The Urban Prototype: Baltimore's Carceral State, 1966-2016

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Foley, Joseph, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Harold, Claudrena, AS-History (HIST), University of Virginia

My dissertation, titled The Urban Prototype: Baltimore’s Carceral State: 1966-2016, examines the role of the police state in reinforcing class and racial lines within the city of Baltimore. I cast my analytical net wide, exploring the varied ways Baltimore became a key battleground for neoliberal politicians in both the Republican and Democratic parties, as well as grassroots organizers committed to fighting against the expanding prison system. My research demonstrates how, during the massive expansion of the carceral state in the second half of the 20th century, Baltimore became a prototype for urban apartheid through state-sanctioned discipline and punishment. It investigates more than just how the city was policed, but also how it was portrayed by leaders and the press both locally and nationally. The Urban Prototype focuses on four major arenas: labor, politics, mass media and police leadership. My research is buttressed by a rich array of archival sources and over 30 oral history interviews I conducted with subjects including the creators of HBO’s The Wire, former judges, activists and Baltimore’s first elected Black mayor, Kurt Schmoke. Using the methods of carceral studies, urban, and political history, I tackle four major questions: How has the portrayal of a crime-riddled Baltimore worked to reinforce the criminalization of African Americans through mass media and politics? How did local and national politicians use Baltimore to push the expansion of the carceral state and further their own careers? To what degree do police unions like the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) shape the inner workings of Baltimore’s carceral state? And lastly, how have Black Baltimoreans pushed against police violence and spearheaded carceral reform?

As my dissertation demonstrates, the growth of America’s carceral state did not just rely on police, prison officials and political leaders, but also required conjoining efforts from media. The common trope of Baltimore as a crime-ridden warzone pervades not just political discourse but also the cultural arena. On popular television, including shows like Homicide and The Wire, Baltimore functions as a metonym for the urban crisis; within its borders, violence is the rule, not the exception. A 1996 Washington Post feature on the NBC television drama Homicide illustrates how the media both normalized and capitalized off of the portrayal of Baltimore as infested with violent crime and drugs. Noting that the show’s popularity had “brought tourists to its waterfront and celebrities to its neighborhoods,” the Post detailed how city officials, including the Baltimore Police Department, had embraced the show. “It’s always been so ironic that something that is so positive for the city is based on the fact that over 300 people a year die here,” Gary McLhinney, president of the Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police, reflected. “But I watch it. I enjoy it. I think most cops do.” Left unaddressed in the article was the show’s representation of Baltimore as a symbol of crime and how the city was used as evidence of the necessity of the carceral state’s expansion.

I argue that mass media’s depiction of a crime-riddled Baltimore helped to justify a late-20th century national crime panic. My research unpacks how a show like The Wire solidified Baltimore’s identity, while giving little thought to Black autonomy. Similarly, I uncover how local and national politicians have exploited Baltimore to promote an expanded police state. In doing so, they have solidified their own political agendas. Men like Spiro Agnew built his career off of criminalizing Black activism, and simultaneously molding the national discourse around ‘law and order.’ The BPD has systematically enforced spatial segregation and economic oppression in a “professionalized” fashion since the late 1960s, and unions like the Fraternal Order of Police have been instrumental in promoting this agenda. These findings highlight the expansion of Baltimore’s police state, how it has been used to inform and influence the carceral state at a national level, and how it has shaped the American public’s understanding of crime and punishment. With its close proximity to Washington D.C. and support from leaders like Agnew and former Police Commissioner Donald Pomerleau, the BPD was one of the nation’s first departments to utilize federal funding and training from legislation like the Safe Streets Act of 1968. Pinpointing this multi-faceted model of carceral expansion in Baltimore reveals how similar processes have been replicated in urban spaces including Washington D.C., Detroit and Chicago. As I highlight throughout my research, Baltimore functioned as a microcosm and even a catalyst for many larger national issues including police expansion and systematic oppression.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Policing, Carceral State, Fraternal Order of Police, The Wire, Spiro Agnew, Donald Pomerleau, Baltimore, Police professionalization, Police union, Police expansion, Maryland
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