Monday, 3 July 2017

When Copaganda Backfires

Admit, that theme song is echoing in your mind right now, its basically the anthem of law enforcement


When I was young my parents managed to save up enough for a cable package, and it really did change everything. We got to see the Simpsons on Telly there were channels just for cartoons and movies and documentaries. Back then the History channel even broadcast programs that had nothing to do with Ancient Aliens or Hitler.

But even back then there was still dead air that needed filling even though there were less than a hundred channels. And just like now one of the easiest ways to fill gaps in advert blocks was cop procedural shows, cop docs and cop dramas. Not much has changed, but recently I've come to the realisation that all those rainy weekends spent watching anything that was on accidentally played a part in my political development.

Now by political development, I don't mean Capital P politics like say identifying with a political party or an explicit current of ideology, but it did help stimulate my critical thinking skills, and gave me reasons to start questioning my preconceptions about life. And most of it was thanks to whats known in some circles as Copaganda (Cop, propaganda, entertainment and information that is pro policing as an institution).

I first got into Copaganda by watching America's Dumbest Criminals (ADC). ADC was funny well funny to pre teen me anyway, and it was reassuring to see bad guys utterly fail in their selfish antics. But after I started watching other similar stuff, those shows about dashcam car chases mostly. Its mostly a blur now looking back but a couple of pieces stick out in my mind.



I once saw a documentary about the incident with the MOVE 9 group in Philadelphia. Now the doc was purely from the police point of view, it didn't go into detail about who the MOVE group were, it portrayed them as a sort of cult that was abusing the children of its members. It did however detail how police try to break into the MOVE building, how there was a gun battle, and how later on the police decided to break the stalemate by dropping a bomb on top of the building. What stood out to me was an account by a police officer who went into the now burning building and found some children. The children were terrified of him and he recounted with disgust how this shows that the group had been indoctrinating their children against the police.

This left a deep impression on me. This is a man who was part of a force that had just besieged the home of these kids, shot at their parents and then dropped a bomb on their heads and set fire to their home, indoctrination or not, why wouldn't they be terrified of the police? I thought about how I'd react if that happened to me and I'm sure I would be terrified of the police and my parents went to great lengths to get me to respect the police.

Even as a child the lack of awareness displayed by this adult struck me as strange. It also left me questioning how exactly the police can protect the community when they're actively trying to kill members of that community. Dropping a bomb from a helicopter in the middle of the city isn't something a community protection force should've been doing.

Another similar shard of memory comes from what I can only describe as one of those `Worlds Most Dangerous Car Chases` shows but with riots instead of chasing drunk drivers. Assuming its the same show and I'm not merging two in my mind this program was probably my first introduction into the "Outside Agitators" argument. They showed footage of a teachers strike in South America and the voice over was keen to stress the difference between the picket line of teachers and a group of violent extremists, whom a group masked up using home made guns -a bit like spud guns- to fire paint projectiles at a line of riot police. The voice over pointed out that some of the police had spray painted pro teacher slogans on their shields and remarked that the police kept their cool and that there was no escalation.



I found that curious because it implied that police don't often keep their cool (which turned out to be true, but young kid) and that there was a danger that a group could easily manipulate the police into attacking unrelated people. That was quite an eye opener, but it went a bit further. Another segment was from what I think was one of the anti WTO riots like Seattle 99. It showed a line of police defending an empty corporate office building from rioters. The voice over was praising the officers for standing up to violence, not giving in and successfully protecting property. And that was very important for me. I knew that police were the people you went to to report a theft but the idea that they protect property in general just wasn't something I had considered.

Indeed I can remember what I was thinking watching the clip, I was thinking, Why? Why put yourselves at risk of injury to protect an empty building, why is a building that's owned by an ultra rich company with insurance need so much security? Why are the police defending an empty building when in order to do so they have to inflict injury on the people they're supposed to be protecting? They were clubbing people right on the head and face, even as a kid I knew head injuries can be very serious, so to see them go to such lengths protecting property was so strange and unnerving to me. I couldn't see why an institution that is supposed to protect and serve the community didn't take the path of least harm-lesser evil if you like- and let them smash that empty building up. The building would be repaired and be open again very quickly, so why actively beat people up and risk your own staff? It just didn't seem rational to me.

My parents aren't radical by any definition of the word, but they were uncompromising on how people are more important than things and money. Whenever a terrible accident happens on the news, my Mother usually complains that the news seems more focussed on the financial tolls instead of the casualties.

Indeed the program itself beyond these two examples led to quite a bit of thinking on my part. I had grown up thinking that criminals were bad people and morally weak, and had seen a couple of examples of this type in my home town. But in this show ordinary people from all around the world, Asia, Europe the Americas etc, whom the police were opposing were just workers, students and people who were clearly heavily motivated over some kind of grievance. I did know what a strike was, or rather what a moderate version of a strike was, and wage disputes settled by standing outside a factory didn't seem to warrant police intervention as far as I could see. Yes I knew that vandalism was wrong and against the law, but the people outside the office were so determined to smash that place up, they were prepared to go through a wall of shields and risk getting knocked out in order to do it, and that just didn't seem to fit the image of selfish and cowardly bullies preying on their neighbours.

And it also seemed rather strange to me that these people were being opposed by a police force that was armed to the teeth and on what looked like a war footing. Striking students in Seoul were met with police in armour, gas masks and armoured vehicles and gas grenades. I couldn't see why ordinary people were met with such naked force when at worst they would commit vandalism, but the murderers on the news seemed to have been dealt with by normal coppers. It just seemed so disproportional. The only comparison I could think of at the time was Northern Ireland, and back then there was still a lot of guns and explosives floating around and very high tensions over the possibility of a new armed insurrection. Not to knock the militancy of striking teachers and student protestors in the 90s but I somehow doubt they posed the same level of physical threat as a resurgent paramilitary with years of stockpiling and experience in urban terrorism.

Now of course I eventually found out the answer, police forces as we know them were established mainly to protect property and mainly the property of those who have the most property to be threatened, and as a result their standards for acceptable force is tied more to how serious the threat in question is to authority, and not the community.

Class conflict roiled late nineteenth century American cities like Chicago, which experienced major strikes and riots in 1867, 1877, 1886, and 1894. In each of these upheavals, the police attacked strikers with extreme violence, even if in 1877 and 1894 the U.S. Army played a bigger role in ultimately repressing the working class. In the aftermath of these movements, the police increasingly presented themselves as a thin blue line protecting civilization, by which they meant bourgeois civilization, from the disorder of the working class. This ideology of order that developed in the late nineteenth century echoes down to today – except that today, poor black and Latino people are the main threat, rather than immigrant workers.
              Sam Mitrani
 That's also largely true of most forms of civil governance, even Adam Smith had some interesting things to say on the subject.
Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all. – Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, Book V, Chapter I, Part II On the Expence of Justice
Of course Smith was talking about the oppression of the poor largely as a result of corruption rather than by design, but if even liberal idealists can see some problems with the way society treats the relationship between people and property, well there's bound to be some problems.

Looking back I think this was really start of my questioning of society as it was presented to me. I can't think of anything else I was exposed to at such a young age that stimulated my critical thinking skills, intentionally or otherwise. I guess, looking back that I wouldn't be the person I am today if I hadn't been so lazy and spent so much time channel surfing.

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