Staying Awake and Aware in a World of Theatrical Politics

Joseph Winkler
Jan 5, 2015 · 6 min read
A famous image that helped garner empathy for the Civil Rights Movement.

In a way that feels depressingly American, the scourge of police brutality, militarization, corruption and racism, the horror of black bodies lying murdered on the ground has transformed into a battle of symbols and pageantry. NYPD logos now emerge on hats and shop posters like flags after 9/11, pledging devotion to some amorphous notion (this current Police administration, some ideal of crime fighting, the institution, its history, or maybe just the murdered officers?). The pageantry revolves around the childish but powerful symbols of backs turned during funerals, a show of power in packs dismissing the power at the podium.

Now, instead of focusing on the long uninterrupted history of police brutality against the black community, instead of using this history to explore the wide roots of racism in this country, we focus solely on a battle of egos, a petty inner institutional war between powerful White men. This somehow forces us into a strange either/or situation where we must pledge allegiance to the NYPD or stand outside its protection. (Whenever you feel forced to take sides in a multi-faceted, complex question, then you’ve found yourself in the realm of manipulation.) All of which feels very much besides the point.

It’s easy to see the actions of the cops as immature, and surely there’s truth in that. The whole notion of back turning at public gatherings feels high-schoolish to me, indulging in empty displays of rebellion in no way commensurate to the reality of the situation. Their theatrics actually turns De Blasio into a hero here, though his political actions do not warrant that title. Such is the rewards of theatrical politics. But more than that it is also surely a highly manipulative diversionary tactic.

The police themselves, feeling criticism for their history and methodology of brutality attempt to change the tenor and nature of the conversation. It’s a brilliant, underhanded move. Instead of trying to reform the clear and long history of brutalization of the black community, which the department has never done, it turns the conversation away from the victims of police brutality and makes it Us. vs. Them, a clash between City Hall and Police Plaza. It brings the conversation back to safe territory for institutionalized power, a power constantly fighting a costly and extensive PR campaign on just this point.

More insidiously, to make it us vs. them reinforces the police institution’s misguided notion that they exist separate from society, outside, on the outskirts, or insulated in their own necessarily militarized world so as to protect us. Allowing this to descend into an us vs. them distorts the nature of police as civil servants, as paid and given the right to use deadly force because, we the people, so desire. All of which to say that the police are talented manipulators of image, evaders of responsibility, and managers of violence. Consequently, caring about their back turning, focusing on that, on their slights to our mayor (how could they!) works into their hands, in a way that feels all too easy to indulge. They control too much to let them control this narrative as well.

In that vein, the job of an engaged citizen entails not falling for this distraction. We need constant focus on the ground, on the grassroots, on the growing list of names of those killed by the police, not on power plays by the higher ups. For race in today’s society is not solely a problem of brutalization, even if this substantiation might focus on this horror. Racism, in this peculiarly American style, reaches way further down than the police. We cannot afford to get mired in these mirages. Most problematically, these types of diversionary tactics reinforce the mythological thinking that runs through our notions of the police, of many of our political and social institutions.

Yet, before we attempt to dismantle the mythological thinking that gives power to the police, we can also learn something from their reactions, their fear and paranoia, their childish power plays. Shulamith Firestone, once dubbed a radical feminist, now just a prescient one, explained that often those with real power first perceive the true extent of demands for justice. Demands for justice, they realize, are never about one case or a simple reform, but calls for revolution, if allowed to grow.

Shulamith Firestone, author of the Dialectics of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution

Firestone offered this analysis for the heavy backlash against early feminist demands, but the analysis applies here as well:

The first stirrings of this oppressed class, the first simple demands for justice, were met by a disproportionate violence, a resistance difficult to understand today when the lines of sexual class have been blurred over. For, as often happens, the revolutionary potential of the first awakening was recognized more clearly by those in power than it was by the crusaders themselves.

Which is to say that those turning their back, in this interpretation, might display less of an immaturity and more a sensitivity to the nature of the protest. They realize that to demand reformation requires a revolution in policing, in our understanding of society, not just cosmetic surgery that would blot out the exceptional cases of racism. Police rightly see an inherent attack toward the nature of their power, a power built on racial, patriarchal, and mythic assumptions about crime, evil, and heroism. Though also an issue of brutality, it is necessarily also an issue of power, and its allocation. To fight against police brutality is to fight against the way decisions get made, the nature of our very top down government, the way government protects those in power and demeans the powerless. To that end, our notions of goals, of the desired justice, emerge in conversation, often now in conflict with the police. In an ironic twist, the convulsions of power by the petulant police, their diversionary tactics, teaches us what we truly need, what we ought to demand.

I hope to explore the mythological thinking surrounding our relationship to the police in the next post. But to put it succinctly, most, if not all of what we think about the police, what we think we know and feel toward the police stems from cultural memories of TV, movies, and from an entertainment industry obsessed with the supposedly ever-interesting character of a policeman and his as interesting nemesis, the criminal. Most people know next to nothing about the work of policing, and that gap is reinforced by the famous silence of the police, which allows mythology to fill the vacuum of public knowledge. But more on this next time. For now, it helps to remember the names — Dontre Hamilton, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Antonio Martin, Michael Brown, Akai Gurley…

Joseph Winkler

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Writer, reader, tutor, babysitter, obsessive cultural consumer. Eater of way too much diner food.

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