The dirty meme

When I was a kid, my father was a police officer in a large Southern California city. In the turmoil of the 1960s, law enforcement was experiencing an unprecedented wave of violence as various groups of people protested their plights. At the time, standard law enforcement kit included helmets, all the time. I’m not talking about helmeted motorcycle officers. Officers in marked police sedans also wore helmets as their standard kit. It was not a great time to be either an oppressed person or a cop.

My dad had risen to the rank of detective and I recall the disdain he held for the “long-haired hippies” with whom he regularly interacted. Undoubtedly, the word “interacted” is far too tame a term — the police in Southern Cal did not like the flower children. Not one bit.

In the decades between the 1960s and the 2020s, the need for law enforcement to understand the people it is policing has come to the forefront of public consciousness — and conscience.

Apparently, the Portland Police Bureau didn’t get the message.

Two years of unrest, countless riots, dozens of deaths, hundreds of fires, a trashed downtown, ruined tourism and a grim international reputation weren’t enough to suggest that maybe — just maybe — stereotyping an entire class of people and advocating violence against them as part of a police training seminar might be a bad idea.

A legal brief originally scheduled to be filed in federal court by nonprofit Don’t Shoot Portland on Friday prompted Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler to announce that the filing would contain a damning image used in a Portland Police Bureau (PPB) riot training presentation. The 110-slide PowerPoint presentation ended with a slide featuring a meme that encouraged violence against protesters. The filing is part of Don’t Shoot Portland’s 2020 federal lawsuit against the city alleging excessive force by the PPB against protesters.

The meme depicts a helmeted law enforcement officer appearing to beat a long-haired person who seems to be unarmed. The text reads:

“And the Lord said…
Woe be unto you, dirty hippy:
Four thou stinketh of patchouli and BO;
For thou talk of Marx, yet know him not;
For thou hast bills, yet have not paid;
For thou hast dreadlocks and white skin.

And so I shall send among you,
My humble servants with hat, and with bat;
That they may christen your heads with hickory,
And anoint your faces with pepper spray.

And once thou hast been cuffed and stuffed;
Once thou has been stitched and bandaged;
Perhaps thou shall learn,
I’m tired of your shit.

Amen.”

According to the Know Your Meme database, the image is known as the “Prayer of the Alt-Knight,” attributed to Kyle Chapman. Chapman was arrested for hitting an Antifa protester over the head with a stick at a Trump rally in 2017.

On Jan. 14, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office announced it had “recently discovered” the image in the presentation.

Kyle Chapman was arrested for hitting an Antifa protester at a Trump rally in 2017.

“I am disgusted that this offensive content was added to a training presentation for our police officers,” said Wheeler in a statement released Friday. “As soon as I was made aware of the incident, I reached out to [PPB] Chief [Chuck] Lovell, who shared my deep concern and assured me that a thorough and complete investigation was underway.”

The investigation was launched in Sept. 2021, immediately after the city discovered the slide during review of case documents. The mayor’s office said it does not know when the presentation was created, but it could date back to 2018. “At this time, it remains unclear who added the final slide, when this slide was added to the training material, or if it was used during a Portland police training,” the office said Friday.

Any time such provenance is mysterious, I usually interpret it as an attempt to muddy guilty waters. Hopefully, some other story will pop up, they think, to eclipse the latest embarrassment to the City of Portland.

Now, I understand how high-stress and high-stakes jobs often use gallows humor as a way to de-stress. Military personnel, for example, use outrageously vulgar humor as a method of coping. Law enforcement is arguably one of the most difficult jobs so some off-color humor or profane banter might be expected. But after two years of sometimes-violent civil unrest motivated by police mistreatment of specific groups of people, you’d think a vulgar meme celebrating — wait for it! — police violence targeting a specific group would be the absolute last thing placed in a training presentation. In the most generous terms, it’s tone-deaf, it’s awful optics and it makes the bureau look unteachable.

Since hippies aren’t a race, thankfully, there’s no racial component. And in the larger scheme, this meme didn’t kill anyone. Nevertheless, it’s unacceptable for official law enforcement training materials to feature imagery joking about police violence against any demographic. For that matter, such imagery should be unacceptable in less official law enforcement contexts such as locker rooms or Facebook groups.

The civil violence of the last couple years has brought two primary topics to the forefront: racial reconciliation and police reform. In my opinion, it’s crucial we keep these conversations going. PPB’s dirty hippy meme is just one sign among many that we have a lot of work to do on the latter.

As I’ve stated more than once, I am not anti-police. An orderly society needs the police. Further, I do not wish to condemn the entire police bureau — it’s probably the best-trained law enforcement agency in the state yet it’s certainly the least-appreciated and most criticized.

The dirty hippy meme appearing in official PPB training materials raises two unequal issues: First, did they think the meme wouldn’t eventually be publicized, causing outrage? Second and far more importantly, did they not realize this material was inappropriate on multiple levels? The first issue is one of simple intelligence and judgment. The second issue is one of morality. They’re suggesting violence against an entire stereotyped class of people — this is not the sort of “law enforcement” we want or need.

Did a member of the bureau place the image? Or approve it? How could police bureau training or oversight personnel believe imagery joking about or celebrating intentional police violence targeted to a specific group was in any way appropriate?

That people within the police bureau thought beating hippies was funny enough to include the dirty hippy meme in training materials speaks to a broken culture within the organization.

It’s past time to forge ahead on implementing reforms like those in Janie Schutz’s Oregon Policing Equity Plan (OPEP). Schutz is a veteran police officer who last served as chief of a suburban department before shifting her efforts to lobbying for a national police reform organization. Schutz proposes sweeping reform that will help weed out inappropriate candidates while increasing and standardizing training, truly bringing law enforcement into the twenty-first century. The gem of it is OPEP reforms will result in better outcomes for communities of color, marginalized communities and law enforcement, itself — everyone stands to benefit.

It’s a different world than when I was a kid. My dad left law enforcement in the early 1970s but returned to it decades later — he is today the oldest sworn deputy in a large sheriff’s office. He is an honorable man, both wisened and wizened by time. I can’t imagine him speaking like he did when I was a child.

The Portland Police Bureau should take a lesson.

Photocomposite © Portland Police Bureau; stock image; public domain

2 Replies to “The dirty meme”

  1. In the decades that you and I have experienced life there been some changes to our culture: today is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. observance, so I saw a small reduction of racism, an expansion of US involvement in governments around the world, higher limits of greed by businessmen, to name a few.
    Law enforcement matters didn’t seem to change until President 45 took control of things. People were taught to hate people who were different and to look out for themselves at all costs. #45 encouraged violence and bigotry to make a perfect country, similiar to Hitler’s appeal to the masses.
    Then #45 found the armed forces and police at his fingertips and orders harsh rule of “others.” “Forget the law and spending time protecting people,” use your strength to control “others.”
    When the ballots for Yamhill County were tallied, #45 won reelection handily. Proof that a majority of our kind neighbors have bought into the pie in the sky belief that controlling all “others” was the answer.
    The police force has been brain-washed into changing why they are law enforcement folks.
    Politicians and law enforcement officers have quit and continue to question why things changed. As you have said, change will only happen at the polling station. I agree.

    1. I think the thing that bothers me most is we’ve abrogated our responsibility as the electorate.

      It is our responsibility as voters to vote out useless or harmful elected officials. Many of us simply follow the loudest message repeated the longest (read: whoever had the most money for advertising). This is why term limits look pretty good now, even though I have opposed them my entire life. If the voters did their job, we wouldn’t need term limits.

      Many of us cannot tell the difference between news and commentary. Part of this I blame on formats like the Today Show, which present news and entertainment using the same people and sets. Still, if voters weren’t intellectually lazy, this wouldn’t be an issue.

      Many of us have rejected the traditional institutions for fact-checking — academia, media and government — as too biased to be trustworthy. Instead of cross-referencing multiple sources (and even adjusting for bias) to arrive at a relatively accurate conclusion, we simply stopped fact-checking. Now we believe various lurid conspiracy theories, rejecting any evidence that we might be wrong because all evidence is suspect.

      Both sides now believe they hold the moral high ground and that the other side is beyond salvage. When we believe the other side has morphed from a traditional opposition political party to an extremist organization (i.e. the Marxist Socialist Anti-U.S. Godless People’s/Workers’ Party versus the Fascist Racist White Redneck Christian Family Party), instead of discussing our differences and working out compromises, we focus on destroying the other side because that’s what you do to extremists, right?

      We’ve effectively cartoonized the opposition into monsters with whom no debate or conversation can be had.

      Our future isn’t looking rosy.

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