Throckmorton lecture addresses incarceration

photo of Kelly Lytle Hernandez presenting
Stella Moran / The Mossy Log

On Monday, Feb.19, the Lewis & Clark History Department hosted the 60th Annual Throckmorton Lecture. This event brings some of the most distinguished historians in the United States  to LC’s campus. 

This year’s lecture featured Dr. Kelly Lytle Hernández, professor and chair of the history department at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). Lytle Hernández is also the founder of the research project Million Dollar Hoods, which tracks incarceration rates by neighborhood in Los Angeles County and is associated with the UCLA Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies.

LC Professor of History Elliott Young introduced Lytle Hernández.

“It’s a great honor, privilege, to introduce someone who I count as a colleague, a friend and a comrade,” said Young. “ I don’t say that for too many people.”

Young praised the historical relevance of untold stories, noting the comprehensive research that went into this study.

“The ‘rebel archive,’ as (Lytle Hernández) calls it, that she mined to be able to tell this story reminds us that we have to look beyond the traditional stories held by official state archives and begin to explore the ways in which marginalized people, including those in cages and detention centers, have told their own stories and organized to survive,” Young said.

In a candid moment, Young bypassed the customary enumeration of accolades, opting instead to delve straight into the remarkable achievements of Dr. Lytle Hernández.

“This is the point in the introduction when I list 1,000 prizes most of you have never heard of, so I’m going to skip that part and just tell you that she won a lot of awards including the Bancroft Prize in American History. She was on the longlist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction for ‘Bad Mexicans,’ and as many of you might also know, she was the winner of a MacArthur Genius Award,” said Young. “I don’t like the term ‘genius’ because it invokes a whole bunch of bad things from the eugenics period, but Dr. Lytle Hernández’s creativity, her thoughtfulness, and deep research makes her a deserving recipient of that prestigious honor.”

Young then invited Lytle Hernández to begin her presentation. She started by introducing her organization, Million Dollar Hoods.

“We think about Million Dollar Hoods as a people’s research project. It’s a university-based but community-driven academic initiative. Our goal really is to abolish mass incarceration, to end the era of mass incarceration,” Lytle Hernández said.

Lytle Hernández highlighted why she chose to focus specifically on mass incarceration in Los Angeles.

“Los Angeles has the largest jail system on Earth. Why is that? I would say it’s that LA is home to some of the largest populations that are most impacted by mass incarceration. The largest Mexican population north of the US-Mexico border, the largest urban Indian population in the US, the largest African American population west of the Mississippi, and the largest homeless/houseless population anywhere in the country,” Lytle Hernández said.

She said she felt she had a duty as a historian to investigate this subject.

“I wanted to write a history from the very, very beginning of human caging, of incarceration in Los Angeles, right up to the contemporary moment,” she said. 

Lytle Hernández launched into the city’s history of incarceration.

“The very first people to experience incarceration in LA were the indigenous population. That’s where the story begins in LA, and I would open up that it probably begins very similarly across the country, that mass incarceration begins with targeted criminalization and caging of indigenous peoples,” she said.

But she says that as she progressed her research, she discovered something that contradicted her worldview.

“The second story that I found really shocked me,” she said. “So, the second population after indigenous peoples to be targeted for mass incarceration alike were white men. At the turn of the 20th century, about 100% of LA County jail was white men.” 

Lytle Hernández went on to explain that most of the white men who were locked up represented the unhoused population in LA who were sequestered to separate the general population from those they perceived as genetically disadvantaged.

Lytle Hernández’s research continued to dig into the systemic targeting of specific demographics, like Chinese immigrants who came to the U.S. in the late 19th century.

“Then I found all these news stories about Chinese immigrants being targeted en route to deportation and being detained in the local jail system. You can go to jails all across the US today and find immigrants who are being detained en route to deportation,” she said.

Lytle Hernández said that Mexican radicals were then targeted and Mexicans were incarcerated en masse.

However, after the 1920s, the story shifted and became much more oriented toward controlling the Black population in Los Angeles. 

“(There was) an incredible surge of criminalization, policing of Black populations in LA. There was a high rate of lethality … The kind of violence that people were experiencing in terms of anti-Black policing in Los Angeles was extraordinary.” she said.

Lytle Hernández explained the established approaches to thinking about mass incarceration.

“Typically, there are two ways to think about mass incarceration and its origins. One, there’s all this urbanization that happens in the 19th century, people move into cities and all these unemployed people become these wandering masses and they’re a problem, right? So in a Marxist analysis of mass incarceration, you start to criminalize and lock up all those unemployed and underemployed folks,” Lytle Hernández said. “Ok, fair enough, a lot of books have been written about mass incarceration as far as that perspective but that wasn’t what I was seeing in my archive.”

Lytle Hernández explained that there was another, more popular way of thinking about mass incarceration that she saw used to analyze the trends that drove American incarceration.

“The second way of thinking about mass incarceration is the origins around what we call racial capitalism. In particular, the plantation-to-prison pipeline,” she said. “That, first, you have the emancipation of African Americans, the enslaved, and then you have the rise of mass incarceration to create slavery by another name: to effectively recreate the conditions of enslavement of Black folks, namely in the U.S. South and across the country as well, through the prison regime.” 

She then described how these approaches did not fully explain the phenomena that she was uncovering.

“I don’t disagree with either of those, the Marxist approach or the racial capitalist approach … But what I was seeing was something a little bit more,” she said.

Lytle Hernández then proposed another explanation for the patterns of incarceration in the U.S.

“There’s all these conversations going on in the academy now and in the last 20 to 30 years about settler colonialism, and of a forced colonization that’s unique because settlers would come in and they’re not looking to just dominate labor, right, or to extract resources. That’s two major prompts to colonization. But another major prompt is just to take land and to replace the indigenous population with a new settler community that is racially homogeneous and sexually reproductive, that doesn’t need any external folks to come in,” she said.

This line of inquiry was intriguing to Lytle Hernández.

“I started thinking, well what if mass incarceration is actually forced mass elimination? A way of, first, targeting and removing the indigenous population, which then gets replaced by a white settler community, and as additional communities start to come in, or try to come in, you criminalize (them), you lock them up, to move them off the streets. So that could be the tramps and the hobos, that could be Chinese immigrants and Mexican immigrants and certainly African Americans who migrate free into the West, right?” she asked.

Upon realizing this, Lytle Hernández started considering what actions she could take next.

“So what’s my responsibility? What am I going to do as a scholar? If I now think about mass incarceration and mass elimination which unsettles me so, am I just going to keep teaching my little classes at the university? Or am I going to join the movement on the frontlines and try to do something about this regime? And to be honest, I had to get organized,” she said. “I had to join the organizers and the activists, the people who are embedded in the movement to end mass incarceration as mass elimination.” 

She says that the abolitionist organizers in LA knew who was getting arrested, but they had little access to information regarding why the charges were against so many people from marginalized communities. That’s when Lytle Hernández realized it was her job as a scholar to step up and acquire that crucial data.

“That’s what we do, right, as scholars, because we get evidence, we get data, we use the letterhead of our institutions to go to these other institutions and say ‘I’m here with a research project, I wanna submit a FOIA request or California Public Records Act request, I want you to give me the data because you’re legally bound to do that,’” Lytle Hernández said.

She discussed the ensuing settlement’s yield and the details of the data.

“All we got was about more than 54 million data points at this point,” she said humorously. “But it’s about really 27 categories of data. We get the name, the address, the height, the weight, eye color, the charges and more of every person that has been arrested in Los Angeles by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) or the LA Sheriff’s Department since 2010.”

That was when Lytle Hernández decided to start Million Dollar Hoods in order to map incarceration across Los Angeles. 

“We started to map who was getting incarcerated and where, and we found over 30 neighborhoods in Los Angeles where local authorities were spending more than a million dollars per year locking folks up in the jail system. Those are the Million Dollar Hoods. They’re disproportionately black, they’re disproportionately brown and disproportionately impoverished. No surprise there,” she acknowledged. “But we also provided, for the very first time, a public list of the charges of sending people to jail.”

These charges showed a concerning pattern within the system. 

“We found in every single one but one neighborhood that there were two charges sending people into the jail system; possession of narcotics and driving under the influence — both substance-related issues,” Lytle Hernández stated.

Lytle Hernández’s team examined the total cost of incarceration as it affects specific Los Angeles neighborhoods.

“So we made the argument that if you’re spending $80 million per year up in the Lancaster neighborhood to lock people in those jails, how about taking that money and putting it into counseling services to support services that families need to get stronger?” she said.

She started to gather her findings to present them to people who could use their insights.

“We started to develop two-page reports to be able to give to politicians who make decisions about these city jails and county jails,” Lytle Hernández said.

One such report examined the total cost of bail being paid to LAPD.

“We found that African Americans paid $10 million in bail in the city of LA, not the county of LA, in just one year. We disproportionately found that money was being paid out of the most impoverished neighborhoods in Los Angeles,” she said.

That money, Lytle Hernández continued, is primarily paid by women and mothers.

“Women pay bail. To get sons out, to get partners out and other folks out. The money that moms in the most impoverished neighborhoods in Los Angeles are taking to pay for bail, for someone’s right to freedom, won’t be going to rent. Or transportation. Food. God-forbid music lessons for their children,” she said.

Lytle Hernández’s reports were aided by an abolition campaign in LA which resulted in the Los Angeles School Police Department’s budget being cut by 30% and the funds reallocated to a Black student achievement plan.

“We created a dashboard so people can create their own reports. So now you will go to the Million Dollar Hoods website and you want to create your own report that is created by or authored by your name or your organization. Then people take these reports, they take it to their local representative and they argue for what they actually need,” Lytle Hernández said.

Then, she played a clip from several of Million Dollar Hoods’ oral histories of residents’ experiences with abuse and mistreatment at the hands of the LAPD and Los Angeles jail system.

“We’ve collected almost 300 oral histories from community members in terms of their experiences with mass incarceration, either by growing up in a Million Dollar Hood, having a parent who has been arrested or killed by the police themselves, experiencing state violence,” she said.

In 2020, amidst a pandemic and mass criticism of the police in conjunction with the Black Lives Matter movement, Million Dollar Hoods decided to change their strategy. 

“We decided it was time to move away from the data visualizations and the data analytics. No one needed any more data about the disparities, it was clear, we didn’t need to argue that point. We’d like to move toward archiving the age of mass incarceration,” she said. “We’re at this hinge point in history, it’s time to slow down and make sure that we have all people’s stories, all the information, so that 100 years from now, when people come to tell a story about who dismantled mass incarceration and how, we will have created our own archive. It won’t be the state saying what happened, we will create our own narrative and leave it to our descendants to tell that story.”

Lytle Hernández then introduced the project that Million Dollar Hoods has more recently taken on.

“So, a couple years ago, I sued the LAPD and won,” she said. 

Lytle Hernández explained that she sued the department for violating the California Public Records Act.

“LAPD settled the lawsuit and in that settlement, they gave us about 176 boxes of LAPD historical files that they had refused to make public,” she said.

Lytle Hernández said that sorting through the records in these files became a part of Million Dollar Hoods’ new mission.

“Our focus is on abolition and abolitionists, for the most part, but sometimes you have to understand the machine that you’re fighting, right?” she said. 

But studying these records does not just yield knowledge about the police.

“We do it to study policing, but also to study the tactics of abolition that have worked in the past and we want to carry forward. We do this work to rebel, to make claims and make public the harms committed against our communities. We do this work to collectively grieve together people who have been stolen from us,” she said.

Amidst the turbulent geopolitics of today, Lytle Hernández argues that her organization is working to create something out of this suffering.

“We are builders in an era of collapse,” she said.

Lytle Hernández then discussed the categories that her organization sorted these files into. She focused on one category in particular, labeled “Police Equals Violence.”

“‘Police Equals Violence’ is a bunch of records that have to do with all kinds of violence perpetrated by the LAPD against community members. It is an extraordinarily difficult collection for us to go through,” she said. “We work very, very slowly and we’re collectively able to move through this.”

Lytle Hernández detailed several cases of police brutality exercised against Los Angeles residents, and in particular, people of color. The details of these cases were contained in the files Million Dollar Hoods possesses, describing the immense violence and death that people of color experienced at the hands of the LAPD. 

She said that the uncovered records revealed that the LAPD asked a scientist to examine a chokehold which the LAPD was banned from using after several deaths occurred to assess if the deaths were due to the chokehold. 

When the scientist deduced that the deaths in question were caused by this chokehold, the LAPD countered that the deaths were actually due to substance use or sickle cell anemia and barred the scientist from coming forth about his findings.

“The LAPD suppressed findings that they were killing Black men with this tactic and then proceeded for the next 20 years to fight to get the moratorium lifted,” she said.

As for the next steps for Million Dollar Hoods, Lytle Hernández is not certain of what the future may hold.

“Okay, so what are we doing with all this? We’ve got the data. We’ve got maps, we’ve got the oral histories, we’ve got the artifacts, we’ve got LAPD files. We’re not entirely sure yet; this is an organic, iterative process. We’re figuring it out,” she said.

Regardless, the organization’s findings have initiated crucial conversations about how to collectively heal from the trauma instilled by mass incarceration.

“We’ve had conversations about having tribunals and talking about reparations for items and wealth and people who’ve been stolen from us,” Lytle Hernández said.

As discussions around mass incarceration reach a crescendo, it becomes increasingly evident that the archive’s impact will extend far beyond scholarly inquiry.

“Once the archive drops in June, we will move toward the implementation phase of what we’ve learned from this archive and how we can help to build this age of abolition from this archive of mass incarceration,” she said.

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