[One of my favorite cultural works of the last year was Small Axe, filmmaker Steve McQueen’s anthology film series about the West Indian community in England from the 1960s through the 1980s. I’m not an EnglandStudier, but I think there are plenty of ways to apply the five wonderful films to AmericanStudying. So this week I’ll highlight a handful, leading up to a Guest Post on McQueen’s prior films!]
On a telling question about the possibility and limits of police reform, and why we need to keep asking it.
In the last paragraph of my year in review post on race, memory, and justice, I briefly addressed the complicated and even contradictory (yet clearly coexisting) realities of the racist origins and development of yet widespread African American support for the police in the United States. While there are various ways to understand and engage those concurrent realities, I would say that they do naturally lend themselves to an emphasis on police reform (rather than, say, abolition) as a vital goal. The third Small Axe film, Red, White, and Blue, depicts precisely such a reformer, a historical figure who sought to change the institutional racism of English policing (among other problems he hoped to address) from the inside: Leroy Logan (played by John Boyega in the film), a longtime London Metropolitan Police officer who founded the Black Police Association (now the National Black Police Association) and chaired it for its first 30 years (1983-2013, when Logan retired from the force). Logan’s recent autobiography, Closing Ranks: My Life as a Cop (2020, and co-written with George Luke), describes both the frustrations and failures and the successes and progress of that reformist career.
In watching Red, White, and Blue, I couldn’t help but think about a very different recent cultural work: HBO’s Watchmen (2019), and specifically its historical storyline featuring the character of Hooded Justice. That fictional character reminds us that the US has had African American police officers for far longer than the UK (Logan is presented in the film, apparently accurately, as one of the first Black officers when he begins his career in the early 1980s), but that they have nonetheless consistently come up against the same institutional racism and prejudice, the same challenges to both their own career and any overarching progress, that Logan encountered. And just because The Wire is never far from my AmericanStudying brain, I likewise thought about a character like Bunny Colvin, an African American police lieutenant whose efforts to change both policing and the war on drugs in the show’s fictionalized Baltimore ultimately lead to his own departure from the force rather than any substantive or at least enduring changes. Reform from within makes sense as at least part of the equation, but such fictional characters (dealing with all too historical and ongoing realities) illustrate just how challenging such reforms will always be.
But if I can quote from one more American text, Don Henley’s song “Inside Job” (from the 2000 album of the same name): “Insect politics/Indifferent universe/Bang your head against the wall/But apathy is worse.” Of course those last two aren’t the only options when it comes to policing problems in the US (or anywhere else), and I don’t want to dismiss entirely here the far more radical idea of abolition. But the truth of social reform and movements throughout American history is that they have almost always involved a series of changes, rather than massive or sweeping overhaul (with perhaps the only exception being the abolition of slavery, which did involve massive changes but also and not coincidentally the bloodiest conflict in US history)—and I would also argue that making such changes can be just as radical, if not as striking, as such overhauls might be. So frustrating as it might be, I think we need to keep banging our heads against the wall of police reform; and in the story of Leroy Logan, historically and as fictionalized so potently by Red, White, and Blue, we’ve got an excellent portrayal of both the frustrations and (eventually but unquestionably) the possibility of reform and change.
Last Axe application tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other takes on Caribbean American connections?