“Goddamnit, Bigfoot!” fumes the Portland police chief. “How many goddamn times do I have to tell you that you can’t go around pulling off people’s arms, smashing goddamn cars, killing suspects – and goddamn civilians – and wrecking every goddamn thing in sight?” Having heard this spiel before, Bigfoot knows to keep his mouth shut. “I can’t keep making it ok with the mayor and the city council and the goddamn media,” the chief continues. “This is the last goddamn straw.”
To appreciate the subtleties of Kevin Shamel’s novel Bigfoot Cop (Eraserhead Press, 2014), the reader must suspend a little bit of disbelief. Shamel imagines a world where the fabled Bigfoot actually exists, part of a dispersed band of surviving Neanderthals whose technologically and spiritually advanced society was blotted out by the homo sapiens who now dominate the planet. As a child Bigfoot watched in horror as his mother was killed by poachers, and only survived thanks to a benevolent human who took him in and became his adoptive father. Though an instant celebrity, Bigfoot spurned the limelight and instead joined the Army, where his size and immunity to most bullets made him an asset to America’s imperialist misadventures in Afghanistan. In the Army Bigfoot also discovered he could give vent to the alienation and frustration of modern life as violently as he pleased, as long as it was against people deemed “enemy.” The Army, for its part, was all too happy to harness and weaponize Bigfoot’s aggression.
Like many returning veterans, Bigfoot became a police officer. He quickly rose through the ranks of the Portland Police, foiling the great Kombucha Heist, taking down the Diablo Quinoa Cartel, and becoming the youngest detective in department history. But the pressures of modern life and the stress of police work continued to make Bigfoot lose his notorious temper. As Bigfoot Cop, he need not look very far for an outlet. As a cop, Bigfoot’s hardening belief that accused lawbreakers lack even basic human rights becomes his moral code. Armed with this “law and order” ideology Bigfoot’s badge becomes a license to brutalize and murder with impunity.
Off the clock, Bigfoot is actually a groovy Pacific Northwest hippie named Whistler. Honoring the ancient traditions of his people, Bigfoot practices “Forest Magick” in regular retreats to the woods, where he communes with nature and even converses with animals. Back in human civilization, he fantasizes about liberating all the animals from the zoo. Bigfoot keeps a healthy vegetarian diet, particularly enjoying hummus. “I talk to animals,” he explains. “Don’t want to eat them.” Bigfoot also abstains from drinking alcohol, preferring sage and horsetail herbal tea, but indulges liberally in marijuana – to which the other cops turn a blind eye, on account of how it mellows him out… most of the time.
Once Whistler dons a police uniform, however, his mellow quickly melts away. “He’s no longer the tranquil solitary creature of legend;” Shamel writes, “he’s now a foot-stomping, car-flipping crime fighter who can’t stop ripping everyone’s fucking arms off when he gets mad.” As a cop, Bigfoot meets even petty crimes with murderous violence, literally tearing people limb from limb for minor criminal offenses. For years the police department shields his brutality behind the blue wall of silence. Even after a particularly violent scene, when Bigfoot detonates an entire city block, killing and maiming multiple civilians and first responders, he is quietly transferred to desk duty in the Missing Persons Unit, where the chief hopes he will not generate any more bad press. Thus the department hopes to protect itself from negative publicity – while protecting one of its own.
Even in desk duty at Missing Persons, however, Bigfoot simply can’t help himself. Witnessing a strong-arm robbery of a six-pack of beer, Bigfoot springs into action. He rips the shoplifter’s arm clean out of its socket, and callously discards him on the sidewalk to bleed to death. “Good job, Bigfoot,” a bystander cheers. “That asshole’s been stealing from them for a month!” The chief is however less enthusiastic. His anger is however not attributable to any compassion for Bigfoot’s latest victim, but to the public relations problems that Bigfoot’s brutality is generating for the force.
“I just can’t believe,” the chief bellows, “that on a goddamned missing persons interview, you managed to rip someone’s goddamn arms off!” The chief then proceeds, however, to give Bigfoot yet another chance. Once more, the chief will go to city hall and the press, and defend an officer who has committed a gruesome act of violence. Once more he will face down an outraged public, insisting his officer acted prudently under fire, wondering how much longer people will stand for such obvious lies. But he assures Bigfoot this is the last time. “One more fuck up and you are in serious goddamned trouble,” he warns Bigfoot. “Last goddamned straw!”
Bigfoot is however not concerned. Outside the chief’s office, his partner asks how many “last straws” he’s had over the years. “Bigfoot smiled,” writes Shamel, “and flashed ten fingers again and again and again and again.”
The moral economy of Bigfoot Cop weighs the thin blue line – whereby police stick together with remarkable cohesion to defend their colleagues’ right to behave with impunity – against the damage that particularly brutal and murderous policing can do to the legitimacy of policing as an institution. Simultaneously, the chief’s ability to defend Bigfoot time and again represents the lack of a substantive power capable of opposing the power police hold in US society, and perhaps even a lack of imagination for what could take their place.
Despite his endless supply of “last straws,” by which he can mete out brutality and death and get away with it “again and again and again and again,” Bigfoot still considers himself a victim of a great injustice – the practically nonexistent limitations placed on his power. “I always get knocked down for not following the rules,” he complains. “I want to help people and uphold the law, but there are too many restrictions.” Thus someone who can literally murder with impunity dons the mantle of the downtrodden everyman, crying for the public’s sympathy.
Bigfoot believes that police do not have a strong enough role in American society. Therefore, the interest of public safety calls for broadening the social roles played by police, and limiting the rights of the citizens who come into contact with them. However, the contrast between the groovy tree-hugging Whistler, and Bigfoot Cop – the “foot-stomping, car-flipping crime fighter who can’t stop ripping everyone’s fucking arms off” – suggests that the institution of policing does not promote public safety, but rather encourages and proliferates violence.
Bigfoot Cop was released in 2014, as the role of policing in US society was dramatically contested in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri and across the country. Responding to the crisis of legitimacy that this moment produced for US policing, activist-scholar Alex S. Vitale penned a remarkable program, The End of Policing (Verso 2017). The End of Policing diagnoses the disaster of US policing and suggests steps for its abolition. Vitale deftly chronicles the failure of policing, and not just individual police, to respond to a host of social functions which it has come to assume: regulating mental illness, poverty, homelessness, sex work, interpersonal violence, and immigration.
Vitale insists that the failure of policing to rise to these tasks derives not from errors in policy or practices, but from the incompatibility of policing with the provision of a safe and dignified life for all. Instead, Vitale argues that policing itself is rooted in its monopoly of state-sanctioned violence upholding capitalist society, and in particular, the racial inequality on which the US labor market is based. Regardless of who police are as people, or what they’d like to do, this is what the end up doing, with all the attendant violence capitalist society requires to keep its contradictions from exploding. In short, Whistler has no choice but to become Bigfoot Cop.
In the place of traditional police reform, which seeks to change the attitudes of individual police, alter their role in the community, and so forth, Vitale offers a program for peaceful police abolition. This entails a kind of withering away of the police state, by activating liberal-democratic political channels to divert power and resources away from police and prisons, and toward working-class communities whose prosperity and autonomy will make policing as we know it unnecessary. Vitale’s program is based on a dubious set of related assumptions: that the police and their allies in the security state will willingly surrender their power in the name of liberal democracy, and the ruling class will peacefully allow for the democratic and redistributive social reforms. Yet, it begs critical engagement, not dismissal.
Namely, the struggle to relocate resources and power away from the security state can be reconceptualized as building autonomous community power – and building toward dual power – instead of empowering movement managers, politicians, and other reform technocrats to administer society on behalf of ordinary people on the rigged terrain of legalistic and legislative action. Similarly, the imperative to disempower police – by legalistic, legislative, and other means – can be divorced from the unrealistic expectation that this can be accomplished solely within a liberal-democratic framework, or should be accomplished by politicians or legalistic technocrats instead of by mass movements whose horizon lies outside the law.
Departing from common premises, Vitale’s End of Policing ends with clear technocratic steps pointing forward, no matter how imperfectly, and Shamel’s Bigfoot Cop ends up taking a number of plot twists that are quite frankly bizarre. Bigfoot decides at last that the legal limitations imposed on police are too much for him. Stepping outside his role as cop, Bigfoot enters into an epic extra-legal showdown with creepy biotech billionaire Lance Parfait, whose money and power allow him to evade the law – unless of course Bigfoot, once again donning the mantle of populist everyman, takes matters into his own hands.
Parfait has discovered ancient Neanderthal technology, and has kidnapped dozens of human children as part of an elaborate trap to force Bigfoot to show him how to use it. The computer, Bigfoot discovers, is actually an ancient Neanderthal weapon that can wipe out all of humanity should he choose to activate it. This is tempting to Bigfoot, as it represents a chance to get even with humanity for all the harm it has done to his people. But Bigfoot thinks of the few humans he has come to love, and calls the plan off.
“Don’t kill all the stupid humans,” Bigfoot ultimately tells the computer. He defeats Parfait not just in the name of his own people, but the stupid humans as well. There’s even something of a happy and harmonious ending. It turns out it was never Whistler’s intention to mete out brutality and death. That only happened when he donned a uniform and became Bigfoot Cop.