News of police officers murdering Black civilians is on repeat, and so are TV shows like Law and Order and Cops (up until it was recently canceled). As Howard Bryant shows us in this passage from Full Dissidence, the glut of crime dramas is a form of propaganda that glorifies the police force and cosigns white supremacy. The Black community has known about the enforcement of whiteness in the name of of law all along.
America prefers to view itself as a civilized society and, as such, the latter is the obvious, proper, and decent response. Yet judging by its obsession with law enforcement, America acts as if the former is its natural order—that violent crime is but a bad mood away and only the shield, the Glock, and the squad car stand between life and senseless death at the hands of our neighbors. Americans cling to this contrived state of emergency despite decades of research confirming that killing as a primary instinct is extremely rare, a dystopian fantasy compared to the socioeconomic factors that drive people to violent crime. Despite a spike in mass shootings, the actual murder rate was roughly the same in 2018 as it was in 1960, according to crime statistics compiled by the New York Times. That most people have no desire to harm others is also, and should always be, unsurprising.
Where I live, a bumper sticker commonly seen around town reads “Troopers Are Your Best Protection.” It is a specious declaration at best, at worst a cynical attempt to advance the political and economic agendas that come with commodifying law enforcement and the criminal justice system. If data mean anything, prosperity and opportunity, not police, are one’s best protection—yet law enforcement in America is omnipresent. Police are a fixture of the national identity, central to its popular culture and, in post-9/11 America, under the guise of freedom and safety, are emboldened to only further increase their footprint. The land of the free feels occupied by the smothering, militarized presence of police. Police are encouraged—by media-manipulated juries, by a decades-long unaccountability, by supplicant, politicized judges, and, of course, by fear—to ignore or break the law while judges and legislatures endorse propolice, antidemocratic policies. All, presumably, to keep us safe. Though charged with completely different responsibilities, in order to further exploit the fear, police attempt to make themselves indistinguishable from the military, try to look like domestic agents in the War on Terror. As a public relations tactic they have taken a dangerous, divisive job and rebranded it under the reassuring, unimpeachable post-9 / 11 umbrella of a single, uncomplicated word: heroes.
The public receives these maneuverings with pride. An overpoliced America—in schools, on TV, in train stations, at ballparks—is not considered by the mainstream to be a chilling harbinger of authoritarianism but a source of strength. No other occupation in the country owns as wide a gap between its realities and its public packaging as law enforcement because quite possibly no other occupation owns such distance between its experiences with different slices of the public. For those who are white and middle-class, the police are part of the social fabric, an unquestioned ally. The image of the police diverges almost exclusively along racial and class lines. The white mainstream accepts an image of benevolence, fairness, and justice while those who are black, brown, and poor know firsthand that the police are possibly all of those things but also definitely can be brutal, oppressive, merciless, aggressive, and extralegal. As a defense against criticism and a ploy for bigger budgets and more presence, police departments around the country routinely sell more fear and maintain that ungrateful American citizens are at war with them. If it is true that no occupation in America enjoys as great a distance between fantasy and reality as law enforcement, it is also true that none has spent so much time and money constructing such an illusion of itself. Nor has any other benefited from the assistance of so many powerful enablers—in Hollywood, in the newsrooms, and now at the ballparks—who are invested in sustaining their illusion. There are, indeed, so many ways to tell a lie. Police propaganda may well be America’s favorite.
What, it must be wondered, is so valuable that these truths, fatal to virtually any other profession, are tolerated, protected, and justified when exposed regarding police? Nearly three thousand killings by police over a three-year period—several of unarmed citizens and captured on video—with a less than virtually nonexistent conviction rate of officers. Evidence that policemen are often aligned with white nationalist organizations. False confessions. Fraud. Illegal surveillance. Billions paid out in civil settlements. The National Center for Women and Policing reported in 2014 that 10 percent of American families experience domestic violence, but for police officers’ families, the number is two to four times higher, one of the highest rates in the nation, though given the issue’s national coverage a first guess would be that the highest rate involves black football players. Though steroids are largely associated with sports, there is a culture of anabolic steroid use among police, as documented in University of Texas professor John M. Hoberman’s searing book Dopers in Uniform.
This is the evidence, not conjecture or theory, of an institution facing enormous challenges, one in desperate need of reform and oversight. The reality repudiates the public relations. The transgressions, as widespread as they are disparate, explain at least in part the existence of the propaganda, for actual policework is neither clean nor often heroic. After an officer with the Cleveland Police Department killed twelve-year-old Tamir Rice within two seconds of encountering him in 2014, the department paid his family a $6 million settlement of taxpayer money (without admitting wrongdoing, of course) and then publicly and shamelessly said the family should donate the money to charity. Killing a child, then painting the survivors as greedy lottery winners, isn’t quite the appropriate selling point for Cleveland Indians Law Enforcement Appreciation Night.
In April 2019, USA Today reported that over the previous decade, eighty-five thousand police officers had been investigated or disciplined for misconduct. “Officers have beaten members of the public, planted evidence and used their badges to harass women,” the report read. “They have lied, stolen, dealt drugs, driven drunk and abused their spouses.” The report documented more than two thousand examples of “perjury, tampering with evidence or falsifying reports.” Twenty officers were the subject of at least one hundred allegations each but remained on the job.
It is not simply power that prevents the public and the corporate machine from challenging law enforcement. (The Catholic Church was an equally if not even more powerful institution and yet has not recovered from its breaking of the public trust and quite likely never will.) The critical difference, beyond the one-liners-and-ammo formula of Hollywood cop-buddy movies, beyond the Blue Lives Matter police union intimidation, and beyond all the post-9/11 hero talk, is what the idea of law enforcement means to white mainstream culture. Policing is the glue of whiteness. Like the white American identity, which has never reconciled with the bloody and murderous roots of its empire, the police propaganda smothering the culture asserts an inherent goodness. Police are good, even when they kill, even when they break or flout the law, even when they roll tanks into Ferguson or occupy minority communities dressed as if they are invading Aleppo, which makes their transgressions forgivable. The same is true of whiteness, when it first appeared on the shores of a brown nation, when it isolates and then displaces to gentrify, when it annexes land, appropriates resources, and colonizes and then leads humanitarian efforts. Its presence must always be concluded to be a positive one. The myth of police as essential to goodness and not to whiteness must be protected as vigilantly as one protects the flag. For if it is not, and law enforcement, justice and whiteness are coupled, as the black and the brown know they always have been, then neutrality crumbles. The government, the law, the Constitution, and the commitment to equality are no longer objective and they must then be seen as the black person sees them—as the enforcement arm of whiteness. Heroism falls apart. The entire idea must be reconstituted.
Conversely, if police allow themselves to be the enforcement arm of whiteness, then who is the natural target, the obvious threat? It is the nonwhite. Black people have found themselves the targets of a particular phenomenon: white people (white women primarily) across the country calling the police on them. Whether it’s a white woman calling police on a black female student napping in the Yale library, an employee calling police on two black friends awaiting another at a Starbucks in Philadelphia, or a white woman phoning police on a black family barbecuing in an Oakland park, the message is that black people do not belong in public spaces. When they are in public they are being watched not only by police but by average citizens who have chosen to aid in the policing. In 2019, a woman photographed a black Washington, DC, transit worker eating on the Metro, taking the time to tweet her bosses demanding the woman be disciplined.
Black presence suggests threat and becomes an unintended consequence of the War on Terror’s “If you see something, say something” mandate. Taking this slogan to its natural conclusion, if the public is enlisted as agents of the state, their actions will reflect their fears, and their fear is black people. If the public does not believe black people belong in common, everyday American spaces without tight monitoring, then black people, like the Boston Marathon bombers or ISIS sympathizers, become the threat. The police become the personal protectors of the white public. They will be asked and expected to remove black people from spaces that white people do not believe African Americans have a right to share.
Calling the police on black people is an extension of the public and police’s willingness to believe in black criminality, which has long been used by white perpetrators of heinous crime. In 1990, Charles Stuart infamously murdered his pregnant wife in Boston and blamed it on a black male. In 1995, Susan Smith drowned her two children and told police a black man killed her children after a carjacking. Two weeks before the 2008 election a twenty-year-old John McCain campaign volunteer named Ashley Todd claimed a black Obama supporter had attacked her and scratched the letter “B” into her face. In each case, law enforcement acted as the perpetrators had hoped, rounding up black suspects, quick to believe in black malfeasance as credible. Black people were used as the bait by the white perpetrators for one reason: they knew that at a first glance, and sometimes a first glance is all it takes, it would work. Existing while black.
Yet within this dynamic, when white people believe the law is designed to protect only them, and when they know they can act upon this belief at will, brazenly dialing 911 whenever they feel a black person has forgotten his or her place, the idea of white benevolence disintegrates as quickly as the neutrality of law enforcement. Whites can view themselves as both the conqueror and the asset that must be protected. Police are the occupiers, ready at a moment’s notice to enforce the will not of justice for all but of whiteness.
Without the pretense of fairness, the nostalgia of the self-made fantasy, of police pulling themselves up and out of the lower class through the virtue of aiding justice becomes, finally and inevitably, ridiculous. Police is so tied to whiteness because it was the pathway to the American dream. Law enforcement provided one of the earliest opportunities for so many whites, especially big-city Italians, Poles, and Irish, to rise from immigrant to American. The blue-collar police and fire departments represented their path to legitimacy, to assimilation, built their middle class. It is how the Irish graduated from disorderly to white to hero. It is how the Italians transformed from criminal to white to hero. Just as with the military, there is nostalgia in the dynastic qualities of law enforcement, of how the son followed the father who followed his father into the business, the myth of gallantry maintained, that a valuable and noble trek from the Old World to the New was being completed.
It is a story darkly revived in post-9/11 America, except the inherent goodness of police transformed from the old Officer Friendly archetype into that of vigilant superpatriot. The former offered the melting pot a chance that community belonged to all people. The latter is a snarling defense of whiteness, patriotism, and xenophobia so deeply embedded into the culture that law enforcement now is cultivated as a patriotic business partner with professional sports leagues. One must ask: If Colin Kaepernick had taken a knee for global warming or education reform, would his industry and his country have lashed out so ferociously, so permanently?
Telling a different tale—that the Irish and Italian cops in Boston and New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore (not to mention Chicago and San Francisco), joined the American middle class by beating niggers over the head, by maintaining economic dominance over them through graft, corruption, and prohibiting them from joining police and fire departments in large numbers, only to come home and beat their spouses—would not spawn many enthusiastic TV shows. If the heroes weren’t heroes, the nostalgic, self-made-immigrant story dissolves and the badge loses its appeal and becomes, as it has been for black people all along, something to fear.
About the Author
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN the Magazine and is a correspondent for NPR’s Weekend Edition. He has won several awards for his commentary writing. His books include The Heritage, Juicing the Game, and The Last Hero. He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts. Connect with him at howardbryantbooks.com and on Twitter (@hbryant42).