Rethinking the Militarization of Policing: Counterinsurgent Knowledge and California’s Response to the Watts Rebellion

American Studies Association Annual Meeting

Thursday, November 6, 2014 - 14:00
Westin Bonaventure, San Gabriel A
Panel: What Comes of Fury? Responses to California’s 1960s and 1970s Urban Crisis
This presentation was awarded the Gene Wise - Warren Susman prize for best presentation at the American Studies Association's annual meeting by a graduate student.
Among supporters and detractors of the so-called “militarization of policing,” most agree that its genesis was the Los Angeles Police Department’s response to the rebellion in Watts. Fearful and chastened, several officers in the department sought tactical advice on nearby military bases, where what I call counterinsurgent knowledge was circulating. The result was the development of the first “Special Weapons and Tactics” or SWAT team. This origin story, however, hides greater complexity in the history of policing response to social upheaval in the 1960s. 
Rather than a sharp turn to repression, the response of most policing experts was to try to moderate police violence and find less lethal answers to unrest. Had Los Angeles officers actually heeded the most up-to-date counterinsurgent knowledge, they would not have sought militarized solutions to street violence. Instead, counterinsurgent knowledge focused on a set of recommendations that ran in the opposite direction, toward civilian methods that relied on preemption and, if necessary, the suppressive use of “non-lethal” technologies. California’s SWAT experts actually repudiated counterinsurgency and drew on older, localized policing expertise developed by Chief William H. Parker and others. This paper will first illustrate alternative, transnational, and often contradictory geographies of the history of the “militarization of policing,” based on my research into the transnational development and circulation of counterinsurgent knowledge in the 1960s. Second, it will discuss how law-enforcement officials in California, and Los Angeles in particular, generated durable, travel-ready models of policing expertise in 1960s and 1970s in the aftermath of the Watts rebellion.

© 2019 Stuart Schrader