The Police Role in Racial Conflicts
Sheriff Rainey of Neshoba County is necessarily part of a dying breed in the deep and rural South. Brutal, corrupt, and insensitive to outside opinion, his kind will have to be replaced as industry moves in and Negroes turn out to vote. Indeed, a new breed of Southern law man has recently appeared, one who is at least as effective as his more heavy-handed predecessors in achieving the same ends. One of the hallmarks of this new sheriff or police chief is that he is a man who reads—and one of the books he will be reading in preparation for the summer of 1965 is this handbook by the Chief of Detectives of Danville, Virginia.
If we don’t hear much about “racial conflict” in Danville it is because the police make sure that whatever happens doesn’t end up being news. They run a tight town. The 10,000 Negroes in this city of 47,000 are kept under steady surveillance. True, there have been marches and protests and demonstrations. But they never come to anything because the police are in control of the situation. There is nothing for the Life photographer to photograph.
In Danville, the home of the Dan River knitting mills, taxpayers value their police. The community gives them the respect, the support, and the money to do a proper job. Danville spends twenty-two cents on its police for every dollar it spends on education, a higher proportion than in any other city in the state. The appearance of racial harmony has to be paid for, even if it means trimming the school budget.
Chief Towler is well-informed about the New Negro. He knows that there are going to be marches, that nothing can be done by the police to prevent processions from forming and starting out for the center of town. But there are storm signals for those who know how to watch for them: “The frequency of public meetings is a good indicator”; “Strangers are observed in close association with local leaders”; “Leaflets will begin appearing on the streets.” There is no excuse for not being ready.
The author takes it for granted that civil rights demonstrators “are actually seeking to go to jail.” And if this is what they want every effort should be made to help them. Civil disobedience—blocking traffic, obstructing side-walks, parading without a permit—is a form of disorder and violates local law. So the marchers will be arrested, but on terms set by the police. The first rule is that arrests must be swift. If the police do not get to the marchers first then white onlookers may decide to break up the demonstrations. That would force the police to arrest white citizens, which is obviously bad for police community relations. At the same time the police can’t arrest a whole procession. If arrests are to stand up in court names must be taken, evidence secured, and a complete record made of what went on. Recommended equipment includes movie cameras, tape recorders, and “long-range listening devices.”
The marchers will not struggle, but this does not make the job any the easier. They will lie down on the street, go limp. (“They approach a form of self-control that borders on self-induced hypnotism.”) Yet if planned properly the streets can be cleared in a matter of minutes. On one occasion in Danville “it required exactly 13 minutes to remove 86 prisoners from a section of sidewalk three-fourths block long.” This could only occur because everything was in readiness: transportation (“panel trucks are ideal”), emergency equipment (“fire trucks with water hose should be standing by”), miscellaneous items (“portable fingerprint pad,” “battery-powered hand megaphone”), accommodations (“prison camps in adjoining jurisdictions might handle a quantity of prisoners”).
Publicity must be avoided. Chief Towler is not one to recommend police dogs or cattle-prods, and he warns strongly against any show of brutality on the streets. Photographable or reportable incidents must not occur: they make the difference between page 1 and page 30 treatment. If you hit page 1 the local powers will get annoyed.
That the marches are non-violent seems to trouble the author. Police are accustomed to dealing with violence. Peaceful demonstrations, especially when accompanied by prayers and hymn-singing, can be a little frightening. He provides some elementary psychology: Keep an eye open for the patrolman who “stamps his foot in disgust, smacks his fist in his open palm, grips hard on a night stick.” The fellow could set off a chain reaction. “Offer him some chewing gum.”
If the job of the police is to uphold the law then what—traffic obstructions apart—is illegal about peaceful processions through the streets? Photographs are reproduced in this book showing Danville’s marchers carrying signs calling for such commonplace reforms as school integration and better employment opportunities. The real crime is that Negroes, organized and in groups, are now coming out of the ghetto. This is what causes anxiety in Danville and a thousand other cities, not all of them by any means in the South. The custom, if not the law, is that Negroes should stay in their own quarter. The assumption of this handbook is that the city is the possession of its white citzens, that its streets and courthouse and public buildings are white property. If the marchers take a few steps into forbidden territory they should be informed that they are now aliens and will be carted off just as soon as they reach a propitious place. (“Select a spot where there is a maximum of building wall flush with the sidewalk…”)
This is what the issue comes down to. Negroes are marching on white pavements because they are attempting to force their way in, because they want to be able to feel for once that the city they live in is also their city. They are weary of knowing that everything outside the bounds of the ghetto belongs to the whites, that they must forever walk on tiptoe when they pay a furtive visit to a drug store or pick up their license plates at city hall. But if this is what the demonstrations are all about, it is also the job of the Chief Towlers to remind them that they would be well-advised to return to where they belong with their own people.
There is no overt sign of racism or bigotry on these pages. The author considers himself an unprejudiced man, affirming that the duty of the police is to enforce the law without regard to race or color. But this law is white law, made and interpreted and carried out by white legislators and judges and policemen. Chief Towler may be doing his job with rather more intelligence and imagination than most of his colleagues but his role remains the same: to use the law as an instrument whereby one race may subject another.
If the brute with a tin star is being succeeded by the bureaucrat with long-range listening devices, the signs are that effective civil rights protests will be all the more difficult in the future. Even Martin Luther King found it all but impossible to dramatise injustice in Albany, Georgia, another town where the new view prevails, and he was forced to abandon the movement there. We have come to the point where only open displays of police sadism shake the white public, which prefers to believe that slow and steady progress is being made in civil rights. Faced with more civilized techniques, Negroes may discover how much they had been relying on spilled blood and fractured skulls. Given the choice, perhaps the Sheriff Raineys of Mississippi are to be preferred to the Chief Towlers of Virginia.