition members of the California state legislature and congressional representatives for aid.[10] The Central Pacific directors did not receive the message, or they chose to ignore it.

A few months earlier, in May 1865, at the outset of the summer construction season, Mark Hopkins had written to Collis Huntington, “We find a difficulty getting laborers on the railroad work.” According to Hopkins, workers would come and go as they pleased, like “tramping journeymen.” Labor recruiting and labor control posed major obstacles for Central Pacific construction, and Hopkins saw Chinese workers as essential to managing both of these issues. “Without them,” he worried, “it would be impossible to go on with the work. But China laborers are coming in slowly so that Charley thinks the force will steadily increase from this time on.”[11] A report from the Sacramento Daily Union a little over a year later, in June 1866, provides a sense of the rapid increase Chinese labor as Central Pacific construction proceeded. Between Colfax and summit, the railroad employed 11,000 Chinese Workers:

Almost the entire work of digging is done by Chinamen, and the Directors of the road say it would be impossible to build it at present without them. They are found to be equally as good as white men, and less inclined to quarrel and strikes. They are paid $30 per month and boarded, and a cook is allowed for every twelve men. They do not accomplish so much in a given time as Irish laborers, but they are willing to work more hours per day, and are content with their lot so long as they are promptly paid.

The value of Chinese labor is accounted, here, in terms of racial comparison, involving a give and take between productivity and control, indispensable for making accurate predictions of the future. “If the work on this road continues to progress as fast as it has done during this season,” the Union continued, “there is little doubt that the cars will be running from Sacramento to Salt Lake inside of three years.”[12] Accurate predictions could stimulate investment. The ethereal relations of finance capital took flight from land grants, and the racial and gendered control of bodies and space.

Although celebrated for their supposed docility, news circulated in California of different modes of Chinese being. In December 1866, the Sacramento Daily Union reported that six Chinese miners working a placer on Bear River had defended themselves from four white men, killing two of their attackers, and causing the other two to flee for their lives. A second report, from Shasta County, relayed information about an attack on a group of miners near Rock Creek, which the Daily Union writer blamed on growing racist sentiment against Chinese miners. The attack at Rock Creek resulted in three wounded miners, and in the days afterwards, “the Chinese in the various camps around town have been purchasing arms to protect themselves with.” Although mining life shaped the context for Chinese labor, it had already been superseded by the industrial transformation of the regional economy. As a Daily Union writer baldly stated a day after the reports of violence against Chinese miners, in an article entitled “Railroads and Capital”: “This is emphatically an era of railroads.”[13]

A few days later, on January 2, 1867, Stanford and Judge Crocker attended a banquet at the Occidental Hotel to celebrate the departure of the first steamship bound for China and Japan from San Francisco. In his remarks that evening, Stanford made no explicit mention of Chinese workers, but he had China on his mind. Projecting forward to an anticipated completion of the transcontinental in 1870, Stanford prattled:

Then will the “ligament be perfect that binds the Eastern Eng and Western Chang together.” Then, Mr. Chairman, behold the result! For America, the chief control of the developed trade of the better part of Asia with Europe and America. Our Pacific slope, and particularly California, filling rapidly with a hardy, enterprising and industrious people mostly of our brethren and sisters of our old Atlantic homes.[14]

 Stanford had slightly revised his inaugural speech from eight years before, imagining a putatively national body assembled from distinct colonial parts, to enable the future development of California along desirable lines. For Stanford, Chinese people were not, themselves, part of the social body of continental imperialism. Instead, this social body acts on Chinese people in North America, and beyond.

Stanford’s grandiose visions, however, were not borne out by the unfolding calculations among Central Pacific directors, to recruit and control a labor force at wages and work conditions that would maximize their profits. Just days after Stanford spoke, Judge Crocker and Collis Huntington debated how large of a work force to maintain through the slower winter construction, Huntington favoring cutting the work force down to seasonal size. Discharge experienced Chinese workers, Crocker worried, and they would move into mining, putting the Central Pacific at a decided disadvantage during the short summer season. The previous summer, construction managers had difficulty keeping workers at the grueling hard rock tunnel work. Those currently employed by the Central Pacific had already experienced the conditions at the summit, and the judge felt them to be “dependable.” Crocker asked Huntington to test his own powers of forbearance and accept a relatively higher level of employment during the winter. “We hope you will strain every nerve bringing everything to bear to keep along, and not ask us to discharge a man.”[15]

Huntington remained skeptical, or perhaps his nerves could not bear the strain, and he asked for an accounting of the cost of excavating one cubic yard at the summit tunnel. Judge Crocker obligingly explained that construction directors projected working three men on each drill, at the excruciating pace of a 13/4 inch hole one foot, per hour, organizing the work in day and night shifts of eight hours. Construction managers experimented with new tools, such as “gunpowder drills” and nitroglycerin, to speed up and cheapen construction. The tools met the rock, of course, through the application of the worker. And the worker was a category with distinctions. Closer to the status of tools, of drills, gunpowder, and nitroglycerin than white workers, Chinese railroad workers gave the directors of the Central Pacific a chance to squeeze more profit from a hard place. The judge calculated, “Each white man costs us in board and wages $2 1/2 each 8 hours, but Chinamen cost us $1.19 each 8 hours, and they drill nearly as fast.” Chinese railroad labor was a quantity measuring time in relation to price, and the price was lower than that of white labor. Where the Central Pacific covered housing and food costs for white railroad labor, the reproduction of Chinese labor was free.[16] By the end of the month, the directors doubled down, printing and circulating a Chinese language recruiting notice throughout California and in China. The judge was not entirely sure what the notice said. “The Chinamen all understand it,” he explained to Huntington, “but it is hard for them to translate it back into English.”[17] Behind the bluster of corporate control lurked countersovereignty, a reactive dependence on others.

Reproducing Racial Control

The shared culture of Chinese workers and merchants functioned simultaneously as a sphere of pleasure and sustenance and a sphere of constriction. Railroad workers’ corporate wages supplanted the shared profits of miners in the gold fields. Chinese workers’ isolation in temporary work camps, scattered along the line of railroad construction, bound them to relationships cementing their control. A separate system of disbursing wages and provisioning food and housing reflected these distinctions. Charles Nordhoff visited a Chinese railroad work camp on the San Joaquin River, where he found seven hundred Chinese men and one hundred white men. The Chinese workers were supposed to receive $28 for working twenty-six days each month, paying for food, tents, and utensils, with labor contractors paying the cooks. Several railroad cars at the end of track acted as a store for Chinese workers. According to Nordhoff, most of the items sold in this store were imported from China. Organizing and provisioning a male society, the Central Pacific took on a military structure. This was the organizational form of the war-finance nexus, in which class formation occurred through the structures of war. Merchants handled the distribution of food, and workers were captive to their supplies and profits. Collectively, Chinese railroad workers had no future. The success of their labor would ensure the obsolescence of their lives.[18]

Planning in relation to Chinese labor, Central Pacific directors balanced the temporality of seasonal work conditions with temporalities of Chinese laborers’ lives. In early February 1867, recruiting delays during lunar New Year left the Central Pacific short of at least 1,500 workers for immediate work, threatening to jam up the progress of construction after the snow melted. In the howling winter, according to Judge Crocker’s report, 1,500 Chinese men were already at work on the summit, and 1,000 on the approach.[19] The Chinese calendar, with its festivals and feasts, helped Chinese workers on the Central Pacific maintain a sense of connection to their homes and families and to their ancestors. It also ritualized their connection to the merchants and contractors who continued to profit from both their employment and their social reproduction. Calendar time blended into labor time for Chinese workers along the railroad’s line of construction. The formation of a Chinese merchant class in North America, both provisioning and supplying labor, revolved around relationships to Chinese workers as both consumers and producers.[20]

As Judge Crocker explained to Huntington in mid-February 1867, nearly all of those drilling for the Central Pacific were Chinese men whose work was “fully equal to white men,” but they were employed at a rate requiring them to work twenty-six days a month, covering the cost of their own food and housing, unlike their white counterparts.[21] Huntington remained unconvinced, and the judge emphasized the relative value of Chinese railroad labor two days later:

We have had a chance to compass the merits of our Chinese laborers and Cornish miners, who are deemed the best underground workers in the world, and the Chinese beat them right straight all along, day in and day out. We have a large force of well-trained Chinese tunnel workers, and they can’t be beat. They cost only about half what white men do, and are more regular in labor, and more peaceable. They are not men who get drunk and pickup rows, but can be relied upon for steady work.[22]

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Laborers and rocks, near opening of Summit Tunnel. Chinese camp, Brown’s Station. Photograph by Alfred A. Hart, between 1865-1869. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Empirical observation of racial competition settled the question. For Central Pacific Railroad Company directors, race was a calculus of profit maximization.

Mark Hopkins gave another perspective on this racial calculus, laying out three conditions whereby he and the other directors should “never be financially troubled hereafter,” including an early spring melting off the Sierras, $250 per month of investments coming in from the eastern United States from June through November, and “increased numbers of Chinamen come into the work.”[23] Weather, investments, and Chinese labor were the legs of a platform on which Hopkins and his associates planned to build their personal fortunes. For the first, they could pray. For the second, they could bluster and impress. For the third, they had to rely on others. How could anyone imagine this to be stable, to imagine that the men perched atop could be in control?

Strike

Late in May 1867, as the snow finally began melting between Cisco and the Truckee River, the Central Pacific directors prepared a full push on the summit. As the weather cooperated, and funds for equipment and wages flowed, it was suddenly difficult to find workers. Judge Crocker explained to Huntington,

The truth is the Chinese are now exclusively employed in quartz mills and a thousand other employments new to them. Our use of them led hundreds of others to employ them, so that now when we want to gather them up for the spring and summer work, a large portion are permanently employed at work they like better. The snow & labor questions have our progress quite uncertain.

Five days later, the judge notified Huntington of plans to raise the Chinese workers’ wages almost 13 percent, from $31 to $35 per month. Chinese workers were finding work in quartz mills, building roads and canals, and many were going to Idaho and Montana, looking for work. “Our supply,” he cautioned, “will be short unless we do something.” And so the Central Pacific directors responded, at a loss of “$100,000 in gold on this season’s work.” By early June, the judge was panicking, “Our force is not now increasing, and the season has come when it ought to increase.” He understood the Central Pacific as a victim of its own innovation: “We have proved their value as laborers, and everybody is trying them, and now we can’t get them.”[24]

In late June, Mark Hopkins notified Huntington of “an unexpected feature.” After the Central Pacific had raised Chinese workers’ wages in the hopes of quickly increasing the drilling work force for the summer construction season at the summit, news arrived that the Chinese workers had gone on strike, demanding $40 per month and a ten-hour day, instead of the current eleven-hour work days. The strike demands would tip over the platform upon which the directors had imagined profit. As Hopkins put it, “if they are successful in this demand, then they control, and their demands will be increased.” It was a war for control. It was not only a class war over the conditions of work. It was also a war to decide who would colonize California, and on what terms, echoing Stanford’s gubernatorial address. Hopkins expressed hope in a Central Pacific “application for 5000 Freedmen from the Freedmen’s Bureau.” It was a lesson in political economy. “When any commodity is in demand beyond the natural supply, even Chinese labor, the price will tend to increase.”[25]

The Sacramento Daily Union printed a telegram attributed to Huntington, dated June 28, stating, “There will be no trouble in getting all the laborers you want. How many thousand shall I send? You can contract for passage at low rates.” He was bluffing.[26] The next day, Judge Crocker wrote with more honesty: “The truth is, they are getting smart.” However, he doubted the workers’ intelligence: “Who has stirred up the strike we don’t know, but it was evidently planned and concerted.” The strike was a bid for direct accountability between individual workers and the Central Pacific, directed against the railroad directors and construction supervisors. While it forced the Central Pacific directors to reckon with their workers as a unified group, it was also a bid to force the bosses to consider them as individuals.

The Central Pacific directors were inclined to reinvest in a racial division of labor. Judge Crocker notified Huntington of a man named Yates, a ship’s steward who had met with Stanford in San Francisco. William Henry Yates had arrived in San Francisco in 1851 from Washington, DC, where he had been active in the Underground Railroad, and had worked as a steward on river steamers and ferry boats in California. Yates had played a leadership role in the 1865 Colored Citizens’ convention. “His plan was to get a large number of freedmen to come to California under the Freedmen’s Bureau, and under the aid of the government, that is a sort of military organization crossing the plains.” The judge understood that Yates was then in Washington, trying to find support for the idea. The racial organization of labor, for the Central Pacific Railroad, was situated squarely at the nexus of war and finance. The social reproduction of continental imperialism is the social reproduction of war. The judge understood the strike as a skirmish in a deeper war.

The only safe way for us is to inundate this state and Nevada with laborers. Freedmen, Chinese, Japanese, all kinds of labor, so that men come to us for work instead of our hunting them up. They will all find something to do, and a surplus will keep wages low. It is our only security for strikes.[27]

Racial importation was a means to control the price of labor. Hopkins reinforced Crocker’s earlier message about Yates, whom he described as “a man of integrity and good abilities.” According to the plan, the Central Pacific would be responsible for expenses to bring freedmen to San Francisco, but “a Negro labor force would tend to keep the Chinese steady, as the Chinese have kept the Irishmen quiet.”[28] Hopkins saw this as a worthwhile investment in labor control. Judge Crocker fired off another note to Huntington that day. The strike was “the hardest blow we have here,” he sighed, and Charles had informed leaders of the Chinese community that the Central Pacific would pay no more than $35. Chinese community leaders had sent messages to the work camps, advising the workers to return to work. Something is left unwritten in the judge’s letter, which refers to more desperate measures, closing with the sentence, “It is the only way to deal with them.”[29]

Three days later, Hopkins sent word of Capital triumphant. The strike was broken, the workers returned to their jobs in the same conditions as before the strike. Curiously, after their victory, Hopkins speculated that “the strike appears to have been instigated by Chinese gamblers and opium traders, who are prohibited from plying their vocation on the line of the work.”[30] Hopkins imagined continuity between railroad workers’ collective voice and the lurid visions of an underground Chinese vice economy, specters perhaps, of the English and American opium traders who had helped set trans-Pacific Chinese migration patterns into play, under the banner of free trade. If nothing else, his statement contradicts the image of docile, hardworking, and clean-cut pets that Hopkins and the judge had imagined these Chinese workers to fulfill, just months before. The lives of their workers threatened the security of their profits.

On July 2, Judge Crocker relayed details of how the associates broke the strike:

Their agent stopped supplying them with goods and provisions and they really began to suffer. None of us went near them for a week. We did not want to exhibit anxiety. Then Charles went up, and they gathered around him, and he told them that he would not be dictated to, that he made the rules for them and not they for him.[31]

The destruction of the workers’ solidarity brutally reinscribed a hierarchy of exploitation driving Central Pacific construction, proceeding with the active participation of Chinese merchants who stopped supplying food and provisions to the work camps. The participation of Chinese merchants and labor contractors in breaking the strike clarifies their investments in the organization and management of labor on Central Pacific construction. There was no mutual aid, no principle of racial solidarity here. The Daily Union printed a more detailed account of the strike action and demands, clarifying the demand for eight hours from those working the tunnels, and ten hours from those on open ground. The report conveyed core strike demands:

We understand that a placard printed in the Chinese language was distributed along the line of the road a day or two before the strike occurred. This placard is said to have set forth the right of the workmen to higher wages and to a more moderate day’s work, and to deny the right of the overseers of the company to either whip them or to restrain them from leaving the road when they desire to seek other employment.

The workers struck over wages and the length of the working day. But they also struck for an end to physical punishment, and for the right to leave employment when they wanted to. These are not the hallmarks of free labor.[32]

From the perspectives of the Central Pacific directors, the situation improved after the strike. On July 6, Judge Crocker surmised to Huntington of the Chinese workers’ shame, predicting, “I don’t think we will ever have any more difficulties with them.”[33] Visions of worker docility had perhaps been reinforced with a confidence in racial hierarchies that had been reproduced by means of brute violence. A few weeks later, this turn coincided with workers, “arriving from China in large numbers,” according to Judge Crocker, who projected that the Central Pacific would soon meet its labor target.[34] Recruiting and controlling labor seemed to be resolved. While he imagined that the Chinese workers felt ashamed, the judge informed Huntington, “we feel a good deal encouraged.”[35]

Notes

This is an edited excerpt from Manu Karuka’s Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019)

[1] Peter Burnett, “Message to the California State Legislature,” January 7, 1851, California State Senate Journal (1851), 15; Leland Stanford, Inaugural Address of Leland Stanford, Governor of the State of California, January 10, 1862 (Sacramento: B. P. Avery, 1862);  June Mei, “Socioeconomic Origins of Emigration: Guangdong to California, 1850–1882,” in Labor Immigration under Capitalism: Asian Immigrant Workers in the United States before World War II, ed. Lucie Cheng and Edna Bonacich  (Berkeley:  University  of  California  Press, 1984);  Iyko  Day,  Alien Capital: Asian Racialization and the Logic of Settler Colonialism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press,  2016),  48–53; Moreton-Robinson, The White Possessive, 144, 152.

[2] U. S. 37th Cong., Sess II, Chs. 25, 27, 1862, pp. 340–41; Robert Schwendinger, “Investigating Chinese Immigrant Ships and Sailors,” in The Chinese American Experience: Papers from the Second  National  Conference  on  Chinese  American  Studies, ed. Genny Lim (San Francisco: Chinese Historical Society of America, 1980), 21; Robert Irick, Ch’ing Policy toward the Coolie Trade, 1847–1878 (China: Chinese Materials Center, 1982), 153; Moon-Ho Jung, “Outlawing ‘Coolies’: Race, Nation, and Empire in the Age of Emancipation,” American Quarterly 57, no. 3 (September 2005): 677–701; Moon-Ho Jung, Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 36–38; Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents, 25.

[3] An Act to Protect Free White Labor Against Competition with Chinese Coolie Labor, and to Discourage the Immigration of the Chinese Into the State of California, April 26, 1862; Moon Ho Jung, “What Is the ‘Coolie Question’?” Labour History 113 (2017): 3; Albert Hurtado, “Controlling California’s Indian Labor Force: Federal Administration of California Indian Affairs during the Mexican War,” Southern California Quarterly 61, no. 3 (1979): 228. Taxes on Chinese miners provided at least 10 percent of total state revenue from the early 1850s through 1864. Chinese people in California faced additional, racially targeted taxes in California during these years. Mark Kanazawa, “Immigration, Exclusion, and Taxation: Anti-Chinese Legislation in Gold Rush California,” Journal of Economic History 65, no. 3 (September 2005): 781, 785–87, 789.

[4] Moreton-Robinson, White Possessive, 5; Kwong Ki-Chaou, interview by H. H. Bancroft.

[5] Combined Asian American Resources Project: Oral History transcripts of tape-recorded interviews conducted 1974–76, p. 3; Albert Hurtado, Indian Survival on the California Frontier (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), 93; Albert Hurtado, “California Indians and the Workaday West: Labor, Assimilation, and Survival,” California History 69, no. 1 (Spring 1990): 5–6, 8; Tomás Almaguer, Racial Fault Lines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 29–32; Yong Chen, “The Internal Origins of Chinese Emigration to California Reconsidered,” Western Historical Quarterly 28, no. 4 (Winter 1997): 520–46 at 540; Richard Steven Street, Beasts of the Field: A Narrative History of California Farmworkers, 1769–1913 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004), chaps. 6, 7; Michael Magliari, “Free Soil, Unfree Labor,” Pacific Historical Review 73, no. 3 (August 2004): 349–50, 352–53; Michael Magliari, “Free State Slavery: Bound Indian Labor and Slave Trafficking in California’s Sacramento Valley, 1850–1864,” Pacific Historical Review 81, no. 2 (May 2012): 157; Brendan C. Lindsay, Murder State: California’s Native American Genocide, 1846–1873 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012), chap. 5; Kornel Chang, Pacific Connections: The Making of the U. S.-Canadian Borderlands (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 12; Stacey L. Smith, Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 23–24; Hurtado, “California’s Indian Labor Force,” 219, 220, 222; Kwee Hui Kian, “Chinese Economic Dominance in Southeast Asia: A Longue Duree Perspective,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 55, no. 1 (2013): 21–22; Mei, “Socioeconomic Origins of Emigration,” 488–89; David Chang, The World and All the Things upon It: Native Hawaiian Geographies of Exploration (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 163–84.

[6] Rev. A. W. Loomis, “The Chinese Six Companies,” Overland Monthly 1, no. 3 (September 1868): 221–27 at 222–23; William Hoy, The Chinese Six Companies (San Francisco: Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, 1942); Him Mark Lai, Becoming Chinese American: A History of Communities and Institutions (New York: Alta Mira Press, 2004), 46, 58–59; Mei, “Socioeconomic Origins of Emigration,” 499–500; Kian, “Chinese Economic Dominance,” 8, 16–19; Mae Ngai, “Chinese Gold Miners and the ‘Chinese Question’ in Nineteenth-Century California and Victoria,” Journal of American History 101, no. 4 (2015): 1096.

[7] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1976), 317. “. . . it is the wear and tear, the loss of value which they suffer as a result of continuous use over a period of time, which reappears as an element of value in the commodities which they produce”: Hilferding, Finance Capital, 245; Sucheng Chan, This Bittersweet Soil: The Chinese in California Agriculture, 1860–1910 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 347; Day, Alien Capital, 44; Vijay Prashad, The Karma of Brown Folk (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 90–91; Street, Beasts of the Field, chap. 12; Mae Ngai, The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010), 30, 74; Report of the Joint Special Committee to Investigate Chinese Immigration, 44th Congress (New York: Arno Press, 1978), Charles Crocker testimony, p. 675.

[8] Biographical Sketch of Edwin Bryant Crocker (manuscript). Judges played a central role in the California “apprenticeship “   system, which amounted to a trade in indigenous children to wealthy landowners. Magliari, “Free Soil, Unfree Labor,” 357.

[9] Charles Crocker testimony, Committee to Investigate Chinese Immigration, 674, 723–28; Chang, Pacific Connections, 30; Jung, Coolies and Cane, 61.

[10] Proceedings of the California State Convention of Colored Citizens, 1865, 92; Central Pacific Railroad Company, Report of the President, 1866, p. 33; Alexander Saxton, “The Army of Canton in the High Sierra,” in Chinese on the American Frontier, ed. Arif Dirlik (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), 29; William Thomas, The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011), 181–82.

[11] Hopkins to Huntington, May 31, 1865, Huntington Papers.

[12] Sacramento Daily Union, June 18, 1866.

[13] Sacramento Daily Union, December 18, 1866; Sacramento Daily Union, December 19, 1866. Archaeological research from a Chinese community in 1880s Truckee, California, found evidence that residents carried firearms for self-defense; R. Scott Baxter, “The Response of California’s Chinese Populations in the Anti- Chinese Movement,” Historical  Archaeology 42, no. 3 (2008): 33–34. Evidence from bodies of Chinese workers disinterred in Carlin, Nevada, suggest distinct patterns of cranial and facial trauma; Ryan P. Harrod, Jennifer L. Thompson, and Debra L. Martin, “Hard Labor and Hostile Encounters: What Human Remains Reveal about Institutional Violence and Chinese Immigrants Living in Carlin, Nevada (1885–1923),” Historical Archaeology 46, no. 4 (2012): 98, 100.

[14] Mark Hopkins to Collis Huntington, January 2, 1867, Huntington Papers; San Francisco Evening Bulletin, January 2, 1867; Cynthia Wu, Chang and Eng Reconnected: The Original Siamese Twins in American Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012).

[15] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, January 10, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[16] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, January 14, 1867, Huntington Papers; Day, Alien Capital, 44, 47.

[17] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, January 31, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[18] Charles Nordhoff, California: For Health, Pleasure, and Residence—A Book for Travellers and Settlers (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 1973; original 1873), 189–90; Ngai, “Chinese Gold Miners,” 1089; Day, Alien Capital, chap. 1.

[19] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, February 12, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[20] Chen, “Internal Origins of Chinese Emigration,” 118–21; Chang, Pacific Connections, 31. On the queer domesticity of urban Chinese life in California during these decades, see Nayan Shah, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown (Berkeley: University of California Press), chap. 3; Hobson wrote of Chinese workers, who were “introduced into the Transvaal as mere economic machines, not as colonists to aid the industrial and social development of a new country. Their presence is regarded as a social danger”: Hobson, Imperialism, 276.

[21] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, February 15, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[22] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, February 17, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[23] Mark Hopkins to Collis Huntington, February 15, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[24] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, May 22, 1867; E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, May 27, 1867; E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, June 4, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[25] Mark Hopkins to Collis Huntington, June 26, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[26] Sacramento Daily Union, July 1, 1867.

[27] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, June 27, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[28] Mark Hopkins to Collis Huntington, June 28, 1867, Huntington Papers; Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 569.

[29] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, June 28, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[30] Mark Hopkins to Collis Huntington, July 1, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[31] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, July 2, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[32] Sacramento Daily Union, July 2, 1867. Whipping was standard practice in the management of Indigenous labor in California. Magliari, “Free Soil, Unfree Labor,” 374.

[33] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, July 6, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[34] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, July 23, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[35] E. B. Cocker to Collis Huntington, July 30, 1867, Huntington Papers.

 

Manu Karuka  is an Assistant Professor of American Studies, and affiliated faculty with Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies at Barnard College, where he has taught since 2014. His work centers a critique of imperialism, with a particular focus on anti-racism and Indigenous decolonization. He teaches courses on the political economy of racism, U.S. imperialism and radical internationalism, Indigenous critiques of political economy, and liberation. He is the author of Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad (University of California Press, 2019). With Juliana Hu Pegues and Alyosha Goldstein he co-edited a special issue of Theory & Event, “On Colonial Unknowing,” (Vol. 19, No. 4, 2016) and with Vivek Bald, Miabi Chatterji, and Sujani Reddy, he co-edited The Sun Never Sets: South Asian Migrants in an Age of U.S. Power (NYU Press, 2013).

Copyright: © 2020 Manu Karuka. 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

LA Oil Noir: Genre, Activism, and Spatial Justice in a City Made by Fossil Fuels

Miranda Trimmier

Sometimes it’s hard to see the shape of the story you’re being told. As I understood it, the plot points laid out by my then-lover Bill went like this:

The earthquake itself wasn’t scary. It was strong enough to wake him up and send a wheeled chair skittering across his bedroom floor. The windows rattled in their panes. The neighbor’s dog howled. A few seconds later the whole thing was over and Bill went back to sleep.

But by the next day, the story had morphed into something sinister. Something was off, Bill complained over the phone. It hadn’t even been earthquake weather beforehand. Listening from a grey morning in New York, my brain snagged on the claim. Southern Californians swore that a sunny, queasy-still air preceded earthquakes, but the phenomenon wasn’t real. Unsure of what it meant to say a not-real phenomenon hadn’t happened, I steered Bill to another subject. How was work? His nurse’s union was in the middle of an anti-fracking campaign, calling out the public health risks of the Los Angeles metro area’s more than 5,000 oil wells.[1] I had never lived somewhere where oil was drilled, but it was 2015, and climate change demanded that I pay more attention to fossil fuels. And so Bill provided an entry point into a political conversation I was trying to join for myself. I followed the ups and downs of my lover’s work as though they were my own.

The campaign was also key to Bill’s earthquake story, though it took some more clues to figure that out. I bumped into them while browsing LA oil news. In the past year, there had been a lot. First came the articles that wondered whether three earthquakes were connected with the fracking residents swore was happening at Inglewood Oil Field. Though seismologists said no, the plot points read uncertainly enough. The cracked curbs and building foundations in adjacent neighborhoods. The much-hyped new study linking fracking with earthquakes in Oklahoma. The oil company’s claim that they hadn’t “recently” fracked the field, plus the fact that, at the time, they weren’t legally required to disclose jobs. One resident said she wanted answers but didn’t “know who[se] to trust.” I guessed that the oil company-sponsored report, which certified fracking safe at Inglewood and blamed nearby damage to slope instability caused by rainfall,[2] wasn’t especially comforting.

And then there was the 10,000-gallon oil spill in the middle of the night in Atwater near Griffith Park. Videos shot creeping close-ups of the oil as it blanketed the concrete, and reports lingered on an evacuated strip club in a way that suggested something archetypically sullied was going on.[3] Other news stories adopted the same tone as strange happenings unfolded around town. In oil-producing neighborhoods, children suffered chronic nosebleeds, adults were plagued by migraines, and garden plants withered and died. At Redondo, Manhattan, and Hermosa beaches, armies of sticky tar balls washed up on the sand, so many the city closed them down for clean-up. Though an observer might guess tar balls are the result of the more than 100,000-gallon oil spill about 100 miles up the coast in Santa Barbara a couple weeks earlier, a Department of Fish and Wildlife rep urged calm. The public should reserve judgment until tests could trace the oil’s “fingerprints.”[4]

With a bit of research, in other words, the scattered stories began to feel less scattered. Eventually an arc of sorts emerged, a narrative chain linking Bill’s earthquake to “natural slope instability” and bloody noses and oily fingerprints. The narrative sounded paranoid and shadowy, like a noir, and Angelenos seemed to be voicing it without especially meaning to. As I began to connect fossil fuel politics to my everyday life, I felt pulled in, too. What did it mean to tell an LA oil noir? What could a New Yorker, observing from three thousand miles away, bring to the plot? I’d see how it all played out.

**

Los_Angeles_CA_-__An_Oil_Well_in_Every_Yard_(NBY_432173)

“Los Angeles CA — An Oil Well in Every Yard,” unknown date 1900-1909, DPC7775, Detroit Publishing Company Collections, Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois.

For most cultural critics, noir begins with German expressionism, detective potboilers, and the Hollywood film set. But that history, while in some respects correct, downplays the local politics that forced the genre to the fore.[5] At the turn of the 20th century, real estate boosters sold Los Angeles as a sunny paradise, a place where everyone might own a home and some land. Sometimes those profits involved oil; prospectors had struck it in Whittier, Montebello, Richfield, Newport Beach, Huntington Beach, Signal Hill, Santa Fe Springs, Torrance, Dominguez, Inglewood, Seal Beach, and Wilmington.[6] For a time Southern California produced 20% of the world’s supply. Real estate ads teased buyers with the promise of instant liquid wealth. Postcards featured derricks against hopeful, rosy skies. A person didn’t even need to own land to get in on the boom. Every day, free chartered buses drove hundreds of Angelenos to an oil field-cum-investment opportunity. Under a big-top tent, they were treated to music and hot dogs and invited to become fabulously rich.[7]

It wasn’t long before the mood began to turn. Oil flowed between property lines, so a legal precedent called “the rule of capture” gave rights to whomever sucked it up first. Prospectors and producers rushed up derricks everywhere, crowding streets, homes, and beaches without thought to the people living nearby. If drill jobs loosed a gusher that slopped crude, shale, and sand on Signal Hill houses, that was the collateral damage of a cutthroat business. Same went for the river of burning oil that blazed for six hours down a Long Beach thoroughfare, the explosion that set 2.25 million barrels aflame and smoked out the sun in Brea, and commonplace accidents that sent oil rushing into the ocean, slicking city harbors with a four-inch layer of crude.[8]

If this devastation didn’t sour people, the corruption did. Many residents had invested in flat-out fraudulent stock. The most infamous scam was run by C. C. Julian, who leveraged new print and radio media to offer “Gold Bonds” to “Mr. Thoroughbreds” smart enough to smell a deal.[9] When the company collapsed, robbing 40,000 LA residents of $150 million, the subsequent investigation uncovered a knot of scandals and touched off a spree of cover-ups and revenge. Scores of prominent bankers and businesspeople had profited, and a grand jury indicted fifty-five of them, but, after bribes to DAs and jurors ruined the first trial, the rest of the charges were dropped. For months, LA residents woke to a daily stream of shady Julian news. A former exec lived a lavish European life while on the run from police. A man lost his left eye in a melee at a company shareholder meeting. And a banker at the center of the pools was shot dead during the fifth trial mounted to hold him accountable for his crimes. The banker, a once-beloved philanthropist, had $63,000 in his pocket at the time of his death.[10]

Enter the noir novel, which deployed what urbanist Mike Davis calls a “transformational grammar”[11] to comment on the state of the Southern California dream. Sunny days became earthquake weather. Single-family homes became claustrophobic prisons. City patriarchs became a criminal overclass, crooked and poisonous and prone to fits of violence. A century later, it’s easy to read the genre as fantasy instead of a stab at realism in a particular time and place. It is easy to forget that every noir is an LA noir, and every LA noir is touched by the seep of oil.

**

In the early days of my investigation, I often felt obtuse: too clumsy to be the detective at the helm of a noir. I was nothing like Philip Marlowe, the protagonist of eight of LA writer Raymond Chandler’s novels. Marlowe has a quick wit and a sharp tongue and drinks to forget the sleaze he’s seen. Chandler developed his own suspicion at Dabney Oil, where he worked for 13 years, first as a junior accountant and then, after catching his boss embezzling, as the department head. Eventually he rose to vice-president. The work fascinated him; it let him study all manner of bad behavior. He learned to spot the abuses of the people passing through his company, and became obsessed with anticipating cheating in other areas of his life.[12] But he never forgot the industry that jaded him first. When Dabney finally fired him for alcoholism, he started working on The Big Sleep, a drama that swirls around the corrupt Sternwood family, who’d made a fortune in oil.

Noir conveys much of its narrators’ wariness through setting and atmospherics. Interior spaces are shabby and cramped, or nauseatingly opulent, or suffused with their inhabitants’ truculent neuroses. Outdoor spaces are ominous no matter the weather. Even the LA sun is a sign of trouble. Early noir writers portrayed it as oppressive, suggested that a fundamental violence simmered beneath. Chandler paid special attention to climate. Earthquake weather and the Santa Ana winds haunted his characters’ days and served as symbol of a city in physical, psychic, and moral decline.[13] In The Big Sleep, oil infrastructure does some of this work. Derricks show up in key scenes at the beginning and end of the book. Chandler describes them as stained and falling apart. They stand near tepid pools of dirty water. They dribble out last dregs of oil or stand stilled amidst a litter of rusted drums.[14] Eventually Marlowe discovers that one of the Sternwoods killed a man and buried him in the family oil fields. The site summed up an entire fallen city. “Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you,” Marlowe says in the book’s final lines. “You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now.”[15]

For disillusioned Angelenos, identifying the nastiness became a favorite narrative stance. After Hollywood popularized noir in the 1930s and 1940s, the genre resurfaced regularly as a way of shooting down buoyant city myths. In the 1960s, Joan Didion processed the Manson murders with an anxious noir slant. In the 1970s, Roman Polanski used the form to explore corrupt water politics. In the 1980s, Bret Easton Ellis brought noir to bear on malls and materialism.[16] The literary theorist Lauren Berlant says genre provides “an expectation of the experience of watching something unfold, whether that thing is in life or in art.”[17] Certainly this was a good way of describing what I saw noir doing in LA. What struck me was the subtlety with which the dynamic surfaced. Bill blipped about earthquake weather, a sidewalk looked buckled, a nose dripped a bit of blood. The story shaded into paranoia, but from one angle, for just a second. Blink and you could miss it.

On one trip to Los Angeles, I almost did. Time had passed and life had changed since my first oil noir. I’d moved from New York to Tucson, and Bill had cut me loose. Still, my friends Andrew and Paige lived in town, too, so I visited and the three of us went tooling around in Andrew’s car, a light-lemon vintage Mercedes with crisp leather seats. The car was a sort that can only exist in Southern California, and I felt the same about our morning. We’d spent it drinking coffee and eating panaderia pastries and watching scrub jays swoop into his winter garden, a space filled with persimmon trees, succulents, and trailing flowered vines. As Andrew put Stevie Wonder in the tape deck and eased onto the freeway, I threw my arm out the window and said what I thought we all had to be thinking: God, the weather was nice.

Hmm, said Andrew, unconvinced. He didn’t know. Sometimes all the sunny weather struck him as oppressive.

 

**

Views_of_oil_fields_around_Los_Angeles_LOC_2006627695

Forncrook, C.S. and E. M. Views of oil fields around Los Angeles, Map, 1922. 2006627695, Library of Congress, Washington DC, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.gmd/g4361h.ct001874

 Early LA was also terrible for labor. Besides open land and oil, boosters touted a cowed workforce as a signature Southern Californian perk. One of the most powerful, Colonel Harrison Grey Otis, used his business connections to lockout and blacklist union members with the help of local police. Otis considered himself at war with the labor movement and waged it on the ideological front, too, filling the L.A. Times, which he owned, with open-shop vitriol. Across Los Angeles, Otis helped set the tone. The city’s workers, branded “rowdies,” “ruffians,” and “pinheads,”[18] were treated like dirt.

LA oil workers got no special relief. They labored at a hazardous job. Men were burned to death by steam lines and fires. Others fell from the tops of derricks, or fainted from fumes and drowned in oil tanks covered by a thin layer of tarpaper. At least one had his arms pulled off when they got caught in a machine.[19] During World War I, California oil workers had won concessions, including better wages, a switch from 12- to 8-hour days, and union negotiating rights. But by the early ‘20s, oil companies hit back, forcing union members to sign yellow-dog contracts or be fired. 8,000 oil workers in Central California went on strike,[20] but the effort failed. Wages dropped drastically across the state, and industry workers didn’t regain a toehold until well into the ‘30s.[21]

Blocked in economic channels, labor leaders poured energy into political organizing. In places like Long Beach, Huntington Beach, and Torrance, union organizers threw events, founded broadsheets, and turned out voters in the push to regulate oil. They also formed coalitions with residents and conservationists, at times gathering under the umbrella of newly formed property owners’ associations.[22] In a Los Angeles disenchanted with oil, the language of property and property values became a major way residents fought back. When one oil company proposed new wells near downtown LA, the Wilshire Community Council called it “inimical to the esthetic development of the city as a home-owners’ haven.”[23] In a noir-ish oil landscape, real estate was becoming central to the complaint.

**

THUMS Island(s) at sunset

Center for Land Use Interpretation, THUMS islands (Island Grissom) at sunset, 2010.

Andrew’s genre slip was apt, because we weren’t only cruising. Earlier that morning, I’d convinced him and Paige to join my investigation, to ride along on a two-building tour. We took the car down the I-10, headed north on La Cienega, and arrived on busy Pico Boulevard to our first site.

The meters in front of the building were all open, so we parked at random and got out for a look. Ivy climbed the windowless stone walls. The door was industrial-looking and locked. From the center of the otherwise low structure rose Cardiff Tower, trimmed elegantly in white. The architects who built it in the late ‘60s hoped people would think it was a synagogue serving the neighborhood’s Orthodox Jews. In this they were somewhat successful. It was hard to imagine that the building hid forty oil wells, at least until we walked around to the side street and read the gold placard warning about carcinogens. And stopped long enough to notice the mechanical humming coming from inside. And caught a whiff of the faint but acrid smell. Paige scrunched her nose and tongued the roof of her mouth in disgust. “Ugh,” she said, “You can taste it.”

A mile and a half down Pico, the Packard Drill Site pretended to be an office building. Inside, a moveable derrick tracked around on a mechanical grid between fifty-one wells.[24] Apparently, it lacked a roof. Before leaving home, Andrew and Paige and I had pulled up satellite photos and gaped into a weird shadowed hole. Once onsite we did as at Cardiff: We circled, stopped, listened, sniffed. Landscaped palms and jade plants described neat swaths in the front and along the sides. The glass-doored entrance revealed a dusty, shuttered public lobby display. In back houses abutted it a cozy 125 feet away.

Some thought Cardiff and Packard a sign of progress. The buildings were examples of an odd class of camouflage architecture that evolved in the mid-twentieth century as LA residents pushed back against oil drilling. Perhaps the strangest of these structures were the Astronaut Islands in Long Beach. Also known as THUMS — for Texaco, Humble, Union Oil, Mobil, and Shell, the oil companies originally partnered there — the Astronauts were made of hundreds of tons of quarried rock and several million cubic yards of dredged harbor mud and sand to serve as offshore drilling sites. After the derricks and pipes and tanks went up, the THUMS planning team brought on Joseph Linesch, who’d helped design Disneyland, to hide the purpose of the place. He opted for palms, decorative towers, a waterfall, and a series of sculpted concrete walls to ring the island. At night, spotlights bathed the walls in brilliant neon hues.

The Astronauts were closed to the public. I knew because I’d trawled the internet trying to figure out how to visit. As a back-up, I packed a pair of binoculars, and, after dropping Paige and Andrew back at home, took them out with my rented car as dusk fell. By the time I reached the Long Beach shoreline, it was dark and had begun to rain. I found a parking lot on the harbor and pointed the binoculars out my windshield at the islands, which glowed a foggy pink and orange. Under the clouded night sky, they reflected a phrase I encountered over and over in my research. In contrast to the spectacular violence of the early 20th century, LA oil production was now hidden in plain sight.

**

 

Los Angeles is a famously fragmented place; as one oft-quoted quip has it, it is “seventy-two suburbs in search of a city.”[25] Early oil development played a central role in making this so. Many neighborhoods and suburbs grew up around drilling or refining sites or as residential communities for workers. Oil revenues allowed some of them to incorporate separately from Los Angeles, while cheap oil gave them further independence in the form of power plants, paved roads, and fuel for cars. I felt it while trying to tour more after THUMS. I started the morning in Beverly Hills, site of a derrick hidden under a shell decorated with children’s art; then watched rusted pumpjacks bob along the fences of the Inglewood Oil Field; then stopped to see rigs looming over houses in West Adams and University Park. In between I took wrong turns, stopped for directions, and inched painfully along in a rush hour that never seemed to end. By the time I was casing the perimeters of the giant refineries in Wilmington, I had passed through five independently incorporated towns, traveled thirty-five miles, and driven away a significant portion of the day.

Homeowners associations helped fragment Los Angeles, too. If early groups helped restrict oil production, many were also obsessed with another agenda: locking Black and Asian residents out of their blocks and streets. Over the course of the ‘20s, homeowner activists helped establish 95% of housing stock within LA city limits as white-only. Mike Davis calls this period the “white-supremacist genealogy” of what would become “[t]he most significant ‘social movement’ in Southern California…[:] affluent homeowners, organized by notional community designations or tract names, engaged in defense of home values and neighborhood exclusivity.”[26] By the middle of the 20th century, that movement had gained incorporation laws and zoning rules to pursue a whole host of demands. At times the new tools were wielded to racist, classist, anti-busing and anti-renter and English-only kinds of ends. At other moments they were used to stand down corporate developers and win environmental regulations. As their political power grew, homeowners expanded their attention to a scattershot list of small-scale NIMBY concerns. They fought against mini malls, diamond highway lanes, a fancy bistro, the shaving of a hill, and, in a campaign that galvanized a thousand activists and left a local councilman branded a “Dog Nazi,” dog owners who let their pets shit in a park.[27]

The jumbled protests shared a tone. It saw threat everywhere and betrayed an often-inflated, noir-ish sense of risk. By the ‘80s, local politicians learned to bow to the homeowners, or at least fake it lest they get kicked out of office, and middle- and upper-class concerns came to dominate LA politics just as state- and federal-level neoliberal policies were hitting working-class communities of color hardest. The results were predictable. Helped along by homeowner noirs, neighborhood-based inequities grew and compounded in risk and resources.

The pattern was obvious in the metro landscape I’d been investigating. Though a full third of LA-area residents lived within a mile of a drilling site, more protections were won, and safety standards more strictly enforced, in affluent and majority-white neighborhoods than in working-class neighborhoods of color. The faux buildings at Cardiff and Packard — elaborate compared to the beige walls that hid oil operations elsewhere— were one example of the accommodations wealthy residents had won. Others included limited drilling hours, restrictions on trucking, lower-polluting electric drills, weekly emissions tests, 24-7 noise monitoring, and dedicated community liaisons.[28]

Contrast that with University Park in South LA, whose residents are mostly working-class and of color; in 2010, when the AllenCo oil site began emitting dense, obvious fumes, it took them years to get heard. Sometimes the air smelled like petroleum, other times like fruity chemicals. People got nosebleeds, migraines, and stomachaches. Then Monic Uriarte was out taking photos for a photography class with her daughter Nalleli and found the gate to the beige-walled compound ajar. Uriarte hadn’t known anything about what was behind the walls; now a worker showed them around, touring past oil pipes and oil tanks and signs for toxic gas. The worker gave Nalleli a baby food jar filled with water and a heavy, sinking layer of crude. Oil and water don’t mix, he said: She should take it to school to show the other kids the site was safe.

And so the University Park investigation had begun. Uriarte talked to neighbors, and they talked to more, and soon they’d hooked up with Esperanza Community Housing and launched a campaign. Residents flooded the regional air quality complaint line with messages while Esperanza researched AllenCo and interviewed people about their symptoms. Together they dropped banners, held protests and press conferences, and, because AllenCo leased their land from the Catholic archdiocese, sent a video starring Nalleli to the Pope. They dug up record of hundreds of environmental violations and learned that AllenCo had upped production 400% around the time the fumes showed up. Still it took three years before an L.A. Times exposé and a visit by then-Senator Barbara Boxer forced the city to act. They shut the site down, but the damage was done. A set of more long-terms threats had been seeded. Though their nosebleeds and stomachaches were gone, University Park residents had a heightened risk of cancer, reproductive anomalies, and other illnesses. Chemical exposure had left Uriarte, for one, without a sense a smell.[29]

Many critics have called out the history of the noir protagonist, how most have been middle-class and white. That fact is not abstract. It trails consequences for everyday space and behavior; it is tangled in the inequalities of mundane, material LA. An oil executive, speaking to West Adams activist Richard Parks about their local drilling site, illustrated the reality with terrible, careless ease. West Adams residents are also predominantly working-class and of color, and when the activist relayed his neighbors’ complaints, including a day where the site rained a mist of oil on the entire surrounding block, the oil exec shrugged. “Look, this isn’t exactly Laguna Niguel,” he said, meaning a well-off beach community.[30] In the landscape of the Los Angeles oil noir, West Adams didn’t register in the plot.

**

Like the University Park activists, I didn’t stay clumsy. In time, I became my own Marlowe, ready with a meticulous mental map of policies, perps, and case studies. But my competence only mattered so much. However good one gets at reading noir, the story is always fragmented, its through line hard to grasp. Information in a Marlowe novel is imparted, in the words of cultural theorist Frederic Jameson, like “glimpses through a window” and “noises from the back of a store.”[31] This quality was heightened by the secretive realities of oil production. Industry reps stonewalled and gaslit. In Beverly Hills, where a camouflaged derrick pumps oil next to Beverly Hills High School, Venoco loosed a sharky legal team on a thousand-some graduates who’d developed rare cancers, discrediting their class-action lawsuit.[32] In Porter Ranch, which sits beside an oil field and giant gas storage facilities, SoCal Gas downplayed the size of a massive gas leak and said science hadn’t “definitively” found gas dangerous.[33] In Wilmington, whose toxic concentration of oil refineries have led to abysmal health outcomes for residents, Warren E&P gave out gas gift cards as a paltry gesture of remuneration.[34]

Porter Ranch Protest

Porter Ranch Protest, photo by Elijah Hurwitz. Courtesy of Hurwitz

Changing production techniques muddied the informational waters, too. Los Angeles’ oil fields are old and over-pumped. To stay profitable, companies fracked and acidized, shooting sand and chemicals into wells to force the dregs out. A quarter of wells used some enhanced technique, and the government agencies tasked with overseeing them showed neither the will nor the ability to keep up.[35] Residents had little help if they wanted to know what was going on. In West Adams in 2015, a church group called Redeemer Community Partnership filmed volunteer Niki Wong staked out beside the beige wall of the local oil site. “It’s like 6:35am,” Wong said to the camera quietly, crouching, as birds chirped the morning awake. “We got a tip that they’re going to be doing an acidizing maintenance job.” Two to four tankers, each filled with five thousand gallons of chemicals, would soon be driving through the neighborhood. By law Freeport McMoRan, the site owners, had to give neighbors just a day’s notice for the job, but Wong had kept tabs and organized a group to rapid-respond. When the tankers rolled towards the site, they planned to mass up into a blockade. In the video, Wong pointed above her head to a surveillance camera she’d been ducking, then looked down to catch a text on her phone. “Oh, shoot,” she frowned. Freeport had cancelled the job.[36]

There were still other layers of obfuscation at work. When a site stopped serving oil companies, they could simply sell their land and whatever responsibility it might entail. At Inglewood Oil Field, site of the earthquake rumors that made Bill paranoid, owners PXP Oil funded their study showing fracking to be safe and soon after, perhaps tired of answering to resident concerns, sold their holdings to Freeport McMoRan. For their part, Freeport McMoRan held the fields for a stint before palming them off to Sentinel Peak Resources, which had been buying up sites around LA.[37]

15226111610_d265f89d1f_k

Allenco Oil site. Photo by Sarah Craig. Courtesy of Craig

And that was just the fate of active wells. Responsibility could be an even murkier question for the metro area’s thousands of abandoned wells. Near downtown, the Edward Roybal Learning Center, a high school, was built on top of nineteen old wells and surrounded by hundreds more. Many were capped before the ‘50s, when government agencies first created rules for doing so, and workers stopped them with anything they could find: garbage, rocks, telephone poles. School construction took two decades, and even costly remediation didn’t fix the site’s problems. Around the school grounds, imitation lampposts vented the methane that kept belching from the wells. But some days fumes still filled campus, and some days students and teachers still got headache-y and sick.[38]

These were the sorts of rabbit holes one fell into when sleuthing around the oil industry. Eventually, even dedicated detectives were likely to get lost. It had happened to me, but the real story lay with longtime LA residents. “We never know what is going on,” Lillian Marenco, who’d lived in West Adams for thirty years, explained through a megaphone to a gathered crowd. Though Wong’s stakeout hadn’t worked, the protest went on as planned. A few dozen people marched and carried signs and sang a call-and-response song. Staaand together — Against neighborhood drilling! Staaand together — Against neighborhood drilling! Then they gathered for a press conference. “If they just come to get the money and leave us with all the nuisance,” Marenco asked her neighbors and the press, “Then what is the benefit of my community? I wonder.”[39]

**

Back home in Tucson, I kept poking around online. The 2015-2016 Porter Ranch gas leak was especially easy to learn about; for the four months from the moment the leak was discovered to when it was plugged, the story had gotten tons of coverage. Many stories cited a video taken looking down into the foothills where the leak had been found. Taken by the activist group Earthworks,[40]  the video deploys a straightforward transformational grammar. At first it’s a regular LA day: just sun, hills, cars. Five seconds later, the camera switches into infrared view and you are watching a thick cloud of — something billowing over the exact same spot. The film toggles between the two frames in chunky cuts. Sunny day. Thick cloud. Sunny day. Thick cloud. Even without context — knowledge of the size of the leak and the methane and benzene and other toxic compounds billowing everywhere — the image is unnerving. With context, it is a precise and succinct depiction of the mystery of living next door to the oil industry. How that cloud might be invisibly menacing you. The video struck me as an ingenuous oil noir.

But, whatever its strengths, the genre hadn’t yet lived up to its more radical political promise. This was true of the noir of books and films as well as the noir that filtered into oil activist storytelling. Historically speaking, its stars had been too white and middle-class, its sense of injury too stuck on property and other individually minded dreams, its understanding of power too piecemeal and vague. Historically speaking, it had fashioned a politics from eerie atmospherics and an impoverished sense of what geographer Edward Soja called spatial justice. In my online wanderings I found a GIS map[41] that captured it well. The map uses black dots to represent active oil wells in the LA metro area, to unsettling result. As I scrolled around, zooming in and out, the city looked riddled with bullet holes. Some well-off neighborhoods were shot up, in danger, making a lie of the kind of activism that treats oil production like a quality-of-life annoyance. On a map shaped by that activism, these endangered neighborhoods sat beside poorer neighborhoods that were under full-on siege, buried under and erased by wells.

DOGGR LA Co Oil Well Map

Well Finder, Screenshot, California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM), formerly Department of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR). https://maps.conservation.ca.gov/doggr/wellfinder/#openModal/-118.03211/33.98398/12

That tension echoed in Porter Ranch, which became a flashpoint for local environmental justice advocates tracking disparities in oil industry protections. The neighborhood’s affluent residents garnered local and national attention and secured concessions other neighborhoods hadn’t gotten, including relocation to hotels on SoCal’s dime.[42] At times their public testimonies reflected the homeowner-activist playbook and its class-bound complaints. People fretted about property values. They lamented disrupted Christmas plans and the expense of nannies hired when parents got migraines.[43] In the face of a giant, dangerous leak, some residents dramatized the real injustice of their situation as that of lost middle-class normalcy.   

Still, there seemed no reason noir couldn’t be more politically astute. Chester Himes used it to express the nightmarishness of being a Black longshoreman in the 1945 novel If He Hollers Let Him Go. The sometimes-Communist writers of early noir films smuggled in the occasional systemic critique. And I was sure that other examples lurked in literary and filmic back catalogues. But it seemed less important to unearth those than to hear the new noir insights brought forth by those battling LA oil today. They could be found everywhere, including in Porter Ranch, where neighborhood activists in noir-ish gas masks carried signs that amended an early slogan, Shut It Down, to the more spatially capacious Shut It ALL Down. A protester named Matt Pakucko pushed the thesis further, called out the lopsided attention trained on his neighborhood: “There’s other communities with probably worse problems than us, for decades longer …. Do they get relocated? No. Because it’s a poor neighborhood.”[44]

Further insight came from STAND-LA, a coalition formed to agitate for citywide drilling standards. Esperanza Community Housing was a member and brought its experience in University Park, which it read through the lens of economic and health justice. In an interview about the campaign, Esperanza director Nancy Halpern Ibrahim complicated the point. Though they’d suspected the company was fracking, they didn’t know the technical specifics and were sure it would take forever to find out. And so, though the specter of fracking drove oil rumors across the city, they took AllenCo’s deception as baseline, didn’t fixate on the injustice of being lied to, and kept health at the center of a simpler message on traditional drilling.[45] To these new noir suggestions — transforming stories about property into stories about collectivity, treating corporate dishonesty not as shocking betrayal but as systemic truism — the West Adams video added one more. After Niki Wong’s stakeout dramatized Freeport McMoRan’s secrecy, it noted that most of the information that had been discovered came from resident photos and reports. Here was an edit to one of noir’s most beloved premises: There was no such thing as a solo detective; there were only many.

Another update peeked out during a 2015 strike at the Tesoro Refinery in Wilmington. A worker named Melissa Bailey told a journalist that she’d just worked twelve to fourteen hours nineteen days in a row.[46] For another article, colleagues explained how they survived such grueling schedules: with coffee, energy drinks, and sugary snacks.[47] That plus fatigue left them dazed and drunk and led to injuries, which workers often hid so as not to miss out on safety bonuses. The practice was called, viscerally, “bloody pockets,” conjuring a sinister work atmosphere while offering a reminder that fields and refineries and storage plants didn’t just have neighbors. They were also populated with workers.

A final noir revision surfaced in Culver City, a small town incorporated in the middle of Los Angeles. Culver City sits beside the Inglewood Oil Field and is part of a Community Standard District, a special zoning designation whose drilling regulations were celebrated as the region’s most stringent. The 2008 planning text that brought the district into being opens with a legalistic preamble that defines fifty-eight words whose meanings Inglewood owners might dispute. The words include “drilling,” “fluid,” “derrick,” “well,” “gas,” and “oil.”[48] The anticipation of a doublespeak so fundamental begged a conclusion that in the end took ten years to gel. In 2018, Culver City launched a study to figure out they could legally shut their portion of the oil field down. The town’s vice-mayor cited a long history of damage at the field, then said it sat atop a fault that was due a big earthquake any day.[49] In the unequal landscape oil had made of the Los Angeles metro region, Culver City had been a privileged squeaky wheel. But if a more radical approach to land use could surge up around it, the logic of their gambit would be powerful. Zoning isn’t enough to limit harm to residents’ health, that logic says. The drilling would have to stop.

**

“We are invested not only in talking about what we don’t want but also in making the case for a meaningful, just transition,” Nancy Halpern Ibrahim told me over the phone. I’d called to hear a about Esperanza and STAND-LA’s work moving forward, and, though I felt silly relating the flimsy anecdote that had propelled me to her work in University Park, Ibrahim wasn’t fazed. After an hour of her own rambling — “I don’t speak in sound bites,” she said, appealingly not sorry — we’d reached what seemed the conversation’s upshot. She and coalition colleagues had convinced the mayor’s office to form a Climate Emergency Mobilization Department, which opened in 2019; given its oil history, they thought, Los Angeles had nationally relevant ideas on how to transition away from oil. What would become of the department remained to be seen, but we’d scaled out to an essential question: not just how Los Angeles could overcome its spatial injustices, but what that fight had to do with those elsewhere.

I wondered about that, too. For the moment, my encounter with Inglewood and West Adams and Porter Ranch seemed to be wrapping up, and the task seemed to be to turn towards the rest of the maps I shared with others. I thought of my dad’s family in Texas, where the oil stories to be reckoned with had less to do with noir than the lure of the rich oilman as hero and villain. In North Dakota’s Bakken Shale, where some friends had been spending time, the myths of the Western frontier lived on. And though it was less obvious which genres bound fossil fuel politics in New York and Tucson, I knew I didn’t have to dig alone. As in LA, my two homes were surely peopled by activists who might help teach me the plot.

Notes

Author’s note: Thanks go to Morgan Adamson, Aaron Bady, Stefano Bloch, Bill Gallagher, Raquel Gutiérrez, Nancy Halpern Ibrahim, Andrew Knighton, Ava Kofman, Ruth Nervig, Paige Sweet, and workshop participants in UA’s creative nonfiction program. 

[1]            James Sadd and Bhavna Shamasunder. “Oil extraction in Los Angeles: Health, Land Use and Environmental Justice Consequences” Drilling Down: The Community Consequences of Expanded Oil Development in Los Angeles. (Los Angeles, Liberty Hill Foundation, 2015.)

[2]           Zahira Torres and Laura Nelson. “Baldwin Hills-area quakes not linked to oil operations, experts say,” LA Times. 3 May 2015. See also Carlos Granda, “Baldwin Hills resident concerned fracking may be causing earthquakes,” ABC7 News. 4 May 2015; “3.5 earthquake rattles Los Angeles,” LA Times. 12 April 2015.

[3]           “Raw Footage: 10-K Gallon Oil Spill in Atwater Village,” NBC Southern California, 15 May 2014; Ashley Soley-Cerro, 10,000-Gallon Crude Oil Spill Prompts Evacuation of L.A. Strip Club,“ KTLA 5, 15 May 2014; Jason Wells. “10,000-gallon crude oil spill in Atwater Village looked ‘like a lake,’” LA Times. 15 May 2014.Village

[4]           Carly Dryden. “South Bay beaches remain closed as officials investigate source of apparent oil spill,” The Daily Breeze, 28 May 2015. See also Kelly Goff and Gadi Schwartz. “Beaches Closed Due to Mysterious Petroleum Globs,” NBC Southern California, 27 May 2015; Veronica Rocha. “Tar balls in South Bay: Beaches closed until further notice,” LA Times, 29 May 2015.

[5]           Mike Davis. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. (New York: Verso, 1990), 36-7.

[6]           Nancy Quam-Wickham. “An ‘Oleaginous Civilization’: Oil in Southern California,” Southern California Quarterly, Vol. 97, No. 3, p 285; “Fred Viehe. “Black Gold Suburbs: The Influence of the Extractive Industry on the Suburbanization of Los Angeles, 1890-1930.” Journal of Urban History, Vol. 8 No. 1 (November 1981), p 6.

[7]           Jules Tygiel. The Great Los Angeles Swindle: Oils, Stocks, and Scandal during the Roaring 20s. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 37-9.

[8]           Nancy Quam-Wickham. “‘Cities Sacrificed on the Altar of Oil’: Popular Opposition to Oil Development in 1920s Los Angeles.” Environmental History, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Apr. 1998), 192.

[9]           Tom Hiney. Raymond Chandler: A Biography. (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997), 58; Jules Tygiel, The Great Los Angeles Swindle, 40.

[10]         Jules Tygiel. The Great Los Angeles Swindle, 213-257.

[11]         Mike Davis, City of Quartz, 38.

[12]         Tom Hiney, Raymond Chandler, 51-7.

[13]         Mike Davis, City of Quartz, 38.

[14]         “The Oil Pumps in The Big Sleep,” https://www.shmoop.com/big-sleep/oil-pumps-symbol.html.

[15]         Quoted in Tom Hiney, Raymond Chandler, 69.

[16]         Mike Davis, City of Quartz, 44-5.

[17]         Lauren Berlant. Cruel Optimism. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 6.

[18]         Dennis MacDougal, Privileged Son: Otis Chandler And The Rise And Fall Of The L.A. Times Dynasty. (New York: Hachette Books, 2009), 46.

[19]         Nancy Quam-Wickham. “An ‘Oleaginous Civilization,’” 287.

[20]         John Laslett. Sunshine Was Never Enough: Los Angeles Workers, 1880–2010. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 98-9.

[21]         John Laslett. Sunshine Was Never Enough, 99.

[22]         Nancy Quam-Wickham. “‘Cities Sacrificed on the Altar of Oil,’” 197-202.

[23]         Sarah Elkind. “Oil in the City: The Fall and Rise of Oil Drilling in Los Angeles.” The Journal of American History, Vol. 82 (June 2012), p 86.

[24]         This visit took place in 2017; Google Maps now lists the site as closed, though I found no news stories to confirm or give detail.

[25]         This quote is often attributed to Dorothy Parker; it is actually a distortion of Aldous Huxley, who called LA “nineteen suburbs in search of a metropolis” in his 1925 book Americana. Adrienne Crew, “Misquoting Dorothy Parker,” LA Observed. 22 August 2013. http://www.laobserved.com/intell/2013/08/misquoting_dorothy_parker.php

[26]         Mike Davis, City of Quartz, 153.

[27]         Mike Davis, City of Quartz, 184-204.

[28]         Community Health Councils. “Oil Drilling in Los Angeles: A Story of Unequal Protections,” (Los Angeles, 2015). http://www.climateaccess.org/sites/default/files/CHC-Issue-Brief-Oil-Drilling-In-Los-Angeles.pdf

[29]         Nancy Halpern Ibrahim. Personal interview, 11 October 2019; Barbara Osborn, “When Regulators Fail,” Drilling Down: The Community Consequences of Expanded Oil Development in Los Angeles. (Los Angeles, Liberty Hill Foundation, 2015.)

[30]         Barbara Osborn, “‘How are these Chemicals being used?’” Drilling Down, 18.

[31]         Quoted in Cornelius Fitz. “disclosing being – on raymond chandler: the detections of totality by fredric jameson,” 3am Magazine. 6 December 2016. http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/disclosing-raymond-chandler-detections-totality-fredric-jameson/

[32]         Joy Horowitz. Parts Per Million: The Poisoning of Beverly Hills High School. (New York: Penguin Books, 2008)

[33]         Jane Yamamoto. “Outrage Builds in Porter Ranch Over Gas Leak,” NBC Southern California. 12 December 2015.

[34]         “Warren E&P, Wilmington.” Stand-LA. https://www.stand.la/wilmington.html

[35]         Molly Peterson. “Oil and gas regulators admit to massive oversight failures in new report,” KPCC. 8 October 2015. https://www.scpr.org/news/2015/10/08/54934/oil-and-gas-regulators-admit-to-massive-oversight/

[36]         Redeemer Community Partnership. “The Jefferson Drill Documentary,” 2015. https://vimeo.com/133806931

[37]         Kaitlin Parker. “Concerns arise as Inglewood Oil Field plans for increased activity,” Intersections South LA, 4 January 2012; Susan Taylor, “Freeport-McMoRan Sells Inglewood Oil Field to Sentinel Peak,” Culver City Crossroads via Reuters. 14 October 2014.

[38]         “Echo Park Wells,” Stand-LA. https://www.stand.la/echo-park-wells.html

[39]         Redeemer Community Partnership. “The Jefferson Drill Documentary”; Susan Abram. “How These Neighbors Took On The Oil Company In Their Backyard And Won,” Huffington Post. 27 July 2019. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/oil-drill-site-protest-california_n_5d3911a0e4b004b6adbab9c6

[40]         Pete Dronkers. “SoCalGas Aliso Canyon, CA,” https://earthworks.org/blog/what_i_saw_in_porter_ranch/

[41]         DOGGR Well Finder. https://maps.conservation.ca.gov/doggr/wellfinder/#openModal/-118.03211/33.98384/12

[42]         Laura Bliss. “L.A.’s Slow-Moving Oil and Gas Disaster,” City Lab. 3 February 2016. https://www.citylab.com/equity/2016/02/california-porter-ranch-gas-leak-oil-environmental-justice/425052/

[43]         Elijah Hurwitz, “Poison Ranch: The Porter Ranch Gas Blowout,” Pacific Standard. 5 May 2016. https://psmag.com/news/poison-ranch-the-porter-ranch-gas-blowout

[44]         Sarah Parvini and Tony Barboza. “No relief in sight for Porter Ranch residents,” LA Times, 3 December 2015. Proquest. https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy2.library.arizona.edu/docview/1738673342?accountid=8360&rfr_id=info%3Axri%2Fsid%3Aprimo

[45]         Nancy Halpern Ibrahim. Personal interview, 11 October 2019.

[46]         Haya El Nasser. “Striking California oil refinery workers demand better safety, wages,” Al Jazeera America, 4 February 2015. http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/2/4/workers-strike-at-california-oil-refinery.html

[47]         Tiffany Hsu. “At L.A. oil refinery, striking workers vent about long hours and stress,” LA Times. 26 February 2015. https://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-refinery-strike-20150227-story.html

[48]         Los Angeles County Department of Planning. “Baldwin Hills Community Standards District” p 8. http://planning.lacounty.gov/assets/upl/project/bh_title22.pdf

[49]         Christian May-Suzuki. “City Council meets to continue discussion on Inglewood Oil Field,” Culver City News. 18 July 2019. https://www.culvercitynews.org/city-council-meets-to-continue-discussion-on-inglewood-oil-field/

 

Miranda Trimmier is from Milwaukee, lives in Tucson, and writes about land-use politics. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Arizona and has published with Places JournalThe New InquiryTerrain, and other outlets.

Copyright: © 2020 Miranda Trimmier. 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

Yemeni Farm Workers and the Politics of Arab Nationalism in the UFW

Neama Alamri

Growing up in the Central Valley, the history of the United Farm Workers (UFW) and Cesar Chavez loomed large. When teachers in school incorporated him into our history lessons, many of the students were already familiar with the impact he and the farm worker movement had on the lives of farm workers in California. Yet, despite being born and raised in the Central Valley, as a Yemeni American, I didn’t always identify with the history of the UFW which primarily focused on the experiences of Mexican and Filipino laborers. It was not until my father shared with me that he attended Chavez’s rallies during his time picking grapes near Delano in the 1970s, that I began to discover the role Yemenis played in the UFW. My father’s stories unlocked for me an entire history of Yemenis in the Central Valley and their experiences in the farm worker movement.

The UFW and the farm worker movement led by Cesar Chavez has been well documented and has allowed historians to explore the successes and failures of perhaps the most well-known labor movement in United States history.[1] There has been an effort from both scholars and public institutions such as the National Parks Services to improve public history on the UFW and address many of the misunderstandings within this history by engaging in public storytelling through academic scholarship, historical landmarks, and even children’s literature.[2] Following in the path of this work, this article begins with my father’s stories in order to explore the history of Yemeni farm workers in the Central Valley and their involvement in the UFW throughout the 1970s. For those familiar with the farm worker movement, the inclusion of Yemenis is limited to the death of Nagi Daifallah, a young Yemeni immigrant and UFW organizer killed by a deputy sheriff in Lamont, California. Not often discussed, however, is the fact that during Nagi’s funeral march in August of 1973, Yemenis decided to carry a portrait of the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, a leader of anti-colonial Arab nationalism. Based on an oral history with my father as well as archival material that has been largely ignored, including Nagi Daifallah’s papers, this article contextualizes why Yemenis turned to Arab nationalism and the impact it had on the UFW’s social justice platform. By exploring the life of Nagi and other Yemeni farm workers, this article looks at this understudied chapter in the UFW’s history to argue that because of their Arab and Muslim identities as well as invocation of anticolonial Arab nationalism, Yemenis had a complicated relationship with the union that disrupts the narrative of a multicultural movement.

My father, Mohamed Alamri, immigrated to the United States from Yemen in the summer of 1975. He first arrived in Dearborn, Michigan where there existed a large Yemeni community, thousands of whom were working in Detroit’s booming auto industry for companies like Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler. Less prominent in numbers, yet growing each year, was the community of Yemenis in California, which everyone in Dearborn told Mohamed was where you can find the “real money.” Driven by the motivation to find a job that could provide the most for his parents and siblings back in Yemen, Mohamed hopped a plane to California. The first job he landed was in Poplar, a small town 70 miles south of Fresno, picking grapes. Mohamed recalled how the other Yemenis at the labor camp laughed when he arrived dressed in a tie, button-down shirt, and slacks. Growing up in Yemen and hearing of America’s wealth and luxury, he wanted to look his best. Yet, after a long day toiling under the summer heat, Mohamed quickly learned that working in the fields of Central Valley was not very different than village life in Yemen.[3] 

Mohamed photo

Mohamed, right, after a day’s work in Poplar, CA. Courtesy of author

 Mohamed joined thousands of Yemeni farm workers who found work in the fields from the late 1960s to the end of the 1970s. Due to lack of official records, it is unclear exactly how many Yemeni farm workers there were during this period, but estimates range from a few hundred to over five thousand.[4] Yemenis migrated within three major agricultural regions within California: the Sacramento Valley, the San Joaquin Valley and the Imperial Valley. [5]   Migration cycles began with the April asparagus harvest in Stockton, and then moved to the southern end of the valley in the Delano-Porterville-Bakersfield area for the grape harvest until the end of November. Then, many Yemenis moved to Arvin or Coachella where the grapevine-pruning season began. They eventually returned to the Delano-Porterville area to complete more grapevine pruning and remained in that area until the next migration cycle.[6] Like other farm workers, Yemenis faced several obstacles from low wages, language barriers, and limited access to health care and social services. They were, however, seen as desirable by employers. As growers were faced with the increasing resistance and union organizing amongst Mexican and Filipino workers, many were eager to employ Yemenis whom they believed were docile and “easier to control.”[7] The growers did not anticipate the fact that not only would Yemenis organize alongside the UFW, but were also equipped with radical politics inspired by events in Yemen as well as their Muslim and Arab identities, differentiating them from their Mexican and Filipino counterparts.

For my father and many other Yemenis who grew up in the context of decolonization and revolution in Yemen, the UFW’s emphasis on social justice was both identifiable and appealing. The 1960s and 1970s were a time of tumultuous political changes in former North and South Yemen. With the spread of Arab nationalism inspired by Arab leaders, such as Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, as well as anti-colonial movements throughout the world, North and South Yemenis were inspired to challenge systems of power. In 1963, the National Liberation Front was established in South Yemen in order to decolonize the British Protectorate of Aden.[8] Meanwhile, in North Yemen, military rebels fought to overthrow the ruling monarchy at the time and establish a republic. In 1967, South Yemen successfully decolonized Aden, ending over a hundred years of British imperial presence in the region, and became a Marxist regime known as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. A year later in 1968, North Yemen overthrew the monarchy and established the Republic of Yemen.  The wars in South and North Yemen as well as the end of British colonization in Aden, led to a deterioration of Yemen’s economy. With many families facing poverty, Yemen’s largest economic export became its labor force, consisting primarily of men. Although Yemenis had been migrating for work beginning in the late 19th and early 20th century, the 1960s and 1970s saw large scale labor migration of Yemenis to other parts of the world, including Britain, Southeast Asia, East Africa, and the United States. The 1965 Immigration Act, which ended restrictive immigration policies, increased Yemeni immigration to the United States.  By the 1970s, many of the Yemenis arriving in the United States worked in automobile factories in Detroit, Michigan, steel plants in Buffalo, New York, and agricultural farms across California. The experiences of Yemeni immigrants in California were reflective of many of the experiences of Arab immigrants who arrived post-1965. Yet, unlike other Arab immigrants, primarily from Lebanon and Syria, who arrived in the early twentieth century, Yemenis who came to the U.S. in the late 1960s and 1970s were predominantly working-class and Muslim.[9]  While many Arabs in the U.S. prior to the 1960s had been racialized as white, the intersection of class and religion racialized Yemeni immigrants as non-white, “other” minorities.

Alongside increased employment by growers, there are several reasons why Yemenis came to California. Many came to the U.S. with agricultural experience in Yemen already, as families usually owned a few acres in which they grew and harvested their own food. Following the wars in Yemen, however, a decline in national resources and limited economic opportunities pushed most families to rely on foreign imports. Another strategy included sending relatives, usually young men, to other countries for work in order to earn money for the entire family. In the mid-twentieth century, the booming California agricultural industry offered immediate employment opportunities to many young Yemeni men who came to the U.S. with some agricultural experience in hopes of supporting their families back home. Another channel by which Yemenis came to California was a credit system established by Trans World Airlines (TWA). The system was allegedly backed by growers to help expedite travel for immigrants, predominantly young men from Yemen. Although not Mohamed’s experience, based on testimonies from UFW volunteers and the few secondary sources available, there are speculations that growers themselves funded the travel to bring groups of young men from Yemen to work.[10] Through this system, a relative or friend residing in California paid a $100 deposit with a cosigner in Yemen for a plane ticket from the TWA costing $800 with the condition that upon arrival the worker would pay the beneficiary back. While providing loans to help travel from Yemen was common between Yemenis, the involvement of the TWA in facilitating this communal practice was unusual. Yemenis who came in through the TWA credit system arrived in the dozens and essentially went straight from the airport to the hiring halls. A spokesman representing a group of workers would initiate applications for social security numbers so the workers could begin working as soon as possible.[11] There are several discrepancies between the numbers provided by the Immigration and Naturalization Service records which reports 380 alien Yemenis registered in 1974 as opposed to the numbers given by the TWA office in Los Angeles which reports 100,000 in the decade leading up to 1974.[12] This discrepancy indicates the possibility that the number reported by TWA were of undocumented Yemenis.

Yemeni farm workers faced several obstacles from low wages, language barriers, and limited access to health care and social services. Similar to other farm workers, the conditions for Yemenis were inextricably linked to the exploitive system established by the growers. Faced with the precarities of being a low-wage laborer and immigrant, it was no surprise, then, that the UFW appealed to Yemenis. Beginning in the late 1960s, there were at least 500 Yemeni UFW members, although the numbers were likely higher.[13] The UFW offered Yemenis a platform to advocate, assert their presence, and gain resources. Amongst many things, the UFW worked to provide Arabic translators for Yemeni workers, halal food in the labor camps, as well as access to health care. While health issues such as tuberculosis and respiratory infections were common among farm workers, many Yemenis suffered from schistosomiasis, an intestinal infection caused by contact of parasites in water endemic in Yemen. The UFW tested and treated hundreds of Yemenis.[14]

While the UFW was accommodating to needs of Yemeni workers by providing them with services, the invocation of Arab nationalism also threatened the UFW’s platform and reputation amongst supporters. Throughout the first half of the 1970s, the peak of Yemeni immigration to California, Yemeni farm workers were present for some of the most successful as well as contentious years of the UFW.[15] As the UFW fought to sustain their success following the 1970 historic grape contracts, Yemenis were a strategic group to mobilize.  The UFW hired several Yemeni organizers in order to reach out to the Yemeni community, many of whom only spoke Arabic.[16] Some of these organizers included: Saeed Mohammed Al-Alas, Ahmed Shaibi, and Nagi Daifallah. Saeed Mohamed Al-Alas a UFW organizer from Aden, the capital of former South Yemen, organized with the UFW in the early 1970s and was the lead organizer for a funeral march in Porterville honoring the life of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.[17] Ahmed Shaibi who was also South Yemeni was hired by the UFW in 1977 and served for the union for several years before opening the first local chapter of the Anti-Arab Discrimination Committee in Delano in 1982. Lastly Nagi Daifallah, whose untimely death profoundly impacted the trajectory of the union, was also a union organizer.[18]

Like Saeed Mohammed Al-Alas, Ahmed Shaibi, and Nagi Daifallah, those with a background in social justice activism in Yemen, including anti-colonial and Arab nationalist ideologies, became involved as organizers the UFW. While these ideologies had origins in the context of political changes in Yemen and the Middle East, they were not mutually exclusive from the issues Yemeni farm workers faced in the Central Valley. Yemenis invoked these political identities as a way to assert themselves as immigrants in California, as well as, define their involvement in the farm worker movement. One example of this was a funeral march for Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, an ardent leader of Arab nationalism, that was organized by Yemeni farm workers in Porterville.  On October 1, 1970, after Gamal Abdel Nasser died of a heart attack, local Yemenis planned a funeral march in his honor. Nearly one thousand Yemeni farm workers in Porterville attended a funeral march to mourn the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Led by a drummer, marchers carried an American flag alongside the United Arab Republic flag and a portrait of the late President Nasser covered in a black veil.[19] In an article of the union’s newsletter, El Malcriado, documenting the event, Yemeni UFW organizer Saeed Mohammed Al-Alas stated, “Nasser has been a father to us. He was the only great leader we had. He brought all the Arabs together, began economic programs, and threw the British out of Egypt. He was really interested in the people.”[20] Mohammed Al-Alas’ statement on Nasser discussed three political projects: Arab unity, economic justice and lastly anti-colonialism. All of these things contextualized Mohammed Al-Alas’ involvement in fighting for farm worker justice in California. When asked why he remains in the Central Valley he replied, “Where else could I do as much for my countrymen?”[21] Evident in Mohammed Al-Alas’ statement, and for many other Yemenis, politics rooted in Arab nationalism and decolonization were not separate from their identities as UFW supporters and immigrants in the Central Valley. Highlighted in the union’s newsletter, the inclusion of  Yemenis in the movement in the early 1970s helped boost the union’s reputation for multicultural social justice, particularly at a time when Filipino farm workers became disillusioned with Chavez’s leadership.[22] Yet, the turn to anti-colonial Arab nationalism radicalized Yemenis in a way that was illegible to the UFW’s mission.

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Chavez, center, marching with Yemeni activists, Delano, CA, 1973. Courtesy of Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries

Three years later, in August of 1973, the portrait of Nasser would be carried once more, this time to mourn the death of Nagi Daifallah. Nagi’s death occurred in the midst of combative union politics between the UFW and the Teamsters, police violence against workers, as well as police and grower collaboration. On July 29, 1970, the UFW signed what would come to be known as the historic grape contracts, ending the five-year-long grape strike and boycott that began in Delano and marked the first collective bargaining agreement for farm workers in California. The UFW’s fight for farm worker justice did not end there, of course. In the summer of 1973, as the UFW’s three-year grape contracts came up for renewal, strikes took place again after growers signed sweetheart contracts with the Teamsters union without an election. Thousands of strikers were arrested, and hundreds suffered injuries at the hands of law enforcement.[23] On the evening of August 13, 1973, a group of farm workers and UFW volunteers and organizers stood outside a café in Lamont, California. Deputy Sheriff Gilbert Cooper arrived on the scene to arrest picket captain Frank Quintana on charges of disturbing the peace. Several workers began to protest Quintana’s arrest; among them was a 24-year-old farm worker from Yemen, Nagi Daifallah.[24] Upon protest of Quintana’s arrest, Sheriff Cooper began harassing Nagi. As Nagi attempted to run away, Cooper swung a metal flashlight at his head causing severe injuries to his spinal cord.[25] Nagi was left to die on the pavement. While harassment by police was a common reality faced by strikers, workers, and UFW organizers, the death of Nagi sent shock waves through the union and deeply impacted the trajectory of the farm worker movement. On August 17, 1973 over 7,000 Yemeni, Mexican, and Filipino mourners gathered at the Forty Acres union field office in Delano, the “cradle” of the farm worker movement to attend Nagi’s funeral march.[26] Yemeni farm workers, UFW volunteers, organizers, and Cesar Chavez himself, marched in silence alongside Nagi’s casket in solidarity against the violence and systemic oppression perpetuated by agribusiness. Chavez spoke very highly of Nagi who was an organizer for the union and was deemed a martyr for the movement.

Facing a shared oppression by law enforcement and agribusiness, Nagi’s death brought together Yemeni, Mexican, and Filipino communities in solidarity, if only for a moment. His death provided an opportunity for the UFW to emphasize that the movement was for all immigrants and people of color. In his eulogy statement for Nagi Chavez highlighted his immigrant identity stating that “Nagi had come to this country from his native Yemen looking for a better life” and “gave himself to the grape strike and the struggle for justice for all farm workers.” Yet, the picture of Nagi painted by Chavez and the UFW portrayed him as simply a passive victim of his circumstances. In his eulogy, Chavez stated how Yemeni workers were, “the latest group of people to come to California to be exploited by the California growers” and that “most of them, like Nagi, were young men in their early twenties, they were unusually shy, of slight frame, Moslem, spoke no English, and live in barren labor camps.” [27] By characterizing the movement for all immigrants and people of color, Chavez answered to critics at the time who accused the UFW for being ethnocentric by prioritizing Mexican workers as well as being too Catholic-based. It also addressed critiques that the UFW was too dependent on white, middle class volunteers and advisors.[28]

However, the characterization of Nagi as “unusually shy,” portrayed him as a passive victim as opposed to the political activist he was. Beyond the dominant narrative which focuses solely on Nagi’s death, the writings and letters he left behind for his father offer a look into his experiences working in the fields and being involved with the UFW.  In actuality, when Nagi became a UFW organizer he already had experience in political activism back in Yemen. Nagi, originally from North Yemen, became politically involved at a young age. While going to school in Aden (South Yemen) during British occupation, Nagi publicly stood against the British as well as the North Yemeni government, which resulted in his imprisonment for some time. As a young man, Nagi was arrested for pulling down both the British flag and the North Yemen flag in an act of protest while attending a college in Aden.[29]  Furthermore, based on letters he wrote to his father, it was evident that rather than being shy and inexperienced, Nagi  had a keen understanding of how power and exploitation was operating within agribusiness. In a letter to his father, Nagi wrote:

Dearest father, you will be amazed at this which I am writing to you in this letter about the prisons for workers in American, and (when I) tell you how much an agriculture worker suffers and endures in terms of severe ill-will from the landlords of ranches. These workers live in encampments that resemble military barracks, surrounded by barbed wire and a massive barrier of governmental agents, who forbid anyone from contacting the workers, or even conversing with their friends, except by signals, or when they are completely outside the camp, where they are far from the police. The landowners do not permit the workers to work in agriculture, except under laws the ranch-owners impose on them, with less than legal wages and insufficient safety precautions for the workers.[30]

He vividly paints a picture about the life farm workers, comparing the labor camps to prisons and war camps. He discusses grower exploitation of workers through, not only controlling their wages, but also by limiting access to services and communication and purposely putting them in unsafe conditions.[31] Nagi, like other Yemeni workers, also understood his oppression in both local and global ways, comparing his experiences in the Central Valley to those of living under an oppressive regime in Yemen.

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Funeral ceremony for martyr Nagi Daifullah. Courtesy of Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

The inclusion of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s portrait during Nagi’s funeral march represented this understanding that politics in the Central Valley were inseparable from global politics, like Arab nationalism. Alongside Nasser’s portrait, Yemeni workers carried flags representing the United States, Yemen, and the UFW, but it was Nasser’s image that would prove to be the most controversial. After Daifallah’s funeral, Chavez received several letters from supporters who were extremely disappointed to see Nasser, whom they viewed as an extremist and anti-Semitic, associated with the UFW and the movement.  One example was a letter dated September 17, 1973 from Nate Bodin, President of the Local 800, American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO, of which the UFW was an independent affiliate.[32] Bodin wrote to Chavez expressing disapproval at the inclusion of Nasser’s image, a man he compared to “Hitler or Porfirio Diaz [sic].”[33] Bodin attached the image from the funeral march with Nasser’s portrait, which was published in The Los Angeles Times. He first pointed out how Local 800 has financially supported the UFW and then requested the UFW produce a statement regarding the Nasser portrait:

We know you to be a man of great courage and honesty. We know that unity among people of good-will is crucial. We applaud your efforts and wish you well with all the resources we can muster. However, we would like to have a statement from you regarding the above matter. We would like to know how you stand regarding the use of the representative of a people (Nasser) who have been in our opinion, misguided. We think the choice of ‘hero’ was a poor one for this sad occasion.[34]

These letters demonstrated that the portrait of Nasser, a leader of Arab nationalism and Palestinian liberation threatened the UFW’s relationship with the AFL-CIO, an organization that boosted the union’s platform nationally. The decision to include Nasser spoke politically to the connections Yemeni workers made between social injustices abroad with the injustices they faced as farm workers in the U.S. However, it put Chavez and the UFW in a very tough situation and threatened the union’s support from pro-Israeli organizations as well as Jewish American religious leaders. Based on a social justice platform rooted in American civil rights discourse, the UFW was not prepared to take on global politics of Arab nationalism nor the question of Palestine.[35]  It became clear that the presence of Yemenis alongside the portrait of Nasser, was not only illegible to this platform, but challenged the very possibility of a truly multicultural movement.

In response to Bodin’s letter as well as letters from other disappointed supporters, Chavez and his assistants wrote back attempting to diffuse the situation. In these letters, Chavez invoked Nagi’s victimhood and martyrdom in order to depoliticize the presence of Nasser’s portrait and continue positive relations with the angry supporters.[36] In one of these letters Chavez wrote:

Nagi’s death and his funeral procession were deeply personal events for thousands of our members. As a movement, we were both mourning his loss and standing in solidarity with his family. If you can place yourself in that very personal context I think you will understand why no one in the farm workers union can, in retrospect, cast negative reflections on what happened during the Nagi’s funeral march.[37]

It is evident that while Yemeni farm workers chose to march with the image of Nasser in expression of their political identities as Arabs and the UFW did not object to this, Chavez and his leadership, on the other hand, were not prepared to be associated with a pro-Palestine Arab leader. The controversy over Nasser’s portrait demonstrated the ways in which the UFW navigated between communities and conflicting definitions of social justice in order to uphold the portrayal of an inclusive, multiethnic farm worker movement. When Daifallah was killed and deemed a martyr of the movement, the UFW opened its arms to the Yemeni community. With the Yemeni community now on Chavez’s side, however, the UFW’s position on global issues such as the question of Palestine, suddenly mattered. While the death of Nagi Daifallah brought together Yemeni, Mexican, and Filipino communities on the basis of a shared oppression by law enforcement and agribusiness, it also highlighted the ways in which solidarities can be complicated and difficult to maintain. The visibility of Yemenis at Daifallah’s funeral and the controversy surrounding Nasser’s portrait revealed the complicated space Yemenis occupied within the movement.  My own father’s experience demonstrates this as well. [38]

My father, Mohamed, proudly recalled attending Chavez’s rallies and being a UFW member. He told me that after all these years, he even saved his union card. After scrimmaging through some old boxes to find the card, we discovered he was actually a Teamsters member, a rival union to the UFW notorious for implementing scare tactics and even physical violence against workers.[39] Although Mohamed aligned with the UFW ideologically, he remembered that in order to keep his job he had to join the Teamsters, which was the case for many workers.  My father’s memory of the union card is in many ways symbolic of the complicated relationship Yemenis had with the UFW. The notion that Yemenis had a place in a union of other immigrants of color seemed ideologically sound but often lacked substance. In reality, the presence of Yemenis highlighted the complicated, sometimes tense, interactions between ethnic groups, both outside and inside the UFW. This is not to say that solidarities never existed between Yemeni, Mexican, and Filipino workers in the UFW, but rather that a celebratory or simplistic narrative obscures this complicated history.

The history of Yemeni farm workers expands the farm worker movement’s narrative and uncovers the role that Yemeni American activists had in U.S. labor movements. However, we must avoid simple additive history in which marginalized groups are just added into narratives. A few years back, I attended a UFW event and was approached by a woman with a rather confused look her face that asked: “So what do you have to do with all of this?” I knew exactly what she had meant, she was curious as to what a Muslim, Arab American woman possible had to do with the histories of the UFW. I explained to her that my father when he first immigrated to the U.S. from Yemen had worked as a farm worker and that I am now researching the history of Yemeni involvement in the UFW – but, I felt this explanation was simply not enough. There is the sort of obvious connection Yemenis have with this movement like having been present, attending Chavez’s rallies, and engaging in organizing.  Simply put, they were there. But beyond simply inserting Yemenis in this history, we must interrogate the broader historical significance of these narratives. This includes asking why Yemenis have been marginalized within this history. Part of the answer is that numerically speaking, there simply were not as many Yemeni farm workers during that time compared to the majority Mexican and Filipino laborers. However, the other reason why Yemenis have been overlooked has to do with how their engagement with Arab nationalism disrupted the UFW’s mission.

By 1982, there were no Yemeni UFW organizers. In that same year, Ahmed Shaibi, who had formerly organized with the UFW, established the Delano chapter of the American Anti-Arab Discrimination Committee (ADC). Shaibi saw a dire need for an organization that focused on the specific needs of the Yemeni community. Shaibi estimated that Arabs inhabited nearly 90 percent of labor camps in Delano and yet, there was nowhere they could go for social services. This was particularly challenging due to language barriers Yemeni workers faced and the lack of translators who spoke Arabic. However, the promise that the ADC had for Yemenis in the Central Valley never reached its full potential. By 1985, the same year that Palestinian American Alex Odeh, the West Coast regional director of the ADC, was murdered by a bomb planted in his Santa Ana office the ADC in Delano was defunct.[40] The closing of the Delano ADC was most likely a direct reaction of Odeh’s murder, as many Yemeni and Arab American activists feared the consequences of political activism.

During the same time the ADC closed, the majority of Yemenis who worked as agricultural laborers left the fields for other jobs.  Many of them found occupations in major California cities such as San Francisco as janitors, opened grocery stores, or returned to Yemen. Today, many Yemenis own small businesses in the same cities that they originally worked in as farm workers. Asking my father about his initial years in the U.S. as a farm worker unraveled an entire history of Yemenis in the UFW that I otherwise would not have known because it is not recognized in the official narrative or visibly present in the archives. This signifies the importance of building new archives as marginalized stories live on through the people around us, sometimes those closest to us.

The experiences of Yemenis in the UFW is an important chapter in the history of the Central Valley’s Yemeni community, a population that has significantly grown in numbers in the past few years. These stories contribute to the historiography of rural California and multiracial communities in the Central Valley. Alongside the history of other immigrant groups in the Central Valley including Mexican, Filipino, and Punjabi laborers, the experiences of Yemenis underscore how the local is deeply intertwined with global politics like Arab nationalism. The history of the Yemeni American community matters now more than ever. As Yemeni Americans face increasing restrictive immigration legislation and xenophobic rhetoric, this history is a reminder that Yemenis have long been a part of U.S. history, despite not always being recognized.

Notes

[1] See: Laura Araiza, To March for Others: The Black Freedom Struggle and the United Farm Workers, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014); Frank Bardacke, Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers, (London: Verso, 2011); Matthew Garcia, From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press,2012); Ana Raquel Minian, “‘Indiscriminate and Shameless Sex’: The Strategic Use of Sexuality by the United Farm Workers.” American Quarterly (2013, Volume, 65.1): 63–90.  2013; Miriam Pawel, The Crusades of Cesar Chavez: A Biography, (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2014).

[2] Cesar Chavez Special Resource Study and Environmental Assessment,” National Park Services U.S. Department of the Interior, (Fall 2013).; Dawn Bohulano Mabalon and Gayle Romasanta, Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong, (Bridge and Delta Publishing, 2018); Ray Rast, Cesar Chavez Special Resource Study and Environmental Assessment, with multiple co-authors. San Francisco: National Park Service, Pacific West Region, 2012.

[3] Mohamed Alamri interview by Neama Alamri, April 5, 2015.

[4] Ron Kelley, “Yemeni Farmworkers in California,” in Sojourners and Settlers: The Yemeni Immigrant Experience, ed. Jonathan Friedlander (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1988); Mohamed Alamri interview by Neama Alamri, April 5, 2015.;”Voices from the Heartland: Young Yemeni Americans Speak,” Middle Eastern Resources Online.  http://www.mearo.org/yemeni-americans/san-joaquin-valley.php

[5] Mary Bisharat, “Yemeni Migrant Workers in California,” in Arabs in America: Myths and Realities, (Wilmette: Medina University Press International, 1975), 208.

[6] Juan J. Sanchez and Solache Saul, “Yemeni Agricultural Workers in California: Migration Impact,” Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund Records, Bulk 1968-1995, box 18, folder 14, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University, Stanford CA.

[7] Mary Bisharat, “Yemeni Migrant Workers in California,” in Arabs in America: Myths and Realities, (Wilmette: Medina University Press International, 1975), 208.

[8] Robert Stookey, South Yemen: A Marxist Republic in Arabia, (Boulder: Westview Press, 1982).

[9] Gregory Orfalea, The Arab Americans: A History, (Northampton: Olive Branch Press, 2006), 153

[10] Marcia Aronson, “My Involvement in the United Farm Workers of America 1973-1978,” Farm Worker Documentation Project

[11] Mary Bisharat, “Yemeni Migrant Workers in California,” in Arabs in America: Myths and Realities, (Wilmette: Medina University Press International, 1975), 206-207.

[12] Mary Bisharat, “Yemeni Migrant Workers in California,” 208.

[13] Ron Kelley, “Yemeni Farmworkers in California.”

[14] Clinic Program for Arab Members,” 9 March 1973, El Malcriado, Farm Worker Documentation Project, UC San Diego.

[15] Matthew Garcia, 15.

[16] “UFWOC: A Strong Union for the Arab Farm Worker.” El Malcriado. Nov. 1, 1970. Farm Worker Documentation Project. UC San Diego Library.

[17] Ibid.

[18] “UFWOC: A Strong Union for the Arab Farm Worker.” El Malcriado. Nov. 1, 1970. Farm Worker Documentation Project. UC San Diego Library.; Ron Kelley, “Yemeni Farmworkers in California,” in Sojourners and Settlers: The Yemeni Immigrant Experience, ed. Jonathan Friedlander (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1988); Philip Diehl, “Arab advocate bridges gap between cultures,” 7 Dec. 1982, Delano Record, Delano Record Archives.

[19] “Morning March Here For Nasser,” 30 Sept. 1970, Porterville Recorder, Porterville Public Library; “Nasser Buried, Mideast Sad,” 1 Oct. 1970, Porterville Recorder.

[20] “UFWOC: A Strong Union for the Arab Farm Worker,” 1 Nov. 1970, El Malcriado, Farm Worker Documentation Project. UC San Diego Library.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Matthew Garcia, 103-105.

[23] Matthew Garcia, From the Jaws of Victory, 100

[24]15,000 farm workers honor fallen strikers,” El Malcriado, September 21, 1973, Farm Worker Documentation Project, UC San Diego Library, San Diego, CA.

[25] 15,000 farm workers honor fallen strikers,” El Malcriado, September 21, 1973, Farm Worker Documentation Project, UC San Diego Library, San Diego, CA. ; Nadine Naber, “The Yemeni UFW Martyr,” Middle East Research and Information Project, vol. 44 (Winter 2014).

[26] 15,000 farm workers honor fallen strikers,” El Malcriado, September 21, 1973, Farm Worker Documentation Project, UC San Diego Library, San Diego, CA. ; Matt. Garcia. From The Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 62.

[27] “UFW Martyrs: Nagi Daifallah,” United Farm Workers,  www.UFW.org.

[28] Matthew Garcia, From the Jaws of Victory, (University of California Press, 2014), 127

[29] United Farm Workers Administration Collection, Box 114, Folder 3, “Martyr Nagi Mohsin Daifallah Handad, 17 June 1980,” Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

[30] Chris Hartmire Personal Papers, Retrieved from Miriam Pawel; Arabic version is from United Farm Workers Administration Collection, Box 114, Folder 3, “Martyr Nagi Mohsin Daifallah Handad, 17 June 1980,” Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

[31] Ibid.

[32] In 1972, the UFW was officially affiliated with the AFL-CIO and created a national executive board. This was also when they changed their name from United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC) to United Farm Workers of America, known simply by their acronym, “UFW.” The affiliation with the AFL-CIO boosted the political platform of the UFW nationally. See Matthew Garcia, “Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Movement,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. https://oxfordre.com/americanhistory/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.001.0001/acrefore-9780199329175-e-217

[33] UFW Work Department, Box 3, File 1, Daifullah, Nagi, 1973,” Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

[34] UFW Work Department, Box 3, File 1, Daifullah, Nagi, 1973,” Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

[35] In my dissertation, I explore Nagi’s funeral march as well as the 1973 October War with more depth. Chavez, for example, received many requests to take a stance in support of the state of Israel and eventually decided to issue a statement of support which received criticism from many UFW members and supporters. The UFW’s support of Israel also hurt their relationship with the Black Panther Party which had been Pro-Palestine from their founding. See Laura Araiza, To March for Others: The Black Freedom Struggle and the United Farm Workers, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), 163.

[36] UFW Work Department Collection, Box 3, Folder 1, “Daifullah, Nagi 1973,” “Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

[37] UFW Work Department Collection, Box 3, Folder 1, “Daifullah, Nagi 1973,” “Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

[38] Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries

[39] Matt. Garcia. From The Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 99.

[40] Philip Diehl, “Arab advocate bridges gap between cultures,” 7 Dec. 1982, Delano Record, Delano Record Archives.; Delinda C. Hanley. “Arab Americans Demand Answers in 1985 Slaying of Alex Odeh,” The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Vol. 32.9, Dec. 2013

 

Neama Alamri is completing her PhD in Interdisciplinary Humanities at UC Merced and will be finished by May 2020. She will continue to work on her book project, “Long Live the Arab Worker: A Transnational History of Labor Activism in the Yemeni Diaspora,” which examines how Yemeni workers and activists, throughout the 20th century highlighted the connections between local challenges in the diaspora with global politics of empire.

Copyright: © 2020 Neama Alamri. 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/