Imagine believing police reports. After all of the independent autopsies, the cellphone video recordings, the body-cam footage found to be “not consistent with the police report” imagine still assuming these reports to be a record of the facts as they occurred.
After the police obfuscation of Laquan McDonald’s murder, the toy guns of Baltimore, the evidence planting, the DNA exonerations, imagine still reporting police narratives as truth and still writing sentences for teleprompter scripts like “the police officer thought the suspect was reaching for a gun”. Imagine taking US justice seriously after what happened to Kalief Browder.
In a fair society, an institution that has consistently proven itself so willing to misrepresent facts on race and violence that it has become a running joke for generations of Black stand-up comedians might have its “reports” viewed with suspicion. In American society, the media is embedded with the police, just as it is in American imperialism where journalists are embedded with the US army, hitching a ride in army convoys, observing conflict from the perspective of one belligerent and yet performing objectivity.
The media is not a check on power when it comes to the police. It is not a cop-watch programme. It humanises a violent, paramilitary institution, it publishes its mugshots and aids in surveillance, it disciplines populations into obedience and is the velvet glove to order’s iron fist. It amplifies “official” narratives. It normalises the presumption of police innocence. It takes the police at their word: police do not claim something happened, their report is what happened. Trial verdicts do not claim the convict did it; the convict did it, as can be seen by the trial verdict. The law through the doctrine of “cognisable offences” or “probable cause” sacralises the cop, elevating their notepads and testimony to a gospel truth and the media runs to the town people to preach. Functionally, the media is an arm of policing.
There are no prime time television programmes about life escaping the fining, harassment, groping and physical assault of the roving, murdering warlords of white supremacy and capital. No character-driven dramas about surviving the colony’s paramilitary forces ushering in an orderly gentrification and the accumulation of lives and living spaces to make room for yuppie royalty. No shows for the beaten to watch their batterers being frog-marched out of their neighbourhoods if only on screen. Instead “Live PD” “The First 48”, “Investigative Discovery” and the constant proliferation of cop dramas lionise the colony’s henchmen.
In the media, the badge-wearing violent are heroes and heroines sweeping away crime with an unwavering commitment to honour and fairness. They are depicted in the same flattering light colonists depicted their pioneer forebearers sweeping away “native savagery” a century ago. In place of the pith helmet and moustache are the cop haircut and the badge, but the arms remain akimbo.
Television, whether deliberately or not, complements police power and permits no abolitionist perspectives. Dick Wolf is to American policing what John Wayne was to US empire. Cable news, at a moment when people demand the abolishing of the police and the voicing of different futures, invites police chiefs who provide “examples of police leadership”. Liberal hosts parrot activist language of social justice in monologues only to then give platforms to commanders of the institution the activists protest against. The invited police chiefs then proceed to patronise protesters as “not only anarchists”, as if being radically against the order of bleach-drinking and potato-sack kidnappings is something to be ashamed of.
Anchors on centrist networks offer, in place of analysis, tears and declarations of shock at witnessing the sadism of the George Floyd murder. Transient outrage takes up time that could otherwise be filled with examining the police institution itself. Answers are tapped out of the same on-hand Black liberal academics instead of thinkers in the Black radical tradition who, since slavery, have been devoted to the critique of the forceful capture and destruction of Black people.
Anchors cry or look into the camera and call the president a thug but offer no mea culpa for complicity in the policing project, which has now come full circle. The American policing project today bears similarity to the Nazi regime which applied colonialist procedures to Europeans previously reserved exclusively for the colonies – the arbitrary arrests, the slave patrol, forced disappearances, etc.
Today, political dissidents and activists, including those who are white, face practices previously reserved for the Black underclass, the unhomed and the immigrants. It is not only in the colonies and “postcolonies” of Africa, Asia and Latin America that “the policeman and the soldier, by their immediate presence and their frequent and direct action… advise (the people) by means of rifle butts and napalm not to budge”. Today, it also happens in the business districts of American metropolises.
It is no longer unimaginable that it will be white people in the suburbs, corporate offices and Democratic Party headquarters who are next to be thrown against the hood of a cruiser or pushed into unmarked police vehicles.
However intense the display or forceful the condemnation, punditry is all sound and fury signifying nothing. Worse than nothing. Liberal pundits carry water for police. They sell “retraining” and “reform” and the other PR catchwords police keep in their back pockets for whenever one of their killings spills out onto the national stage.
They affect a highway robbery of abolitionist efforts. They suggest beginning a conversation – a project that not only reveals the depths of the disregard paid to the history of Black outcry and opposition to racist state violence but disingenuously presents dialogue as a solution rather than their business. Individual racists cannot be persuaded away from racism at a faster rate than white supremacist society produces racists. Dialogue is a scam.
Police-embedded media is particularly harmful at this moment because it shares the media landscape with an expanding white nationalist news media. Nightly, the most powerful white nationalist television network in the world attempts to incite white mobs against protesters. Every night their hosts look directly into the camera and warn about anarchist protesters and unruly thugs coming to get the viewer and their property – assured, of course, that their audience is not out protesting against racial injustice.
Every night they inch closer to telling their viewers to grab their pangas and “cut down the tall trees”. They carry the mantle of those who incited mobs of white people to massacre Black people in 1919 Elaine, Arkansas in 1921 Tulsa, Oklahoma and in a hundred other “race riots”. Every night they use their chyrons – like the white nationalist, lynch-mob apologist newspapers before them used their editorial pages – to incite violence against non-white people, disfigure and criminalise the memories of the victims of racist violence and excuse their killers.
Their hosts inaugurated their television careers accused of making Nazi salutes and their chief writers get caught writing for neo-Nazi websites. These are the people cop-embedded journalists refer to as colleagues. Another public sphere is possible – one that does not consider “the reckoning on race” in the newsrooms as being expressed as a more diverse team. Diversity understood to be different bodies articulating the same liberal perspectives is possible only when power genuinely believes Black people have nothing valuable to contribute other than their bodies. Black radicals are a dime a dozen, and yet they are barred from interpreting on camera the uprising their labour has birthed.
A media is possible that can analyse the culture of anti-Black pogroms without needing to be spurred on by a bystander capturing a pleasure-killing on a cellphone. A media that does not call friends white nationalist journalists who call every lynching victim “no angel” in order to defend the lyncher. One that has no truck with journalists seeking to frame Black people for their own murder any more than they would with those rooting through Holocaust victims’ pasts searching for a sin to hand over to Nazi apologists.
One day we will have a media that is no longer embedded with the cops, one that will not smile at kneeling cops photos, or at the National Guard Macarena-dancing with liberal protesters, or any other domestic version of American soldiers giving soccer balls to Iraqi children as it kills them in the background. One day neither police reports, nor courts will be taken seriously, and the cop-embedded media that dresses henchman up as heroes will be abolished and replaced with a continuous feed of freedom.