5 Stories Of Police Abuse From History (That Hit Even Harder Today)
Some people are out there saying cops have become downright terrible lately. As loyal defenders of those under attack, we have to disagree. In reality, cops have always done terrible things. And when some details of these shenanigans vanish into history, we have to dig them out and look at them again. These strange old-timey police antics aren’t really that strange or old-timey but hit us now as more relevant than ever.
Stonewall Happened Because Police Were Checking Patrons' Genitals
Popular history says the Stonewall Uprising kicked off because patrons at the Stonewall Inn, galvanized by Judy Garland's death, decided they weren’t going to put up with this latest gay raid. We’ve talked about this topic before, to try to explain how it went down a little differently from how people say. For starters, the bar wasn’t some gay paradise—the Mafia ran it, they blackmailed customers, and the police had raided the place for non-gay reasons just a few days earlier.
Today, though, we want to go a little more into exactly what anti-gay raids were. While police routinely did enter gay bars and arrest people just for being gay, citing all contact between two men or two women as lewd behavior, Stonewall got going because the cops were following something more specific: the city’s “anti-masquerading” law.
Under the law, men could not dress as women, and women could not dress as men, as either of those counted as malicious impersonation. This law originally aimed to catch thieves trying to elude capture, but police have selectively enforced it for various shady reasons. Informally, police at the end of the '60s said you always had to wear at least three (some sources say four) articles of clothing specific to your own gender.
If you’re imagining cops sometimes used this rule to make women in unisex clothes strip so cops could leer at their underwear, you are absolutely right. But they also pursued actual crossdressers (say, someone sporting a penis and a dress). The way those targeted remember it, if a cop caught you crossdressing, you’d either have to give him a blowjob out back or submit to arrest.
Hey, but that was a little presumptuous of us to throw out the word “penis” there, right? How could the police know right off what you had between your legs? Even if you were in a bar that demanded IDs, not all IDs specify sex, right, and in some places, you might not have any ID at all. That’s why, to find out for sure, police would march you into the nearest bathroom and strip you right past your underwear, so they could eyeball your genitals.
Often, a female officer had to perform the appraisal, to limit abuse. Sometimes, though, it’d be a guy, and either way, you still had to deal (often via blowjob) with the male officer whose first decided on the check. And also, forced full stripping, not even for security reasons, still qualifies as abuse under most sane definitions, even if the cop’s female, and whether or not the officer visibly orgasms.
Early morning on June 28, 1969, cops raided Stonewall. That meant yanking up people's skirts and yanking down people’s pants, and many of the patrons, who happened to be brand-new to this whole gay bar thing, refused the inspections. Police arrested them, and others in the crowd fought back. Everyone hearing about this should side against the inspectors. Seems like we can all get behind the idea that "Guards shouldn’t pull down my underwear and stare at my bits when I'm just going about my business. At least, not unless that's something I'm specifically into."
Police Killed D.C. Protesters Then Got Backup From Actual Tanks
In 1924, the government had a surprise for all vets of the Great War: money! Money in the form of certificates, bonuses worth as much as $10,000 each in today’s dollars. There was just one catch, though. Vets were unable to redeem the certificates for actual cash until 1945. The government chose that date arbitrarily; they didn’t know that was when the next world war would end ... we assume.
The vets weren't too happy about deferring these payments. A fair number of them figured they’d die before ever getting the money and would have to leave the rewards to their lazy heirs. Then the Great Depression hit, and now, desperation really set in. In 1932, tens of thousands of vets and their families came to Washington D.C. to protest.
They built vast encampments, with wooden shacks arranged into streets. They were awaiting a vote in Congress over whether to let the vets get those bonuses now, in some form they could actually use. The payments wouldn’t cost the government that much, not compared to FDR’s explosion of spending later in the decade. But the bill failed. The protesters—known as the “Bonus Army”—did not disperse afterward, and instead, even more people came to join them.
It fell on the police to clear the camps. If we’re talking about how the D.C. police dealt with the Bonus Army overall, we have to hit you with #NotAllCops: Early on, the superintendent even tried unsuccessfully to get Congress to approve money to feed the protesters, separate from the bonuses. Once police clashes started, however, things got ugly, with one cop shooting and killing two veterans.
Police with their revolvers were not up for the task of clearing 40,000 squatting protesters. So then things got really nuts: President Hoover sent in the U.S military. The protesters didn’t fight against the army and in fact first thought the troops had come out to support them. General Douglas MacArthur led the charge. Major Dwight D. Eisenhower served under him as an aide. Major George S. Patton led a cavalry unit. This is not fanfic we wrote based on every name we know from the period; this really happened.
The army brought five tanks with them as they drove through D.C., as well as a fleet of trucks, to marshal against the protesters (or insurrectionists, as MacArthur called them). The army pointed machine guns at them and set the shantytowns alight. Still, the army refrained from firing a single shot. The one casualty was a child caught in the tear gas … who later died due to intestinal issues not primarily related to the tear gas. If we pin that death on the troops, that still means the one cop killed more than the whole army.
Four years later, Congress agreed to change the rules on those bonus certificates and let the vets redeem them whenever they liked. So, was this part of those huge FDR spending programs we mentioned? Haha, no. FDR vetoed the bill that paid the vets, and then Congress overrode the veto.
Cops Shot A Dorm 3,000 Times And Succeeded Only In Killing Themselves
All five of the events we’re covering today have been classified as riots. “Riot” is a label that police assign, to people who often prefer not to describe themselves as rioters when given the choice. Important question when classifying riots: Did the crowd break stuff? They did in several of this article’s incidents (and still, their supporters prefer not to call them rioters), but they did not in this next one, known as the Texas Southern University Riot.
On May 8, 1967, an 11-year-old kid drowned in a pond at a Houston dump. The dump was illegal, claimed students (and bad for the environment, and racist), so they protested and got arrested. Separate students at TSU later rallied in support of the protesters. They blocked traffic, and yet this was not the incident labeled the TSU riot. The incident came later, after police set up their own blockade of the historically Black campus, preventing anyone from leaving.
Students now threw rocks and bottles down at the police, which you can’t expect to do without the police responding in some manner. Here is how the police responded. They identified the dorm from which they figured people had thrown the items, and then they fired 3,000 to 5,000 rounds at the building.
Someone did break stuff during this incident—the police, who did $10,000 worth of damage (after shooting, they stormed the building and oddly poured bleach on students’ belongings). That’s of course still nothing compared to the damage they could have done to the lifespans of any students the bullets hit. Fortunately, we only have records of one student getting shot, non-fatally. Here’s the police toll:
An officer slain? That’s a big deal of course. This 24-year-old rookie, Louis Kuba, had been with the force just 14 days before getting shot in the head.
Police, incensed by one of their own getting killed, evacuated the dorm and arrested 488 students inside. Plenty hadn’t even been protesting, and most were in their pajamas or underwear, but the police got them all on the ground and cuffed them. Authorities went on to charge five of the students with conspiracy and murder, for Kuba’s death.
The charges didn’t stick. Because it turns out no one had murdered Louis Kuba. He’d died by one of the police’s own bullets ricocheting off a wall. Yeah, ricochets. That sort of thing can happen when you aim your high-powered rifles at a concrete building.
But hey, quelling a “riot” and killing just one of your own police officers in the process? That’s amateur stuff compared with our next incident: the Haymarket Affair of 1886.
At An 1886 Riot, The Cops Didn’t Nail The Bomber But Did Kill Themselves
For this story, even the prologue involves police killing protesters. On May Day in 1886, hundreds of thousands of Americans went on strike for a shorter workday. Two days later, people were still striking at the McCormick Reaper Works in Chicago, and when strikers clashed with strikebreakers, police opened fire and killed two. The next night, workers planned to rally again, and police feared violence, thanks to fliers like the following, which police interpreted to basically say, “Violence!”
All you fans of the labor movement know what happened next. The rally that followed turned out to be quite non-violent … right up until the point someone threw a bomb into the police’s path.
A bomb is a dangerous weapon, of course. When the dust settled, investigators concluded that the bomb killed an officer. But bombs also tend to rouse a panic from law enforcement that can be disproportionate to just how dangerous the bomb is. Dynamite bombs were a relatively new invention, and rumor said they were powerful enough to turn one man into an army. The Chicago police had been fearing an anarchist uprising, and now when this bomb went off, they fired madly on the crowd ... and on each other.
The bomb had killed one officer. Police gunfire killed six more officers, and wounded 66 (around 200 officers were there total), and also killed and injured around the same number of protesters. We don't have firm numbers on protester casualties because it became prudent for activists, dead and alive, to swear they'd never been at this protest. Police said that they exchanged gunfire with protesters, but no one was able to confirm that any protesters fired anything—it appears that all the injuries, other than the one from the bomb, came thanks to the police.
They never identified the bomber. A conspiracy theory even says that the police threw the bomb themselves, and while we don’t buy that, it does speak to what a failure it was for investigators to never grab who really did it.
Of course, authorities did charge some people for the fiasco. They charged eight men. Six of whom weren’t even present at the rally when the bomb went off—and we know, we just said lots of people were now denying being at the rally, but these guys really weren't at the rally. The mayor of the city testified in their defense, saying the rally had been peaceful (except for, again, the bombing, which is why you cops should really find that damn bomber, not other assorted anarchists). The jury sentenced seven to death, and after appeals, four were hanged, all on the same day.
One man sentenced to death did not die by hanging. Louis Lingg was up for execution along with the rest, and he would go on to be pardoned posthumously, since he really wasn’t responsible for the bombing. But he was responsible for a bombing. On November 10, 1887, one day before his and the other men’s gallows appointment, a guard saw Lingg raise to his mouth what looked like a cigar. It was actually a blasting cap that Lingg had smuggled into his cell—smuggled up his butt, speculated police. He lit the cap, and it exploded, taking off the top half of his head with it.
Police In 1946 Seized Ballot Boxes, So The Town Stormed The Station And Grabbed Them Back
In the 1940s, the sheriff’s office ran elections in Athens, Tennessee, and because of that, the sheriff and his cronies always won. They had a whole arsenal of different tactics. They filled out other people’s absentee ballots. They chased off poll watchers. If it came down to it, they could always just count the votes themselves and declare whichever winner they wanted.
They faced a new challenge in 1946. A slate of candidates had formed and were getting support due to a strange campaign promise: “We’ll actually count people’s votes.” They called themselves the GI Non-Partisan League. Like the name suggests, they were veterans fresh from World War II, and while the sheriff’s crew were all Democrats, the League had Democrats and Republicans, figuring that everyone should be interested in free elections.
The sheriff’s office responded to the competition by kicking their usual routine up a notch. They brought in 200 additional men from other counties and deputized them so they and their guns could intimidate voters. When the polls opened on August 1 and one Black farmer tried to vote (legally, and carrying paperwork proving he could legally vote), a deputy straight-up murdered him. When a poll watcher elsewhere objected to the officers letting an ineligible voter through, the deputies beat him unconscious, threw him in jail, and then stole his wallet for good measure.
At another voting location, a poll watcher got mad when the deputies disrespected his mother. Wait, that’s not the end of that incident. The deputies now moved the poll watcher—Ed Vestal, and another named “Shy” Scott—so they couldn’t watch the count. Scott and Vestal prepared to leave and warn the town that the counting wasn’t being properly monitored, so the deputies kept them in place at gunpoint. Scott and Vestal waited till a reporter was watching the building then chose that opportunity to escape. It meant running through a glass door, shattering it, and shredding some skin, but they got out of there.
The deputies finally figured it was time the wrap the election up. With the GI slate soundly beating them in early counts, they shut the polling location down and took the ballots to the town jail. Over there, the sheriff’s crew had the power to certify the election results all on their own. There was nothing the GIs could do at this point. Other than take up arms.
And so that’s what they did. Lacking enough default firepower to take on the police, they made their way to the local armory of the National Guard, got the one old coot guarding it to open it for them, and pulled out 60 rifles and a couple submachine guns. At around 9:30 PM, they approached the jail and demanded the police bring the ballot boxes back out. The deputies refused. So the GIs laid siege to the prison with their weapons (hopefully watching out for ricochets). The deputies returned fire, and the intermittent shooting continued for hours.
By 2:00 AM, it was clear that bullets weren’t going to pull the ballots back out into public scrutiny. But as all political philosophers know, the electorate has a weapon even more powerful than guns. That weapon is called dynamite. The GIs used explosives to blow a hole in the side of the building, and now, no barred doors stood between them and ballots. Inside, they locked the outnumbered and outgunned deputies in cells. They claimed the ballot boxes, and a couple days later had the rest of the election commission come to certify the results for real. The GI slate won that election, and this particular corrupt dynasty was at an end.
Right now, you might be cheering for the GIs, while also feeling uncomfortable about what happens when such insurrections hit legitimate elections. As awesome as this story was, it’s not quite the ideal way for democracy to function. We didn’t even get around to telling you about how the GIs grabbed a few deputies, stripped them, tied them to trees, and whipped them, or about how the townspeople later caught up with one deputy and slit his throat.
Just take comfort in the knowledge that people of all stripes—everyone, really, other than corrupt politicians themselves—feel very strongly about fair elections. Now if we can just get everyone understanding what a fair election really is, we’ll be in pretty good shape.
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Top image: Harper's Weekly