Content Warning: Racism, violence against BIPOC, police violence
It’s still October 11, 1997.
But more importantly, it’s February 28, 2018 as I write this, and the police are a white supremacist gang with tax funding and military-grade equipment.
Which is, honestly, what they always were. The colonizers who settled New England employed Indian Constables to “control” (read: displace, assault, and murder) Native Americans. The St. Louis police were founded for precisely the same purpose when that city was still a small frontier outpost–the military pushed the Native Americans out initially, but the police kept them out. And of course throughout the South, slave patrols were employed to capture black people trying to escape to freedom and return them to bondage, with the first official, government-employed patrols starting in the Colony of Carolina (today North Carolina) in 1704. Additional activities of the slave patrols included acting as a state-sponsored program of terror to keep slaves demoralized and disorganized, and carrying out summary judgment and punishment of slaves, outside the law.
This is of course entirely unlike modern police forces, who engage in state-sponsored terror to keep people of color demoralized and disorganized, and habitually harass, assault, and outright murder people of color. But not slaves, we don’t have those any more.
Well, except that the minute someone is sent to prison they can be legally used as slave labor, and at this point the majority of our prisoners are held in for-profit prisons that make those profits by selling the labor of their inmates. So really, nothing has changed: the police are a state-funded white supremacist organization that exists to terrorize, demoralize, disorganize, enslave, and outright murder people of color.
And Superman is all for giving them power suits that permit them to rival his power. He’ll regret that when ICE agents in Lexcorp-built armor stick him in one of their camps.
This, of course, answers the question of why Luthor would want to empower the police. After all, he’s a career criminal; why would he want organizations whose job it is to protect people from criminals to be more powerful?
The answer is simple: the police don’t exist to protect people, but to maintain order, which is to say they exist to protect hierarchy. If a poor person breaks into a rich person’s house and steals their property, the police will act to protect the rich; if the rich steal the surplus value generated by the labor of the poor, the police do nothing. If a white teen shoots up a school, the police carefully capture them unharmed; if a black teen so much as blinks, the police murder them.
That is why Luthor would fund the creation of a suit to give cops superpowers: he wants them to be strong, because he knows that, as a rich white man, they’re on his side. It’s also why the claim that the suit had corrupting effects on the cop who wore it is absurd: nobody becomes a cop unless they want to perform acts of violence in the service of the extant social order. (This is also why cops are two to four times more likely to be domestic abusers than the general populace: they establish a hierarchy within their household, and then become violent in its defense.)
So no, the suit doesn’t corrupt the cop; it just gives him free reign to be a cop, all the time, with even less consequence than the occasional slap on the wrist that is all the most violent, abusive cops ever face in real life. The title of the episode, “Prototype,” isn’t referring to the suit as a prototype for the armor its inventor John Henry Irons will later don as Steel, because the difference between this cop and Steel isn’t the armor but the man inside: the difference between a white supremacist thug and a black engineer, a power-obsessed destroyer and an intelligent builder.
No, in hindsight the suit is a prototype not for the show’s future but for our own: the police state of 2018 America. The show cannot, of course, recognize this, partially because it’s 20 years old, but mostly because it is tied so closely to Superman’s positionality, and Superman, as we have observed repeatedly, deliberately blinds himself to the structures of power in his society.
He didn’t always. In the Golden Age, Superman could be seen fighting the Klan, taking on corrupt politicians, or telling schoolchildren that prejudice is un-American. But then the Comics Code came along, with this little gem of a rule: “Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.” (Emphasis mine.)
Suddenly, Superman had to take as a given that institutional power was deserved. Established authority had to be respected, in a complete reversal of how it should be treated: in reality, disrespect for established authority is a moral imperative under the principle of “afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted.” Even after the Code was abolished, a generation had grown up with that Superman, not the original; the Code Superman became the only Superman. He permanently became someone who sees that suit as a basically good idea gone awry, as opposed to recognizing the necessity of demilitarizing, disarming, and ideally disbanding the police.
Courtesy of the Comics Code, Superman became anti-revolutionary, and therefore anti-justice. But even without the Code, the shift would have happened eventually, because it’s in the DNA of the protector fantasy to resist frightening change, which is to say all change. If Superman must protect Luthor from the guillotines of the people–which he must if he is to be the paragon of protector fantasies he is presented as–he must be anti-revolutionary. He stands with the police, not against them, which means he stands with the slaveowners and the capitalists, the white supremacists and the rich.
And the tragedy of it all is that he’s still preferable to real-life cops.
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