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The Cops Are Culture Warriors

In the struggle for criminal justice reform, police are playing the victim.

David Ryder/Getty Images

When San Francisco voters elected Chesa Boudin, a public defender running on a platform to end mass incarceration, as district attorney in November, their decision was swiftly heralded as the end of an era. Boudin’s vision of criminal justice reform hit familiar points, but ones still scraping at the outer edge of the mainstream: declining to prosecute offenses like prostitution and sleeping on the street, ending cash bail, holding police accountable when they kill or use excessive force. At Boudin’s election-night party, a member of San Francisco’s board of supervisors started a chant of “Fuck the POA! Fuck the POA! Fuck the POA!” joined by the crowd, middle fingers raised.

The San Francisco Police Officers’ Association, the city’s police union, had spent more than $700,000—exceeding Boudin’s own fundraising efforts—in an effort to defeat him, pulling cash from police unions in Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, and New York. The San Francisco Deputy Sheriffs’ Association shared a John Birch Society video calling Boudin a “communist radical” and a son of “terrorists.” Boudin’s parents were jailed for their role in an armored-car robbery, in which two police officers and a guard were killed—something even Boudin supporters thought might be used against him in the race. But San Franciscans, it turned out, voted him into office despite objections from the police and far right.

This sort of counter-campaign has become more common in the Obama and Trump eras. Police have panicked as calls for criminal justice reform have moved to the center of American politics, fueled by decades of popular movements against police brutality and prisons. Just as conservatives, going back to the Nixon era, have used debates over the lawfulness of abortion, homosexuality, and pornography to portray themselves as besieged by a liberal elite, police unions, too, now claim they are on the losing side in an ideological struggle. It may appear strange to see police alongside anti-contraception crusaders, transphobic employers, and Evangelical cake-makers on the supposed front lines of a national clash over values. But it also represents a return to the culture war’s origins.

The very idea of the culture war was born out of policing. Though the phrase didn’t come into common usage until the 1990s, provoking anxiety over law and order helped usher Nixon into the White House in 1968. Where today police unions cast Black Lives Matter activists as their persecutors, conservatives under Nixon pointed to black power activists and the anti-war left.

With James Davison Hunter’s 1991 book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, the term “culture war” entered the popular lexicon. Hunter says he was inspired after reading a news story about the arrests of clergy from a range of sometimes warring faiths at an anti-choice protest. He saw the struggle emerging out of 1960s social change as a matter less of specific issues than of something much broader: “progressivism” versus “orthodoxy.”

Throughout the 1990s, many who were at odds with one another when it came to other issues, such as abortion or gay rights, were largely in agreement on defending the power of police—whether that meant uniting against Ice T’s “Cop Killer” song and gangsta rap or more sweeping policy proposals. While governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton rejected the clemency petition of Ricky Ray Rector, a black man who shot and killed a white police officer before shooting himself, leaving him mentally incapacitated. Clinton took a break from campaigning in New Hampshire in 1992 to return to Arkansas and oversee Rector’s death by lethal injection. Rector asked for part of his last meal to be set aside for later—a sign that he did not fully understand how severely he was to be punished. Yet for backing the execution, Clinton was lauded for being tough on crime.

As president, Clinton would go on to be forever linked with his signature 1994 crime bill, putting more than $9 billion into prisons and adding 100,000 more cops on the streets. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 also defined 60 new death penalty offenses. Even as the crime rate declined sharply during and since those years, the majority of the American public continued to believe crime was getting worse each year.

The Obama years saw the start of a profound shift. First galvanized by the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and his killer’s acquittal in 2013, activists across the country returned to the streets in protest after police killed Eric Garner in New York City and then Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. In demanding accountability from police who kill, the Black Lives Matter movement highlighted the ways in which the system of policing makes such accountability nearly impossible. Police unions, they argued, are critical in shielding police from discipline for brutality and violence. When the officers who killed Brown and Garner were not indicted, activists pointed to the power held by district attorneys—who rely on police to help them win convictions—in convening and persuading grand juries.

It was these activists who helped shift the line marking the acceptable edge of law enforcement critique, and by the 2016 election, Democrats had noticeably backed off from the Clinton-era consensus. Contenders in 2016 made abolishing the death penalty part of their platforms. By then, it was more common to hear that criminal justice reform was a bipartisan issue—albeit in a limited sense, with centrist overlap on a few modest reforms like creating alternatives to pre-trial detention.

Meanwhile, perceptions of crime numbers were falling. Eighty-seven percent of Americans polled in 1993 believed crime had increased from the prior year. In 2018, that number was down to 60 percent. In an administration of “lock her up” chants, accompanied by flagrant and likely illegal presidential abuses of power, tough-on-crime stances have proven hard sells in liberal circles. 2020 Democratic candidates have pledged unprecedentedly progressive criminal justice plans.

As consensus on the power of law enforcement was fracturing, some political observers declared the more classic culture-war issues resolved: “Culture War Is Over,” The American Prospect optimistically proclaimed in 2012. “Same-sex marriage is a non-issue in American politics,” one CNN piece announced in 2014. At the same time, liberals were growing more comfortable with the prospect of criminal justice reform, pushed from their left by grassroots activists. In response, the right—and especially police unions—grew more vocal and vehement in denouncing activists and defeating reform-minded candidates.

In San Francisco this year, police unions opted for a core alt-right conspiracy theory, depicting Chesa Boudin as a puppet of George Soros, who has emerged as a leading donor in prosecutor races across the country. In 2018, San Diego prosecutor Summer Stephan similarly attacked progressive challenger Geneviéve Jones-Wright by promoting an attack website juxtaposing images of antifa and Black Lives Matter activists with a Soros portrait—one of many such attempts to link Soros with anti-police sentiment. The site went offline in 2018, one week after Soros was mailed a pipe bomb.

In November, an elected member of the school board in Corvallis, Oregon, Brandy Fortson, started receiving death threats after two of their tweets were circulated by the official Twitter accounts of the Fraternal Order of Police (the nation’s largest police organization) and the Oregon state Republican Party. “Hey kids, always remember that all cops are bastards,” read one of the tweets, which Fortson said was in response to Texas police arresting a man for allegedly stealing a shopping cart to take his groceries home. “Sex work is work,” read the other tweet Fortson’s critics offered as evidence that they should be removed from office.

“You should not be involved in the development of our nations [sic] children,” the FOP tweeted, also attempting to lecture Fortson, who is queer and nonbinary (using the pronouns they/them) and already a likely target of harassment, on tolerance: “Mx. Fortson, as a society, we raise our kids to accept, not hate, people from all walks, regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender or career choice. Your values clearly do not reflect this.”

As might be expected when a national group targets a nonbinary school board member in a town of 55,000, the results were swift and frightening. One caller, Fortson told a local reporter, said “he was looking forward to shooting my child in the head at school and watching her brains get strewn about on the sidewalk while he laughed and I cried.” Even after Fortson resigned, the threats continued. Andy Ngo, who uses his Twitter account to share the names and photos of activists he claims are violent, directed his followers to Fortson. Within 15 minutes of Ngo’s tweets, Fortson said, they received “10 or 11 death threats.”

Police unions may engage in such aggressive tactics in part because they accurately perceive their powerful allies to be slipping away. In 2019, no realm of politics remains a criticism-free zone for cops. Michael Bloomberg’s tardy entrance into the Democratic primary came with an acknowledgment that his tough-on-crime turn as New York City mayor—like his pride in the unconstitutional police practice of stop-and-frisk—was perhaps a liability. “I got something important really wrong,” Bloomberg said from the pulpit of a black megachurch in Brooklyn. “I didn’t understand back then the full impact that stops were having on the black and Latino communities.” Even if the apology is insincere—Bloomberg still defended the policy earlier this year—the fact that he feels he has to make this kind of statement illustrates how the lines in the police culture war have shifted.

In her run at the 2020 Democratic nomination, Kamala Harris, a former San Francisco district attorney and California state attorney general, struggled to square her prosecutor past with the new political reality for Democrats. Previously, Harris had portrayed herself as someone who is neither tough nor soft but “smart” on crime. At times, she tried to depict herself as a reformer, though that is not how she was regarded as a prosecutor. With her campaign in disarray, her poll numbers slipping behind the front-running white candidates, Harris announced her withdrawal from the race on Tuesday.

Once, cops could count on establishment and even liberal media to back them—to point out, for example, that Michael Brown, as The New York Times printed in 2014, was “no angel.” That, too, has changed: In November, when the Times editorial board criticized police and prosecutors’ attempts to block modest bail and discovery reform measures, they were blunt and prescriptive, calling the efforts “A Sad Last Gasp Against Criminal Justice Reform.”

The less taboo it has become for anyone with some modicum of power to critique the police, the more law enforcement and their backers have moved to police the boundaries of permissible debate about their power. This Tuesday, Attorney General Bill Barr even suggested that those who don’t offer “support and respect” to cops could be deprived of police protection. Despite police and their advocates’ assertions of victimhood, police are far from marginalized targets, oppressed by reformers, abolitionists, or even prosecutors: They still have the full force of the state behind them. And that’s precisely why police are so invested in this war—to keep the state out of the hands of reform-minded public officials and those who seek to elect them.