My grandfather, whom I revere, was a cop for 34 years. He started in 1942 as a traffic patrolman, riding a three-wheeled motorcycle and carrying a long chalk to mark the tyres of parked cars, and finished as assistant chief of police in Lexington, the second-largest city in Kentucky. (He should have been chief, but that’s another story.) He was, and still is, gentle, soft-spoken, kind-hearted. I’ve never heard an angry word said about him, never suspected he acted with anything but fairness and respect for others. He was shot only once in those 34 years, and that was when my grandmother, cleaning his pistol, accidentally fired it.
And I recall that, ensconced in his comfortable lounger in the sitting room, my grandfather told jokes about African Americans (not to his young grandson, I should add; I smuggled in a tape recorder while he chatted with my parents) and used the N-word as an accepted term. When I was older, he told horrible tales of what “those types” had done to innocent citizenry. I guess he was a racist.
As I watched the events in Cincinnati, Ohio the other day, I couldn’t see my grandfather there. I couldn’t picture him as the policeman who shot dead Timothy Thomas, the unarmed 19-year-old wanted for traffic violations, or, for that matter, any of the city’s other policemen who stand accused of using excessive force during the attempted arrests (and therefore slaying) of 15 other African American men in recent years. I couldn’t see him taking joy in carrying out yet another stop-and-search just because the skin that he saw was black. But I don’t know. Cincinnati is only 75 miles from Lexington but, with its conservative politics and wider swathe of economic deprivation, it seems much further away. What would Cincinnati have brought out of my grandfather?
I don’t think I’m alone in my thoughts. Before Cincinnati, there was New York, with its cops (four later convicted) who tortured Abner Louima; its four policemen (acquitted) who enforced “zero tolerance” by putting 41 bullets into the unarmed Amadou Diallo; its cops (acquitted – coroner lost the evidence) who allegedly beat to death a graffiti artist named Michael Stewart. New York – with nine (count ’em, nine) African Americans among its 465 police captains and a 17 per cent decrease in black officers in supervisory roles since 1995. Before New York, there was Miami, with disturbances after an unarmed African American motorist was shot dead in the well-named Liberty City. Before Miami, there was LA, with Rodney King and the special anti-gang unit, which now has 70 officers under investigation for murder, GBH, drug dealing, witness intimidation, and so on. Before LA, there was Philadelphia, where police burned down a housing block, killing six adults and five children.
All my 30-year-plus stock of memories is of American film and television trying to paper over the cracks, work out the tensions over its policemen. It was pretty straightforward in the 1960s, with Dragnet‘s detectives, Sergeant Joe Friday (“Just the facts, ma’am”) and Officer Bill Gannon. They methodically put together the evidence, none of it fabricated, to bang up the bad man or woman, always captured in a prison photograph at the end of the programme. It is only in the light of later events that the show’s opening, repeated every week by Sergeant Friday, seems ironic: “This is the city. Los Angeles, California. I work here . . . I carry a badge.”
Then it all went pear-shaped, you know, with Vietnam, urban riots, drugs, corruption inside and outside the force. We followed “Dirty” Harry Callahan at the movies (“Go ahead, punk. Make my day”), Kojak (“Who loves ya, baby?) on telly. These guys weren’t just fighting the bad guys, whom we knew were African American not only because of their skin colour but because of their gold jewellery and ghetto-shtick. They were fighting the system that kept them from fighting the bad guys. There was Beretta (Hispanic ex-con with a cockatoo, fighting the system), Cagney and Lacey (two white women, one married, one single and available, fighting the system), Starsky and Hutch (two happenin’ white guys, jumping into cars, fighting the system), the young Michael Douglas in The Streets of San Francisco (impetuous, wanting to fight the system, but being taught wisdom by his craggy partner, played by Karl Malden). There was even The Mod Squad, three with-it kids – including an afro-sporting African American who had been in the Watts “riots” – making a better society by working with The Man (Captain Greer) rather than against him.
It was a beautiful thing. With our newfound cynicism of the Vietnam years, these 1970s cops couldn’t be unquestioning members of the force. No, they had to be seen to question authority even while enforcing it by catching the punks, pimps, drug pushers, carjackers and urban terrorists. They fought against and with black caricatures. If we had “good” African American characters (with the exception of the politically correct Mod Squad), they were foils for our heroes/heroines. Starsky and Hutch did this in double vision: it not only gave us the mockery of street life called Huggy Bear, it introduced the by-the-book, outwitted “superior”, Captain Dobey.
I guess there might have been the alternative of Shaft, Superfly, Cleopatra Jones and Foxy Brown but, while we imitated the walks, longed for the clothes and loved the music, these were always “their” films, never coming into the mainstream.
And I can’t say it’s different today. Mel Gibson has made a mini-industry out of the rebellious cop (Danny Glover playing his straight-living foil) in the 23 or so episodes of Lethal Weapon; Schwarzenegger, Stallone, even the aging Eastwood, have returned to kick ass. Sure, there was the touchy-feely liberalism of Hill Street Blues, but while we could be sensitive, law and order was still the bottom line. There was a token black detective, looking good in street gear and keeping his white partner up to date on street etiquette, but it was the wimpy “ethnic” Frank Furillo who held our attention.
Where are the African Americans in this New American Order? There is the notable exception of the exceptional Andre Braugher’s role in Homicide: life on the street, but I fear the complexity of that series almost puts it beyond mass culture. Where are the risky scenes of white cops roughing up, even killing unarmed African Americans? Well, there was Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and Spike Lee’s use of the Rodney King footage in Malcolm X, but we all know that Spike’s a bit extreme, don’t we?
No, if blacks have the starring role, most likely, it is in the “reality” police shows packing them on the sofas in the US heartlands, the morality plays of “real-life” simulations such as Cops and America’s Most Wanted. None of this complexity about the “system”, no liberal hand-wringing about rights and wrongs. Straightforward them-and-us television, with us firmly on the side of the Boys in Blue against the dark, dark menaces on the streets.
Let’s face it. I don’t want to resolve any issues about my grandfather, and the US doesn’t want its film and television to delve into issues of cops and race. Because it’s not about the cops, not about the good cops, not even about the bad cops. It’s about whole sections of cities, usually with large African American populations, that are left to decay, and the stigma of welfare cheats/single mothers/absent fathers/drug dealers/gang-bangers/drive-by shooters.
Those sections have to be sealed off from the “nicer” sections, those portions of New York/Detroit/Chicago/Miami/Los Angeles/Atlanta placed within high-rise glass and air conditioning for the benefit of currency speculators, property developers, convention delegates and businessmen who make the economy go round. And, to seal those sections off, you need police. They’re the symptom, not the cause.