Dissertation Project / Defending November 2020
“Policing Exceptionalism: Race, Law Enforcement, and the Black-led Struggle for Accountability in Milwaukee”
Policing Exceptionalism explores processes of consensus-building around law enforcement and its long-term consequences for people seeking accountability for the imposition of state violence. I am particularly interested in the interplay between anti-Black racism, the perceived legitimacy of policing, and the lived experiences of groups marginalized by elite white, hetero-patriarchal framings of order, crime, and safety.
My dissertation introduces the narrative of policing exceptionalism that emerged in Milwaukee, Wisconsin around the turn of the 20th century, and examines how a widely heralded, if racially-selective story of policing professionalism, crime control efficiency and reform-mindedness contoured the city’s law enforcement arrangements for decades to come.
That narrative crystallized in tandem with and fed off of hardening anti-Black racism, especially after World War II, when Black Milwaukee experienced a “late Great Migration” and population increase in the midst of a citywide housing and employment crisis. It merged with harmful policies related to managerial growth liberalism (like urban renewal) and reactionary Cold War conservatism in the 1950s.
The narrative functioned largely to the detriment of Black lives. Despite the MPD’s embrace of “liberal law and order,” poor, working- and middle-class Black Milwaukeeans experienced severe “over policing and under protection.” White police brutalized Black citizens with impunity. A policy of “close surveillance” under-girded the MPD’s discretionary boundary and violence work. Several police-Black citizen altercations resulted in confrontations, even deaths. Excessive police attention to Milwaukee’s lower north side reinforced criminalizing white perceptions of African Americans and resulted in a growing catalog of Black entry into the local criminal justice system. Indeed, the exceptionalism narrative played an under-appreciated role in strengthening the foundations of Wisconsin’s late-century carceral crisis.
Employing a blend of traditional archival sources, newspapers and periodicals, oral history interviews and more, the bulk of this project traces Black-led efforts to re-imagine Milwaukee’s discriminatory policing structures via strategies of political negotiation, direct action protest, and legal intervention. Through their collective travails, accountability advocates and allies expanded Black representation, oversight, and input within Milwaukee’s whitewashed police bureaucracy. The autocratic reign of police chief Harold Breier (1964-1984) focused the movement’s energies on revising the state law that empowered municipal police chiefs with policy-making authority, freedom from political oversight, and lifetime tenure.
In the “long 1970s,” Black Power organizations envisioned what “community control” of the police would look like, with poor and working-class Black folk empowered to set their own self-determined course. Community control was a response to an especially brutal period in police-Black citizen relations in the 1970s. That decade, a growing number of Black police officers comprised an organized, internal front in the movement to improve Milwaukee’s policing structures. Yet they struggled to shift the MPD’s strategic direction, despite opening new channels of access and opportunity by leveraging federal civil rights protections. Throughout this history, the primary reform target of police accountability advocates remained the state law authorizing the MPD and police chief’s independent rule-making authority and discretionary power, which prevented Black citizens from garnering effective police oversight.
While this diffuse movement compelled some procedural reforms in the late 1970s and early 1980s, its victories coincided with the erosion of Black Milwaukee’s tenuous economic foothold, the ascendance of conservative, market-based austerity politics, and the onset of a national mass incarceration crisis. In the 2010s, Wisconsin become, per capita, the most racially punitive state in the country. Racism, often perpetrated under the guise of colorblindness, has remained endemic within a well-funded and strongly unionized police bureaucracy. A revised policing narrative emerged that upheld the virtues of the “thin blue line,” while positioning the city’s disproportionately Black poor as condemnable and criminogenic.
This project centers the movement for police accountability in Milwaukee civil rights history, illuminating a significant, if under-examined aspect of the city’s turbulent racial past. It helps us better understand why Black grassroots organizations are still demanding accountability from Milwaukee’s police bureaucracy in the dichotomous age of #BlackLivesMatter and the “First White President,” more than fifty years after civil violence erupted during the “Long Hot Summer” of 1967.