LAPD Blocked Dust Bowl Migrants at State Borders
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.
From Sacramento came the deputy attorney general’s judgment that the patrol was illegal. But California’s Republican governor, Frank Merriam, disagreed, saying it was “up to them [Los Angeles officials] if they can get away with it.”
The beginning of the end came when some of the wrong “bums” were turned away -- including at least one celebrity. Hollywood film director John Langan, whose hobby was mining in Arizona, tried to come home wearing his dirty work clothes. When the LAPD refused to let him back into the state, he sued Davis and the department.
Davis sent his right-hand man, LAPD Lt. Earle Kynette, to forcibly persuade the director to drop the suit. (Kynette would later be sent to San Quentin for planting a bomb to discourage an investigation into a different matter.) Fearing for his family, Langan dropped his suit.
But it was already too late for the chief; the suit had generated too much negative publicity. By early April, just two months after the blockade began, Davis called his men home -- but not without trying to salvage the situation. He claimed that some 11,000 people had been turned away from Feb. 3 to March 31, causing an “absence of a seasonal crime wave in Los Angeles.”
To most civic and business leaders, Davis was a hero. The Times favorably compared him to England’s 16th century Queen Elizabeth, who “launched the first war on bums.”
Davis kept up his crusade at home, continuing the special “flying squadron” raids, which he credited with reducing purse-snatchings and thievery by 25%.
Later that year, Davis asked LAPD Capt. Bernard Caldwell to write a report on the “effects of the invasion.” Caldwell did, using data from the Chamber of Commerce and the tax rolls and interviewing officers who had been deployed at the border. To Davis’ surprise, Caldwell’s research demonstrated that the “Okies” were mostly religious, hard-working agricultural laborers with families who, because their jobs were seasonal, used government relief checks to help keep food on the table and a roof over their heads.
Despite the bitterness of 1936, during the early years of the Depression, pity wasn’t in such short supply. Shantytowns filled with Dust Bowl refugees sprouted in such areas as the Arroyo Seco, San Gabriel Canyon and Terminal Island -- many of them dubbed Hooverville because residents blamed then-President Herbert Hoover for their plight.
Ellen Osterbauer of Downey was only 3 in 1931 when her family lived for five months in a Hooverville near Firestone Boulevard and Alameda Street. The five-acre site had neither toilets nor electricity, but was one of Los Angeles’ largest homeless camps, with 700 residents.
“We were the only ones who lived in a wooden house that my father built out of used doors,” she said. “Everyone else lived in cardboard and tar-paper houses, old trucks, buses and tents.”
Their dwelling was called “the hospital,” not because they treated the ill but because one of the doors bore that word.
“For years we were so embarrassed [about living in the camp that] we never talked about it outside the family,” Osterbauer recalled in a recent interview.
But the dire situation brought out the best in many people. “Everyone shared with everyone else,” she said. “A gas station let us use their faucet. The Salvation Army dropped off food and clothing, and evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson ran a soup kitchen nearby.”
A Japanese farmer hired Hooverville boys to work in the fields in exchange for vegetables, and neighbors left toys anonymously at Christmas.
That Hooverville survived more than a year, until the county tore it down for health reasons in 1932.
Both of Osterbauer’s parents landed good jobs, bought a house and achieved economic respectability. But the empathy she learned stays with her today.
“I hear people say today, ‘Why don’t the homeless get a job?’ ” she said.
“Well, it’s important for people to know that the homeless don’t enjoy being homeless. You can’t always know someone else’s circumstances.”
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.