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Dallas 1963 and the culture of fear

Jonathan Simon, professor of law | November 25, 2013

Today Americans in many large cities are experiencing levels of homicide last experienced in the mid-1950s. This is the result of a crime decline across the country that began in the early 1990s, when homicide levels were twice has high (or higher).

When you look at homicides on a graph, this steep decline marks the end of a period of high homicide that began in the early 1960s and which reached peaks in the mid to late 1970s and late 1980s.  This pattern has never been adequately explained by criminologists but its impact on American crime policies seems clear enough.  In the periods following both peaks American states adopted “tough on crime” sentencing laws designed to send more people to prison, for more time, and for more crimes than at any time in our history.  As a result our national imprisonment rate rose by nearly four times from 1975 to 2005.

Dealey Plaza

Dealey Plaza (Brodie319 via Wikimedia Commons)

I argued in my book Governing through Crime that this was not a simple response to an exogenous shock, but rather one that became deeply intertwined with endogenous features of our political system, particularly the transformations in civil rights law and metropolitan governance that were already underway. Cities were being transformed by the planned transfer of large portions of their middle class population to newly built suburbs and the traditional city political “machines” that had governed more or less since the gilded era, through a structure of racial hierarchy, were being destabilized by civil rights and deindustrialization.

It was not just violent crime spiking, but violent crime spiking in the midst of this reterritorialization of everyday American life, that led to a period in which America was, in some respects at leas,  governed through  fear of crime.  Kennedy’s assassination may have been a foretaste.

Of course Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963 was no ordinary urban crime, and Dallas no ordinary American city.  As Wade Goodwyn of NPR who has covered Texas and crime issues for thirty years, noted in a discussion of the Kennedy assassination on Morning Edition, Dallas then was a small city of about 700,000, 80 percent white, and with a leadership strongly committed to the Jim Crow social system that had dominated the city for 75 years.

Hatred for JFK among the city’s elite had everything to do with race and with the Department of Justice’s support for the civil rights position (never strongly enough for the supporters of civil rights).  If those elites didn’t pull the trigger, it was easy for many Americans to conclude that the poisonous atmosphere of the city may have somehow encouraged or abetted the crime (a conclusion, Goodwyn notes, that many Dallas residents came to share).

Yet visually the images of JFK’s assassination that inscribed themselves on the brains of my generation were inseparable from the urban street scape where the murder took place.  Dealey  Plaza, a place that probably had no common name for many people until the event, was not a ceremonial space but the kind of city edge space between the more valued bits of downtown and the freeway that still connects central Dallas to its suburbs.

In my childhood, much of it spent in Chicago— a city that experienced both the crime and the political turmoil of the time —  those spaces always seemed to be places of menace, glimpsed quickly from a car on the way from a symphony orchestra performance, or downtown department store shopping trip, on our way back to an outer-borough neighborhood (my parents would never have lived in a “suburb”).

The other respect in which the assassination would echo through the culture of control that followed was in its shock to the Presidency.  Franklin Roosevelt as “Dr. New Deal” had ushered in an era where the President was personally responsible for managing an ongoing existential crisis for the country, surrounded by expertise, but reliant on his own capacity for judgment and execution.  When Dr. New Deal became the war leader, this leadership model was fused with the warrior king model of sovereignty.

Kennedy’s murder was a crushing blow to this complex.  The question of recklessness and incompetence has haunted every administration since — a risk that presidents have often handled by wrapping themselves in visual and literal layers of law enforcement.

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog Governing Through Crime.