Today we welcome a guest post from Max Felker-Kantor, author of Policing Los Angeles: Race, Resistance, and the Rise of the LAPD, just published by UNC Press.
Felker-Kantor narrates the dynamic history of policing, anti-police abuse movements, race, and politics in Los Angeles from the 1965 Watts uprising to the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion. Using the explosions of two large-scale uprisings in Los Angeles as bookends, he highlights the racism at the heart of the city’s expansive police power through a range of previously unused and rare archival sources. His book is a gripping and timely account of the transformation in police power, the convergence of interests in support of law and order policies, and African American and Mexican American resistance to police violence after the Watts uprising.
Policing Los Angeles is available now in both print and ebook editions.
Resisting Police Power: The Roots of Anti-Police Abuse Movements in Los Angeles
In recent years, anti-police abuse activists have struggled to combat state-sanctioned police violence directed at communities of color. Through the use of social media and cellphone video recordings, activists, many associated with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, have shed light on the near-weekly episodes of police violence experienced by people of color. While contemporary anti-police abuse activism represents a new era of protest, these movements also reflect a long history of resistance to police abuse and demands for an end to racially disparate police practices in American cities.
In researching and writing Policing Los Angeles: Race, Resistance, and the Rise of the LAPD, I followed a rich history of activists and residents of color who routinely challenged the discriminatory practices of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) during the latter half of the twentieth century. Residents and activists of color in Los Angeles routinely demanded greater civilian oversight of the police in hopes of making the department more accountable to the people it served.
Sparked by an episode of police abuse, the 1965 Watts uprising confirmed the criticisms of the LAPD made by many African American and Mexican American activists throughout the post-war period. Residents and activists used the crisis of policing created by Watts to push for changes in how the LAPD policed communities of color. The uprising also mobilized a renewed anti-police abuse movement in Los Angeles. Through groups such as the Black Panthers and Brown Berets, African Americans and Mexican Americans organized not only to expose police violence but also an alternative vision of policing for their communities.
Far too often, however, such movements were met with repression from the LAPD. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, department leadership did not stand for any criticism of its authority or attempts to challenge the power of the police. Department officials, such as chiefs of police William Parker, Ed Davis, and Daryl Gates did all they could to undermine grassroots movements for police accountability through infiltration, harassment, and arrest.
Repression did not destroy activism. In fact, persistent police harassment, abuse, and killings led to new forms of anti-police activism and challenges to police power. The Coalition against Police Abuse (CAPA) formed in 1976 as a multiracial organization with the goal of community control of the police. CAPA activists struggled during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s to expose episodes of police abuse, to work with community members to document their experience with harassment, and to push for reforms that would bring greater community oversight to the LAPD.
Although many interpretations of the history of anti-police abuse activism have largely revealed a record of failure, looked at in a different light, activists in Los Angeles succeeded on a number of fronts. CAPA, along with organizations such as the ACLU and the Citizens’ Commission on Police Repression, were able to achieve a number of victories, including revisions to the LAPD’s use of force policies, the dismantling of the LAPD’s intelligence division, and public pressure to enhance civilian oversight of the department. Activists from the Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) and the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) also challenged the LAPD’s cooperation with the Immigration and Naturalization Service and pushed for policies to limit the discretion of the police to enforce immigration law.
Decades of activism created the conditions that made reform possible. Growing anti-police abuse activism after the 1991 Rodney King beating, the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion, and the 1997 Rampart Scandal forced policymakers to take a stand on limiting police power, which led to a 2001 federal consent decree requiring external oversight of the department. Although often viewed as the result of pressure on the police department from city officials, the consent decree must be understood within the longer history of anti-police abuse activism in Los Angeles. If not for the tireless struggle of anti–police abuse activists, the LAPD would likely have continued on its trajectory—an unaccountable force committed to suppression and containment with impunity.
Max Felker-Kantor is visiting assistant professor of history at Ball State University. You can read his earlier UNC Press Blog post here. Follow him on Twitter, and visit his website at www.maxfelkerkantor.com.