“That Neighborly Spirit of Mutual Care”: Neighborhood Anticrime Organizing in 1970s Philadelphia

Christopher Agee, University of Colorado, Denver

During the 1970s urban America’s debates over crime and policing often centered less on questions of punitive versus rehabilitative responses and divided more over the question of whether police power should be centralized downtown or decentralized in the neighborhoods. At the start of the decade, most of the nation’s big-city police departments had committed themselves to the principle of police professionalization. Police officials and their allies argued that anticrime policy should emanate from law enforcement experts in the hall of justice. However, a growing number of urban residents now countered that cities could achieve greater security by empowering neighborhoods to set their own anticrime policies. The campaign for neighborhood-centered law enforcement drew together a broad coalition that crossed surprising ideological divides. Liberal business elites, Black community organizers, and white “localists” all advocated for a greater community role in reducing crime. These groups were relatively unconcerned with the differences in their policy goals; they believed neighborhood anticrime organizing would naturally produce just ends. Indeed, these groups argued that the process of fighting crime at the block level would foster the democratic arrangements necessary to achieve justice on a host of policy fronts. That faith that in neighborhood governance even allowed the neighborhood anticrime coalitions to ally with the nation’s neighborhood anti-police brutality campaigns. By the end of the 1970s, neighborhood anti-crime organizers and anti-brutality activists had created politically powerful—although internally unstable—electoral coalitions. Neighborhood activists used crime politics to achieve power in cities ranging from Chicago to Los Angeles. Philadelphia offered one of the starkest showdowns between a conservative, professionalized law enforcement regime and a powerful, broad-based neighborhood movement. Ultimately a coalition of Blacks, white localists, and liberal downtown officials organized around police politics to vote out office Mayor Frank Rizzo, the most unabashed champion of paramilitary policing in America.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 202. The Carceral State and Crises of Capitalism and Governance in 1970s America