Something outgoing NUS Black Students Officer Fope Olaleye tweeted about the police sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine stayed with me (see above). It made me think about the ACAB (All Cops are Bastards) acronym and whether I can talk about police in broad strokes. I was pushed on to Brooklyn Nine-Nine by a friend, after avoiding it for years. One reason because it just looked ridiculous, but the more important reason is that I did not feel comfortable that a comedy should be made of an inherently violent institution. I like the show, but in hindsight of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and the other victims of the recent spate of murders by police, I am re-evaluating these shows and television like it.
No matter how pretty the writers try to dress up the Nine-Nine; no matter how diverse the cast is (great), police will always be police and this show is a prime time copaganda.
My degree is in creative writing and I do spend a lot of time watching film and television series. I do believe artists and storytellers, especially screenwriters and TV writers have a responsibility to accurately portray the institutions they are depicting. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is in a fairy tale version of the world we live in and is nowhere close to a true likeness of the NYPD (New York Police Department), the same department that prosecuted five Black and Latino boys for a rape and attempted murder they didn’t commit, of a white woman. Linda Fairstein, the prosecutor of the exonerated Central Park 5 then went on to have a career as a crime novelist, also advising on the early seasons of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (more copaganda).
When I think about television depictions of police and law enforcement more generally, most of it is copaganda. Then I think about how the rap group N. W. A were on the FBI’s most-wanted for speaking their truth about personal experiences with the Police and how they began to empower Black people all over the world. In the late 1980s, Black Britons resonated with the conscious lyrics N. W. A wrote, which speaks volumes. Public Enemy’s Chuck D in ‘Louder than a Bomb‘ said “your CIA, see I ain’t kiddin’ / both King and X, they got ridda both” but the depictions of law enforcement in film and television are always positive. They’re the good guys. Supposedly.
There’s a privilege in believing law and order have your best interests at heart, even if you’re not the guilty party; often this comes with a whiff of class and / or white privilege.
Then we come to shows like Cops that do not even try to hide their anti-Black sentiment. In Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore argues that white America has an innate fear of Black people. Black people are entertainment for white people. They always have been: from blackface minstrelsy that came after slavery to public lynchings in the Jim Crow era. Yet, Blacks, historically have been stereotyped as the violent ones. In Ava DuVernay’s 13th the activist-academic Angela Davis says how the FBI branded her “armed and dangerous”, and that ties into to how historically criminality is just code for Black, which leads into Reagan’s War on Drugs.
Network television has portrayed Black people as a race that carry weapons and if you try to talk to them they will kill you. Whenever someone is stabbed in the UK, I know in some circles I will be expected to have an opinion because more often than not the mugshots I see of the victims and perpetrators are young Black boys. Anti-blackness is global and Black police also fall into the trap of racial profiling, even their own people. Police officer first, Black second; that tribalism, that supremacy is pervasive and we cannot pretend that police violence is just about racist police officers.
I first listened to ‘Fuck tha Police’ at 13 years old; I recall Ice Cube saying “Cause they’ll slam ya down to the street top / Black police showin’ out for the white cop / Ice Cube will swarm / On any motherfucker in a blue uniform…
If you’re Black in this country or the United States, you’re branded a criminal. The prison / stop and search data speak for themselves. Shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Cops, are, to say the least, problematic, especially as a Black viewer, someone that does not fit into the pretty little box of white privilege. I try to watch shows like Nine-Nine in the same mind I watch a Disney film, within the realms of escapism. Pure fiction. Yet, in light of the recent international civil rights movement against racial inequality, including institutional racism, I am struggling to even accomplish that.
I bet it’s ironic that one of my top ten shows of all time is a police crime drama. The Wire, a show that does not glamorise policing and truly shows how ineffective it can be due to the flawed internal structural mechanics and other hidden agendas, that lean on the political. It paints a grim picture of US crime, where 1 in 4 of the world’s inmates are in US prisons (13th). David Simon’s show also supports #ACAB where Brooklyn Nine-Nine does not. That despite doing their jobs, the show says “all cops are bastards” because they carry out the horrific acts, at the behest of the institution.
There needs to be more shows like The Wire and fewer like Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Post-George Floyd, I don’t think there’s a place for shows like Nine-Nine, glorifying bumbling cops and glamorising office violence as innocent. Maybe it’s time to let it die with the same dignity police allow their Black victims.