At the City University of New York’s College of Staten Island, where I taught for twenty-three years, I consistently had police officers, their partners, and their children as my students. Most were Italian American or Irish American, but in recent years I saw more Latino, Asian, and Black police officers and their family members. When Eric Garner was murdered by a New York City police officer on Staten Island in 2014, held in an illegal chokehold for selling loose cigarettes, I felt it necessary to halt my lessons in fiction writing to discuss his death, so close by. To my surprise, not only the white but also the Latino and Asian students connected to the police were unanimous in their defense of the cops. “If Eric Garner had done what he was told,” they all agreed, “he would be alive today.” Judgment, proportion, negotiation, and fairness, they seemed to assume, were not the police’s responsibility.
The proliferation of camera phones has allowed civilians to document police violence against people of color and widely disseminate the evidence, elevating longstanding public debates about transforming and even eliminating the police. Mainstream responses to police violence in the second half of the twentieth century—like New York’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, founded in the 1950s, which attempted to create citizen oversight; the Knapp Commission of the 1970s, which was established to confront the city’s police corruption; and Supreme Court decisions under Chief Justice Earl Warren that attempted to strengthen the requirement for warrants and the right to counsel—all rested on the assumption that existing laws and structures just needed to be enforced correctly. The modern prison abolition movement proposes another way to organize our social relationships altogether. The current system, it argues, can only generate endless cycles of government-imposed punishment, separation, and cruelty.
Two recent books, The Streets Belong to Us by Anne Gray Fischer and Vice Patrol by Anna Lvovsky, offer historical genealogies for the violations of contemporary policing. A foundational influence for those violations, they both argue, was the repression of “vice”—the control of both sexual behavior and the public movement of women and queers. “Sexual policing,” as Fischer puts it, “was a laboratory for law enforcement authorities and politicians to test novel methods of state power.”
Fischer, an assistant professor of gender history at the University of Texas at Dallas, shows in stunning detail how American policing has shifted its justifications over time to maintain control of Black people, especially Black women. Her account begins at the turn of the twentieth century, when the white press started to apply the word “slavery” to white women in a floridly sexual sense. Young white women who moved to cities seeking economic autonomy or merely survival were depicted in print and on screen and stage as pure innocents supposedly captured and forced into “white slavery” by sinister Jewish, Black, and Chinese men. In 1910 the White-Slave Traffic Act, known popularly as the Mann Act, made it a felony for women to be moved across state lines for “prostitution or debauchery, or any other immoral purpose.” The act made independent women vulnerable to legal prosecution for prostitution or for defying traditional mores of home and hearth. It was also used to punish interracial and extramarital sex. Most dramatically, Fisher writes, the “white slavery” myth “shunted into obscurity” the real consequences of chattel slavery for Black women.
Around this time, municipalities were designating certain urban neighborhoods—like New York’s Tenderloin, New Orleans’s Storyville, and San Francisco’s Barbary Coast—as red-light districts that hosted brothels, gambling parlors, and bars. They often bordered downtown centers like city halls and financial districts—making them convenient to the white men who controlled government and commerce—and Black, Chinese, or other immigrant neighborhoods, which provided sex workers of all races. Many individual brothels were racially segregated, but some of the poorest may have been racially mixed, as were some of the most elite.
Fischer argues that the police, who were mostly white men, had a financial investment in working these concentrated areas because policing vice created opportunities for substantial bribes and protection money. This profiteering let officers give kickbacks to political leaders, which in turn funded campaigns and built machines of power such as Tammany Hall. Popular exposés of the era, like Lincoln Steffens’s journalistic broadsides of 1903 and 1904, showed that police kickbacks from prostitution and gambling were going into the pockets of political leaders in Minneapolis, New York, and Philadelphia. Prostitution policy, Fischer writes, was “the connective tissue of early twentieth century urban government.”
In the late nineteenth century, Gilded Age reformers often justified the existence of red-light districts because they supposedly protected white Christian womanhood by containing vice, while offering white men an outlet for desires deemed unsuitable for their wives. The New York police commissioner William McAdoo, as the historian Mara Keire wrote in For Business and Pleasure (2010), her study of red-light districts, “believed that restricting vice to certain neighborhoods reduced crime throughout the city.” The railroad magnate William Baldwin said that he “would rather see a little hell than a big hell.” But the wish to protect white women was strictly class-based. Plenty of poor white women worked in the red-light districts.
The dominant attitude among white reformers changed after the turn of the century, with the rise of social work and the expansion of professions open to women that involved direct services to the poor. Progressive-era reformers grew more interested in finding solutions to the fundamental causes of social problems, and some now wanted to end vice-related employment entirely—to end prostitution rather than contain it.
Their rationales ranged from Christian values to radical visions of economic equality. The Chicago social worker Jane Addams felt that prostitution would end if the conditions that led women to sex work, especially unequal wages, were eliminated. Other reformers, such as Frances Willard and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, favored the programs of social control that eventually led to Prohibition. These diverse coalitions won over the public. “The first Red Light Abatement Law passed in Iowa in 1909,” the journalist Sarah Laskow has written, “and by 1914 the American Social Hygiene Association was working to pass similar laws state by state.” Between 1912 and 1920 US city governments closed two hundred red-light districts.
Police and politicians, however, had too significant a financial stake in brothels, gambling, and drinking to eradicate vice districts altogether. They therefore “met reformers halfway,” Fischer writes: “instead of abolishing vice districts, they routed them to Black neighborhoods.” Building on the work of scholars including Kevin Mumford, Chad Heap, Cynthia Blair, and Saidiya Hartman, Fischer argues that during the 1910s and the 1920s police deliberately enforced new borders of tolerated vice. They managed
an urban faucet, permitting the inundation of white men into Black neighborhoods, aggressively policing white women’s interracial sociability, and erratically targeting Black women for morals offenses.
The geographic containment of vice, Fischer suggests, was itself a law enforcement strategy. Once vice had been relegated to Black neighborhoods, those neighborhoods became ever more associated in the white public imagination with “sexual deviance and lawlessness,” which helped justify the criminalization of their residents. When periodic flareups of white moral outrage exposed police corruption, white reformers called for—and were appeased by—crackdowns on public displays of sexuality and sexual commerce. “Black neighborhoods had become the go-to sites for morals arrests,” Fischer writes, “but those arrests were not designed to repress vice.” As one Black vice-syndicate member in Los Angeles said in 1924:
It has always been the custom here…when the town gets too bad…to go over to Central avenue and clean up the negroes. That always satisfied the longhairs [white moral reformers]…. And the blow has fallen where there is least resistance—on those who have the smallest chance of a comeback.
The failure of Prohibition, Fischer writes, left “police publicly discredited and widely reviled.” So they rebranded themselves as “crime fighters” charged with confronting not wayward girls but manly gangs, even though this didn’t reflect reality. By 1930, as “law men trumpeted ‘scientific’ data gathering and cutting-edge weapons and surveillance technologies,” in Fischer’s words, arrest rates were being collected and publicly circulated. The police made more and more arrests—although not because of a touted crime wave. What actually increased were rates of arrests on morals charges.
“Between 1932 and 1937,” Fischer writes, “the FBI reported that the number of arrests of women increased by 75 percent,” while the arrests of men rose by only 40 percent. A third of these women were arrested either specifically for prostitution—a charge women faced overwhelmingly more often than men—or for the vaguely defined crimes of disorderly conduct and vagrancy. The FBI started breaking down crime by gender in 1932 but did not account for race within those statistics. Simply drinking, going out at night in public spaces defined by vice, or being sexually available could qualify as disorderly conduct or the even vaguer “suspicion of promiscuity.” Fischer writes that by 1930 “prostitution and promiscuity blurred into a single legal category.”
This trend was lethally combined with what Fischer calls the “new invasion” of Black areas by white vice consumers and workers, from male customers and female companions game for transgressing social boundaries to underclass and marginalized women—presumably including queer women, though Fischer does not adequately address them. The best documentation of how Black residents experienced white people arriving to party on their streets comes from the Black press. Local newspapers, Fischer writes, “brimmed with accounts of police collusion and political corruption as Black neighborhoods’ dignity and safety were traded for white men’s pleasure and profit.”
“Black women were more vulnerable to arbitrary raids and frame-ups” than white women, Fischer writes, in part because white police expected success in court with Black defendants. “The racial inequality of morals law enforcement deepened” still further as it became more acceptable for white women to occupy public space without police attention in the 1950s and 1960s. Between 1961 and 1962 in Los Angeles, the arrest rate for white women declined by 12 percent, but for Black women it rose by 18 percent.
Fischer attends to the huge population shifts that transformed American cities in the period she discusses, especially the Great Migration of southern Black people to the north and the subsequent wave of white flight from northern cities. Her book offers a preamble to the mass political movements of the 1960s and 1970s, including gay liberation, women’s liberation, and movements for both Black civil rights and Black power. It took urbanization, the irrepressible recognition of difference, the mix of ideas and experience, and the potential of uncontrolled public space—in part created by neglect—to produce these revolutionary ideas and relationships.
When the children of white flight returned to the cities in the early 1980s, they had their way paved by renovation and new construction, the redistribution of existing housing stock, and the imposition of gated-community aesthetics onto urban space. The result was that they replaced existing urban populations en masse. Sexual policing was a gateway for this gentrification, Fischer writes. Real estate developers, in neighborhoods like Boston’s Combat Zone or Atlanta’s Peachtree Street, depended heavily on mass arrests of sex workers and the elimination of sex businesses like theaters and dance and massage parlors. In New York City the redevelopment of Times Square, started in the 1980s, directly targeted sex businesses including massage parlors, pornographic and live-act theaters, sex hotels, and street prostitution, clearing areas for high-end redevelopment. This initiative was part of a citywide trend: the city and federal governments disinvested from low-income housing programs, and tax breaks were given to luxury developers, leading to a cultural attitude that allowed young whites to feel comfortable establishing their suburban tastes in communities of color. We have seen, in the decades since, the extended seizure of Black residential neighborhoods like Bushwick, Crown Heights, and Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Fischer leaves the policing of queer people almost entirely out of her discussion. Lvovsky, a professor of law and history at Harvard, brings it to the center, with more success in analyzing gay men’s interactions with oppressive authorities than those of gay women. “The law’s confrontations with gay life in the twentieth century are a core part of any history of sexuality in the United States,” she writes. In Vice Patrol, she examines the range of attitudes within law enforcement as it set about repressing and punishing homosexuality in the public sphere. State strategies for antigay policing often mirrored the tactics that Fischer shows were designed to control and punish women, especially Black women. Sodomy statutes were deployed against gay defendants in court much as antisolicitation laws were against women; regulations targeted gay-friendly bars much as they had bars where unaccompanied women could be sexually available. Indeed, Lvovsky shows, “the project of policing gay life at midcentury” became “the site of an institutional struggle over the boundaries of the criminal justice system itself.”
Lvovsky makes three related claims: first, that the different arms of the criminal justice system agreed neither about the importance of repressing queer life nor about how to do it; second, that court battles were “a powerful arena for shaping” knowledge and understanding of queer life; and finally, that the police’s antigay campaigns benefited from the system’s deep internal disagreements about “the nature of homosexuality itself.” She bears out those claims by examining the tactics of repression likeliest during this period to bring “the police, and gay men themselves, into court”: “liquor board proceedings against gay-friendly bars, plainclothes campaigns to entice sexual overtures, and the use of clandestine surveillance to uncover sexual acts in public bathrooms.”
Fischer points out that white men were not persecuted for prostitution, but Lvovsky shows how being homosexual stripped some white men’s layer of protection away. And yet her emphasis is on the enforcers, not the defendants. Most policemen in the years after World War II “came to the force with little knowledge about gay life,” Lvovsky writes. But “as gay men in the 1950s cohered into increasingly robust communities, vice officers developed an unusual intimacy with the gay world’s social and sexual practices.” Their “fluency in cruising culture,” for example, makes them central, for Lvovsky, “to any history of public knowledge about sexual difference.” In the 1960s, she argues, it was the police, more often than activists or academics, who became sources for the media’s information—and its misconceptions—about homosexuality.
Like Fischer, Lvovsky points to the failure of Prohibition as a turning point for policing in the US. Establishments serving liquor illegally were subject to illegal payoffs, but once alcohol was legal again, “legislatures across the nation passed regulations policing the sale of liquor in both retail and service establishments,” including, even in New York City, restrictions on knowingly selling drinks to homosexuals. Those restrictions stayed in place until activists overturned the laws, starting in California in 1951. Technically the right to deny public accommodation—service in a restaurant or a hotel—continued into my day, until New York City finally passed a nondiscrimination bill in 1986. No such legislation has yet come to be applied federally: even now, aside from the right to get married, queer people’s rights to access and expression are determined on the state and local levels.
Because the laws “prohibiting owners from ‘permitting’ homosexual customers or harboring known female impersonators…generally required some evidence that the bar’s employees knew that they were serving a queer clientele,” Lvovsky notes, officials tasked with enforcing them insisted that homosexuals were swish, limp-wristed, and therefore easily identifiable. For a man to wear loafers or order cocktails instead of beer and shots could become automatically indicting. The result was to stigmatize a range of ways that people presented themselves. This meant overt regulations against female impersonators, the effeminate, and the femme.
Bar owners had the full range of responses to these laws. Some tried to kick out queer clients, going so far as to drop salt in their drinks to chase them away. Others catered to queers and didn’t want straight customers to get uncomfortable or complain. Lvovsky doesn’t address which of these proprietors were queer themselves, but she does cite some striking examples of support for their clientele. “Tell me one thing,” Ruth Loomis, the owner of Anthony’s in Paterson, New Jersey, said in 1959. “These people who you call homosexuals, gays or whatever you call them—what are they supposed to do?”
Lesbian bars emerged as a consequence of the freedom and mobility women gained from World War II. At first, Lvovsky points out, these establishments “were often constrained by a broader taboo against unaccompanied women in public spaces, especially in seedier establishments like bars and taverns.” Lvovsky observes that there was less classic police harassment of lesbian bars, but she overlooks that they were subject to a lot of nonstate male surveillance. The methods and theory of women’s history help us read these differences. As late as the 1970s and 1980s, most lesbian bars were run by men, often men involved with organized crime: there would be a male bouncer at the door and men crossing the dance floor regularly to remind the women that they were not in control. Sometimes the line is thin between such men and male employees of the state. Lesbians have long been kicked out of families, been denied employment, and had our work marginalized without state intervention: Lvovsky ignores that “policing” takes different forms in our lives than in men’s.1
Just as the police identified gay men by rouged faces, red ties, and bleached hair, they spotted lesbians by actions assigned male, like holding cigarette stubs “back-handed” and drinking beer directly out of bottles. In both cases the police and liquor authorities saw their task inside bars as a matter of decoding social performance. People were harassed for how they dressed, their mannerisms, and their aesthetics, not just for sexual acts. In the period before gay liberation, Lvovsky points out, a range of courtroom defenses were based on the claim that the person charged was not in fact homosexual: that a man wore refined leisure wear because he had gone to Harvard, where the clean, tailored look was fashionable, or that a woman wore pants and boots not because she wanted to find a femme partner but because she worked in a factory. Although Lvovsky doesn’t make this point explicit, without the support of a political movement, arrested queers had no choice but to claim heterosexuality as their defense for having a drink in a public place—a desperate last resort.
Then there is the question of decoys, men employed to pretend to be queer in order to catch gays. Lvovsky acknowledges that
from the sordid tales of policemen demanding sexual favors to more benign rumors of decoys living with male lovers, gay men arrested by officers insisted that the vice squads featured their share of secret homosexuals.
And why shouldn’t they have insisted so? After all, who knows more about the secret gay sex lives of “straight people” than the queers they have sex with?
She also examines the racial dynamics of decoys and their victims. Apparently on occasion a well-to-do white man could get away with inviting a rugged white undercover over for a beer on the pretext that he was just starting up a friendship with a “decent citizen.” But when a Black undercover received an invitation from a white man to socialize, it had to be sexual. Lvovsky might have gone further here toward noting that the period’s marginalized and subterranean queer subcultures were more racially mixed and cross-class than these white men’s lives would have been otherwise, had they married white women from their own backgrounds and stayed in their small towns. To me, one of the great losses that accompanies gay assimilation is that so many people have returned, via acceptance, to the family of origin and its racial and class milieu.
When Lvovsky addresses the rise of the Mattachine Society, an early gay rights group, or the midcentury gay publication One, which directly addressed antigay state harassment, she seems vague about the movement’s relationship to queer people. “Most gay men and women,” she writes, “shied away from homophile groups, concerned about the optics of an organized homosexual lobby, or simply uninterested in turning their personal lives into political platforms.” But “most gay men and women” in America had never heard of homophile groups. Mattachine was a tiny group of vanguard thinkers with a historic impact far beyond its numbers.2 Most Americans experiencing queer desire have lacked—and in many cases still lack—access to grassroots queer media and rely on the mainstream’s misrepresentations for information about themselves.
Lvovsky’s central argument is that authorities had little consensus about what homosexuality was and how it should be treated. On one hand there were highly enthusiastic decoys like Frank Manthos, a twenty-three-year-old vice officer who was responsible for 150 arrests in eight months. In one evening he could arrest six men after elaborate enticements involving flirting, invitations, and hotel rooms. On the other hand there are figures like the enlightened court of appeals judge who, when faced with a decoy who had shown his genitals and then arrested the man who responded, wrote:
Courts are not so uninformed as not to be aware that there are such things as flirtations between man and man…. And when flirtation is encouraged and mutual, and leads to a not unexpected intimacy…such cannot be classified as assault.
“In a system administered by multiple agents of the law,” Lvovsky concludes somewhat anemically, “the repression of marginalized social practices reflects the legal system’s many ways of understanding—and misunderstanding—the thing being policed.” But isn’t that the problem of policing in general? That a sector of empowered people is dedicated to constraining and punishing citizens either simply for “marginalized social practices” or for actions that originate from problems the punishment itself does not address? One of America’s most respected grassroots leaders on that question, Mariame Kaba, has spent her career asking what we would have to change if we stopped arresting and jailing people and instead offered them housing, health care, quality education, child care, functional transportation, and meaningful jobs that pay enough. To that end, she has recommended reasonable, imaginable measures such as reparations to victims of police violence, the redirection of police funding to social goods, and the creation of elected civilian review boards with the power to fire and discipline police officers and administrators.
Kaba returns repeatedly in her writings to sexual policing and its effects on Black women who fight back against sexual violence. In a searing 2017 essay for The Appeal, reprinted in Kaba’s collection We Do This ’Til We Free Us,3 Kaba and her collaborator Brit Schulte analyze the case of Cyntoia Brown, a sixteen-year-old Nashville sex worker who in 2004 used her own gun to kill a forty-three-year-old client after he took her to his home, showed her his guns, and “grabbed her violently by the genitals.” Brown was tried as an adult and “convicted of first-degree premeditated murder, first-degree felony murder, and ‘especially aggravated robbery,’” for which she was given concurrent life sentences.
“Courts historically mete out punishment disproportionate to the acts of self-defense by Black women, femmes, and trans people,” Kaba and Schulte write, and “young women who don’t fit the perfect-victim narrative” often find themselves “harshly punished for self-defense” or forced “into ‘treatment’ that does nothing to address the conditions under which they entered the sex trade in the first place.”
In 2013 Brown received a commuted sentence of fifteen years after community members and celebrities launched a campaign on her behalf—a reminder of the power that organized groups can wield to resist sexual policing. As Kaba’s writings show, a public opposed to abusive policing has emerged as a powerful force. Only this sort of collective response can break through our current culture’s reductive thinking about resistance.