Nowhere to Run
Down these mean streets a man must wonk
Creatures, come out with your hands up!
I’ve been down with what seems to be a touch of pneumonia (I’m on antibiotics now), and reading John Buntin’s endearingly wonkish L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City. It’s structured around two parallel titans, LAPD Chief Bill Parker and gangster extraordinaire Mickey Cohen, a structure that suggests the department’s early love-hate relationship with organized crime. (Wait, why did I do a police voice just now? Surely “Creatures, you’ll never take me alive!” is more in tune with the ethos of the dastardly dancing Dragon….)
But over time the Murder, Inc stuff becomes more like local color, and LAPD history emerges as the book’s real subject. L.A. Noir is written in the tough-guy cadence its title promises, but somewhere in the first hundred pages—maybe during one of the bits about proposed charter amendments—I checked the author bio on the back and sure enough, “John Buntin is a staff writer at Governing magazine.”
Chandler pastiche about city council meetings! Pure pleasure. You get a gritty, hypey, “Mickey Spillane meets Ronald Reagan” kind of wind-up, about fear of Communism and the threatening tentacles of the underworld, and then a sharp paragraph break and: “The issue was public housing.” It’s very,
The blonde had a face as proud and forbidding as the Treasury Building, and her thighs under that eyeshade-green dress were thicker than the federal budget. When she moved, my mind went on a sanitation strike.
On an aesthetic level, this wonk noir is delightful, a David Foster Wallace-ish postmodern game; a kind of Final Report of the Special Crime Study Commission fanfiction. This book is how I learned that the Chicago Outfit (basically, the Mob) had a liaison to Hollywood! This book is how I learned that Nikita Krushchev, upon being told that he could not go to Disneyland, began waving his arms and ranting: “We have come to this town where lives the cream of American art…. But just now I was told that I could not go to Disneyland. ...Then what must I do? Commit suicide? This is the situation I am in—your guest. For me the situation is inconceivable. I cannot find words to explain this to my people!”
Billy Graham’s crowd showers Cohen with gifts and ALLEGEDLY offers him twenty-five grand to convert; Parker, the stereotypical tin-pot tyrant with a drinking problem, appoints the LAPD’s first black woman sergeant (and they’re both Cat’licks); there are bombs and film stars, brutal anti-labor “Red Squads” and Kennedys… and the whole time, it’s clear that Buntin wants you to see how arcane policy decisions shape power. How should police oversight be structured (and how can oversight become its own tool of police power)? Is the police exam just one metric among others, or can you earn promotion solely through test-taking? Is the exclusionary rule our protection against a “police state,” or a criminal’s get-out-of-jail-free card?
Organized crime worked within the police department and the labor movement—I feel like you know this on an intellectual level, but Buntin makes you feel how insidious and devastating that is, how helpless people feel when they realize that every institution they turned to hoping to improve their lives was already in the pocket of the Mob. Organized crime was in gambling, prostitution, narcotics, legal liquor, and at every level of politics… but also “‘dress companies… trucking companies, soft drink firms, dairy products, coat manufacturers, undertaking parlors, oil companies, ladies’ coat factories, real estate projects, curtain, slip cover and interior decorating, ships, restaurants, night clubs, grills, meat markets. Also vending machine sales, taxi companies, tobacco distributors, awning and siding firms, automotive conveying and hauling firms, importers of food and liquor, grocery stores and food chains, labor relations consulting firms, cement firms, waste paper removal, strap manufacture… textiles, shipping, ambulances, baseball clubs, news stands, motels, hotels, and juke boxes,’ to name just a few.” There’s a bleakly funny bit where Cohen tries to go straight via an exotic plants business, and ends up threatening people (aLleGEdlY) if they don’t buy a “plastic fern.”
Buntin can plunge into the weeds of internal governmental memos when he wants to, but he’s also synthesizing other people’s histories, memoirs, and journalism. Buntin isn’t a theorist or a historian himself, and he can be unnecessarily credulous when it comes to both gangsters’ and police chiefs’ self-image. (I’ll specifically say that the epilogue, about the 1992 LA Riots, needs the alternative perspectives found in e.g. Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.) But that in itself makes his book so striking: this is what people wanted you to think they were like.
The cops start out pretty openly at the disposal of either crime or business. (Your joke here.) Part of the story Buntin’s telling is how the LAPD developed an independent ethos. That ethos is also bad, it’s the “thin blue line,” the police as last defense against anarchy and therefore allowed to use as much illegality and violence as they see fit. Plainclothes LAPD tail politicians they view as their enemies; Chief Parker denounces civil rights and maintains bulging secret dossiers. He begins to outline the Blue Lives Matter view that the police are the real embattled minority in our society.
The book’s covert thesis comes closest to articulation during a mayoral election in which one candidate accuses the other of being backed by the underworld (true) and his opponent countercharges that the incumbent is in the pocket of an “overworld” collusion of businessmen, newspapers, and police, willing to use any tactics to maintain their own power (also true). The book is like a Romanian New Wave film, every institution divvied up by different kinds of organized violence. The Hearst papers cuddled up to Mickey Cohen, while the Los Angeles Times was an absolute panting toothless spaniel for the police.
We’re used to this as a story about racism, and it does become that—there’s a reason the penultimate chapter is titled, “Watts.” But it’s instructive to see the story play out, for most of the book, entirely among white people. LA has a quite small Black population at the beginning of this book, and even the Latino population is smaller than I expected, because of strenuous efforts to keep the city America’s “white spot.” And so it is easier than it might be otherwise to see this deeply American and specific story as part of a larger pattern, in which, trying to eradicate the cruelty of disorder, we learn once again that order is just chaos with good PR.
Elvis Costello, “Watching the Detectives”
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