Off the Bookshelf: When Los Angeles Tried to Secede

Short excerpts from long reads

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"In early 1935 the City of Los Angeles established a Committee on Indigent Alien Transients, which reflected the bias of the city. Astonishingly, the committee openly defined an indigent alien transient 'as being a transient entering the state of California without visible means of support and whose legal residence is foreign to the state of California.' Thus the Committee, for all practical purposes, took California out of the Union. The City of Los Angeles would soon attempt to seize control of the state. Long skilled in the techniques of rousting transients out of town after jailing them on vagrancy charges, the Los Angeles Police Department played an important role on the committee, on which the deputy chief of police sat as chairman. On 4 November 1935 the Committee on Indigent Alien Transients issued a report calling for the establishment of checkpoints manned by police and health officials at every major point of entry into the state. Transients who could not prove California residence, the report recommended, should be put into camps, preferably operated by the State Relief Administration, where they would be fingerprinted and their backgrounds checked for a criminal record. The report also called for "Vagrancy Penal Camps" for transients arrested on vagrancy charges. These penal camps would serve as labor pools for work upon roads, parks, and other public projects. Police should monitor all common carriers, railroads especially, and all main arterial highways in an effort to apprehend indigent alien transients seeking to enter the state. State and local officials, meanwhile, should form a statewide committee to supervise these activities: an extra-parliamentary task force responsible for sealing off the borders of California from transient migration.

"Not surprisingly, these recommendations, offered with a straight face--with their suggestion of checkpoints, of preemptive arrests of those whose only crime was being poor in the Great Depression, of fingerprinting in forced labor camps, and, worse, of Vagrancy Penal Camps where thousands might be concentrated--did not meet with universal acceptance throughout the state. As paranoid as mainstream California might have become, it was not yet ready for such an unconstitutional, police state program. Encouraged by local oligarchs, together with the City Council and the County Board of Supervisors, Los Angeles Police Chief James Davis, a spit-and-polish officer, resplendent in shiny black riding boots and a Sam Browne belt, brushed aside any constitutional scruples, of which the chief had few, and decided to go it alone. On 3 February 1936 Chief Davis dispatched 126 LAPD officers to sixteen crucial highway and railroad entry points throughout the state with orders to turn back any and all indigent transients who could not prove California residence. Within days, the Foreign Legion of Los Angeles, as it was soon called, had established checkpoints along the Oregon border in Del Norte, Siskiyou, and Modoc counties; in the central Sierra Nevada counties of Plumas, Lassen, Nevada, and Mono; in the city of Independence in Inyo County, and across the southern desert in the counties of San Bernardino, riverside, and Imperial. To maintain a semblance of legality, Chief Davis requested that his officers be locally deputized, which the sheriff of Del Norte County refused to do." ~ from Embattled Dreams by Kevin Starr

Image from the Library of Congress

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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