Gene Wise - Warren Susman Prize, American Studies Association

I presented a paper on a wonderful panel at the 2014 American Studies Association annual meeting in Los Angeles. This year's annual meeting was a special one for me personally because the president of the American Studies Association is Lisa Duggan, professor in my department and one of the primary influences for me to join American Studies. The panel was entitled "What Comes of Fury? Responses to California’s 1960s and 1970s Urban Crisis," and it was organized by Nic Ramos and also featured Aaron Bae and Ryan Fukumori. We all analyzed various aspects of state and emergent public-private responses to, and definition of, "urban crisis" in California, from policing to education to healthcare. The panel was well-received, organically cohesive, and, to my mind, fascinating. Professor Daryl Maeda chaired, and Professor Josh Sides commented.

Another highlight of the annual meeting was that I won an award from the American Studies Association for the best paper presented at the meeting by a graduate student, the Gene Wise - Warren Susman Prize.

My paper was entitled "Rethinking the Militarization of Policing: Counterinsurgent Knowledge and California’s Response to the Watts Rebellion." The paper grew out of a frustration I have been feeling with the term "militarization of policing." The term, particularly after Ferguson's police violence, is seemingly on everyone's lips. It's a term I use, or feel compelled to use. But I often wonder whether it obscures more than it reveals, despite its apparent political salience. So I decided in this paper to draw on some of my research into the often-repeated origins story for the militarization of policing, which is that after the Watts rebellion, Daryl Gates and colleagues from the LAPD consulted with Marines stationed nearby to learn about counterinsurgency. Based on their consultations, the LAPD formed the first SWAT team, which was then replicated widely across the country. In my paper, I offer three correctives to this narrative. (In a larger version of the paper that I would like to write, I have several additional correctives to offer.) I want to say thank you to Chris Taylor for invaluable feedback and Emma Shaw Crane for assistance.

Here are the first two pages of the paper:

Soon after the August 1965 Watts rebellion in Los Angeles, a “gutty little ragtag outfit” came together. They were positioned inside an organization that was slow to change, but they wanted to be the vanguard of its transformation. Their group formed “without official authorization.” These radicals “began reading everything we could get our hands on concerning guerrilla warfare.” Yet “nobody” in the broader organization to which these men belonged “seemed interested in our pursuits.” They happened to find some friendly Marines stationed at Camp Pendleton near San Diego and elsewhere. With these Marines, they “traded expertise.” Still, the leaders of the broader organization were “offended” by the radicals, and this vanguard was “banished from everyday . . . circles,” forced to operate in secret and train in distant locations. With little support from above, “they cannibalized weapons they picked up off the streets” and “made ladders to their own specifications.” They eventually acquired AR-15s, the civilian version of the standard-issue infantryman’s M-16 rifle. It was not until 1984 that this vanguard grouping garnered official support, symbolized by proper equipment, though not, my source laments, fully automatic rifles. 

I have not recounted the history of a guerrilla band, of a dissident sect within a larger left-wing party. Instead, I have recounted the history of the genesis the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team, as rendered by Daryl F. Gates, who was the LAPD’s field commander during the Watts rebellion and eventually rose to Chief.  I have introduced minimal artifice to make this story appear to be one of a radical left grouping that formed a violent vanguard. Instead, Gates himself told the story this way. He actually did conceive of himself as an insurgent, and he thought what he was doing in forming the first SWAT team was a radical act, reliant on subverting existing paradigms. The threats that Gates diagnosed—“the streets of America’s cities had become a foreign territory” facing a spectrum of “disorder” from “urban riots” to “civil rights actions, sit downs, and student uprisings and protests of every kind” (126)—required that he use clandestine, unauthorized tactics to revolutionize policing. 

Among students of the so-called “militarization of policing,” the story I have told is familiar, shared widely, repeated frequently. Gates’s originary tale of consultations with Marines and counterinsurgency experts has become the historical consensus. Authors of varying political persuasions, from right to left, all repeat it. Precisely because it is so widely accepted, it merits scrutiny. SWAT seems a perfect object of analysis for American Studies today, redolent with transnational and imperial appurtenances. What I have found, however, is that this transnational story is a fiction Gates constructed to legitimize SWAT. The claim that SWAT is evidence of the domestic repatriation of counterinsurgency techniques developed overseas is wrong. In contrast to how Gates narrated this history, I will demonstrate three points. First, counterinsurgency was a domain in flux, if not crisis, at the moment that Gates supposedly tried to draw on it, making a simple importation of counterinsurgent knowledge—the combination of practical expertise and social-scientific principles underpinning the effort—far more difficult than he portrayed. Second, a close look at how counterinsurgency was in flux shows that in the 1960s it was not moving toward the type of militarization Gates ascribed to it; instead, it was moving in the opposite direction, toward putting traditional forms of police work at its center. Third, the emergent form of counterinsurgency that came to dominate its intellectual circles by the end of the, about which Gates was uninformed, actually drew on techniques of social control familiar to the LAPD. 

At the awards ceremony, in which several very distinguished folks also received awards for their awesome work, Professor Magdalena Zaborowska (University of Michigan) read the following statement about my paper, on behalf of the prize committee, which also included Professors Beth Piatote (University of California Berkeley) and Carlo Rotella (Boston College):

This paper, written with force and purpose, digs beneath a received wisdom that's conventional both in the field and in the culture at large, and reflects the "critical imagination, the intellectual boldness, and the cross-disciplinary perspective" associated with the scholarship of Gene Wise and Warren Susman, for whom the prize is named. It is a model of employing the tools of history to change our perspective on the present, with the opening that is a fine example of what both scholars and journalists should recognize as an excellent lead, one that draws in specialized and general readers with a compelling problem that requires the original analytical solution that the rest of the paper delivers.

Through powerful, engaged writing and careful archival research throughout this essay, Schrader challenges a taken-for-granted understanding of the relationship between domestic policing and overseas military training in the formation of American SWAT teams. He reveals the highly constructed nature of the story of SWAT origins, and allows American Studies scholars to look freshly at the interwoven events of Vietnam, Watts, and the growth of the LAPD, as well as contemplating their legacies today. Indeed, in his own words:  “What I have found is that we cannot simply assume transit of techniques of rule from a violent and debased imperial periphery to an otherwise untarnished domestic arena. In fact, the routes of transit for counterinsurgency and policing during the 1960’s were more multidirectional, exorbitant to a simplistic critique of empire that, in its flattest variants, can let US empire off the hook for what it does overseas as long as those operations stay overseas and never boomerang.” (p. 5)
 
I am very proud to have won this distinguished award, and I was truly honored by these remarks.

© 2017 Stuart Schrader