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When the Punisher, a brutal comic-book vigilante, comes to your local police department, it can’t be good

The Punisher is one of my favorite comic book characters. Created in 1974 by Gerry Conway and artist John Romita Sr. for Marvel Comics, he is a sociopathic vigilante and antihero who wages his own one-man war on crime. I have read almost every story that features the Punisher. I also wear a T-shirt emblazoned with his logo when I go to the gun range. In the original story, the Punisher (the character’s real name is Frank Castle) began his campaign of vengeance after his family was killed in a shootout between rival organized crime factions. Unlike characters such as Spider-Man or Captain America, the Punisher has no superpowers. Like my other favorite character, Hawkeye, the Punisher relies on training and discipline to accomplish his goals.

It would seem that the Punisher is also popular with police officers.

The website io9 explored a recent instance in Kentucky:

According to the Lexington Herald-Leader, the Catlettsburg Police Department added the Punisher skull, complete with Blue Lives Matter slogan and flag decal, to eight of its vehicles. The city council and mayor approved the designs, which were essentially funded by local taxpayers. It’s part of a statewide effort to legally safeguard “Blue Lives Matter,” a pro-police movement, including a bill (which passed the House earlier this month) that would make attacking police officers a hate crime.

Police chief Cameron Logan told io9 that they’ve since removed the car decals after receiving several phone calls admonishing the logo, as well as the inclusion of a Blue Lives Matter slogan on government property. He said he regrets using the image, calling it an oversight, and said in the future he’d do “a little more research” on the history behind some of Blue Lives Matter’s more popular icons.

“We’re getting so many calls, and they’re saying that the Punisher logo [means] we’re out to kill people,” said Logan. “That didn’t cross my mind.”

The Punisher should not be a role model for police. His co-creator Gerry Conway confirmed this on social media. When asked about the Kentucky case, Conway replied, “He’s a complex morally compromised anti-hero, not to be emulated by cops. If a cop killed an innocent man and tried to cover it up, Frank might not hesitate to kill him. Not someone police should root for. As Castle himself said in my recent Punisher Annual story, ‘I’m not a good man.’”

This is not a superficial coincidence where politics and popular culture just happen to intersect. It is symptomatic of a larger problem with America’s police (and police culture) where citizens — especially people of color, the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill, as well as other marginalized and vulnerable people — are viewed as enemies rather than as individuals and communities that are to be served and protected.

On this point, sociologist Matthew Hughey told Salon:

The Punisher employs such tactics as threats, extortion, coercion, blackmail, kidnapping, torture and murder to achieve his ends. Over the last few decades, American police forces are increasingly being caught (even more so on camera) using these very same vigilante tactics and are criticized for acting as through they are the law (rather than being servants of the law). The use of the Punisher as an avatar by local police departments and other law enforcement agencies may also worsen the well-documented psychological phenomenon where police are faster to shoot African-Americans than they are whites. It is reasonable to suggest, therefore, that the adoption of a vigilante killer’s logo (who murders with impunity and without consequence) could worsen and entrench this already extant pattern.

The embrace of the Punisher and the values he represents by a small-town police department also signals at the racist “law and order” politics that Donald Trump and other Republican elected officials have used since the 1960s to win public office. The emergence of so-called “Blue Lives Matter” laws are also a function of this resurgence of white racial authoritarianism and white supremacy, which too often deems human rights organizations such as Black Lives Matter to be a threat to white social and political power.

Like other narratives that do the day-to-day work of supporting and reinforcing institutional white supremacy, the Blue Lives Matter movement is based on numerous lies and distortions. For example, police work is not one of the most “dangerous” professions in the United States. In reality, being a cop is far safer than working as a convenience store employee, truck driver, forestry worker or sanitation worker. To wit: Most police officers who die on the job are killed in traffic accidents.

Contrary to what the right-wing media would suggest, there is no “war on police” in the United States. Likewise, with the exception of high-profile outliers such as the attacks in Dallas and New Orleans, America’s police are not “under siege”: Street crime in the United States is at or near historic lows.

The mating of the Punisher, a sociopathic vigilante, and the “Blue Lives Matter” movement also reflects a perverse understanding of social justice, equality, citizenship and vulnerability. Police are enforcers of state power and authority. They do the work of financial elites. Historically, America’s police trace their origins to the slave patrollers who helped to enforce the white supremacist tyranny of the antebellum slave regime.

Most importantly, America’s police are not a marginalized or vulnerable population that needs special protection under civil rights laws. They are already a protected class under the law who enjoy broad latitude in their decision to kill (usually without consequence). Police are also typified by their uniforms — and uniforms can be removed. Consequently, being a police officer is not a relatively unchangeable and socially fixed category such as race, gender or sexuality. To suggest that police in the United States are victims of hate crimes who therefore need additional special protections under the law is absurd.

Tyler Wall, a professor in justice studies, told Salon how the connections between the Punisher and America’s police culture are symptomatic of these broader social forces. “This revanchism, which is clearly always racialized and racist, can also be seen very clearly in the police fashion industry,” Wall said. “Looking at the T-shirts shows just how popular and widespread these ideologies and theatrics like the Punisher are in police circles. The Punisher issue, then, isn’t an anomaly no matter how isolated it might appear. This type of stuff is hidden in plain sight if we just look and give it some thought. This isn’t an aberration, but just one example of many we can look to that shows how policing thinks about and acts towards the poor and people of color.”

The hostile and threatening attitude that many police show toward black and brown communities has been highlighted in recent years by more examples than we can reasonably count, including the high-profile killings of unarmed African-Americans in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Cleveland, Charleston, South Carolina, Ferguson, Missouri, and numerous other cities. These incidents demonstrate the threat to public safety posed by increasingly militarized (and unaccountable) police departments.

The mentality and training that leads to police overuse of force was exposed in a recent profile of police and military consultant Dave Grossman in Mother Jones:

Grossman calls his discipline “killology” — “the scholarly study of the destructive act.” Though he spent years as a soldier, he has never killed anyone in combat. And while he is a luminary to many in law enforcement, the “warrior” mentality he espouses is under fire. As Black Lives Matter has exposed the prevalence of police abuses and the confrontational attitude that often sparks them, Grossman continues to insist that cops are the ones under siege and that they must be more, not less, prepared to use force. “The number of dead cops has exploded like nothing we have ever seen,” he tells the armed citizens in Lakeport. (That is not true: The average annual number of police officers intentionally killed while on duty in the past decade is 40 percent lower than it was in the 1980s.) If emergency medicine and body armor hadn’t improved since the 1970s, Grossman claims, “the number of dead cops would be eight times what it is” today. It’s not clear how he arrived at these figures.

Last summer, after a black man named Philando Castile was shot and killed during a traffic stop outside Minneapolis, it was revealed that two years earlier the officer, Jeronimo Yanez, had attended “The Bulletproof Warrior,” a two-day training taught by Grossman and his colleague Jim Glennon.

Gary Potter, who is one of the country’s leading experts on policing, told Salon that such training is hurting both police culture and the public.

Here in Kentucky, some police departments are bringing in MMA fighters and military ‘heroes’ to sharpen their war-making skills. The irony, of course, is that we are not fighting a war on crime, drugs, terror, etc. They are fighting a war on ourselves. Policing freed from legal constraints in a warrior frenzy is immensely dangerous. One of the first victims is law itself.

Consider the following results of a hyper-masculine warrior mentality. The sexual assault rate for the general public is 28.7 per 100,000 adults. The sexual assault rate for law enforcement officers is 67.8 per 100,000 law enforcement officers. Of those victims of police sexual misconduct, 52 percent were children. Every year about 7 percent of complaints against police officers involve robbery or theft. The rate of domestic violence among young male police officers is four times the national average and for all police officers [it is] twice the national average. Police corruption, especially related to drug enforcement and immigration, is rampant. Perhaps letting The Punisher loose on society was not such a good idea.

While the Catlettsburg Police Department eventually removed the Punisher logo from its vehicles, the question still remains why police, the mayor and the city council thought it would be a good idea to use such an image in the first place. The answer lies in a broken police (and civic) culture that views the public — especially if they are black or Latino — as the enemy.

The fact that America’s police kill more people than occurs in most other countries, and that these victims are disproportionately likely to be black and brown, is not an aberration. Rather, it is the country’s criminal justice and law enforcement system working as designed. Under President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions such a dynamic is likely to get worse, as they do not view protecting civil rights as a priority and have promised to unleash the country’s police on black and brown communities without restraint in the name of “law and order.”

In many ways, the Punisher is an ideal mascot for this campaign. Chris Gavaler, the author of “Superhero Comics” and “On the Origin of Superheroes,” summarized this dynamic in a recent email conversation with Salon. “While The Punisher is a disturbing character type in itself, a police Punisher is significantly worse,” he wrote. “A regular citizen vigilante breaks the laws that he’s supposed to obey. A police Punisher breaks the laws that he’s supposed to enforce. It’s a much deeper corruption.”

Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

Chauncey DeVega.

Source: Salon: in-depth news, politics, business, technology & culture > Politics

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