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A Primary Source Shows the Connection Between 1920s Flappers and Social Media Youth Organizers Today

In the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd, there were heavily contested debates about police reform. Sadly, those debates subsided after the trial and conviction of the police officer who was mainly responsible for Floyd’s death. However, after President Biden’s State of the Union address and the increase in mass shootings, there has been a resurgence in the dialogue concerning policing. While some advocates of defunding the police legitimately seek to abolish the police, most of them are using “defund” as a shorthand way of saying that some funds must be reallocated to social services and restorative justice initiatives. While the concept of social work as crime prevention is widely understood to date back to the late 19th century settlement house movement, it has also had some unexpected advocates. These include a number of flapper intelligentsia.

While flappers and intelligentsia are rarely mentioned in the same sentence, as the word flapper is normally associated with youthful (and stereotypically female) frivolity, that perception could and should be challenged. In contemporary society, one could substitute social media influencers for flappers.

Born out of the nadir of the First Wave of Feminism, flappers were a natural result of women earning certain social freedoms, including the right to vote, with the increase of leisure time and extended youth that came out of the Industrial Revolution. A well-known example of a flapper is Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby. For movie-goers, either Mia Farrow’s (1974) or Carey Mulligan’s (2013) portrayal of her is an accurate stereotypical depiction of the flapper. The Great Gatsby’s other female protagonist, Jordan Baker, represents another often-overlooked feminist, the sporty flapper, which a contemporary magazine called Experience, aimed at an audience of flappers, also heavily reported and promoted. While flappers like Daisy would have been common, evidence suggests that some were wiser, more serious, and more interested in community solutions than their elders might give them credit for—the following is one small example of why.

Tucked within the pages of Experience is an article about police reform. Often referred by critics as a fashion magazine,  in 1923 Experience published an article titled “Turn the Police into Social Workers.” The article’s author boldly declares in the opening lines: “Turn the Policeman into a philosopher! Replace the club with the admonishing finger! Make the star a symbol of protection rather than persecution!” Some may ask, “why would these flappers care about youth crime?” Who do you think some of these forces were targeting, but the brothers, boyfriends, and the everyday acquaintances of these “frivolous” flappers?

The article continues with a quote by Chicago Police Sargent Thomas Ryan saying that we should make the “policeman a salesman for crime prevention, and you will keep 85 percent of the wayward youths from committing felonies, you will save millions of dollars to taxpayers, and you will also save parents from the agony of suffering, especially the poor mothers, who have to work to support the younger children.”

While policing was an issue then, the role of the police has only expanded. Spending on municipal police departments has nearly tripled since the 1970s, while spending on social programs clearly has not, meaning that police officers often fill those gaps too. In fact, according to the Washington Post, more than 1 in 5 people who died at the hands of police have some form of mental health issues. A prescient sense of how to prevent this tragedy can be found in this relatively small two-page article written by some “inconsequential” flappers.

Most of the article is an interview that Sargent Ryan had with Experience. He notes that youth under twenty-one are the people in most trouble and refers to it as the “danger period,” but the term “formative years” could also work. After introducing Ryan, the article tells a few anecdotes about encounters between the police and mostly young adult males that resulted “in reducing jail congestion.” The strategy Ryan presented is simple: first, get the person to be “in a listening attitude, then in a receptive mood, and finally in a position where he acts on conviction” and avoids youthful indiscretions. Sargent Ryan goes on to say that “there is no joy that can come to a policeman on the beat greater than that arising from the consciousness that has helped a neglected youth to grow up into a good citizen.” Kindlier and gentler policing is often brought up in the debate, making this quote ring true for today’s efforts.

The article then details how Ryan was a troubled orphan who now devotes himself to the construction of a “Crime Prevention Bureau” to help the “average wayward boy.” Through guidance, states Ryan, troubled youth will learn that “labor, suffering, and trouble stir the depths of our being and bring out that which is best in us. Afflictions teach us that which we never before understood.” While this is a bit of an overstatement and maybe even wishful thinking, it does show some common American ideals. Ryan then suggests that these ideals were never taught to these youths, because they was not taught to their parents; in essence, he is describing a poverty cycle, and arguing that properly trained officers could fill this void.

The article concludes with Ryan calling for assistance from “women’s clubs, civic leaders, and organizations for social betterment” to involve the average citizen, the city council, and beyond. These recommendations carried more nuance than much of the contemporary discussion of policing and crime. Could this be a strategy for the future?

Some cities have tried similar strategies. In 2016, the Alexandria, Kentucky police department hired a social worker to assist the police in nonviolent calls and follow-ups. The town’s police chief, Lucas Cooper, argues that using social workers eases police work and stress load by reducing repeat calls. According to Cooper, social workers “bring a different skillset to the table,” which helps to “fill in a lot of gaps.” It also seems logical that if police officers are less stressed, the frequency of accidental shootings should go down.

A multifaceted approach to solving issues that could prevent future criminal activity will always be more effective than a one size fits all approach that is often suggested by policy makers and politicians alike.

So why would flappers care so much about this issue? Just as today, youths are the ones that frequently take the brunt of societal issues, and young males (often minority) take the largest hit when it comes to policing. Flappers then, and contemporary youths, often get discredited by society. The parallels between these youth, and their ideas, with current social media influencers, political protesters, and other activists, is uncanny. A major lesson could be learned: older generation of political leaders should not dismiss the wisdom and knowledge within youth communities. It is often their “inexperience” that allows them to come up with outside solutions to solve issues that have been plaguing society for generations.

With that in mind, what the flappers reported in their magazine can give us further insight while moving forward.  We would benefit by emulating the flappers in the “frivolity” of protecting our youth.  While partnerships between social workers and police officers may be a controversial subject, it is worthwhile to explore the potential benefits.

Maybe just as important to the lovers of history is how this brief magazine article as a primary document demonstrates something important about society and how the past has lessons for today.