Before the LA Times does another puff piece about the cute back and forth between the NYPD and LAPD social media accounts’ rivalry around the film, I’d like to put this to rest: Die Hard isn’t a Christmas movie, it’s pro-police propaganda made to rehabilitate two departments during exceptionally corrupt periods in their histories.
At a minimum I hope I can illustrate here why some leftists should stop arguing about whether it’s a Christmas movie, and get back to the important work of dunking on cop accounts.
This isn’t going to be an in depth piece about police abolition. There’s plenty of that on Knock, and I would recommend you read The End of Policing, if you need further convincing. For the record though, the police are an inherently oppressive institution that exist to uphold our racist settler colonial capitalist system. They have nothing to do with “peace on earth and goodwill to men” or whatever. Any film or piece of media that portrays them as necessary just serves to reinforce the public perception that they are needed in our society to maintain order and bring bad guys to justice. Film isn’t the only way this idea upheld, but it is a big and extremely effective one.
Regardless of how some of the law enforcement characters behave in Die Hard, the protagonists are cops. The “cowboy cop” trope popularized in 80s cop movies is not only on full display, but the the lead character John McClane is literally referred to as a cowboy. In an exchange undoubtedly intended to mock criticism of militarist American popular media, McClane jokingly says he was “always kind of partial to Roy Rogers” before coining his catch phrase “yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker”.
This trope not only excuses extra-judicial acts of violence carried out by police, but implies that they are in fact necessary in order to keep us safe — that It’s Actually Good that there is a class of people that have the authority to torture and kill whoever they deem necessary without any accountability.
Early on in the film, a scene takes place where John McClane catches one of the thieves:
John: Drop it, dickhead. It’s the police. Tony: You won’t hurt me. John: Yeah? Why not? Tony: Because you’re a policeman. There are rules for policemen. John: Yeah, that’s what my captain keeps telling me.
McClane then kills the man.
The arc of the LAPD Sergeant played by Reginald VelJohnson is particularly disgusting. In a heart to heart, Sgt Powell tells McClane over the radio how he got relegated to desk duty after “accidentally” shooting a child who was playing with a toy ray gun. Afterwards he says “ I just couldn’t bring myself to draw my gun on anybody again”(as if that’s a bad thing). But fear not, as Sgt Powell gets to save the day by killing the final thief who pops out of the rubble at the end of the film. He is cleansed of his sin and is a real cop once more. He can kill again, and we will all be safer for it. In the case of Eric Rivera’s murder by LAPD, it appears life tragically imitates art.
So what were the real-life counterparts of NYPD/LAPD officers John McCLane and Al Powell up to in when the film was released in July of 1988?
Well, a month later the NYPD would carry out a police riot in Tompkins Square Park against unhoused residents of the park and anti-gentrification activists, resulting in the filing of over 100 reports of police brutality.
A year later, 5 innocent black boys would be wrongfully arrested by the NYPD, coerced into confessing, and found guilty in Central Park Jogger Case. It would take over a decade for the Central Park Five to be exonerated.
In the years preceding the release of the film, the NYPD had also made headlines for the murders of Michael Stewart (placed in a choke-hold for allegedly spray painting the wall of a subway station in 1983), and Eleanor Bumpurs (a 66 year-old disabled black woman shot while resisting her eviction from public housing in 1984). In 1985, NYPD would extract a false confession under torture from Mark Davidson. In 1992, right in between the release of Die Hard’s 2 and 3, the Dirty Thirty scandal would break, leading to 33 NYPD officers arrested and 15 indicted on corruption charges.
If you’re looking for a good Christmas story staring the NYPD, check out the December 1986 arrest of 11 officers of 77th precinct for corruption.
On the West Coast in 1988, the LAPD’s Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) unit was at the height of their war on the poor. Operation Hammer had launched a year prior. As part of that operation, LAPD arrested 1,453 people in South LA, in just one weekend in April of ‘88. A month after Die Hard’s release, they carried out this raid:
“The police smashed furniture, punched holes in walls, destroyed family photos, ripped down cabinet doors, slashed sofas, shattered mirrors, hammered toilets to porcelain shards, doused clothing with bleach and emptied refrigerators. Some officers left their own graffiti: “LAPD Rules.” “Rollin’ 30s Die.” Dozens of residents from the apartments and surrounding neighborhood were rounded up. Many were humiliated or beaten, but none was charged with a crime. The raid netted fewer than six ounces of marijuana and less than an ounce of cocaine.”
The escalation in police militarization and counter-insurgency tactics used against poor black and brown communities began in earnest during the lead up to the 1984 LA Olympic Games, and would eventually result in 1992 uprising. The extent of CRASH’s corruption would later be exposed with the Rampart Scandal in the late 90s.
“From 1984–89, there was a 33 percent spike in citizen complaints against police brutality. The complaints went nowhere. According to a Los Angeles Times investigative report, the district attorney’s office chose not to prosecute the “vast majority” of complaints. Between 1986 and 1990, 1,400 officers were investigated on suspicion of using excessive force, less than 1 percent were prosecuted.”
For those who doubt the impact of these films, here’s an exerpt from a message board post titled “Bring it on — I’m okay with armed police drones” that I found while just doing an image search for the tank used in the film:
“We already have police gunship helicopters. And in Philadelphia, a few years ago, the mayor ordered his police helicopter to bomb a rowhouse where an armed cult was holed up.A half dozen people died, as I recall. One of my favorite movies is the original Die Hard. And not just because Professor Snape was trying to kill a bunch of snowflake Californians.The LAPD “tank” (see picture at top) was awesome.Even though it was a remote controlled scale model.I miss the days when films used miniatures/models, instead of computer graphics to depict weapons and disasters.”
Despite massive push-back from the community and groups like Stop LAPD Spying, drones became a permanent part of the department’s arsenal last year. The LAPD remains the deadliest police department in the country, with DA Jackie Lacey refusing to prosecute more than 500 killers cops since she took office in 2012. She is up for reelection next year. Unlike last time however, she is not running unopposed.
And if you want to watch a good film set in LA that really embodies the spirit of Christmas, watch Tangerine.