Generational Phenomenon: Police Distrust

This post originally appeared here, at

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The Vietnam war was in full swing, Woodstock had come and gone, and a new generation was being introduced to this crazy world. Jim Morrison had died a mysterious death in Paris just two weeks before I unwittingly joined Generation X. What had I done? There were hippies teaching my classes and my shirts were striped velour. Willie and Waylon did their best to keep disco at bay, while on television, the Dukes of Hazzard and Jim Rockford taught me an important lesson about life.

The lesson? Don’t trust cops.

Click through for an exploration of this phenomenon.

In middle school, I was introduced to the concept of the “ingrained rebel”. I don’t remember which class, or which teacher it was, but I remember the lesson clearly. The concept is that American children were being raised to think that standing outside of the mainstream was a positive trait. I was in middle school in the very early ‘80s. When you look at media images from that time, it rings true. The Marlboro Man, Grizzly Adams, and Rambo were all glorified for rejecting society. Contrast those to Andy Griffith, The Cleavers, and Bewitched of the ‘60s. Those dirty, lazy, anti-establishment hippies were starting to gain traction in the mainstream and their message was being broadcast to me.

One obvious example of the message was the Dukes of Hazzard. Boss Hogg was portrayed as crooked, while his deputies were bumbling simpletons. Six entire seasons were based solely on this line from the theme song: “Someday the mountain might get ‘em, but the law never will.” The police were constantly trying to pull off a caper or repress the honest civilians, who use their superior wit and individualist thinking (and their bad-ass Charger) to thwart the scheme and restore justice to Hazzard County.

But the Dukes weren’t the only ones. Take the Rockford Files, for example. The Rockford Files wasn’t outwardly anti-police, but the whole underlying theme of the show was. The “Files” that the title refers to are cases that the police could not solve. However, in a few days work, Jim Rockford would always figure out what the entire Los Angeles P.D. couldn’t. It doesn’t take much extrapolation to discover the message here. The police are inept or don’t care enough to follow through. Television images of crooked and inept police weren’t the extent of sources of this message being fed to my impressionable little brain.

Movies carried the same theme. Smokey and the Bandit, Convoy, Cannonball Run, First Blood, American Graffiti, Hollywood Knights, etc… all examples of negative portrayals of the police. On a larger scale, authority in general is questioned, but it seems that the police tended to be the face of the establishment. Buford T. Justice and his halfwit son chased the Bandit across the South, while the audience was led to cheer for the good guy, who happened to be breaking a whole stack of laws throughout the film. There was no public outcry for the lawbreaker to be brought to justice. Of course, Smokey and the Bandit is a light hearted romp that doesn’t take itself seriously, and I shouldn’t take it seriously either. The fact remains, however, that films like this helped me to formulate a paradigm as I grew up. The paradigm included the idea that cops are bad guys.

My theory is that the course of events leading to this wave of negative police portrayal started years before in real life. Some of the most impactful media images of police as the bad guys were from news reports about real events. The Birmingham Riots of 1963, with infamous footage of black citizens being pushed back from their protest march with fire hoses and German shepherds. Bull Connor, the notable segregationist, was the face of the establishment. Similar images were broadcast into the living rooms of America throughout the Civil Rights and anti-war protests of the ‘60s. The massacre at Kent State in 1970 was a sort of crescendo to a decade of unrest. Through the unrest, many Americans – particularly the older generation – sided with the establishment, while a steadily increasing majority sided with the protesters, whether anti-war or pro civil rights.

Those who sided with the protesters, by default, sided against the establishment. The police were the most visible representation of the establishment. Thus was born a general cultural negativity toward police – a negativity which manifested itself in the following decade as popular culture.

Even country music, which was always notorious for being conservative, turned “outlaw” in the ‘70s. Embracing bits of the anti-establishment subculture, artists like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and David Allen Coe became super stars. Country stars grew their hair, got arrested on drug charges, and sang about getting busted for “possession of something that was gone…long gone.”

As a child growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I grew up with this constant barrage of media images. They burned their way into my subconscious and I came to dislike, distrust, and disdain the police. Fellow Generation X-ers may relate to this. As I interact with Generation Y-ers and Millennials, I find that they don’t share my ingrained negativity. Perhaps there was a 10 or 15 year window of people who fell, like I did, into the perfect combination of young impressionability and anti-police media input.

I sure hope those Duke boys get away this time…

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