Do Historical and Societal Circumstance Still Have a Place in Law Enforcement?

By Tiffany Nichols

On February 9, 2017, US law enforcement officially began its shift from crime prevention and investigation to ensuring the safety of law enforcement itself through the Presidential Executive Order on Preventing Violence Against Federal, State, Tribal, and Local Law Enforcement Officers. The Executive Order makes no mention of crime prevention or investigation and instead focuses on the enhancement of “protection and safety of Federal, State, tribal, and local law enforcement officers.”

A similar attempt was made by former President Lyndon B. Johnson in the wake of the Watts Uprising of 1965. Over 35,000 adults “active as rioters” and over 72,000 spectators were involved. These riots resulted in 34 deaths (mostly Blacks), 1,000 injured, 4,000 arrests and $200 million in property damage within the Watts-Willlowbrook district of Los Angeles. The Watts Uprising can largely be attributed to the exclusion of Blacks from the movie industry after the Hollywood Red Scare, slow presence of the effects of the Civil Rights Movement in Los Angeles, the rise of Black Nationalism paired with White fear thereof, and the exclusion of Blacks from unions, among numerous additional factors. To many within the city, the Uprising was seen as inevitable due to these imbalances. Although later disproved, psychologists blamed the increase of unrest on the heat in August of 1965, while others blamed the full moon. [1]

Despite these explanations, the likely illegal stop of Marquette Frye and his mother by California state troopers was the ultimate catalyst. Similar to the current state of affairs among Blacks, Hispanics, and the police, the accounts of this stop differed between Mr. Frye and the police in the paradoxical way we are all too familiar with. From Mr. Frye’s perspective, less than professional words were exchanged due to the treatment of his mother—forcefully pulling her arm behind her back, cuffing and hitting her on the head despite her petite stature causing her pain. Mr. Fyre was also injured from the police closing the patrol car door on his legs, in addition to the head injuries received. Gerald Horne describes this account along with that of the police as episodes from .

If you are already drawing parallels between Watts, the Sandra Bland, and the Philando Castile tragedies, and numerous incidents in recent American history, this is my intent. The circumstances considered by the executive branch in response to the Watts Uprising and our present state under the February 9, 2017 Executive Order similarly demand comparison.

The Watts Uprising left then-President Johnson confused. He wondered why Blacks were upset in light of the Civil Rights Movement and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Specifically, he labeled the protesters as rioters in saying, “They are both more or less what the law declares them: lawbreakers, destroyers of constitutional rights and liberties, and ultimately destroyers of a free America.” Further, the Uprising seemed to confirm the disdain for inner cities by many members of the Republican party at the time. However, Robert F. Kennedy, then Attorney General, was reluctant to take the stance of Johnson and the Republicans, which was to institute a militaristic state in Los Angeles. Several days after the start of the Uprising, Kennedy publicly stated “we have a long way to go before the law means the same thing to Negros as it does to us.” In this statement, Kennedy considered not the destruction from the Uprising and subduing the aggrieved, but instead the circumstances which resulted in the rebellion. Such a statement not only explains why Kennedy did not support the Johnson’s action of bringing in troops, but also presents an idea of what law enforcement meant from this period until the end of the Obama Administration.

This idea was called upon when President Obama published an open letter to U.S. law enforcement on July 18, 2016 in the wake of several incidents of police brutality towards Black U.S. Citizens. Obama stated, “Robert Kennedy, once our nation’s highest-ranking law enforcement official, lamented in the wake of unjust violence a country in which we look at our neighbors as people ‘with whom we share a city, but not a community.” This statement comes from a larger speech given by Kennedy just days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in which Kennedy further stated:

For there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.

Obama’s statement is a direct call to compare the protests of today with those of the Watts Uprising. By quoting Kennedy, Obama also calls upon one to consider the circumstances that may lead to situations of unrest and the role of law enforcement in such a context. One thought is not removed from the other.

Under the Trump administration, however, notions of underlying causes leading to the need for law enforcement are left out. The Trump Executive Order should be read in light of the justifications provided in his stance on law enforcement:

Our job is not to make life more comfortable for the rioter, the looter, or the violent disrupter. Our job is to make life more comfortable for parents who want their kids to be able to walk the streets safely.

Here we can directly see the epistemic change from Obama’s reminder that law enforcement should protect even those who protest against it, and Kennedy’s call to acknowledge the causes of the need for enforcement. In contrast, the current administration’s stance is one which labels the protester as a rioter, echoing Johnson’s response to the Watts uprising. In the same vein, the Executive Order calls for the

[pursuit of] appropriate legislation, consistent with the Constitution’s regime of limited and enumerated Federal powers, that will define new Federal crimes, and increase penalties for existing Federal crimes, in order to prevent violence against Federal, State, tribal, and local law enforcement officers.

This Executive Order brings into question what one can protest in light of overreaching law enforcement It also blurs the lines between federal and state power by stating that new Federal crimes legislation will be pursued, which effects not only Federal law enforcement officers, but also those of states. Lastly, the Executive Order seems to ignore the presence of 18 U.S.C. §111 which defines the very crime (i.e., . By devaluing the role of societal and historical conditions, setting new criteria for boundary-drawing around criminal activity, and conflating the protester with the rioter, the Executive Order will have a chilling effect. It may cause individuals to become reluctant to protest as they now risk being seen as a rioter attempting to endanger a law enforcement officer during a protest or demonstration, regardless of circumstances.

Tiffany Nichols is a first-year PhD Student in the History of Science Department at Harvard.  She holds a JD from the University of Virginia School of Law.

[1] Gerald Horne, Fire This Time: The Watts uprising and the 1960s (Charlottesville: De Capo, 1997).