America’s greatest export is entertainment. It’s our specialty. And through the vehicle of the moving image, we’re able to shape the public’s political and social consciousness. Recently, Color of Change (COC) published a report, Normalizing Injustice: The Dangerous Misrepresentations that Define Television’s Scripted Crime Genre about how the crime genre glamorizes policing to the detriment of the entire country, but Black people, the victim of police violence, specifically.
We spoke to writer, activist and documentarian dream hampton about our country’s obsession with cops, what should happen to policing in this country and why patriarchy is the last form of injustice to fall. See what she had to say below.
Where do you feel like America’s fascination with the police comes from?
I actually have a theory. We[Black people] are not immune to this by the way. I want to start in a moment—this might mean nothing to you but I mean this with my whole chest. In Kent State, Ohio, the National Guard killed and shot some White kids who were protesting—antiwar demonstrators. You have Nixon. This is a time when the U.S. seemed on the brink of collapse.
And at that moment, particularly after the Kent State shooting, you could have asked the average American—and they did poll them. The majority of Americans were suspicious of law enforcement, quite frankly after watching years of protestors—White protestors– be abused. The Civil Rights was a whole other thing but when those White kids got killed at Kent State, the average American thought that they could not trust law enforcement.
When you look at the 1970’s and what was on television, sure you had “Bonanza” “Adam 12” and “Gun Smoke” but mostly what you had was “The Partridge Family,” “The Odd Couple,” “Mary Tyler Moore,” “The Carol Burnett Show,” “The Brady Bunch” and “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
So what I am arguing is that there was a concerted effort at that point to pivot toward- [favorable depictions of law enforcement.] They have a very powerful union. They understood that they had a PR crisis. “Bonanza” and “Adam 12” weren’t more popular than “Mary Tyler Moore” or “The Brady Bunch” Now, if you look at the cable guide, 90 percent of those shows are cop shows, police procedurals. And if they’re not police procedurals, they’re criminal justice procedurals. And not only are they police procedurals, they are from the point of a view of a prosecutor.
So I deeply connect to Sam Waterston from “Law and Order.” I have been watching him for 11 years. I know when he’s annoyed with the people in his office. I know when he’s about to make a really good speech. I know when he’s going to be conservative or liberal. I know that Lenny is on the wagon. I know that Lenny’s daughter doesn’t talk to him. And this is just “Law and Order.”
On the Black side of things, we had a very radical movement that was deeply critical of the police with the Black Panthers. And what did you get after that? You got a bunch of cop movies that seem sexy and fun. We call them Blaxplotation but you have to understand that Coffy (played by Pam Grier) was a cop. Shaft (played by Richard Roundtree) was a cop. Foxy Brown (also Pam Grier) was a cop. They were all agents of the state. So what we have is a very successful campaign, post 70s—this is just my theory—to get America to identify with the cops.
The Panthers didn’t come up with idea of calling police pigs. That was White anti-war demonstrators. Of course the Panthers used it. But they didn’t come up with it. So you go from a generation that was calling the cops the pigs to a generation that’s like, ‘Not all cops. My uncle’s a cop.’ I’m talking about Black people, forget White people. Every Black person I know is talking about their uncle the cop.
Killer Mike stood up there with tears in his eyes talking about his father the cop.
We deeply connect to these characters on television because they are the most developed character on television. And furthermore, when I see Van Jones and them on tv trying to have conversations about reform or police misconduct or violence. I see them cede a non-fact. They say ‘Well, we all know that police work is dangerous and that they’re risking their lives.’
That’s not true.
They’re not one of the ten most dangerous jobs in the country. If you just take the NYPD, taxi drivers have a more fatal job, window washers have a more fatal job. Garbage men have a more fatal job. I’m talking about literal data.
So we have these debates about police misconduct or police violence, I call it terror. And it’s based on a lie.
“Law and Order” said they were going to do a show based on the murder of George Floyd. What do you think about that type of show taking on this type of story?
I mean we’ve seen that before. I don’t know who Dick Wolf is going to invite into his writer’s room. But what we would like is a moratorium on cop shows. Can you have the imagination to write a show that doesn’t have the cops in it? I happen to go whole weeks without talking to the cops. Months. They are not daily characters in my life. I’m not looking forward to Dick Wolf taking on George Floyd.
People are talking about defunding the police or abolish the police all together? What do you make of that?
Defund the police is its own thing. Let’s not conflate that with abolish the police. Abolish Ice is a thing. And there are abolitionists, like Patrisse Cullors, (one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter), who are saying this department, as it stands, needs to be dismantled. But defunding the police is about the fact that city budgets overindex on police spending.
You take a city like New York where 51 percent of the city budget is spent on policing even though this is a city that had a decline in crime for the past ten years, in the past four years there’s been a 22 percent increase on spending on police. When you have a budget, if you have 55 percent of your personal budget allotted to one thing, that means other things are not going to happen. So culture is something that’s not funded. Education is not funded. We talk about mental health services—in a city like New York, it couldn’t be more necessary—not funded. That money can be spent in other places and why don’t you ask the community what they would do with 3 billion dollars. Their budgets are insane and that doesn’t include what they get from the federal government.
So it’s about the boring work of showing up to budget meetings. That’s not sexy.
What do you feel should happen to policing in this country?
I think that police have never created safety in any community. Policing is project that began with slave patrol and right now it’s a project primarily around protecting property. So what would make our community safer is absolutely self-governance. I believe in the 8 Principles, 8 To Abolition, that have been put forward by organizers. I don’t have to restyle on this. There have been eight demands that are out. That I think are amazing. One of them includes a law that decriminalizes survival. Abolition is not a bad word. Fredrick Douglass was an abolitionist because he was trying to end slavery.
And what Michelle Alexander says in The New Jim Crow is that this is modern day slavery. This system does need to be abolished. But that’s not just about taking stuff away. It’s about providing safe housing. It’s about investing as Black Youth Project 100 said.
The current framework around a modern day abolition movement was given to us by Black women in the mid 90s, when Critical Resistance was founded by Ruthie Gilmore and Cathy Cohen, Angela Davis, Rose Braz. They went around for decades. They have been unpacking these ideas, which seem complex at first.
People are like, ‘Wait a minute, if somebody break in my house, who I’ma call?’ And so I would say does your house get broken into every night? Because that’s what we have funding for. We have funding for daily break-ins. Not for the once in a lifetime, you might call the cops.
We have the theater of security in this country. And the place there that’s most evident is the TSA. Or when you enter a building and they want to see your ID, for what?
We’re not talking about getting rid of police. We’re talking about spending that money on other things. Parks, culture, summer jobs. And we’re dealing with crime decreasing and not because of policing. Crack was an anomaly. And it’s gone. We don’t have a crack epidemic anymore.
How do you balance doing the work and knowing when to step aside to take time for yourself. Whatever level of activism we’re participating in at this point, it’s a lot.
It’s a combination of things. Self care can look like taking deep breaths in the middle of a really intense meeting. When we’re on Twitter, they call it raging, I actually feel the cortisone coursing through my body. That rage is real. And in that moment I have to stop and practice some deep breathing. I know that the diaphragm is the body’s other heart. If I want oxygen to get to my organs, I have to stop and do some deep breaths. I know that sounds tiny but I don’t have time to do a two-week spa vacation.
Self care looks like setting boundaries, saying I can do this, this, and this. But not that and three other things. And when Black women, in particular, say no, people act like it’s a violence. When I was younger, my nos used to come with all kinds of excuses. I’d give you my whole life story about why I can’t do a thing. And at a certain age, I just started saying, ‘No, thank you for asking.’
I’m working on something right now and I have friends texting me. And I had to say, ‘Stop texting me.’ I told you I was busy AF and you sending me links. I’m not the right person to ask that. I know people who have a gentler way. But that’s one thing.
Being that Black women are so often the ones on the front lines, creating the movements, the discourse and when it’s our turn whether it’s sexual assault, misogyny, police killing Black women etc, we don’t get the same attention or support. And when we bring it up, it’s met with, ‘Now is not the time.’ Do you have any thoughts on that.
When I look at injustice and when I think of injustices, I’m thinking about the big ones. I’m thinking about White supremacy, capitalism and patriarchy. But my deepest fear is that capitalism will collapse, White supremacy is making its last dangerous stance but I don’t see patriarchy going anywhere. That’s my biggest fear. You can have some imaginary tribe in the rainforests of Brazil who doesn’t participate in capitalism and has never seen a White person. But they still are making decisions based on a virgin culture. That to me is the biggest one. It’s the biggest one. So all this stuff that we’re talking about—Black feminist scholars have been talking about this for decades. So there’s no point in me retreading the work of bell hooks, Paula Giddings, Alice Walker and Ntozake Shange they’ve done this work of that dual pain of where race and gender intersect. They’ve done that work and it’s important work. I don’t have anything new to say to that except that it’s still here and it’s painful. It’s never going to not be painful.
I got to New York at 19 and immediately started protesting police terror, which affects all Black people, no matter their gender. But definitely disproportionately affects Black men. I’ve been in the streets for Amadou Diallo and Abner Louima, running campaigns to get political prisoners out of jail. And then you do something on R. Kelly and you have campaigns run against you by Black men. And I’m like, ‘Ok. You can die on this hill if you want to.’ I didn’t come for the Black man that did something once or twice. This is someone who’s been doing this for thirty years to countless girls.