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Thin Blue Lies

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  • Clore Daniel C
    News for Anarchists & Activists: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/smygo Thin Blue Lies: Police and the Art of Propaganda by Tim Wise, AlterNet August 3, 2001
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 8, 2001
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      News for Anarchists & Activists:
      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/smygo

      Thin Blue Lies: Police and the Art of Propaganda

      by Tim Wise, AlterNet

      August 3, 2001

      Image is everything, or so the commercial says. In an age of
      public relations, how one is portrayed can be every bit as
      important as the substance of one's actions. Thus, it should
      come as no surprise that along with politicians,
      entertainers and corporate executives, even police
      departments have joined the p.r. game.

      With one after another discovery of police misconduct around
      the country -- from high-visibility cases of brutality, to
      racial profiling, to corruption involving bribes and the
      planting of evidence -- the recent headlines have been
      anything but flattering. Since the beating of Rodney King,
      the American masses have been made more aware than ever that
      Officer Friendly is not often there to get your cat out of
      the tree. Sometimes his intentions are far more pernicious
      than that.

      And so it is no shock to see police across the nation
      cranking up their own propaganda mills so as to counter the
      trend of bad press. In the wake of scandal, how better to
      get the public on your side than to portray yourself as
      under siege? How better to gain sympathy than to remind the
      citizens how crucial you ostensibly are to their own safety?
      A little crime scare can go a long way.

      Case in point: recent headlines from Cincinnati and
      Nashville. In the former, the police have been trying for
      months to excuse their well-documented overreactions to
      perceived danger. Since the mid-1990's officers there have
      killed 16 black men, many under highly suspicious
      circumstances, including Timothy Thomas, shot in the back
      this past April while running away from arrest on minor
      traffic violations.

      Ever since the rebellion that was triggered by the Thomas
      shooting, police have been working overtime to portray the
      "rioters" as terrorists with no legitimate grievances
      against the cops.

      Keith Fangman, head of the local Fraternal Order of Police,
      called a press conference immediately after the April
      shooting to display pictures of all the police in Cincinnati
      who have been killed in the line of duty. Stretching back
      many years, their photos hung behind Fangman's podium like a
      Wall of Fame, and Fangman made sure to point out that many
      of these officers were killed by black men, just like Tim
      Thomas. The none-too-subliminal message was plain: you can't
      be too careful, especially with "those people" running
      loose.

      Now, three months after the city's upheaval, Fangman is
      back, proclaiming that the recent rise in violent crime in
      Cincinnati has been due to the reluctance of officers to
      aggressively police high-crime areas for fear of being
      labeled racist. In other words, the calls for equitable
      treatment by the city's black residents have made cops
      afraid to do their jobs, with the attendant result that
      citizens are now less safe.

      Fangman would like the public to think this is what happens
      when you don't support local law enforcement and give them
      carte blanche to crack heads, apply chokeholds and shoot
      those who make the mistake of reaching to adjust their
      seatbelt during traffic stops. The implicit message
      essentially boils down to this: black people are too
      irrational to differentiate real racism from valid policing,
      so cops can't take the chance, and shouldn't be expected to
      do their jobs. That this work slowdown by white officers is
      a kind of insubordination that would get black people fired
      from any position in the nation seems to escape mention.
      That Cincinnati's blacks are quite capable of
      differentiating legitimate law enforcement from racist
      brutalization -- as evidenced by the community's acceptance
      of the latest shooting, which was made necessary by the
      suspect's firing on the officer first -- also seems not to
      phase Fangman and his bunch.

      Yet the Mayor's response to the refusal of Cincinnati's
      finest to do their jobs has been laughable. "Acts of
      kindness to police officers," Charlie Lukens says, "would be
      appropriate at this time." In other words, there will be no
      insistence that the police do what they are paid to do, and
      do it equitably. Instead there is only a plea for
      Cincinnatians to hug cops and thank them for their selfless
      actions. Apparently the FOP spin-mill is working.

      So too in Nashville, Tennessee -- my hometown, and the site
      of at least a half dozen scandals and questionable incidents
      involving police in recent years. First there were
      allegations that white officers physically assaulted
      Latinos: allegations still being investigated by the Justice
      Department. Then another officer was found to be
      moonlighting as owner of an adult club for swingers. This
      was followed by an officer who sexually assaulted a woman
      who had called him for help. Then there was the cop with a
      record of domestic violence. Then there were multiple
      shootings of blacks, including at least one in the back of
      the head. And to cap it all off: the decision by police not
      to shoot a white officer, even though that officer had shot
      at them, and held a neighborhood hostage as he tried to get
      to his ex-girlfriend.

      One can imagine that with all these things to live down, the
      Nashville Police Department would be desperate to stir up
      sympathy for their beleaguered ranks. And what better way to
      do it than with the following headline:

      "Police on alert after death threats."

      Thus screamed a prominently placed article in the daily
      paper a few weeks ago, mimicked closely by similar stories
      in the "alternative" daily, and a follow-up in the chain
      rag.

      According to these pseudo-journalistic entries, internal
      "intelligence reports" and "various sources," (none of which
      are named) have led police to fear that a Chicago-based
      street gang, the Gangster Disciples, are planning to take
      over the drug trade in one of the city's public housing
      projects. Furthermore, according to these sources (whose
      claims are admittedly uncorroborated), the gang members are
      threatening to "shoot officers in the head to avoid body
      armor." The internal police memo, which both daily papers
      secretly "obtained" (most likely via police fax machine),
      went on to say that although the threats were specific to
      one particular housing development, police should be on
      alert in "all areas in and around" the development as well.
      In other words, most of North Nashville: the historically
      black section of town.

      Although police admit that gang activity in general is not
      increasing in Nashville, and although the local FBI special
      agent for violent crimes says he knows of no threats to kill
      police, the local paper insisted on plugging the gang menace
      for two days straight. The Metro Development and Housing
      Agency also says they have no evidence that the Gangster
      Disciples are making a move on the projects. The police, for
      their part, had literally nothing to offer as evidence,
      though they did caution Nashvillians to be on the lookout
      for black people in blue, black or white clothing, or
      carrying a "rabbit head with a bent ear."

      Now imagine if I were to send out a press alert claiming
      that unnamed sources had told me Nashville police were
      planning to lynch a half dozen blacks in that same housing
      project. I could come up with some quotes, and claim the
      sources were reliable, all the while refusing to provide
      evidence. Given such a scenario, it is incomprehensible to
      think that such a story would have seen the light of day.
      But casting aspersions upon blacks in the projects and
      claiming they are out to kill cops appears to be perfectly
      acceptable.

      The heart of the story -- that police are operating under
      threat of death -- seemed blatantly calculated to swing
      public support back towards the police, by typifying
      officers as brave warriors going to battle against a dark
      (pun intended) enemy force. The fact that less than 20
      officers in the entire nation are killed by black people
      annually, (let alone black gang members), and that this is
      less than the combined total of cops who die from accidental
      falls, drowning and while directing traffic, hardly seems to
      matter.

      Fact is, the fear of gang members preying on innocent
      bystanders and cops, which has frequently been trumpeted to
      justify beefed-up law enforcement budgets and crime
      crackdowns, is more illusion than reality. Three of four
      persons killed by gang members are gang members themselves,
      and even these inter-gang killings are becoming increasingly
      rare. In fact, gang-related murder is down by over half
      since the early 1990's. Gang killings -- let alone the
      drive-by shootings that suburban whites often think are a
      daily occurrence in inner cities--represent about 4% of all
      homicides in the country, and come to just over 600 murders
      annually. This is 600 too many to be sure, but indicates
      that only a miniscule percentage of the 800,000 or so gang
      members in the nation will kill anyone this year.

      What's more, the notion that Chicago gangs are invading
      Nashville is extremely unlikely. As the National Drug
      Intelligence Center and the Department of Justice note, few
      gangs have true interstate connections even if they share
      names. Furthermore, gangs rarely migrate more than 100 miles
      away from their home base, and gang "migration" has an
      insignificant effect on levels of gang violence.

      Of course, that police would hype a fictional gang threat
      makes sense. Such threats, whether based in truth or
      fiction, are functional to a growing
      police-and-prison-industrial complex, as is the hyping of
      black gangs in particular. Such colorizing of the mayhem
      works wonders to stoke public sympathy for more cops on the
      street, higher pay for the ones there, and more jails to
      hold all the folks they arrest.

      Police are even famous for overestimating the involvement of
      people of color and underestimating the involvement of
      whites in gang activity, despite self-report surveys that
      show a much more balanced racial picture. Whereas police
      estimate gang membership at roughly half Hispanic and a
      third black, and only 13 percent white, studies that rely on
      what gang members actually say about their affiliations find
      that the white share of members is nearly 30 percent of the
      total -- very close to the black percentage. And note, that
      doesn't include whites who belong to racist organizations or
      skinhead groups, none of which are considered "gangs" for
      the purpose of these studies.

      The result of all this is that the public's perception of
      danger -- especially that of whites -- is skewed in a way
      that not only leads to more police state tactics, but does
      so in an explicitly racist fashion. Three quarters of the
      public say they form their opinions about crime from what
      they see or read in the news. So if the media portrays crime
      rising, even when it's falling, and portrays the perps as
      black gangsters, even when whites are five times more likely
      to be victimized by another white person, the results will
      be predictable: more fear, more punitive policies, and more
      sympathy for police, no matter how they actually do their
      jobs.

      Maybe I'm being unfair. Maybe the Nashville police do have
      evidence of an impending gang takeover of drugs in public
      housing, and the planned capping of officers. But I doubt
      it. This is the same police department, after all, that last
      January called a colleague of mine to inform him that
      according to their internal "intelligence," I had been
      "distributing Black Panther literature" around Vanderbilt
      University.

      Now while I relish the image of myself (all 5'9" of me)
      stylin' in a full-length black leather jacket and black
      beret handing out "Free Huey Newton" posters at the campus
      Starbucks, I have to disappoint and note that the boys in
      blue had it wrong. I had indeed been at Vanderbilt to give a
      talk about racism in the justice system. And in that speech
      I mentioned the historical use of police to disrupt black
      activist organizations, and the assassination of around 30
      Panthers in the '60's and '70's by local law enforcement.
      How that got transmogrified into distributing copies of the
      Party's 10-Point Plan is beyond me. But then again, police
      intelligence is increasingly a contradiction in terms.

      Tim Wise is a Nashville-based writer, lecturer and
      antiracism activist. He can be reached at
      tjwise@...

      --
      Dan Clore
      mailto:clore@...

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