MILITARIZED POLICING AND POLITICAL PROTEST IN THE NEW MEDIA LANDSCAPE
September 5, 2012 Leave a comment
Kelly Gates, UC San Diego
How can the concept of militarism inform our understanding of the role of the modern domestic police force in liberal democratic societies? A frequent observation is that in the post-9/11 U.S., the police are becoming increasingly militarized, adopting military strategies, tactics and technologies to monitor the citizenry and control crime and disorder, and that this newly militarized policing poses a formidable threat to democracy. Certainly, a question at the heart of the relationship between the military and the domestic police force in modern democracies concerns the tenuousness of the distinction between them. A related question concerns the role of the domestic police in managing—and oftentimes outright repressing—anti-war movements as well as other political protests and advocacy efforts aimed at bringing about democratic reforms or more radical social transformations. My interest has been in the police use of media, and in particular, the types of “new media work” that the police perform in the context of managing and repressing political protest.
Historically, the police have had a ubiquitous presence not only in the physical space of political demonstrations, but in the mediated narratives and images of protest that circulated beyond particular events. These media images have favored the police at times, while other times shedding an unflattering light on bad police behavior. As Andrew Goldsmith (2010) has noted, the rise of mass circulation newspapers in the 19th century gave the police a “secondary visibility” beyond their physical presence on the streets, allowing people “far removed from particular settings” to be “made aware of police activities.” Today, the rise of distributed digital networks, social media platforms, and mobile media devices has changed the dynamics of media coverage and visibility with respect to political protest and police authority.
In Christopher Wilson’s (2000) important analysis of police power and cultural narrative, he examines the narrative power that police held in the United States throughout the twentieth-century—how certain ideas, values and assumptions about crime and policing circulated back and forth from police policy and practice, to crime reporting and the popular genres of crime fiction and True Crime storytelling. My aim is to extend this cultural history of policing to the present, asking what the new media landscape portends for the narrative power of the police in post-9/11 United States. How does the new media landscape, and the new forms of police visibility that it affords, challenge the narrative power that the police have conventionally held? Conversely, how does it support that power, or otherwise give the police new tools for managing political protest and gaining and maintaining political authority as agents of the state? These questions concerning police media work and narrative authority are central to understanding the culture of militarization that defines the contemporary U.S.
Goldsmith, Andrew. 2010. Policing’s new visibility. British Journal of Criminology 50: 914–934.
Wilson, Christopher. 2000. Cop Knowledge: Police power and cultural narrative in twentieth-century America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.