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James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police Gazette: Red Darktown

February 15, 2021

For the following post we welcome back to the blog James Ellroy aficionado and all-round good guy Jason Carter… This article is the ninth instalment in Jason’s epic series exploring the connections between Ellroy and the true crime history of Wisconsin. Here are the links to Parts OneTwoThreeFourFive, Six, Seven, and Eight.

The Great Depression’s crushing combination of high unemployment, no new housing construction, and more than half of all mortgages in default eventually led to a severe national housing shortage. The U.S. federal government responded with a policy based deliberately on segregation-fueled expansion.

According to Richard Rothstein’s 2017 book The Color of Law, the government deliberately excluded African Americans from newly-built suburban communities, relegating them instead to dilapidated urban housing projects, a move that Rothstein condemns as nothing less than “state-sponsored […] segregation.”

Rothstein details that the then relatively new Federal Housing Administration augmented the push for segregation with their refusal to insure mortgages in or in proximity to African American neighborhoods.

At the same time, the FHA also subsidized the mass production of whites-only subdivisions built under the binding stipulation that none of the homes ever be sold to African Americans.

According to Rothstein, the FHA’s justification for such discrimination, known as “redlining”, was the fear that if African Americans purchased homes in or near these suburbs, the property values of the surrounding white homes would plummet.

A Redlined 1930s lending map of metro Milwaukee from the Home Owners Loan Corporation. The shaded areas indicate where it was safe (or not) to insure mortgages. The red-shaded areas denote predominantly African American neighborhoods, which highly biased and racist appraisers unfortunately deemed unfit for insurance.

The term “redlining” originates from New Deal government maps of every metropolitan area in the country. The maps were then assigned colors by the FHA and the Home Owners Loan Corporation. These color codes were intended to indicate where it was safe to insure mortgages. As expected, anywhere African Americans lived was shaded in red as a warning that these neighborhoods were too risky for mortgage insurance. The maps themselves were created from appraisal categories that considered the race and ethnicity of the neighborhood as a primary factor. Consistent with the systemic racism of the era, the maps were a despicable reflection of their creators’ many prejudices.

Fans and students of James Ellroy should be reminded here of the theory of containment, a recurring motif in the Demon Dog’s canon, espoused primarily by Dudley Smith in the L.A. Quartet, and also Brown’s Requiem’s Haywood Cathcart.

In Ellroy’s world, containment is a way of controlling crime by limiting its more ugly expressions (like homicide and rape) to minority neighborhoods, while allowing its more nuanced counterparts (white collar and organized crime) to flourish in the service of wealthy white people.

From 1910 to 1970, Milwaukee would experience a residential influx known as “the Great Migration,” though it could also be termed “the Great Exodus”: Countless African American families fleeing the racial carnage of the south put down roots in several middle class Cream City communities like Bronzeville in North Central Milwaukee.

As the historian Mark Pearcy details, these families would unfortunately encounter a system designed deliberately to corral the public prevalence of African Americans. While the south achieved this by passing laws which forbade racial integration, northern cities like Milwaukee pursued the same end through brutal housing legislation and enforcement.

A ‘residential security’ map of metro Milwaukee in the 1930s. Created from appraisal categories that considered the ethnicity of a neighborhood as a primary factor, these Redlining maps viewed African Americans as an eyesore and a liability, and sought to isolate them from the wealthier white neighborhoods.

According to a 2016 Wisconsin University—Madison report on Milwaukee’s long history of segregation, the authors assert that the best evidence for redlining is found in the wording of the Realtor Code of Ethics. As just one example, Article 34 of the code—as originally written—states, “a realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood […] members of any race or nationality, or any individuals whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values in that neighborhood.”

While such incendiary language was trimmed down considerably after a 1950 Supreme Court decision, white lawyers could still argue to white judges that a newly-arrived African American family was an unwelcome “character of property” (a phrase retained from the Code’s original wording), and hazardous to the health of the neighborhood.

As police historian and Milwaukee native George Kelling has noted, redlining is just one of a host of ugly challenges shaping the contentious relationship between African Americans and law enforcement:

The relationship between police and minorities has been shaped by slavery, enforced segregation, police abuse, and/or neglect, and African American crime and victimization […] police and minorities have a history that has generated mutual distrust and animosity that is inherent in virtually every police/minority interaction, regardless of the intent of either the minority member or the police officer… Milwaukee clearly falls within this pattern.

According to Kelling, redlining and enforced segregation overall were outgrowths of state laws known as “Black Codes”. Established nationwide after the Civil War, and disregarding the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, Black Codes amounted to essentially a softer slavery, as they mandated the kinds of work African Americans could perform, while also limiting where they could live and restricting their access to property. In fact, Kelling also suggests that the enforcement of American slavery, and the constant fear of a slave uprising may have birthed a precursor of the modern American police department: Known as “slave patrols”, these groups would monitor blacks in public spaces, apprehend and punish runaways, disrupt any black gatherings, and raid black homes across the southern U.S. during the early to mid-1740s.

Milwaukee Police Chief Joseph Kluchesky

Following the August, 1936 in-harness death of Milwaukee Police Chief Jacob Laubenheimer, his successor Joseph Kluchesky would initiate a bold and moral counteraction to the rigid stasis and willful disregard of redlining. However, this would not be the socialist Kluchesky’s only achievement.

In response to Idzi Rutkowski’s hellacious 1935 bombing spree that gutted two Milwaukee police stations, Chief Kluchesky designed and built the nation’s first ever bomb disposal wagon. As Marilyn Wellauer-Lewis details in her brief history of the Milwaukee Police Department, the vehicle was intended to transport bombs to a location where they could be detonated without endangering lives. Chief Kluchesky also formed an auxillary police force to assist in emergencies. Prior to his appointment as chief, Kluchesky had also served as a traffic patrolman, mayoral bodyguard, and also superintendent of the Bureau of Identification.

The spark point for Joseph Kluchesky’s greatest and most memorable contribution to policing would be a wave of racial violence that swept the nation in 1943.

It began with a Detroit race riot on June 20th of that year. The riot metastasized from a fist fight between two men, one black, one white, at the Belle Isle Amusement Park in the Detroit River. As other whites and blacks joined in the fracas in one of the Motor City’s oldest and poorest neighborhoods, stores were picked clean, buildings were incinerated, and 34 Americans ultimately lost their lives…25 blacks and nine whites. Of the 25 African American casualties, 17 were killed by the police, who staunchly defended their actions as justifiable force to quell the looting. The tumult would end only when President Roosevelt, at the request of Detroit Mayor Edward Jefferies, Jr., ordered 6,000 federal troops into the city.

At nearly the same time in Los Angeles, a group of American sailors attacked a group of mostly Mexican Americans in East L.A. It was the opening salvo of a conflagration that would scar the City of Angels irrevocably. Readers of James Ellroy know this brutal conflict as the Zoot Suit Riots, and for anyone who’s read The Black Dahlia, it’s hard to forget the chaotic opening depiction of police, soldiers, sailors and pachucos tangled indistinguishably.

The roots of the melee can be traced to the Bracero Program, the 1942 deal between the U.S. government and Mexico, which allowed Mexican citizens to immigrate to the U.S. as temporary workers to fill the war-driven national labor shortage. Los Angeles already supported a large Mexican American population, and the influx of new arrivals provoked a simmering racial animosity. With the rabble-rousing L.A. media fanning the flames, L.A.’s conservative white population blamed Mexican American adolescents for the city’s crime, and particularly fingered the teens’ wool-heavy zoot suits as an insult to patriotism. (Wool, like many staples, was strictly rationed during war time).

The riots would continue for the next several days, with mobs of sailors attacking Latinos and blacks indiscriminately. The riots finally ended when military police were brought in, and all other military personnel were forbidden from leaving their barracks. While amazingly no one was killed, California Governor Earl Warren’s attempted post-riot whitewash failed when the independent citizens commission he appointed found racism as the riots’ primary cause.

In August, 1943 on the east coast, a white police officer shot a black soldier in Harlem when he tried to intervene in the officer’s arrest of a black woman for disorderly conduct. In the riot that followed, 6 people died, nearly 500 were injured, and the police made more than 500 arrests. Following the Detroit riots, New York City was one of countless U.S. cities struggling to contain their racial hostility, which the tense wartime economy, food shortages and constantly rising cost of living all contributed to.

Back in Milwaukee, Police Chief Joseph Kluchesky led a select group of police drawn from across the country in developing protocol for a host of community relations programs. According to George Kelling, the programs stemmed from the belief that antagonism between police and African Americans had precipitated both the riots themselves, and police misconduct during the riots.

Chief Kluchesky’s community relations police initiative wasn’t very popular at the outset. Most of Kluchesky’s fellow chiefs and even the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) wasted no time in ignoring it. However, as Kelling relates, these community relations programs were an early acknowledgement of the serious challenge that racial tension would present to law enforcement for the next several decades.

The community relations program was comprised of race relations training for police recruits, networking between police and African American leaders, the recruitment of black officers, and establishing behavior protocol for handling disorders.

Milwaukee’s police department would have ample opportunity to test the effectiveness of these community relations programs in the turbulent and racially charged decades to come.

James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police will return…

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