Arresting Development: The Insidious Genius of Demolition Man

What will the future of policing look like?

Answering this question used to be straightforward. Until recently, most people agreed that law enforcement will always be necessary in some form or another and our communities were built in a way that was compatible with its continued existence. We, the public, understood that there are dangerous people living among us and that this ‘internal threat’ demanded a clear structure of authority with established rules and enough power to punish anyone who dared break them.

This is no longer the case.

This recent crisis of confidence started, as you should know already, with the police-involved deaths (some would say ‘murders’) of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, alongside the many other examples of police brutality that have recently been perpetuated against America’s Black community. Together these tragedies provided a spark which reignited racial tensions across the US and led various Black rights organisations (including Black Lives Matter) to band together with civilian protesters and Antifa activists to draw attention to the plight of America’s African-American citizens and the deeply-entrenched political divisions that this violence represents. This division, in turn, became one of the driving forces behind the storming of the US Capitol in January, with many rioters clearly decked out in MAGA hats and QAnon merchandise.

After bearing witness to these high-profile examples of violence committed by police in America (as well as their apparent ineffectiveness against the Capitol rioters), the international community is now trying to answer a difficult question; has the time come to overhaul the way that policing works? And if we make changes, how should we decide which changes to make? What would the ‘perfect’ police force look like?

In order to answer this question, we’re going to be dissecting a movie that was created during a similar moment in recent American history, as a direct response to a racial uprising following a display of police brutality against an unarmed Black man.

I’m talking about Demolition Man.

It might seem dismissive to bring up Demolition Man and the BLM protests in the same sentence, so I’m going to be very clear here – the murder of Black people by American police is an extremely important issue and I would never try to diminish that. That being said, there are strong similarities between the cultural contexts that created Demolition Man and the current situation being faced in America and I believe that these similarities are worth bearing out.

Demolition Man is an early-90s’ cheese-fest starring Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes. Snipes, a Black man, plays LA crime lord Simon Phoenix and Stallone, a white man, plays John Spartan, the cop sent to capture him. During the arrest, Spartan is falsely incriminated in Phoenix’s crimes and rather than being sent to a ‘traditional’ prison, both men are cryogenically frozen in order to serve out their sentences. But forty years later, Phoenix escapes into the futuristic, violence-free super-state of San Angeles in the year 2032, forcing the modern police to free Spartan in order to hunt Phoenix down once again. At the end of the film, we learn that it was actually the leader of San Angeles, Doctor Cocteau, who organised Phoenix’s escape in order to have him exterminate political dissidents since no-one born into the current era is willing to commit murder on his behalf.

Sylvester Stallone and Sandra Bullock in Demolition Man, Source

Now although this plot might sound stupid, I’m about to argue that Demolition Man actually represents one of the most intelligently-crafted and insidious examples of Conservative propaganda ever created.

But before we can understand the ideology of Demolition Man, we first need to understand the historical context surrounding its theatrical release in 1993. Specifically, we have to acknowledge that it was released one year after the LA uprising (also called the LA riots), a series of demonstrations and riots inspired by video footage of Los Angeles Police Department officers beating an unarmed Black man, Rodney King, with no obvious provocation. These disturbances lasted for six days, resulting in sixty-three deaths and over a billion dollars in property damage and inspiring terror both in local residents and throughout the entire nation (in a moment of historic symmetry, it’s also worth pointing out that the BLM protests and the LA uprising both occurred after video evidence of police violence went viral).

The clearest way to read Demolition Man, I would argue, is as a Conservative response to these events. You see, out of the two largest political ideologies we’re currently faced with, Conservatives purport to support the police where Liberals lean towards a more pro-reform platform (there are more nuanced perspectives, obviously, but for the sake of brevity we’re going to be painting in broad strokes). But after the Rodney King tape, it became almost impossible for any reasonable Conservative to support the actions of the LAPD due to the combination of video evidence and massive public outrage.

This is where Demolition Man comes in.

Thinking in terms of ideological symbols, we should recognise that Phoenix (Snipes) isn’t your ‘normal’ criminal but a psychopathic crime Lord who burned down half of Los Angeles just for the hell of it. This is how the LA uprising appeared to a lot of Conservative Americans at the time – this largely white, largely middle-class demographic couldn’t understand the violent actions of a Black working-class movement, especially considering that the LA protestors were primarily damaging their own homes and communities. Try to imagine that you’re an American Conservative during this period; of course it’s more convenient to believe that the protestors were ‘acting crazy’ because the only alternative is to look for an underlying problem, which might force you to question your own beliefs and challenge your support of the police. In this way, we can see that Phoenix was not an attempt to represent the Black community but  instead represents a denial of systemic racism as well as a projection of middle-America’s repressed fears about racial politics.

This leads us to the next question – how did Conservatives think the police should act in the face of this ‘psychopathic’ rage?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is ‘with even more violence’. In Demolition Man’s future-state of 2032, violence has been all-but eradicated and, while this might sound like a good thing, we learn that law enforcement has now become so ineffective that the police are forced to unfreeze John Spartan (Stallone), a gruff 90s’ LAPD cop, in order to capture Phoenix after he escapes.

This is problematic for a few reasons. Firstly, this logic ultimately argues that the police have to exercise violence regularly in order to keep the public safe and, in addition to this, the decision to use an aggressive Take-No-Prisoners LAPD officer as the ‘good guy’ is troubling, considering that this was the exact police force that sparked the LA riots in the first place. Viewed from this perspective, it’s hard to interpret these choices as anything other than an endorsement of the LAPD in 1993.

But this raises a new question; if Demolition Man is so problematic about race, then how did it get made?

The answer to this part is actually pretty interesting. Basically, the writers of Demolition Man refused to address the question of race explicitly and instead pretended that the larger conflict was about economic policy.

Few people would argue that America is a thoroughly capitalist nation, probably the largest such nation in the world, but in the future that Demolition Man envisions a small section of the US has changed course and become a socialist city-state. But San Angeles appears to be, for all intents and purposes, a utopia – we’ve already mentioned that the police don’t need to commit violence in order to maintain control, but there’s also futuristic sci-fi technology and there appears to be a complete lack of any significant economic, social or racial inequalities.

There are, however, a small number of individuals (called ‘The Scraps’) who live on the edges of society, rejecting their right to free healthcare, education and employment because they believe in the ‘Freedom of Choice’. For example, during an impassioned speech, the rebel leader of The Scraps (played by Dennis Leary) says that he’s choosing to live in poverty and fight a guerrilla insurgency because he demands the freedom to eat high-cholesterol meals and smoke cigars without government involvement, a speech which, outwardly, is structured to seem like a positive and intelligent ideological position. While San Angeles may seem utopic, then, the film argues that this tranquillity could only be achieved by removing the individual’s ability to make choices for themselves, an position which is cemented when the socialist government is finally overthrown and Spartan joins The Scraps to, presumably, lead the next neo-capitalist revolution.

Dennis Leary in Demolition Man, Source

It’s an ideological magic trick. By turning the film into a pro-capitalism narrative, a position that is traditionally Conservative, then the audience can pretend that race isn’t actually at issue; white Conservatives can enjoy Demolition Man because it’s pro-capitalism, not because it’s pro-cop.

But this is the part where reading Demolition Man gets really interesting. If we combine this economic pro-capitalist understanding of the film with the racial perspective we developed earlier, we can begin to extrapolate the true purpose of Demolition Man.

Let’s start from the beginning; if we accept that Simon Phoenix represents a Conservative perspective of the participants of the LA uprising (something that seems hard to argue with) and we understand that the socialist Doctor Cocteau is manipulating Phoenix into committing violent acts (which is made explicit in the plot), then by logical extension Demolition Man is effectively implying that the LA uprising was actually a ‘False-Flag’ event manufactured by evil socialists in order to destabilise the US economy and remove civil liberties. From this point, we’re only an ideological hop, skip and a jump away from full-on neo-Nazi ‘Jews control the media’ ‘They’re coming for our guns’ conspiracy theory that is almost indistinguishable from many alt-right/QAnon beliefs that we’re seeing today.

Further to this, I want to address the nature of the plot itself. Earlier I said that the idea of freezing criminals instead of imprisoning them was stupid. While this is true, in the case of Demolition Man this form of punishment represents a very necessary suspension of disbelief. Freezing Simon Phoenix and John Spartan achieves two goals that are crucial to the plot. One is very practical – it serves to displace the film away from modern-day LA and into the future. Even for a film so openly antagonistic toward the Black community and so clearly contemptuous of liberal politics, writing a movie where a white LAPD officer hunts down and kills a black man in 1993 would probably have been too controversial for any studio to produce. Thus, by setting this movie in the future and incorporating an economic element, the writers are leaving just enough plausible deniability to get the film made while semi-credibly denying any accusations of any ulterior racial motive. Conveniently, this also has the effect of making any form of criticism laughable – if you mention Demolition Man to your friends and point out any of the patterns we’ve discussed here, they’ll probably tell you that ‘You’re overthinking it’ or ‘Giving it too much credit’. By making the film ridiculous the creators are effectively inoculating themselves against any serious form of criticism.

The second goal is much darker. Again, let’s try to think about this in real-world terms; if we take Phoenix as a representation of the fear of Black American dissent, then the film concludes that incarcerating these ‘troublemakers’ simply does not work since there will always be a conspiracy to inflict them upon polite society. In the end, Spartan murders Phoenix, freezing him before shattering him to pieces with a kick in the most important scene. Incapacitated and unable to defend himself, Phoenix’s murder at the hands of an LAPD officer is met with roaring applause. In this way Demolition Man sends a clear message; if the police are going to go after dissenters, then they should be prepared to put them down for good.

So what can this lead us to expect from American media going forward?

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that the current movement against policing will actually have much long-term impact. While it’s nice to imagine that public opinion is a factor in shaping policy decisions, the question ultimately balances on who lawmakers fear more, the police or the public, and the Capitol riots seem to have reminded everyone just how dangerous the public can be. But this doesn’t mean we should stop trying to affect positive change within these authoritarian structures – even if calls for mass reform or defunding might seem optimistic, the fact that we’re even discussing such a radical change is a massive step forward.

What I do expect to see, however, is a significant increase in the amount of police and police-related films in the coming few years. It’s true that recent cinema has been critical of the police, highlighting the corruption and racism that many now believe to be a foundational element of all authoritarian structures, but if America’s authoritarian machine were to aggressively pursue and prosecute the Capitol rioters then there is a chance that some measure of public faith would be restored, further complicating an already difficult cultural history between the American public and the police who (theoretically) serve them. Most importantly, I believe that we’re about to see the birth of new type of cop movie, a genre of films that can criticise the structures of policing while also acknowledging the possibility of positive change within them.

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