What Is Copaganda? A Look At The Dangerous Ways Police Seek Public Sympathy

Erin Corbett
TOPSHOT – Police officers kneel during a rally in Coral Gables, Florida on May 30, 2020 in response to the recent death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died while being arrested and pinned to the ground by a Minneapolis police officer. – Clashes broke out and major cities imposed curfews as America began another night of unrest Saturday with angry demonstrators ignoring warnings from President Donald Trump that his government would stop violent protests over police brutality “cold.” (Photo by Eva Marie UZCATEGUI / AFP) (Photo by EVA MARIE UZCATEGUI/AFP via Getty Images)
TOPSHOT – Police officers kneel during a rally in Coral Gables, Florida on May 30, 2020 in response to the recent death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died while being arrested and pinned to the ground by a Minneapolis police officer. – Clashes broke out and major cities imposed curfews as America began another night of unrest Saturday with angry demonstrators ignoring warnings from President Donald Trump that his government would stop violent protests over police brutality “cold.” (Photo by Eva Marie UZCATEGUI / AFP) (Photo by EVA MARIE UZCATEGUI/AFP via Getty Images)

Nationwide, police officers have responded to recent uprisings against police brutality with force, attacking protestors with batons, tear gas, and rubber bullets. But even as viral videos have shown officers beating protestors senselessly one day, the next day there have been others that show officers taking a knee or giving an impassioned speech about standing united with protestors. This kind of cognitive dissonance continued during Pride Month, as New York’s police department politicized rainbow logos by putting them on cop cars in a seeming show of support for pride, before then showing up at the city’s Queer Liberation March with pepper spray and a brutal show of force.

But, over a month into this latest period of mass civil unrest, and one thing seems to be clear: The police that continue to brutalize protestors are also trying to appeal to them. As cities around the country entered the fifth straight week of demonstrations following the police killing of George Floyd, the Metro Nashville Police Department in Tennessee released a country music ballad of a “good cop” who is deeply emotional about Floyd’s killing.

“I’m angry and sad. I’m a whole lot confused,” Sergeant Henry Particelli sings along with his guitar. He later continues, “I’m just trying to get a grip on what happened that night. I’m sure you never wanted this kind of fame, I’m so sorry that’s how we know your name.”

The music video for the song includes people holding signs with slogans like, “Peace,” “Unity,” and “Embrace everyone’s differences.” Most of the people featured in the video are other MNPD officers, a spokesperson said. While the intention behind the song, according to Particelli — who doesn’t reveal he’s a cop until the end of the video — was to demonstrate how people in law enforcement and across the country feel about Floyd’s death, it’s actually a pretty classic example of cop propaganda, or copaganda. 

Copaganda typically encompasses things like fictionalized, positive TV depictions of police officers, heartfelt social media posts made by police departments, and videos of cops kneeling with anti-police brutality protestors; it is all the media made in an effort to show police as being uncomplicatedly friendly, heroic, and good. But these one-dimensional displays actually do harm by presenting cops as being solely friends and allies to the public at-large, rather than offering a truthful depiction of the deeply violent and racist nature of police work in America. 

Despite the MNPD’s supposedly “feel good” video of a cop singing about George Floyd’s death, the department also engages in a more insidious form of copaganda on social media. The MNPD has used its Twitter account to push a mix of content, including feel-good photos of cops posing with children wearing badges of their own, followed by mugshots of people who participated in anti-police riots. This bizarre social media binary makes it clear that the department wants the public to think they’re solely a force for good, who like to hang out with little kids, while protestors are all criminals, who belong behind bars.  

This isn’t unique to just one police department in one city, though. Since the national demonstrations have started, those in power have employed their own counterinsurgency tactics, which include various forms of copaganda. Most prominently, officers have performed faux solidarity with protestors by making speeches and taking knees.

In Bellevue, WA, Police Chief Steve Mylett got on his knee in the middle of a crowd of protestors, saying, “What happened to George Floyd is a crime.” After a passionate speech to the sounds of cheers, Mylett told protestors, “We are with you, we are not against you.” A month later, the same police department reportedly arrested 23 protestors.

In NYC’s Washington Square Park, on June 1, the highest ranking NYPD officer was filmed on his knees, linking arms with protestors and hugging them in the street. But in the days before and after, NYPD officers in downtown Manhattan were reportedly kettling crowds, using batons, and pepper-spraying demonstrators.

These police-led actions are not only meant to assuage a public that’s uneasy about brutal police tactics, but it also serves to discredit the demands of abolitionist and Black liberation movements, and to make them potentially complicit in copaganda. I watched firsthand at a recent protest in Louisiana when several activists urged police to march with them, while others on the frontlines questioned this demand, arguing that whether or not cops march or kneel with activists, they’re still in uniform, wearing their badges, and have the power to continue killing people. When cops coerce activists into allowing them to kneel with them or join marches, it becomes easier for them to push their “good cop” narrative, at the expense of the march’s true goals. 

The recent wave of copaganda aside, a deep dive into the history of policing shows a corrupt system that doesn’t leave much room for sympathy. Police have always been “a force of violence against Black people,” as the abolitionist organizer Mariame Kaba wrote for The New York Times. Modern police departments first emerged as slave patrols in the South in the 18th and 19th Centuries; they have always been an adversary to labor movements; and they regularly terrorize communities and kill people with impunity. It’s no coincidence that in a moment of national unrest, when demands to “abolish the police” are gaining widespread popularity, that cops would ramp up propaganda to paint themselves in a different light. 

Forms of “feel-good” propaganda pull on American nationalism, too. One such example is a video that made the rounds earlier this month of a cop fixing a fallen American flag.

Regardless of these copaganda displays, though, the abolition movement is not about singular officers and their intentions. Rather, the movement is about reevaluating the systems that have put those officers in charge of deciding whether certain people deserve to live or die.

It’s quite possible, and probable even, that Sergeant Henry Particelli, who sang how sorry he is to George Floyd, was sincere. But Particelli, and all the other officers who have engaged in forms of copaganda, are missing the point. The problem with the police is not simply about individual officer’s intentions; it’s not about the “good guy” narrative. Instead, it’s about an authoritative policing system that has oppressed Black and brown people for centuries, a system that needs to be dismantled now.

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