The Enemy of My Enemy
by Lew Rosenbaum
You may not want to read beyond this first sentence: I actually concede that there may be individuals who have joined law enforcement because they believe that they will be called on to serve and protect the people. Honestly. (Here I think of the Czech revolutionary Julius Fucik, imprisoned by the Nazis and ultimately executed. His manuscript was smuggled out of prison by guards wearing German uniforms, yet putting themselves in
great danger for Fucik. See here for his story).
At the same time, there is a reason (or many reasons) why I fear for my life when I see a cop car in my rear view mirror (even though I’m not Black).
So when I saw BlacKkKlansman, the new Spike Lee film, I was prepared for the worst. In fact, the film exceeded my expectations. I am not a film critic, so I will spend very little space talking about how slow moving the pace was, how cardboard the characters were, and how sloppy the side by side Klan and anti-Klan scenes were juxtaposed. On that last point: what’s the message when you see a Klan rally shouting “White Power!” side by side with a Black Student Union rally shouting “Black Power!”?
There is a politics to this film, and it is scary. In some ways, this film mimics every TV police procedural (and I’ve spent time watching them all). Each and every one has a liberal veneer. They all take pains to have one Black officer protagonist; they all have episodes in which the police themselves reveal that inside the generally good barrel there are bad apples that need to be rooted out (there is one episode of BlueBloods in which the bad apples are a whole cohort that have even organized to kill the Commissioner’s son and attempted to kill another of his sons, both cops). In the final analysis, they all support the conclusion that the good apples prevail; or, more accurately, the system prevails to protect the people, despite any flaws.
BlacKkKlansman does precisely this. Who can deny that the Klan and the Nazis (lumped together as “white nationalists,” though I can’t for the life of me understand where the “white nation” is that they claim to be defending) are fascists? If you need any convincing, there’s plenty of evidence, or at least narrative, in the movie. In case you can stomach the ordinary venality of David Duke, there are two over-the-top Klansmen who are kind-of the Abbot (and his wife) and Costello, a triumvirate of Klan caricatures in hatred.
The policemen of Colorado Springs are a mixed bag, all but one of whom turn out to be good guys at the end. All but one, that one who is and always was a confirmed racist who gets caught and arrested and presumably gets his comeuppance. And the hero of the film, Ron Stallworth, is celebrated by the whole department at the end. Maybe you want to consider that this statement should have been preceded by the phrase, “Spoiler Alert!!!” Not if you have ever seen a police procedural. You know how it comes out. And you even know that the ending, like many Law and Order endings, can be ambiguous or perhaps not exactly the happy ending you long for. And since you, who are reading this, if you’ve gotten this far, you are astute enough to know that the Klan has not disappeared and just in the last few weeks there were heralded “Unite The Right” rallies that commemorated the Charlottesville rally of a year ago. So you will not be surprised that Spike Lee makes a point of drawing a direct line from the operation in BlacKkKlansman to Charlottesville, and the killing of Cindy Heyer by Klansmen and Nazis. There’s even a clip of DJT talking about the violence on both sides. On both sides. He said it twice.
Despite every portrayal of the racism deep within the police department of Colorado Springs, the film presents the department as ultimately the professionals that will protect the public good. Ultimately. Here is how the film is being promoted:
From visionary filmmaker Spike Lee comes the incredible true story of an American hero. It’s the early 1970s, and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first African-American detective to serve in the Colorado Springs Police Department. Determined to make a name for himself, Stallworth bravely sets out on a dangerous mission: infiltrate and expose the Ku Klux Klan. The young detective soon recruits a more seasoned colleague, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), into the undercover investigation of a lifetime. Together, they team up to take down the extremist hate group. . .
Stallworth is portrayed as a hero (the Jackie Robinson of policemen, breaking Colorado
Springs’ color line, and taking down the Klan). The more dangerous mission is carried out by Flip Zimmerman, who plays Stallworth when he has to meet Klansmen face-to-face. In the film, Zimmerman is supposed to be Jewish policeman. (In real life he is not Jewish). It’s never clear, however, why they are infiltrating the KKK. In fact, the film is billed as a comedy, as if we should be laughing at the Klan antics and the very fact of a Black man doing the infiltrating. Did they actually “take down” the Klan? Charlottesville should provide the answer to that question, and so does the prominence of David Duke on the present political scene.
Spike Lee’s film isn’t entirely factual. As noted above, in the film, Stallworth’s white partner is Jewish, while in real life, he was not. In the film, Stallworth’s operation thwarts a Klan bombing. There was no such bombing and no Klan member was ever even arrested. Stallworth’s love interest in the film appears to be a made up character.
But this is not about whether or not Stallworth or Zimmerman were heroes. This is about what the role is of law enforcement agencies, and whether they deserve to be glorified. In fact, law enforcement is intended to protect the private property of the elite and has been ever since they were established as special bodies of armed people employed by the government. The private property they were established to protect was, from the beginning, both the enslaved property of the plantation owners and the industrial property of the robber barons – and the vast amount of commodities produced by each. Chicago has an especially rich history experiencing the use of police forces against workers and in defense of private property – from the days of the Haymarket Massacre (Haymarket took place only 10 years following the end of Reconstruction) through the Pullman strike to the Memorial Day Massacre at Republic Steel. One key method of protecting private property is in fomenting or deepening the divisions among workers, and again Chicago shows us some extreme examples: e.g. the long career of Jon Burge, the acknowledged chief torturer among the police; and the not-so-illustrious career of the Chicago “Red Squad.” Let’s not forget how the squad targeted the Black Panthers and murdered Fred Hampton, and how that history continues to the murder of Harith Augustus this summer.
There is more than enough evidence to show that the natural direction of law enforcement is to infiltrate those committed to disrupting private property. At times a conflict between different sections of the owners of private property results in some rather strange circumstances. After the Civil War, for a short time during the decade known as Reconstruction, the military had to discipline Southern law enforcement in order to break the back of the plantation aristocracy. But, once Wall Street had subjugated the plantation owners, the Klan was unleashed (inside and outside the police) to maintain the law and order of recently reinstated political leadership of the slaveocracy.
At various times within the ruling circles of this country, one section has debated with another about how to carry out the program that each have agreed on. These debates have from time to time spilled over to violence. In recent memory, the Civil Rights Movement provided such a backdrop. Again there is much evidence that the rulers were divided about how to expand the profitability of capitalism. This was the consolidation of American expansionism around the world, that coincided with the end of the direct colonial era, Europe’s domination. The extent to which the Federal Government and the Democratic Party came to be seen as the protector of civil rights comes from this era. Police, the national guard, the military and the FBI were enlisted in this effort. But this is also the period in which the FBI spied on Martin Luther King, Jr. and called the Black Panthers the most serious threat to American Democracy (while they planted provocateur infiltrators in the midst of the Panthers).
The political arena today provides us with numerous conflicts that illustrate the general problem of conflating heroes and villains, friends and enemies. Take, for example, the Mueller investigation of Trump’s administration. I can’t imagine any one of my friends, people I regularly talk with, who would argue that Trump has not committed numerous offenses and corruptions. Even more, as President he has attacked the lives of working class Americans and as such deserves to be deposed. Yet we are called to lionize the problematic office of the special prosecutor and the individual in that office. For years we have been criticizing the mainstream media for not reporting the truth; yet when Trump and his supporters call the New York Times a repository of fake news, we are called to their defense, as if they are now journalistic heroes. And now we are supposed to rally around that archetype of fascism, Jeff Sessions, because Trump is denouncing him.
Stallworth’s and Zimmerman’s stories are not unique, and they did, intentionally or not, interrupt a fictionalized rogue Klan action. But it is even more important to understand that it did not interrupt the moral arc of the law enforcement universe bending toward injustice. It did not interrupt the continuing role that Klansmen and Nazis play in our lives. This “visionary” film appears in a context in which we are directed to believe the enemies of our enemy are our friends. We may even find ourselves, as I have, in a situation, in which it is necessary to depend on police in the face of a momentary common enemy.
With “friends” like these, once the common enemy is vanquished, watch your back.