Beyoncé’s impeccable Super Bowl halftime show on Sunday drew an estimated 104 million viewers, but members of the National Sheriffs’ Association were not among them. Gathered in Washington, D.C., for their annual legislative meeting, the members of the organization, which is tasked with improving police professionalism, turned off the TV set midgame when the superstar performed part of her new single, “Formation.”
The association’s president told The Washington Examiner about this petty boycott, stating that the cops were angered that the NFL permitted the performance of what is, in their view, an anti-police song. Meanwhile, on Fox News, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani agreed. “I thought it was really outrageous that she used it as a platform to attack police officers,” he said of the show.
Had Beyoncé actually used an enormous televised spectacle to attack police, I would have welcomed it. There should be no limit to the censure leveled at an institution drenched in racist violence that kills black teen males at a rate 10 times higher than their white peers. But she did not attack the police. She paid homage to black power and black life. Dancers clad in black berets raised their fists in fierce formation, recalling the salutes of sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics.
While Beyoncé tapped the recognizable iconography of historic black struggle and anger, she hardly recited the Black Panther Party’s 10 point program. Needless to say, she is no radical Panther; she supports Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and dines with President Barack Obama. Beyoncé is, however, becoming a symbol of black strength. It is no small thing that police institutions, Giuliani and numerous regressive Tweeters responded to powerful blackness by calling its very invocation an attack on police.
Let’s turn to the details of her latest song, its politically charged video and her Sunday night performance, which have all left police feeling embattled. In her show she referred to historic black struggle largely through her dancers’ uniforms and salutes. In her “Formation” video, riot cops raise their hands (“Hands up, don’t shoot” style) to a dancing black little boy in a hoodie. Writing on a wall reads “Stop shooting us,” and she sits atop a half-sunk New Orleans police cruiser, which, tellingly, eventually sinks and pulls her down with it.
The song is a paean to Southern blackness. Lyrics include “I like my baby hair, with baby hair and Afros” and “I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making.” Police are not mentioned at all. The extent of Bey’s “attack” was a simple reference to American police officers shooting black people, symbolized by a young hooded black child. These are facts, not contentions — but facts that the sheriffs’ association would rather you not hear or see.
An institution that reads the mere mention of its very violent flaws as an affront is incapable of reform. Those who see Beyoncé’s allusions to police racism as an attack on policing unwittingly assert that this racism is an essential and representative part of policing. They elide critiques of racist police violence with critiques of all police. It is they who call a hoodie-clad dancing black child a danger to policing, hauntingly echoing the police’s assertion that 12-year-old Tamir Rice presented a threat enough to justify a shot in the stomach.
Giuliani was upset that Beyoncé unfairly focused on the problems, not the virtues, in policing. We should, he said, “focus on the fact that when something does go wrong, OK, we’ll work on that. But the vast majority of police officers risk their lives to keep us safe.”
Aside from the fact that policing doesn’t even rank among the 10 most dangerous jobs in the country (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics), his call for Beyoncé to deliver a more positive representation of police is a vile rejection of black reality. He is telling black people that their entirely well-founded fear of law enforcement is what needs to shift, not the behaviors of police who instill that fear. He is attempting to delegitimize black experience at the very moment that she is ferociously upholding it.
His argument isn’t far from the old bad-apple canard that refuses to see racist police violence as representative of the institution. The same flawed logic saw the 300,000-member National Fraternal Order of Police union ask Congress last year to include police officers under its hate crime statute as a protected minority. Police who believe themselves victims of discrimination ignore the fact that unlike actually oppressed groups, they can remove their uniforms.
Those who would boycott Beyoncé because of criticism of police, those who would turn off the TV, are expressly refusing to listen to black voices. Even one of the most powerful black women in the world can’t speak to them. The closing image in the “Formation” video, of the star sinking under New Orleans floodwaters with a police car, seems all the more apt with this in mind.
We saw the same reaction when hundreds of NYPD officers turned their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio as he spoke at the funeral of murdered Officer Rafael Ramos in late 2014. They literally turned their backs to moderate criticism. The mayor had simply called for better police training and oversight, but the blustering police union chief, Patrick Lynch, claimed there was “blood on the hands” of the mayor when Ramos and his partner were gunned down by one police-hating man. Lynch explicitly also blamed Black Lives Matter protesters for inciting violence against police.
We might want to dismiss these far-fetched victimhood narratives as defensive and childish. Sadly, though, they are a deadly serious index of police intransigence. The institutional rejection of even muted criticism should inform and vastly lower our expectations for reform of U.S. policing. What hope do we have of ending police racism if policing institutions are offended by the image of riot cops surrendering to a dancing black child? If it is deemed an offense worthy of boycott to affirm powerful blackness and draw attention to what oppresses it? Ironically, in treating “Formation” as an attack, those cops and their defenders, far more than Beyoncé, validate serious anti-police positions.