Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?: Literary Journalism as a Response to Police Violence against African Americans
Oosterom, P.A.M. van
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This study assesses the function of literary techniques in four examples of literary journalism about police violence against African Americans, namely Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “A Beautiful Life,” Jelani Cobb’s “Policing the Police in Newark,” William Finnegan’s “The Blue Wall,” and Jake Halpern’s “The Cop.” Drawing on interdisciplinary research, I will demonstrate how the writers use devices like narration, scene-by-scene construction, dialogue, and figurative language to address and/or counteract factors that inherently complicate this specific subject. The accumulative function of these devices is that the writers create texts that resist oversimplification of use-of-force incidents (UFIs). The devices enable them to dramatize causative explanations behind, competing claims about, and factors that possibly influenced UFIs. They furthermore use these techniques to explore how and why people (certain police officers, Breonna Taylor’s mom, Darren Wilson, etc.) interpret UFIs the way they do. This process of meaning-making is central to this particular subject because it is inseparable from deeply divided perceptions of American society and the police. The texts furthermore portray the writer-reporters themselves as observers, participants, and interpreters. They thereby self-consciously draw attention to the inescapable, subjective status of the journalist. These texts thus provide an understanding of UFIs that is simultaneously factual, philosophical, and emotionally immersive. They exemplify how the synthesis of literature and journalism fosters a mode of public reflection that is uniquely equipped to interrogate social injustice in contemporary American culture.