The shooting of a young unarmed black man in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014 was by a law enforcement officer did not contain any particularly unique or striking details that indicate it would go on to be anything other than another statistic in the long line of young unarmed black men being shot to death by law enforcement officers of every known quantity. In fact, the victim of that shooting, Michael Brown, was just one of least four similar incidents that month of unarmed black men dying at the hands of a cop with a gun (Lee 2014). While much of white America and middle class America was shocked by the details of the Michael Brown case, many in the African-American community were shocked only the fact that it received national attention. More than that, the shooting of Michael Brown completely reshaped the sociological footing how police officers are perceived by white and middle class America.
Positing that the details and circumstances related to the death of Michael Brown were in no way remarkable and were, in fact, excruciatingly routine, the primary sociological lens through which his tragically mundane death genuinely revolutionized the way that the tens of millions of American have come to see law enforcement in America must be attributed to one of the most influential agents of socialization: mass media. Without the benefits of initial social media outrage at the event and its transformation into a story deemed worthy of prominent and repetitive placement within the 24-hour television news broadcasting cycle, Brown would today be nothing more than another anonymous statistic.
Once it became clear that the news media was actually going to pursue the larger implication of this individual event, a dynamic of socialization was established between those already intensely aware that the Brown shooting was hardly isolated, social media for drawing attention to those cases and the news media who recognize a story with legs when they see it.
Almost overnight, most of American learned what certain disenfranchised social pockets had known for decades: law enforcement agencies across the country engage in unnecessary use of excessive and even lethal force not as an extraordinary response to a remarkably unique circumstance, but as a matter of daily routine.
In the blink of an eye the image of the cop as the good guy who only resorted to such force when he knows the suspect is guilty that this same agent of socialization has helped construct through hundreds of movies and thousands of TV episodes was exposed as dangerous façade.
From the benevolent detectives of the 12th Precinct on Barney Miller who rarely shot fired their sidearms to “Dirty Harry” Callahan who was never shy about opening fire—but only when he knew the target was guilt—the image of police in the minds of most Americans was predominantly that of “good cop.” That the few bad apples who occasionally threatened the purity of this vision would eventually be exposed by the Serpicos on the force is a vital element for how “conflict theories view police violence and use of force as a way that officers combat crime and disorder” (Anderson, Reinsmith-Jones, Brooks 2016). The application of conflict theories on economic stratification offers an adequate explanation for why this fundamental perspective toward the police differs mores substantially with each rise up the measurement of economic status. Those on the bottom derive their bias against police on the basis of actual interaction or, at the very least, routine witnessing of police in action. Interaction between the middle class and law enforcement is typically balanced between the police as authoritarian figures handing out traffic violations and benevolent agents of help called upon when those members of the middle have become victims of crime. The top of the ladder is less influenced by media portrayal than by law enforcement’s role as servant charged primarily with protecting their wealth.
“The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles” (Marx, Engels 1901). When that most iconic quote from the most iconic of conflict theorists is usually engaged, it is in reference to economic struggle ultimately resulting in the victory of communist ideology over capitalist exploitation. When Marx is suggesting that class struggle is the impetus behind every major historical transformation, he is talking about more than pure economic disparity. An underlying economic cause likes at the heart of whatever the struggle because economic stratification creates the disparity that produces the focus of the struggle. Although rarely recognized and even more rarely analyzed, the shooting of Michael Brown confirms Marx’s sociological thesis.
Those on the lowest layers of economic strata have long held a far different perspective toward police because they were already aware of systemic abuse and misconduct (Wihbey, Kille 2016). The pervasive ignorance of this reality by those of a higher status is very much an issue related to an economic conflict between social classes. This conflict has been intensified by a passive acceptance of deviant behavior among law enforcement precisely because that social conflict. To suggest that that middle and upper class Americans have been entirely unaware of the existence of deviant behavior by cops would be to openly profess ignorance about ignorance. While it is true that the farther removed one gets from actual interaction with cops the more ignorant one is of how prevalent such abuse and misconduct actually is, it must also be admitted that the higher up the economic ladder one goes, the more likely is the acceptance of such deviance. That acceptance may stem from the belief that few victims of excessive force are actually innocent or that such victims are just rare examples of collateral damage that must be sacrificed for the greater good of security.
The role of the mass media as an agent of socialization on this issue cannot be underestimated. While the massive transformation of the image law enforcement is clearly an example of Marxian class struggle theory in action, without the mediation of the news media, the struggle would still be stuck making only incremental progress at best. The celebration of a major victory in this long-term war of social conflict may be premature, however. The media’s role as a socialization agent working to create a positive image of law enforcement is not going to die easily. In the wake of what often seemed to be almost daily reports of new examples of lethal misconduct by police—but especially following a rash of violence directed toward cops culminating in the ambush in Dallas—the invisible influence of the media on constructing social relationship was demonstrated in a rash of virally marketed feel-good stories on news reports purposely intended to counteract the damage being done to the reputation of law enforcement by that barrage of negative reports (Kavanagh 2015).
The future of this struggle remains unclear. The 24 hour news cycle is notoriously fickle and all it takes is one major event to reduce the prominence of pervasive deviance among law enforcement down just enough for the story to lose traction as an example of class struggle capable of long-term historic transformation.
Anderson, James F., Kelley Reinsmith-Jones, and Willie M. Brooks. “Black Shootings, Conflict Theory, and Policy Implications.” International Journal of Social Science Studies 4.5 (2016): 16-17. Red Fame.
Kavanagh, Margaret. “More Police Departments Posting Positive Actions of Officers Online.” WTKRcom. N.p.,
Lee, Jaeah. “Exactly How Often Do Police Shoot Unarmed Black Men?” Mother Jones.
Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. Communist Manifesto. New York: Socialist Co-Operative Association, 1901.
Wihbey, John, and Leighton Walter Kille. “Excessive or Reasonable Force by Police? Research on Law Enforcement and Racial Conflict – Journalist’s Resource.” Journalists Resource.