Prohibition: Then versus Now
By David Henderson
This will likely be my final post about Daniel Okrent’s excellent book The Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. This one, appropriately enough, is about the fall and some of the factors that led to it. There’s a huge difference in the public reaction to alcohol Prohibition then and drug prohibition now. And the difference makes me somewhat pessimistic.
Okrent tells about prominent newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune running editorials going after the extreme practices of Prohibition enforcers. One editorial highlighted the “terroristic enforcement methods” of customs agents. Another told of a 12-year-old girl being sentenced to 30 days in prison for carrying a quart of liquor across a street in Greenville, South Carolina.
Here’s another highlight about Tribune coverage:
An incident that took place just forty miles west of Chicago provoked the Tribune‘s editors to indulge in an orgy of coverage that in its frequency, its prominence, and its amplitude suggested that Armageddon was at hand. In the town of Aurora, local officers handed the Tribune (and the dozens of papers nationwide that glommed on to the episode) a story it rode for months. [DRH comment: bless them.] In the “peaceful green valley of the Fox River,” the Tribune sighed, Mrs. Lillian DeKing “lay bleeding to death in the kitchen of her home.” She had been shot “over a few bottles of liquor in the DeKing basement,” the paper added. If her husband was a small-time bootlegger, his were hardly the sort of crimes that should bring to the family doorstep “six officers of the law, armed with sawed off shotguns, pistols, machine guns, bulletproof vests, and tear bombs.”
Today, by contrast, when SWAT teams are sometimes called in just to serve warrants, such excessive methods are hardly questioned by editorial writers of major newspapers and, even if questioned, do not lead to a long series of editorials. Many people think of Radley Balko as being heroic–and he is–for exposing such methods. The good news is that he now writes regularly for the Washington Post. The bad news is that he is rare whereas in the late 1929s, people doing such exposes were much more common.
Here’s more on the Tribune‘s coverage of the DeKing incident:
The paper capped its coverage with the creation of that tried and true guarantor of public sympathy, a fund for the education of twelve-year-old Gerald DeKing. Not only had little Gerald witnessed the tragic events, he had heroically grabbed his father’s revolver and returned fire, hitting a deputy sheriff in the leg. Concerned Chicagoans responded to the Tribune’s organ music, and the paper saluted them by publishing their names and the sums they had donated.
Tried and true? Really? If a newspaper today wrote about a kid shooting at a cop with a revolver, would people really be so quick to take the kid’s side? Indeed, would there be an alive 12-year-old kid to write about?
There’s a huge difference between then and now. I’m not sure about all the reasons. Here are my four, in no particular order:
1. The federalization of enforcement. A big factor in this was the federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, begun in 1968, the first major move after World War II, I believe, in which the feds started subsidizing local police in a major way. This subsidization, with the related attenuation of powers of locals to control their police, continues.
2. The para-militarization of police. Part of this is due to #1 above.
3. The fact that a huge percent of people had been regular drinkers just 10 years earlier. (The events above happened in 1929.) They didn’t see themselves as criminals and so they sympathized with others whom they didn’t see as criminals either.
4. The numbing out of Americans. We are inured to police brutality because it has happened for so long. Put a frog in a pot of hot water vs. put a frog in cold water and warm it gradually, etc. (Please don’t bother commenting that this frog analogy is completely fictitious. I know that. I’m making a point about people, not frogs.)