My new book is officially out today. Occupied Territory is a project that dates back to my early years in graduate school, which makes this a book roughly a decade in the making. The book takes a hard look at the development of a policing regime in Black Chicago over the span of about 50 years, from the 1919 race riot in Chicago to the fall/crushing of Black Power in the early 1970s. It is a story of violence and abuse and neglect by the Chicago Police Department, of abject failure on the part of Chicago’s Democratic machine, and of various resistance movements to those abuses and failures–from the Community Party to the Black Panthers.
For folks who are interested in buying it, I obviously encourage going through a local shop if they stock it or can order it. I’m also aware that not everyone has easy access to a good local store, that mobility can make online delivery better for some, and so on, so HERE is an Amazon link.
I thought I’d share a little bit from the introduction here, as a means of explaining some of my own thinking about the project and where it sits in our modern political and social life. I hope you enjoy:
I started researching what became this book long before Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown were shot dead in American streets, and activists took to those same streets in grief and righteous rage. At the time, the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName did not exist, and the names of black people shot and killed by the police were not archived with their own personalized hashtags. (This did not mean that black people, adults and children alike, were not being shot and killed by the police.) Ever since the Black Lives Matter movement emerged to force a reckoning with the realities of police violence in the United States, however, when people have discovered what I research, they have routinely asked some variation of the same question: “When did things get so bad?” Readers may enter this book with the same question in mind. Yet, however well-intentioned, embedded in the question is an assumption that “things”—meaning relationships between the police and black folks—were ever some approximation of fine. That isn’t really true. To be sure, antagonisms and repressions have grown and ebbed, and changed over time. But this book begins at the moment when Chicago began to absorb a critical mass of black people, and it is not a coincidence that that is also the moment at which a racially repressive police system began to take shape in that city. In other words, there is not a time in Chicago’s history where the city was home to large percentages of black people, and in which they had a smoothly functioning relationship with the CPD.
When people ask when things got bad, my sense is that they do so in the hope that, if things used to be better, they can somehow be returned to that better state. But to entertain such notions is an act of comfort-seeking detached from historical reality. As the sociologist Alex Vitale has explained, we can’t incrementally reform ourselves toward a functional and equitable police system since “the problem is policing itself.” Or, as the historian and Black Studies scholar Keeanga-Yamahatta Taylor writes, “Police violence is a part of the DNA of the United States. . . . There has been no ‘golden age’ of policing in which violence and racism were not central to the job.” I would only expand Taylor’s comment: neglect of black interests and disregard of violence meted out on black bodies have been central, too—not for all individual officers, but for the police system as a system.
And so, in response to the question and its attending hope, I must simply say that I don’t know if there’s reason for optimism. I am inspired by the activism of recent years, much of it driven by black women and black youth who dare to dream and fight for a better and more just world. Moreover, spending your professional career studying social movements generally and the black freedom struggle in particular is to constantly be reminded of the world-changing capacities of committed individuals and communities.
I also know that police systems—the CPD and many others—have not only by and large refused to ingenuously engage this new cohort of activists, but have actively denied and sought to delegitimize current grievances and the movements they produce. In this, consciously or not, they echo the hostile dismissals of black grievances that their predecessors in and beyond police departments made throughout the twentieth century. Such intellectual intractability on the part of those in power is worth remembering.
Regardless, what I do know is this: if we don’t better understand the depth and genesis of these problems that plague us, we cannot fully engage the process of imagining where we want and need to go. With this book, I am reaching for such an understanding.