A Conversation with Bill Lascher

Bill Lascher is the author of Eve of a Hundred Midnights, an account set in the early days of World War II, and his journalism has appeared in a wide range of publications. His latest book, The Golden Fortress: California’s Border War on Dust Bowl Refugees, was reviewed by Brian Tanguay (a link to the review appears below). Brian recently caught up with Bill. The interview that follows has been edited for length and clarity.

BT: I’m curious to know how you got onto the story of the migrant blockade.

BL: In 2018, around the time of the midterm elections, I was looking into the history of pinball and the subculture around pinball, and thinking my next book might be on that subject. That research situated me in the 1930’s and early 1940’s. At the same time the news was full of stories about international migration, with really vitriolic and xenophobic rhetoric coming from the Trump administration. What actually pointed me to the blockade was discovering an account of the murder of a newspaper editor in Modoc County. That was a dramatic story and as I learned more it led me to the larger story of the blockade. The tone of the rhetoric of the time, with its fear of migrants from the Dust Bowl, mirrored in many respects what I was hearing in the media about building a border wall and migrant caravans.

BT: Despite its location in the remote northeastern part of California, Modoc County features prominently in the book. 

BL: That was one of the narrative choices I had to make. Communities closer to Los Angeles were equally impacted by the blockade and I could have focused on them, but Modoc offered several interesting elements. It’s a rural area, very near the Oregon border, with a long history of independence, suspicion of authority and resistance to outside intervention, and, as I found, some dramatic local characters. 

BT: Were you struck by the similarities between the openly authoritarian rhetoric of 1935 and today? 

BL: It continues to strike me. I’m still reading coverage about it and reflecting on it. My theory is that the people today who use vitriolic language to describe immigrants or migrants are still fighting the fights of the past. It seems to me that history rhymes more than it repeats. There’s a certain vindictiveness that is passed along from one generation to another, from Reagan when he served as Governor, to Nixon, and even Earl Warren before he became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. 

BT: A central character in the book is James Edgar Davis, the police chief of Los Angeles. Had you heard of him before? His theory of policing was quite militaristic. 

BL: I hadn’t. I wish I could have spent more research and narrative time on the relationship between Davis and some of the LA police chiefs that followed him. Davis was obsessed with guns and order, possibly as a result of his military background, but he was also dedicated to protecting the business status quo from people he deemed subversive. Davis waged war on vagrants and the poor in much the same tone that the drug war would be waged decades later. 

BT: Can you talk about the Greater Los Angeles Association and its Keep the White Spot White campaign?

BL: The Greater Los Angeles Association was formed in 1924 as a business alliance. Initially, the Keep the White Spot White campaign was about keeping the economy humming and free of strikes and agitation from labor, but when the Depression happened the focus shifted to vagrants and the unemployed. The subtext of that campaign was about keeping undesirable others, including blacks, Asians and Mexicans, out of the city. It’s a part of LA history that has been forgotten.