By Nilita Vachani.
The film’s visual evidence speaks to the systemic racism that’s at the heart of the country’s self-reckoning today. What insights does the film contain for law enforcement half a century later?”
The large white cop holds the small black woman’s neck in a tight chokehold. Four men from the Kansas City Police Department’s vice squad burst into the cheap hotel room, drag the woman out of bed, and grab her by the throat. “What’s your name?” She shakes her head, wheezes. “Can’t speak, eh?” The cop lets her go and an awful gurgling escapes her. “Don’t choke me no more,” she pleads. “He weren’t choking you. You imagined it,” another says. This chilling footage was shot over 50 years ago by Fred Wiseman and cameraman William Brayne as they embedded themselves with the KCPD over a period of 6 weeks, shooting in Wiseman’s signature observational style.
Wiseman’s oeuvre, which at the time of this writing consists of 44 feature length documentaries and a fiction feature, offers a vast archive of immense historic value on the workings of American institutions over the last half century. In revisiting Law and Order I interrogate the ways in which its visual evidence speaks to the systemic racism that’s at the heart of the country’s self-reckoning today. What insights does the film contain for law enforcement half a century later?
Like our summer of 2020, unrest racked the country in 1968 when Wiseman began work on this, his third film. There were riots in over a hundred cities, protests over the continuing bombing of North Vietnam, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy. Ten thousand protestors converged at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August, forcibly kept out of the international amphitheater by a wall of barbed wire, and twice as many cops and armed national guards. The Republican convention earlier that month had been a more orderly affair. Richard Nixon, winning the GOP nomination, cast himself then as the law and order candidate. His words are eerily reminiscent:
“The next 4 years is a critical time and I say, give us a chance… it is necessary for us to look at the problems at home not simply in negative terms… but what we can do to make America right again… I say when crime’s been going up 9 times as fast as population …. then… it’s not time for more of the same… it’s time for a complete house cleaning and new leadership from top to bottom….” (Law and Order, 1969).
The difference is that Democrats were the incumbents then.
Discussing Law and Order with Brigitte Berg of the New York Times in 1970, Wiseman said he’d initially seen his film as his
chance to do in the pigs…. But after about two days of driving around in police cars I realized that my little stereotype was far from the truth at least in Kansas city. The cops did some horrible things but they also did some nice things.”
Among the nice things we see cops do in Law and Order is help an old lady recover her stolen purse from behind the bushes, and even babysit a lost toddler.
Wiseman’s non-interventionist methodology allows his material to be viewed as visual data. In an interview with Frank Spotnitz for American Film in 1991, he described his films as “biased, prejudiced, condensed, compressed but fair” – fair to his experience of making them. He expresses a horror of producing propaganda to fit any ideological bent, and disclaims didactic intent. The shooting and editing, while undeniably determined by conscious, artful choices, produce sequences that allow viewers to bear witness. At no point do I feel that the cops in Law and Order are censoring themselves on account of the camera, or behaving “nicer” than they ordinarily would. In the film’s most violent scene, that of the black sex worker held in a chokehold, the camera pans to a cop standing by with a cigarette dangling between his lips. He stares briefly into the lens aware that the moment is being recorded. Wiseman’s lengthy shoots, six weeks of being “everywhere” and shooting “everything,” not asking questions, or having his expectations known, allows for the apparent transparency. Wiseman said to John Graham in a 1971 interview, “The material is complex and ambiguous, and very often the way somebody will respond to the film will depend on the values they bring to the events that they’re assessing.” I interpret the film, unquestionably, with the values I bring to it.
In Law and Order, while both white and black citizens are seen in the process of being assisted, interrogated, or arrested by the cops, the police force itself is overwhelmingly white. This visual representation bears out half a century later in the gross under-representation of people of color in law enforcement. Data compiled by the Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics (LEMAS), drawn from the last census, reveal that Kansas City, with a white population of 39.6% had 75.3% white police officers in 2013. Minority communities in the KCPD were under-represented by 35.7% compared to the national average of 24.5%.
Wiseman’s documentation in 1968 offers a nuanced look at policing in black communities, replete with social markers. A black youth is shoved to the ground and pinned down by white cops, his arms wrenched roughly from underneath him and handcuffed. He is belligerent, repeatedly curses the cops and the “pussy motherfuckers” who turned him in. It’s a hit-and-run, we learn, the youth has stolen a car and in the process, hit two other cars during his getaway. The racial tensions in the scene are black towards black. The black owner of the new car, caught up with the offender, beat him up, and handed him over to the cops. The cops seem to enjoy rubbing that in. “Your own people here who know you, chased you down, Howard,” a cop remarks. “Ain’t no one chased me, nigga, you crazy,” responds Howard. He turns to the man who turned him in: “I’m killing you when I get out, you, and your punk cousins and that nigga there.” “Had it been my car, I’d have shot you,” says the cop. The words are spoken without menace but with the absolute weight of legality behind them. Howard is quick to reply, “And I’d have shot back, too. Yeah, I’m a killer.” The cops grab him by the neck, push his head roughly down on the hood, break a tooth.
Language is both a vehicle of defiance and of control. Howard’s only available form of resistance, once he’s handcuffed, is to curse. He lets the expletives fly. “What’d you say?” one of the bystanders asks. The cop quotes the slur back at him. “He called you a nigger, that’s what he did.” The cops exacerbate the already heightened tension within the community, leveraging it to their advantage.
The youth is then brought into the station for questioning. “So you’re threatening me?” says the cop, slamming him down onto a stool. “I’m not threatening you,” Howard replies. “I’m just telling you what I’ll do when I get out.” He claims he’s already been busted for a burglary earlier that year and got out easy. He brags about his criminal cousin who is out on bail. “Runs in the clan, doesn’t it?” the cop says wryly. In a later scene, the officers are seen discussing the youth’s impending release from “juvey” which will have them “watching over their shoulder.” We’re aware both of the dysfunctionality of the juvenile justice system, the cops’ unease, and the reality of a 16-year-old whose role model is an older criminal cousin.
As first responders, cops are seen intervening in a myriad situations from rescuing a hysterical woman from the site of a traffic accident, to intervening in a fare dispute between a cabbie and his client, to breaking up domestic disputes, to foiling an armed robbery. The camera follows as a policeman enters a clothing store and single-handedly disarms two black teenagers, both of whom carry guns. Said Wiseman to the New York Times, “I understand now the fear that cops live with. When we got back to the car, his hand was shaking as he lit a cigarette.”
A third youth is also arrested at the clothing store. He was unarmed, and vociferously proclaims his innocence. He was shopping, he says, minding his own business. “I’m going to jail for something I didn’t do.” Wiseman’s quest is to show, not to provide social analysis, but the question hangs in the air, at least for this viewer: had the boy been white, would he have been similarly arrested by virtue of circumstance? The clothing store is owned by black folk, none of whom speak up in the boy’s defense. The frustrated youth yells at the manager, “motherfucking white man, that’s what you are.” Race relations documented in the film don’t fall along a simple binary. The manager, in the eyes of the black teenager, has transcended a class divide and become an oppressor.
To assist our understanding of systemic racial injustice and the higher stakes to which people of color are impaled, the scene of the arrests in the clothing store is preceded by an encounter between a black father and his son. The son has skipped school and been intercepted by a cop. The father asks him why he wasn’t at school. “I just didn’t feel like going,” says the frightened boy, his face tear-stained. The father is beside himself with rage and frustration. “Are you going to turn out to be a thief like Kenner?” he shouts.
Wiseman has said on multiple occasions that he expects his viewers to be as intelligent as him. He expects viewers to make connections between scenes while he himself desists editorializing through parallel editing or suggestive juxtaposition. There’s a scene of a roll call at the station where a supervisor reminds the men to watch their p’s and q’s when dealing with civilians. Don’t call someone “Boss” or “Hoss” or “Boy”; they’re told, use words like “Sir” or “Son” that don’t give offence. Language may be respectful on the outside, but has the power to entrap. The irony is laid bare when the well-intentioned pep talk is followed two scenes later by a close-up of a black man who is read his Miranda rights. The man says he’s understood his rights and agrees to speak with his interrogator. Then with quick and insidious casuistry, the officer tries to get him to say the very words that “can and will be used against him.”
Did you go back to get your gun?
No sir. I don’t have a gun.
So did you go back to get it?
I don’t have a gun, sir.
Did you hit Geneva?
She deserved it, didn’t she? She called you dirty names.
You said you were drunk….
I wasn’t drunk, sir
You said you were drinking.
I said I was drinking, sir. I wasn’t drunk.
And so it goes. The man has learnt to be perfectly polite, to stay calm and hold his ground, while a barrage of traps are hurled his way.
The single arrest that takes place in a private space, away from the public gaze (if not the camera’s), is also the most brutal. I return to the scene with the choke-hold, the attack on the black female sex worker alone in a room, who offers no resistance. This is more than just an attack on race: it’s equally an attack on class, caste, gender, and the perceived immorality of the “other.” State-sanctioned police violence is on display here in the “no-knock” entry, the suffocating choke-hold, the casual rifling through the woman’s personal belongings, the sexualized and contemptuous language with which she’s addressed. The cop who accompanies her to the station “mishears” her, substituting her words with lewd alternatives, his misogyny undisguised. At the station the woman is fingerprinted, presumably fined, and leaves with a criminal record. An older white sex worker is also interrogated and body searched at the station, on suspicion of recruiting the younger woman. From the older prostitute’s attitude it is clear that she is well-accustomed to the routine. She has no choice but to submit, and she does so but holds her own, with a loud mouth and loose tongue, humor, her only form of defense.
Fifty years on, sex work remains illegal across the United States with the exception of a few counties in Nevada. Despite significant strides made by Decrim and other advocacy groups, labor and survival rights are still denied to sex workers who routinely suffer the worst of police abuse.
Wiseman provides no context beyond the immediacy of encounter, but there’s a scene earlier in the film that offers itself as comparison. A well-dressed white woman is at the cop station; the reason for her arrest is not explained but she has been allowed to make a phone call. “I was bodily thrown in a paddy wagon by a negro policeman and a white policeman,” she says angrily on the phone, ordering “Simon” to get her out. “I’m not a criminal and I’m not used to it.” The insinuation is that a certain race and class of people are used to it, and no phone-call can get them out.
The arrest of a black sex worker is more than just an attack on race: it’s equally an attack on class, caste, gender, and the perceived immorality of the ‘other.'”
Keeping in mind our current conversations around police training, there’s a short and ironic scene in Law and Order that points to the incongruity of the use of force in the matter of maintaining peace. A potential recruit to the KCPD is being interviewed. He’s asked, “Why the hell do you want to be a police officer?” The young (white) male doesn’t have a clue. “Cause they’re always helping people and everything?” he mumbles. “Helping others then?” says the recruiter. His next question: “Could you shoot someone if you had to?”
Half a century later, the police force in the United States looks far more militarized. Nowhere in Law and Order do we see a cop whip out a gun and stick it in someone’s face, a reality all too familiar in black experience today. This is not to say it didn’t happen then, it just didn’t happen while Wiseman’s camera was rolling. The film, in fact, contains unexpected moments of empathy. A hapless white cop gingerly carries off a lost and wailing black toddler, and movingly, if inappropriately, fetches her candy from a vending machine. While receiving the Honorary Governors’ Award in 2016 for his life’s work, Wiseman said in his acceptance speech, “It’s important to show kindness, civility and generosity of spirit, as it is to show cruelty, banality and indifference.” An important reminder to us in the polarized ‘scapes we occupy today.
The last scene in a Wiseman film often holds the key to his “theory” of the microcosm documented. A cop has been dispatched to break up a domestic dispute. A young black male and his wife are out on the street arguing. The man tells the cop his wife was up in their apartment with another man and he’s not being allowed to see their child. The cop says he doesn’t care what the wife was up to, that’s not his business. He patiently explains that the matter is one for the courts: the father had better get himself a lawyer and file for divorce and get custody, if that’s what he wants. The young man says he has no money for any of that. With a look of utter helplessness he says he’s never been on the wrong side of the law, but…. He turns and runs into the distance. On the sound-track, Wiseman brings in the staccato of yet another (and unconnected) dispatcher’s call: a man is on the run who may be dangerous. We sympathize with the cop. We sympathize with the father. Is the only solution the inexorable vortex of the courts? The film’s ending suggests that policing is not the solution, and a perfectly reasonable young man is on the verge of being criminalized.
Herein lies the problem, as clear today as it was half a century ago. It’s the inadequacy of social systems that makes justice an elusive goal. What’s rotten to the core is the systemic criminalization of black youth, the inadequacy of juvenile correction, the easy access to guns and intoxicants on the streets, the problems of teen pregnancy, the nation’s hypocrisy towards sex work, the absence of protective agencies. Poverty is the unnamed thread connecting the scenes.
If the Democrats win the upcoming election, and the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 which passed Congress in July, goes on to win the Senate vote and become law, we can expect much-needed police reforms, greater diversification of the force, and greater accountability of their actions. We can expect additional training to counter unconscious bias, and new efforts to create an alternative system of first responders that include social workers and mental health experts. The Act will also ban the notorious choke-hold and the “no-knock” entry at the federal level. Systemic racism, however, can’t be obliterated without systemic change. Justice must be re-imagined, away from punitive action. Justice has to be about the eradication of poverty and homelessness, about creating life-sustaining opportunities that provide care and support. Without real justice, as Wiseman’s historic film shows us, the business of maintaining law and order is tantamount to applying a band-aid on a fractured limb.
What has changed dramatically since the summer of 1968, however, is the political consciousness, for many, that every black life matters. Bagsby is an alcoholic who lies unresponsive on the streets in Law and Order while a cop tries to revive him. Along comes an elderly black woman, a respectable spokeswoman of her community. Looking at Bagsby, “Miss Grand” shakes her head and sighs, “Why do some people live? What’s his aim in life? He ain’t got a quarter.” Today, with the country roiled by protests instigated by an endless chain of citizen videos and police body cam footage of the murders of black people at the hands of law enforcement, a life like Bagsby’s does matter. On the march on Washington on August 28th, the 57th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s famous speech, it is clear that the time for dreaming is over. The cry is an unambiguous call to action: “Get your knees off our necks.”
Nilita Vachani is a documentary filmmaker, and a writer of fiction and non-fiction. She teaches documentary at the Tisch School of the Arts, NYU and the Asian College of Journalism, India. She directed, produced. and edited the award winning films, When Mother Comes Home for Christmas, Diamonds in a Vegetable Market and Eyes of Stone. Her cover story in Caravan won the Asia Media Foundation’s Investigative Journalism award in 2016. www.nilitavachani.com