Next Monday the Fox network unveils a new television show called K-Ville. Set in post-Katrina New Orleans, K-Ville promises to highlight the heroism of New Orleans cops. Unfortunately, the true story of policing in New Orleans is unlikely to be told by Fox, or by anyone in the corporate media.
Since at least the 1950s, and shows like Dragnet, Hollywood’s representation of cops has been as a thin blue line of honest and straightforward heroes protecting the good people from the bad. The Seventies were a time of radical movements, and this brought radical criticisms of police into the mainstream, with films like Serpico and Chinatown exposing police corruption and brutality. However, the Seventies ultimately led to a new kind of hero. In 1980s films such as Dirty Harry, the cop – or, in the case of the Death Wish movies, vigilante – was brutal and violent, but ultimately sympathetic.
Audiences could no longer believe the old clean-cut images of cops – there were too many front-page stories of police violence and corruption – but it was still necessary to maintain the public perception that cops are necessary. The new generation of cops on film and TV – later refined and popularized by stars from Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon to Dennis Frantz in NYPD Blue – was that of a troubled, violent, flawed, but ultimately sympathetic hero. Yes, they broke the rules, but ultimately the rules are the problem. These cops would torture people based on a hunch – but, they were always right. The person they tortured would always end up being guilty, and they would always get information from torturing them that they would not have gotten otherwise.
This justification was developed in Hollywood, and then perfected years later by the Bush Administration, who made explicit the arguments that films like Die Hard had implied –we need cops (and soldiers and federal agents) to break the rules. In fact the rules are the problem. There are “good people” and “criminals,” and we don’t need to worry about how the “bad guys” are treated. Further, the job of keeping us safe is necessarily dirty, and the police will need to break some rules to do their job right. “Tough on Crime” politicians like former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani also contributed to this environment by discarding decades of reforms and practices meant to give opportunity for rehabilitation, instead pushing for more police, more prisons, and more arrests.
Courage To Burn
Into this archetype comes the Fox cop drama K-Ville. The publicity material for the new show explains, “Two years after Katrina, the city is still in chaos…many cops have quit, and the jails, police stations and crime labs still haven’t been properly rebuilt. But the cops who remain have courage to burn and a passion to reclaim and rebuild their city.”
Like all Hollywood products, this show is about making money first and foremost – it attempts to ride on the coattails of popular cop shows like Law and Order and CSI. In doing so, it also falls perfectly into an agenda of explaining and forgiving brutal police behavior. In fact, it takes one of the nation’s most notoriously racist, violent and corrupt police forces, and explains away their harmful acts as the natural result of the trauma of Katrina and its aftermath. When the cops on this show torture – for example, the first episode contains a kind of amateur “waterboarding” – it is because they are good people who have been pushed too hard. It makes us empathize with them and not, for example, with their victims, who are seen as deserving of whatever punishment they receive. As the show publicity states, the show’s hero is “unapologetic about bending the rules when it comes to collaring bad guys. The stakes are too high, and the city too lawless, for him to do things by the book.”
A Good Cop
Anthony Anderson stars as Marlin Boulet, a black New Orleans cop who has seen his city devastated, who is fighting, as a homeowner, for his ninth ward neighborhood to return, while fighting as a cop against a sea of crime.
Like Law and Order, the show (at least in the first episode) dodges much of the racial politics of policing by having the criminals be mostly wealthy and white, while the police and victims are racially diverse. Like many of these TV shows, there is an attempt to please as wide an audience as possible – the shows bring in conservatives with the tough on crime rhetoric, but bring in liberals by having the villains be corporate criminals. K-Ville even has one white villain say, “That storm wasn’t a disaster…that storm was a cleansing,” a moment that indicts white racism in the cleansing of the city, and not something that you would expect from Fox. In fact, despite being skeptical about New Orleans’ notoriously brutal police force being portrayed as heroes, it’s hard not to root for them when the first episode’s villains are Blackwater mercenaries (here called “Black River”).
Although the show gets much wrong about how race, class and power work in New Orleans – and the US – it also gets a surprising amount of details right. For anyone from Louisiana, the short scene with a barbeque and the song Cupid Shuffle playing makes up for a lot that has come before (the song is by Cupid, an artist from Lafayette, Louisiana, and plays at virtually every party in New Orleans). The show also has throwaway references to other New Orleans-specific phrases and foods – from the term “neutral ground” to eating gumbo – that makes the viewer feel that someone involved in writing the show at least spent some time in New Orleans.
In the end, however, these accuracies only help to convey the deeper, and more problematic, purpose of the show – a portrayal of New Orleans police as an essential thin blue line of protection in an outlaw city. The show brings up the horror of prisoners abandoned in Orleans Parish Prison, but only to reinforce a law and order message. The show brings up white racism, but only as an exception, not as a system of power that has displaced almost half of the black population of the city. In short, the show gets some of the problems right, but it gets the answer deeply wrong.
The Disaster Before the Disaster
The reality is that the police, glamorized on K-Ville, are a part of the disaster the people of New Orleans have faced, not part of the solution. As has been widely reported, the town of Gretna, across the Mississippi from New Orleans and part of Jefferson Parish, stationed officers on the bridge leading out of New Orleans blocking the main escape route for the tens of thousands suffering in the Superdome, Convention Center, and throughout the city. In the months after Katrina, while New Orleanians wanted to return and rebuild their city, they got “security” instead. Hundreds of National Guard troops, as well as police forces from across the U.S. and private security forces including Blackwater, Wackenhut and an Israeli company called Instinctive Shooting International began patrolling the nearly empty city.
From the initial images broadcast around the world, demonizing the people of New Orleans as “looters” and “criminals,” the public perception of New Orleans’ people has been shaped by vigilante rhetoric, exemplified by Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco bringing in National Guard troops shortly after Katrina with the words, “They have M-16s and they are locked and loaded…These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so if necessary, and I expect they will.” This assessment, now validated by K-Ville, was no doubt a big cause of so-called “Katrina Fatigue” – the widely reported feeling that the nation has run out of sympathy for the people of New Orleans. Why feel sympathy for a city of criminals?
While shows like K-Ville draws a solid line between good and bad, real life is murkier. Nationwide, nearly 90 percent of people imprisoned in federal prisons are there for nonviolent offenses. Louisiana is at the vanguard of mass-imprisonment, with the highest rate of imprisonment in the country—816 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 state residents. If Louisiana were a county, it would have the highest imprisonment rate in the world. As cases like the Jena Six so vividly demonstrate, the racial disparity in both arrests and sentencing in the state is striking. Although African-Americans make up 32 percent of Louisiana’s population, they constitute 72 percent of the state’s prison population.
The stories that shows like K-Ville leave untold are those of community coming together to solve problems. In New Orleans, our real “first-responders” are folks in the communities most affected, who were out in the days after the storm rescuing people and distributing food. The true hope for our city lies in projects such as Safe Streets Strong Communities, Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, and Critical Resistance, grassroots organizations that are on the frontlines of struggles for justice in New Orleans, organizing in their communities and building a movement. There are also the lawyers and advocates of organizations such as Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, Innocence Project New Orleans, A Fighting Chance and the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center. These organizations have represented those who the system has abandoned, from kids caught up in notoriously brutal youth prisons to indigent people on death row. These are the truly compelling stories of criminal justice in New Orleans post-Katrina, yet you can be sure that these local voices will be among those that K-Ville will not air.
A version of this article originally appeared in the fall issue of The Abolitionist