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Bias And The Romance Of Violence


I love violence in movies. I love a good fight scene. I love watching kick-ass military elites take out a platoon of enemy combatants. I cheer for the good guys and curse the bad guys. And there’s nothing like a scene where the good guy knows karate and just goes through six bad guys like they’re mentally challenged puppies.

But it’s a fiction; a fantasy.  None of it’s real.

The problem is we’ve allowed that fantasy to creep over into reality for decades and now we’re paying the price for our entertainment.

The sheer amount of police abuse that was romanticized by Hollywood when I was a kid is directly related to actual police abuse today. I absolutely believe that.

It’s had to have had an effect on the men and women who decided to become a cop. It had to effect what they thought it meant to be a good cop. But it also informed the public at large who were taught that if a cop is having an altercation with a “perp,” especially a person of color, that person is most likely a criminal, and deserves whatever they get.

Do you even know what a “perp” is? You’ve heard it countless times on scores of police dramas. You probably think it means suspect, but it doesn’t. It stands for “Perpetrator of a Crime.” A perpetrator of a crime is a criminal. That’s trial and sentencing in one four letter word. Not a suspect. Not a person of interest (another fun one). Not innocent until proven guilty. A perp.

But it’s not just how cops view the world in the movies. It’s how they act, especially under stress.

For one thing, they’re always angry. Even if they’re calm, cool and collected, there is a simmering anger just below the surface. Justice will be done, and they are going to be the ones to dish it out. And it’s not just anger, it’s righteous anger, which really, is the best kind of anger.

A movie cop can’t go off the reservation and starting taking the law into his own hands until after the bad guys have done something unspeakable, usually to a friend or family member of the cop. That’s his justification for violence.

In the movies, the ends always justifies the means. The cop is never put on desk duty after a multiple homicide. You’re lucky if he even makes it back to the office. He’s chasing bad guys. He doesn’t have any time for your silly rules. He might get a tongue lashing later from his Captain, but since he’s saving the world, he just keeps shooting bad guys until the movie is over.

There is no psych evaluation. No review board. No witnesses to talk to. We all just assume the cop is the good guy and the guy he executed was a bad guy. Who would even question it? The cop’s face is on the movie poster.

In the movies, when there is a critical plot point that needs to be forwarded, or someone’s life is in danger, or there is retribution to be had, we’re not only okay with cops beating suspects, we are on the edge of our seats waiting for them to beat them, even cheering for them to beat the suspect, or possibly even shoot them in the leg, until they tell the cop what the cop wants to know anyway. Shooting in the leg or the shoulder. These are apparently painful, but not life-threatening injuries that make men talk.

And not only are we okay with this, we need it in a very deep way. We need to feel that retribution because earlier in the movie we were assaulted by the bad guy and the cop is there to do what we can’t. He’s a man who not only knows how to kick ass, he’s armed and dangerous. And he’s pissed.

A word about the bad guys. The bad guys in movies are often foreigners, with indecipherable accents and bad attitudes. Back in my day they were either Russian or British. I don’t know why so many bad guys were British. I guess it was left over from our memory of the evil empire.

Obviously the Russian thing came from the Cold War so if you heard a Russian accent you knew that was the bad guy. They were ruthless. They had no moral compass. They were pure evil. And they hated Americans.

Today, the bad guy is much more likely to be of Middle Eastern descent, which makes sense. Our bad guys in movies are usually whoever the government tells us are the bad guys in real life. They are bent on our destruction and are either religious zealots, or just greedy thugs masquerading as religious zealots.

We like our villains in neat stereotypes and packages. Hence Hollywood has given us what we want. I realize I’m straying from my commentary on movie violence and the police, but I think there’s a connection.

Terrorists are from the Middle East.
Drug Kingpins are from South America.
Asian Mafia are Japanese.
Genius Masterminds are British.
Genius Psychopaths are White.
Serial killers are white. Now that one is true. Look it up.

There are plenty of other groups stereotyped in movies, but they’re generally not dangerous.

Indians are cab drivers hoping to get paid until someone pulls a gun.
Pakistanis are shop keepers complaining about the cop throwing a guy through the window of a convenience store before taking the suspect to jail.
Sikhs can be cab drivers or shop keepers and are normally more confused.
All three of these South Asian groups are rarely aggressive, even if they’re angry.
They have no power, but almost certainly sandals.

Black people are typically not even real bad guys. They’re the underlings of the bad guys, or the characters in the beginning of the movie that act as witless opponents of the hero. They’re stupid and lack skills, but they’re often armed but never deadly. They’re the criminals that the hero easily defeats early in the movie to show us his skills and prowess before turning his attention to the real villain.

The cop in the movie can be black or white, that doesn’t really seem to matter. But they’re always portrayed as the head of a modest, working class to middle class family, with a beautiful wife and one to two cute kids. They are above reproach from a moral standpoint, even if they do have a problem with authority and tend to bend if not outright break the rules. But we can trust them to do the right thing, because after all, they’re the good guys. They took an oath. And like I said, they’re on the poster.

Cops are mostly white. There are some black and latinos and even a few Asians. But they tend to be a very small minority, much smaller than their relative proportion of the actual population.

Imagine you’re watching a movie and a white cop pulls over a young white woman driving a Honda Accord. You’re not nervous for him. You don’t think anything bad is going to happen. Maybe he’ll get her phone number. Maybe not. But that’s about it.

But what if that same white cop pulls over a less than new car, and there are not one, but two black young men in the car. You know something is going to go down. Why else would they put that in the movie? You just know that the cop isn’t going to recognize the driver as an old buddy from high school and then have a few laughs.

No, the cop’s only friends are other cops, or maybe a bartender, or maybe a few friends from the old neighborhood which of course was Irish or Italian. In the world of movie cops, there are cops, and everyone else. There are no innocent young people of color. Only blond white women and children.

Now lets think about how that effects your perceptions as you walk through the world.

If you see two young white kids in a shitty car, listening to loud music, you think, “Look at those two goofballs. Probably high school students. Probably on their way to a friend’s house to watch movies and play video games.”

You see two young black kids in a shitty car, listening to loud rap music and you think, “Look at those two hoodlums. I wonder what they’re up to? What are they doing in this neighborhood? Did they just look over here? Are they casing my house?”

Now cops in real life deal with a lot of criminals. Certainly more than you or I. We might never knowingly deal with a criminal. But they come face to face not only with criminals, but with the results of their crimes, some of which can be heartbreaking.

So, it comes as no surprise that they begin to see the worst in everyone. This just makes logical sense. It would happen to everyone.

But when you overlay the institutionalized racial bias that we all have, pretty soon you have white cops who are going to pick on minorities at a much higher rate than their white counterparts. When you throw class into it, it becomes even worse.

If you are a cop patrolling the streets of a poor neighborhood, there’s a good chance that a large portion of the population is going to be people of color, and that a lot of those people are not going to look like the poster child for Dudley Doright, especially to a white cop that grew up in a white, middle-class neighborhood. If the white cop grew up in a predominantly poor, black neighborhood, he probably got his ass kicked on a daily basis and has an even bigger bias.

So, that’s just the reality today and I’m not going to get into why that is, but it’s largely due to institutionalized racism, and economic disparity.

But back to the movies.

So you have large, poor communities of people of color, largely patrolled by white cops who view themselves as something somewhere between Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon and Clint Eastwood in Grand Torino.

Even when the pressures and stresses of the street are low, this creates a world of problems. From stop and frisk to stopping and/or arresting people of color for minor crimes or for now reason at all.

But elevate the stressors, and you end up with a cop that isn’t about to take any shit from some greasy perp and they’re going to show them who’s boss.

Why do you think we keep seeing these police abuse videos? It’s because the victim gave the cop lip (not illegal by the way) and the cop escalated the situation to get the person to cower and back down in the face of overwhelming force, and then when they don’t cower, they unleash a response that seems entirely without merit or provocation.

If the subjects were being honest, I think what you’d hear would be a young black man complaining that he wasn’t doing anything wrong and the cop just started fucking with him. In truth, he’d tell you that he was tired of being harassed and more or less told the cop to go fuck himself.

The cop, if he was being honest, would tell you he’s sick of taking shit from street hoods, and what’s the point of having this badge and this gun of thugs aren’t going to show you some respect. Cops are supposed to have all the power, and when people don’t respect that power, they get angry.

This is why white people get real meek and mild, “Yes sir. No sir, officer.” White people, with money, know they’re not going to get anywhere arguing with a cop. But they also consider themselves superior to the officer, not inferior. If need be, they’ll have their lawyer deal with it. But in the moment, there’s no need to be confrontational. It’s not a greater level of respect. It’s a mix of fear, like everyone else, and assurance that if you didn’t do anything wrong, nothing bad is going to happen to you.

If you’re black and get pulled over, you’re not only afraid, but angry, which isn’t a good place to start. And you have zero assurance that just because you didn’t do anything, that nothing bad is going to happen to you.

Let’s talk for a minute about how cops approach cars. I realize cops are occasionally shot in vehicle stops, and they should be cautious in their actions. But they don’t have to start with a combative posture. How about a smile? Ask me how I’m doing. Was I speeding? Ok. It’s a ticket, not a criminal offense. We all know the dance. Let’s not make it any more uncomfortable than it has to be. Unless that’s your thing and you get off on the power trip, in which case, I’ll just smile and let my lawyer deal with it.

So, that was a whole lot more about cops in real life than I intended. Let me see if I can bring it home.

This morning there was a Steven Seagal movie on the TV in my office. I didn’t recognize which one, but I watched as two uniformed cops beat a suspect with billy club for talking shit and resisting, even though he was cuffed and clearly not going anywhere. Then a big black perp was thrown into a chair and threatened. Being a Steven Seagal film, I’m sure he cracked a lot of skulls, broke arms and legs, and shot countless criminals.

Steven Seagal in Above The Law. 1988.
Steven Seagal in Above The Law. 1988.

But here’s the thing. Steven Seagal is a real life 7th-Degree Black Belt in Aikido. He was the first foreigner to operate an Aikido dojo in Japan and subsequently began a career as an action hero in films such as Above The Law, Under Siege, and On Deadly Ground.

In the late 80’s, after teaching martial arts, unarmed combat and marksmanship to deputies in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana’s sheriff’s department, the Sheriff was so impressed with his skills that he asked Seagal to become a Reserve Deputy Chief, which he did.

So this is a guy who runs around playing cop in real life, while in the movies, he’s breaking the law at every turn. The title of his first breakout movie, Above The Law, was supposed to be a reference to corrupt CIA officials, but could just as easily be about his actions from the beginning of the movie to the end. He kills with immunity. He breaks bones and smashes faces left and right. Talk about above the law.

So, if you’re a cop, there is a least some part of you that thinks, “Why do I have to take any shit from these dirtbags? I’m the one with the gun and the badge. Who’s going to stop me?”

And this is where the bias comes in. If you don’t have a high opinion of the people you are policing, you aren’t going to see them as people, let alone innocent. You’re going to act in a patriarchal manor and dispense justice as you see fit.

So even for someone who thinks of themselves as a good cop, it’s basically the old plantation owner mentality. These people are animals living in a cage. They don’t know what’s good for them. I’ll show them the error of their ways, and if they don’t like it, I’m going to show them who’s boss.

That’s a cop from the movies. But it’s also a cop in real life.

Now don’t get your panties all in a bunch. I’m not saying all cops are racist psychopaths. I’m not saying that. But the social construct of the police department in this country is flawed due to a number of outside and inside forces, including what we see on the television and in the movies.

Righteous indignation is what causes, what might be an otherwise good officer, to snap and drag a high school girl across for the room for refusing to comply with his demands.

For the record, insubordination is not part of the penal code. It’s in your best interest to listen to a man with gun, no matter what, but unless you’re being arrested, you don’t have any duty to be deferential to a cop. You don’t have to be polite. But in this day and age, unless someone else is standing there filming the situation, you might want to think twice. If it’s a good cop, you might be alright. If it’s a bad cop, you might get beaten or shot, at the very least you’re probably going to spend some time in cuffs and a jail cell. Even if you beat the entire thing, there isn’t likely going to be any repercussions against the officer. There rarely is. So, all you’re doing is creating a headache for yourself at no cost to the officer involved. Maybe a little paperwork.

If you’re white, you might be thinking, “Dave, you’re making a big deal out of nothing. This doesn’t happen the way you’re describing it.” And you’d be right. Because you’re white. You don’t experience this.

White people live in a world so devoid of race issues that many of us don’t believe they exist. Cops aren’t racist. They arrest a lot of black people because there are lot of black criminals. Right?

The problem is that none of the statistics back up that argument. In fact, whites are much more likely to be holding drugs in stop and frisk situations. White males are just as likely to commit a crime as someone of color, but whites are much less likely to go to jail for the same crime as people of color.

It’s not all about the movies. There are forces much bigger that are behind our institutionalized race biases. But we need to start recognizing it, not only in real life, but in our entertainment. When you can begin to spot it in movies and television shows, you’ll much more likely to spot it in real life. How are you being manipulated? What information are you being fed about certain ethnic groups? How does that make you feel about them.

Finally, if you still don’t think this is an issue, how do you feel about the United States taking in 10,000 Syrian refugees? Are you frightened because you were told to be? What do you know about Syrians? Do they have dark skin and talk funny? Are they all terrorists? They’re the people from ISIS right?

Before the war, Syria was home to some 22 million people. Estimates are that about 6.5 million Syrians have been displaced within Syria due to the various conflicts, with about 3 million having left the country altogether. The CIA puts the number of ISIS combatants between 20-30k across Syria and Iraq. That’s .00001% of the Syrian Population and a lot of those fighters joined ISIS from other countries.

But the answer from many right wing people is to deny any and all refugees from entering the country. That’s not bias, that’s just racism and bigotry.

There is a song by the great Randy Newman called, “In Defense Of Our Country.” I’ll leave you with the lyrics. If you ever get a chance, check out the song as well.


“In Defense Of Our Country.”

I’d like to say a few words
In defense of our country
Whose people aren’t bad nor are they mean
Now the leaders we have
While they’re the worst that we’ve had
Are hardly the worst this poor world has seen

Let’s turn history’s pages, shall we?

Take the Caesars for example
Why within the first few of them
They were sleeping with their sister
Stashing little boys in swimming pools
And burning down the City
And one of ’em, one of ’em
Appointed his own horse Consul of the Empire
That’s like vice president or something

That’s not a very good example, is it?

But wait, here’s one, the Spanish Inquisition
They put people in a terrible position
I don’t even like to think about it
Well, sometimes I like to think about it

Just a few words in defense of our country
Whose time at the top
Could be coming to an end
Now we don’t want their love
And respect at this point
Is pretty much out of the question
But in times like these
We sure could use a friend

Hitler. Stalin.
Men who need no introduction

King Leopold of Belgium. That’s right.
Everyone thinks he’s so great
Well he owned The Congo
He tore it up too
He took the diamonds, he took the gold
He took the silver
Know what he left them with?


A President once said,
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”
Now it seems like we’re supposed to be afraid
It’s patriotic in fact and color coded
And what are we supposed to be afraid of?
Why, of being afraid
That’s what terror means, doesn’t it?
That’s what it used to mean

You know it pisses me off a little
That this Supreme Court is gonna outlive me
A couple of young Italian fellas
And a brother on the Court now too
But I defy you, anywhere in the world
To find me two Italians as tightass
As the two Italians we got

And as for the brother
Well, Pluto’s not a planet anymore either

The end of an empire is messy at best
And this empire is ending
Like all the rest
Like the Spanish Armada adrift on the sea
We’re adrift in the land of the brave
And the home of the free

Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye.

About the author

David Todd McCarty

David Todd McCarty is a writer, director, photographer and cinematographer. He writes fiction and nonfiction essays as well as journalism. You can see his commercial work at http://www.hoppingfrogstudios.com


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By David Todd McCarty
Writer | Journalist | Storyteller


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