Notes on visuality and
the Policing Complex

by Heath Schultz

In this paper, I examine how post-Ferguson policing technologies can be put in dialogue with Nicholas Mirzoeff’s history of visuality by theorizing what I call the Policing Complex. I will begin by providing a summary of visuality and theoretical overview of the Policing Complex as a conceptual frame to interpret ‘crises of civilization.’ I suggest a crisis of civilization can be read through the ideology of the thin blue line, which posits the necessity of the police in the face of a perpetual threat. This theoretical foundation serves as a lens for close readings of two pieces of media which examine how the Policing Complex operates from each side of the thin blue line.

Still from “Secret Santa Saves Christmas” which originally aired on CBS Sunday Morning, December 14, 2014. This video documents police officers providing gifts to unsuspecting drivers as a “random act of kindness.” The video is part of a broad effort to characterize police as fundamentally good, an essential ideological component of the Policing Complex.

The first example, “Secret Santa Saves Christmas,” is a saccharine pro-police television segment produced in 2014 for the CBS program Sunday Morning. This police-produced segment attempts to legitimize the police from ‘above’ the thin blue line, that is, on side of civilization. In contrast, American Artist’s 2019 installation titled My Blue Window demonstrates how the Policing Complex operates as business as usual from ‘below’ the thin blue line, that is, in the space of those who (are produced to) threaten civilization. I will end with a few concluding thoughts on spectatorship and policing as each a racializing activity that reproduces both the idea of civilization and the perpetual threat to it.

Documentation of American Artist’s installation My Blue Window at the Queens Museum, 2019. This image shows Artist’s video 2015 projected on the wall with low-rise bleachers and two viewers. American Artist critically interrogates the Policing Complex by scrutinizing the practice of racialized predictive policing, suggesting it is a form of violence work.

Visuality and the Policing Complex

In Nicholas Mirzoeff’s The Right to Look (2011), he succinctly defines visuality as a 19th century concept meaning the visualization of history. The term does not refer to simple visual perceptions but rather to a “set of relations combining information, imagination, and insight into a rendition of physical and psychic space” (2). Visuality is thus a discursive practice with material effects and it operates primarily through three modalities: classification, separation, and aestheticization of separation. Classification is the practice of categorizing and defining; separation refers to the social organization of those classifications so as to limit their power (e.g., as workers or as a decolonial nation); and aestheticization of separation is the normalization of this social organization (3). Together, these form a “complex of visuality” which should here be understood as a means for “both the production of a set of social organizations and processes that form a given complex […] and the state of an individual’s psychic economy” (5). Because vision and organization overlap, the “deployment of bodies” and “training of minds” sustains a given relation and cultivates compliance with that relation:

“The complex that thus emerges has volume and substance, forming a lifeworld that can be both visualized and inhabited” (5).

Mirzoeff’s history of visuality then includes three complexes: Plantation Complex (1660–1860), Imperial Complex (1960–1945), and Military-Industrial Complex (1945–present), which together create a “world-generating optic” on modernity (8, 34).

I engage in a dialogue with Mirzoeff’s work on visuality to analyze how the imaginary understanding and the practice of policing, broadly understood, visualize and organize civilization. I refer to this as the Policing Complex—a conceptual frame to interpret what appear (or are presented) as crises of civilization. In a contemporary context, the idea of the thin blue line (TBL)—the presumptuous ideology that sees the police as all that stands between civilized order and chaos—best illustrates the discourse of perpetual crisis of civilization. The thin blue line was first coined and popularized by William Parker, LAPD police chief from 1950–1966. To provide one example of its burgeoning post-war discursive practice, Parker wrote in the 1951 LAPD annual report:

“Between the law-abiding elements of society and the criminals who prey upon them stands a thin blue line of defense, your police officers” (Quoted in Wall 2020, 320).

Police critic Tyler Wall (2020) theorizes that TBL is animated by the feral subject (e.g., the savage, the criminal) that threatens humanity and “the ever present potential that humanity will slip back into and blend with nature” (323). This threat, then, presents a crisis of species, “where the ‘human’ is fabricated as a site of racialized insecurity, always threatened by a regression to a violent, feral, nature” (324). Because TBL presumes civilization is established (how else could it be under threat?), the Policing Complex marks a historical conjuncture wherein the spoils of modernity—slavery, colonialism, and capitalism—are presumed and must be defended. In this sense, we might consider the Policing Complex an echo and extension of the originating discourses of modernity.

In a friendly détournement of Mirzoeff’s modalities (classification, separation, and aestheticization of separation), I suggest the Policing Complex operates through the modalities of racialization, policing, and the legitimation of policing. Racialization, like classification, (re)produces racialized subjects. This racialization, while weaponizing many of the racial logics of the 19th and 20th centuries, can succinctly be understood as the ability to split humanity in two: the human and feral subject. Policing functions by means of what Michol Siegel (2018) theorizes as the violence work that organizes subjects in accordance with racialization, whether by force or threat of force. Finally, legitimation of policing is the reproduction and normalization of the policing logic of the thin blue line. This logic dictates that the police are necessary for the security and reproduction of civilization, both as an ideal and historical tradition.

For the remainder of this article, I focus my attention on the Policing Complex in a post-Ferguson context in an effort to better understand the rise of police power and the centrality of the police in the political imaginary, on both the left and the right, in the past decade.[1] [open notes in new window] While my examples will be rooted in the United States, it is my hope the reader will find the conceptual frame of the Policing Complex applicable in a variety of contexts. In the next section, I offer a brief periodization of the ‘Era of Uprisings’ to further contextualize how the Policing Complex has operated in recent history.

Policing Complex in an ‘Era of Uprisings’

Joshua Clover’s (2016) periodization of our current conjuncture elucidates a shift in capital’s “center of gravity” from production to circulation (129–152). Unlike the strike as a form of struggle against the site of production, the riot disrupts the circulation of capital, be it the marketplace, the street, and/or the square. But more than a simple shift in strategies for resistance, the riot has a profoundly racial dimension because it animates a surplus population that is discursively produced as synonymous with Blackness. Within the Marxist tradition, surplus population refers to those that have been expelled from the traditional economy while remaining forced to rely upon it. The riot, whether real or imagined, is essential for the ideology of the thin blue line because it acts as its signifying dialectical other—the riotousness of Blackness and the order of Whiteness, and here we might say civilization—are structurally entangled as two sides of the same coin (Clover 2016, 153–174).

While Clover provides a useful analysis of capital’s shift toward prioritizing circulation over the last forty years, the wake of the financial crisis of 2008 is central to the formation of the  post-Ferguson era in the United States.Following Alicia Garza’s analysis of recent uprisings (2016), 2009–2010 was a turning point in Black resistance to police violence in the era of uprisings. Garza marks the beginning of this era with the murder of Oscar Grant in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009 by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer Johannes Mehserle in Oakland, California (vii–x). After reports of a fight on the train, Grant, who was not involved in the fight, was profiled and pulled off the train by BART police. Grant was detained and eventually forced face down on the platform, being held down by another officer’s knee when Merserle stood, pulled out his gun, and shot Grant in the back at near point-blank range. Grant died hours later in a nearby hospital.

Leaked cell phone videos and witness testimonies proved the cops’ official story was a lie (Ciccariello-Maher 2010). Immediate protests ranged in militancy and reemerged in the public eye as Mersherle’s trial proceeded in 2010. Finally, Mersherle would be convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to two years (he would serve 11 months) (McKinley 2010). Of course, murders committed by police were not limited to Oscar Grant. To anyone paying attention, news stories were released at an astonishing rate but, for many, the enormity of the violence remained difficult to grasp. By 2012, in the wake of the murder of Trayvon Martin, police killings appeared publicly as a daily reality. The omnipresence of police violence was confirmed by the activist research produced by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement in their report Operation Ghetto Storm (2012), which found that a Black man was killed extrajudicially every 28 hours by police, security guards, and/or vigilantes in the United States.

Operation Ghetto Storm also helped capture, however fleetingly or incompletely, an emergent counternarrative that anti-black violence is not exceptional but inherent in the reproduction of civilization itself. From the perspective of the Policing Complex, to recognize an excess of violence disturbs the consensus of policing as essential to civilization. In this historical moment, the specter of a Black revolution bolstered by widespread disillusionment with the police presents a profound crisis to civilization. And, while we must be careful in justifying any state violence by suggesting that less egregious violence might be acceptable (Martinot and Sexton 2003), it is hard to theorize a post-Ferguson moment without recognizing how two highly visible (and egregious) murders in 2014 catalyzed uprisings against police the last nine years: in July, Eric Garner was murdered in Staten Island and the following month, Michael Brown was murdered in Ferguson, Missouri. At the time, for those sympathetic to a Black Liberation movement, the affective register seemed to oscillate between poet Claudia Rankine’s insight that “The Condition of Black Life Is One of Mourning” (Rankine 2015) and Michael Brown’s stepfather Louis Head’s call to “burn this bitch to the ground” (Sanchez 2014). The resulting uprisings that the Policing Complex can only comprehend as riots presented an opportunity for those on the side of the police to experiment with new forms of threat management, counterinsurgency, racialization, and propaganda. In short, the Policing Complex required innovation.

The modalities of the Policing Complex—racialization, policing, and the legitimation of policing—operated in Ferguson both before and after Darren Wilson murdered Michael Brown. Contextualizing the quotidian violence work occurring in Ferguson in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis will clearly demonstrate that complex's vision for financial expropriation and spatial management of the Black population. 

Policing Complex and racial economies

As the reader no doubt knows, Ferguson, Missouri is home to one of the most explosive insurgencies of the past 20 years, if not longer. The once White suburb was dramatically transformed by the deindustrialization of St. Louis, going from 1% Black in 1970 to 67% by 2010. The local government remained disproportionately White, as did the police, with only 7.5% of police being African American. In perhaps the most telling statistic, Ferguson led the country in “missing Black men” with a ratio of men to women at 60 to 100. We can speculate this incredible discrepancy from the national average of 99 to 100 to be the result of prison and premature death (Endnotes 2015, 32–33).

In the wake of the 2008 crash, property values in Ferguson declined 33% in just four years. Because taxes are directly related to the police budget, this decline meant the police had to find new and creative ways of paying the bills. They did so through extensive traffic stops and court fines. In 2013 the Ferguson Municipal Court issued 24,532 warrants and 12,018 cases—this is with a population of approximately 21,000. That amounts to a staggering average of 3 warrants and 1.5 cases per household! The Black population in Ferguson accounted for 85% of traffic stops, 90% of citations, and 93% of arrests in Ferguson. The result was a doubling of profits from tickets and court fines between 2011 and 2013 constituting 20% of the total city revenue. Endnotes Collective (2015) describe this police activity as outright violent plunder (34–35).

Jackie Wang (2018) suggests the ability to expropriate funds from citizens through police power is not symptomatic of a crisis born of 2008, but it is integral to a structural relation between financialization and municipalities’ creditworthiness. With increasing normalcy, surplus capital and municipal finances, such as pensions, are invested in municipal bonds that rely on a long maturation period and low interest rate. These bonds are subject to market fluctuation and rely in part on a city’s “creditworthiness,” which is determined by a city’s ability to generate revenue through fines and fees. In other words, Wang argues, the police’s capacity to expropriate funds are literal collateral for the bank’s willingness to “invest” public money (162–178). Wang scales up her argument to a theory of the “racial kapitalstate,” an analytical framework for establishing the connectedness of fiscal crises, the state, and capitalism. For Wang, police plunder and “fine-farming” are indicative of the racialized plunder that is subsidizing capitalist accumulation (182–186), a practice easy to recognize on the historical continuum of racial capitalism (Melamed 2015). The extraordinary number of three warrants per household is evidence of literal production and targeting of criminals, or racialization and policing in parlance of the Policing Complex, for the purpose of expropriation that doubles as a form of surveillance.

In the case of Ferguson, two points emerge that are important in understanding the ‘era of uprisings’ or ‘circulation struggles.’ The first is the exceptionally important contribution made by Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2007): prisons act as partial geographical solutions to political-economic crises (26–27). When posed with a problem of unemployment, one solution is simply imprisonment. When posed with an economic crisis or decrease in accumulation, one solution is to squeeze subjects of capital in ever creative ways. The second relevant point here is that in an era of circulation, lines increasingly blur between state and economic violence, making it difficult to distinguish the two. The state is near, the economy is far; the police can flexibly stand in place of the economy rather than that of the boss. The police become the “commodity made flesh” (Clover 2016, 125–126). The result is increased exposure to the violence of the police, whether that be routinized plunder, increased incarceration, or, in the case of Michael Brown, murder.

Darren Wilson’s murder of Michael Brown cast a national spotlight on Ferguson PD, further exposing the structural violence inherent in the Ferguson Police-Community relation in wake of the 2008 financial crisis.[2] It was also seen as paradigmatic of contemporary U.S. Policing, and because of this, the crisis of the legitimacy of policing would need to address its role as an agent of plunder and anti-black violence on a local and national scale. One way police will do so is by fabricating an image of the benevolent cop who cares for his kin by wielding a capacity of violence toward the feral subject.

The police-produced television segment entitled “Secret Santa Saves Christmas” is one such articulation of the benevolent cop. Because “Secret Santa Saves Christmas” is made for consumption within normative U.S. political parameters, I position it operating from the perspective of ‘above’ the thin blue line. Here, violence is disavowed but cannot be flushed from the popular imaginary of policing due to its essential character in the reproduction of racial categories and civilization itself.

Policing Complex and benevolent cops

In December 2014 the CBS program Sunday Morning aired a segment in collaboration with the Kansas City Police Department entitled “Secret Santa Saves Christmas” (Secret 2014). The segment’s premise is simple: an “anonymous, wealthy businessman” wants to commit “random acts of kindness” by distributing $100,000 in the form of $100 bills to unsuspecting strangers. Here is the catch—this holiday season, Wealthy Businessman Secret Santa wanted police officers to distribute these $100 bills by pulling over unsuspecting drivers to surprise them with the cash. When asked what he wanted officers to get out of the act, Secret Santa said:

Joy. Boy, ya know, as tough as they are, they have hearts that are bigger than the world.”

The narrator of the segment followed up this statement immediately with a voiceover:

“Let’s face it, it hasn’t been a good year for law enforcement. But for the vast majority of decent officers—who will never make headlines—Secret Santa offered this gift.”

In addition to Sunday Morning, the segment also aired on CBS Evening News in mid-December 2014 as part of On the Road with Steve Hartman and again one week later on the same show (Holiday 2014). On the second airing, the anchor reports they had such a positive response they would air it again with an update “in case you missed it or want a second helping of feeling good.” Upon its second airing, CBS happily reported the segment had gone viral:

“A few hours after we aired the segment our social media team noticed something remarkable happening: Viewers sharing it like we have never seen. First across the states and then across the oceans. Nearly 40 million views… and counting” (Holiday 2014).

The segment aired (and re-aired) four months after Darren Wilson murdered Michael Brown. More specifically, it aired mere days after the grand jury refused to indict Wilson on November 24, 2014. In addition to the national broadcasts of Sunday Morning and CBS Evening News, the segment was distributed nationally to local news affiliates. I first saw it in rural Illinois on the 10 o’clock local news while visiting my parents for the holidays. As an effort to legitimize the police as an institution, this was the ideal distribution because it played on the same networks where the same news anchors had to report on Darren Wilson’s murder of Michael Brown, then the grand jury’s refusal to indict Wilson, and the subsequent explosions on the streets of Ferguson following each devastating event.

Still from “Secret Santa Saves Christmas.” This image depicts a police officer standing outside of a pulled-over, worn car and talking to the driver.

This format of officers surprising drivers in (illegal) traffic stops has become a template for easily reproducible and shareable police-produced feel-good content. Since Sunday Morning’s original airing in 2014, the stunt was reproduced by dozens of local police departments in their local contexts, most collaborating with their respective local news to produce a similarly sentimental segment. Other police departments would collaborate with local newspapers (Scranton, PA, Coal City, IL, Yarmouth, MA).

And in at least one example, Lowell PD in Michigan would be sponsored by the City of Lowell, Up TV, and produced by Rob Bliss Creative, a production company that specializes in creating “shareable content” (Rob Bliss 2014). Lowell PD and Rob Bliss Creative’s “Christmas Surprise Traffic Stop” garnered significant media attention with coverage by CNN and Today. On their website, they boast having over 1.4 million Facebook shares around the original publication date in December 2014. In just an hour of combing YouTube, I found over 50 unique police departments executing some version of “Secret Santa Saves Christmas” or “Operation Secret Santa” by pulling over unsuspecting drivers. Most of these archived videos are from local news coverage and aired between December 2014 to the present, many repeating the act annually.

It stands to reason that some version of this theatrical “random act of kindness” has been viewed by hundreds of millions of people in a moment when the police are facing the most significant crisis of legitimacy in half a century. The repetition and reproducibility of police-produced Secret Santa skits as paradigmatic of police propaganda in an era of shareable content. The templatized reproducibility reveals the benevolent gesture as a coordinated strategy of legitimation. The intentional shareability shows one way those on the side of the police are solicited into the labor of the Policing Complex.