Media and the police state: defining the contemporary police state

by special section editors,
Namrata Rele Sathe and Soumik Pal

In 2019, the Bharatiya Janata Party was elected to form the government in India for another term of five years. Since its election into power in 2014, there has been a steady decline in constitutional freedoms, and a consistent and quick rise in the heavy-handed work of the government in turning India into a Hindu fundamentalist nation. The winter of 2019 brought in a glimmer of hope when the anti-CAA protests took place all over India. People came out in unison to protest against a law (the Citizenship Amendment Act) that would have prevented Muslim migrants fleeing persecution in neighboring South Asian countries from getting refuge in India. As citizens of all age groups crowded the streets to protest the act from being codified into the Indian Constitution, the state deployed its forces against its own citizens. The police, especially in states such as Delhi (India’s capital) and Uttar Pradesh, clamped down on the protestors by firing at them, beating them up, and spraying tear gas on them. Resistance to police brutality during this time—highly visible on news channels and on social media via citizen-generated videos and images—was equally strong, and unsurprisingly, crystallized within viral works of art.

One particular work of art—reproduced several times in murals and graffiti on walls in public spaces—stands out: a young girl holds her own in front of a policeman; her finger is raised in a scolding gesture as he stands still, a baton in his hands. This artwork, a re-creation of a photograph that appeared in the news, is a depiction of college student Ayesha Renna, protecting her male friend who is lying on the ground, struck down from the blows of the policeman’s baton. Reminiscent of another viral image of Ieshia Evans, a black woman calmly facing down a line of policemen wearing full military-grade armor during the Black Lives Matter protests in 2016, the artwork showing Ayesha Renna standing up to the police highlights certain ideas with regard to the relationship of the police with the state, with the citizens of that state, and the media. The police act as the violent and undemocratic arm of the state, protecting the hegemonic neoliberal elite rather than the citizens that they are ostensibly meant to protect. The police is the executioner of the state’s brutal will against its own citizens, forever-prepared to suppress (through direct violence, surveillance, and arrests) those who might rise against it in dissent and disagreement. In this, the police often replicate the societal and systemic injustices that are at the core of any society, and are motivated to act in racist, misogynist, casteist, and xenophobic ways. However, the images referred to above also show that resistance is possible, that it is often non-violent yet powerful, and that the mediatization of these small and big acts of resistance (whether through news or fictional media) makes it possible for many to meet in movements of solidarity against the police.

Ieshia Evans standing her ground in front of a line of policemen at the Black Lives Matter protests in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 2016.

In this special section, we attempt to delineate and critically engage with these and other issues pertaining to the relationship between the media and the representation of the police. We have collated critical works from across the world that theorize on a range of diverse subjects, including the work of the police in maintaining the dominance of the neoliberal state, expressly demarcating and deliberately persecuting populations deemed ‘deviant’ by society (such as the poor and minority communities), the police as a primary organizing entity of the modern state, and the weaponization of legacy and new media for the purpose of justifying police brutality violence. Nevertheless, as many of the essays in this special section demonstrate, just as traditional and digital media are appropriated by the police to exercise unmitigated power and create narratives that justify the presence and relevance of the police, these are the very tools that can, and are, used to raise awareness about these acts of brutality.

But before a more detailed discussion of the rationale behind this special issue is possible, it is important to define what we mean by the police state and why we believe it is important to examine its relation to the media at this time. Moving beyond the commonplace understanding of the term “police state” as totalitarian, in this special section we locate the police as the primary arbitrator of the state in creating a general atmosphere of social crisis and panic around safety and security, which (in a perverse case of circular reasoning) it is then called upon to resolve. In addition to its traditional role in the prevention and control of crime, the state has made it possible for the police to exercise its powers in broader and more egregious ways, such as in the criminalization of the homeless, the abuse of those outside the heteronormative binary, and the imprisonment of marginalized populations who protests against the injustices they suffer.

The images of those criminalized by the state and then mistreated by the police are mediatized through television and digital news media, documentary and feature films, in video games, and in our social media feeds to impress upon us that we should not worry: the police are there and are doing their jobs well. The version of police and citizen interactions depicted in the news media, for instance, are often considered to be the ‘official’ accounts, states Regina G. Lawrence (2000, 5). These accounts originate from the police and are then dispersed through news outlets as the truth, thus “faithfully [reflecting] the views, concerns, and activities of the political elite” (Lawrence 2005, 5).

In fictional accounts, such as cop shows, we witness the heroic, meticulous work of the police in solving crime, in the manner of behind-the-scenes actors, positioned as sincerely going about their thankless jobs in the service of the nation and the greater good.In this, the representation of the police acquires a gloss of the tragic hero persona, which, interestingly, as Santana Khanikar has shown in her ethnography on the police in north India, is how many police personnel regard themselves (2018, 61). Loic Wacquant (2009) observes that issues pertaining to law and order are increasingly being carried out for the purpose of being exhibited. “The absolute priority is to put on a spectacle” adds Wacquant (2009, xi). The continual reinforcement of visuals portraying the police as saviors inhibits critical and intellectual engagement and presents the police as-is, an indispensable part of the modern state, without alternative. Thus, the media is implicated in justifying the violent, intrusive, and undemocratic work of the police in framing the institution as immanent, morally good, and intrinsic to the crisis-ridden modern state.

Using the media as a lens to theorize on the police state, however, allows us as media scholars to use a dialectical method and underscore the notion that media images can be both emancipatory and controlling. Thus, the varied analyses of media images in this special section showcase both the democratic and anti-democratic potential of media images. What we find is that whether the images are used to fulfill their democratic potential or further the authoritarian impulse of the police state depends on the context of the usage of the images. We have all witnessed the revolutionary potential of bystander recordings of police brutality against Black people in the United States and the far-reaching movement these videos have engendered. We have also been able to see, in these videos, visual proof of the police’s violent work in systematically targeting Black people and murdering them, without waiting for the so-called due course of justice. Thus, in this special section we intentionally remain cognizant of the idea that the regime of visuality within media images in regard to the police is full of contradictions and must not be assessed on a simplistic good-bad scale.

The bystander video recording of George Floyd’s murder by the police led to the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020.

The police state and the protection of capital

Scholars of the history of policing have repeatedly commented on the fact that the institution of policing has direct links to the protection of capital. For instance, we can witness the similarity in the case of those most detrimentally affected by policing and the carceral system in the historical events of slavery and colonization. The carceral system of policing in the United States, explains Michelle Alexander, in her influential work The New Jim Crow (2019), originated in strategic laws that allowed the persistence of slavery even after it had been abolished. Alexander states that since “slavery remained appropriate as punishment for a crime,” African Americans were disproportionately imprisoned in jails perpetuating the racist law (32). This forced African Americans into a system of “extreme repression and control” that continues to this date, argues Alexander (2019, 32). Jill Lepore, in her historical examination of the police in the United States, observes that “stop and frisk, stop and whip, shoot to kill” laws were in place eighteenth century New York to target black people held as slaves (2020, n.pag.). Lepore mentions that the police acted as “slave patrols,” signifying “the role of slavery in the history of the police (2020, n.pag.). In a parallel fashion, the idea of “bad characters” that pervades the Indian policing system even in the present times and refers to those who are deemed ‘habitual’ criminals, states Khanikar, comes from a colonial mindset wherein this group was “readily identified with the poor, unemployed, and rural migrants” (2018, 52). Thus, those groups of people who are policed, surveilled, and incarcerated to the maximum degree today are victimized by historically discriminatory systems. This reality has deep-rooted connections to how marginalized groups are represented in the media as such communities are either deprived of means to self-represent in media images or have been negatively stereotyped in the media (Lawrence 2000), reinforcing the notion that certain groups of people (such as black people or lower castes in India) are by default criminals from whom the rest of society needs protection.

It is necessary, at this point, to briefly examine the role of policing and its representation in United States media and how that has become a template for the same across the world. Wacquant notes that the US ideology of “War on Crime”—a proclamation made by President Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s which was directly responsible for the criminalization and incarceration of Black and Hispanic people—is today seen as the “theoretical source and practical inspiration” for justice systems around the world (2009, xiii). According to this ideology, the blame of crime and criminality is placed on the “personal irresponsibility and immorality of the criminal” rather than on systemic and policy failure (2009, xiv). As the welfare state was replaced by a “police and penal state” post the Civil Rights movement in the US, explains Wacquant, the “criminalization of marginality and the punitive containment of the dispossessed” became social policy (2009, 42). Wacquant, in his work, convincingly argues in favor of a direct link between the entrenchment of neoliberal values and policies in the social, interpersonal, and personal and the penalization of those disenfranchised by “financialized capital and flexible wage labor” (2009, 1).

Jordan T. Camp and Christina Heatherton implicate the US police’s “broken windows policy,” that is, the relentless policing small types of (urban) crimes in order to prevent major crimes from occurring, in what they term an “ideological and political project” that vengefully targets marginalized urban populations (2016, n.pag.). This official policy has shifted the focus away from social welfare to “security,” exacerbating the issue in neoliberalized, deindustrialized, and gentrified cities (2016, n.pag.). As Lepore insightfully observes in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder, “[t]he crisis in policing is the culmination of a thousand other failures—failure of education, social services, public health, gun regulation, criminal justice, and economic development” (2020, n.pag.).

Scholars such as David Graeber (2015) and Mark Fisher (2009) have pointed out that, contrary to popular belief, neoliberalism has been characterized by the proliferation of bureaucracy that has come to define and dominate all aspects of our lives. Regina Lawrence’s account of how the police’s version of events is passed off uncritically by news media as “official” points to the fact that institutions under neoliberal capitalism, such as the police and the news media establishment, are inherently bureaucratic in nature. As Noam Chomsky and Edward Hermann had shown in their now famous “propaganda model” of media, the news media are predisposed to quote bureaucratic accounts as they are perceived to be factual because they reinforce a normative order of society and also, shield themselves from the task of investigative journalism and the threat of libel suits. Citing Mark Fishman, they call this “the principle of bureaucratic affinity” because “only other bureaucracies can satisfy the input needs of a news bureaucracy.” (1988, 19)

This mutual symbiosis between the police and the media actually goes further as these establishments have modelled themselves on, and even fused into, each other on a global scale. Karen Fang writes about Hong Kong police, “…media production and self-promotion are now major sites of police labor and operations, symptomatic of the force’s modernization and professionalization.” (2017, 105) Looking at US American policing, Christopher P Wilson (2000) shows how news reporting (especially, crime reporting) models itself on the police through practices such as crime news beats following police precinct lines or the press acquiring rooms inside police stations to the extent that reporters have been mistaken for police personnel by city dwellers and the act of reporting itself has been likened to policing. This has profound effects not only on news production and policing but also what constitutes crime and ultimately, on the idea of society itself. Wilson succinctly sums up the far reaching effects of such practices,

“By reflecting the enforcement priorities of the police; by heroicizing the investigative prowess of the police and the reporter him- or herself ; by offering a social-pathology view of crime and by personalizing victims into “all that is pure and admirable”—by these and many other conventions, many an argument goes, crime news legitimates those “narrowed grooves of institutional meaning” that often begin with police departments and intersect with other agencies of cultural knowledge and social control.” (4)

The pathologization of crime and the mediatization of the various crises caused by neoliberalism plays right into societal anxieties that demand locking up and/or violently dealing with those deemed responsible for this crisis. One of the US-origin shows that we remember watching in the early days of cable television in India was a show called COPS, which played out real-life incidents of street arrests and take-downs of criminals.

A still from the US-American TV show COPS that has contributed to the generalized belief regarding Black and other people of color, the poor, and the homeless as ‘dangerous’ criminals.

The opening credits of the show played out to the band Inner Circle’s catchy number “Bad Boys,” as police hauled in (mostly young Black boys as) criminals. Research into the narrative practices of such shows has revealed that the police are often asked to be more aggressive for the cameras in order to create tension and make the narrative more dramatic (Molofsky 2020). There are many such shows on Indian television as well: Crime Patrol (2003-present) and Savdhaan India (‘Be warned India’, 2012-present) being the most popular. Even a quick scroll through the thumbnail images of the episodes available on YouTube will clearly prove how both shows sexualize images of assault against women and sensationalize stories constructed around illicit sexual relationships to be related for voyeuristic consumption.

A promotional still of the Indian TV show Crime Patrol (the word below the show’s title reads “always alert”).

A promotional still for Savdhaan India

The long-lasting presence and repeat telecasts on TV of cop-based reality shows serves to both heighten the crisis and insecurity around the issue of crime and societal instability and provide relief in the form of the re-enacted investigations of the police. A common ideological thread runs through shows of this type, a severe limitation of imagination plagues them: the police are the one and only solution to various socio-economic issues and they are doing their work in an exemplary fashion. Furthermore, the fusion of the media establishment and the police has gone on so far so as to eschew any semblance of ethics on the media’s part and due process on the police’s part. For example, in India, celebrity news media anchors (not journalists) nowadays conduct elaborate media trials based on spurious or non-existent evidence as they play judge, jury and executioner. This deliberate shaping of public opinion by these media personalities against entities deemed “problematic” by the state legitimizes and is followed by police action against them, forming a sinister ecosystem. These ecosystems manufacture support for the police amongst common people, against their own interests, that lead to slogans like “Blue Lives Matter” in the United States or “Dilli police tum lath bajao/ Hum tumhare saath hain (Delhi police you wield your batons/ We are with you).”

But, as the works in this special issue will demonstrate, the idea that more policing is the only solution to social problems is difficult to reconcile with the other type of media images of the police we witness today and have been witness to over time: images of police brutality and violence that contradict the belief that the system of policing is the only objective solution to criminality and functions is fair and lawful ways.

Cop heroes, mass entertainment, and
the justification of spectacular violence

David Graeber shows that the “police are bureaucrats with weapons.” (73) Their role is, contrary to popular opinion, is not to “fight crime” but to violently uphold the bureaucratic structure of global finance capitalism, something that Heath Schultz discusses at length in his essay in this special section. Graeber points to the elaborate structures of image making that construct cops as heroes, contrary to Max Weber’s predictions about bureaucratic societies becoming devoid of charisma, enchantment and romance. (74) In fact, the rise of bureaucracies since the advent of finance capitalism, that are premised on a skewed distribution of information managed by violence, have been necessarily accompanied by cultural work that have portrayed bureaucrats as heroes (or heroes operating within bureaucracies). The “cop hero” is at the forefront of this phenomenon.

The cop hero, that marks the popular cop film and show, is usually shown as morally upright but not averse to stepping outside of the bounds of the legal. Other common elements are, focus on the procedure of solving a crime, extrajudicial violence enacted upon the bodies of supposed criminals (the ‘villains’ of the narrative) that is justified in favor of serving the greater good, and action scenes that contribute to the image of bravado and fearlessness of the cop hero. Fictional cop stories, which are also often action films, conflate a specific type of violent, unhinged masculinity with the idea of societal justice. The physical prowess of the cop-hero is always and explicitly in service of beating up and overpowering the less physically proficient criminals. The focus on the physicality and its relation to conventional masculinity is underscored by the fact that the cop is generally played by well-built, muscular actors, for instance, Bruce Willis, Steven Segal, Danny Glover, Will Smith (in Hollywood cinema) and Akshay Kumar, Salman Khan, Ajay Devgn, Ranveer Singh (in Hindi cinema). Camera angles and close-up slow motion shots spend ample time fetishizing the body of the actors as they perform their stunts and action scenes, creating a spectacular presentation of violence that would otherwise be horrifying and almost certainly fatal. The ideology, entrenched in popular depictions of the police, reiterates that going against direct orders and defying the system is for the greater good, further bolstered by the fact that the cop-hero is inevitably rewarded in the end by the capture of the criminal-villain.

 In his essay “Class in Action,” Chuck Kleinhans (1996) explains that this is a specific type of masculinist as well as working class fantasy, foregrounded in action cinema featuring a working class cop hero: being able to act against the system to expose corruption without any consequences. However, in real life, argues Kleinhans, these types of actions would lead to serious fallouts such as loss of livelihood and income for the individual. Important ideological constructs are folded into this type of narrative, then, as Kleinhans states; the cop hero who isworking class (or coded as working class via mise-en-scene, background etc.) is “authorized to be violent in order to be the agent of justice” (1996, 260). The violence, therefore, is completely justified in this type of ideological suturing in representations because it allows the cop character (socially repressed yet institutionally powerful) to act against evil and more powerful ‘villainous’ individuals to serve the national/international community at large.

These beliefs are based within an understanding that, institutionally, the police is paternalistic, patriarchal, and masculinist in its essence and functions as a protector of a nation and its people. The institution of policing follows the general trend of the masculinization of the state under neoliberalism, argues Wacquant, in which the state is positioned as virile and punitive via its law and order systems (2009, 15). Similarly, in Khaniker’s ethnography of the police in north India, violence and torture is perceived by her subjects as necessary and useful for the pursuit of ‘true’ justice, and also serves to reaffirm the masculinist identity of the perpetrator (2018, 61). In a such a case, wherein the neoliberal state is “muscular” with regards to national security, argues Rajnish Rai, the display of spectacular violence (in the name of law and order) is routinized and becomes the primary visual language of the repressive and coercive state (2019, 113). Rai adds,

“Transforming national security discourse into a spectacle becomes the heart of the neoliberal project, as it nurtures a form of citizenship that is actively invested in the commodification and consumption of state violence. Spectacle and identity politics play a central role in neoliberal consumerist projects, as fandom and citizenship are immersed in cultures of violence” (2019,113).

Rai also goes on to implicate the news media (and popular cinema, we would add) in beaming these spectacular narratives for its citizens to consume in the name of entertainment, fully participating in the “neoliberal state-corporate nexus” (2019, 123). The problem of glorification of the violence and extra-judicial work of the police, thus, takes place within a web of institutions geared towards accumulating profit or power or both as their ultimate aim.

Scholars, writing on the issue of police violence, have also commented on how those belonging to minority and/or marginalized communities in society are doubly victimized by the unequal institutional practices. In the context of Central America, Cecilia Menjivar argues that less dramatic and often invisible acts of violence routinely occurring against marginalized groups, which the author terms acts of “symbolic violence,” can cause long-lasting harm (2021, 4). Menjivar includes instances in which complaints of domestic violence made by women might go ignored and un(der)reported, reflecting a reliance on “discriminatory stereotypes” of patriarchal bureaucratic institutions such as the police (2021, 8). In the United States, scholars explain how black and Native American lives are considered disposable and threatening to the hegemony of white supremacy and the police actively work with a callous state to ‘eliminate’ these groups (Kelley 2016; Heatherton 2016). In an interview with Christina Heatherton, Indigenous activist Nick Estes draws attention to the idea that a violent and persecutory police presence is necessary in a settler colony such as the US. Estes states that since colonization is “never a complete process,” policing of Native Americans in the US “happens in the present and also in the future” (Heatherton 2016, n.pag.).

A protestor’s banner at a demonstration against police violence that kills Native Americans.

Robin D. G. Kelley connects the continuing policing of African Americans in the US to the historical caricaturing of black people within media forms such as “coon shows, soapbox sermons, darky films, and mass advertising” (2016, n.pag.). These media representations, Kelley argues, have contributed to the dehumanization of black people, making their deaths from police brutality routine.

In a right-wing fundamentalist state, write Srinath Jagannathan and Rajnish Rai (2015), individual members of minority communities deemed the “enemies” of the state are subject to indiscriminate violence. Any opposition to this type of illegal violence, by dissenting police personnel or concerned citizens, is framed as anti-nationalist and either punished or subdued, thus, normalizing state and police violence. Jagannathan and Rai specifically point towards a type of violent act carried out by the police (in the Indian context) called a police encounter. According to the authors, encounters are “a set of police actions of questionable ethical and legal content,” in which criminals are killed by the police in “spontaneous shootouts” (2015, 709). They are often “stage managed” and take place with state sanction (2015, 711). The authors highlight that encounter killings are “celebrated” in public imagination as spectacles of violence that are necessary for national security and as “tough” retaliatory action against those who threaten that security (2015, 722). A successfully executed encounter is seen as a professional achievement in the career of the police officer, the officer termed as an “encounter specialist” in popular culture and media.

Popular Hindi films, such as Ab Tak Chappan (‘56 Till Now,’ 2004, Shimit Amin) present the encounter specialist cop as a courageous rule-breaker, forging his own rules within a corrupt and bureaucratic law and order system. The title of the film, referring to the number of ‘encounters’ the cop has had in his career, is worn like a badge of honor, depicted as a sign of quick and clean justice in a dirty system. Similarly, the “Cop Universe” films of Hindi film director Rohit Shetty —that include the Singham, Sooryavanshi, and Simmba series—focus on the brute strength of good-hearted, savior-type cop heroes of narratives in which they save women, the poor, and the powerless from threats such as feudal landlords and terrorists, legitimizing their masculinist anger and violence as righteous and imperative in the pursuit of justice.

In recent times, police procedurals have become popular on online streaming platforms in India, wherein, interestingly, police characters are portrayed as belonging to minority backgrounds, such as women cops in Delhi Crime (since 2019) and Aranyak (‘Wild,’ 2021), a gay woman cop in The Fame Game (2022), and a Dalit woman cop in Dahaad (‘Roar,’ 2023). Films such as Badhaai Do (‘Congratulations,’ Harshavardhan Kulkarni, 2022) and Kathal (‘Jackfruit,’ Yashowardhan Mishra, 2023) do make an effort to provide complexity and depth to the marginalized cop character (a gay cop and a Dalit cop, respectively) to bring out the contradictions of identity and profession.

The woman cop in Delhi Crime (2019). The contradictions of working in the police while being gay in Badhai Do (2022).
The Dalit (marginalized caste) woman cop in Dahaad (2023). Kathal (2023) explores what happens when a lower caste Dalit woman is senior in rank to her high caste subordinates.

Nuanced portrayals of the fraying of neoliberal India’s sociality available in shows such as Paatal Lok (‘Hell,’ since 2020) and Kohrra (‘Fog,’ 2023), centralize the working class cop and provide commentary on violent masculinity and its detrimental effects. However, a common ideological foundation guides these shows and films: empowerment is seen in terms of inclusion within authoritarian and violent systems, as recourse to alternatives is obscured.

The conventions of mainstream action cinema and fictional programming are, thus, ideally suited to exemplify and magnify the image of the heroic cop character in public imagination. The action scenes, thrilling and (in some cases) pleasurable to watch, construct an idealized world in which the evil and unjust are brought to justice, with the sole efforts of the cop hero. The maintenance of this idealized morality, then, can be achieved by any means necessary: brutal shootings, the merciless thrashing of those who are considered criminals, and the strategic ‘elimination’ of terrorists. Such depictions fold neatly into the perception of police brutality in real life, minimizing the distance between the real and cinematic, the morally acceptable and the morally reprehensible.

In this special section, we have attempted to bring together writings that focus on various national contexts (Iran, the United States, India, Japan) in order to uncover the aligned work of the police state and its representations in the media. These works centralize the contemporary police state’s work with and within the discriminatory practices of a society to further marginalize those who already lack visibility in law and order systems. Many of the articles call attention to the embeddedness of new and digital media technology to the perpetuation of the police state, while also demarcating these tools as resistant and liberatory. We have made an effort to collate essays that explore diverse manifestations of the contemporary police state and its relationship to the media. This academic endeavor is our way of participating in a resistance movement that seeks to dismantle the status quo and look towards avenues of reform and change.