Occupy LA Anti-Social Media (OLAASM) has published an excellent piece on the historical role of the Los Angeles police department, called “The LAPD: Not Your Model Police Department – But Definitely Theirs.” OLAASM writes that:
Los Angeles has long served as a proving ground where the counterinsurgency tactics later adopted by police throughout the United States were first domestically deployed. Ever since the nation’s very first no-knock SWAT raid on the Black Panther Party headquarters at 41st & Central and the CIA-facilitated, “crack cocaine explosion” that was first unleashed on South Central to more recent, repressive innovations like so-called “Community Policing” and today’s “Predpol,” (Minority Report-style pre-crime tactics –ed) the City of Angels has repeatedly been lauded as a “model” for “modern” policing.
OLAASM’s piece about how the LAPD is a “model” police department got me thinking about a film I just watched, which struck me as one of the cop-iest piece of copaganda ever dressed up as “found” footage. David Ayer’s 2012 End of Watch is both a critically acclaimed cop thriller and a text that broadcasts police forces’ most deeply embedded myths.
The LAPD is a model police department, but a model for how the state can more effectively and invisibly defuse challenges to its power. For instance, when a militarized police response to the Ferguson protests failed to quell the resistance, the cops sent out a lovable Captain in his dress blues to hug and hold hands with community members. OLAASM calls this part of the “LA Model,” and discusses the tactic’s roots in counterinsurgency strategy (COIN). One of the central planks of COIN is “perception management,” a.k.a. propaganda and related psychological operations. In the case of the America’s police forces, OLAASM calls the carefully cultivated media relations model copaganda.
Hollywood usually engages in “perception management” in a pretty direct way—with a cop, spy, or soldier telling screenwriters “add more of this” or “take that part out.” This may sound like a conspiracy theory, but it is well-established conspiracy fact. Just last month during the bizarre spectacle surrounding The Interview, it was reported both that CIA contractors were consulting Seth Rogen during the production, and State Department officials and RAND corporation employees were pushing the screenwriter and the studio to target North Korea ever more belligerently.
Similarly, when David Ayer set about writing End of Watch, he consulted cops (“I’m a good researcher”), to ensure that viewers are sutured into the LAPD’s perspective. The result is a film that mirrors the most successful relationship Hollywood has ever cultivated: the one with the US military. According to Peter Debruge at Variety, “End of Watch affords the LAPD the respectful portrayal the U.S. military seeks when partnering with Hollywood: Instead of glorifying the individual, the film depicts an honorable and efficient organization of people working together.”
One of the most consistent aspects of film reception is that “realism” in form is taken as indicative of realism in content—a film shot with steadicam-immediacy is discussed critically as though its narrative must similarly reflect “real” life. End of Watch is shot in found-footage style, with the conceit that the film is recorded from the officers’ body-cams and Taylor’s handheld digital video camera (Presumably, if all cops were outfitted with body-cams, the footage would show what a bunch of chill guys they are).
In promoting the film, Jake Gyllenhaal sold End of Watch as “a very authentic movie, shot in point-of-view style.” According to Gyllenhaal, he and co-star Michael Peña trained with live ammunition, to confer even more authenticity, the most highly cherished currency in contemporary filmmaking. The form supplements the content, and End of Watch was praised for its realism. According to critic Lisa Schwarzbaum, End of Watch is “one of the few [films] I’ve seen that pay serious attention to what cop life feels like, both on and off duty, for those who protect and serve the streets of L.A.’s danger zone Southland.”
End of Watch’s “realism” shows how the LAPD protects-and-serves, in the face of great urban danger. Recently, numerous outlets have pointed out that policing is safer than it has been for half a century: police officer doesn’t make the list of 10 most-dangerous jobs in America. The idea that cops are defending the public from imminent harm at the hands of evil forces is a central plank of the copaganda platform (“Every moment of your life / they stand watch,” reads the film’s tagline). In End of Watch, this threat comes from what Malcolm Harris calls “the big bad other in the American drug imaginary: Mexican cartels.”
In the film, Gyllenhaal’s officer Taylor and Peña’s officer Zavala run afoul of the cartels after going out of their way to bust a drug and human-trafficking hub. After the bust, ICE commandoes—corn-fed hulks with 19” biceps and M4s—roll up on the cops and warn them that they’ve prodded the hornets’ nest of the Sinaloa cartel. In another sequence, over a grainy, green-tinged night-vision view of the border, a signals intelligence intercept tells viewers in voice-over that Taylor and Zavalas are to be assassinated. The film’s finale sequence is a shoot-out where cartel hitmen—one of whom is named Big Evil—take on the two cops.
The film, like countless other pop culture texts, treats Mexican drug crime as an evil that was born down south and threatens to overrun American communities. The night-vision shot of the border conveys from whence the threat comes, and communicates that 24/7 vigilance is necessary. Similarly, the SigInt recording and the heavily armed Homeland Security squadron shows how much firepower is necessary to keep America safe. It also draws a big, fat line between the US and the cartels. The Sinaloa cartel in particular had a long and fruitful relationship with the DEA, and the currently most-feared cartel, los Zetas, were initially trained in counterinsurgency warfare at the notorious School of the Americas at Fort Benning, GA.
However, there’s no bigger copaganda myth than the idea that policing’s purpose is to keep us safe. According to David Whitehouse’s “Origins of the police”:
In England and the United States, the police were invented within the space of just a few decades—roughly from 1825 to 1855. The new institution was not a response to an increase in crime, and it really didn’t lead to new methods for dealing with crime. The most common way for authorities to solve a crime, before and since the invention of police, has been for someone to tell them who did it. Besides, crime has to do with the acts of individuals, and the ruling elites who invented the police were responding to challenges posed by collective action.
To put it in a nutshell: The authorities created the police in response to large, defiant crowds. That’s strikes in England, riots in the Northern US, and the threat of slave insurrections in the South. So the police are a response to crowds, not to crime.
The recent uprisings in the US against racist state repression have threatened to undermine that creation myth. Even liberal outlets are being forced to acknowledge that the system is not broken, but doing precisely its intended, evil function. With their roots in fugitive slave patrols, the police have putting down resistance from ethnically marginalized groups at their core. As Peter Gelderloos said about “the Nature of Police”:
In a serious debate, however, it would be hard to deny that the police are a racist institution par excellence. They kill young black, latino, and Native people at a disproportionately higher rate than white youth, and the institution itself descended from the patrols created to capture fugitive slaves in the South and police urban immigrants in the North, as masterfully documented in Kristian Williams‘ landmark book, Our Enemies in Blue. What’s more, the criminal justice system that the police play an integral role in, both feeding and defending the prison-industrial complex, grew directly out of the 13th Amendment’s approval of slavery in the case of imprisonment, illuminating the path by which the United States’ advancing economy could leave plantation slavery behind, first with the pairing of sharecropping and chain gangs, and more recently with the pairing of a precarious labor market on the outside and booming prison industries on the inside.
The culture industry has always played a critical role in shaping perceptions of race and criminality. In the 70s, the groundwork for what Glen Ford calls mass black incarceration was being laid by cloaking systemic racism in the colorblind language of criminality. With the state doing the work of linking black oppression with “crime-fighting,” the culture industry did the work of providing the colorblind whitewash. Consequently, that decade provided a slew of inner-city white-revenge fantasies, with names like The Destroyer and The Executioner, which acted out racialized aggression on conspicuously mixed-race gangs. With the image of the black criminal firmly implanted in the public consciousness, “colorblind” film crime provided the pretense that America’s wars on drugs and crime were something other than a war on the black underclass. In the 80s, as the drug war was bringing tremendous amounts of police violence to mostly black inner city populations, Hollywood produced countless films depicting fully integrated police forces. The trope of the mixed-race partners, answering to a black police chief, came from this period.
Even films with “bad cops” ultimately shore up the police as an institution. End of Watch is “remarkable,” according to NPR’s Bob Mondello, since in Hollywood “cops are mostly considered interesting only when they go rogue.” However, for a cop to have to go rogue in order to become “bad” necessarily means that the system is good. Good cops and rogue cops are complementary, not opposed.
End of Watch depicts a very contemporary brand of “post-racial” harmony, with race manifesting itself in the form of “politically incorrect” banter. Officers Zavala and Taylor exchange a series of good-natured race-based barbs, of the “Hispanic families are big / white people like scented candles” variety. It doesn’t give any indication of the LAPD’s history of murdering LA’s black and brown citizens. As OLAASM points out, in this regard, the LAPD is an innovator, and End of Watch pulls off a narratively sophisticated whitewash of policing. No one is prouder of the film’s presentation of race and the LAPD than the filmmaker, who says that “It’s not the department of the ’80s, it’s not the department of the ’90s. It’s a department that reflects the neighborhood it polices now. The department has evolved, so let’s have our movies evolve to reflect that.”
In analyzing what End of Watch does with race, it’s useful to return to the comparison that Debruge made in the pages of Variety between this cop thriller and American war films’ “respectful portrayal[s]” of the US military. A lot of film scholarship has illuminated how the integrated combat unit is a site for imagining an ideal, post-racism America. The US military, which is America’s most-trusted institution by increasingly wide margins, has been represented in film as a racism-free utopia to different degrees since World War II. Since Mexico has long represented the frontier, latino soldiers in film are made visible to represent an inclusive, harmonious American community.
Peña’s character functions in the same way. In the film, one of the first calls to which Taylor and Zavala respond takes them to the home of a black Blood named Tre. He hurls racist insults at Zavala, and challenges the officer to a fight. The two fight and Zavala wins, arresting Tre but not charging him with assault. Later on, when Taylor and Zavala drive by the Bloods, Tre vouches for the integrity and “realness” of the cops. By Zavala demonstrating his connection to the streets, the cops earn the black gang’s respect. Tre later tips them off that the cartel is gunning for them.
By having a Latino cop demonstrate his connection to the neighborhood—his dual consciousness, as Frantz Fanon put it—the film embraces a kind of whitewashed race-consciousness. Race exists as a surface signifier, which gives a mixed-race cop unit something to shoot the shit about during long drives, rather than racism existing at the core of policing itself. That the film adduces a black criminal character whose only narrative purpose is to vouch for the decency of cops (whom he then saves) is a testament to a whitewash that concedes only that race exists.
However, the majority of non-white characters in End of Watch are latin@. Here, the film builds another whitewashed vision of racial harmony. First, there’s officer Zavala and his fellow non-white officers. Putting on my best “movie trailer voice-over guy” voice: the only color they see is blue. To hear the film and other cop apologists tell it, policing is a colorblind job. The film’s last words, spoken by Taylor, are “[Zavala is] my brother,” reiterating this point as the most salient facet of the narrative.
Similarly, most of the non-cop latin@s to which viewers are introduced are members of Zavala’s family. However, End of Watch constantly reminds viewers that cop-family are to be considered cops, or at least cop-adjacent. When Taylor marries Janet (Anna Kendrick), the two are told that Janet is “family” now, linked to a group that includes both cops and civilians—but which presumably sees the interests of the state’s enforcers as contiguous with their own.
Next to cops, there are the cartels. The cartel members are, of course, violent and the enemies of peace. The cartel members we meet blast narcocorridos from lifted trucks and carry gold-plated Kalashnikovs and mother-of-pearl-handled Colt 1911s. To reiterate the racialized modality between cops and the cartels, a latina officer makes clear during a standoff with Sureños that she came from their neighborhood, and thus shares the same origins but having followed the “right” path.
In addition to the cops and the cartels, there are immigrants. However, the immigrants in End of Watch are limited to one sequence. When Taylor and Zavala bust into the house that will bring the wrath of the cartel down on them, they do so to rescue a houseful of migrants, imprisoned by their coyotes and bound for some horrible fate. In the film’s formulation, cops help immigrants who are harmed by the cartels.
According to Fatima Insolación’s “The Insurgent Southwest,” this is a common copaganda trope:
Border patrol officers like to say that they are ‘out in the desert saving lives.’ I have had many agents on the ground over the years tell me this word for word. ‘Salvation’ from potential death in the desert is being used to justify low-intensity warfare, domination, and repression.
Much of the repression to which Insolación refers is due to a militarized border policy that both terrorizes would-be immigrants and forces them to work with increasingly brutal traffickers. However, the idea that cops and ICE help immigrants is propaganda of the most shameless order. Policing targeting immigrants is a crucial part of “keeping a portion of the workforce frightened and exploitable,” as Insolación says. The millions of deportations under the Obama administration are a form of state terror against one of America’s most vulnerable populations, maintaining everything from harassment to literal enslavement.
To the degree that End of Watch shows immigrants not linked to the cops or cartels, it portrays them as helpless people waiting to be saved by the police. In reality, the police are immigrants’ usual harassers and antagonists. However, the film’s cop-cartel-immigrant triad aligns the “good” latin@s with the state’s enforcers. With both its black and latin@ characters, End of Watch creates a world where the police are in near-perfect harmony with America’s non-white populations.
Ever since Daryl Gates invented the first SWAT team after the Watts uprising in 1965, the LAPD has been at the forefront of innovating the state’s tactics of repression. With both the LAPD and 21st century America, it’s necessary to rethink “repression,” which is traditionally imagined as a boot stomping on a human face, in Orwell’s memorable words. According to Kristian Williams, from his introduction to Life During Wartime: Resisting Counterinsurgency, “repression does not always come dressed in riot gear, or breaking into offices in the middle of the night. It also comes in the form of the friendly ‘neighborhood liaison’ officer, the advisory boards to local police departments, and the social scientist hired on as a consultant.”
Pop culture shapes our perceptions of those people empowered by the state to do violence to us—what Monalisa Maryam Gharavi calls “the killing class.” As US Army counterinsurgency manual FM 3-24 says, “Culture forms the basis of how people interpret, understand, and respond to events and people around them. Cultural understanding is critical because who a society considers to be legitimate will often be determined by culture and norms.” Central to creating support for the status quo is erasing reality to substitute a myth. Obviously, End of Watch isn’t the only film to do this—countless of texts have similar ideological functions in them. However, End of Watch is remarkable for how largely two central copaganda tropes figure into its narrative. According to the film, policing is a race-conscious but neutral endeavor to keep people safe from monsters. The only people this narrative protects and serves are the cops.