Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Serial Murder and Police/Media Silence in South L.A.

Where Black Lives Don’t Matter: Serial Murder and Silence in South L.A.

  Lonnie Franklin Jr., shown in this movie still from, is accused of being the Grim Sleeper serial killer.
By Meleiza Figueroa and Alan Minsky
Apr 26, 2015
In “Tales of the Grim Sleeper,” Nick Broomfield‘s harrowing new documentary, we learn a sad and startling fact: that Los Angeles police officers once regularly used the term “NHI”—for “no human involved”—to describe the murders of prostitutes and drug addicts in poor black communities.

The film, which chronicles the long and tragic saga of the Grim Sleeper serial killer’s 25-year reign of terror in a South Los Angeles neighborhood, is a damning testament to the widespread, almost casual eradication of black lives by law enforcement—in its word and deeds.

Right now, the United States is grappling with the issue of police violence against black people, as protesters around the country declare that “black lives matter.” Broomfield’s film focuses on a parallel pathology: that “black-on-black” crime is not only tolerated but is implicitly sanctioned by the state, as illustrated by events shown in the documentary.
To fully grasp the sense of alienation and hostility that black communities have toward the police, this aspect has to be understood. Millions of black people intimately understand that police departments in the U.S. are not there to protect them or their communities. That their lived experiences are continually denounced and ignored by law enforcement, government officials, the media and many of their fellow citizens speaks to how deep this pathological denial runs through American society.

Perhaps this is no mere oversight. At the core of the modern liberal state, the bedrock of American “democracy,” is the assumed equality of the nation’s citizens: “All men are created equal.” While the civil rights movement has struggled, and in several ways prevailed, against inequality for black Americans in the political sphere, it has been a much more monumental challenge to show how these inequalities operate on the level of everyday life in black communities.

For all the media coverage of police violence in Ferguson, North Charleston, New York City, and elsewhere, most people who reside outside of impoverished black communities have no sense of what it’s like to live in a place where the law disregards, and is even hostile to, the needs of its residents. As such, “Tales of the Grim Sleeper” is an essential film for this historical moment, as it shows powerfully how the facts on the ground resolutely expose the lie of “liberty and justice for all.” It does this by showing a driver’s side view of the “other America” that black people experience.

The film begins with the 2010 arrest of Lonnie Franklin, a South Los Angeles resident whose DNA was linked to multiple Grim Sleeper murders going back to 1985. He is currently awaiting trial for 10 counts of murder and one count of attempted murder, and at least 10 additional murder cases are pending against him. While the actual count of his alleged victims is unknown, police found photos of at least 180 women in his home, and some fear that the final number could reach well over 100.

Most of the victims were black women who were criminalized as addicts and walked the streets as prostitutes, victims also of the crack epidemic that swept through black communities in L.A. beginning in the 1980s.

Franklin was a well-known and relatively respected fixture in his neighborhood, and Broomfield sets out to understand not only Franklin’s life, circumstances and possible motives, but also the grave errors and inconsistencies in the LAPD’s investigation of the Grim Sleeper murders that allowed a prolific serial killer to go free for over two decades. Even when the LAPD had recognized that a serial killer was targeting women in Franklin’s neighborhood (by the time the third victim was found), the community was not informed of the potential danger lurking in their midst. Crucial pieces of information—such as eyewitness reports, police sketches, a recording of a 911 call presumed to have been made by the killer and a description of Franklin’s vehicle (a very distinctive orange Pinto)—were withheld from the public for more than 20 years.
Several of the film’s interviewees—including members of the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders, an organization that formed to demand accountability from law enforcement and city officials and to inform the community about the Grim Sleeper when residents realized that a killer was in their midst—questioned how and why the LAPD could have exhibited such shocking negligence in the face of the mounting deaths. As the film progresses, it becomes distressingly clear that the victims’ social status as poor black women was a key factor in how they, and their community, were treated by the LAPD. As Nana Gyamfi, an attorney and coalition member featured in the film, pointed out: “Imagine if they had treated Victim No. 3 as if she were a student at UCLA, with blonde hair and blue eyes. How many other people might still be living? That is for me the real tragedy … the lack of concern allowed so many more people to be murdered.”

The social circumstances under which these black women’s lives, and the safety of their community, were so utterly disregarded by law enforcement speaks powerfully to the “perfect storm” of race, gender and class that lies at the heart of this story. Even though police did not have a direct hand in their murders, the silent deaths of these black women must be included in the national conversation about police brutality and racism in this post-Ferguson moment. It is especially important given that the deaths that gave rise to the “Black Lives Matter” movement were largely the result of police killings of young black men like Eric Garner and Michael Brown.

Far less attention has been paid to the black women and girls who have also been victims of police violence, including Rekia Boyd, Aiyana Jones, Sheneque Proctor (portrayed in the media as “the female Eric Garner”) and far too many others.

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