“The Real War Will Never Get in the Books”—Walt Whitman, 1875
As 1929’s Fourth of July celebrations wound down in Los Angeles, a teenager named Christobal Silvas Sierra—Christo, to his friends—law dying. No one saw him die in the darkness. But for an unusual sequence of events, we would not know how he had died. Frankly, we would not even remember that he had lived and died at all. But we do know how he died. And we have the power to remember him and many others like him. We should. And then we should attend to making some sense of it all in the larger history of America’s century-long drug war.
I have noted before the failure of historians, myself included, to get into the trenches of the war on drugs. It might be helpful to repeat here part of a paper I delivered in 2012 at the LSE Ideas Conference on “Governing the Global Drug Wars”: “It may seem odd, in light of all this attention to harm and harm reduction, that historians have not yet fully joined the conversation. To be sure, historians as a group appear to be deeply sympathetic to the aims and assumptions of harm reduction. But there are primarily associations of political interest. To date, historians’ affinity for harm reduction policies has produced relatively few systematic efforts at documenting the history of harm. If the war on drugs were an actual war (indeed, one might consider it to be so), historians have, to date, produced many fine monographs on the origins of the war, and taken us into the war-rooms of the generals to consider grand strategy, but have produced few details on the combatants themselves, and the many who have fallen on the fields of combat.”
I pointed out at the time that this is not about building memorials to the fallen, but recovering the historicity of drug war and its harms. The damage done is not a static and predictable consequence of prohibition, but emerges out of the interactions between law, policy, economics, and culture. We would do well to attend to that. That might make my starting with Christo seem odd, especially since the only drug involved is alcohol. I am going to tell some stories in this series for Points, but to use them to begin building that broader history of the dynamic, disastrous war on drugs.
Christo and five or six of his friends had been out drinking and celebrating the Fourth, when two Los Angeles police officers pulled up and ordered them into a police van. It has never been clear why officers William Bost and Fred Pahrman stopped the young men, though it certainly fits into the general patterns of policing the city’s Mexican neighborhoods that have been so well described by Edward J. Escobar in his book, Race, Police, and the Making of a Political Identity: Mexican Americans and the Los Angeles Police Department, 1900-1945 (California, 1999). As the youths piled into one door of the the police van, Christo decided to open the other door and stumble away down the street. Bost, the senior of the two officers, pursued and called on Christo to stop. When the young man did not respond, Bost took out his revolver and fired twice from a distance of about twenty feet.
How do we know this? The story takes an unusual turn at this point. No one saw Christo die, for he had climbed a fence, fallen over, and bled to death in the dark. Later, when his body was discovered, Officers Bost and Pahrman not only disclaimed responsibility, but charged one of the other teenagers with the fatal shooting instead. The other young men were held in custody as material witnesses, and worked over until they were willing to testify that their friend had been shot by one of their own. At that point, the case was assigned to Leslie T. White, a detective with the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office. As White interviewed the teenagers, their coerced stories quickly fell apart. White included this story in Me, Detective, a fascinating (and, sadly, out of print and hard to find) memoir he published in 1936.
The pages of Me, Detective make it clear that White knew how unlikely it was for these kinds of stories to make it into the public record in a way that historians could subsequently access. A nameless prostitute is found beaten to death, with a single bullet in her head, and declared a suicide. Assigned to the case, White concluded that “nobody gave a damn whether she lived or died. There was not sufficient drama about her death—it was simply a vile episode in the night life of a great city—for the press to maintain public interest at a level to warrant an intensive investigation.” Later, he observes that the same disinterest held true for prisoners killed by officers while in custody, noting that if a man was killed during a beating, “he was dragged into a vacant cell and there hung from the window-bars, or some other feasible projection, by his belt and tie.” The dead man would be “found” and recorded a suicide, and the truth would vanish forever from the record. So, too, for Christo’s truth, but for White’s account. That itself is probably the first and most important caution for historians. From where will we derive the sometimes bloody truth? That’s an issue I discussed at some length in the LSE paper, and will be something to which I will return to in this series.
The temptation, of course, is to see in Christo’s death as simply one more tragic moment in an endless cycle of conflict between police and Mexican-American youth in Los Angeles. But, as Escobar so powerfully shows in his own work, that flattens out a more dynamic and evolving story. Each police beating prompted some reaction and response, each death contributed to an evolving political consciousness and community mobilization. Indeed, White reported that the teenagers first reaction to the shooting was to blurt out—“they got Christo”—noting that the young men “grasped a truth that we did not—that it was a system which was ‘getting’ them.”
Detective White chose, surprisingly, to have William Bost arrested for murder. White noted that a “pleasingly large” number of officers privately complimented him on bringing the charges, and supplied information about Bost’s violent tendencies. Still, Me, Detective makes it clear that reaction in official police and political circles was generally hostile, and the newspapers largely ignored the story entirely out of deference to the LAPD. Despite this, Bost was convicted of manslaughter and sent to San Quentin. His junior partner, Pahrman, was convicted of perjury and sentenced to state prison as well. Less than three years later, both were given full pardons by Governor James “Sunny Jim” Rolph. Bost was reinstated to the LAPD upon his return to the city. It was reported that Bost was also awarded back pay for the time he had spent in prison. By that time, White had left the District Attorney’s office and embarked upon a full-time career as a writer, the denouement of the case one more reason not to look back.
Joe Spillane is Professor of History at the University of Florida. He has authored Cocaine: From Medical Marvel to Modern Menace in the United States (Johns Hopkins Press, 2000) and co-edited Federal Drug Control: The Evolution of Policy and Practice (Haworth Press, 2004). More recently, he authored Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform (Johns Hopkins Press, 2014). His current drug-related research agenda includes: the history and development of drug abuse liability assessment; reflections on the nature of drug epidemics; and examinations of drug war “harms” in historical context.