Boycotting Beyonce and the Politics of Policing in Post-Race America

On February 19th, 2016, the Miami Fraternal Order of Police (MFOP) issued a statement saying that following a vote, it will allow its members to boycott Beyoncé’s Miami concert on April 27. MFOP called on other police departments and bodies to also boycott Beyonce concerts. Tampa and Nashville boycotts soon followed. More recently, on May 8th, there was the announcement of a ‘Coalition of Police and Sheriffs [COPS] protest at Beyonce’s hometown Houston concert’. The reason behind the boycotts and protests is a particular performance at the last Super Bowl half-time show, seen by some police and supporters as being anti-police. In it, Beyonce performed her new song ‘Formation’, during which she was accused of trying “to divide Americans by promoting the Black Panthers”, based on the fact that her dancers were dressed in black with berets and raised their fists in what appeared to be an homage to the group. They were joined by Black Lives Matter activists demanding justice for Mario Woods who was shot over 15 times by police in San Francisco after assaulting another person. Former New York Mayor and supporter of Zero Tolerance policing, Rudy Giuliani also claimed that the performance was designed to “attack police officers”. There was also opposition to the video for the song, which included references to Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, and includes a black boy in a hoodie dancing in front of police who raise their hands, the words ‘Stop Shooting Us’ written on a wall and Beyoncé lying on top of a police car submerged in water. Beyonce did respond, denying she was anti-police: “Anyone who perceives my message as anti-police is completely mistaken … I have so much admiration and respect for officers and the families of the officers who sacrifice themselves to keeps us safe … But let’s be clear, I am against police brutality and injustice. Those are two separate things.” This Beyonce boycott, followed calls for police and commercial boycotts of Quentin Tarantino and The Hateful Eight after he attended a Black Lives Matter protest in New York and criticised the police. In addition to this, America has seen the formation of Blue Lives Matter, a pro-police organisation that, in addition to supporting police, appears to present a counter point and counter-protest to Black Lives Matter.

Victor Kappeler of the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University, said that “responses like these were part of a relatively new phenomenon by the police: being ‘politically active.’” Kappeler was primarily referring to criticism of the police, stating that “[a]nyone who tries to tarnish the devotion of the police as heroes or breaks out of that discourse is subject to a lot of police scrutiny or blowback statements”, thus using a very narrow definition of ‘politically active’ and attributing it to social media. In making these claims, Kappeler is incorrect historically. Even accepting this narrow definition of politically active, we have seen this before. In fact, one of the most high profile previous cases was in 1992, when Ice-T’s Body Count released ‘Cop Killer’, which led to CLEAT (Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas) calling for a boycott of all products by Time-Warner until the single and album were removed from sale. Police organisations across the United States also called for a boycott. Prior to this, when NWA released ‘Fuck tha Police’ in 1988, The Fraternal Order of Police voted to boycott any group that advocated violence against law enforcement officers. More recently, in 2000, Bruce Springsteen wrote ‘American Skin (41 Shots)’ in response to the killing of Amadou Diallo by 41 direct shots by the police, despite the fact that he was unarmed and in the vestibule of his own apartment building in the Bronx, in 1999.  Springsteen played the song during his 2000 Madison Square Garden concerts, leading the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association to call on its members to boycott his concerts in terms of both attendance and serving as security. In term of the historical links, Springsteen played the song again in tribute to Trayvon Martin and others who were killed and released it on his 2014 High Hopes album.  In the case of Beyonce, Tarantino, Ice-T, NWA and Springsteen, the common denominator is not mere criticism of the police, but responses to individual and institutional police racism and specifically police use of force/violence against black people that has ended in many deaths, and few convictions. At best, individuals are indicted and possibly convicted, but the wider pattern and issue of institutional racism are not acknowledged or addressed.

Beyond this narrow definition of ‘politically active’, as University of Baltimore Criminologist Jeffrey Ian Ross tweeted in response to Kappeler’s argument, ‘Since when have law enforcement in the United States NOT been politically active?’. The argument appears to only include organised self-declared forms of political activism, which pre-exist recent examples as I have illustrated, but also has a conservative interpretation of the position and role of the police, as one of objective neutrality serving a law which is neutral (or naturalised) and apolitical, in a social context that is not riddled with unequal relations of power, among social groups as well as in relation to the law and criminal justice system. The police are agents of the state, and in the United States, even serve different political jurisdictions and authorities, be they local, state or federal (which themselves have differential relations of power). But more to the point, the police have always represented and served laws which come into being through political channels and serve political aims or interests, and the violation of these laws inform political responses that the police execute. Examples include enforcing racial segregation, racial profiling, stop and frisk, enforcing restrictions on public assembly and political protest itself, be it attempting to stop civil disobedience protests against desegregation and those marching for voting rights marching from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 or cracking down on and arresting Black Lives Matter protesters in Minneapolis in 2015. In addition to policing protests opposing what are widely seen as unjust and racist laws, law enforcement also played a role in investigating and suppressing political groups and activists, including The Black Panthers, which were largely destroyed as an organisation by the FBI’s countersubversion/counterintelligence programme COINTELPRO, through which the government attempted to neutralise subversive political movements/activists, left and right, black and white (including the Klan and Weather Underground) in the 1960s and 70s. This was also the era in which the Nixon administration’s crackdown on protests led to deaths at Kent State, captured in ‘Ohio’, by earlier politically active musicians Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young).

In the case of unjust laws, while individual police officers and unions may disagree and protest (something closer to the narrow definition of ‘politically active’), the shift in position is more likely to happen when the laws or practices are changed, which occurs largely because of political activism, protest, pressure and criticism of laws and police practices, as well as court decisions. Continuing with the issue of racism, one of the best examples would be desegregation. In this case, the police find themselves on the opposite side of an issue than they were previously, but still on the side of representing and enforcing the law as a duty as if it is not political or a product of politics and political activism. Police officers and sheriffs and their deputies have also not only been enablers, associates and members of political organisations, but ones with a stake in political and legal conflicts in which the police represent one side and enforce the law and position of the state, such as the Ku Klux Klan. This occurred in the 1950s when the Klan and other white supremacist groups were defending the same legal segregation that the police were enforcing, and opposing federal desegregation, as well as serving extrajudicial punishment under the blind eye and protection of the state, to black people who crossed the colour line, threatened the racial status quo or looked at a white woman the ‘wrong’ way. In some cases, there was also clear overlap and a relationship between the Klan and law enforcement. One example was that of Bull Connor, City Commissioner and in charge of the Police Department for Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960s and famous for ordering the use of fire hoses and attack dogs against civil rights protesters, also colluded with the Klan. When buses of Freedom Riders arrived in the city in 1961, the Klan were waiting, but Connor provided no police protection and were on the receiving end of an attack by the Klansmen. In another case, James Gardner Clark, Sheriff of Dallas County, Alabama, famous for his aggressive tactics against marchers at Selma, recruited Klansmen to prevent voter drives in 1964-65. Perhaps the most notorious case was the June 1964 murders of civil rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in Mississippi. The accused were members of the Klan, and employees of both the Neshoba County Sheriff’s Office and Police Department. Deputy Sheriff of Neshoba County Cecil Price was convicted of violating the civil rights of the three men. The reason for the civil rights charge, which fell under federal law and jurisdiction, stemmed from the fact that murder was only punishable under state law and they refused to pursue it. The ‘Mississippi Burning’ case caused much outcry, not only because of the murders, but the alleged complicity of law enforcement in the act, and the state law enforcement and criminal justice system for not pursuing it, the latter of which happened all too often where the law of the land was white supremacy and racial segregation.

This does not indict all law enforcement officers, nor preclude police from engaging in progressive politics or being critical of unjust laws, but is important to note in a context where the issue is police treatment of black people, and the fact that the criticism of Beyonce concerned her being divisive by ‘promoting’ the Black Panthers, an organisation that, in the social media and right-wing media storm that followed, was compared directly to the Ku Klux Klan. While intended to disparage the Black Panthers, Beyonce and criticism of the police by Black Lives Matter and others, there is something both odd and wrong about the comparison and equivalence with the Klan. In one sense, it is saying, we agree the Klan was bad, and the Panthers were the same, but for black people (anti-white racist), as opposed to for white people (anti-black racist), but this ignores several issues. Firstly, are those critics actually saying that the Klan represent or represented white people, or even wanting to allow that association? This happened in another attempt at comparison and equivalence during the 2008 presidential election, when GOP nominee John McCain attempted to call out Obama on his alleged links to so-called anti-American radicals and terrorists, such as former Weather Underground member William Ayers and Rashid Khalidi, by claiming “[i]f there was a tape of John McCain in a neo-Nazi outfit, I think the treatment of the issue would be slightly different”. Secondly, the Panthers being referenced were a response to state, police, institutional and socio-economic racism and are gone, largely due to state and law enforcement opposition (e.g.  COINTELPRO). This may have been the first step in creating a false equivalence between movements with radically different relationships to power. Unlike the Black Panthers, the Klan reflected and represented official state and legal white supremacy (which the Panthers opposed). The Klan also not only survived COINTELPRO and HUAC Klan hearings following civil rights, which had the effect of scapegoating them as the convenient face and hate figures for a deeply rooted structural racism that never went away (in the criminal justice system and elsewhere), but are currently undergoing a revival in response to Obama, the economic crisis and racial fault lines which emerged and have been exploited. In fact the Klan have found a cause in defending police, such as Darren Wilson who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, and have found a representative in Donald Trump, who was endorsed by former Grand Dragon David Duke, as well as other Klansmen and white supremacists.

There is another, connected, issue, with the equivalence between Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter – or between critics, be they Black Lives Matter, Beyonce or others, and the police – in terms of black deaths. One cannot see Blue Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter in equivalent terms for a number of reasons. Black Lives Matter is a protest movement expressing their legal rights and with no legal or moral obligations to the public and police, whereas the police involved in these cases and wider law enforcement, are in a position of authority with the full force of law and the state behind them, with a duty to care and duty to serve and protect all, and not a special interest or aggrieved social group as Blue Lives Matter implies. Moreover, the loss of police officers in the line of duty and at the hands of criminals is treated with outrage, respect and honour by the public, politicians and media, in addition to being investigated, tried and punished by the criminal justice system. Blue Lives do matter. That is partly why, even if political activism amongst the police is not new, Black and Blue Lives are not equivalent in the wider society. All Lives Matter merely neutralises the politics, following the logic of colourblind equality to its ends. Such equivalences flatten out power and history.

What has changed in terms of political activism, for both the police and protesters, is not merely the use of social media, as Keppeler cites, but the ‘post-race’ context. It is a context where ‘colourblind racism’, as Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls it, and a false logic of what Sociologist Miri Song refers to as ‘racial equivalence’, prevail. It is a context in which racial equality is alleged to have been achieved (beginning with civil rights and realised with the election of Obama) and ‘we’ are all colourblind. Explicit forms of racism and racist violence from the ‘bad old days’ are the standard by which to judge. More subtle, coded, institutional forms (such as the racialisation of crime and police risk/threat which inform a justification for the use of force) are rationalised, legitimised and not included. In this context, when of person of colour mentions race, they are accused of making it an issue, and when a person of colour accuses someone of racism, the accusation is deemed as bad or worse than racism itself. It is illegitimate and possibly derogatory. Grievances by those accused of racism are either accorded equal standing (but legitimate) since ‘we’ are equal, or more serious and more legitimate because the structure of racial power is perceived to have been overturned. According to right-wing pundit Rush Limbaugh, the problem in Ferguson is not the deaths or racism, but protests: “I think that there is a grievance politics in this country, that’s tearing the country apart.” On the eve of Obama’s election, Rudy Giuliani said “we’ve achieved history tonight and we’ve moved beyond … the whole idea of race and racial separation and unfairness”. While this post-race statement appears in stark contrast to those he made about racism and policing in an exchange with Michael Eric Dyson in 2014, they turn the tables and flatten power in a manner enabled by post-race: “Ninety-three percent of blacks are killed by other blacks, I would like to see the attention paid to that that you are paying to this.” “What about the poor black child that was killed by another black child?” “Why aren’t you protesting that?… Why don’t you cut it down so that so many white police officers don’t have to be in black areas?” “White police officers wouldn’t be there, if you weren’t killing each other.” In this statement, the problem of violence against black people is identified as that committed by other black people, with the police merely putting themselves in the line of fire to stop it and being subjected to criticism and protests for it. Such an argument, and the police activism which opposes Black Lives Matter and Beyonce, fundamentally misunderstands and misrepresents the relationship of power between the police and black communities, and the job profile, function and responsibility of the police vis a vis civilian communities. It also misunderstands and misrepresents the meaning of political activism which, although not new for the police, should be about challenging injustices, structures of power and inequality, not defending, preserving or pursuing power and authority (even if it is deemed to be equal or under threat by those holding it). It is anti-racist political activism that fought for black rights and against individual and institutional police racism and force/violence against black people. The result was not a post-race America where racism no longer exists, nor equality or an inversion of power between the police and black communities, but an understanding that power needs to be kept in check, racism must be challenged and political activism is important to do these. What seems to be occurring is that the police and conservative counter-protesters are assuming or claiming the former (post-race, equality or even inversion) and delegitimising checks on power and police racism, and appropriating a form and style of political activism to do so.

 

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