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How the Media Enables Violent Bureaucracy
Before I get started on what I think is one of the most fascinating and underappreciated issues in copaganda, I hope you enjoy my latest flower mosaic.
How the Media Enables Violent Bureaucracy
An important general theme of government propaganda is how bureaucracies shape narratives about their own failures in order to get more resources. In the copaganda context, these narratives are almost always targeted at getting well-intentioned but low-information people who feel bad about overt state violence to support various “reforms” that do not challenge the size or power of the punishment bureaucracy.
In our society, with the largest infrastructure of police, prosecution, and prisons in world history, an important part of this process is how the media manufactures the consent of well-meaning but low-information people to support this endless cycle.
Today, as we prepare for the public release of the video showing the brutal police murder of Tyre Nichols, I’m beginning a two-part series about the two main New York Times articles covering the police response to the George Floyd protests. These two articles are among the best examples of how police and their allies turn their own violence and failure into more money and power by shaping public narrative about the causes and solutions. It was my meeting with some of these reporters in 2021 that began my interest in working closely with journalists to change how our society talks about these issues, as well as my acute interest in publicly critiquing copaganda that poses a threat to our safety.
Let’s start with a few questions:
How is it that U.S. police killed more people in 2021, the year after the mass public uprisings in response to the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, than they did in 2020?
How is it that U.S. police then killed even more people in 2022 than in 2021?
How is it that overall U.S. police budgets and revenues for related for-profit industries grew to records each year?
How is it that police training, surveillance technology, and weaponry reached all-time record spending levels each year?
How is it that police have used this technology and weaponry disproportionately against racial minorities and immigrants every year and in virtually every city in which records are kept despite innumerable annual “reforms” to their internal policies?
How is it that police in nearly every U.S. city have disproportionately stopped, searched, arrested, beaten, tased, and killed Black people every year since records have been kept despite huge, continuous increased expenditures on “training”?
One of the core truths about the punishment bureaucracy is that police, prosecutors, prisons, probation, parole, courts, and the constellation of multi-billion dollar industries that evolve in symbiosis with them use their own violence, waste, and ineffectiveness to justify getting more resources in an endless cycle of “reform.” Each failure becomes a reason to spend more trying the same things harder. This cycle is not accidental. Luminaries from Michel Foucault to David Graeber to my one-eyed cat housemate have pointed out the connection between perpetual growth of bureaucracy and narratives around “reform.”
Most people would prefer a society with less state violence, surveillance, and fiscal waste, and yet they all keep increasing. How exactly does this happen? Let me give you a few concrete examples to get us grounded:
Body Cameras: In the wake of the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, one of the key liberal responses were coordinated national calls to get body cameras for police. A lot of news outlets and ordinary people—following the lead of Barack Obama, who ensured $100,000,000s in federal grants to pay for body cameras—championed these devices as a “reform” in direct response to Brown’s homicide. Body cameras were portrayed as a solution to make police more “accountable” and, as a result, as a solution for police violence.
What many people don’t know is that internal documents, public statements, and industry materials reveal that police (and the for-profit manufacturers of the devices and related software) had been desperate to get them for years.1 Police were unable to get local governments, however, to spend the billions of dollars needed to outfit every cop in the U.S. with a mobile surveillance camera that the cops themselves control. Police and carceral tech companies were also unable to procure the money to fulfill their dream of integrating vast amounts of surveillance data into new cloud-based computing systems that would connect reservoirs of police surveillance data to sophisticated (and expensive) facial and voice recognition software.
But after Officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown, these sophisticated actors were smart, and the media was willing: they used the moment of public outrage and calls for change to get liberals in local government and well-meaning people in the general public to support the most expensive expansion of police surveillance technology in modern history. They did this by portraying surveillance infrastructure as some sort of promising “reform” for police violence, almost always cutting out of any media coverage the views of experts, social movement leaders, or directly impacted people who were warning that mobile surveillance cameras, cloud computing networks, and proprietary biometric algorithms controlled by police themselves would have no effect on police violence but instead usher in a new era of state repression.
Police and their allies used the media to focus on the need to capture events that police still created, curated, and controlled on video and relentlessly used talking points about how they simply lacked funding for appropriate technology that could hold them accountable and that could provide the public with answers. In reality, in addition to massive new surveillance tech, everyday police officers wanted body cameras because it gave them the most powerful new form of evidence: an outward looking camera that the officers themselves control both in terms of what it captures and when video is publicly released. These body camera videos are now routinely used in every courtroom in the U.S. as evidence to convict poor people of things like drug possession and trespassing and almost never used against police officers. It is exactly as police chiefs and corporate sales representatives from the companies discussed the devices over a decade ago when formulating their plans.
Most importantly, in the process, police were able to avoid the public asking deeper questions like: “Why are the police patrolling this neighborhood and not that one?” “Why are police only enforcing some "crimes" against some people and not other crimes against other people?” “Do we need police to deal with this wide range of social issues?” “Why is police violence, filmed or not, consistently for over 100 years targeted at progressive social movements seeking greater equality?” And so on.
Bail: When the much-heralded federal Bail Reform Act went into effect in 1984, about 24% of people charged with federal crimes were too poor to afford cash bail and were thus detained in jail even though presumed innocent. Liberal reformers from politicians to judges to prosecutors to law professors championed the Act because it largely eliminated money-based detention in federal court by containing language designed to prohibit setting cash requirements that resulted in detention. The liberal “reform” was to require courts to make transparent decisions about whether a person truly needed to be detained or not and to stop detaining people just because they were poor.
But by 2020, over three decades into the “reform,” 72.4% of people charged with federal crimes were detained in cages before being convicted of anything. The “reform” to cease jailing people just because they were poor, when left in the hands of punishment bureaucrats, had tripled the size of the pretrial detention bureaucracy in federal courts, and the people detained were even more disproportionately poor, more disproportionately Black, and more disproportionately immigrant. As if that wasn’t bad enough, whole new industries—like the multi-billion dollar jail/prison telecom industry—had even worked to get in-person visits and things like the ability to hug one’s child or spouse eliminated on the theory that it would result in more cash spent by desperate families on jail calls. That’s quite a “reform.”
Probation and Parole: These innovations were pitched as modern liberal “reforms” that would be alternatives to incarceration. It sounded great in the media and to well-meaning people who would prefer a society with fewer human beings in cages: instead of confining people in concrete cells away from their families for as long, we can give them a chance to be in the community subject to strict conditions. However, probation and parole have now become a leading cause of incarceration: 25% of all people in state prisons are there because of a technical violation of probation or parole—i.e. not even the commission of a new offense. And another 15% (so, a total of 40%) are there on minor violations of parole or probation.
Decades of research shows that probation and parole supervision do not serve any public benefit: they do not increase public safety at all. But, they have led to an absolutely massive, union-backed bureaucracy of hundreds of thousands of employees who regulate peoples lives in profoundly onerous and increasingly bizarre ways, including: watching people pee into cups, tracking people’s movements with GPS, forcing people to answer questions about their family lives or sexual interest under penalty of jailing them, excluding people from large geographic zones, requiring billions of dollars in fee payments, regulating how and with whom people can socialize, and even requiring people to behave according to particular Christian moral standards.
Sentencing: Back in the 1980s, the U.S. public was told that federal sentencing had become unfair. Led by “progressives” complaining about racial disparity in sentencing, a group of elites led by Justice Stephen Breyer engaged in the biggest “reform” to federal sentencing in modern history. The result was one of the greatest frauds in American legal history that resulted in the greatest increase in human caging in federal history with the passage of the new Federal Sentencing Guidelines.
The New York Times and George Floyd
In my opinion, understanding this cycle of failure, “reform,” and bureaucratic expansion is vital to understanding how the corporate news media covered the 2020 racial justice uprisings, and how the media will continue to cover instances of rampant police violence like the recent murders of Tyre Nichols and Keenan Anderson. It helps explain how they framed the problem, which solutions they suggested for it, which sources and experts they chose to present to the public, and which points of view they excluded.
I have never before written about the woeful media coverage of the George Floyd protests. But in Part 2 of this post next week, I will use the following two examples from the New York Times to show how corporate media helps the punishment bureaucracy use its own violence to get more money and to prevent genuine public education and meaningful change.
The first article is about an official report concluding that LAPD “mishandled” the racial justice protests.
The second article appeared nine days later. It is about the release of numerous similar reports criticizing the police response to 2020 racial justice protests in “city after city.” Notice that I did not say the articles were about the police conduct. They were explicitly, as one of the reporters pointed out to me afterward, articles about what the official government reports said about police conduct. As we will see, this distinction matters.
As I will demonstrate with an analysis of the language, framing, sources, and naked ideological perspective, this reporting constituted a harmful, misleading, ahistorical, head-in-the-sand view that the police who brutalized people in 2020 were just trying to do the best job they could to help people protest for equality. The problem, according to the news media? Police just didn’t have enough money, “training,” “preparation,” and fancy technology to do it.
To be continued… Read Part 2.
I’ll soon be publishing an entire series on the history of body cameras and the media’s calls for “reform.”