From Rizzo’s Philadelphia to the Drug War: Police Raids, Deviant Property, and Racial Segregation

Authors: Jackson Smith*, New York University
Topics: Urban Geography, Political Geography, Ethnicity and Race
Keywords: Policing,Urban Geography,Historical Geography,Property,Segregation,Race,Gender
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/5/2019
Start / End Time: 3:05 PM / 4:45 PM
Room: 8211, Park Tower Suites, Marriott, Lobby Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In 1968 Philadelphia police utilized a “nuisance” injunction to shutter the Electric Factory, a counter-cultural hub that Commissioner Frank Rizzo disparaged as a hangout for homosexuals and drug pushers. Ten years later, Mayor Rizzo barricaded the headquarters of the black liberation MOVE organization. This police action was partly animated by disapproval of the group’s non-normative communal practices, echoing the earlier moral handwringing about the Electric Factory. It culminated in the destruction of the house after a shoot-out, the death of a police officer, and the imprisonment of nine MOVE members. These incidents bookmarked Rizzo’s ascent to power in Philadelphia and reveal the socio-spatial logic of one of his police department’s favored tactics – raids on properties legally constructed as political and moral threats. During the 1950s Rizzo made his name as a patrol officer by raiding vice establishments. The department continued developing these tactics as it transitioned from a proto-War on Terror against 1960s social movements to the 1980s War on Drugs. This transition was punctuated by the department’s aerial bombing of the second MOVE compound in 1985 and the 1992 demolition of a 90-year-old woman’s home due to alleged drug activity. Through a discussion of the Philadelphia Police Department’s raids, demolitions, and home seizures, I argue that these militarized tactics and legal strategies for targeting property became central to the police management of urban racial segregation. Tracing this history shows how racialized and gendered enmity forged during the long 1960s shaped spatial strategies for the drug war.

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