Policing Political Upheaval in the 1960s and Today: Which Side Are You On?

EKU Online > Policing Political Upheaval in the 1960s and Today: Which Side Are You On?

By: Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D.

The 1960s were a time of great change and great contradiction—a time of youthful optimism as well as political failure. Optimism was fueled by the idealism of millions of young people who profoundly shaped the American culture with their hopes of political and social change. Political failure was ensured by a lack of understanding what it takes to bring about meaningful political change and naivety about just how powerful vested interests were in American society. These contradictions were perhaps best personified in President John F. Kennedy. President Kennedy tapped into youthful enthusiasm when he challenged an entire generation to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” His new Peace Corps attracted thousands of energetic young people who believed in their collective ability to change the world. If the new Liberal President was to be believed, the eradication of poverty, inequity, sexism, racism and social injustice were all within the nation’s reach. Yet under the veneer of a new American era of liberalism hid a very sinister geopolitical agenda. Secretly, Kennedy authorized a plan, first developed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, to have CIA operatives invade and overthrow Cuba (at the Bay of Pigs), he funded the expansion of USAID to give the CIA cover to work in foreign countries training police in the arts of torture and counterinsurgency, and he expanded America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. The contradictions between the political rhetoric and the use of state power out-lived the young president and eventually found expression in domestic clashes between police and activist groups throughout the country.

Despite Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, announced his commitment to carry on Kennedy’s civil rights agenda, embodied in the Great Society programs that were supposedly designed to promote equality between Blacks and Whites and narrow the gap between the rich and poor. This was the era when Martin Luther King’s dream of a colorblind society was actively promoted and many hoped, would flourish. It was also a time when Malcolm X was thrust onto the national stage by his public denouncement of the beating of a young Black man at the hands of two NYPD officers as calls for both non-violent and violent acts of resistance against the establishment manifested in the same struggle for change.  

Rather than achieving the justice so many sought, however, just a few short years following Kennedy’s death, the nation was instead plunged into civil disorder. The political establishment and its policing institution encountered a most formidable challenge—a direct and frontal assault on their legitimacy. The civil rights and Vietnam antiwar movements, as well as the emerging youth culture, effectively merged two groups that had previously been socially and politically separated—minorities, particularly Blacks and Latinos, and urban and suburban middle-class White youth. The convergence of these two powerful social groups constituted a political movement, which confronted policing directly. Talk of revolution filled the air, as cities burned, and crime rates soared. The Civil Rights Movement and decades of racial and economic oppression, especially at the hands of predominately White police, spawned the militant Black Power Movement, which included groups such as the Black Panthers, whose bloody back and forth clashes with police heightened tensions across the country.

Race riots, often sparked by decades of economic hardship and unthinkable police brutality, erupted summer after summer—in Watts, Newark, Detroit, Chicago, then in cities nationwide in the spring of 1968 when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Meanwhile, protests on college campuses were met with increasing violence by the state, as the focus narrowed to the pressing issues of the Vietnam War and the forced draft of poor and working class people. Returning veterans of the Vietnam War added fuel to the fires by publicly recounting the horrors of the war and denouncing American atrocities in Vietnam. The nightly news was filled with images of students, armed with lists of nonnegotiable demands, taking over university administration buildings only to be met with riot police unleashing dogs and lobbing tear gas into crowds. The State’s response was overwhelmingly violent and at times verged on open warfare. The Black Panthers were targeted and often killed by the police; military units were called out to control student protests and at Kent State and Jackson State Universities, national guardsmen killed students. To many it appeared the battle lines were clearly drawn between the left and the right.

The political upheaval pitted doves against hawks, poor Blacks against establishment Whites, students against the education system and the powerful against the seemingly powerless, in an atmosphere of increasing rage and fury. As representatives of the establishment whose job included maintaining the status quo, the police often found themselves on one side of the barricades facing any one of a number of widely diverse groups collectively known as the “New Left.” The New Left was a loose coalition of groups demanding a variety of social, economic, and political changes, under the overall umbrella term “social justice.” Their unifying slogans were “Power to the People” and “Bring the War Home.” The agenda ranged from free speech to ending the draft, sexual freedom and equality for people of color to rights for women and increasing recognition of the struggles of lesbians and gays. Protests covered the spectrum, from nonviolent sit-ins to bombings conducted by small, ultra-leftist groups like the Weathermen, who had split from Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) over the issue of using violence to bring about political change.

The police clearly stood with the right on the political divide. To the police, the New Left was made up of mindless hippies, drug users and longhairs, a mix characterized as “spoiled college kids” and “draft-dodgers,” who had turned their backs on the country and culture that had subsidized them, and “murderous Black criminals,” who cloaked their “reverse racism” in rhetoric about equality. Perhaps the most dramatic confrontation occurred in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, when TV cameras rolled as then Mayor Richard J. Daley ordered 23,000 police and National Guardsmen to wade into crowds of protesters. Wielding nightsticks and spraying mace, their badge numbers hidden by tape, police cracked heads in what investigative commissions would later call “police riots”—a confirmation of the New Left’s concern that the United States was turning into a police State.

The optimism for social and political change that marked the 1960s and early 70s was to be thwarted, in no small measure, by the politically directed brute force of the police, rather than progressive political change or reform. Those on the political right issued calls for more “law and order”—which those on the left knew as a euphemism for violent police crackdowns on minorities and students while many on the liberal end of the spectrum tended to wring their hands.

While the rhetoric of American politics has changed tremendously since the 1960s many of the underlying social tensions that kindled the fires of the “days of rage” continue to smolder, especially today as political leaders dismantle the remnants of the Great Society. The American impulse for foreign intervention persists today; the economic class divides too often marked by race, gender and differences in education as well as the ability to secure meaningful employment have not been bridged; and, the willingness of the state to wield police power to squash domestic dissent remains. 

Today, on the geopolitical front, while the media obsesses over the flights of terrorist-hunting killer drones, covert CIA operations much like those witnessed in the early days of the Vietnam War flourish. Even as peace talks were carried out in Havana designed to bring an end to the decades old conflict in Colombia, the CIA was covertly assisting the Colombian government’s targeted killings of at least two-dozen leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) providing the government both intelligence and  “smart” weapons used to carry out assassinations. The program was developed under President George W. Bush and continued under President Barack Obama. During the Syrian civil conflict, the CIA has provided training and weapons to “rebels” many of whom have direct ties to al-Qaeda terrorists. Taking on projects of his own, Obama, the “hope-change” president has extended the unending War on Terror to Pakistan and Yemen and speculation mounts that his CIA played an active role in the overthrow of the Libyan government. Military “advisors” have been deployed in Somalia. Destabilization efforts still persist in Iran, justified by hopes of a regime change that might foster what the US refers to as democratic ideals but the sectarian violence and the regime in power in neighboring Iraq call this into question

On the home front, as dubious talk of an improving economy fills the nightly news, social and economic injustices abound. The unemployment and underemployment rates are both extremely high with the young, women with children and people of color bearing the brunt of this economic hardship. The labor participation rate in the United States has fallen to a 30 year low with nearly 4 out of 10 Americans no longer participating in the work force. People are dropping out of the labor market as structural unemployment takes hold. As the stock market hits new highs, the number of homeless women and children continues to grow and more Americans are slipping into poverty. Economic inequity has reached levels that would make the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age envious. The Obama administration meanwhile is waging a domestic war on undocumented people quietly incarcerating and deporting people of color in greater numbers than any previous administration. Universities are under neoliberal assault to mask the reductions in government spending on higher education, making it more difficult for the poor to obtain an opportunity creating education. The people’s Congress has cut long-term unemployment benefits, welfare assistance and food stamps making it even more difficult for the poor to survive. As the nightly news informs us that the inflation rate is low and under control, if fails to inform its viewers that food costs have increased more than 30 percent since the economic down turn, and the media is silent on how this disproportionately affects the working poor and unemployed.  And as the so-called “one percent” prospers and corporations hoard unprecedented levels of cash, the majority of working class Americans have seen their standard of living drop.

Even in the mist of the greatest economic down turn since the Depression and while ordinary Americans suffer almost unprecedented economic hardships; we have witnessed an extraordinary and costly expansion of police power. Not only have the number of police officers patrolling the nations streets increased dramatically since the 1960s, but also they have become militarized and unshackled from many of their constitutional constraints. Even the pretense of a liberal legal order has been drop in many cities. There is no better evidence of the new style of policing in America than the response to the Boston bombings. SWAT teams and armored vehicles occupied an entire community, and officers dressed in battle uniforms went door-to-door making warrantless searches of citizens’ homes. In New York City, just up the road, the police tirelessly and without constitutional constraint stop and frisk people of color, touting it as a necessary crime control, even antiterrorism, measure. The symbolic and politically disorganized resistance offered up by the “Occupy Movement” was met with the same coordinated and violent police response that marked the days of rage. News of domestic spying by the NSA has been leaked to the public, as if this were something new, and all the while very openly the state has been building ‘fusion centers’ across the county designed to collect domestic intelligence from local police, integrating the various agencies and blurring the lines of their respective constitutional mandates. Likewise, the parade of police killings and brutality goes unabated with the victims of these state crimes bearing marked similarity to those abused in the 1960s and 70s. Even as crime rates have declined to new forty year lows, the United States continues to expand its domestic policing apparatus while dismantling the legal protections from it.

While police may prefer to see themselves outside all the social upheaval Americans are facing, as public sector workers, they have also begun to suffer the harsh effects of our new political economy. In many cities police pensions have been diminished, employee benefits have been cut, and policing has undergone significant privatization and in some cases even outsourcing. Like all workers, police officers are under greater pressure to produce more while being compensated less. Wages for police officers have also been stagnant while the cost of living has increased. Opportunities for officer advancement have been curtailed by organizational changes in rank structures and police are not immune from the divisive political rhetoric that right-wingers use to demean public service workers. The common interests between police and other workers recently played out in Wisconsin where strikers and police joined to protest the state’s outlawing of public service unions.

While no one knows for certain whether we will revisit the civil unrest that marked the 1960s and 70s, the conditions seem ripe for renewed rounds of domestic conflict. What is certain is that the police institution will play a pivotal role in the outcome of any new meaningful push for social and political change. With attacks on the public sector and municipal governments, police face an uncertain future. What remains to be seen is on which side of the barricades the police will stand the next time around.


The title is a reference to the song, “Which Side Are You On?” written by Patton Reece (1931) which was inspired by violent events surrounding the United Mine Workers Strike in Harland County, Kentucky where Sheriff J. H. Blair terrorized Reece and her children on behalf of the mine owners in what was later call the Harland County War.

Reposed from: http://uprootingcriminology.org/essays/policing-political-upheaval-1960s-today-side/ (website is no longer active 2022).

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