So powerful have been the demonstrations in the USA against police violence after the murder of George Floyd that they have provoked changes of unexpected kinds. One example is the withdrawal of the TV series “Cops” because it condones, even glorifies, violent police methods. Bollywood could sure follow suit in its new films, and the MBC, when broadcasting old ones, every time policemen torture a suspect, should insert a band underneath, like the ones for cyclone warnings but saying: “Warning: Torture like this is illegal”. This kind of band, by the way, is a long-standing LALIT demand in the context of police violence here. We worked hard in the association JUSTICE at turning things around here – from the glorification of the Raddoah team of officers into getting them disbanded and charged with torture for killing Rajesh Ramlogun in custody. The truth, however, is still not known about the death in police custody of Kaya, which provoked an uprising for days in Mauritius in February 1999, followed, as in the USA’s recent uprising, by looting, and finally by the torching of peoples’ homes by gangs close to the state and to businessmen, in a failed attempt to convert, in retrospect, the uprising against the police into an apparent race riot. So, we still need to work towards uncovering the truth behind both Kaya’s death and the torching in the North.
Just as “Cops” has been pulled in the US, so the film Gone with the Wind has also been withdrawn – until it is accompanied by warnings of a similar kind, say, “Warning: Slavery is a Crime Against Humanity” and “Warning: Beware of Racial Stereotypes.” These changes show the power of mass actions when they are focused on clear demands: No to police violence, and no to systemic racism.
Anyway, the withdrawal of “Cops” got me thinking about how the whole genre of “Cops and Robbers”, a major cinema and TV genre, is problematic.
In “Cops and Robbers”, what happens? There are two classes, as the genre name tells us: the class of cops and the class of robbers. A central feature, when you think about it, is that the class of people being robbed is absent. The central personage is just not visible at all – neither in the title, nor, often, in the narrative. The entire story is between a class of hired men, the good cops, and a class of independent men, the bad robbers. We are supposed to forget that the hired wage slaves are hired by someone. Instead, the cops are portrayed as just neutral good guys, with a couple of bad “eggs” or “bad apples” here and there. It is a bit like the news reporting over years about the “mercenaries” (Bob Denard & Co) who stole the whole of the Comoros for France, without ever mentioning who paid them.
Anyway, the “cops” work in the interests of no class of people in particular in the film genre, but are, instead, just unlikely philanthropists of some kind, going about their daily contribution to keeping order. The robbers are just a class of “bad guys”, either too lazy to work in a factory like everyone else, or just born rotters. And the good guys have to retrieve things the bad guys have got hold of. It’s very threadbare as narratives go.
The truth is that the “cops” work in the interests, by-and-large, of the capitalist class whose goods they spend most of the working hours guarding. While the “robbers” defy the rules of ownership imposed by the capitalist class by taking some of the possessions that the capitalist class had previously bagged.
So, the real characters of the film are the owners of things that the cops protect and the robbers rob. But, the real characters are not shown at all, or only en passant. The genre makes us think we are them. And, by and large it works. Until the moment when rage takes over, and amongst us, some go out and burn things or loot and pillage. It just goes to show it didn’t work 100%.
What is the point of this genre? I don’t know. But it is proof, if you need any, that the capitalists, the rich, the owners, whatever you want to call that class of people, are powerful enough to make invisible their own role in society if they want to. So, a major genre in entertainment has a narrative that contributes to the idea that “ownership” of lots of goods by the few is so natural you don’t even notice it, most of the time. The good guys (cops) are in charge of controlling the bad guys (robbers). If the class that owns the goods was in the narrative, its presence would immediately provoke the question of how they got the goods in the first place. So, the main character, the powerful class – not of cops or robbers, but the owners of lots of things – needs to remain hidden. And to have the cops backs.
Police violence stems from the impunity this implies.
Powerful classes of people protect the cops, who they hire to protect their property, and if need be protect themselves. They hire them via the state apparatus, it is true, and those in the state apparatus then get to share this powerful role, and thus multiply the impunity.
This contrasts with, say, the Robin Hood story-line about robbery, which is a coherent narrative. It dates from pre-capitalist days.
Though popular as a narrative, the Robin Hood one is rare in mainstream entertainment and art. It is about Robin stealing from the rich to give to the poor. It recognizes the existence of both classes – rich and poor -- in the narrative. It’s a good thing, the story says, to rob from the rich to give the poor. There are some examples of this narrative in films. Bank robber films, for example, recognize that there is a class with huge stocks and other people with very little, so bank robbers are heroes. Or, you get the odd cult film like Bonny and Clyde. But, unlike Robin Hood, they end up dead at the end of the film.
Right-wing ideology veils the existence of the capitalist class – ever since this class took over from the even worse previous ruling class, Kings and Queens, 250 years ago. We are all equal, supposedly, though we can all see we are not, and if we are not, we have, no doubt about it, squandered our “equal opportunity” to be unequal. Therefore stealing is bad? Either way, the “cops and robbers” story-line does not stand much scrutiny. The only thing that becomes clear is that there is an invisible, powerful class that provides the cover for police violence and impunity.
So, the genre shows the power of a narrative, however bad, and the power of exposing it, too. In short it takes an offense against mere property (what a robber does) and justifies violence against a person (what the cop does). This is what is being exposed. And, when people get angry enough, and if we have thought enough about it from before, we can, as we are now seeing, get these narratives revised, as part of our struggle against the unjust class society we live in.
Next time maybe we can look at another major genre “Cowboys and Indians”, in the same way as we have looked at “Cops and Robbers”.