#TacoTruckTerry and the Spatula Threat: Murphy Brown, Privilege, and Police

Murphy Brown’s Thanksgiving episode, however inadvertently, vividly illustrates crucial lessons about police and privilege….

…Leaving aside how well “Thanksgiving and Taking” (S11E9) works as television, how fairly it portrays ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents, and whether it accurately paints failures of the Left or the Right — all of which have been discussed in many forums these last few days…

…let’s explore some of the unseen players and unspoken assumptions in these closing scenes (below), considering facets of life in DC, and beyond, that privilege allows some of us to overlook, at least some of the time:

Local Police, “Sanctuary,” and ICE

The first scene takes place in a taco truck outside the fictional home of Murphy and Avery Brown. They live in the District of Columbia, a real town with an odd status in terms of policing and federal agencies, with real and dire consequences for DC residents who become entangled in the legal system. Even though we are technically a “Sanctuary City,” a local arrest for a non-violent crime — or even helping with a criminal investigation — can still land an individual in ICE custody.

Because we have no state, federal agencies are involved in many aspects of DC’s criminal justice system. Federal control means, for example, that our residents are shipped all over the country to Bureau of Prisons sites to serve time; this not only separates families and leaves incarcerated people far from help and resources for re-entry, it means that DC residents can easily find themselves in federal custody. In addition, DC has more varied police than anywhere else in the country: Capitol Police, National Park Police, Smithsonian Office of Protective Services, military police from every branch, campus and other special police. And many of these, along with federal marshals and Homeland Security ICE agents, are not under local control. (See, e.g., “Holes in Sanctuary City Status” and “Arrests in Northeast.” See also “D.C.’S Status As A Sanctuary City in Doubt,” by Miheema Goodine.)

Outside of DC, federal custody is also an issue compromising Sanctuary status, and some local jurisdictions often have more direct arrangements for assisting ICE.

In the fictional “Thanksgiving and Taking,” an ICE agent says “we received a call from a neighbor about a taco truck in a residential area…” The “we” suggests that Homeland Security somehow received and responded to a call about a parking issue; I’ve never heard of such a thing, but maybe it happens in Murphy’s neighborhood, which is far swanker than mine. Or perhaps the “neighbor” actually made an assumption about the immigration status of a taco truck’s owners and did call ICE, deliberately unleashing disaster on the Gonzales family.

Sanctuary status is tenuous and under attack. Officials at every level of government need to hear from constituents about the importance of Sanctuary and additional efforts to to protect our most vulnerable immigrant residents. Here in DC, organizations like Many Languages One Voice provide crucial direct support and advocacy. Learn about and support their efforts.

Neighbor vs. Inconvenience

A “neighbor” called in the taco truck complaint. We know nothing about this individual or their intentions: perhaps, as discussed above, the caller deliberately sicced ICE on strangers, or perhaps this was more of a nuisance complaint gone awry. Either way, the call itself seems to indicate that #TacoTruckTerry has no particular reason to avoid or fear police; that suggests the caller is White, straight, cisgender, and fully documented — and, perhaps, spends little time with people outside these categories.

…See, e.g., “When Calling the Police is a Privilege” and “Policing Immigrant Communities.” Also Damon Young’s “My Self-Care Sunday Story: I called the Cops on a White Guy”…

Regardless of intentions, this complaint about a one-time nuisance — nothing in the dialogue suggests that the truck was a regular problem for the neighborhood or that the owners were previously asked to move it — led to terrible consequences for the Gonzales family.

Calling the police has consequences. Different, often more dire, consequences ensue for undocumented immigrants, black, brown, and queer people. Here are Alternatives to Calling Police resources, including this flowchart for deciding if/when to call police.


Outrage and Favors

In her outrage at the ICE appearance, Murphy threatens to “spatchcock” the agents and brandishes the spatula in her hand. This is meant to be funny in large part because she has just learned the culinary term and, on first hearing, assumed it was invective. In addition, we’re supposed to laugh when one of the agents notes that he has just read about the procedure and responds with enthusiasm for its benefits. This diffuses any tension, and neither agent responds to Murphy’s threatening posture and language.

This is written as lighthearted comedy, of course, so it’s probably no surprise that

  • the agents don’t threaten Murphy;
  • they don’t try to take the “weapon” from her hand;
  • she is not thrown to the ground;
  • she is not shot to death within seconds of the encounter; and…
  • her outburst does not cause the ICE agents to respond more violently when the Gonzales family is apprehended.

Maybe we don’t need that level of reality in a sitcom. Even if the characters — and the writers? — seem unaware that Murphy is experiencing many layers of privilege here, however, we viewers should at least notice….and, perhaps, rededicate ourselves to seeking change. See, e.g., National Association Against Police Brutality, the Advancement Project, American Civil Liberties Union, e.g, and locally: Stop Police Terror Project DC.

At one point, Phyllis tells the agents that she’s retired NYPD and tries a collegial, “let’s just look the other way,” approach. That, as well as Murphy’s later behind-the-scenes efforts — “I called in every favor, pulled every string” — fail to stop the deportation. This failure yields a more powerful story. And, in these cases, the characters seem aware that their access to these options constitutes a special privilege that they are trying to employ in their friends’ defense. See, e.g., resources on privilege from an academic and a more general perspective.

Do Better

“Murphy in the Morning,” following the Thanksgiving arrest, concludes with a plea from Murphy and, many suspect, from Candace Bergen:

We can do better. We will do better. I know we can.

From her mouth to our work/support. To start: Amnesty International’s action page and faith-based pledge of solidarity with asylees.

Perhaps future “Murphy in the Morning” segments or episodes of “Murphy Brown” will address some of the issues raised here. Meanwhile, now is the time to learn more, get involved, and support some of the organizations referenced above.

Graphic borrowed from Many Languages One Voice. Visit MLOV on Facebook.

To learn more, visit Interfaith Action for Human Rights. See also this statement from Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton about DC inmates in Hazelton prison. DC locals: try to attend the program on Local Control of Parole in DC,” Dec 13 6:30pm. Matthews Memorial Baptist Church 2616 Martin Luther, SE.

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