Politics, again, for those that want fair warning. It’s what happens when you write a weekly thing, you use the stuff that’s on your mind. Well, this is what’s on my mind, I’m afraid. Buckle up.
I missed last week because trying to write anything coherent was beyond me. The news was too awful and hitting too close to home. Friends and former students out in the streets, angry and afraid.
Afraid of the police.
This week isn’t any better, really. The cascade of police brutality reports from all over the country shows no sign of subsiding. The ugliness of the thin blue line, and of the rancid ideology behind it, has been aired in all its bloody foulness.
I have no authority to speak about what all this means for people of color. I’m a middle-aged WASP who grew up in Lake Oswego, Oregon, one of the whitest towns in a state that was originally founded as a white paradise. I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t even know about Oregon’s Black Exclusion laws (details here) until I was researching my novel a few years ago. It’s like fish who can’t see water; growing up, white privilege was so baked into my status quo that the only time I ever saw a black or brown person was on television. Never in person, not to talk to, not until I was in high school. They were just nowhere around.
So I am utterly unqualified to talk about what recent events mean for race and black culture. I will leave that to the people who have actual knowledge and experience to share about it.
What I want to talk about instead is how unnerving it has been to realize a childhood myth was a lie, it was always a lie, and I have been blind to the evidence of that lie even when it was right in front of me. Ever since…. well, at least since 1981 when the Burger Barn incident in north Portland erupted into a scandal.
Longer than that, if I’m honest. When I was a kid I saw the television news about Kent State, Daley and the Chicago riots, all of that stuff. The Portland one was just the first one that made my radar at home, it happened where I lived. That was when it got real.
Except it didn’t. Not for me.
No, I have remained embarrassingly, blissfully ignorant of the pervasiveness of police misconduct despite a staggering amount of evidence right in plain sight. I’ve seen cops macing unarmed protestors at WTO. I’ve seen black citizens–some children– killed by mistake. I’ve seen a credentialed reporter–AFTER she identified herself–blinded by a ‘non-lethal’ rubber bullet, and a minor child gassed in the face, both within the last week. That’s just what I noticed, the things that made the news.
All of this comes without any kind of real consequences to either the individuals or the institution. In the infrequent cases after the cops that committed such acts are suspended or disciplined (but almost never fired or charged with a crime) I’ve seen cops protesting even those minor disciplinary actions. Even though it’s already weaksauce punishment for clearly out-of-control brutality against unarmed citizens, acts of malice that should be treated as felonies– and would be, if the perpetrators weren’t in uniform. Here’s an unconscious senior citizen lying on the ground bleeding out his ear after cops shoved him to the pavement. Look at all the concern he’s being shown from those who protect and serve.
And yet, despite all of this, this last week watching the news, my primary reaction is still, when you scrape the paint off, one of baffled disbelief. All I can think is But…they can’t be doing this. They’re cops.
That thought, the paralyzing it-can’t-be-real bafflement, keeps repeating on a loop. I’m still trying to get my mind around the basic fact that’s right in front of me and all the rest of us living here in the bubble, the one black and brown kids know from kindergarten: this is how police act.
Those of you reading this who did not grow up in the white bubble of privilege that I did are probably already shaking their heads and chuckling, oh you poor naive fool. I know. It’s been right in front of me my whole life. I admit it. But hear me out.
See, I’m not talking about the idea that bad cops exist. Of course they do. We all knew that. No, the wake-up call that white America is getting now is that bad cops are the majority. And for those of us that bought into the myth of the Good Cop That Is Holding The Line Against CRIME, it’s disturbing in a really fundamental way.
Because in my heart, I always believed the police were the good guys. That’s the default. Period.
Corruption here and there, sure, but always in the past tense. It’s not the sixties any more, or even Portland in the 1980s. Whenever the media got hold of a story about bad cops, it was always about them getting caught. I figured those guys are gone, they got suspended or fired or whatever. Good riddance. Moving on. But my interior default position, one I wasn’t even really aware I had until the riots erupted nationwide this last week, was that most policemen are good people working at a thankless job.
Here’s the thing. I didn’t get that from experience with real police. I don’t have any of that to speak of. My experience talking to real policemen, all told, probably adds up to less than two hours total over the course of the fifty-nine years I’ve been on the planet. A couple of traffic tickets, a burglary report, a school visit or two.
No, my internal conception of “policeman” comes from a totally different place. I got it from movies and comics and books and, especially, TV. From Dick Tracy to The Rookies to the men of the 87th Precinct, I internalized that concept to a degree I wasn’t even consciously aware of.
And honestly? This is primarily how most middle-class white folks like me have experienced cops. That power of that myth is what progressive reform activists are up against. When we are accused of wilful blindness to the issues of racism and police corruption, living inside a bubble of white privilege, and so on and so on, that is what they are trying to explain to us. Because we really think it’s like what Joe Friday says here….
Watching that clip again while writing this, I can feel my brain saying, well, he’s not wrong, he’s not GLAMORIZING it. And he’s not.
Except for the part where he kind of is. At no point ever is Friday’s description not heroic. It’s just a heroism that will never be celebrated or rewarded. And also at no point, ever, does he mention the personal power that comes with being a policeman as anything other than a burden. When the ugly truth is that there is an enormous amount of power that goes with being a cop and it’s largely unchecked. Remember this one? Unlawful Entry.
For those that don’t, it’s a nice little horror movie about a cop turned stalker. The horror is derived from how utterly helpless and without recourse Kurt Russell is to do anything about it…because the stalker is a cop.
The uncomfortable truth is that Ray Liotta in Unlawful Entry is a lot more plausible than Joe Friday.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love Dragnet, and it annoys me no end that so many right-wingers have made Friday a mascot for their ideals. One of these days I’m going to get around to the column about how Captain James Kirk is really a fascist and Joe Friday’s really a more of a thoughtful liberal, and how weird it is that those characterizations got reversed in the public mind. Here is possibly my favorite Joe Friday moment.
If Joe Friday were the actual current pop culture ideal of a policeman, I’d be totally okay with that. He’s absolutely a policeman I’d be okay with stopping me or anyone I know, white or black. But he’s not. Weary, plodding Joe Friday is not the ideal.
No, when devotees of crime fiction talk about cool cops, the ones they like seeing stories about, they are FAR more likely to be talking about someone like Dirty Harry Callahan or Martin Riggs. A guy who’s not afraid to go rogue and get shit done, someone who doesn’t have time for red tape. Someone badass.
I’m certainly not immune to this. I grew up on Starsky and Hutch and The Mod Squad, both shows about police officers who weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty and lie to their superiors in order to serve the greater good. Over the last month or so Julie and I have been watching reruns of CSI: Miami and we love it when Horatio Caine “goes full Batman” on bad guys, as Julie puts it.
Miranda? Are you kidding? Due process is for sissies. It’s not cool.
Most of the time, accepted procedure is something to get around. Like, say, here in 48 Hrs. Note that Nolte’s superior in this scene, who is right about everything he said here by the way, is meant to be seen as an obstacle to the real work of catching a criminal, and prejudiced besides.
It’s a very short walk from Nick Nolte’s character in 48 Hrs. to this officer beating the shit out of an unarmed man until his partner finally pulls him off. From Baltimore in 2018.
Joe Friday would NOT approve. But I suspect Dirty Harry and Martin Riggs and even Harry Bosch would excuse it. Heat of the moment. It happens. Whatever.
Look, I love all these badass fictional cops. I am not trying to make the case that popular culture CAUSES police violence, any more than I think violent video games cause kids to become murderers.
But I do think that popular culture frames our narrative. I think that, right or wrong, the fact is that our conception of people in professions we know nothing about –whether it’s cops or firemen or doctors or whoever– doesn’t come from real life. It comes from fiction. Popular fiction.
Even the good ones– efforts like Blue Bloods or Cop Land or any of another dozen examples I could name that have their hearts in the right place– are still taking the same position that I’ve blindly held all my life. That the cops are the good guys by default, and the few bad ones are an occasional aberration that has to be rooted out. Period.
That’s just not so. There’s overwhelming evidence that the bad ones are not some aberration. We keep getting told it’s systemic, it’s the culture that has to change.
That’s all true. But in the end, it comes down to this: Bad cops act brutally because we enable them. We enable them because we assume Right Is On Their Side. We assume that because we’ve been told that since we were old enough to consume entertainment.
But how do we decide what’s right? Who gets to decide? Even Dirty Harry has qualms about it.
I don’t have any answers either. But I think it has to start by letting go of the cherished fiction and accept the reality that’s bleeding all over the pavement in front of us. Then, at least, we’re not complicit in passively enabling a system that’s been empowering bad actors for over a century.
Back next week with something cool. And, one hopes, a little more optimistic, because I’m sure not feeling it right now.