Joe Mathews: It’s time to overcome our dark instinct to lock people up

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California has taken notable steps to diversify its law enforcement agencies and reconsider draconian punishments, but police abuses still occur with far too much regularity, and our incarceration rates remain sky high. Photo credit: Public Domain/CC 2.0

California’s long history of mass incarceration may have finally reached an inflection point.

California has taken notable steps to diversify its law enforcement agencies and reconsider draconian punishments, but police abuses still occur with far too much regularity, and our incarceration rates remain sky high. Zocalo commentator Joe Mathews says the protests over police killings and entrenched institutional racism that swept through American cities this spring may have finally jolted us out of our tacit acceptance of this reality. This state has a legacy of unjustly putting people behind bars, but Mathews says we may finally be ready to turn the page.

Read Mathews’ column below:

Forget it Jake, it’s California

A mother, seeking to protect her daughter and herself, fires a gunshot toward her abusive father, and then flees by car. Los Angeles police, on the scene but in no danger, open fire on the departing vehicle, killing the mother.

Her unnecessary death is more than a tragedy. It’s an emblem of California’s most populous city.

Because it’s the celebrated final scene of the 1974 film Chinatown.

Every American city has struggled with policing abuses. But Los Angeles is unique in embracing, through culture and image, its own history of police corruption and official violence.

While examples of this perverse embrace are legion, from L.A. Confidential to the ubiquity of the Rodney King video, few documents have maintained so long a hold on Angelenos as Chinatown. Last week, Ben Affleck was tapped to direct a film version of Sam Wasson’s new book, The Big Goodbye, about the film’s making.

That final scene’s famous coda—“Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown”—warned private detective Jake Gittes, the victim’s lover, not to protest the police execution he’d just witnessed. Ever since, that same phrase has been aimed at Angelenos naïve enough to seek justice in a thoroughly unjust place./

But after months of protests for social justice and against police misconduct, that cinematic warning needs reconsideration. By constantly reproducing our official horrors as news and entertainment, have we Angelenos shed the light on police abuses, or merely embedded them more deeply in our region’s collective sense of identity?

That’s why, for L.A., achieving true justice will require not just transforming systems but also forging a new identity, free of the powerlessness embodied in Chinatown.

And the best attempt at a new narrative comes from the best L.A. book of the 21st century, City of Inmates, by UCLA historian Kelly Lytle Hernandez:

Her 2017 history reveals that L.A.’s creativity has long been expressed through its pioneering cruelty in incarcerating people. Over the past two centuries, the city has used public order charges to justify incarcerating native peoples, exploited vagrancy laws to force poor white “hoboes” to join chain gangs, helped invent the concept of immigration detention in service of deporting Chinese laborers, innovated in incarcerating people of Mexican heritage, and exploited vice laws to kill and incarcerate Black people. Lytle Hernandez argues that L.A.’s devotion to caging is a product of its history of “settler colonialism,” with its settlers seeking “to block, erase, or remove racialized outsiders from their claimed territory.”

This may sound very Chinatown. Wasson, in his book on the film, writes that the concluding scene creates “a temporal Sisyphean circle” that implies “emotional incarceration.” He then recounts how the film’s Polish director Roman Polanski rejected screenwriter Robert Towne’s original ending, in which the mother killed her abusive father, protecting her daughter.

“I felt this was too romantic,” Polanski recounts in Wasson’s book. “Too much of a happy ending.”

Polanski—whose mother was killed by the Nazis, and whose pregnant wife murdered in L.A. in 1969—insisted that the finale be a “total tragedy.” In real life, catastrophe and violence triumph, Polanski decided. (In 1978, Polanski was indicted for raping a 13-year-old girl in L.A., and fled to Europe, where he remains a fugitive from the city he helped define).

Lytle Hernandez’s work is powerful because she rejects Chinatown-style L.A. fatalism. Instead, she unearths a “rebel archive” of Angelenos who resisted incarceration. Her book suggests that criminal justice reforms, like diversifying the police, are not enough to counter L.A.’s incarceration obsession. Instead, Los Angeles needs to move beyond its past, and remake its identity.

“In Los Angeles today, many rebels are hard at work dismantling the nation’s penal core,” she wrote in 2017. “They are refusing removal. They are resisting deportation. They are rejecting erasure. They are fighting the beatings and killings.”

Perhaps now, finally, we can escape the cage of Chinatown.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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