As novel coronavirus cases soar and states navigate reopening their economies, questions about how to compel compliance with public health mandates will persist. In this context, we would do well to understand how past efforts to control infectious diseases through policing and incarceration have undermined public health aims, exacerbated racial disparities and expanded the reach of the very “carceral state” that activists are protesting today. New York City in the 1940s, another time characterized by global crisis, concern about infectious diseases and mass organizing against police harassment and brutality, provides a useful example.
As the nation entered World War II, political leaders worried about public health. Specifically, they feared sexually transmitted infections, particularly syphilis and gonorrhea, would undermine the nation’s ability to mobilize a healthy military. Politicians passed laws and devoted resources to criminalizing female sexuality, arguing that law enforcement needed to monitor and contain “promiscuous” women who might pass infections to enlisted men.
In New York City, the campaign to prevent the spread of venereal diseases through policing and incarceration built on other policing revisions. These revisions were designed to professionalize the police department and to crack down on low-level vice crimes such as prostitution and disorderly conduct. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who won election after a corruption scandal discredited the Tammany Democratic machine, wanted the NYPD to enforce prohibitions on vice, rather than accepting payoffs, as had been the norm under Tammany. Police Commissioner Lewis Valentine combined this vision with racist beliefs that the city’s increasing Black and Puerto Rican residents were a “police problem,” and these changes became an opportunity to intensify the police presence in non-White and interracial communities.
The city’s campaign against venereal diseases further expanded the state’s powers of policing and incarceration. Military and municipal clinics collected “contact reports” from men who tested positive for venereal diseases. In these reports patients described the sex partner (almost always a woman) from whom they thought they had contracted their infection and the location where their date began. The NYPD then used these reports as a basis for tracking down women or for increasing surveillance in venues and neighborhoods that appeared frequently in the records.
Women who were accused of carrying a venereal disease or engaging in sex work were often arrested, incarcerated, forcibly tested and then imprisoned for treatment. Although officials used positive tests as a justification for incarceration and forced treatment, uncertainty existed over how to positively identify syphilis and gonorrhea in women. According to the city’s health department, the fact that a woman could not be definitively identified as having a sexually transmitted infection was not proof that she did not carry one. Officials, therefore, relied on “the benefit of the doubt,” according to one health department leader, when forcing women into treatment.
All women, however, were not equally vulnerable to these risks. Racist conceptions of crime, sexuality and disease meant the military, health department and NYPD targeted non-White women, and Black women in particular, as sexually dangerous. The police commissioner, Valentine, for example, celebrated arresting large numbers of Black women for prostitution as “progress.”
In addition to deepening racial disparities, the city’s strategy for combating the spread of venereal diseases created a climate in which New Yorkers sometimes avoided seeking medical care. The long course of treatment for syphilis and gonorrhea required an ongoing relationship between medical providers and patients. Since hospitals shared information with the courts, however, some women gave false names and addresses or refused treatment altogether to protect their privacy and freedom. One doctor even remembered chasing a patient over the roofs of Harlem with a gun as she tried to escape his monitoring and treatment.
The NYPD’s anti-venereal disease policing became a pretense for escalating police surveillance in Harlem, which was met with Black resistance and activism. In the spring of 1943, the NYPD closed down the Savoy Ballroom, a social and recreational center of Harlem’s nightlife, claiming that sex workers were spreading venereal diseases at the venue. Residents and activists challenged this narrative, arguing that the NYPD actually targeted the venue because of its location in Harlem and its policy of allowing interracial dancing.
City Councilman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. agreed that the NYPD’s surveillance of the ballroom was excessive and oppressive. “During the time that Valentine and La Guardia were crying about having an understaffed police force as many as a score of police officers were nightly assigned to the Savoy,” he noted. Municipal police officers did not receive blanket draft exemptions during the war, and La Guardia and Valentine could have used the reduction in NYPD ranks as an opportunity to marshal municipal resources away from racialized low-level policing. They chose not to, instead mobilizing officers to enforce anti-venereal disease campaigns by monitoring venues like the Savoy, which remained closed for six months.
Five months after the Savoy’s closing, a White police officer surveilling another Harlem venue following reports of venereal disease infections attempted to violently arrest a Black woman engaged in a disagreement with an employee. The NYPD’s racist and sexist conceptions of sex workers and venereal diseases encouraged officers to view all Black women as sexual threats, particularly those who checked into a hotel alone as this woman did. When a Black soldier in uniform tried to intervene to protect the woman, the officer shot him.
In response, thousands took to the streets in protest, and some destroyed property. Police officers killed six Black New Yorkers that night and arrested more than 600. Both the closing of the Savoy and the assault at the hotel were enabled by the city’s policy of relying on policing and incarceration to address the public health problem of sexually transmitted infections.
The protests against the Savoy’s closing and the 1943 Harlem uprising were two examples of the resistance that Black New Yorkers launched against police harassment and brutality in the 1940s. Although the nation was mobilized in a world war supposedly fought in the name of democracy and freedom, across New York City Black men, women and children were killed, beaten, arrested and harassed by the city’s police officers. Black New Yorkers and some White allies mobilized against this violence and over-policing, holding protests and mass meetings with thousands in attendance. City officials, however, contended that protests and civil rights demands proved disruptive in a time of war, relying on similar arguments of wartime necessity as those that supported anti-venereal disease policing in the name of public health.
Charging the police and the courts with venereal disease control in the 1940s undermined public health goals, expanded the city’s powers of surveillance and imprisonment, and created another justification that officials used to intensify policing on communities of color. Today, amid mass calls to move responsibilities and funds away from police departments while working toward their ultimate abolition, we should be especially wary of efforts to make policing a solution to the pandemic.