As uprisings ignite across the United States in response to decades of racist and biased policing that exacerbates an unjust social order, police departments are going on the offensive. To complement nationwide violent tactics of unnecessary and excessive force roundly condemned by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, police departments have adopted a more subtle charm offensive.
Reports of police kneeling with protesters, for instance, have surfaced in numerous precincts and cities around the U.S.: from Oakland and Santa Cruz to Central New Jersey, Saint Paul and Ferguson. These reports are typically accompanied by a photograph of the kneeling officer, whose head droops in an apparent show of solidarity with protesters. But what’s in these photographs? Images alone, as any photographer knows, rarely tell a full truth. The late Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography that “photographs are a way of imprisoning reality,” meaning, as she argues earlier in the book, “photographs cannot create a moral position, but they can reinforce one — and can help build a nascent one.” If we follow Sontag, it seems these images circulating through social media and cable news take a “moral position” often quite favorable to police: absolving police departments for the actions of their recalcitrant “few bad apples” (as many like to say). However, in multiple cases, activists and protesters have taken to Twitter to criticize these visuals of kneeling officers because when the cameras left, police redeployed in riot gear armed with tear gas canisters. In another case, police officers in Washington, D.C., dragged their colleague up to his feet after taking a knee in apparent solidarity with protesters.
The video of Ferguson Police Department officers kneeling raises similar red flags. Wasn’t this the same department that murdered the unarmed Michael Brown in 2014? That allowed a police dog to urinate on a teddy bear memorial for Brown before police ran a separate flower petal memorial over twice with squad cars? That bled the city’s residents dry and plundered municipal coffers to balance its budget? What’s the deal with the jarring incongruity? For a viewer, these facts raise a disturbing question about the “moral position” of the photographs of police kneeling: Was this all for optics?
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Choosing between the stick of harsh repression and the carrot of vacuous charm, police have long tried to play both sides. They hedge their bets: exploiting photo ops with a child in one locale (Houston) at the same time as they mace a child in the face in another (Seattle). Recent events, however, have betrayed the motives behind this double-dealing.
Law enforcement agencies, as a general rule, tend to care about aesthetics more than they let on: how they look, how they dress, what military-influenced rank they achieve, and how hard they work to make law enforcement seem “cool.” Some of this aesthetic inclination has its roots in trainings that international and domestic militaries offer to U.S. police departments. During these trainings, police often learn “crowd dispersal” techniques alongside counterinsurgency methods meant to quell military campaigns by enemy forces and to win “hearts and minds” in an occupied territory. In practice, counterinsurgency — whether police- or military-led — does not limit itself to artillery or sorties. Indeed, according to scholar-activists Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Craig Gilmore, “the most notable innovations in” urban policing models like Los Angeles’s Community Safety Partnership “directly incorporate up-to-date military counterinsurgency tactics”: co-opting women with high standing in communities and distributing desperately needed supplies to give policing a kinder, gentler sheen. All of this, Gilmore and Gilmore continue, is about mitigating “perceived bias” and shifting perceptions of biased police activity, not changing those biased activities themselves. Police seduce with the promise of “safety,” “security” and “aid” to the communities they serve but rarely make good on those promises. When brutal repression fails, which it so often does, a smiling Officer Friendly finds a latchkey to sneak through the back door of our “hearts and minds.”
This is textbook “cynical opportunism,” in the words of political scientist George Ciccariello-Maher. As activists and their allies shine an unflattering spotlight on the everyday brutalities of policing and as international human rights organizations condemn U.S. police, departments across the country desperately grope in the dark for any footage, images or stories that they can offer as window dressing. But as young people and centrists see the realities on social media and educate themselves about police, this turns out to be quite a significant and difficult-to-surmount problem for officers in the almost 18,000 departments across the U.S. And few know bad optics quite like the police do. Tear gassing unarmed protesters who are airing their decades-long grievances against policing is bad optics. The national pattern of police targeting medics at protests is bad optics. The spree of officers in New Mexico, Seattle, San Francisco and elsewhere kneeling on necks after law enforcement officials proclaimed the technique illegal is bad optics. It’s bad optics to push elderly men in Salt Lake City and in Buffalo to the ground, the latter of whom lay on the ground concussed as police stood by. It’s all terribly bad optics for police who are already trying to ham-fistedly restore their rapidly crumbling legitimacy. But in each of these cases, police seem unperturbed by the horrific and lawless hooliganism of their peers.
Hewing to this line of “optics,” police will themselves to see differently than the rest of us. This is particularly evident in how police view ongoing protests: What are they seeing? The President of the Minneapolis police union Bob Kroll, for one, has referred to the unarmed, prone George Floyd as a “violent criminal” and to protesters showing solidarity with his and countless others’ deaths as part of a “terrorist movement.” Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Chief Michael Moore, for another, blamed looters and Minnesota officers equally for Floyd’s death, even though looting began long after Floyd’s death: Floyd’s “death is on their [the looters’] hands, as much as it is those officers,” he stated. Since the object of policing is “order” — and not justice — this shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. In the eyes of the police, crowds of people — no matter how small or peaceful they may be — are disturbances “always about to explode” into violence and, therefore, ought to be crushed, as scholars David Correia and Tyler Wall write.
Long before these uprisings took off, some officers made their thoughts even clearer. In the Frontline documentary, “Policing the Police,” professor and journalist Jelani Cobb interviews James Stewart, who was, at the time of filming, the president of Newark’s largest police union: the Fraternal Order of Police. When Cobb came to a question regarding the “prospects for reform” in corrupt police departments, Stewart responds affirmatively but quickly pivots toward an analysis of “where the problem started.” As he sees it: “there is an animosity or a lack of trust” from community members. “You know,” he continues, “as soon as there’s any sort of physical force exerted by a police officer, everybody’s got their cellphones out. You know, they want to catch us doing something wrong.” It’s a telling admission: implying citizens merely want to “catch” police red-handed, rather than admitting that these videos could function as a way to hold police accountable when they so seldom are.
Earlier in the segment, dripping with woe, Stewart bemoans criticisms of police conduct: “Somewhere along the line we have become the bad guy. Everybody’s against us,” admitting his Newark Police Department is under federal oversight but failing to explain why. (As it turns out, it was because “a lengthy probe by the Department of Justice found Newark officers frequently used excessive force and made unconstitutional street stops, engaged in rampant property theft and acted with little oversight” as David Porter reports.) Police become victims of violence and harm in this tortured logic, even as all signs point to them being perpetrators. As Stewart testifies, police imagine themselves as the victims of a conspiracy of unwarranted hatred of police, when it’s only ever those proverbial few bad apples.
The “few bad apples” argument has been peddled day in and day out to again defend the indefensible: This time around, a white man in Minneapolis murdered an unarmed, subdued and compliant Black man by asphyxiation. This is a verified fact, as anyone who has seen the video of Floyd’s death can ascertain. But the Minneapolis Police Department has attempted to obfuscate this behind the medical language of an autopsy, which was used to protect officer Derek Chauvin by placing blame on Floyd for his own murder. (This victim-blaming follows in the footsteps of the LAPD, which, in response to a string of asphyxiation-related murders at the hands of officers in the 1970s and 1980s, blamed the Black body. Former Chief Daryl Gates in 1982 claimed that, “We may be finding that in some blacks when [the chokehold] is applied, the veins or arteries do not open up as fast as they do in normal people,” as The New York Times reported.) Time and again, police chiefs pluck rotten excuses out of thin air for those perennial “few bad apples” who somehow never seem to “spoil the barrel.”
Then there’s the problem of “the knee” itself. At its face, taking the knee is also an odd choice of showing solidarity with protesters, as it’s difficult to determine intentions: the knee taken against police brutality looks disturbingly similar to the knee that Chauvin selected as his weapon of choice in murdering George Floyd. There’s an unsettling irony here that police seem to not see.
In the media blitz surrounding protests, news outlets have been quite servile in pandering to police departments. Likewise, most police — and some news agencies for that matter — play down the reality that Floyd’s murder — the straw that broke the camel’s back — is only one of hundreds. Reporting from Oakland, California, offers a strong case study. In their often-obsequious reporting, outlets failed to remind viewers that in 2003, the “Oakland Police Department was placed under federal oversight for police misconduct and civil rights abuses,” as detailed in the Netflix documentary The Force. “They were mandated to reform the department,” and “after five chiefs, the reform process stalled and the department” was told it had to undergo major organizational shifts. That same year, the department paid $11 million in damages after more than 100 reports of misconduct, manufactured evidence, illegal arrest and iron-fisted enforcement swirled around a group of corrupt cops who called themselves the “Rough Riders.”
The long arm of federal oversight swooped in to ostensibly right these wrongs. Yet the Oakland Police Department (OPD) did not repent. While the department was under federal oversight, Oakland became known as what Ferguson is to many today: the epitome of racist policing. As “a legal advocate for victims of police abuse” told journalist Scott C. Johnson of Politico, Oakland’s Police Department “might just be ‘the worst department in the country.’”
Still untreated, the rot spread. After 13 years under federal oversight, the OPD was found to have tampered with evidence in a 2016 case of officer-led statutory rape and human trafficking, in which an underage girl (alias “Celeste Guap”) was trafficked and raped by OPD officers. The Department’s own 252-page heavily redacted report found “sufficient evidence to determine that Smith [an OPD officer] committed attempted forcible sodomy.” The four involved officers were fired, seven were suspended and one committed suicide; the thinnest semblance of justice was nowhere served. Today, one page of the City of Oakland’s website reassures visitors to its site that “the Oakland Police Department wants to help people who are being trafficked.” “We rescue the victims and arrest the traffickers,” they write. “We team up with advocacy groups so that victims can get help.” One wonders what “Celeste Guap” would make of a partnership like this. Or, for that matter, sex workers who are often targets of police violence and are harmed by so-called anti-trafficking laws that place them in increased danger.
In response to this kind of charm offensive, “The Only Solution” sociologist Alex S. Vitale writes in The Nation (and others have argued elsewhere), “Is to Defund the Police.” But stories like Guap’s raise the specter of co-optation and deracination, uprooting the Black Lives Matter-backed campaign to defund the police and the #8ToAbolition campaign from their progressive, abolitionist politics. As longtime activist Kate Jessica Raphael warns, we may expect to see municipalities across the U.S. co-opt the language of “defund the police” and weaken its message of shrinking the size and power of police to empower and increase funding to police through different avenues. Indeed, the race to redefine “defund the police” has already begun, as activist Mariame Kaba and journalist Marissa Gira Grant point out.
It’s no mistake that the “friendly” police officers on our social media platforms look almost unrecognizable to the police we come face-to-face with at protests. Visuals of charming officers offer breadcrumbs to community members as a conciliatory prize, blocking attempts to even address the institutional, individual and murderous conduct of all police departments across the U.S.