Dr. Brian Behnken's New Book About Interactions Between Mexican-Origin People and Law Enforcement from the 1830s to 1930s

Historian, Brian Behnken
Historian, Dr. Brian Behnken
Cover of Dr. Behnken's new book
Cover of Borders of Violence & Justice: Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and Law Enforcement in the Southwest, 1835-1935

Dr. Brian Behnken's New Book About Interactions Between Mexican-Origin People and Law Enforcement from the 1830s to 1930s

A new book– Borders of Violence and Justice: Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and Law Enforcement in the Southwest, 1835-1935–authored by Iowa State University Associate Professor of History Brian Behnken, was recently published by the University of North Carolina Press. Behnken is also an Affiliate Faculty member in African and African American Studies and Latino/a Studies. According to the publisher, the book “offers a sweeping examination of the interactions between Mexican-origin people and law enforcement across the U.S. Southwest from the 1830s to the 1930s.” The work for Behnken’s book was undertaken, in part, from a 2010 Research Grant from the Center for Excellence in the Arts and Humanities. He used the research grant on multiple trips to conduct research in Texas–Houston, Austin, San Antonio, Fort Worth, and Dallas.

This project arose out of Behnken's concerns about the policing of communities of color, which has become an increasingly noteworthy topic in the United States in the past decade or so. While many people might perceive it as new, the tensions generated by excessively violent encounters between law enforcement and people of color have a very long history. Many Americans tend to see policing issues from a particularly narrow vantage point, thinking that they primarily affect Black people. The police killings of Mexican-origin people often do not generate the same kind of attention as examples from the African American community. This might lead observers to think that Mexicans and Mexican Americans do not have policing histories that other ethnic groups do. Yet, Mexican-origin people have historically experienced abusive law enforcement through, as Behnken's book shows, both legally codified police agencies and extralegal justice. This book begins the conversation toward understanding this very long history as understanding is a first, necessary step for beginning the process of fixing the problems we see today.

There are relatively few histories of Mexican Americans and law enforcement. Most of them tend to focus on well-known events, for example the Zoot Suit Riots of World War II, and thus these works have a narrow chronology. By offering a broad chronology, Behnken could tie many events together over time. For example, there are accounts of groups such as the Texas Rangers or the New Mexico Mounted Police in the 1800s, but nothing that discusses the history of New Mexico and Texas together. There are accounts about the lynching of Mexican-origin people but very little about the connections between those lynchings and law enforcement, even as data shows that predominately White people viewed extralegal justice as a legitimate form of justice. A broad chronology let’s all these individual instances sit next to each other for a fuller picture of law enforcement and the experiences of Mexican-origin people.

While conducting research in Texas, Behnken came across the unpublished autobiography of Jesse Sumpter, written in 1902. Sumpter recalled the gruesome lynching of an unnamed Mexican man for murder and kidnapping. The case exemplifies a lot of what is in the book: law enforcement and extralegal justice, Mexican/Mexican American agency, and a very public spectacle lynching, which usually only befell Black people. The unnamed Mexican man was apprehended by law enforcement but then turned over to a mob. The actual lynching involved brutal torture and terrorism. Mexican-origin people observed the lynching, which did not sit well with them. One of the lynchers, Robert Owens, later visited Mexico and bragged about the killing. A group of Mexicans beat him and shot at him as he attempted to flee across the Río Bravo/Grande. When he attempted to swim to a ferry skiff, Mexicans on the bank of the river yelled to the skiff operator "mátalo" or "kill him." The Mexican ferry skipper hit Owens with his oar and his body sank under the water. When Owen's family asked to reclaim the body, they were told to "come and take the dog away."

The support from CEAH was instrumental in the development of Behnken’s book and his career trajectory. The CEAH research grant funding allowed Behnken to spend short periods of time in each of the Texas cities to conduct the research he needed while also accommodating his need to not be away from his young family for too long. For example, he could fly into Dallas for a week and then return home knowing that he had funding remaining that would allow him to visit San Antonio later in the semester. The CEAH research grant also assisted with Behnken’s faculty career advancement to be promoted to Associate Professor with tenure. In addition to the great amount of research Behnken has done on this topic, he began to receive invitations to present his findings at a host of venues including at a major symposium at Rice University . These presentation opportunities have led to further publications and collaborations.

Behnken originally conceived of this project as a single book. However after conducting the research he is already at work on a sequel to Borders of Violence and Justice to be titled Brown and Blue: Mexican Americans, Law Enforcement, and Civil Rights, 1935-Today. He hopes it will be published in a few years.