Daryl Gates: The Thin Blue Line Between Personal and Structural Racism

By Channing Kennedy Apr 16, 2010

From the LA Times today:

Daryl F. Gates, the rookie cop who rose from driver for a legendary chief to become chief himself, leading the Los Angeles Police Department during a turbulent 14-year period that found him struggling to keep pace with a city undergoing dramatic racial and ethnic changes, died Friday. He was 83.

From Ice Cube, circa 1991:

Don’t let me catch Daryl Gates in traffic;/I gotta have it to peel his cap backwards./I hope he wear a vest, too,/And his best blue,/Goin up against the Zulu.

"Struggling to keep pace" is a nice way of framing Gates’ legacy. Gates was a product of the dominant culture of his time, to be sure, but he was also in a unique position of power over one of the most racially transparent large-scale social systems of the last century: the Los Angeles Police Department. His 14 years as chief, and 30 years on the force prior, lay out all-too-familiar story of policing that targets people instead of actions, and that views some races as inherently more dangerous — and less valuable — than others. In other words, police work as war. Most people know Gates as head cop during the Rodney King beating, and the L.A. rebellion, and that he turned in his badge as a result. But decades before that, he oversaw the conception of the first SWAT teams, and tested them out on Cesar Chavez’s farmworker uprisings and on the Black Panthers. (Gates originally wanted S.W.A.T. to stand for "special weapons assault team," but was made to tone it down by his boss for sounding too ‘military.’) As chief, Gates was responsible for massive sweeps of gang members — both known and "suspected" — leading up to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. The Games went off without a hitch, save for those Black and Latino kids who spent them in jail without charges. And Gates reiterated the sweeps in the late ’80s and early ’90s with Operation Hammer, a part of the LAPD’s CRASH unit (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums). The department was responsible for arresting 25,000 over several years, but rarely charging any with crimes. L.A. community advocates blasted the sweeps as violent, destructive, race-based harassment; Gates dismissed them as ungrateful. Under Gates, the LAPD illegally spied on the ACLU, Mayor Bradley, and the National Council of Churches, along with hundreds of other groups. Under Gates, "crack houses" were torn apart by battering rams and sledgehammer-wielding cops, often with no drugs found and no arrests made; in at least one instance, the Red Cross had to offer assistance to the residents following a particularly destructive raid. And, in addition to these policies with obvious racially-skewed outcomes, Gates was a plain ol’ racist! He claimed hiring quotas for people of color and women meant that less-qualified people were diluting the force. He said before the Senate Judiciary Committee that casual drug users should be shot, and called their behavior treasonous. He said that it was within department policy for Eulia Love, a Black woman who threw a knife at officers during a disturbance call in 1979, to have been shot eight times and killed. Gates was a child of the Depression. He said that he resented cops for much of his early life, for their violent treatment of his father. And Gates must have seen, first-hand, what poverty does to a community and the people in it. And yet, the policies he enacted and was lauded for were the same violent, dehumanizing, terror-based approach to policing that he’d seen the results of in his own life. We can’t guess what lessons a person will draw from their experiences, and it’s difficult to ask that a dead man rise above being a product of his times. And we can’t say that a well-intentioned chief without Gates’ old-school racial bias wouldn’t have taken a similar approach to his broader policies, thinking it was the best thing. LAPD Chief is an unimaginably tough and important job, and there’s one fewer person in the world who can say to have attempted it. But to say that Gates "struggled to keep pace with a city undergoing dramatic racial and ethnic changes" is simply to say that the world got less racist faster than he did. And thanks to Gates and his programs, the racist structures that hold down communities of color are still with us. He won’t really be buried until his War on Drugs, and his war on the poor and on people of color, is laid alongside him.