How the “Stranger Danger” Panic of the 1980s Helped Give Rise to Mass Incarceration

[jacobinmag.com – 5/18/20]

The missing-child panic began with Etan Patz. Plenty of kids had gone missing before, but Etan’s case seemed specially designed to provoke a mass hysteria. In 1979, the six-year-old boy’s mother arranged for him to walk to the school bus stop on his own. She watched him depart from her Manhattan fire escape. Another mother was waiting two blocks away in an apartment overlooking the bus stop site, but Etan never arrived.

The tragedy was and remains impossible to comprehend. His first time walking to the bus stop? Two blocks away? With adults looking out for him? It meant something. There were powerful forces capable of unfathomable violence — forces previously undetected, possibly swiftly advancing, perhaps already everywhere — from which nobody was safe.

High-quality photographs of Etan taken by his father, a professional photographer, blanketed the city and the national news media for months, which stretched into years. Fear began to mount, and eventually all were afraid. Children’s faces, including but hardly limited to Etan’s, began appearing on milk cartons. In 1982, CBS Evening News informed rapt and terrified adults that up to fifty thousand American children were being kidnapped by strangers every year.

“These figures were wildly inflated, as journalists, social scientists, and government officials had made clear by the mid-1980s,” writes Paul Renfro in his new book Stranger Danger: Family Values, Childhood, and the American Carceral State. But it didn’t matter. Panic had clenched the nation’s psyche, and its grip was tightening.

Renfro situates the response to Etan Patz’s disappearance in the context of 1970s New York. As “deindustrialization battered New York City with an enduring intensity” and “some two million white New Yorkers bolted for the suburbs,” the city was left in crisis. The social chaos that resulted — which was exaggerated, as Renfro points out, but did include rising crime — demanded a response of some kind. That response could have been an expanded welfare state. Instead, it was austerity and a bulked-up policing and carceral apparatus.

It’s no coincidence that the nation’s missing child or “stranger danger” panic originated in a city that much of the nation had already come to regard as the epicenter of dangerous strangers — and a city that had already begun to lay the groundwork to respond with more police and prisons. The link between mass incarceration and violence against children was there from the beginning of the stranger danger panic, foreshadowing what would transpire in the decades to come.

Read the full article

 

Related posts

Subscribe
Notify of

We welcome a lively discussion with all view points - keeping in mind...

 

  1. Your submission will be reviewed by one of our volunteer moderators. Moderating decisions may be subjective.
  2. Please keep the tone of your comment civil and courteous. This is a public forum.
  3. Swear words should be starred out such as f*k and s*t and a**
  4. Please avoid the use of derogatory labels.  Use person-first language.
  5. Please stay on topic - both in terms of the organization in general and this post in particular.
  6. Please refrain from general political statements in (dis)favor of one of the major parties or their representatives.
  7. Please take personal conversations off this forum.
  8. We will not publish any comments advocating for violent or any illegal action.
  9. We cannot connect participants privately - feel free to leave your contact info here. You may want to create a new / free, readily available email address that are not personally identifiable.
  10. Please refrain from copying and pasting repetitive and lengthy amounts of text.
  11. Please do not post in all Caps.
  12. If you wish to link to a serious and relevant media article, legitimate advocacy group or other pertinent web site / document, please provide the full link. No abbreviated / obfuscated links. Posts that include a URL may take considerably longer to be approved.
  13. We suggest to compose lengthy comments in a desktop text editor and copy and paste them into the comment form
  14. We will not publish any posts containing any names not mentioned in the original article.
  15. Please choose a short user name that does not contain links to other web sites or identify real people.  Do not use your real name.
  16. Please do not solicit funds
  17. No discussions about weapons
  18. If you use any abbreviation such as Failure To Register (FTR), Person Forced to Register (PFR) or any others, the first time you use it in a thread, please expand it for new people to better understand.
  19. All commenters are required to provide a real email address where we can contact them.  It will not be displayed on the site.
  20. Please send any input regarding moderation or other website issues via email to moderator [at] all4consolaws [dot] org
  21. We no longer post articles about arrests or accusations, only selected convictions. If your comment contains a link to an arrest or accusation article we will not approve your comment.
  22. If addressing another commenter, please address them by exactly their full display name, do not modify their name. 
ACSOL, including but not limited to its board members and agents, does not provide legal advice on this website.  In addition, ACSOL warns that those who provide comments on this website may or may not be legal professionals on whose advice one can reasonably rely.  
 

5 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

And predictably the “milk carton” gave way to Amber alerts and the witch hunting of everyone with a sex crime.

The huge take-away is, America has become a nation of reactionary cowards that want to protect children at all costs, but there is always a cost. It gave rise to the terms “helicopter parenting,” “creeper” and “pedophile.” So we’ve morphed into a culture that is paranoid and suspicious of not only strangers, but even close friends and family members without allegations. That fear and paranoia is handed down and nurtured just like racism is.

Living in today’s hyper-vigilant and easily-offended society is an assault on common sense and sanity.

To a CSI-programmed public the panic is believable. Eventually the names don’t matter so much as the “movement”. A movement emboldened by the propaganda they feed to each other and to themselves.

Who doesn’t want to “save the children”?

Who doesn’t want to “support victims”?

Now if they were REALLY honest they’d ask who doesn’t want to “undermine and demolish our constitution”. Nobody cared before that that’s what they were being led down to the slaughthouse for.

Until it happened to YOU.

It’s worth noting that, when Etan Patz’s killer was finally revealed decades later, he was not a “pedophile” but a bodega clerk with psychosis who worked down the street from the Patz apartment. So, all of those years that the message was being hammered-home to hate and fear “pedophiles” the truth was something very different. None of that misapprehension of risk, however, has been corrected. It’s still “the pedophile” who is seen as the greatest risk to children even while parents continue to murder their own children in numbers hundreds of times greater than any strangers. Ask anyone about “child abuse” today and they will reliably assume that you mean sexual abuse and not physical or emotional abuse or neglect. The children’s rights movement got hijacked by obsessives and cranks decades ago for the purpose of stoking paranoia, limiting the freedom of kids and providing cover to actual – not mythical – abusers.