Ways of Seeing: Landscapes of insecurity
“Wow, it’s been a rough couple of weeks!” So many people have said that to me in recent days and each time I hear it, rage swells in my body. A rough couple of weeks? Try a rough couple of centuries. I am a historian of race in America. I am also a person of color. And, I am a person who has, more than once, been abused by the police. What I want to say to people who say “what a rough couple of weeks” to me is, “welcome to the [insert expletive here] reality of people of color. I am glad you finally noticed.”
And now that you all have noticed — don’t look away.
State-sanctioned violence against people of color has a long history in the United States. What we have all been seeing in the news recently, the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery, are not isolated incidents. They aren’t even part of a more recent trend or uptick of violence against people of color by the police. These horrific murders have added three names to a massive list of people of color who have been actively targeted and killed by the state since the nation’s founding. People pushed to the margins — Natives, Asians, Latinos, African Americans and more — long have been raped, harassed, beaten and killed by police forces. The police officers who committed such crimes have long been shielded by their legal authority. Time and again, local, state, and federal police agencies have gotten away with outright abuse or murder. It is time to hold those agencies accountable.
As a historian, my expertise lies in the history of the U.S.-Mexico border, so for this column, I will make my points using examples from my own work and from the work of another border historian named Monica Muñoz Martinez, who recently wrote a book about state-sanctioned violence called “Injustice Never Leaves You.”
After Texas claimed independence from Mexico in 1836, Anglo-American settlers created the Texas Rangers to protect their communities and property. In 1848, with Texas statehood, the Rangers became the state police; their core mission remained to protect and maintain white racial dominance: they protected Anglo settlers as those settlers displaced Mexicans and Native Americans and claimed legal possession of land. They also preserved race-based agricultural labor by violently hunting down African Americans who dared to escape Texas cotton fields into Mexico in search of freedom.
Movies and novels depict the Texas Rangers as heroes, and Dallas baseball fans still cheer for their home team Rangers. Muñoz Martinez argues that the Rangers acted far outside the law, and abused their authority to rob, kill, and displace Mexicans, African Americans, and Native peoples. In September 1915, for instance, Jesus Bazán and his son-in-law Antonio Longeria reported that someone had stolen horses from their ranch in South Texas. They knew doing so would be risky, though, because at the time, ethnic Mexicans had a tenuous relationship with the Texas Rangers at best. When they reported the theft, Texas Ranger Henry Ransom along with two other unidentified men took the information from them, but when they turned to leave, shot them in the back. Afterward, Ransom ordered witnesses and townspeople to leave the bodies there on the ground and went back to his barracks to nap. The bodies stayed there for days until friends of the victims risked their own lives to bury the bodies.
The Rangers’ reign of terror in the borderlands coincided with a 1915 health crisis, three years before the influenza pandemic of 1918. Several Texans contracted typhus — highly contagious — and health officials blamed Mexican workers crossing the border (without evidence) as carriers of the disease. The Texas State Board of Health implemented a quarantine and set up disinfection stations at the border. Every Mexican person who crossed into the United States had to be stripped, bathed, and deloused with a mixture of kerosene, vinegar, and water. My sources clearly indicate that white Americans crossing the border were allowed to skip this delousing, as officials assumed their “cleanliness.”
The state’s policing at the border led directly to abuse and death. In Laredo, Texas, in 1916 Texas State Health Officer T.C. Hall ordered José Montelongo and his brother-in-law Francisco Urrutia to return to Mexico “the way that they came over” after they had crossed into the United States. Rather than escorting the men across the bridge, the way they had actually come, the guards led them beneath the bridge to the riverbank where they beat the men and forced them into the river. Montelongo drowned.
Juan Manuel Ramirez, judge of the First Instance of the Eighth Judicial Section of the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, commenced legal action on Montelongo’s behalf. But the United States court did not recognize the probative value of Mexican testimony in the case against Hall. Because the court would not allow crucial material into evidence, the prosecution could not secure an indictment. In a letter to the Texas governor, Attorney General Robert Lansing wrote that a grand jury in Webb County, Texas, “which was composed of representative citizens of this [Texan] community,” exonerated Hall of any criminal activity. According to the grand jury, Hall was simply enforcing the rules and regulations of state quarantine. And although some U.S. testimony did reveal that Montelongo “was hit and knocked down” in the aftermath of the event, Hall justified his actions by implying that he had taught other inspection sidesteppers a lesson with Montelongo since, “there has not been a Mexican crossing the river since the accident.” Hall’s power, then, was reinforced by the U.S. law enforcement system that found him innocent of any crime and instead in line with his duties as a Texas state health inspector.
The case of José Montelongo suggests not only the inferiority of Mexican testimonies, but also the perceived inferiority of the Mexican life and the Mexican body. In 1916, it may have been true that more Mexican people suffered from typhus in the border region than white folks, but nobody stopped to consider why that might be. Typhus is a disease that is spread by lice, which most often move from person to person in close living quarters lacking running water. Rather than getting to the root of the problem and fixing it, though, officials found ways to police bodily movement and abuse their powers, which resulted in inhumane treatment of thousands of people of color.
Both of these cases raise questions about who policing serves. Agencies like the Texas Public Health Service or the Texas Rangers in the 1910s, or urban police forces and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency today, purportedly provide security for American citizens. But these examples from the past as well as recent events reveal that landscapes of security like those at the border or those on our city streets also create places of insecurity for some. People of color bear the brunt of that abuse.
In pandemics or epidemics, people of color are often targeted as carriers, even as environmental factors create circumstances that render us more vulnerable to disease. Policing in the environments in which we live collides with those conditions to make us doubly vulnerable. We are forced to live in neighborhoods where air pollution is higher, making us susceptible to asthma or other breathing problems. We are also more likely to be attacked by police and have them step on our necks so that our breathing problems become exacerbated and we suffocate to death more quickly. As we face a global pandemic and unspeakable police violence in this country, let us not forget that understandings of disease, security, policing, safety, and who should have access to certain resources are inextricably bound to pervasive, longstanding racism in this country.
Mary E. Mendoza is an assistant professor of history and Latino/a studies at Penn State University and a Nancy Weiss Malkiel Scholar for the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. She lives in Weybridge.
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