Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

On Conan, W. Kamau Bell patiently tries to bring some nuance to the defund the police debate

W. Kamau Bell, Conan O’Brien
W. Kamau Bell, Conan O’Brien
Screenshot: Conan

W. Kamau Bell has been working to make racism (and other stuff) funny since long before his Emmy-winning United Shades Of America his the CNN airwaves back in 2016. The stand-up comic turned civic-minded reality host (he still does stand-up) appeared in person at Conan’s Largo temporary headquarters on Thursday to, once more, take his fact-based comic take on race in America on the road, telling host Conan O’Brien that, compared to flying all over the country filming the most recent United Shades season, driving in from Oakland wasn’t a big deal. (For anyone smart and fortunate enough to have stayed out of airports during the pandemic, Bell reported getting a serious I Am Legend vibe as he jetted off to talk to that week’s often downright-terrifying interviewees.)

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Bragging that he knows his Johnson & Johnson covid vaccine worked because of those pesky but somehow reassuring side effects, Bell explained, once more, that his United Shades episode featuring Black health care professionals urging Black Americans to get vaccinated was deeply necessary. You know, because of literally everything Black people can point to about the government, the medical industry, and, as Bell asked, “Can we just say ‘America?’” Not to mention the fact that we as a nation are “awash in misinformation and lies” about everything from getting a free and effective vaccine to wearing a damn mask so other people don’t die. (Neither Bell nor Conan mentioned Fox News, but, yeah, fuck Fox News.)

Shifting gears while staying in the same, careening vehicle, the two then delved into the recent conviction of former Minneapolis police officer (and now offical murderer) Derek Chauvin, who was caught on camera in excruciating detail crushing the life out of Black man George Floyd. Bell was unequivocal as always, telling Conan that, while getting “some measure of justice” for Floyd’s family is at least something, “Until we recognize it’s the system of policing that we have to look at and not individual acts, we’re gong to see these things repeat themselves.” Bell brought up the shooting death of Black man Daunte Wright by white police officer Kim Potter in a Minneapolis suburb while the Chauvin trial was going on as a tragically predictable reminder that one verdict isn’t going to change anything.

On that topic, Bell half-jokingly praised Conan for actually uttering the hot button phrase “defund the police” as their extended conversation went on. Noting that the public discourse (and again—fuck you, Fox News) has made even the mention of that concept a guaranteed verbal fistfight (at least), Bell and O’Brien both kept asserting that the actual defund the police movement is a lot more nuanced. (And here we should all take a moment of silence to mourn the very concept of nuance when it comes to American public discourse.) Whipping out an admittedly low-rent approximation of the chart Bell uses to show exactly what the defund concept entails (in case there are any nuance fans left out there), Conan and Bell patiently explained that it’s a matter of reallocation and decentralization of increasingly militarized police power. You know, as opposed to your Hannitys, Carlsons, or Ingrahams blotching red with rage while spinning racist terror tales of lawless streets full of the murderous not-white figures of their Fox News fever dreams.

As Bell patiently explained in response to O’Brien’s helpful advice about “defund the police” possibly needing a less-incendiary rebrand, “trying to get the attention of the white power structure” is something Black people have been negotiating from the first day they were brought here. So, you know, they’ve got this. Once more patiently, Bell pointed to the current, one-gunbelt-fits-all approach to policing, where cops are taught to respond to every 911 call as a threat to be “squelched” rather than an opportunity to help someone in need. Mental health crises, addiction issues, poverty, a guy asleep in his own car—Bell pointed to the often deadly (and racially disproportionate) outcomes of the average police response and asked if diverting some of that police finding toward individuals and agencies actually trained and focused in those areas might result in fewer dead people. Or we can just keep killing Black and brown people over some bullshit, as is how the current white-dominated power structure (and Fox News) seems to favor.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.