Punished to Perfection

SPOILER ALERTS for the “Ride the Lightning” episode of Criminal Minds and V for Vendetta comics and film. Many thanks to Zoé Samudzi for early feedback on the idea. Mariame Kaba, Critical Resistance, Ruth Wilson Gilmore and other Black liberation and abolitionist organizers have long described and critiqued the same ideas and credit for anything insightful in what follows is due to them even if not directly cited, although they should not be blamed for any misuses of their ideas. Please support their work. Feedback whether constructive, destructive or other is always welcomed.

 

The fourteenth episode in season one of the CBS police procedural Criminal Minds, “Riding the Lightning”, follows the FBI’s Behavioural Analysis Unit (BAU) as they interview Sarah Jean Dawes and Jacob Dawes, a white serial killer couple scheduled the following day for execution in Florida after being found guilty of killing twelve young women plus their infant son Riley. The interviews reveal that Sarah Jean was uninvolved in the killings and was a herself victim of Jacob’s abuse yet the BAU, despite finding Riley alive, doesn’t intervene against her murder by the state. The episode creates a sympathetic saint through martyrdom while punishing someone towards their perfection and it is not alone in its carceral saintmaking. It is representative of very common narratives and assumptions that brutalizing people improves them.

“Riding the Lightning” opens with BAU agent Jason Gideon (Mandy Patinkin) having a teary, appreciative smile on his face while listening to a live performance of Bach’s “Cello Suite No.1, Prelude”. It transitions into the interior of an FBI vehicle where BAU agents Gideon, Derek Morgan (Shemar Moore) and JJ (A.J. Cook) are discussing the killing carried out by married couple Sarah Jean Dawes (Jeanetta Arnette) and Jacob Dawes (Michael Massee) while the rest of the unit similarly discusses in another vehicle. A team led by Gideon interviews Sarah Jean while Hotchner (Thomas Gibson) leads Jacob’s interview.

We meet Sarah Jean when Gideon visits her cell where she is painting. Sarah Jean exudes a weary serenity, wisdom and peace that has Gideon questioning whether she killed Riley and, later, whether Riley is even dead. Jacob is her opposite. He revels in sexual violence, enjoys taunting the BAU and lasciviciously celebrates his misogynistic history.

The episode follows the BAU’s divergent interviews with Jacob and Sarah Jean. Sarah Jean is contemplative, nurturing and wise while Jacob is vicious, creepy and mocking. Through probing interviews directly against the boundaries Sarah Jean tries to enforce, the BAU figures out by using very implausible psychology that, not only did she not kill her son Riley at Jacob’s directive, but she didn’t kill him at all and the boy is alive, adopted by a rich family. Meanwhile Hotchner engages in a regressive masculinity contest with Jacob.

The episode climaxes with the BAU frantically searching for and finding the proof that Riley is alive while Jacob is executed. At the moment right before Jacob’s face is hidden from the murder viewing room, Hotchner slaps a picture of a now teenaged Riley up to the glass telling him, “You lose!” Jacob is at last not gleefully lecherous, providing for the audience a comeuppance for…someone seconds away from being executed? Morgan and Elle find Riley but Gideon orders them to back off after deciding to heed Sarah Jean’s wishes and letting the state kill her, ostensibly to prevent Riley from being contaminated by his association with his parents. Sarah Jean requests that Gideon witness her murder which he does while the warden, tears in his eyes knowing she didn’t kill her son, over a sad melody, sees to her death.

Even by the standards of pro-death penalty US cop stories, the FBI, warden, and condemned teaming up together to execute a sympathetic character consciously against the evidence is a little remarkable. Jacob’s murder, because of Hotch’s actions, intends audience pleasure. Sarah Jean’s murder/suicide bonds those not killed together, witnessing while manufacturing her martyrdom and beatification. It is their act of jointly killing her that makes them heroic and her willing walk to the electric chair that makes her a saint. It is the act of punishing her that brings her to the ethical sublime. Despite the terrible writing – Criminal Minds is always mediocre from the perspective of canon consistency and psychology but rarely is it as corny as “Riding the Lightning” – the episode is one of the more moving ones. The “heroic” death of a sympathetic character is deeply affecting. All state murder is horror yet Criminal Minds finds a way to not only make it heroic, but virtuous even in the context of executing someone who didn’t do the thing for which they’re being executed.

V for Valorus Victimizing

In both the 1982 comics series by Alan Moore and David Lloyd and 2005 film directed by James McTeigue, V for Vendetta offers another version of punishing someone to righteousness. The comics and film have some differences – for example in the comics Evey is a sex worker and in the film a tv production assistant – but in both Evey Hammond is imprisoned and tortured to heroism. “Riding the Lightning” takes place inside the Criminal Minds version of a Florida concentration camp (euphemised in US discourse as a deracialized “prison”) while Evey’s torture at the hands of V takes place in a mock concentration camp of V’s creation in a post-apocalyptic fascist London.

In both the comics (issues 6 and 7) and film, V imprisons Evey in a dark, cold cell, starves her, beats her, drowns her, gaslights her, verbally denigrates her and threatens her with execution. While jailed, he slips her written letters through a hole in the wall from another purported inmate, Valerie, telling her story of how she was captured, tortured and experimented on for being lesbian, and the beautiful parts of her life and loves prior to her time in the concentration camp. These letters shore up Evey’s resolve to not give up “the last inch” of herself even as V seeks to torture her into doing exactly that. In both versions Evey refuses to snitch at the point of death, at which point V exposes the ruse.

In both versions Evey initially responds reasonably, with rage and horror directed not at the fascist system of torture and prisons, but in V’s reproduction of it. Yet she quickly comes to embrace this as a lesson in freedom. V has tortured her in and into service to the greater good. What makes this so effective in the stories are Valerie’s letters. Concentration camp narratives are nearly always devastating and the version written by Moore and reproduced in the film is gutting. It is this affect that allows for V’s actions to be interpreted as reasonable. Without Valerie’s narration, V’s violence against Evey would seem as baldly cruel as it actually is.

This, like the Criminal Minds episode above, reproduces fascism in order to serve the greater good. In both versions reproducing fascism is simply making more of it even as both versions imagine themselves as doing so to produce justice and confront repressive violence (misogynistic killings in the Criminal Minds, state authoritarianism in V for Vendetta). They do not intend to be the same politically. Criminal Minds aspires to validate the carceral state while V for Vendetta aspires to anarchist revolution. Yet they both imagine carcerality to potentially produce justice, to manufacture better people. In the case of Criminal Minds this extends to the jailers who are the story’s surviving heroes.

After the Holocaust…

Everyday discourse naming judges as “justices”, carcerality (Black Captivity) as “the justice system”, prisons and jails as “reformatories” and more all produce the ideas that prisons serve some kind of good. So it isn’t really surprising that popular culture, even dissident narratives like V for Vendetta, reproduces this. But lots of leftist or progressive narratives also do. Anyone who has done work towards Palestinian liberation for much time has heard at least once “I can’t believe Jews could do this after the Holocaust” or some version thereof. Leaving aside the ahistorical, wrongheaded and confused timeline and conflation of “Jews” with “Israeli settler state”, this idea has the same premise as “Riding the Lightning” and V for Vendetta in brutalizing people to righteousness.

That it is surprising that a state calling itself Jewish can perpetrate the dispossession of Palestine and Palestinians in spite of the Holocaust assumes that the Nazi’s concentration camps produced something other than conformity, horror and death (and has a bizarre romanticization of ethnonationalism!). Jews – and other Nazi victims – were just people before the Holocaust. Survivors came out also as just people, if horrendously traumatized. Concentration camps cannot produce righteousness in the material world any more than they can in Criminal Minds or V for Vendetta. The same logic would ask, “How could Palestinian merchants as victims of Zionism – including mass incarceration – in Palestine exploit Black people in the US?” Israeli prisons no more make angels of Palestinians – individually or collectively – than Nazi concentration camps make angels of Jews. That is not what concentration camps are designed to do and it is true horror that they are imagined to do so.

Do you feel remorse?

The above three examples deal with three concentration camps, one real and two imagined (though one purports to reproduce a real US concentration camp). In the material world functioning of US concentration camps parole boards ask detainees summoned to plead for their freedom questions, often something like, “Do you feel your sentence fits the crime you committed?”, “Do you feel remorse for your crime?” and “What would you do different if you found yourself in a similar situation again?” In other words, “How did your time in the concentration camp make you a better person?” Black Captivity’s concentration camps are expected by parole boards to produce contemplative, remorseful people when what prisons produce is primarily violence, isolation and boredom. And if you don’t answer the questions in a way that suits the board, you can be redenied your freedom (to the very limited degree that parole is any kind of freedom). The assumptions of Criminal Minds, V for Vendetta and some progressive activists are the same as parole boards.

This is a way carceral normativity is (re)produced in normative popular culture, surprisingly large swaths of counterhegemonic discourse and by prison functionings themselves. It is the imaginary “rehabilitative” quality of concentration camps when no amount of individual transformation could ever be expected to avoid systemically produced incarceration in the first place. This is, to use Mariame Kaba’s twitter handle, “prison culture”. Thanks for reading.

A Punch Line. A White Supremacist Contortion.

This article examines U.S. public awareness of mass incarceration of Black people through the stories told on police procedural television programs. Though not quoting directly when focusing on mass incarceration and White supremacy I am informed by lectures and writings on prisons and racism by Angela Davis, George Jackson and Mariame Kaba. Please see their works for in depth analysis of prisons and White supremacy and Kaba’s Project NIA (or related efforts across the continent) for ways to take action to end the injustice described in this essay.

The punch line is a common exercise in storytelling beyond comedy. Punch lines are occasionally educational but much more often they depend on what the audience already knows. For this reason they are at least as telling of the audience as they are of the storyteller. This essay examines a particular punch line common to cop shows, with a focus on a 1987 episode of Hunter, that of the comeuppance of neo-Nazis by the police when the neo-Nazis are to be incarcerated in the U.S. prison system and thus, alongside people of color. Further, this essay also looks at what this punch line says about public awareness of and support for the mass incarceration of Black people and how normative White supremacist discourse contorts it into a purported anti-racism.

Bad tv

Bad tv

The Hunter episode “Bad Company” (Season 3, Episode 11 – 10 January 1987) begins with a group of white men and women robbing a Los Angeles gun store and killing the store owner. Police arrive in short order and a shoot-out between the cops and robbers ensues. Two of the robbers are injured, one killed and the other slightly wounded. The wounded party is Angela (Lar Park-Lincoln) who is transferred into the custody of Detective Sergeants McCall (Stepfanie Kramer) and Hunter (Fred Dryer) upon release from the hospital. We soon find out Angela is the daughter of Brother Hobarts (Dean Stockwell), the head of the National Aryan Order, a White nationalist militia on the outskirts of Los Angeles.

Hunter and McCall transport Angela to another location. En route they engage her on her ideology, telling her she is off base as they attempt to turn her snitch. She replies, accurately but against normative liberal White supremacist discourse, that White nationalism is “what America is all about.” She continues while elucidating a fairly mainstream – if a little cartoonish so as to indicate viewers shouldn’t identify with with Angela too strongly – racist narrative “The right of decent Americans to defend their way of life against freeloaders and subversives and the mud races. I mean it’s nothing personal guys, but you’re on the wrong side.”

Villians all

Angela explains to McCall and Hunter why her version of White supremacy is better than theirs.

 

Hunter and McCall are captured by the National Aryan Order during the trip when the group rescues Angela from police custody. Up to this point Angela is still loyal to the Aryan National Order. McCall and Hunter do not manage to recruit her until one group member murders her love interest (who is also a neo-Nazi). Now betrayed, albeit not ideologically, Angela helps the cops escape and the group is eventually joined by other police who proceed to stop Brother Hobarts and crew from carrying out a planned attack. Hunter confronts Brother Hobarts, who is by this time in bracelets, and delivers the punchline “you Brother Hobarts are going to prison. Half the men you meet there belong to those mud races you were talking about. They’re gonna like you.”

Fuck the police

Hunter gives Brother Hobarts his comeuppance by using racism to fight racism. Wait, what?

This is a somewhat common punch line in cop shows. The Law & Order episode “Prejudice” (Season 12, Episode 10 – 12 December 2001) ends with the incarceration of a racist white man. As the prosecutors prepare leave the office at the episode’s end, District Attorney Nora Lewin (Diane West) says, “Wonder if Burroughs will still have a problem with minorities when he gets to prison and finds out he is one.” In the CSI episode “World’s End” (Season 10, Episode 19 – 22 April 2010), Nick Stokes (George Eads) says to a white supremacist suspect he is interrogating, “But you know what, I’m gonna do you a favor, since you like to whoop so much ass. I’m gonna have the warden put you in with some African-Americans, so they can give you an up close and person lesson on race relations.” There are several other examples.

The Racial Caste System As Anti-Racism

These punch lines mean to show the police and the mass incarceration of Black and other people of color as possible tools against racism rather than as baselines of systemic White supremacy. These punch lines are only given meaning by an audience who will understand them as the comeuppance of racists rather than as an affirmation of the racist order of things. For this to work without souring an audience that largely believes it isn’t racist or, at least, not about prisons and crime, Black criminality must be understood to as a matter of fact rather than as a matter of racial caste formation or, in other words, Black folk must be understood as criminals rather than mass incarceration being understood as the criminalization of Black people. Were it the other way around the shows would be (probably) canceled as the audience would (probably) receive the punch line as cruel cynicism rather than anti-racist comeuppance. (I use probably in parentheses because with White supremacy you can never be too sure that something horrifying actually will be taken as going too far even when problematized.)

For example the pilot episode of 21 Jump Street aired four months after the Hunter episode discussed above. It’s opening scene features a wealthy white family of four seated around the dining room table for a meal when two young Black men with shotguns break through the glass of the patio doors and lay siege to the family. This introductory scene of one of the most successful cops shows is anchored with Black criminality. The 21 Jump Street pilot offered nothing novel but affirmed what was already common knowledge; that Black people were dangerous criminals, the conclusion of which is that the prisons must be full of such criminals.

21 Jump Street kickstarts its franchise with Black criminality

21 Jump Street kickstarts its franchise with Black criminality

The crudest neo-Nazi articulations fall far enough outside of White supremacist normativity for the mainstream public, especially though not quite exclusively the mainstream white public, to reject them. So long as mass incarceration of Black and other people of color is not understood as a racial caste system the public receives punch lines like those above as Black criminality being just desserts for neo-Nazis who get locked up.

An Inversion Version

What this essay describes is one example of White supremacy’s incredible discursive flexibility. The Hunter, Law & Order and CSI episodes described above contribute to normative discourse a perfect inversion of the racial caste system. Mass incarceration of people of color is a baseline of White supremacy. Yet the punch line to these stories is one where said systemic baseline is re-imagined as an anti-racist tool against individual white supremacists while the enforcers of the baseline (the police and prosecutors) relish in their enlightened anti-racism to a produce a feel good moment for the audience. The contortion is horrifyingly impressive.

These punch lines demonstrate another thing. This essay focused on the Hunter episode for a reason; it aired in 1987. United States liberals – largely unfamiliar with the radical Black tradition that produced critical prison analysis decades ago – are ‘discovering’ mass incarceration as a phenomenon of a racial caste system since the 2010 publication of Michelle Alexander’s tome The New Jim Crow. But the Hunter audience over two decades before that book had to understand that the United States fills its jails in a wildly disproportionate manner with Black folks, otherwise the punch line doesn’t work.

Point being, White America knows and been knowing, it’s just not considered a problem. Mass consciousness is not critical consciousness when embedded in normative oppression. That the broad contours of an oppressive system are common knowledge might, however, offer opportunities for organizing. The same knowledge in a framework rejecting Black criminality, mass incarceration and White supremacy produces a very different discourse. To assist with efforts to produce a liberatory discourse please visit the “Resources” page on the Project NIA website.