Race and Place in Cadillac-Corning
I am standing in the back of a dark room. A projection covers the wall in front of me. White letters flicker, “Start a New Simulation.” Next to the projection is a beige desk. On the desk stands nothing but a computer. Behind the computer there is a cop. He is white, middle-aged, with brown hair and a bald spot starting in the middle of his head.
A burly white officer with a crew cut stands in the middle of the room, facing the projection. He holds a laser gun. It is hooked up to an oxygen tank that will simulate the reaction of a real gun when it is fired. The officer at the desk says that he will choose a simulation and control it from the computer. The screen flashes the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) logo for a few seconds.
Then the sound of automatic fire and a woman’s scream. “I’ve got shots fired!” the officer with the laser gun says. On the simulated projection, a white woman stumbles out from around a corner with blood on her torso. “He shot me!” she screams while tumbling to the concrete. A brown-skinned young man in jeans, a white tank top, and a blue hoodie appears from around the corner. “Drop the gun!” the laser gun officer commands. The hoodie-clad young man walks briskly toward the camera with a gun in his right hand. “Back the fuck up!” the young man on the projection shouts, then stops. He points the cold black gun at his right temple. The LAPD officer fires the laser gun once into the young man’s head as he simultaneously blows his own virtual brains out. The screen freezes. The officer exhales, slams his gun in his holster. “Nice!” the officer manning the computer laughs from his office chair.
The officer who shot the simulated man in the head turns and says, “Now we are going to do a debrief.” He explains that the Force Option Simulator is “really used for articulation. We find that officers are shooting
at the right time and they are hitting what they shoot at. But when investigators come in, officers are not articulating what they saw. Why they pulled the trigger.” He continues, “A debrief like this helps officers to articulate what happened.” The officer at the desk cuts in, “Investigators focus on three things: tactics before, during and after; when you un-holster your gun; and when you re-holster your gun.”
The officer at the desk asks the laser gun officer why he drew his gun. The officer who did the simulation responds that he realized it was a dangerous situation. He took his gun out and got in position. As the suspect raised the gun toward the laser gun officer, “I shot in defense of my life.” He puts his hand to his own chest as he says this in a show of sincerity. “And I decided to shoot him one more time after he put a bullet through his own head.” He laughs a little, then quickly catches himself and switches back to serious mode, “I saw the gun moving forward. But look at the background. Even though I would have been justified in shooting, it probably wasn’t the best decision because . . .” He points to the screen. A red circle shows where the officer’s gunshot landed. The bloody woman from the beginning of the simulation is lying in the background. One red circle hovers right in front of her head.
The officer holds out the laser gun to me, “Now it’s your turn.” How on earth did I get here?
I am reminded of Waiting for the Barbarians, which is the title of both an early 20th-century poem and a late 20th-century novel (Cavafy 1972; Coetzee 1980). Both pieces of work are stunning. Both tell the story of a society’s preparation for an invading barbarian army that never arrives. In the novel, an unfamiliar official of the Empire enters a village. He has been dispatched from the capital to prepare frontier towns for an inevitable war between the Empire and the barbarians. The official claims that the barbarians are arming themselves and uniting their forces to reclaim land from the Empire. He has no evidence. In fact, people of the Empire rarely encounter the nomadic barbarian tribes. Nonetheless, he is sure there is reason to fear an invasion. People traveling the trade routes have been attacked. Who else could it be but the barbarians? Officials sense they are being trailed, watched from a distance. Who else could be responsible but a coordinated army of barbarians? The narrator of the novel remains skeptical of the barbarian invasion:
Once in every generation, without fail, there is an episode of hysteria about the barbarians. There is no woman living along the frontier who has not dreamed of a dark barbarian hand coming from under the bed to grip her ankle, no man who has not frightened himself with visions of barbarians carousing in his home, breaking the plates, setting fire to the curtains, raping his daughters. Show me a barbarian army and I will believe. (Coetzee 1980, 9)
Panic over the idea of a barbarian army eventually undermines the physical and social structures of the town. The soldiers set brush fires to burn the barbarians out of hiding. But no barbarians come scurrying from under the smoke. The fires destabilize the land. Embankments of weakened soil collapse, flooding part of the town. Barbarians are blamed. The soldiers take what they like from the local stores and do not pay. They rob houses. The economy is in shambles. A good chunk of the citizenry has fled. The town is underpopulated, barren. For the remaining people in the village, “There is nothing to do but keep our swords bright, watch and wait” (Coetzee 1980, 44). When stories of the feared barbarians stop, people assume it must be because the soldiers are too busy fighting off the barbarians to send news.
Every so often, the army of the Empire goes on a journey to capture a dozen or so “barbarians.” The soldiery parades the captives, wrists bound, into the town square. The townspeople gather. Officers announce that these chained nomads represent a large, fierce army. They must be publicly tortured. The townspeople joyfully participate in the whipping so relentlessly that the soldiers have trouble maintaining order.
Like the officers of the Empire in Coetzee’s book, authorities in Los Angeles, alongside neighborhood watches, neighborhood councils, and other community groups, conduct a frenzied search for a tattooed homeboy. Every once in a while the police conduct a high-profile raid. They parade people of color in front of cameras, hands bound behind their backs, heads down, shirts off. The people they call “barbarians” look like my family and friends. But I guess for other people they are threatening foreigners to be waited for with sharpened swords. Alleged “gang members” are the shadowy specters in modern-day Los Angeles.
The allegory here is pretty clear. Inside and outside of the field of criminology, the construction of and moral panic over the dark, dangerous
criminal (i.e., the barbarian) has been commented on extensively (Glassner 1999; Harcourt 2001; Sampson and Raudenbush 2004; Davis 2006; Hinkle and Weisburd 2008). There is a lot of figurative waiting, scapegoating, suspension of rights, and pre-emptive attacking of so-called barbarians.
I want to take a step back. Panic happens after a barbarian has been identified. But how are the visions of barbarians created in the first place? I am here, in this room, being handed a laser-tag gun because I want to see the process of creation. As the narrator in Coetzee’s (1980, 145–146) novel says to an officer in the Empire’s army, “I am only trying to understand. I am trying to understand the zone in which you live.”
The term “gang member” has become natural, accepted. Lawmakers use the term to justify punitive policies. When a black or Latino man is shot, there is a good chance police will claim he is a gang member. News outlets will uncritically repeat the report with a headline like “Gang Member Shot in South LA.” The Los Angeles Times reports that people are gang members so often that they explicitly clarify when they are talking about people of color who are not alleged to be gang members. For example, on November 25, 2013, a young black man was shot to death in rush-hour traffic. The Los Angeles Times article on the murder stated that the victim “was not involved with gangs” (Santa Cruz 2014). Portions of the general public grasp the gang-member construct with fear, hatred, and racist ideology. A small portion of that public has the power to act on the fear, the hatred, and the racist ideology. They are why I am here.
I am in no way saying that violence is not real. The shootings between neighborhoods that occur too frequently are not social constructions. My argument is that the violence committed by the state (police and city prosecutors, in particular) is both ethically reprehensible and ineffective at ending street violence. Repressive policies exacerbate violence on the street by locking people into a life of constant state surveillance, harassment, brutality, and detention that restricts their opportunities to lead stable lives. Locking up large numbers of people or trapping them inside their homes will probably reduce crime—for a little while. But that is not living. Bringing the hammer down in one area may push the problem to another area. But that is not real public safety. This book is my attempt to understand, with my community, how people in power continue to implement repressive policies and how we can intervene to create true, sustainable safety for all neighborhoods.
May 2012: How Many Cops Does It Take to Write Two Tickets for Some Weed?
The correct answer is nine. At least it is in the Cadillac-Corning neighborhood of Los Angeles. Four cars—the entire patrol for the West Los Angeles Police Department Division—are blocking my back gate. The Los Angeles air is turning cool as the smog tints the sunset fuchsia. Two white male officers are speaking with two young Latino men. A Latino male officer oversees another two young Latino men who are cuffed with legs uncomfortably spread and faces silently pointed toward a maroon wooden fence. One of them is a neighbor from down the street. That leaves six officers standing around, talking, smiling with one another, casually leaning against patrol cars enjoying the show, taking an occasional break to shoot me a bad look. I do not want to piss the cops off more. They will take it out on these youth by detaining them when they otherwise would not have or by subjecting them to rougher treatment. I also know that I can look deceptively respectable on the right day and might be able to intervene. Since I am returning from court in a nice dress and heels, today is one of those days. I walk near them and ask the officer what is happening. He tells me to back up. I ask my neighbor if he needs help. He turns his shaved head slightly in my direction. “Could you go tell my mom? She’s inside. Thanks.” An officer grabs me by the arm. “Ma’am, do not converse with the suspects!”
I go to the neighbor’s house to find the mother of one of “the suspects.” I have glittering memories of that house—celebrating birthdays, dancing, and eating too much pollo asado. When I return, the officers are dispersing, two by two in their patrol cars. First, one car slowly backs down the alley. Then another drives out the opposite direction. A bald-headed white cop and his partner get in their car and floor it, speeding backward down the alley. Another car follows. Nine officers responded to the call. The result: two Chicano youth with tickets for possession of small amounts of marijuana.
What happened to elicit the response just described? This book examines how police, city prosecutors, wealthy residents, and business owners identify and exclude supposedly dangerous people from the Cadillac-Corning region of Los Angeles. How do these people collaborate and clash in attempts to direct police resources? What beliefs,
knowledge, data, and frameworks are central to how they act upon what they perceive to be danger? I explore these questions focusing on community partnerships between residents and the police. When I use the term “community partnerships” I refer to programs that bring the police, organized residents, and, at times, other relevant government agencies together to develop problem-solving projects as fear reduction and crime prevention strategies. In community partnerships, law enforcement and residents struggle to reinforce racial and class boundaries through competing ideas about policing and social control. In particular, I explore the tension that exists in trying to meld broken windows policing and community policing in Cadillac-Corning, a Los Angeles neighborhood that has been a flashpoint for repression-oriented policing since the 1970s.
Community policing involves cooperation between police and residents in the development of crime prevention strategies. Broken windows policing (also called “order-maintenance” or “zero-tolerance policing”), however, places emphasis on order maintenance by officers with community members in a supporting role. Proponents of the broken windows theory argue that the accumulation of small acts of disorder (litter, graffiti, the presence of truants, loiterers, people who are homeless, and street vendors) creates an environment conducive to serious crimes like robbery or assault. Preventative policing grants the police discretion to target signs of disorder to prevent escalation to violent crime (Wilson and Kelling 1982; Bratton and Malinowski 2008). Because Los Angeles acts as a model for other cities in both law-enforcement tactics and organizing against police abuse, this topic has national relevance, particularly in the current era of zero-tolerance policing.
In trying to make sense of the police response illustrated in the opening anecdote, I am concerned with what occurred behind the scenes in the days and weeks prior as well as in the years and decades before. I look at important historical junctures in order to understand how the current hyperpolicing of Cadillac-Corning came to be. A key theme here is how the Cadillac-Corning region of Los Angeles became a predominantly working-class African American enclave that, by the 1960s, was viewed by people outside the area as a neighborhood with a violent reputation. Changes in housing development and school desegregation were central to the formation of the neighborhood. The demographic changes set the stage for repressive policing. The creation and implementation of Los
Angeles City’s first gang injunction solidified Cadillac-Corning’s stigmatization in the 1980s.
A gang injunction is a restraining order, not against an individual, but rather against an entire neighborhood. If subject to an injunction, alleged gang members are not allowed to engage in behavior that is otherwise legal, including congregating in groups of two or more and standing in public for more than five minutes. Since the injunction, Cadillac-Corning has been a test site for repressive policies and practices that eventually spread to the rest of the city.
I do not describe the dynamics of control, force, and power in Cadillac-Corning simply for the sake of building theory. Bridging theory and practice does not happen by producing more theory. Instead, youth organizers and I used the research to challenge the use of gang injunctions in California. Overall, this book mixes a scholarly analysis of domination with real-world case studies of challenges to that domination.
The Academic Circus
I had never lived anywhere but Tucson, Arizona, until I moved to Los Angeles to attend graduate school. I don’t think anyone I knew from Tucson had moved away, either. I drove away from my home because something told me that I needed distance in order to understand it. That year, wildfires seared the hills around LA. Though only a state over, when I reached California I felt painfully disconnected from my family and the land itself, my temple of sweeping desert. I had no spiritual connection to the sea. How was I going to wake up without the smell of creosote or fresh tortillas or the sound of thunder? I watched the green of the Border Patrol shift into the blue of the LAPD as dirt transformed into concrete.
In grad school I found white people studying people of color. There were people of color studying people of color. There were people pretending to be homeless. Much urban ethnography is concerned with using “deviant” low-income people of color as research objects to be alternately feared and pitied by highly educated voyeuristic consumers of ethnographic texts (Kelley 1998). One grad student, after she was done at her so-called field site—a street filled with homeless youth—would remove her ragged hoodie and slide a giant diamond back into place on her ring finger. In an ethnographic methods class, she once told a horror story about another researcher witnessing a gang shooting. The girl
feared for her life afterward. She just wanted to watch. But now her hands were soiled. I was the only one who did not convey sympathy. My sympathy was with the people directly suffering the violence daily.
“You are angry.” I hear this often. Of course I am angry. I am tired of seeing people I love, many of them young people, locked up or murdered. Some of the murders have been because of street violence. Others were executions by police. All were the result of repression-oriented policies and practices that made our neighborhoods unsafe. People stood by and took notes on it, shook their heads, examined computer models of homicides, and said, “How interesting.” Yes, this makes me angry. Anger is part of the method.
The opening vignette to this book is one of the only moments in which I will br...