Cops and the Culture War

Cops lie for the same reason the Christian right does. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Nobody put bleach into the milkshakes at Shake Shack. The cops who ordered them and got diarrhea had food poisoning, or lactose intolerance, or indigestion, aroused by the consumption of garbage. But for a while, police unions insisted that something more nefarious than gluttony had occurred. The cops were “intentionally poisoned,” the Detective Endowments’ Association tweeted, “by one or more workers.” The Police Benevolent Association of New York later claimed that the mystery substance was bleach.

Perhaps the city’s noble crimefighters are not very good at detecting crimes. The NYPD conceded that nobody had poisoned their brothers in blue, and the unions retracted their statements. But the basic premise of the legend endures. A new viral video appears to show a police officer in Georgia weeping over a delayed McMuffin order. “Right now I’m too nervous to take a meal from McDonald’s because I can’t see it being made,” she said. (Her local police department said she does not work for it but for another, unnamed agency.)

Calls to defund the police are “thinly veiled class war,” Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri recently claimed. But if the police do think of themselves as working-class, it doesn’t show. The same racist brutality that provokes nationwide protests also betrays workers and the poor. Nor is it coincidental that the persecution myths of the police star working-class villains. Cops understand their social purpose, which is to protect the order of things from the rabble. The proof is in their lies.

In this respect, the police have adopted a template with a long history on the right. When reality contradicts the tenets of culture war, they bend it to make it fit. Outlandish persecution fantasies are a staple of the right-wing culture war narrative. Much like the Christian right, the cops see enemies everywhere, and their imaginations tell horrible tales. In both cases, the lie serves a specific function. It’s a screen, meant to hide the way power really works.

For decades, the Christian right has conceived of itself as a much-loathed and oppressed religious entity. Anyone who grew up evangelical in the ’90s can recall the old battles. The purple Teletubby bore “a gay-pride symbol” upon its head, the late Jerry Falwell said. In another affront to innocent children, the creators of The Lion King allegedly spelled “S-E-X” with the stars in a nighttime scene. Christians have launched boycotts for less. Over time, the scenarios differed, but the enemies were always the same. Feminists had taken over public schools. LGBTQ people were going to destroy the traditional family. The government would lock up pastors who didn’t perform gay weddings. More recently, trans people have become a particular object of fixation. To hear the Christian right tell it, the trans agenda is both evil and all-powerful. It leads children astray and confuses good Christians at the Supreme Court.

Listen closely and there’s an echo. The police say that antifa is everywhere, endangering everything. Cops in Columbus, Ohio, found a bus full of strange gear and cried terrorism; the vehicle actually belonged to a circus. Before the NYPD complained of bleach in its milkshakes, they insisted, without evidence, that protesters carried ice cream containers of concrete to throw at the cops. The items the cops confiscated were likely construction samples. Then there were the antifa bricks. Located in Gravesend, they were proof — so the cops claimed — of a coordinated plan to hurt the police and vandalize businesses. Locals said the piles of bricks came from nearby construction sites.

Fast-food legends aren’t new, either. Shake Shack workers, who don’t have a union to tweet for them and who had to deep-clean an entire restaurant because the NYPD’s finest ate too much food, have allies in misery. There’s Tanis Ukena, whose booking photo still circulates online. A Utah police officer falsely accused the Subway worker of putting meth in his order. In two separate incidents, cops in Kansas and Indiana said that McDonalds workers wrote “fucking pig” on a drink cup and took bites out of a McChicken sandwich. A cop made up the cup story. As for the McChicken, the man who bought it forgot that he’d started to eat his own food.

There is a difference between the lies of the Shake Shack squad and the Christian right’s more sophisticated attempts at propaganda. L’affaire Tinky Winky occurred a long time ago. These days, the Christian right prefers insinuation and spin to outright fabrication. They take a real event, like the Supreme Court’s ruling to legalize same-sex marriage, and build a fantastical world around it. The police see things that do not exist at all.

But the two groups are still very alike, and neither is wrong to think they have enemies. While no one wants to put pastors in jail, and police abolition is still a minority view, the left does threaten the hegemony of the right. What they call persecution is progress for others. The police and the Christian right fear a world that will not keep them in power.

The Old History Behind the NYPD’s Shake Shack Lie