They Got Us Boxed In: A Few Thoughts on Policing, Surveillance, and Containment in South Central Los Angeles

Written by: Kev Morris

I just recently had a conversation with my brother about leaving L.A. (South Central to be exact) for school a few years ago. I told him one of the first things I had to adjust to were the deathly quiet nights with no helicopters hovering above head. Take that in for a second… I noticed at that moment what I internalized over the course of my life was the sense that surveillance was somehow normal. The fact is however, that it is anything but normal. The relationship between police departments and the communities they police, especially communities of color, have always been contentious. We now live in an era where the norm is seeing patrol cars speed down every other street like land sharks, omnipresent helicopters circling above specific city sections, and in some cases cameras recording the very movement of the people. The way people of color relate to their environment, especially in highly policed areas is dictated by larger structural factors that in turn are played out between the people and the police.

Over the past few years social media has been flooded with countless clips of police brutality which has effectively placed race, urban poverty, and de facto segregation back at the forefront of the social justice conversation in America. We find ourselves confronted with the reality of economic inequality, segregated communities built primarily on racial and class divisions, and police departments tasked with the duty of maintaining this separation. As you can tell by the title, I’m more interested in the last point, that is, police departments and their relationship to communities of color. For those living in South Central, Watts, Compton, and across many of America’s urban communities for that matter, the police act as an extension of the larger structural inhibitors that turn black and brown communities into spaces of confinement.

Policing in black and brown communities, especially after the World War II has psychologically dictated the way these residents maneuver through their own communities. Take for instance the Los Angeles Police Department, it has a long history of containment tactics that range from the aforementioned helicopter surveillance, mass sweeps of black and brown youth (C.R.A.S.H.), and an overwhelming patrol presence. The idea of protecting and serving the community is null and void in this context. In a city like Los Angeles where by the 1960s the city’s central section was comprised of a predominantly black and brown poor-working class population, policing took on a the role of making sure those living on the margins of society (racially and economically) stayed in their place. As Los Angeles began to expand at a rapid rate during the postwar (WWII) period, suburban enclaves were created as the sites of new industry and for the white middle class American dream.

Despite public policy measures being passed in the late 1960s and 1970s ensuring fair housing opportunities, most notably the Rumford Act of 1963 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, the reality was that the fate of black and brown residents had already been sealed. They were effectively confined to certain areas due to various socioeconomic factors. Police involvement, and by that I mean police presence on the streets of South Central became an unfortunate sign of a community being watched. A community that had to be contained in order for suburban Los Angeles to flourish. The prospects of the American Dream were being realized in many respects throughout Los Angeles county after WWII while that same dream was put on indefinite deferment for black and brown residents. By the time we get to the 1980s and 1990s with the spike in both gang activity and a booming drug economy, the relationship between police and the South Central community regressed to an even more hostile level. The LAPD like many other police departments across the nation were becoming more militarized through government programs and military donations in an effort to stamp out drugs and gang activity.

The War on Drugs cemented South Central as a space of confinement through these new governmental initiatives and the result was a population that was psychologically numb to their second class status. What I believe is important here is that we take an approach to understanding the situation in terms of it being a part of a larger process of containment that directly dates back to the 1960s.

I want to leave you with this thought; as we look at the current situation of policing in black (and brown) communities we are faced with the prospects of more pervasive tactics of confinement and surveillance. Technology usually reserved for military and national security purposes is now being introduced to police departments in predominantly poor urban communities. Take Camden, New Jersey for instance where the Camden Police Department has implemented a 24 hour video surveillance system throughout the city allowing officers to scope everything moving on the streets of Camden. After seeing this I couldn’t help but to think about what that would mean for L.A. Is this the new turn in surveillance and confinement for police departments and what can communities of color like South Central do to quell these measures?

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