HISTORICAL RESEARCH

Image: W. North Ave Sunset / Milwaukee, WI / 2017

Dissertation / Defended November 2020

“Accountable to No One”: Confronting Police Power in Black Milwaukee

“‘Accountable to No One'” explores processes of consensus-building around law enforcement and their long-term consequences for African Americans seeking justice and freedom from state violence. I am particularly interested in the interplay between anti-Black racism, the fabrication of police legitimacy, and the lived experiences of groups marginalized by elite white, hetero-patriarchal framings of order, crime, and safety. Using a local case study, this project highlights the limitations of police reform as a solution to crises rooted in racial capitalism.

“‘Accountable to No One'” 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 police professionalization, crime control efficiency, and reform-mindedness contoured the city’s law enforcement arrangements for decades to come. This narrative crystallized in tandem with and fed off of hardening white anti-Blackness, 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 racist policies supported by managerial growth liberalism and reactionary Cold War conservatism that amplified existing white fears of racial difference and stoked a politics of resentment.

Police myth-making 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, what historian Joe Trotter first identified as, “overpolicing and underprotection.” White police brutalized Black citizens with impunity. A policy of “close surveillance” undergirded 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. But it did not mark a complete departure from the past and, in many ways, obscured more fundamental issues of police power.

In the “long 1970s,” Black Power organizations envisioned what community control of the police might look like, with poor and working-class Black folk empowered to set their own self-determined course on public safety. Community control was a response to an especially brutal period in police-Black citizen relations during 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. However, the substantive gains of diversity and community relations reforms only expanded police power and re-authorized its brutal function on new terms. Black and Latinx officers 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 for police accountability advocates remained the state law authorizing the MPD and police chief’s independent rule-making and discretionary powers, 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.

“‘Accountable to No One'” centers movements 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-led organizations, more than fifty years after civil violence erupted amid the “long hot summer” of 1967, continue to demand accountability from police bureaucrats and have recently turned towards abolitionist solutions in combatting Wisconsin’s punitive racial politics.

Image: Federal courthouse sidewalk / Milwaukee, WI / 2015
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