On the night of June 4, New York Police Department officers in riot gear surrounded a group of peaceful protesters in the Bronx shortly before the start of a citywide curfew imposed by Mayor Bill de Blasio and, as the clock struck eight, unleashed a barrage of batons and pepper spray. Protesters were trapped in a mass of bodies by advancing officers and arrested, some clubbed and tackled to the ground for the crime of assembling outside past the curfew. In a week marked by violent outbursts by the police in the face of largely peaceful protests, the incident stood out as uncommonly vicious.
The following morning, de Blasio told Gothamist reporter Jake Offenhartz that what the latter had seen with his own eyes the previous evening had not, in fact, happened. “I believe that you believe what you’re saying,” he told Offenhartz. Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said much the same. By then, Offenhartz and others had thoroughly documented the brutality of the NYPD in a string of videos posted to Twitter, the content of which was unmistakable. The videos were widely viewed by New Yorkers at home and by people around the world. But we were asked to ignore what we had seen and to believe instead the very department whose officers had been captured on camera beating unarmed Bronx residents.
We were asked to believe that the arrests were necessary to deter violence and mayhem from the protesters and that gasoline and “numerous” weapons had been recovered on the scene—an assertion that turned out to be a lie. The looting in the borough that the mayor cited as justification for the cruelty seemed unrelated to any organized protest. This was just the latest in a string of statements from top cops and city officials asking us to believe in a reality for which we had seen no evidence.
Even after we watched an officer deliberately drive a police vehicle into a crowd of protesters, de Blasio praised the NYPD for exercising “tremendous restraint.” He at one point claimed he had not seen videos of police using excessive force against protesters. (Only after public pressure, did de Blasio ultimately condemn the cops who drove their car into the crowd.) New York Governor Andrew Cuomo berated a reporter for so much as asking about the cops’ use of excessive force, stating simply, “They don’t do that.” As anyone with eyes and an Internet connection can attest, they do. Elected officials’ insistence on an alternate reality serves, in itself, as a form of propaganda: It is official information that uses distortion in an attempt to sway public perception.
Propaganda, when successful, will induce a lived experience out of step with surrounding events. If you are led to believe the NYPD is largely a force for good, that its actions spring from the best of intentions, that its enforcement tactics are humane and rational, then you will not see a police vehicle accelerating into a crowd as unhinged and dangerous. You will see, as de Blasio professed to, cops protecting themselves from violent protesters (never mind that those protesters were on foot, unarmed, and defenseless).
We have been inundated by cop propaganda from birth in the form of entertainment—cop-centric shows that are now the subject of criticism and calls for reconsideration—and news media that gives undue deference to law enforcement. But now, perhaps the most insidious form of cop propaganda is found in the very medium being used to document injustices. Videos of cops kneeling with protesters—performative gestures that have been followed by violent outbursts—are shared as heartwarming affirmations of a police department’s desire for such ill-defined virtues as unity and peace. De Blasio shared one such video himself to heap praise on Police Chief Terence Monohan, who knelt one day with protesters near Washington Square Park. Monahan also oversaw and subsequently defended the violent clampdown on protesters in the Bronx.
The mayor’s leadership through the protests has itself served as a strategic form of pro-cop propaganda, championing the NYPD as heroes in the face of lawlessness. Much has been made of injuries sustained by officers who were armed and clad in paramilitary attire, while documented beatings of protesters at the hands of police are brushed off as isolated incidents, not proof of any larger systemic rot. Videos of police officers kneeling, meanwhile, are held up as indicative of their true moral character and, by extension, the character of the NYPD.
The advent of social media has revolutionized how news is reported, how global uprisings are experienced, and how we view our very relationships as citizens to those in power, just as it has revolutionized how those in power try to relate to us. Every instance of police violence central to news stories about the New York protests was shared to Twitter, often in real time, for immediate public consumption. As a result, by the time de Blasio told Offenhartz that his eyes had deceived him, the mayor’s constituents had seen for themselves what the reporter had seen. And by the time videos of cops kneeling with protesters were being shared as evidence of their magnanimity, they had been contextualized by far more videos of cops beating, macing, and ramming their cars into demonstrators.
All of which made me wonder whether, in the age of social media, cop propaganda can prevail. In their attempts to sell us lies, city officials and law enforcement did their Orwellian best against a smartphone-wielding public, and their best wasn’t good enough. De Blasio’s attempted speech at a memorial for George Floyd in Brooklyn was drowned out by boos and calls for his resignation; on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, he was grilled by New Yorkers who had seen the NYPD’s heavy-handed tactics. Attempts at furthering the mission of cop propaganda have, it seems, fallen flat in New York City, where protesters continue to take to the streets by the thousands to demand that the NYPD be defunded. And across the country, where similar instances of police brutalizing protesters have been captured on camera, calls to defund the police are gaining traction. However far we are from abolishing the police, the death of cop propaganda as we know it feels closer at hand—and ultimately, those goals are intertwined.