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The Police Can’t Shake Their Persecution Complex

How much longer will the cops be allowed to tell flamboyant lies about their oppression at the hands of service-sector workers?

Timothy A. Clary/Getty Images
NYC Police Benevolent Association president Pat Lynch holds a news conference to address the “current anti–law enforcement environment.” This week, the NYCPBA falsely accused a local Shake Shack of poisoning police.

By now, you may be familiar with the Fake Shake Shack Attack: Three NYPD officers fell sick after drinking milkshakes from Shake Shack, leading two different police unions to accuse the restaurant of purposefully poisoning the officers with bleach. In a since-deleted tweet, the NYC Police Benevolent Association claimed that bleach had been “placed in” the officers’ milky treats and went on to decry how far society has fallen: “When NYC police officers cannot even take meal without coming under attack, it is clear that environment in which we work has deteriorated to a critical level.”

The Detectives Endowment Association, meanwhile, issued an “urgent safety message,” complete with siren emojis, warning that “three of our brothers in blue were intentionally poisoned” at the burger joint and that police are “under attack by vicious criminals who dislike us simply because of the uniform we wear.” The unions later had to walk back these statements when an investigation revealed that the presence of cleaning fluid in the milkshakes was an innocent mistake—though not before Shake Shack issued a statement saying it was “horrified” by the report of the “injured” officers.

This story was just the latest in a long line of made-up tales of cop persecution at the hands of sick fast-food employees. Last year, a police officer in Kansas resigned after writing “fucking pig” on his own McDonald’s cup and sending it to his police chief, who posted it on Facebook as an example of the horrifying anti-cop bias spreading throughout the nation. In July 2019, a cop accused a McDonald’s employee of taking a bite out of his McChicken as an anti-cop statement; he later admitted he “forgot” that he already took a couple sneaky pre-bites before putting it away for later. In 2017, a police officer complained of feeling “strange or ill” after sipping a drink from Subway and performed an (unreliable) ion scanner test to screen for meth, which came back positive; the 18-year-old employee on duty was arrested. It later turned out that the test result was wrong and the kid was innocent, though not before a local media segment on the allegation had aired.

In March, Vice’s Katie Way examined this strange but fascinating trend of cops falsely claiming to have been attacked by fast-food employees and how social media, and an audience of people who want to believe cops are under attack, makes it easy for these fairy tales to go viral before they’ve been proven false. (In the Shake Shack case, right-wing media figures like Sean Hannity continued to boost the story even after the police unions admitted their mistake.) Way argued that these incidents betray “a siege mentality and a sense of righteousness more than anything else.” And in an excellent article this week, The Los Angeles Times’ Mariah Kreutter argued that these stories are “an illustration of how deep and pervasive the toxic police persecution mindset can be”—but also how “dangerous” this mindset is. Police violence won’t end, she argued, while departments are “peopled with or led by fragile, skittish warrior-wannabes” who believe everyone is out to get them.

As Kreutter noted, the aggrieved response to criticism of police from cops and their defenders has been especially notable in the years since the Black Lives Matter movement began. This defense of police turns the tables, arguing that it’s not actually black people who live in constant fear of threat or menace in America: It’s the cops who are under attack. It’s not enough to falsely say that critics of modern police tactics are wrong about the prevalence of police brutality. Instead, they go full throttle in the other direction and start spinning ornate lies as if this was a tall-tale-telling competition and not an adult critique of policies as they’re practically applied in the real world. And so: Antifa is lurking behind the bushes! Anarchists are manning the deep fryer! You can see this in the obvious lies pushed by police departments about things like buckets of concrete “disguised as ice cream” strategically placed by protesters, despite the cups obviously containing concrete sample mixes used on construction sites. (As many Twitter users pointed out, why would ice cream containers have a “CAUTION: HOT” warning?) Columbus, Ohio, police tweeted a picture of a Scary Antifa Bus, which they claimed was full of “riot equipment” like clubs; the bus turned out to belong to traveling street performers, and the clubs were juggling clubs.

There is an interesting intersection here between the police persecution complex, as manifested in accusations of maliciously bitten McChickens, and the broader mentality of conservative victimhood. Many writers on the left have documented the importance of fear and the constant evolution of new threats to the conservative movement. In a 2012 piece for The Baffler, Rick Perlstein deconstructed the “theology of fear” that animates conservatism, “conjuring up the most garishly insatiable monsters,” and its overlap with the snake-oil salesmen who use that fear to sell bullshit on mailing lists and right-wing websites like Newsmax. Ginning up fear of liberals, Commies, MS-13, or even the Green New Deal’s war on hamburgers is as fundamental to the modern conservative movement as pushing for tax cuts. You cannot do one without the other. You must, always and before anything else, recognize that our values are under attack.

But the conservative victim mentality is not just pure fear: It is fear of power and privilege being taken away. As Corey Robin wrote in The Reactionary Mind, “[V]ictimhood has been a talking point of the right ever since Burke decried the mob’s treatment of Marie Antoinette.” But it’s a particular kind of victim: “one who has lost something of value, as opposed to the wretched of the earth, whose chief complaint is that they never had anything to lose.” Or one who is merely in danger of losing something of value. We are supposed to feel bad for conservatives who complain that white people can’t even get a job anymore because of affirmative action—clearly untrue—or that political correctness is stifling their freedom of thought and expression. The implicit other side to this is that the jobs that were previously easier to get for white people would no longer be so, or that harmful slurs or insults that whites enjoyed deploying would no longer be acceptable. The heart of the conservative’s complaint, as Robin demonstrates, is not that change is happening. It is that the change threatens their position of power.

It’s a similar dynamic for the police. Cops occupy a privileged position in society: If recent events haven’t been a powerful enough demonstration, one need only reflect on the fact that few municipal public servants are endowed by the state to wield as much death-dealing capacity as the police. Time and time again, we discover that a cop can murder someone, claim they were in fear of their lives, and through a combination of jurisprudential doctrine and the latitude granted by the law and order industry—where you can “indict a ham sandwich” but never a police officer—usually get away with it.

They can explode a reporter’s eye with a rubber bullet, rendering the promise of the First Amendment completely void. They can engage in serious, even deadly misconduct and get their jobs back. They carry guns, or increasingly use military equipment, to keep “order” on American streets. What is that if not power? And what is the behavior of police unions—tweeting that the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board is a “disgrace” for posting about the Fourth Amendment, or calling an NFL player “pathetic” for honoring Tamir Rice—if not a display of aggrieved entitlement? But the extraordinary power that cops currently have can only justify itself under the pretense they are, in fact, powerless victims who could be killed or spat on or insulted via their coffee cups at any moment. (We are supposed to pretend, in this formulation, that all of those things are equally upsetting.)

And then there’s the donuts. Earlier this month, a donut shop in Rhode Island ended its policy of providing a 10 percent discount on donuts for people in the police or military, until “local police take action and solve the problems with racism and injustice.” The story was picked up by right-wing media outlets like Breitbart; the shop owner later posted a video to Instagram saying he was working in the shop alone, because the number of threats they had received meant his employees “don’t feel safe working here right now.” The controversy led to protests from military veterans, days after the shop’s owner had apologized for his decision, with the Providence Journal reporting that the protests’ organizer said the “shop’s decision to end the 10% discount was ‘disrespectful’ to those who have served in the military.” At no time did the previous beneficiaries of the discount demonstrate a quality that suggests they’d been entitled to one in the first place.

The laziest writer could not have picked a more obvious example if they wanted to demonstrate how pathetic cops are—piggy needs his donut!—but it wasn’t just them. A pizza store in Ohio ended its 50 percent discount after store workers walked out in protest but reinstated it after a backlash, saying the decision to do so was made “quickly and emotionally.” To be clear, neither of these places said they wouldn’t serve cops; they merely said they would no longer charge cops less for their donuts or pizza.

It’s often said that when one is accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. This is a pretty precise demonstration of this maxim, even if it is one of the most ludicrous examples. Cops do not have a right to discounted treats, and neither do military personnel. There isn’t even a good argument that cops or soldiers are “serving” our society more than teachers or nurses or garbage collectors, or at all. Construction work is broadly more dangerous than policing, as are types of agricultural labor, refuse collecting, and logging. Not only do we not tend to give discounts to farmworkers, we ignore the horrific conditions under which they labor and the routine abuse that is enabled by our racist immigration system. But you don’t tend to see farmworkers marching into Burger King to demand 10 percent off chicken fries.

Again, we see that the mall food court has become a battlefield for cops. It seems bizarre that it occurs to cops across the nation to claim a fast-food worker harassed them by writing “pig” on their cup or put meth in their drink. Equally, petulant demands for discounted food, or whining when that discount is taken away, transform a place to buy cheap food into an arena of culture war. Why? What is it about fast food, specifically, that tempts cops into these ridiculous but revealing fits of madness?

Perhaps one thing is that most people interact with food service in some way, so it’s easy for everyone to understand. As Way noted, the “inherent level of trust and vulnerability” involved in paying someone to make food for you creates a unique opportunity for horror stories. In this way, cops are pretending they are powerless against a more powerful enemy, wielding the enormous weapon of being able to spit or put bleach in a drink.

More likely, however, this is a matter of domination. Service workers, particularly fast-food workers, are low on the societal ladder. They are underpaid, overworked, and routinely treated terribly by both customers and managers, who often side with the rudest patrons over their employees. There is a lazy contempt for burger-flipping teenagers, as if service work is something anyone could do and is therefore done by the lowest idiots of society, the work of last resort for people who can’t get real jobs. Maybe cops feel empowered to rope random employees into their persecution fantasies precisely because they know it’s likely they can get that person fired, that the person they’re accusing of doing a hate crime against cops has little recourse. These workers are certainly far less likely to be unionized.

Cops lashing out against powerless and innocent McDonald’s employees, involving them in their grand ideas of a conspiracy against the boys in blue, makes sense if you recognize that what really matters to them is holding, exercising, and preserving power. It is desperate and pathetic to see—they are unhappy with merely being revered by most of society, and demand total subjugation. When the cops stir up fake stories of poisoned milkshakes, they are not just complaining about a particular restaurant; they are trying to call the manager on American society, for the crime of being insufficiently deferential. It should be a scandal when public servants, who supposedly operate under the trust of the public, behave this way. But like so many bad restaurant bosses, instead of laughing them out of the store, we bend over backward to make them comfortable.