The scene at the Black Panthers headquarters in Chicago after two Panthers were killed in a police raid on Dec. 4, 1969. (Edward Kitch/AP)

By Peter Constantine Pihos

Editors’ Note: Addendum is where we feature original content related to the latest issue of Radical History Review. Peter C. Pihos’ essay, “‘Police Brutality Uncovered’: Chicago, 1969-1974,”which appears in issue 141 Breaking News, is currently open access and available to read on the Duke University Press website.

‘Tis the holiday season, but the first week of December 2021 has not brought good tidings. There were once-in-a century floods in my hometown of Bellingham and devastating tornadoes in the Midwest, the newly discovered Omicron variant of COVID-19 circling the globe, and the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse. Amid such crises, the brave police officers of Hillock, Texas, were out on the streets defending Christmas. On the morning of December 3, @CBSNews tweeted a video of the Grinch being handcuffed before he could disrupt the lighting of Hillock’s tree. In the age of mass incarceration, Dr. Suess’s message of redemption and forgiveness gave way to the clink of cuffs around the Grinch’s furry green wrists accompanied by peals of laughter from the crowd. I do not think they will invite him to carve the roast beast.

The video was a too-bad-to-be-believed example of copaganda. The word, a portmanteau of cop and propaganda, describes how the media disseminates and legitimizes police perspectives. Copaganda advances a Hobbesian view of the world in which the (largely white) public needs the police to protect them from (predominantly Black) criminal threats. Journalist Keya Vakil’s description of the long-running low-budget reality show, Cops, serves as a metonym for the genre: “Police officers were the ‘good guys’ and their suspects were depicted as the ‘bad guys’ who deserved what they had coming to them.” Despite this monochromatic morality, copaganda comes in more varieties than the rainbow has colors. Major themes include “cops are nice” (kittens and Christmas gifts); progress is halting but happening (pinkwashing, Black chiefs, community policing); and policing is difficult, and those people are dangerous (dangerous jobs, bogus threats and crime increases, victim smearing). These messages circulate in nearly every medium, from scripted crime shows and news, to police and user generated social media.

In my recent article in the Radical History Review, “‘Police Brutality Uncovered’: Chicago, 1969-1974,” I explore how social movements challenged police power over media narratives. Police control of the news is overdetermined, the product of institutional constraints, professional norms, and political ideology. Media scholar Regina Lawrence begins her exploration of these phenomena with the basic fact that “[p]olice are … the primary sources of news about policing …” This gatekeeper role is reinforced by the basic organization of news gathering, in which police grant privileged access to beat reporters who gain familiarity and trust with their police interlocutors. Bound by norms of professionalism, reporters tend to give less credibility to “activists and minority community leaders … both because they lack the imprimatur of being ‘official’ and because they may offer claims that challenge the very officials on whom journalists depend to do their jobs.” Finally, the “fearful and punitive” discourse of crime control— copaganda—shapes reporting.[1] The result is that the police perspectives dominate the news.

Yet, media does more than simply make copaganda. Key events can dislodge police control of the narrative, and in those instances, media institutions have been instrumental to the revelation of police brutality and other forms of corruption and misconduct. While media outlets ordinarily provide legitimacy for police perspectives, they occasionally have given voice to and validated the claims of police critics. Newspapers, in particular, have used their resources and expertise to investigate police behavior, to describe police brutality as a systematic problem that goes beyond individuals, and to advance the cause of police reform. This helps explain why eighty-one percent of officers surveyed in one 2017 Pew Research survey believed that “in general, the media treat the police unfairly.” During the uprisings in the summer of 2020 police repeatedly attacked visibly credentialed members of the media.

Police violence towards the media was a direct response to news coverage of #blacklivesmatter critiques of policing. Organized social movements can make possible a shift from media deference to police narratives to a more systematic account of brutality. The media break free from police control of the news, when “news organizations see good possibilities in events that promise dramatic storytelling and indicate brewing problems stemming from official transgressions.”[2] Social movements who challenge the police can offer exciting possibilities for storytelling, signal a potential news audience, and give reporters opportunities to go beyond their usual unformed sources.  

My essay, “‘Police Brutality Uncovered,’” explores the relationship between the powerful anti-brutality movement that emerged in Chicago in the early 1970s and major shifts in newspaper coverage of policing in Chicago. Focusing on the Chicago Tribune, the country’s leading conservative paper, I narrate how police brutality went from being a phenomenon that the paper ignored or only mentioned in quotations (literally, “police brutality”) to being the subject of what Time magazinedescribed in 1973 as “probably the most thorough examination of police brutality ever published by a U.S. newspaper.” This was made possible by a social movement that arose in response to the police murdering Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, Jr. in December of 1969. Anti-brutality activism scrambled previous Black political affiliations and made opposition to police brutality a key tenant of liberal urban politics in the 1970s. Nonetheless, this movement, and the series on police brutality to which it led, left an ambiguous legacy. The process by which police brutality became mainstream simultaneously diffused its political salience.

While it is impossible to do justice to the full story here, I want to highlight two aspects from the history I tell in “‘Police Brutality Uncovered’” that resonate with contemporary struggles over the representation of policing in the media. The first concerns the problem of challenging police lies by authenticating victims’ accounts of brutality. The second has to do with the necessity and limitations of broad-based coalitions.

Claims of police brutality are often difficult for victims to authenticate. Police officers usually arrest their victims, and in many cases allege their involvement in criminal activity. Media are therefore unlikely to take the word of victims of police violence over that of police officers. To get anyone to pay attention, then, their story must be authenticated in some other way. This was precisely what the Black Panthers faced as they tried to prove that Hampton’s murder was unprovoked. Cops burst into the Panthers’ apartment at 4 am, without warning firing more than eighty shots—the Panthers fired one—that killed two and seriously wounded four others.[3] Nevertheless, in the immediate aftermath, the State’s Attorney’s false account—he described a blazing gun battle in which officers showed “bravery … restraint … and discipline”—seemed to carry the day. The newspapers “flatly accepted the police definition of the incident,” and the lone reporter who visited the scene saw his more skeptical account buried on page 9 of the Chicago Sun-Times.[4]

The cops failed to secure the scene of the crime, however, and the Panthers responded by using the physical evidence to authenticate their story. They provided thousands of concerned Chicagoans with an immersive tour that paired blood and bullet holes with personal testimony. By credibly challenging to the truth of the official account, they created the conditions for further media interest. Ultimately, the Tribune played an inadvertent, if crucial, role in the collapse of the official narrative when they ran an exclusive account of the raid provided by the State’s Attorney. It purported to show evidence—in the form of a marked-up photo appearing on the paper’s front page—that the Panthers had fired at police. But, as a rival newspaper soon discovered, the circled marks on the door in the front-page photo “weren’t bullet holes at all; they were nailheads.”[5] In attempting to shut down the alternative narrative, the State’s Attorney authenticated it. This embarrassment destroyed the credibility of the Police and the State’s Attorney in the Panthers case and led to reporters treating police claims with skepticism.

When reporting its series three years later, the Tribune recognized the need to authenticate claims of brutality to the public. As such, its reporters went beyond testimony and physical evidence. Many of the stories relied heavily on polygraph examinations. As a sidebar to the profiles of brutality on the first Sunday of the series, the paper stressed the reliance of police on the “lie test,” noting that “Chicago police and other law enforcement agencies use the polygraph examination extensively.”[6] It failed to mention that polygraphs are not actually reliable indicators of truthfulness or that police typically use them to induce confessions, not judging veracity.[7] By selecting almost exclusively to profile individuals who had “passed” polygraph examinations, and by highlighting many officers who failed, the Tribune provided a form of apparently credible, independent witness. This seemingly unchallengeable external authentication—however disreputable in fact—justified the Tribune’s distrust of police accounts to its conservative readership.

The question of authentication remains central to challenging copaganda today, although its parameters have changed. Since George Halliday filmed Los Angeles Police Department officers savagely beating Rodney King in 1991, video has become the gold standard to disprove the cops. The smartphone has made bystander videos an essential resource in challenging police lies. Yet the reliance on video to authenticate police brutality is fraught with peril. Bystanders and people who copwatch often face retaliation from the police for exercising their rights to openly film police. As well, videos may make it more difficult to get attention: While a video is not required to challenge the police narrative, as the extensive media coverage of Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson showed, it can be difficult to mobilize the public outcry necessary to overcome police dominance of media narratives without it. Even more complex are the many other types of videos being constantly taken: dashcams, body-worn cameras, surveillance feeds. As the Baltimore Gun Trace Task Force scandal demonstrated, police can be quite adept at faking or manipulating videos to hide the truth. And all this video, like other forms of evidence, is usually in police control, inaccessible and potentially unknown to brutality victims or their families. Without public control, such video footage will continue to tip the balance towards police, allowing them to control and manipulate the footage to shape media narratives.

Police shootings, or other forms of brutality, create the possibility that police may lose control of the media narrative. It takes more, however, to substantially displace copaganda. In Chicago, it was the emergence of a broad-based anti-brutality coalition that ultimately led the Tribune to investigate brutality. Hampton’s death catalyzed organizing around police brutality in Chicago. The coalition that emerged was quite different than the incipient radical rainbow coalition that Hampton and the Panthers had organized. While it shared that group’s multi-racial character, it was much more heterogeneous across ideological and class lines. Hampton’s death, according to Black journalist Lillian Calhoun, “created new black unity and electrified the dormant white liberal establishment to strenuous protest.”[8] If the solidarity between white liberals and the Panthers was novel, the political heterogeneity of Black anti-brutality activists was more noteworthy. No one symbolized the possibilities and limitations of this coalition better than Congressman Ralph H. Metcalfe, who by May of 1972 broke from his longtime patron, Mayor Richard J. Daley, over police brutality. Metcalfe quickly became a lightning rod, spearheading a “Black unity” coalition that contained “every brand of conservative seriously and joyously mixing with every shade of militant.”[9]

Metcalfe best symbolizes the necessity and limitations of broad-based issue coalitions that cut across ideology and material circumstance. Metcalfe’s confrontation with Daley allowed Black Chicagoans to imagine an organized politics outside of machine control. The scale of the confrontation brought media attention that reinforced Metcalfe’s position at the head of the coalition. Finally, Metcalfe was able to marshal the resources to hold hearings on police brutality and publishing The Metcalfe Report on the Misuse of Police Authority (1973) anatomizing the problem was able to offer the most systematic treatment of the problem, which likely precipitated the decision of the Tribune launch its investigation.[10]

The Tribune’s stature and deep investigative resources gave its reporting greater salience in the halls of power. For years, activists’ key objective had been to draw attention to the fact that police brutality was a systemic and not individual problem. Although the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Afro-American Patrolmen’s League all aided victims of brutality, none had adequate resources to research many cases at once. By contrast, the Tribune Task Force had four investigative reporters, including three Pulitzer Prize winners, who spent six months on their investigation. The result was that the Tribune was able to present to the public an irrefutable litany of brutality cases—forty were profiled in all—which made denying the systemic character of brutality impossible.

Metcalfe’s political pressure and the Tribune’s systematic account of brutality generated momentum for reform. It engaged downtown elites, especially lawyers, to recognize the problem of brutality and to pressure the pressure on the Police Department and the Mayor. But this is where Metcalfe’s ascension to the leadership of the anti-brutality ranks fell short. While he sought more power for Black Chicagoans, he was ultimately comfortable engaging in a form of elite brokerage that rendered mass politics irrelevant. Without the political courage, or an adequate political base to take on and defeat the Mayor, Metcalfe and the lawyers were reduced to trying to reform policing by tinkering with bureaucratic processes.

But as Renault Robinson, leader of the city’s rank-and-file Black police officers’ organization, the Afro-American Patrolmen’s League, and other radical activists knew, policing was ultimately about the unequal distribution of power in the city. For Robinson, brutality served a discrete function: “This continued brutality is of value to the power structure. It maintains that fear thing in Black people and keeps them in their places, instead of seeking their rights.”  Police operated to enforce the economic, political, and social boundaries that structured inequality in the city. The maintenance of such boundaries and the concomitant restriction of opportunities created the motive and opportunity for brutality and the rationale for its coverup.[11] While bureaucratic reform may have marginally improved police procedures, it could not eliminate the foundational dynamic that drove brutality.

Like the behavior that it legitimates, copaganda is ultimately about the distribution of power. Police Departments continue to shape the news because their power has only multiplied since mid-1970s. Indeed, the increasing importance of policing as a mode of urban governance has only made it more difficult to displace copaganda as the dominant modality of telling stories about policing. This highlights why challenging copaganda an essential part of the broader political struggle. Only by building enough power to shape the institutional dynamics that underlie routine news gathering can the political Left remake the news. Otherwise, we will remain, like the Grinch, locked in copaganda’s grip.


Peter Constantine Pihos is an Assistant Professor of History at Western Washington University, where he is the Chief Steward for the United Faculty of Western Washington. Follow him on twitter at @PeterCPihos.

[1] Regina G. Lawrence, The Politics of Force: Media and the Construction of Police Brutality (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 51, 57, 58.

[2] Lawrence, 91.

[3] Commission of Inquiry into the Black Panthers and the Police, Search and Destroy: A Report (New York: Metropolitan Applied Research Center, 1973), chaps. 3–5.

[4] “The Panthers and the Rest of Us,” Chicago Journalism Review, December 1969.

[5] Dan Rottenberg, “Who’s to Blame for Trib’s Scoop,” Chicago Journalism Review, December 1969.

[6] “Police Brutality,” Chicago Tribune, November 7, 1973, 10.

[7] Richard Leo, Police Interrogation and American Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), chap. 3.

[8] Lillian S. Calhoun, “Black and White,” Chicago Journalism Review, December 1969.

[9] Vernon Jarrett, “Black Unity Busting Out All Over,” Chicago Tribune, May 10, 1972.

[10] “The Metcalfe Report on the Misuse of Authority in Chicago,” 1973, Series III, Box 173, Folder 1889, Chicago Urban League Papers.

[11] Renault Robinson, “Racist Power Is Black’s Downfall,” Chicago Defender, April 16, 1970.