📬 Want some Southern goodness in your inbox every Friday?
Get Scalawag's latest stories and a run down of what's happening across the South with our weekly newsletter.
I first toured my New Orleans house on the day a Minneapolis cop murdered George Floyd. Those two facts are just happenstance. Except this house—in a majority, historically Black neighborhood—became the place where I had the biggest shift in realizing how police work, and, frankly, don't.
I'm someone, a Black woman, who believed in reform back when a cop murdered Mike Brown. Back when the Black-led DOJ studied the issue, revealing patterned practices and making promises to fix policing. Back when our president was Black and it felt like we could represent ourselves to freedom: Black cops, Black prosecutors, Black-led jails.
Black thoughts. Black prayers.
But between the Sandra Blands and Rekiya Boyds, Tamir Rices, Korryn Gaineses, Atatiana Jeffersons, Breonna Taylors and names we'll never know, I've changed my mind. And I think more of you should, too. In fact, we at Scalawag want to help you do so.
And so we present to you pop justice, a space to examine the way pop culture—music, film, television, TikTok, journalism—warps our understanding of policing and justice and ultimately stalls overdue calls for abolition.
The late bell hooks once said, "pop culture is where the pedagogy is, it's where the learning is." She said that when she used popular culture to relate to her theory, "people seem to grasp it more." And not only that: "it would seem to be much more exciting and much more interesting for everybody," hooks said. "Because popular culture has that power in everyday life."
I've watched a lot of TV in this New Orleans house after moving here during lockdown in June 2020. It was around this time when Hollywood posted their proverbial black solidarity squares during the "Racial Reckoning." Then TV execs halted production of Cops, and CBS swapped out cop consultants for "criminal-justice reform advocates." Less than two years later, Cops is back. So is a Law & Order reboot with Anthony Anderson, and a legion of cop shows with Black leads: Angela Bassett in 911, LL Cool J in CSI, and Terry Crews in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which aired its eighth and final season last year.
pop justice is Scalawag's bi-weekly newsletter that sits right at the intersection of popular culture and justice—namely through abolition.
Think about how many cops there are in our media. It's not just The First 48, or the true-crime canon. "Friendly" cops surface even when we don't pay them any mind. Woody from Toy Story: a whole sheriff. The beloved Winston of New Girl: an embarrassingly awful rookie cop.
Will Smith and Martin Lawrence play detectives fighting the drug war in the first film of the Bad Boys franchise. Family Matters was a multi-generational cop show: Carl Winslow moved up the ranks of the Chicago Police Department to become captain, and his son, Eddie, joined the force in season 9.
Can you recall an abolitionist or grassroots organizer with even an iota of that prevalence? Or a police or true-crime show that didn't paint arrest, imprisonment as a satisfying arc?
No cop shows reflect the reality of what actually happens when you call police—if they bother to come to your neighborhood at all. But all cop shows shape our (mis)understanding of policing. The bumbling, donut-eating cop; the detectives who solve all their rape cases; the true-crime, fear-mongering marathons of Snapped that have you rooting for the cops and side-eyeing your neighbors. These tropes paint the system as either unassuming and innocent, or effective and necessary.
It's no wonder that so many of us default to upholding this violent institution built on a legacy of doing more harm than protection.
And sure, it's easy to dismiss TV as low-quality media, but numbers don't lie: 96 percent of all households in the country watch it. By comparison, print and digital newspapers circulate to 24.3 million people, or just about 7 percent of the U.S. population.
For decades, we've binge-watched series about special police forces solving "especially heinous" cases in Law & Order and all its spinoffs. If/when we call 911, many of us have to remind ourselves that the moments that follow often will not turn out like we see on TV: This act alone can cost us our lives. In reality, our system convicts people for less than 2 percent of crimes. Put another way: Compared with the likelihood for a cop to make an arrest that sends someone to prison, police officers are more likely to be charged or convicted with domestic violence, or shoot a Black person in cold blood. It's hard to parse when we've seen police put away the "bad boys" to the tune of over-saturated reggae music. It's even harder for most folks to imagine what justice outside the criminal-legal system even looks like.
All this misinformation doesn't just come from entertainment: pop justice will also examine the role of journalism and other reported media in propping up copaganda. So much of what we read in newspapers or see on the nightly news gets sourced solely from the state. "According to the police," is all the attribution many outlets require to run a story, with a mugshot to boot. But a Black neighborhood near you whose residents have been sounding the alarm on generations of police brutality, will remain out of the headlines until a white reporter runs (often cop-sourced) data on arrests or police shootings through Excel and wins awards for this" feat"—now it's a story.
When journalists default into patterns and practices of empowering police to say and do whatever they please with impunity, we give them the credence to keep harming people. When we skirt around key questions and fail to hold police accountable, we become an arm of the state. And it happens all the time. It's how New York City's mayor, a former cop himself, can hire more police after a subway shooting in April, only to replicate the surveillance surge after a subsequent shooting in May. Most reporters just logged his decision like stenographers. But it's our job to question the role of police, especially when they keep reneging on their promise to protect and serve.
We're seeing the consequences of taking police at face value in Uvalde, where the hero narrative hit the wire before we even learned the precious victims' names. Those same police narratives are already crumbling, being revealed as lies, and unsurprising ones at that. The multitude of law enforcement in that small town—Border Patrol, Texas Rangers, sheriffs, cops, school-resource officers—were never there for Brown folks' protection.
Uvalde is not an exception, it's emblematic of policing in the U.S.
Like clockwork, in the same hour we're grieving a devastating tragedy, the President of the United States was hosting an event at the White House to call for reform and more cops—putting the moron in oxymoron. We have the most guns-per-civilian of any nation in the world, the most mass shootings, the most police (and police shootings), the most people behind bars, and we're still no further away from the violence this nation was founded upon. If we are talking about passing legislation to disarm civilians, that must be done in tandem with conversations to disband (and defund) the most egregious perpetrators of violence in our nation—police.
Lastly, what we also want to achieve with pop justice is to level the playing field for people who may be interested in abolition. We did not come out of the womb abolitionists, but many of us feel born into this work. And as we push back against the prevailing, popular narratives about cops and prisons, we also want to make abolition more accessible.
Other outlets have been laying bread crumbs for abolition—and y'all are so close! Even if you don't realize it.
Exhibit A: A New York Times push notification from May 26:
Exhibit B: A headline from The Intercept:
So many people in our communities are asking if there's another way, without police. We see pop justice as a way to hold space for those conversations about what else is possible.
Abolition doesn't end with eliminating cops and prisons. A key tenet of this movement requires a commitment to finding new solutions, even if we don't yet know what they are. What we hope you get from pop justice is a certainty that policing cannot be reformed, and a discerning lens that helps you question the cop-laden media we consume.
Two years ago I wasn't brave enough to call myself an abolitionist, or even a student of abolition. I thought, I haven't done enough reading. Don't I need to be co-signed first by a prominent abolitionist to be officially in? Not to mention, in my profession as a journalist, a field still clinging onto failed visions of objectivity, I certainly never imagined it would be an identity I could lead with.
But things change—our world has to.
Consider this your invitation.