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South Park’s police brutality episode is more about false empathy than racism

Illustration for article titled iSouth Park/i’s police brutality episode is more about false empathy than racism
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When I read that tonight’s South Park was going to show what life would be like without “racist, trigger-happy cops,” I got a little worried. Was it going to criticize the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests in Ferguson and elsewhere? Was the show finally going to become as misguided and hateful as its detractors have accused it of being (incorrectly, in my opinion) for almost two decades now?

The answer ended up being no (thank God), with Trey Parker and Matt Stone delivering a relatively even-keeled half-hour, at least politically speaking. As it turns out, “Naughty Ninjas” has less to do with institutionalized racism (not in a direct sense anyway) and more to do with people only being compassionate when it suits them. That is to say, they’re not actually compassionate at all, which is a theme the show has been exploring all season: this idea of trendy progressivism.


As usual, Randy Marsh, Mayor McDaniels, and many of the other adults are the biggest offenders, completely rejecting the police force after Officer Barbrady accidentally shoots a six-year-old Latino boy in the arm, yet asking for law enforcement’s help when the town’s homeless population descends upon Whole Foods. Harrison Yates laughs—or rather koholos—right in their faces, explaining that the cops are all too busy getting ready for their luau (they’ve had a lot of free time since the town started refusing their services) to do any real police work.

He also reminds them of their constant (although kind of lame) harassment of the South Park P.D., which involves spray-painting “I’m a douche” on their squad cars, purposely bumping their grocery carts at Whole Foods, and refusing to fraternize with them at Skeeter’s. Much of this is accomplished via a montage set to “Fuck Tha Police,” the aggressive rapping offset by a yuppie mob impotently raising their middle fingers and glasses of pinot in the air outside of the station. It’s as if the largely white segment of N.W.A.’s original fanbase has grown up, once more taking ownership of a message that was never meant for them.

But as much as we’re supposed to see through Randy and co.’s PC facade, they’re also largely right about the South Park Police, just for all the wrong reasons. Most of the officers are racists who freely admit their bigotry and refuse to respond to a crime unless they get to bust the head of a minority while doing so. Somehow, the South Park adults don’t have the slightest problem with that, even though Yates has been spouting his hatred out loud since “Mr. Jefferson” came to town all the way back in 2004. It’s not until Officer Barbrady’s mistake that everyone develops a real problem with the cops, and even then, it’s not because of genuine concern for the little boy or potential (albeit nonexistent) racist motivations of the act; it’s just another case of them jumping on a bandwagon that has PC Principal at the yoke.

Making things even more complicated is Barbrady himself, who seems to be the only policeman in town—with the exception of the levelheaded officer who gets kicked out of Skeeter’s, perhaps—capable of actual remorse and compassion. He’s admittedly responsible for shooting the kid, but he’s also the only one who feels bad about it. When he gets kicked off the force and joins the increasing homeless population after not being able to afford rent and medical bills for his sick dog, we see that he’s a man who cares deeply about his job and was just trying to do the right thing. And to be fair, PC Principal’s laser pointer—not to mention his unnecessary calling of 911 in the first place—played a huge hand in Barbrady discharging his weapon.


So what does all this mean? Are Parker and Stone saying that every instance of racially charged police brutality is a misunderstanding? Are they saying that every cop who’s mistreated a minority is a good person just trying to do his or her job? Of course not. As I said before, most of the police are depicted as being truly awful, which makes me think Parker and Stone are more commenting on the dangers of insincere empathy. Yes, Officer Barbrady should absolutely be let go from the force, if only for not being intelligent enough to competently do his job. But should he automatically be labeled a trigger-happy racist? I don’t think so.

These themes of city-wide miscommunication, misinterpretation, and false passion for social justice carry over to the episode’s second storyline as well. When Yates refuses to combat the homeless problem near the McCormick residence in the derelict SodoSopa district, the boys drive them out themselves after pretending to be ninjas. The kids are just playing make-believe, but the charade works so well that everyone else mistakes them as new ISIS recruits. Suddenly, the town thinks they need their police force back more than ever to contend with terrorists as well as vagrants. Only this time, they want the cops to gun down several kids, never stopping to think of the amorality of such an act, even if the boys actually were part of ISIS.


This alarmingly flippant sense of what’s right and wrong leads to one of the series’ most chilling (aka darkly funny) scenes yet, where Randy and his posse huddle around a sleeping Barbrady, backs bent and hands on their knees as if they’re talking to one of the children they want him to kill. And let’s face it, Barbrady is more or less a child—unintelligent, nearly illiterate, loyal to a fault, and now, homeless. He reluctantly takes on the mission after some thickly spread condescension from the other adults, and—despite Randy’s best efforts to stop him after realizing the kids aren’t really part of ISIS—winds up accidentally shooting yet another Hispanic student, this time David. Beholden to a local government with the moral code of a high-schooler who’s only concerned with being popular, Barbrady gets fired for a second time, and is left as bewildered as the rest of us.

I’ve noticed in the comments section that a lot of you have criticized South Park for so often taking the middle ground of whatever issue it’s addressing in a given week. It’s a valid point. But while it would have been interesting to see Parker and Stone take a firmer stance on whether or not the perpetual protests against police are effective, I’m not sure it would have been possible. For one, they’ve already established the majority of South Park’s officers as being racist, which makes it difficult to portray them as anything other than villainous. Two, just as they’ve done with every other topic of the week this season—from gentrification to Yelp! reviewers to cyber-shaming—Parker and Stone use police brutality as a means of exploring the frightening things that can happen when PC outrage is disingenuous and misdirected. South Park isn’t against PC culture as a whole. It’s against fake PC culture, those individuals who use political correctness as a means of personal gain or personal validation.


As much as he shouldn’t be a cop, Barbrady’s the opposite of that. And, as we see in a final moment that echoes the Nicky Fury recruitment scenes of Marvel Studios’ films, someone has bigger plans for him. Could a man who shot two children be the hero that restores order to South Park? I’m leaning towards yes, although considering how strong this season has been under the regime of PC Principal, Whole Foods, and CtPa Town, I’m not sure if I want him to.

Stray observations

  • Cartman repeatedly insisting that he never said ninjas were gay grew old on a comedic level, but I wonder if it’s meant to further imply that he’s in the closet. It’ll be interesting to see how that pans out.
  • Instead of going to the police for help, couldn’t Randy have lured away the homeless by blasting “California Love”?
  • Barbrady really does look helpless without his sunglasses, not to mention the sympathy-eliciting dog at his side. If he teams up with the mysterious shadow organization, hopefully he can get his pooch the medication it needs.
  • Randy’s blurred out dick swinging around seemed filthier than if they had just shown his dick in full.
  • “We’ve only had a Whole Foods for a month, and we already no longer need cops.”
  • “We can shoot up in these abandoned buildings.” I love how blunt South Park can be even with its most insignificant dialogue.
  • “You’re the only cop this town needs, Barbrady. Now go shoot some kids.”

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