The Golden Fortress: California’s Border War on Dust Bowl Refugees by Bill Lascher

Review by Brian Tanguay

It’s tempting to think of history as a succession of recurring events and to look to the past to foretell what might happen in the future. As the cliche goes, the past is prologue. Perhaps, but history meanders more than it moves in a straight line. Still, understanding how people and institutions coped with the challenges they faced is one reason to study the past. Humans have confronted war, famine, pestilence, flood, drought, and migration for millennia, and so it goes in our time. As Bill Lascher writes in his fine book, The Golden Fortress: California’s Border War on Dust Bowl Refugees, “the present is a fabric woven with the past’s threads.” 

Among Americans of a certain age, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is probably the best known narrative of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression of the early 1930’s. The experience of the Joad family, in the novel and later in the movie adaptation starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, vividly represents the hardship and hostility faced by people Bill Lascher refers to as America’s first climate refugees. Dorothea Lange’s haunting black and white photographs of migrant families are another well known window on the era. Lange’s photographs captured the despair, poverty and humanity of the migrants. As we see today in many parts of the world, desperate people will take enormous risks to provide the basic necessities of life — food, water, shelter, clothing, work, physical safety — for themselves and their families. Resistance to migrants is predictable, and some people and institutions will feel threatened and resist the influx with all the legal and cultural resources available to them, including demagoguery. Opportunists amplify fears of crime, disease, and disorder to exploit the situation for their own political or economic ends. 

James Edgar Davis was one such opportunist. A rigid, authoritarian and rather nondescript man, Davis ran the Los Angeles Police Department from 1926 to 1929 and from 1933 to 1938. With the backing of the powerful Chamber of Commerce and the publisher of the Los Angeles Times, Davis took every opportunity to raise the alarm about migrants and vagrants, characterizing them as potential criminals and public charges, as well as subversives in the service of communists and radicals. In the 1930’s the “Red Scare” was alive and imminent, a ready justification for heavy-handed policing and attacks on labor unions. Davis, whose moniker was “Two-Gun Davis,” aligned himself with LA social clubs like Americans Incorporated, which advocated policies such as “patriotic” education in public schools. 

Lascher’s narrative follows two related tracks, one that follows Davis’ machinations and the other the impact of the blockade on residents of Modoc County. What Chief Davis did was deploy cadres of LAPD officers to counties hundreds of miles away, at strategic points on California’s northern, eastern and southern borders; the mission of this audacious and extra-jurisdictional force was to stop, detain, interrogate, fingerprint and turn around any person who looked like a vagrant or potential vagrant. It was an early iteration of “stop and frisk,” and no less arbitrary, subjective and prone to blatant violations of basic civil rights. Some residents of Modoc County may have appreciated the intent of the big city cops from down south, but heavy-handed tactics didn’t sit comfortably with the local sheriff and others. Nobody wants to be dictated to by someone with little to no understanding of local customs or on the basis of dubious legal authority. Tension developed between the sheriff and Chief Davis, but the sheriff also had difficulty with a small but vocal group of his own constituents who backed efforts to keep undesirables out of California. Lascher brings this tension to life and shows how it roiled a small, rural community.

Appeals to law and order are powerful, as The Golden Fortress ably illuminates. The specter of authoritarianism rises in response to perceived threats from “others,” be they migrants from beyond a border or those within who are seen as undeserving or un-American. While history may not repeat itself in every detail, even a cursory examination of our current social fabric reveals the threads of the past. In the 1930’s it was Dust Bowl migrants and communists who inspired fear and anxiety; in 2022, it’s caravans from Latin America, LGBTQ and Black Lives Matter advocates, homeless people, critical race theory and subversive books. Different times, similar tactics.

The LAPD blockade didn’t succeed or endure for long and the story has largely been forgotten. Until now. In re-examining this episode of California history, Bill Lascher reminds us that militarized policing and the criminalization of poverty is nothing new in the golden state.