December 1st, 2021 | Issue one hundred thirty-eight
On police procedurals, Latasha Harlins, and white subterfuge
“LAPD! Hands up!”
A chorus of voices clipped the mid-May breeze, forcing its way into our open living room windows and breaking the barrier that “home” is supposed to make. My wife shot up from the couch. My blood stood on its legs. I placed my hand at the soft spot above Stephanie’s elbow, signaling that hold up gesture. It was a Saturday. Night. We were witness-less.
A half second passed—a lifetime under the conditions of the police and my Black fear. We’d been watching the queer cult classic Desert Hearts, and two women naked in bed spilled from our television and onto the street through the sheer curtains. One scenario after another collapsed like dominoes in my mind. Inside me, a door was kicking in, something was being smothered. My heart hurt—fear carries its own stun gun.
“LAPD!” the voices shouted again. My brain hollered to my body: Sync up. I realized that the voices, though booming, were affected. Behind the bass was the absence of puberty. And, anyway, we were in Brooklyn.
“Are you fucking kidding me.” My fear dissipated. I was pissed. I pulled back the curtains. “It’s kids.” Three South Asian boys ran off into the darkness, giggling. They couldn’t have been older than ten. I jumped off the couch, shoved on my shoes, snatched my keys, and walked without my wallet or phone into the balmy night, leaving my wife, still stunned, in our apartment.
Stephanie and I live in Kensington, Brooklyn, in an area where houses, rather than high-rises, abound. The residents are Black, white, Hasidic, South Asian, queers and queens. Despite the neighborhood’s diversity, I knew the danger of being darker than white. There were lessons the boys needed to know, lessons that might not be safe coming from someone white, or from anyone with the state and a gun. It had to be me. I had to be the one to tell them.
The boys scuttled down the street, penguin-walking the way children do when they’ve been warned, “Don’t run.” I followed with the slow pace of an auntie letting you know she’ll catch you on her own time, but inside I was burning. Something in me felt stretched to snap.
It was Pandemic Summer Two and—from cops to COVID—the state was ensuring we were still dying. Knowing that America understands the power and possibility of even a single Black life, my body would only call it what it was: assassination, assassination, assassination.
The ticker in my mind was overrun with the names of all the Black people the police murder in and outside of our homes. The boys weren’t Black, but there was only a shade of difference between our complexions. What were the rules here? What would I say?
I’d been following the boys for two city blocks. Like my oldest nephew, softness clung to their faces. Despite them trying to play at grown, little bellies poked out. I wondered, Should I stop? They ducked around corners and tried to pretend they weren’t glancing back in my direction. Undeniably, they were cute. But still, they’d summoned the cop between us up.
The boys slowed. Stopping on a corner, they let me approach. They wore sober looks, unsure what was coming next. There was nowhere left for them to run but home. Despite my recent arrival in the neighborhood, I recognized them. I’d seen them walking with their mothers and grandmothers and knew the boys to be the children of immigrants. I knew we had a few things in common, one of them being that we were the recipients of the same directives: don’t act up in public; don’t bring that kind of shame home. I also knew white fear might not be able to distinguish their darkness from mine. I wanted to scream at the boys: Do you know how easily you could be mistaken for us? And in a world where others seldom look for Black and Brown children, I knew how easily they could become the hunting ground of predators. I couldn’t let the anything that could happen, happen to them.
“Do you think yelling ‘LAPD’ in people’s windows is funny?” I demanded. They said nothing. I asked again, “This funny to you?” The boys looked at me, their eyes big and waiting. I knew what I wanted to say but didn’t know if I should say it—then, like a diving horse, I leaped.
“Do you know what the police do to Black people?” Was this the neighborly thing to do—introducing other people’s children to Black death? If they didn’t know, would I tell them? To my surprise, looking me in the eyes, the boys gave a meek, shame-filled “Yes.”
Not believing they knew, and with a little bite in my voice, I said, “What do the police do to us?” They responded, “Shoot.” I hadn’t been ready for that. There was nothing left to do but go home. The boys walked toward their building. I watched them vanish inside. I headed home, still unable to reconcile their knowledge with their actions.
For days, for weeks, I circled the chain of events between me and the boys, but trying to read it felt like trying to read a document from which the government had redacted everything but my name. From the second the boys had “playfully” released those death-packed letters into the air, to my walk back home, I’d felt a web of emotions: terror, confusion, anger, disorientation, betrayal, and a deep, deep sadness. Later, I realized it had all been girded by the faint taste of something familiar. Was it absurdity? Los Angeles and the LAPD were more than 2,700 miles away. What the boys knew of the police likely came from pop culture and the media. How else would the Los Angeles Police Department become their plaything? Like I did, did those boys watch CBS’s S.W.A.T.,a show that glorifies Special Weapons and Tactics, LA’s most militarized law enforcement unit?
LAPD. Hearing those letters brought my mind to the other side of the country, to a tragedy that had reverberated from coast to coast.
I’m a cop show junkie. It’s a quality I inherited from my father, a Black man born into Jim Crow Alabama. A painter and art professor, my father turned every procedural we watched together into his elaborate teaching tool. Cop shows were the cinematic version of the trapdoor he’d watched America chase, trip over, and force our family and his friends through. And now I’ve spent almost my whole life in a genre.
The thousands of hours of cop shows I’ve consumed amount to a massive intake of something that is wildly propagandic. I love rewatching my favorite series in their entirety, and I’ve rewatchedevery Law & Order spinoff in full at least a half dozen times. The genre is a window into the world as white people believe it to be. Police procedurals are the safe seat from which I pick apart myself and America.
I go to Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU) to interrogate my questions in this world as a woman and a queer. I head to the original to understand America’s fantasy of race and its lie of relentless justice. There’s CSI: Miami’s high-tech policing, which comes with a redhead and Florida sun. I finished HBO’s violent, maximum-security-prison drama Oz,confused and aroused by how the show swung like a pendulum between violence and sex, and really beginning to wonder what this country had done to me. While Christopher Meloni played a Catholic cop with a bubble butt on SVU, he simultaneouslyplayed a bisexual serial killer and psychopath on Oz, and maybe whatever haunts this country is something like that. With every series, every episode, I try to get my solve-time down. I can tell you the difference between whodunit and whom never to trust. I can confirm sociologist Avery F. Gordon’s point that when the state abandons you, it never leaves you alone. But how many players, how many hours, how intricate a con is needed to turn policing into child’s play?
Earlier in the month, I had sat binge-watching S.W.A.T. for the third time. Once again, I’d reached its season four opener, “3 Seventeen Year Olds,” a mashup about the LA Uprising, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, and what would later become a recurring theme, police reform. When the boys yelled “LAPD” through my window, I was already primed to see a city on fire.
Now it’s been twenty-nine years since the uprising, thirty years since the LAPD viciously beat Rodney King, and thirty years since Korean shop owner Soon Ja Du shot Latasha Harlins in the back of the head. Alongside Rodney King’s beating and the police officers’ acquittals, Latasha’s murder was one of the leading catalysts for the LA Uprisings. Du had accused the fifteen-year-old of trying to steal a $1.79 bottle of orange juice at Empire Liquors, the store Du and her husband owned in Compton, California. When the cops arrived, Latasha was still holding the two dollars in her hand to pay for the juice. In court, one officer described Du being slapped by her husband. The cops had to pull him off her. Was he angry about the inconvenience? The spectacle? The girl?
Seven months later, a jury convicted Du of voluntary manslaughter. The judge, a white woman named Joyce Karlin, sentenced her to a suspended ten-year sentence, which Du would not have to serve as long as she completed five years’ probation, four hundred hours of community service, and paid a five-hundred-dollar fine.
In 1992, immediately after the white police officers who brutalized King were acquitted, Korean-owned shops were vandalized all over South-Central LA. Black folks were angry, but, cops being cops, there was only one place left for our anger to go: Koreatown, which bore a disproportionate brunt of the uprising’s damage.
Despite all this history, American misogynoir has tried to fade Latasha away. More often than not, to call up the memory of her in others, I have to start with Rodney King. With the sound of a helicopter coptering the sky, the home video footage shaking in George Holliday’s hand. With a gang of officers kicking King, their police batons coming down on a Black man over and over, until a year later South-Central exploded, and something in us, though deeply harmed, cheered at its destruction.
And so, watching S.W.A.T.’s LA Uprising episode, I paused hearing one of the characters say Latasha’s name. She’d been lingering somewhere in the back of my mind, and S.W.A.T.’s depiction of the uprisingpulled her forward.
A prank and four letters had brought all this to Brooklyn. I’d been following three South Asian boys, but I kept seeing Latasha.
I am not the first of my kind to be raised with the knowledge that policing is violence. Though in my case, policing has shown itself most visibly through elders’ warnings, a shared Black social reality, mass media, and police procedurals. At ages nine and six, respectively, my older sister and I were first indoctrinated into the genre. My mother barely flinched. She’d grown up in British-controlled Nigeria. Even though the police and military were populated by people that looked like us, imperialism’s violence still lived in plain sight. Like my father, she was used to the way a state could be a vampire. More than once she’d seen our shared birthland drained of resources, people, and blood.
From police procedurals, as from our countries, I learned that national lies are seldom required to make sense. Whenever we watched police procedurals together, my father became a corrective red pen for white America’s version of the story we lived in as Black people. I was reminded daily that the distance between me and the state was a privilege that had been several generations in the getting. I was raised to pay attention.
As kids, we paid attention so hard, so instantly, so comprehensively, that our code-switching turned into a reflex. We learned to recognize white danger even before white danger recognized itself. Like athletes, we learned to harness our rage at the indignities we faced and turn them into mythical demonstrations of calm. And still, there were even more attentions to hold than that: We learned to stay steady (be in the present). Learned to keep moving forward (eyes on that prize). Learned to keep looking back (that’s where history is). If someone was unable to bear the stress of the journey, we took turns carrying them up the hills (we are a we, after all).
America was brutal work, but Blackness was our forever proof that even the inconceivable was in reach. In a sea of Black folks, against the backdrop of the state, I learned that hope is the Blackest, most active verb of all. Hope is a way of paying attention that America constantly works to rob us of.
I can hear my father next to me, the two of us halfway through solving a police procedural episode, his scoffs pushing the lies away. His sighs showing me where and on whom to place my doubts. Always, always on the state. I learned just how much crime there was to solve. I watched vigilantly. We were the neighbors on the other side of yellow caution tape, promising to never leave you alone with the state. We could not testify, but Lord, we could witness.
Now Latasha was waiting for me to find her. I could sense her blurred inside the shouts of three South Asian boys, a Korean shop owner, the LA Uprisings, and an episode of S.W.A.T.
In a world where miseducation and fear cast votes, police procedurals matter. According to Color of Change, they overwhelmingly depict people of color as criminals, not victims. Unsurprisingly, only 7 percent of their show writers are Black. Police dramas construct the false belief that crime is on the rise, render systemic racism invisible, and work to normalize police brutality and injustice. I wanted to know: How would Latasha’s truth—and thus ours—expand or contract depending on who was telling it?
In S.W.A.T., Shemar Moore plays Hondo, a Black cop who still lives in the Black South-Central LA neighborhood where he grew up, and who still touts the police as a force of good, despite being promoted because his boss, a white guy, shot an unarmed Black teenager. On top of all this, Hondo was given the job over another senior white team member. Later, and amid real-world calls to abolish the police, Hondo’s character takes up the cause of police reform—talk about a Black man with burdens. From the start, his character has been written as a confluence of “unearned” Black progress and white rage and fear. He’s constantly swallowing his pride in service of the department. Even when he finally pushes back, he still believes he can change the system from within. Believes collaborating can make him anything other than an accomplice. Is this modern minstrelsy?
In almost all police procedurals, like in S.W.A.T., the state, the police, and the district attorney’s office are almost always written to be the only rational players and the only “right side” of justice and truth—even in stories that include corruption and brutality committed by one of their own. The show tackles race most often by leaning into the cop-out “It’s complicated”—a red herring, though it’s true.
Season four, which premiered on November 11, 2020, opens with an aerial shot of a Black Lives Matter protest. From there, it oscillates between the present and the past to show us America through the stories of three generations of Black seventeen-year-old boys and their uprisings: Daniel Sr., Hondo’s dad (the 1965 Watts Riots); Hondo (the 1992 LA Uprising); and Darryl, the son of Hondo’s incarcerated childhood friend, who, like every Black generation, is overwhelmed with names—Tamir, Trayvon, Mike, Sandra, Breonna, Roxanne, Rekia, Layleen.
The show flashes back to March 2020, to a world that’s discovered COVID but barely knows its name. Hondo, Daniel, and Darryl sit in Hondo’s car park eating a waffle brunch in the lazy LA morning light. It’s cute. Despite whatever may come, I appreciate this soft scene among three Black men, something absent from most TV shows.
Darryl watches as Hondo and Daniel argue about the uprising and the LAPD’s continuing violence against Black communities. Darryl doesn’t know much of anything about the LA Uprising. He says, “Rodney King?” It’s a hard-to-swallow story line for a Black boy as dark as he is and living in LA. Grazing over the present, and dismissing his own father, Hondo tells Darryl that S.W.A.T. is too well trained to repeat the past. But Daniel is a “fuck the police” kind of dad and the Blackest part of the show beyond Shemar Moore’s iconic swagger. Daniel looks at his boy real slow. It’s that Black look. But Hondo doesn’t have the sense to heed it or run. Instead, he argues with his dad over how to interpret history. Like I am, is Daniel wondering about the show’s writers? Wondering how his character could ever raise a cop?
Epistemology is concerned with the nature, origins, and limits of knowledge, how we perceive, the conditions required for us to believe, as well as who is considered reliable enough to contribute to our social truths. It is the study of how we shape truth. It includes our intimate relationships, our jobs, our judicial system, our media, our forms of entertainment, and our games.
Police procedural showrunners, like newsrooms, often collaborate with police departments to craft slippery narratives about the cost of justice, often focusing their empathy on the state instead of on the Black, Indigenous, Brown, queer, disabled, and poor people who suffer beneath its boot. And with their deceptive hero-branding, they help turn policing into child’s play. Almost all police procedurals have one thing in common: it’s the state’s testimony that matters.
Testimony is the mechanism by which cultures and communities disseminate what it is they think they know. It is vital to epistemology and to all knowledge creation. In procedurals, it is the state we’re listening to. It is the state whose testimony speaks.
This imbalance results in what white British philosopher Miranda Fricker calls “epistemic injustice,” the process by which individuals and communities are denied their capacity as knowers. Veronica Ivy, a philosopher and transgender rights activist writing under her former name, Rachel McKinnon, explains in her article “Epistemic Injustice” that the epistemics of testimony “concerns itself with what features are required in order for a hearer to come to know, or at least justifiably believe, what a speaker tells them.” It is truth plus belief that equals knowledge.
For knowledge to be disseminated, the listener must believe that the speaker is credible. But a speaker cannot assume credibility as a matter of choice—it is a socially constructed and traded good determined by history, political systems, and power structures, all of which divvy up credibility along lines of race, ability, gender, gender presentation, sexuality, class, and beauty. It’s the difference between “policing produces violence” and “policing produces safety,” despite the provable testimony, statistics, and reports that overwhelmingly show its lethality. From the courts, to “the talk,” to our street pulpits, to our church pews, testimony is something Black folks know all about.
S.W.A.T. flashes back again. This time to ’92, when seventeen-year-old Hondo and his dad are about to take off for a prospective college visit—until the radio announces that the cops who beat Rodney King have been acquitted.
“Verdict’s just lit a fuse,” says Daniel. The two of them ducking, Daniel drives them through their city. He points out which shops aren’t owned by Black people but by Koreans or wealthy Hancock Park dwellers. LA is burning. It’s only day one of six.
“Courts are supposed to be about justice,” says a confused young Hondo. I roll my eyes. With that attitude, no way this boy could be simultaneously seventeen, Black, and alive. “Tell that to Tasha Harlins,” says Daniel, father and son sitting sad in Daniel’s bright blue Impala. On-screen, a Black man casts a stone through the window of an electronics store. Even without a camera cut, I already know. It’s Korean-owned. But that’s it. That’s as much of Latasha as the show writes back into the LA Uprising, despite the fact that, as Lou Cannon notes in Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD, “when the riots that some Blacks called the Uprising erupted in April 1992, the name of Latasha Harlins would be heard in Koreatown.”
Kristie Dotson, a Black philosopher and professor who studies the ways epistemic injustice obscures and maintains oppression, calls the refusal to see oppressed peoples as knowers “testimonial quieting” and the all-too-common experience of coerced silences “testimonial smothering.”
Testimonial smothering happens to Black people daily: in situations and spaces where our testimony is unsafe, in front of audiences where our testimony will be refused as illegible, in workplaces, where again and again we must calculate: What will the truth cost us? Our jobs? In the face of others’ denials—like the insistence that what Black people know is happening is not happening—testimonial smothering can also occur in situations where what is at stake is our sanity. Truth turns wobbly. You need others in order to hold on. You need community. Like how, after Latasha’s mother, Crystal, was murdered—shot in the chest in a club in 1985—Latasha still had people to show up for her, people with whom she could set down a few of her too-big burdens, people who could reflect back an honest narrative about her and her mother’s life. She had her aunt Denise; her best friend, Ty; and her cousin Shinese. Grandma Ruth took Latasha and her two siblings in. Despite the loss of her mother, the support of the family she still had meant anything was still possible.
Our access and connection to supportive communities allow us to trust ourselves as individuals. As kids, we listened as Black adults spoke truth on the trifling white folks who hounded them almost every day. In community, they relocated their sense of solid ground. It was like watching a fire be put out. We learned that shade was the quickest way to locate our we in a white room.
Between laughs of disgust and sucking his teeth, my father pointed out every lie and its consequences, one procedural episode at a time. White lies were orchestrating our lives, but Black people could be one another’s corrective red pen. Both my parents called out white subterfuge wherever they saw it: in newspapers, in classrooms, in the White House, in boardrooms, on TV in bootstrap narratives, in the courts, in cops, and in ourselves.
No matter what stories our TV narrated about safety, freedom, democracy, or justice, our parents showed us that the only way we could live was with our eyes open. We were Black children, and if we wanted any chance at surviving in the bull’s-eye of America, we needed to learn that—by intentional design—safety, freedom, democracy, and justice were not wholly accessible to Black people. These were the facts and we needed to learn to sidestep them. Policing was everywhere. In the white people we loved. In those who said they loved us. The police were in teachers, in store clerks, in white strangers on the street. The police were in us. We had to know what safety meant, not for them, but for Black people. We were raised to live joyfully but carefully. We were told, “Don’t go acting like your little white friends.”
From living, from watching, from taking in the way America responded to us, we came to see a world that flooded the white body—and white men especially—with an excess of credibility. But it was an excess that could be hoarded only by stealing credibility from others—from us.
All Black people—Black women even more so, and especially Black transgender women—inhabit a society that refuses our capacity as knowledge-holders and -makers, regardless of our evidence. We carry what is known as “an epistemic deficit.”
Will a white friend believe me if I point out racism in their thinking or actions? Who is allowed to be an authority, and what things count as social norms? What constitutes crime? Whose identity will be read as synonymous with crime? And whom do we believe can be violated? What information do we include, leave out, or edit to construct stories? And who gets to be at the center of them? America filters all these questions through anti-Blackness and white supremacy. This credibility imbalance results in “epistemic injustice.” Philosopher Miranda Fricker defines two types of epistemic injustice: testimonial and hermeneutical.
Testimonial injustice occurs when someone is either doubted or ignored because of their identity. For example, Fricker’s own work capitalizes on theories developed by Black women and women of color whom she never names: Sojourner Truth, Maria W. Stewart, Ida B. Wells, Anna Julia Haywood Cooper, Patricia Hill Collins, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Testimonial injustice dismisses the work of abolition as an impossibly irrational desire to tear down prisons and policing, disregarding what abolition actually is—a desire to build. As organizer and abolitionist Mariame Kaba writes in We Do This ’Til We Free Us, “PIC [prison industrial complex] abolition is a vision of a restructured society in a world where we have everything we need: food, shelter, education, health, art, beauty, clean water, and more. Things that are foundational to our personal and community safety.”
Hermeneutical injustice occurs when the experiences of marginalized people are intentionally obscured or rendered illegible through their exclusion from sites of knowledge creation. This injustice is one of biased interpretation. It’s banning critical race theory (accurate history) in schools.
The 1993 KRS-One song “Sound of Da Police” testifies:
Officer, Officer, Officer, Officer!
Yeah, officer from overseer.
You need a little clarity? Check the similarity!
The overseer rode around the plantation.
The officer is off patrolling all the nation.
Hermeneutical injustice is telling the story of the officer as though the overseer had never been there. It’s three boys forgetting Black death inside a game. And it’s how, in S.W.A.T.’s LA Uprising episode, I can barely find Latasha.
By 2020, the year 1992 has already been reduced to shards, remnants, and rumors. On S.W.A.T., only Black people remember. Most of Hondo’s younger LAPD teammates have no understanding of the past. Apart from one older white S.W.A.T. member, who was there during the uprising, what the other white S.W.A.T. members know, they all know from TV and rumor, not from the intimate experiences of their families or neighbors. Not from an uprising calling their names in blood—nothing is personal. None of them know Latasha’s name.
Near the end of the episode, Hondo, Daniel, and Darryl gather at the annual community party. “Young blood, what do you think of all this?” Daniel asks Darryl—he means the Black revolution that’s always in progress. Darryl replies, “I thought this all started from the Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter stuff.”
“New name. Same issues. Different decades,” says Daniel.
“Isn’t that frustrating?” Darryl asks.
“Depends on what time of the day you ask me,” snaps Daniel, with the Black humor of an old head. I press pause, I rewind. Almost the whole episode has passed, and still I can’t find Latasha beyond the episode’s initial mention of her.
The final scene is the same one that opens the show, in which Hondo walks into a Black Lives Matter protest still wearing his S.W.A.T. uniform—it’s rude as hell.
Unlike in the real world, where BLM protests are heavily policed by cops in riot gear, using militarized equipment, in S.W.A.T.’srendition the police harassment that almost always accompanies a demand for Black life is conspicuously absent. But the darkest Black man I have yet to see on this show looks at Hondo, holding a Black Power fist in the air, and yells, “Yo, sellout pig!” Hondo looks on like a man who never gets a fair shake.
Moments later, Daniel arrives at his grown son’s side, because every time we can, Black folks save the child. Daniel’s got Darryl in tow. They kneel in front of a mural with airbrushed portraits of Emmett Till, Latasha Harlins, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and a slain Black officer. As messages go, it’s not very subtle. But there Latasha is, finally. And now it’s Darryl’s turn to learn to be an accurate witness. It’s his most important lesson.
Patricia Hill Collins, author of the foundational text Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment,points out that one of the most pernicious forms of epistemic injustice is found in “controlling images,” which weaponize representation. For example, the way police violence and law breaking, and the denial of certain people’s civil rights (stop and frisk, or police violence at BLM protests), are often depicted as a requirement for collective safety and justice. Or how, according to Color of Change, the likelihood that the primary crime victims in police procedurals are Black women is 9 percent, compared with 35 percent for white men, despite the high rate of victimization for Black women; “controlling images” can describe the entire police procedural genre. And how, long before the Dus immigrated, the lore of America and the American media had warned them over and over that in their new country, a fifteen-year-old Black girl was all the enemy they’d ever need.
As Black LA residents were trying to rebuild in the wake of the Watts Riots, Korean immigrants had just begun to set up shop in what would later become LA’s Koreatown. Our intersecting histories “illuminate the legal, social, economic, and cultural trajectories that eventually led Harlins, Du, and Karlin to encounter one another and laid the foundations for the terms of those encounters and their outcomes,” social historian Brenda Stevenson writes in The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender, and the Origins of the LA Riots. By the time Latasha and Du met, they were already inside a story that systemic racism had long ago set into motion. But what are the consequences of living inside a history you don’t understand? I knew it was more than the cops being turned into three Brown boys’ plaything.
Three decades after Latasha, Du, and the LA Uprising, I’m still nervous thinking about what I think about all this. I can’t remember when or who it was that said to me, They don’t like us. I knew nothing. But often enough, growing up, it seemed to be true—I experienced some early cruelties. Black people and Asian and Asian American people, I was told, had a world of hate and history between us. No one could speak to what the history of our history was, but I wondered if it had to do with our incredulity that other colored people would swing the white man’s sword in our direction. The truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth? There was the hurt of them being like us, but hating us anyway. We spent all day in America; how much indignity could we be expected to take? We were thems too.
In comic strips, this trope is called “the Big Ball of Violence.” Two or more warring characters disappear into a smoke ball. The only things seen inside the ball are hands, feet, flying objects, the “#^ # @%” standing in for expletives, bruises, and dust. In the longer comic strip battles, the violence rolls all over like a tumbleweed, swallowing bystanders whole. If the fight is among three people, often, and unbeknownst to the others, one character—usually the instigator—escapes the ball of violence, leaving the two who remain to destroy themselves and each other.
Kaba elucidates, “The PIC is linked in its logics and operation with all other systems.” That includes technology like x-ray vans, social media monitoring, predictive policing software, and surveillance-enabled light bulbs that turn streetlights into cameras. It includes TV police procedurals, how they profit from turning state brutality into an entertainment genre, and how they obfuscate the ways they help turn state violence into a child’s game. And it includes how we respond to and interact with one another.
Just as, in 2016, Joe Biden, then the vice president, guest-starred as himself in an episode of SVU, police procedurals fuse with reality. In doing so, they change our moral baselines and the social realities around how we understand sexual violence, crime, policing, and people of color, especially Black people and Black women. For those who don’t interact with policing and those whose identities the state doesn’t criminalize, police procedurals become the lens through which our justice system is understood and the lens through which viewers perceive their own vulnerability. Just as dangerously, and through a gaze constructed by white supremacy, police procedurals rewrite and reinforce false histories, as with three South Asian boys yelling outside my window—as with S.W.A.T., the LA Uprisings, Latasha, and Du.
Before murder becomes a part of Soon Ja Du’s story, she was the eldest daughter of the only doctor in her Korean farming village—from birth, she had some status. She graduated from Seoul National University with a degree in literature. Did she want a life of the mind? She married Hung (Billy) Ki Du, a rising officer in the Korean military and the son of a construction business owner. But the still-developing republic lacked stability, despite its economic growth, and Koreans had begun to look toward America for steady ground.
In 1976—the same year Latasha was born—Du and her husband immigrated to the US in search of better educational and economic opportunities for their children. The 1965 Immigration Act that finally repealed the exclusionary immigration rules targeting Asian immigrants was still fresh. But, as it did to Black people, America had other ways to keep colored folks down.
To the Dus, and to other Korean shop owners, it was evident that America had its own racial hierarchy, which first infiltrated Korea through the military-industrial complex, and the racism Black soldiers experienced from white US soldiers stationed in Korea. Many Korean immigrants arrived having already absorbed white America’s anti-Blackness without understanding its racial histories that were alive in them and in the present. All the while, the Dus were trying to make it in a country that hated Asian people too.
Though it wasn’t the prevailing view, America’s anti-Asian sentiment had seeped into some pockets of the Black community as well. In 1983, The Los Angeles Sentinel, seeding the coded language of infestation, ran an article reporting that “the African American community had literally been taken over by Asian businesses in the past five years.” We’d built America, had been here for centuries. When it came to progress, hadn’t we got next?
By the time Soon Ja Du murdered Latasha Harlins, gentrification had long been decimating Black communities and communities of color. Deindustrialization, the crack epidemic, and the War on Drugs had already devastated South-Central LA. The year 1991 marked almost four decades of white flight from neighborhoods across America. Redlining led the Dus’ business into a Black and Latinx neighborhood, where tensions between residents and Korean shop owners already ran high. Latasha’s final day on earth wasn’t the first time Soon Ja Du held a Black person on the other side of her gun barrel.
Black residents, tired of being treated like thieves instead of customers, regularly boycotted Korean-owned establishments. Korean owners, fearful about the increase in armed robberies by Black assailants, which at times were fatal, armed themselves. In their first two years of operation, the Dus’ shop was robbed three times.
Du said she didn’t remember pulling the trigger. What was she thinking? Security footage permanently catches Latasha’s last breath. But even before all that death went down, Latasha’s and Du’s bodies moved like tired, hurt, angry haints. Like the moment they saw each other, they’d resigned themselves to what would happen. That day, did all the white lies between Latasha and Du rush the store? Or did they slip out the back, unseen, their work already done?
Of all the forms of epistemic violence, gaslighting is the best known and most widely referenced. The term first entered our cultural lexicon through the 1938 British play Gas Light and its popular 1944 American film adaptation, starring Ingrid Bergman. In the film, a man attempts to convince his wife, Paula, that she’s losing her mind. He uses psychological manipulation, including repeatedly dimming and brightening the gaslights and telling Paula she’s imagining it. The goal is to both destabilize Paula’s sense of reality and to make others find her not credible. To do that, her husband must isolate her from her community and from her sense of self, obliterating her center of truth.
It’s not hard for me to imagine what it must have felt like for Black residents of South-Central LA. For over a century, Black people had been cheated out of Black progress through Reconstruction and Jim Crow, only to be redlined into poverty by our country. Over-policing, over-incarceration, and systemic anti-Blackness bled into everything: our exposure to gun violence, the War on Drugs, the War on Poverty, employment prospects, our housing, our children’s education, pollution, clean water, our access to fresh food, and the lies and half-truths others were told to believe about us.
The Dus, like many Asian immigrants across the country, were pushed into majority-Black neighborhoods in search of what scraps America had left us. They had immigrated from Korea with America’s “controlling images” in tow: Black people represented violence, laziness, and thieving. According to The Last Plantation: Color, Conflict, and Identity: Reflections of a New World Black, by former Los Angeles Times reporter Itabari Njeri, in 1992 Du told her county probation office that Black people wanted welfare over employment, that we preferred “buying alcoholic beverages and consuming them instead of feeding children.” Du’s conclusion was that this was our “way of living.” Du also told her probation office that Latasha died because she didn’t come from a good family. In turn, the LA County Probation Department told the courts that Du demonstrated no remorse for Latasha’s death, which Judge Karlin dismissed, attributing it to cultural and language barriers.
Systemic gaslighting works to keep us in survival mode in order to obfuscate the fact that the state is the true architect of our present condition. Survival mode encourages us to reach for the most accessible enemy we can find. For the Dus it was us, a mythical Black monolith, who, America claimed, represented all their fears. For us, it was Korean shop owners, whom we blamed for robbing us of opportunities that America had already determined we’d never have.
In everyday life, as in the media, gaslighting is so common as to be a trope. In turn, one of gaslighting’s most employed tropes is the idea of the “model minority.” Stevenson notes that the term model minority entered the national conversation in the 1960s, in the middle of Black people’s demand for equal access to resources and political rights. The idea of a model minority is for Asian communities what “respectability politics” is for us: a bootstrap narrative. We wear ourselves out while America fails to provide us with the resources we need to pull ourselves out of anything. In response, marginalized communities are encouraged to rage at the nearest group we can find, while America goes on siphoning opportunities and resources into white America. Systemic gaslighting, like the Big Ball of Violence, keeps the wrong people warring. It distracts us from the fact that it is the state that creates the violence that the state then claims it alone can solve.
Prolonged gaslighting is a foundational ingredient of racism in all forms, and as for Latasha, Du, and the LA Uprising, the consequences of state gaslighting are deadly. Gaslighting creates an atmosphere of overwhelming disorientation. It is an extreme form of emotional, psychological, personal, epistemic, and social violence, in which victims’ access to what is true is both covertly and explicitly policed, held hostage, or altogether confiscated. Exposure to prolonged gaslighting tactics can lead to complex post-traumatic stress disorder, which can be understood as trauma caused not just by a single incident but by the accumulation of several: the daily microaggressions Black people face, or being Black in a country where the media, the police, and the state behave as though the statement “Black lives matter” is anti-American.
“If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket,” said Lyndon B. Johnson.
Could America be gaslighting all of us? Absolutely.
In the face of increasing calls to abolish the police, police departments andpolice procedurals like S.W.A.T. are taking up the conversation of “reform.” Color of Change warns, “There is no stronger public relations force working against reform than scripted television… [It is] the most effective PR arm for defending the system, especially the police.” It’s that old quid pro quo proverb “One hand washes the other.” All of it is epistemic injustice. Epistemic injustice works to keep us gaslit, and gaslighting disrupts our ability to know—and thus to object—making gaslighting one of America’s most important projects.
The “reform” message infiltrating police procedurals and police departments across America is a form of subterfuge, one designed to undermine abolition. The subterfuge works to distract from a well-established fact, one repeatedly proven through the testimonies of those who’ve experiencedpolice, interpersonal, and/or sexual violence, one confirmed by countless books and reports and by activists and organizers like Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Mariame Kaba: namely, that policing and prisons—which define our whole justice system—can’t be reformed. As Kaba notes, “When we set about trying to transform society, we must remember that we ourselves will also need to transform.” She reminds us that one purpose of organizing is to aid us in identifying who is responsible for the conditions we’re trying to transform.
I think of my father navigating me through my childhood police procedurals, of both my parents showing me how to hold on to my sense of truth. We must hone our attention and trust in our ability to know; otherwise, we’ll miss seeing the obvious: that our current systems don’t work. Something else is possible.
For Representative Cori Bush, the first Black woman to represent Missouri in Congress, transformation and justice cannot be separated from love: “If I love you, I care that you eat. If I love you, I care that you have shelter, and adequate, safe housing. If I love you, I care that you have clean water and clean air and you have a livable wage. If I love you, I care that the police don’t murder you.” Her love is a radical politics that imagines a different future and, everywhere a future is imagined, hope.
Black hope is learned, taught, inherited. If lost, it can be recovered. Black hope is the belief in the “not yet, but someday” and that our “someday” is grounded in experience. Like the end of North American slavery, and the work of abolition, the hope of the “not yet” is rooted in that which is (im)possible and in the understanding that the present moment lacks the imagination necessary to fully conceive the potential of the future.
“You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time,” said Angela Davis.
“Reform” is the three-cup magic trick. I gotta follow that ball—but I’ve held the truth in my sight, and now I can hope for something different. I had to look at Latasha and Du over and over again to see it. Hope, like Blackness, is multivalent.
I’d followed three boys into the darkness, and both Latasha and Du looked different to me afterward.
In the glow of one of America’s many gaslit narratives, three South Asian boys don’t know what they mean when, giggling, they shout “LAPD” into my window. In another gaslight, LA is on fire, Latasha is dead. Who is Du after killing? In yet another, the White House wages a war of imagination to rename COVID “the China Virus.” Attacks of violence and aggression against Asian immigrants and Asian Americans are reported, recorded, and replicated in news clips. In some instances, Black people are the aggressors. In response, an ABC Nightline special with Juju Chang showed some of the victims’ families pleading with an imagined Black monolith to please stop attacking them. White America saunters away from the tumbleweed of violence and dusts itself off. And now I’m seeing Latasha, Du, and LA burning all over again. I’m in an American rerun. Do you see her?
“Poppin’ out them As. The neighborhood big sister.” “Stand by Me,” her favorite song.
This is how Shinese describes her cousin in Sophia Nahli Allison’s 2019 documentary, A Love Song for Latasha.
A common refrain was that Latasha was intelligent, a fighter. Loved basketball. At fifteen, she wanted to build a safe place where kids in her neighborhood could go. Latasha’s absence changed the future. It lights up a pain in me. I carry her willingly; she is also mine.
Over and over, I replay A Love Song for Latasha, speaking Latasha back to life. Shinese reads a poem her cousin penned a month before her murder, called “Latasha’s Shield”:
I am very reliable and trustworthy, honest. I like that I am confident about myself. I have a lot of talent, and I know whatever I set my mind on something, I’m going to accomplish it. I show people that I care by giving what I have to people who actually need it. I also show I care by showing respect to all adults and ones my age and younger. I know I care. What I want most in life is to fulfill my goal to be an attorney and to also graduate from high school—
Here, Shinese’s voice breaks. I’ve been missing Latasha too.
Do you see her?
Nice smile. Wanting her mother’s hugs. Dreaming behind those Black-girl bangs. Do you see her?
A Black child, indignant—wanting more.
A Korean woman, afraid.
Both of them in a setup.
Latasha and Du, weighed down by all that’s pointed in their direction, but they don’t understand. After finally allowing the Dus to immigrate, America hoarded opportunities in white neighborhoods, redlining the Dus into ours. But America had been robbing us for centuries. We had barely anything left but one another. Do you see her?
Du, trigger-ready from what America’s whispered in her ear.
Latasha, knowing she deserves a bigger story than this. Better than the one foreshadowing the store. She’s ready to fight for it. She’s fifteen; there’s all that heart in her. Do you see her?
Latasha, wanting orange juice. Two dollars in her hand. She walks into the Dus’ Empire Liquors. Du knows Latasha is here, and she’s terrified because now, she’s convinced herself, she sees her.
How low can a gaslight go and still burn?
On another timeline, three South Asian boys giggle and shout into my window, “LAPD! Hands up!”