Donald Trump is bringing his white power revue to Mount Rushmore. This week on Intercepted: As cases of Covid-19 skyrocket across the U.S. — particularly in states that basked in the glory of the Trump administration’s ignorance and anti-science policies — Trump is passionately focused on defending the legacy of the Confederacy and white supremacist monuments. Native American historian Nick Estes explains the crimes against Indigenous people committed by the four presidents whose faces are carved into Mount Rushmore and describes the story of the Native tribes displaced from the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Black Lives Matter demonstrations against police brutality systemic racism continue across the U.S. as calls to defund the police intensify. University of Iowa historian Simon Balto, author of the new book “Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power,” lays out the origins of the Chicago Police Department as a moralistic enforcement agency in the late 1800s and its transformation into a militarized terror force deployed to systemically and violently control Black people in Chicago, while simultaneously crushing movements for workers’ rights, tenant rights, and basic human rights.
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from my basement in New York City. And this is episode 136 of Intercepted.
Donald Trump: So we have more cases because we do the greatest testing. If we didn’t do testing, we’d have no cases. Other countries, they don’t test millions. It’s up to almost 30 million tests. So when you do 30 million and have a kid with the sniffles and they’ll say it’s coronavirus, whatever you want to call it. I said the other night, there are so many names to this, I could name 19 names, like corona 19.
JS: In the United States right now, we are witnessing the blowback caused by stupidity, ignorance and anti-science policymaking from the highest office in the land. Coronavirus infections are skyrocketing across the country, notably in states whose governors joined Donald Trump in minimizing the grave danger posed by not taking Covid-19 seriously. Both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have overwhelmingly refused to take the most basic steps to project a message of responsibility or to encourage people to just wear masks. They have celebrated and spoken in front of mass gatherings of people who have equated wearing protective masks with the loss of their liberty. And now the virus is spreading like wildfire through the states of some of Trump’s most loyal followers and supporters.
NBC News: This morning the coronavirus surge continues in Texas. Infections statewide now topping 150,000, with just over 2,400 deaths.
Sam Brock: Twenty-six states are already seeing a rise in cases, with 11 looking at a sharp jump of 100 percent or more over the last 14 days. That includes Florida, rocked by a five-fold increase in daily cases in two weeks.
JS: Instead of realizing the deadly mistakes of his administration’s response to this pandemic, Trump has spent weeks railing against Black Lives Matter protests, attempting to criminalize dissent and dreaming up scenarios where he can order police and military forces to operate with even greater brutality. Trump appears to spend more time developing edicts to lock away people who deface or destroy Confederate monuments than he does actually trying to save the lives of Americans fighting a lethal virus.
DJT: We’re fighting, really, a movement. And it’s not a movement, even, that votes. We have the votes, we have everything. But what’s gone on and what I watch and I see all the time and I’ve been watching for the last three weeks is a disgrace. I see them pulling down monuments. They don’t even know which monument it is.
JS: Donald Trump has used the virus of his re-election campaign to give racist speeches in Tulsa, Oklahoma around the Juneteenth holiday that celebrates emancipation of enslaved people. And he chose a city that was home to a horrifying racial massacre of Black people. He’s tweeting videos of his supporters yelling “white power.”
Unidentified person 1: White power! White power!
Unidentified person 2: There you go, “white power,” did you hear that?
JS: And as he does this and as people continue to become infected with Covid-19 at alarming rates, Trump is obsessively demanding that people who attack Confederate monuments be locked in prison for a decade.
DJT: No, we’ll stop it. Don’t worry. Just don’t worry about it. Ten years is a long time to spend in prison.
JS: The truth is that Donald Trump has expended infinitely more energy trying to protect white supremacist monuments to slaveholders and war criminals who killed and died to protect their ability to enslave Black people than he has at protecting the people of this country from a deadly infectious disease. It says everything we need to know about who he is and what his administration represents.
And now, for his next performance, he is going to go to South Dakota on July 3 for a fireworks show to celebrate his white supremacist agenda and re-election campaign. Now, none of the four presidents on Mount Rushmore were Confederate generals or commanders. But if you really examine the history of these presidents, and in particular their actions against Indigenous people, Native Americans, including those whose lands were taken so that that monument could be built, then you see that it’s actually a perfect location for Trump to take his tour of hate right now.
The current actions targeting Confederate monuments have been a long time coming and it is not lost on the activists agitating for their removal that many of these statues and memorials were built not in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, but decades later. And the reason they were erected was to reap terror on Black people in this country by celebrating the commanders of a war white southerners fought in an effort to keep their status as slave owners.
At the same time, there are monuments and statues and schools named for people whose crimes predate the Civil War. I am talking about the military figures, the U.S. presidents, and others who are glorified because of, or in spite of, their role in the sustained campaigns of genocide and displacement against Indigenous people in this country.
JS: Joining me now is the Native American historian and professor, Nick Estes. He is a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and an assistant professor of American studies at the University of New Mexico. He’s also the host of the excellent Red Nation podcast. His latest book is “Our History is The Future.” Nick Estes, thanks so much for joining us again here on Intercepted.
Nick Estes: Thanks for having me, Jeremy.
JS: So on Friday, Donald Trump issued an executive order on“Protecting American Monuments, Memorials, and Statues and Combating Recent Criminal Violence.” And of course, this comes as we’ve seen Confederate monuments coming down. Sometimes activists are pulling them down, sometimes institutions through public pressure have decided to take them down. There’s a lot to unpack in that executive order, but I just wanted to share some of how it begins: “Key targets in the violent, extremist campaign against our country, our public monuments, memorials and statues.” It goes on, “their selection of targets reveals a deep ignorance of our history and is indicative of a desire to indiscriminately destroy anything that honors our past.” Just your big picture response to this executive order.
NE: Trump, he’s invoking this kind of idea of lawlessness that has been unleashed by Black-led resistance all over the country, and now internationally, to make this argument that the very core, the very idea of America “as we know it,” right, is under attack.
DJT: First of all, we have arrested, I think almost — but it could be over the number — hundreds of people. We have arrested a lot of people for what they’ve done. They’ve created bedlam. They’ve destroyed very important things. I mean you’re also talking about statues of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln…
NE: And if there’s any lesson that we can learn from colonialism, it involves three things: God, gold, and glory. Right? The soft underbelly of this entire project has always been glory. The idea that this nation is built on an exceptional, kind of unique history, right? The city on the hill kind of thesis that came out of the pilgrim mythology. And so in this moment, Trump is trying to essentially rewrite history and to say that there are winners and there are losers, right? It’s a very kind of facile reading of history and I don’t think that the advocates that are calling for the tearing down of these monuments or the, you know, even the replacement in some instances, are saying that we should reduce the history of racism, of imperialism to just the Civil War, but that it’s a very complicated history, especially when you factor in something like settler colonialism. And so, in this instance, he’s saying, you know, “our history,” “deep ignorance of our history,” and whose history is that?
DJT: We have to cherish our past. We have to cherish good or bad. We have to understand our past. We have to understand our history. Because if we don’t know our history, it could all happen again. We have to know our history.
NE: When somebody like Trump says, you know, “We’re here to protect our national monuments,” he’s been invoking the language of heritage, which is kind of like a dog whistle for the “it’s heritage, not hate” kind of speak around the Confederate monuments as well as the Confederate battle flag. He’s not including Indigenous people in this particular rhetoric because our monuments, our history as Indigenous people, is under constant erasure. And to reduce the kind of struggles over monuments, over how we know and how we write history in this particular moment, to just the idea of Confederate monuments or, you know, Union monuments, completely ignores the larger kind of context of U.S. history. And it attempts to sanitize it, between: Oh, we have good colonizers and we have bad colonizers.
JS: Trump has a rally planned on July 3 and the location for that rally is what they call Mount Rushmore. Talk about the significance of this location, Mount Rushmore, located in South Dakota’s Black Hills, and what that location means to the Lakota people and how that monument is viewed among Indigenous activists.
NE: Mount Rushmore is within a cultural landscape that we know as He Sapa, or the Black Hills. And it’s kind of a mistranslation in some ways because, when we say He Sapa, you know, when we talked about our 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty that we signed with the United States, it didn’t just include the cultural landscape of the Black Hills as we know it today, with the Black Hills National Forest, et cetera, and the federal park lands that exist there and the state park lands that exist there. But it actually meant — He Sapa actually means “the black ridge.” Which, “the black ridge” for us is the Teton Mountains. And so that’s the extent of Lakota territory as we understand it and the extent of this kind of cultural, sacred landscape. And the Black Hills were also a place of origin and a place of cultural and spiritual significance for over 50 Indigenous nations. So it’s not just our kind of proprietary claim to this particular location. We were kind of the final, I guess, caretakers after a lot of these Indigenous nations were kind of removed through U.S. policy, and of course, inter-Indigenous warfare itself as well. And so, Mount Rushmore is named after a gold prospector who had illegally entered into Lakota treaty territory to begin prospecting. And so it’s taken on this name from this squatter who came into our land. But then, later on, the son of Danish immigrant, Gutzon Borglum, saw this as a place to build his kind of shrine to democracy, as it became known. Or his shrine to American exceptionalism, because he really wanted to capture and to portray and celebrate the uniqueness and the greatness of the United States. And so he picked this location for those very specific reasons, to put the four presidents on there.
Gutzon Borglum: And the characters that we have chosen — Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt — are the most outstanding men in the last 150 years in the building of, not only the government itself but in establishing and developing its territorial dimension.
NE: This is one of the darkest periods of the reservation period because our language was banned, our dancing was banned, all of our religions and ceremonies were actually banned on the reservation and we were only allowed to perform them for, you know, national celebrations, such as 4th of July or for, you know, national holidays like Presidents Day or Flag Day, for example. But Dennis Banks, as well as Russell Means, called this the shrine of hypocrisy.
Russell Means: Anything Indian was condemned and punishable. Then they developed a program of forcing us off the reservation. There’s many ways of doing this of course — economic deprivation — therefore we were forced into the cities to look for jobs for existence. Then they introduced the relocation program, where they relocated Indian people from reservations to seven different designated cities in the United States. After the first five years of my life, first six or seven, I then began growing up in the urban environment and have yet to meet an Indian in the urban environment that does not plan on eventually going home.
NE: Washington was known as “town destroyer.” He was given that name by the Haudenosaunee Confederacy because he led a scorched-earth campaign against the Haudenosaunee prior to the Revolutionary War, but also during the Revolutionary War to push them further westward, to make room, you know, to create Lebensraum or living space for the new kind of white-Anglo nation that was under construction. Every sitting president to date of the United States has the name “town destroyer” from the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.
JS: Let’s just break down each of them. You just talked a bit about George Washington. What about Thomas Jefferson and his relationship with Indigenous people in this country.
NE: Yeah, Thomas Jefferson was really the architect of Indian removal as we now know it, as like the Trail of Tears or the removal of the southeastern tribes from what is now the South, what we know as the South, and places like Georgia and North Carolina. But he was the one who really envisioned that, and that’s why he facilitated something like the Louisiana Purchase because he imagined moving, basically creating a large Indian reserve west of the Mississippi River. And of course, that, later on, became Oklahoma Territory. He also envisioned that the entire western hemisphere would be dominated by the Anglo-Saxon race and this was really the foundation of what we know as Manifest Destiny, which was a term that was coined in the late 19th century. But earlier on there was the Monroe Doctrine, right? Which really was drawing inspiration from somebody like Thomas Jefferson and understanding the kind of unique place of the United States in dominating the entire western hemisphere and understanding the western hemisphere as the “backyard” of the United States.
JS: So let’s move, I guess, chronologically then. And of course, next, we have Abraham Lincoln. As Indigenous activists have been protesting Mount Rushmore itself, you also have Abraham Lincoln’s story, which we hear nothing about his relationship with Indigenous people in this country.
NE: Right, and even within that executive order issued by Trump, he mentions the vandalization of the Lincoln Memorial and kind of raises the question, why Lincoln?
DJT: But they’re after Abraham Lincoln, and tonight, I guess they’re looking at Abraham Lincoln. And that was the Emancipation Proclamation. So you have that and you’re signing Emancipation Proclamation, and you have somebody, I think that wasn’t freed, and he’s getting up. It’s the position of he’s getting up. He’s being freed by Abraham Lincoln. And I can see controversy, but I can also see beauty in it. And it was paid for by slaves. I don’t know if you know that. It was paid for because they were so grateful to the president. It was paid for that reason. And they want to take it down.
NE: Lincoln himself is a very controversial figure for our people because he, he signed the death sentence for 38 Dakota patriots who took up arms against the United States after a break down in treaty obligations happened during the Civil War. The Dakota people in the territory of Minnesota had signed away, you know, pretty much all of their territory through this really coerced treaty that basically gave the Dakota people like a 22-mile strip of reservation land. And we now know that today, like, a lot of that land actually became part of, you know, the Moral Act, which is the act that kind of facilitated the creation of land grant institutions. But then also, at the same time, in 1862, you had the passage of the Homestead Act, which was an attempt to alleviate some of the mounting pressures happening on the eastern seaboard, between North and South, to kind of open up “free Indigenous land,” or nearly free Indigenous land in the West so that white immigrants could go out there and establish themselves and, you know, create this kind of yeoman farming empire that was envisioned by Jefferson.
And so these, this was the lead up prior to the Dakota Uprising, as it’s known, in 1862. And what happened is, because the United States failed to live up to its treaty obligations to the Dakota people and they had, you know, given over these large tracts of land, they took up arms. And many of the people who took up arms were — they took up arms reluctantly. They had, themselves kind of adopted the white mode of living. They cut their hair. They went to church. They began speaking English. They sent their children off to be educated in Christian boarding schools. But none of this prevented them from starving to death, right? So they took up arms against mainly Scandinavian and German immigrants who were flooding the area because of the Homestead Act and because of the railroad colonization that was happening at the time. And they expelled a lot of them within a very short period of time. But as the state of Minnesota reorganized itself for retaliation, they began organizing these irregular settler militias that were composed of these recent European immigrants to basically create what we now know as the National Guard to crush the Indigenous uprising, but at the same time issued scalp bounties for upwards of $250 for an Indigenous or a Dakota scalp. And so what happened from 1862 to 1863 was known as kind of the punitive years of Dakota punishment.
And to kind of kick it off, just weeks before he signed the Emancipation Proclamation in January, Abraham Lincoln executed 38 Dakota people for their role — whether it was real or imagined — in the Dakota uprising in what became known as the largest mass execution in U.S. history. And this happened in Makato, of what we know as Blue Earth and today it’s known as Mankato. But in 1863, Lincoln ordered Sibley and Sully, two generals, to basically crush the remaining, kind of, Dakota resistance and they chased us all the way into what is now North Dakota as well as South Dakota.
And this campaign, which is known as the campaign, or the Columns of Vengeance, ended with the Whitestone Hill massacre in 1863. It’s a massacre that’s largely forgotten within U.S. history. And so at Whitestone Hill, in 1863, they converged on a buffalo hunt camp. Many of these people had nothing to do with the Dakota uprising but nonetheless were seen as hostile. Many of them were women and children. Most of the men had left for a hunting party and they returned to see around 400 of their relatives massacred at Whitestone Hill and the survivors of this particular massacre went on to join their Hunkpapa relatives in what is now known as the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. So those survivors of the Whitestone Hill massacre later became, you know, the descendants of them, became the people who facilitated the uprising against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
[Protesters against Dakota Access Pipeline chant: We’re not leaving. We’re not leaving. We’re not leaving. We’re not leaving.]
NE: Abraham Lincoln himself also oversaw the Navajo Long Walk, where somebody like Kit Carson was sent to round up all the Navajo people as well as Apache people and incarcerate them or imprison them in an open-air concentration camp known as Bosque Redondo. You know there were around 4,000 Navajo people who died on the Navajo Long Walk. Of course, there was the Sand Creek massacre that happened in 1864 as well. So Lincoln, himself, oversaw many of these kind of pivotal moments in not just in Indian policy, but also Indian wars of extermination. And when we understand the modern kind of like Indian massacre, when that image comes up of the kind of industrial warfare that was waged against, not just “enemy combatants,” but also non-combatants and civilians, it was this particularly era that was the defining moment that carried on into what we now know as Reconstruction, but also the “Plains Wars” that happened from, you know post-war, post Civil War to the 1890s.
JS: Talk about Teddy Roosevelt and the history of extermination, war, and slaughter of Indigenous people.
NE: Yeah, so Teddy Roosevelt, he wasn’t necessarily an Indian killer in the same way as these other presidents, in the sense that he didn’t really wage a kind of military campaign. His was more so a campaign of “preservation,” right? He’s seen as, you know, the Sierra Club figure of like the guy who created these national parks. But for settlers to appreciate nature, Indigenous people had to be “removed” from nature, right, itself.
And so that’s what Teddy Roosevelt did and there was a complete denial — especially in places like the Black Hills — a complete denial that Lakota, Dakota people had legitimate treaty claim to this land. And later on, as we know, even the Supreme Court understood that, because of the Black Hills Act of 1877, the Black Hills themselves were actually illegally taken from the Lakota nation. They were illegally taken out of trust. They were illegally taken out of treaty status — and this happened under the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant — and then became open for white settlement, but also open for the nationalization of large tracts into what we now know as federal forest lands.
JS: The recent events that were sparked, or given new life — the rebellion, the uprising against police murder of Black people in this country, the confrontation of the legacy of white supremacy and genocide upon which this country was built — has sent a lot of people back to history to read about those who came before them. And there’s been a lot of renewed interest in the work of abolitionists and the work of the Black Panther Party, and you also have this history in modern times of Indigenous movements — namely the American Indian Movement — and the way it was attacked in the same ways that the Black Panther Party or other militant groups were attacked by the U.S. government using Cointelpro infiltration, false flag operations. Talk a bit about the American Indian Movement, its political origins, and what you think would be helpful for people to understand about AIM in the current moment that we’re in right now.
NE: So the American Indian Movement was formed in 1968 in the Twin Cities, in Saint Paul and Minneapolis, and they formed for three reasons. And this is incredibly important for this day and age as well. They were formed to end child removal, which was the taking or the adoption out of Indian children into white families. So in 1969, a Congressional report came out that showed that one out of three American Indian children had been adopted out to a white family. The second one was to address poverty and the third one was to address police brutality or police violence. And this is incredibly important. So, many of the founders of the American Indian Movement began thinking about creating an organization while they were in prison. The Bellecourt brothers, Vernon and Clyde, as well as Dennis Banks began to develop a kind of class consciousness, for lack of a better term, around the situation of Indigenous people living off the reservation.
Dennis Banks: Well, there are three things. Basically, one of them is to have the United States government began a process of honoring the treaties that have been signed with the Native Americans. Second would be to have the Bureau of Indian Affairs removed from the Department of Interior because of the tremendous amount of conflict of interest. And thirdly to amend what is known as the Indian Reorganization Act. This is the act that establishes the puppet councils, puppet governments on the reservations and we want to amend it so that Indian people on the reservation will have direct control of the reservation life instead of having all of the policies originating out of Washington, D.C.
NE: They begin offering job opportunities in cities, whether it was in Cleveland, whether it was in the Bay Area, to get people off the reservation to essentially begin the process of liquidating tribal collective ownership of land. And so many of these people, you know, were going into places like Minneapolis, Denver. And in Minneapolis, of course, you can remove an Indian from the reservation but just because they’re not on the reservation doesn’t mean that they’re going to stop being an Indian. And so they found each other and just like any oppressed group of people, they formed their own kind of community, their own kind of culture. They first created a group called Concerned Indian Americans, whose acronym is CIA, which they thought was not a good fit.
JS: There was a mistake at the printer!
NE: But it was really just like… It wasn’t academics, you know. It wasn’t, like, thought leaders of the era. It was really just like homegrown, working-class Indigenous people. And many of them were women. Pat Bellinger was, you know, one of the founders of the American Indian Movement. And they decided at their first meeting that they were going to go out and fight the police.
Russell Means: And originally AIM, of course, was organized to combat police brutality in Minneapolis, Minnesota. But it grew, because the ideas of self-determination, the idea of being able to stand on your own two feet, eye-to-eye with the white man and say, “Wait a minute. Stop.”
NE: And so they created what were called “AIM patrols,” and they decided — they landed on American Indian Movement, right, they wanted to be more than just an organization. They wanted to be a movement. So they created AIM patrols to basically police the police. To prevent them from, you know, violating people’s civil rights. And then of course as the movement grew, they adopted a kind of more militant stance. But it was really the influence of the Black Panther Party in Oakland and their own cop patrols, as well as the free breakfast program, that influenced these kinds of Indigenous communities. But at the same time there were kind of unique Indigenous political contributions to the movement, such as survival school. Some of them kind of still exist today in alternative education for Indigenous people, but they also help with housing.
This is something that was really fascinating to me in the coverage of a place like Minneapolis. Leading up to the uprising and the killing of George Floyd, the conversation that I was hearing on the ground there, not just from Indigenous people but all people in that community, in the activist sphere in Minneapolis was the question of housing because housing was skyrocketing, housing prices were skyrocketing. So the intensification of police violence always correlates with, you know, profound inequality and we can trace that inequality in a place like Minneapolis back to its colonial origins when they expelled my ancestors, right? When they created scalp bounties for indigenous people, where not just the kind of policing institutions of the state, whether they’re sheriff’s deputies or the National Guard, but everyday settlers were encouraged to enact vigilante violence against indigenous people. Those are the origins of the George Floyd protests.
NE: And it’s not lost on us that they’re called an uprising, just like our revolt was called the Dakota Uprising. We see it as a continuation, and continuing of the tradition of the anti-police violence work of the American Indian Movement.
[Archival music from members of an American Indian Movement meeting.]
JS: Nick Estes, I want to thank you very much for all of your really, really important work. You’re a phenomenal young historian and I really do hope that people follow your work and also pick up your latest book, “Our History is The Future.” Nick Estes, thanks so much for being with us again.
NE: Thanks again, Jeremy.
JS: Nick Estes is an assistant professor of American studies at the University of New Mexico. He is a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and the host of the Red Nation podcast. His latest book is “Our History is The Future.” Nick Estes is on Twitter @nick_W_Estes.
Protester call and response:
What do we want?
When do we want it?
JS: Protests, marches, and demonstrations against police brutality and murder and against systemic racism are continuing across the United States and the calls to defund the police and to abolish the prison system as it currently exists in this country are intensifying. The movement for Black Lives has provided crucial leadership that has brought these issues to an international stage and the resilience of these activists is a sight to behold, to emulate, and to be grateful for.
Over the past several weeks on this show, we have been focusing on these issues with Black scholars and organizers who have done the work of writing the history and telling the stories systematically suppressed, ignored, and left out of history classes and media discourse in this country — people like Robin D.G. Kelley and Ruth Wilson Gilmore.
Robin D.G. Kelley: “Stop killing us” is a slogan that we’ve been carrying for centuries. It’s aimed at ending state-sanctioned racist violence, but also ending the violence of poverty; the violence of a health care system that has continued to reproduce inequality.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore: As people have lost the ability to keep their households and their communities together with adequate income, clean water, reasonable air, reliable shelter, as those things have gone away, what’s risen up has been policing and prison.
JS: What we want to do today is to back up and look at the very broad questions of why we have police in this country, why they are organized in the way that they are, and to examine their political power and the ways it has been used as a force to defend the interests of the elite, to crush organized labor and to reap terror on Black and brown and poor communities. We are going to do that today by taking an in-depth look at the origins and history of one of the most notorious and racist police forces in this country, the Chicago Police Department.
There is an astonishingly brilliant new book that chronicles this history from the mid-1800s to the 1970s, a book that uses scholarship and primary source documents and testimonials to give lie to some of the most pernicious and ill-informed characterizations of Black people and Black communities to this day. At the same time, the book lays out the origins of the Chicago Police as a moralistic enforcement agency established by white land and business owners and politicians with the primary aim of policing the behavior of European immigrants and it soon became a militarized terror force that was used to systemically and violently force Black people in Chicago to live in poverty, have their communities used as drug-infested business centers for white organized crime gangs while simultaneously crushing movements for workers rights, tenant rights, and basic human rights. The book also tells the often deleted history of Black political organizing and rebellion in Chicago and it offers lessons on how this history speaks to the demands and struggles of the present moment.
The book is called “Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power” and its author is Simon Balto, an assistant professor of history and African American studies at the University of Iowa. Simon Balto joins me now. Simon, thanks so much for being with us here on Intercepted.
SB: Thanks for having me, Jeremy.
JS: I want to begin by going pretty far back in U.S. history. In a general sense, talk about how police came to be in the United States. What are the early origins of the idea of city police forces in the U.S.?
SB: If we’re looking at the origins of the police, they primarily were implemented to do one or both of two things, and that is to preserve economic hierarchy or to preserve racial hierarchy.
So, you know, in a number of southern cities, early police forces either grow directly out of or overlap significantly with early slave patrols, you know, surveil and contain and control Black people who are trying to commit the crime of freeing themselves. In other places, though, it looks a little different.
So, in a city like Chicago, for example, the early police department is developed primarily by elite business owners in the city with the primary purpose of controlling immigrant behavior that they deem to be unruly and undesirable. They were especially concerned with the drinking habits of German and Irish immigrants.
But their other primary purpose was to suppress labor militancy. So, you know, one of the early purposes of the CPD [Chicago Police Department] is to make sure that, you know, workers who are trying to strike for an 8-hour workday or, you know, to better their working conditions, the police force is deployed to suppress them.
I think it’s important for people to understand that, when people first founded these police departments, they were not designed to promote some sort of public safety. They were designed with very specific, kind of political repressions in mind. And actually what’s funny to me is that, back when police departments were first being implemented, in a lot of places they were seen as kind of literally anti-American. In the 1840s, New Yorkers actively resisted the implementation of a New York police department and the reason that they did so was that the kind of generational memory of having the city be occupied by British forces during the Revolutionary War, the police department reminded people of those occupying forces. And so people sort of decried the implementation of a police department as antithetical to the American vision of independence and liberty.
JS: Let’s talk for a moment of the role of the Chicago police in breaking up strikes, attacking organized labor, ultimately then red squads that were aimed at taking down the perceived radicals. I think it’s important to begin with the Haymarket Square uprising. Just briefly explain when it happened and what it was about and what happened there.
SB: You know it’s 1886. You know there’s been increasing labor militancy and demands for an 8-hour workday and better working conditions, not just in Chicago but in the larger Chicago metro area, and also just across the country. And so, with Haymarket, you have a moment in time in which people are gathered in a labor protest and the Chicago police arrive there, and it’s coming in the wake of increased hostility between workers and police officers in Chicago. And you know what exactly happened that precipitated the events at Haymarket remains a little bit of a mystery, but what we do know is that police ended up opening fire on this crowd of workers and ended up killing a number of people, including a number of police officers through friendly fire. You know, it’s essentially a moment in time that’s really important, I think, for crystallizing wider public support for the police in Chicago, especially among corporate interests.
JS: As you write, the Chicago Tribune organized fundraisers for the police, and the first pension program for police was organized, that was the first time that a pension program was organized for the police.
SB: It’s through events like this where you have a moment of people who are perceived to be radical agitators or outsiders who the police are called upon to repress — people who are organizing to try to better the conditions for people who are underpaid, overworked, who work in hazardous conditions. I mean, it’s again like, what our perceptions of what public goods are is, I think, an important metric for thinking about what police do.
JS: Talk also about the kind of rise of the South Side of Chicago as was described historically as a kind of Black mecca with Black businesses thriving, cultural institutions, people taking over housing that had been occupied by immigrants, often taking the lowest quality houses and trying to build from that something that was viable and vibrant.
SB: When Black people move into Chicago during the first Great Migration, it’s a city that is structurally designed to disadvantage Black people. And so, what that means is that Black folks generally speaking are, I mean, in some cases their own interest of living near relatives or friends or other people that they know, people move to the south side partly because of those reasons, but they also move to the south side because people in other parts of the city don’t want them. And so that takes the form, in some cases, of physical violence. You know, so, for example, in the late 1910s and into the early 1920s, I mean, dozens of Black homes and businesses are bombed as people try to move into areas that are deemed for white people only. And then that also takes the form of more systematized legal violence. For example, restrictive covenants that are written into housing mortgages, you know, that prevent the sale or renting of huge swaths of the city to people who are not “of the caucasian race.” And so, you know, within that context of limited options, Black Chicagoans build. It’s a place of extraordinary Black political achievement, Black cultural achievement. It’s the duality of Black history kind of in a nutshell of racial repression and then, you know, incredible achievement.
JS: One of the narratives or stories that you tell in this book that I found so striking and important for people to understand is the way in which, beginning in the early 1900s, the Chicago authorities, the police, the government, local officials — at the time it was in the hands of the Republicans, but then the Democrats would take over and they govern in perpetuity to this day — but in the early 1900s Chicago basically abandoned the “Black belt” of the South Side of Chicago. They basically create this levee, where this is the area of the city where all of this seedy stuff is going to be allowed to take place, where people will need to go to this community to take part in it and the police are basically going to stay away from it and let the cards fall where they fall.
SB: The logic that policy-makers and police officials operate under in that moment is that look we’re not going to be able to prevent sex work. We’re not going to ever be able to abolish drinking and so on and so forth. So, what are we going to do about it? And what they decide to do about it is that they’ll push it into places where people, because of the color of their skin, lack much political weight to do otherwise. So, the police are pretty explicit about, essentially pushing the sex trade into Black neighborhoods. During Prohibition as well, you have, you know, white mobsters who, you know, who set up operations in Black communities because they know that the police just really won’t care.
You know, when we talk about the cultivation of vice and other forms of matters deemed criminal, whether they should be or not, it’s very much put into place along racialized lines operating under the racist logic that, we can’t get rid of these things but we can put them in places that we don’t really care about and that other people, you know, kind of the dominant population won’t really care about. So we see that in places, you point out, I mean, in the late 1800s and onward into the 1900s.
JS: Just to give people a statistic that you unearthed and cite in this book, from 1917 to 1921, 58 Black homes or residences were bombed because the residents or owners of those properties were Black people who had moved to overwhelmingly white neighborhoods. And the police did almost nothing in response to this spate over four years of bombings of Black homes where people had dared to move a bit outside of the “Black belt.”
SB: Black folks organized around these bombings to essentially begin trying to do the work that the police should technically be doing. I mean that, you know, you have local organizers that essentially try to launch investigations into who’s behind these bombings. In other words, doing what we think the police should be doing. You also have other Black people who talk about arming themselves to protect, you know, their own homes and businesses. You know, the same thing happens in the 1940s and ‘50s when Black people are again moving into and within the city and moving into previously white neighborhoods where white people are engaged in straight-up terrorism against these people when they’re moving into white neighborhoods. I mean, you know, that includes arson, it includes overturning cars, it includes beating. I mean it’s all sorts of different terrorist methods to prevent integration of city neighborhoods. You know, when civil rights leaders in Chicago in 1955, for example, are holding memorial rallies for Emmett Till after he’s lynched in Mississippi.
Journalist: The body was shipped home, back north to Chicago where Mamie Till Bradley insisted on an open casket funeral. “So all the world can see,” she said, “what they did to my boy.”
SB: They tied directly the lynching of Emmett Till in Mississippi to the ongoing terrorism that white mobs are visiting upon Black people in Chicago and the failure of the police department in Chicago to actually protect them from those terrorist mobs. There’s an interesting linkage that Black organizers are making between terrorism in Mississippi and terrorism in Chicago and the fact that Mayor Richard Daley, who’s newly elected in that moment, you know, that he issues a condemnation of the lynching of Emmett Till but refuses to actually respond to Black demands in Chicago for the police department to actually keep Black people safe.
JS: At the time of the 1919 race riot, as you document in the book, this started when a group of young Black men — kids — were in a part of Lake Michigan that was unofficially the Black section, and they had gone out on a raft and the tide starts to kind of sweep them southward toward the white area of the beach and a white man starts pelting their boat with rocks and stones. They lose control of the raft. One of the young men goes under and dies. No one responds to go and get him. His friends come ashore and they approach a Black Chicago police officer and try to identify this man as being the culprit who was pummeling them with these rocks and stones and then a white officer intervenes and then that man is let go. But that sparked what would become known as the race riots of 1919. So, Simon, pick it up from there.
SB: Chicago in some ways, already a bit of a tinderbox. People were pretty clear in the aftermath of these riots that ultimately killed 38 people, people were pretty clear that the reason why it all started was really this white police officer named Daniel Callahan. It was his refusal to allow an arrest of a white murderer that really set everything off. You know so over the coming days, the city essentially descends into what people call a race riot but was essentially white marauders going through mostly the Black parts of the Black South Side, white mobs terrorizing and killing Black people and then Black people taking up arms to respond to this terrorism.
JS: So layout sort of what happens throughout the ‘20s and into the early ‘30s regarding Chicago police and the growing Black population of the city.
SB: This is a period of time in which the Republican machine and the Democratic machine are really vying for control of the city and it’s during this moment, by the end of the 1920s, that the Democratic political machine that we, you know, has a stranglehold on Chicago, really emerges from the fray as being the political machine that’s going to control the city’s future. When that political machine coheres and asserts its dominance, it’s really disinterested and actually actively hostile to Black people because Black voters had traditionally been voting Republican. And so, at that founding moment of this powerful machine, it’s organized really with no interest in responding at all to Black grievances or Black needs or anything like that. And that manifests in the police department because the political machine really has extraordinary amounts of control over the police. Democratic politicians, you know, essentially appoint their friends and neighbors and family members to positions on the police force. You know, you get people that have essentially no qualifications for the job other than just knowing the right people. The Democratic machine totally distorts and twists the demographics of the police force and how the police actually operate to the advantage of white neighborhoods and the disadvantage of Black ones. And this is a story that continues to unfold and manifest overtime in the coming decades. And part, also, of what the Democratic machine is doing during that moment is asserting “law and order” over, again, people who are deemed to be politically radical. That manifests most strikingly in the ways that it treats and responds to Black communist organizers on the south side.
In the emergent, early years of the Great Depression, the Communist Party is extraordinarily active on Chicago’s South Side and it’s really, really active in terms of battling austerity measures that the city is putting in place. Where this takes shape most clearly is in anti-eviction organizing. It’s a moment in which the police power is asserting itself to control Black radical organizing, but it’s also a moment time in which there’s some pretty astute and important resistance to the assertion of that authority.
JS: By the mid ‘6’s, you write that, “the Chicago police department was supported politically by members of both major parties, was flush with cash and possessed extraordinary power and autonomy.” How did the Chicago police department ultimately gain and grow its political power, which endures to this day, starting in the mid-60s?
SB: There’s all of this momentum in the 1960s to really lobby for increasing police power. So the police department in most of the 1960s is overseen by a guy named Orlando Wilson. And Wilson is, you know, one of the most esteemed criminal justice minds when he’s hired as the superintendent of the CPD. What Wilson does is he modernizes and professionalizes the department, but he also makes pretty explicit the ways in which the police are going to be instruments of racial control. There’s a really striking document that I found in his papers, which are housed at Berkeley, where he makes a very explicit argument for an increased budgetary allotment for the police department so that they can hire more people based solely and explicitly upon the fact that Chicago is getting blacker. So essentially, you know, they use predictive modeling of population growth to say: Look, Chicago is going to get X percentage more young Black people coming into the city for the remainder of the 1960s and so we need an equivalent budgetary increase to hire more police officers.
By that point in time, in the 1960s, the police department, generally speaking, is an institution whose attentions are focused overwhelmingly on controlling Black people and Black spaces. And by that point in time, white people just sort of assume that that is the legitimate reason for the police to exist. And it’s during that moment in time where police repression and police attentions are focusing increasingly and overwhelmingly on Black parts of the city. And so I don’t think it’s a coincidence that that is when, you know, the budgetary allotments begin to explode because, you know, that’s seen as a legitimate police function.
JS: In the midst of this scene that you’re describing, you have the emergence of the Black Panther Party in Chicago. Talk about their efforts to curb violence in their community, but also to confront the Chicago Police Department and it ultimately culminates with the assassination of Black Panther Party leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in December of ‘69. But talk about the rise of the Black Panthers and the response of the Chicago police and power structure during the ‘60s.
SB: What the Panthers were really concerned about was curbing structural violence, you know, through the implementation of things like a free breakfast for children program in Chicago, free community health clinic for people whose medical needs were not being met, free programs to bus family members to visit incarcerated loved ones. I mean these are all programs that the Panthers in Chicago put into effect with pretty remarkable success. And they were also really concerned with building cross-racial alliances and solidarities with other organizations. This included working with white organizations, with Puerto Rican organizations, to really try to identify common points of structural oppression and violence and try to figure out ways to mitigate them.
When the Panthers are organizing alongside comrades from other organizations, in 1969 particularly, the level of state repression that is visited upon these efforts is overwhelming. I mean the assassination of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark is the culmination of really a years-long violent campaign that the Chicago police department, with the assistance of the FBI, waged against the Panthers. The Panthers’ headquarters are frequently raided; supplies that they have acquired to feed kids in the free breakfast for children program are burned by the police. Fred Hampton was widely identified as one of the most promising political organizers not just in Chicago but in the country.
Fred Hampton: What makes them made about it is that they have Black people and white poor people and red poor people and Puerto Rican poor people, Latin American poor people — poor people of all descents — they have been caught up in the movements based on racism when the Black Panther Party stood up and said we don’t care what anybody says, we don’t think you fight fire with fire best; we think you fight fire with water best. We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight it with solidarity. We say we’re not going to fight capitalism with Black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism.
SB: You know and he’s only 21 years old when he’s assassinated. The political components of the tragedy really are couched in the fact that the things that he was able to do were really seeing some significant successes in the city. And the Panthers, in a lot of ways, are gutted by the assassination of Fred Hampton. So in the wake of his assassination, there are dozens of organizations that are founded across the city, you know, inspired by his memory to really try to confront police brutality as it exists primarily in Black and brown communities.
And the Panthers continue to be part of those efforts and I think the most important initiative that came out of that was, in the early ‘70s, what’s left of the Black Panther Party in Chicago organizes a citywide coalition to fight for community control of the police. What community control of the police looked like has a whole variety of different components. Part of it was exactly what it sounds like in terms of not necessarily abolishing the police, but radically reimagining the police, decentralizing the police and essentially neighborhoods having control over what policing looked liked within their particular neighborhoods. But I think that the really important component to what community control looked like in the eyes of that coalition was what we would today identify as defunding the police. At that point in time, the Chicago police department’s budget had grown to over $300 million a year — it’s now $1.7 billion a year — so when they looked at that $300 million budget line for the Chicago police, part of what they were calling for with community control was to take a significant portion of that investment in the police and putting it into other things. Putting it into schools, putting it into job trainings, putting it into community health, and so on and so forth.
JS: From all the scholarship that you’ve done, deeply looking at the history of the Chicago police, primarily up to 1970, what are the big takeaways from your research that you can share with people to understand the way that current police forces operate and their relationship with Black people, Black property, Black communities.
SB: I think that the first one that people should be thinking about is that the fundamental premise that the police exist and the police were brought into existence to, like, “protect us” or “keep us safe” — that’s a myth. You know, the police in Chicago and elsewhere were first put into place in order to protect capital and to protect racial hierarchies. And so when we think about the ways in which police forces currently operate, if we know that as the founding story of police, I think that the way that they operate makes a whole lot more sense. Because they’re essentially continuing to do now what they were founded to do, which is to protect capital and to protect racial hierarchy.
The second big takeaway that I would say is that when we think about the problems of policing and why policing doesn’t work — at least doesn’t work how people like to think it does — when we look at how Black communities like Chicago’s experience policing, it’s a two-sided story. So on the one hand, it’s a story of being overpoliced, so of being subject to, you know, constant harassment, constant surveillance, constant violence, including torture. All of that happens, while at the same time, Black communities do not actually experience much in the way of supposed public safety, you know. So when we think about, you know, communities that are the most subject to intercommunal violence, you know, the communities that are the least safe, they’re also the communities that are also the most overpoliced. And so it raises the question of what’s the point? People like Trump and others enjoy looking at Chicago’s gun violence and saying, “Well, look at that gun violence. This is why we need police.”
DJT: Chicago’s an example. It’s, like, worse than Afghanistan. It’s worse than — I shouldn’t say it because they’re working with us — Honduras, Guatemala.
SB: But actually when we look at Chicago’s gun violence and the long history of it, the fact that the Chicago Police Department almost never is able to arrest people who commit homicides. I mean the clearance rate for homicides in Chicago is below 20 percent. Really what the story is is that policing doesn’t work. If this gun violence is so relentless and so untethered to actual police presences, it’s actually a total refutation of the idea that policing works.
You know I think it’s important to understand that we are part of a long lineage of people who have struggled with and rejected the legitimacy of police power as it exists and as it is visited upon communities of color in the United States. That people who are out on the streets right now calling for defunding and abolition, or people who are contributing, you know, financially to those causes and things like that, it’s part of a tradition of protest against police violence that, you know, has been going on for longer than any of us have been alive.
JS: Simon Balto, thank you so much for being with us here on Intercepted.
SB: Thanks so much, Jeremy. It’s been a pleasure.
JS: Simon Balto is author of the new book “Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power.” It is published by the University of North Carolina Press. He is also an assistant professor of history and African American studies at the University of Iowa. You can find him on Twitter @SimonBalto.
JS: And that does it for this week’s show. You can follow us on Twitter @intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our lead producer is Jack D’Isidoro. Our producer is Laura Flynn. Elise Swain is our associate producer and graphic designer. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept.
I want to offer a very heartfelt goodbye and a deep debt of gratitude is owed to our managing editor, Charlotte Greensit who is moving on to join the New York Times. Charlotte has always been one of the biggest promoters and supporters of this program and we wish her all the best as she starts a new, exciting adventure.
Rick Kwan mixed the show. Transcription for this program is done by Lucy Kroening. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.