A Central Cog of Racist Order

Kevin Moore

Simon Balto’s Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power tells the racist history and development of the Chicago Police Department.


On July 17, 2020, the police rioted in downtown Chicago. A Black and Indigenous solidarity rally marched to surround a Christopher Columbus statue in Grant Park. Chicago police in riot gear interrupted the activists’ efforts to take down the statue using tear gas, pepper spray, batons, shields, and hands to steal bikes and brutalize demonstrators. Miracle Boyd, an eighteen-year-old activist and recent high school graduate, had her teeth knocked out, and journalists and photographers were assaulted by police. The scene of wanton police violence against demonstrators in the midst of a nationwide uprising for racial justice brings to mind shades of 1968.

The on-going nationwide rebellion has sparked a growing national conversation about the true function of the police under capitalism. Chicago’s police are exceptionally infamous for their racism and brutality. Simon Balto’s Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power attempts to answer the question of why racism is especially ingrained within the Chicago Police Department (CPD).

One of the major aims of the book is to focus on the intersection of policing and anti-Blackness with Chicago as a case study, while also exploring how policing became more racialized at the local, state, and national levels. Balto’s book has several strengths. He places a heavy emphasis on policing as an integral function of capitalism, with racism remaining especially central to policing in Chicago. The book uses the 1919 Red Summer of racist pogroms as an entry point and moves through the 1960s, exploring the correlation between the Great Migration to Chicago and the development of racially repressive policing. Balto also situates the rise and development of the CPD with the growth and power of the Democratic party machine.

The CPD’s origin story begins in the mid-nineteenth century with Chicago business leaders’ desire to create a military-style police department to protect their interests from working-class immigrants. From the jump, the role of the police was for social control and to protect ruling-class interests. With every turn in changing social conditions, the police responded with violence. Police responded to a spike in radicalism in the 1860s with undue force and violence to, as Balto states, “protect the wage labor system from the threat posed by its own wage slaves.”[i]

During the Great Migration, the Chicago Police Department served and defended Chicago’s racial caste system. Batlo explains how connections between white youth gangs and the CPD allowed white violence to terrorize the Black community with impunity and protected by the CPD. “While Black people pleaded for protection,” Balto writes, “white gangs like the Bridgeport-based Ragen’s Colts and Hamburg Club marauded through Black neighborhoods.”[ii] The Hamburg Club’s president during the riot was none other than future long-term mayor Richard J. Daley. The CPD protected the white youth gangs because of their ties with Chicago’s political structure.[iii] Many CPD officers came from neighborhoods like Bridgeport so the cops knew gang members on a personal level. It was also the case that white youth gangs were politically useful by their ability to wield extralegal violence if needed. The gangs served as a recruiting ground and a pipeline for future cops.

Balto also accentuates the class dynamic of racist policing. He describes how the Black bourgeoisie supported racist policing. Black journalists and community leaders bought into racist ideas regarding Black people, criminalizing their own. It was common to blame problems in the Black community on Southern migrants with outlets like the influential Black newspaper the Chicago Defender condemning what they called “loafers” or people hanging out and criticized the CPD for not removing “loafers and idlers” off the streets.[iv]

During the Great Depression policing focused on civic disorder, in particular the rise of radicalism related to the economic crisis. Politicians and the police criminalized poverty and used “law and order” language to enact thinly coded racism.[v] The CPD was used to terrorize the Black community and repress radical politics that flourished in Black Chicago. But alongside their supposed defense of law and order, the cops were used to steer money from the Black community to the Democratic Party machine. Officers pressured Black Chicago’s policy kings (policy was the precursor to the lottery) to supply the Democratic machine with money and votes in exchange for police turning a blind eye to their activities.[vi]

The project of political repression in the 1930s also drew on CPD’s Red Squad as “the central cog in Chicago’s war on radicalism.” Headed by Make Mills, the Red Squad broke up political meetings, surveilled hundreds of demonstrations, and tried to incite violence to undermine radicals’ credibility. Of course they used violence to achieve their goals as “anyone participating in direct action protests had to always be prepared for violence.”[vii]

Balto also describes resistance in the face of police repression. The Communist Party’s Popular Front brought multiracial coalition politics to bear. One example of this was the Memorial Day Massacre in 1937 in which CPD murdered ten demonstrators outside Republic Steel’s South Chicago plant. Working with the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC), more than four thousand Black workers held the line in the face of police violence. Organizations like the United Packing Workers of America and the National Negro Congress (NNC) continued organizing campaigns against police brutality into the 1940s.[viii]

Balto acknowledges that focusing on what racialized policing meant for the Black community in Chicago imposed limitations on the book. He notes early in the introduction that this work says little about gender, specifically transgender and nonbinary people and their encounters with police. It also has little to say about other people of color groups and their encounters with the police, especially Latinx and Indigneous communities who have their own histories of racist police repression.

With this current movement, Occupied Territory is useful in highlighting the origin stories of some of today’s modern police tactics, including stop and frisk. Balto uses these origin stories to remind us racism and violence is the story of policing in the United States; Chicago is but one example. “Police violence,” says Keeanga-Yamahtta Tayor, “is part of the DNA in the United States.”[ix] Racist policing is an essential pillar used to uphold a system based on white supremacy. What makes Occupied Territory valuable is that it helps to not only answer the question of how policing got like this but how to move forward.

There is a nationwide movement to defund and dismantle police departments. Several school districts in the US have terminated contracts with police departments, thus removing cops from their schools and redirecting funding towards resources and restorative practices that will support students. However Chicago’s mayor Lori Lightfoot does not support defunding the police, and the Chicago Board of Education voted to continue their contract with the CPD. Few of the reforms won by this rebellion in other cities have been secured in Chicago. Occupied Territory helps us to see that Chicago is a different beast due to the ironclad bond between the city and CPD a hundred years strong. But Balto’s book also shows us what past resistance to racist policing looks like and what we can learn from it.


[i] Simon Balto, Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power (Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 2019), 17

[ii] Balto, Occupied Territory, 34

[iii] Balto, Occupied Territory, 35

[iv] Balto, Occupied Territory, 41

[v] Balto, Occupied Territory, 58

[vi] Balto, Occupied Territory, 70

[vii] Balto, Occupied Territory, 71

[viii] Balto, Occupied Territory, 83

[ix] Balto, Occupied Territory, 12


Kevin Moore is an educator, member of the Chicago Teachers Union, activist, organizer, DJ, and power nap enthusiast based out of Chicago.