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Los Angeles | L.A. THEN AND NOW

LAPD Blocked Dust Bowl Migrants at State Borders

March 09, 2003|Cecilia Rasmussen | Times Staff Writer

I'd rather drink muddy water

Sleep out in a hollow log

Than be in California

Treated like a dirty dog.

*

This is what the migrants sang in the 1930s, when the Golden State was anything but welcoming to the "tired and poor" masses heading this way from Dust Bowl-ravaged states.

For a few months in 1936, the Los Angeles Police Department launched a foreign excursion of sorts -- a "Bum Blockade" on the state's borders. The LAPD deployed 136 officers to 16 major points of entry on the Arizona, Nevada and Oregon lines, with orders to turn back migrants with "no visible means of support."

The man responsible, Police Chief James Edgar "Two-Gun" Davis, was a former cotton-picker from Texas who came to California in 1911, dirt poor and uneducated. Davis, whose moniker referred to his extraordinary marksmanship with a pistol, liked to say that constitutional rights were of "no benefit to anybody but crooks and criminals."

Davis contended that his men needed no special approval because "any officer has the authority to enforce the state law." (There was no such law.) Nevertheless, he asked border-county sheriffs to deputize his officers. Some officials refused, including the Modoc County sheriff, who forced 14 LAPD officers to leave after they turned away local residents trying to return home.

The City of Angels had built itself by luring migrants west to sunny skies and balmy temperatures. But its attitude took a 180-degree turn during the Great Depression as jobs dried up and thousands of unemployed overwhelmed the city. Many civic leaders viewed police as a way to stem a transient tide estimated as high as 100,000 a year -- a vast influx immortalized in John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath."

The migrant horde from whom Steinbeck drew his fiction came out of the drought-stricken states of Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, New Mexico and Arkansas. Lumped together as "Okies," they were the butt of derogatory jokes and the focus of political campaigns in which candidates made them the scapegoat for a shattered economy. They were accused of "shiftlessness," "lack of ambition," "school overcrowding" and "stealing jobs" from native Californians.

They included railroad-fare evaders; hitchhikers; owners of loaded-down jalopies that hammered, rattled and smoked; and, in The Times' own words then, "all other persons who have no definite purpose in coming into the state."

Railroads obligingly halted freight trains near police outposts. The transients, once in custody, were offered a simple choice: Either leave California or serve a 180-day jail term with hard labor. In jail, Davis said, they were entitled to only a Bible, "beans and abuse."

At the California-Nevada line near Reno, a white billboard showed a baton-wielding, blue-uniformed cop with his palm thrust out near an imposing red "STOP!" sign and the phrase: "Los Angeles City Limits."

Incidents at checkpoints were often tense and pathetic. When a weary-faced mother with six children, carrying only $3.40, was asked by police to pay $3 for a California auto license, she broke down and cried, "That's food for my babies." They let her in for free, making her one of the lucky few -- about one in every thousand -- who inspired mercy.

Although many people opposed the effort, Davis' supporters included The Times, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, the city prosecutor's office, some judges and public officials, railroads, the sheriff, the county Department of Charities, and hard-pressed state relief agencies.

In answer to charges that the blockade was an outrage, The Times editorialized: "Let's Have More Outrages." The paper praised the effort as an answer to the waste of taxpayers' "hard-got tax money" and a way to keep out "imported criminals ... radicals and troublemakers."

'Thieves and Thugs'

Davis promised that $1.5 million would be saved on "thieves and thugs" and another $3 million in welfare payments.

The now-defunct Los Angeles Evening News, however, editorialized that the blockade "violates every principle that Americans hold dear

At the same time that Davis sent officers to the border, he unleashed another weapon against penniless newcomers -- a special "flying squadron" of detectives and patrolmen. Although street sweeps for criminals and homeless men were routine, the special raids included indigent families, single women, juveniles and men unable to work because of illness. Those arrested were given funds from the Los Angeles County Relief Administration for railroad tickets back to their "legal homes."

Some City Council members demanded to know the chief's authority for the border blockade. After weeks of inaction, the council passed a motion asking the city attorney's opinion. That request quickly became moot -- and not because of any government action.

Ruled Illegal

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