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Of Monsters and Black Lives

Lonnie David Franklin is a monster.

Franklin, the “Grim Sleeper,” is a convicted serial killer who, between 1985 and 2007, murdered 10 to 200 women in Southern California. (I will return to that extraordinarily wide range of estimates later.) The fact that he is an African-American is centrally relevant to my purpose here. He is an appalling object lesson in the lethal power of official racism, past and present. At the same time, though, his case should also serve as a serious caution in current debates about reforming American policing in an age of urban unrest.

On a personal note, one of my odder claims to fame is that in the early 1990s, I pioneered the academic study [1] of serial murders committed by African-Americans. At that time, characters like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer had become worldwide folk villains, but the burgeoning literature on serial killers made next to no reference to black offenders. Some commentators even suggested that such killers did not exist, making this a distinctively white pathology. Knowing what I did about the number of real black offenders, I disagreed strongly. I argued that African-Americans made up perhaps 15 percent of all U.S. serial killers, and subsequent research has supported that figure.

In stressing the abundance of black multiple killers, my goal was not of course to highlight the savagery and cruelty of any particular race, but rather to point to the neglect of minority victims. This actually gets to the issue of how serial murder happens, and why we need to consider much more than the evil or derangement of any given individual. Everything ultimately depends on the availability of victims and the priority that society places on them.

A vicious thug who likes to kill police officers, corporate CEOs, or Catholic priests is unlikely to claim more than one victim before the authorities start paying attention and reacting very forcefully. Hence, the man does not become a serial killer in the first place. If, though, a comparably disturbed offender chooses instead to target “low-value” or disposable individuals, such as street prostitutes, he can kill a great many victims without the police taking much notice.

That is all the more true if we also factor in a social ambience where life is assumed to be short and tenuous, for example in an era of gang wars and rampant drug abuse. If police find a corpse in such circumstances, it simply does not become a high investigative priority. Often, in fact, the dead are not even recognized as murder victims, but are simply dismissed as likely drug overdoses. Even when women survive such attacks and escape from their assailants, police generally pay little attention to any complaints they might make.

This is where race comes in so centrally. One of the golden rules of homicide is that generally, like kills like. People tend to kill within their own social setting, and commonly within their own class and race (and often, their own neighborhood). Throughout American history, some black men have committed savage, random violence against people of their own race, and to that degree, they are exactly the same as their white counterparts. Consistently, though, the fact that their victims are also black, and usually poor, means that police have paid little attention to those crimes, allowing individual offenders to count their kills in the dozens or hundreds. Even if they are arrested and convicted, media bias has meant that such offenders receive little public attention, leading police and government to underplay or ignore the problem of serial violence in minority communities. Racial bias thus contributed to the mass victimization of poor communities, and above all of poor women.

Exhibit A in this story would be Los Angeles in the 1980s and early 1990s, the era of crack wars and rampant gang struggles, when murder rates were skyrocketing. Police focused heavily on those crimes and pathologies, and largely neglected the mass slaughter then underway of poor minority women, whose deaths were basically noted in passing. California media in the 1980s identified a prolific serial killer called the “Southside Slayer,” who in retrospect might have been a composite of six or seven independent and unrelated offenders. At more or less the same time, Los Angeles was the hunting ground for several terrifying serial killers, men such as Louis Craine, Michael Hughes, Chester Turner, and Lonnie Franklin himself—all African-American. DNA evidence suggests that other yet unidentified killers were also active in the same years, and often the very same streets.

And that was just Los Angeles. The total number of victims involved here is unknown, and probably unknowable. Lonnie Franklin, as I mentioned, was officially implicated in around ten deaths, but a substantial collection of portrait photographs was found in his possession. If in fact they are trophies of his other, unrecorded victims, then we might be counting his victims in the hundreds—virtually all black and Latina women.

Similar stories could be told of other crisis-ridden inner-city areas across the nation. Other notorious names included Lorenzo Gilyard in Kansas City and Anthony Sowell in Cleveland. Such offenders are not rare, and what they have in common is their choice of marginalized victims: poor, minority, female, and commonly drug users or prostitutes.

The solution would be to reshape police priorities so that forces place a much higher premium on minority victims and are more sensitive to the possible presence of compulsive sexual criminals. There should be no “low value” victims. Put another way, the message would be that black lives matter, and especially black women’s lives. Through the years, community-activist groups have made strides in this cause, so that murder series are now more likely to be acknowledged, but much remains to be done.

And this is where we face a paradox. As black communities have protested against violence and discrimination by police, the resulting conflicts have strongly discouraged police from intervening in minority areas, reducing proactive interventions. Although this is debated, much evidence now suggests that the immediate result has been an upsurge of crime and violence in those areas, through the “Ferguson Effect.” Police tend to ask why they should go into an area unnecessarily if what they do is going to end up on YouTube and the evening news. In fact, such an idea is by no means new. After the urban rioting of the mid-1960s, police massively reduced their footprint in most inner-city areas, and the consequence was the jaw-dropping escalation of violence and homicide between 1967 and 1971.

Today, we are only beginning to see the first inklings of the Ferguson Effect and the consequences of the reduced police presence. The less police intervene in troubled minority areas, the easier it will be for poor victims to die and disappear, and for men like Lonnie Franklin to hunt without check. In the worst-case scenario, these could be very good times for serial predators, not to mention rapists and domestic abusers.

Less policing means more crime, and more victims. If you reduce levels of policing sufficiently, you will create a perfect ecology for victimization.

Obviously, this is not a simple dichotomy: the choice is not between policing that is interventionist and brutal, on the one hand, versus total neglect on the other. What we need, ideally, is effective, color-blind policing firmly rooted in particular communities, where all groups can rely on the good intentions and law-abiding character of their police forces. Trust is everything.

But that situation will not come overnight. In the interim, withdrawing or reducing the police presence runs the risk of endangering a great many ordinary people, whose lives absolutely must matter. We are talking about equal justice, and equal protection.

Philip Jenkins is the author of The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels [2]. He is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University and serves as co-director for the Program on Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion.

17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "Of Monsters and Black Lives"

#1 Comment By The Wet One On September 26, 2016 @ 8:29 am

Being the pessimist that I am, I suspect that this:

“Obviously, this is not a simple dichotomy: the choice is not between policing that is interventionist and brutal, on the one hand, versus total neglect on the other. ”

Is a bridge too far for America.

Probably can’t be done because America.

#2 Comment By Kurt Gayle On September 26, 2016 @ 10:50 am

“What we need, ideally, is effective, color-blind policing firmly rooted in particular communities, where all groups can rely on the good intentions and law-abiding character of their police forces. Trust is everything.”

In order to establish trust “progressive” US politicians must stop pushing the lie that police are racists.

“Are the Police Racist?” is a 5-minute video by Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute that addresses the issue of “American police, blacks, and the use of deadly force.”

It shows that “there is no evidence that police are killing blacks just because they are black.”

It shows that “when the police refrain from pro-active policing [‘the Ferguson effect’] black lives are lost.”

[3]

#3 Comment By mrscracker On September 26, 2016 @ 11:48 am

“…what they have in common is their choice of marginalized victims: poor, minority, female, and commonly drug users or prostitutes. ”
*******************
True.
I had a very creepy experience of being alone on more than one occasion with a black serial killer who was a tenant at one of the properties I used to manage for a realty company.
He had been linked to & later convicted of the murder & mutilation of several prostitutes/drug addicts Up North.
He was enabled to do that by plea bargaining his first murder to manslaughter. I think he claimed it was some consensual, kinky stuff gone wrong.
So, I’d look at the plea bargaining tool as well. It allowed this man to remain actively killing & under the radar for years. Following his murders up north, he returned to his home state & got a job delivering appliances, often to women home alone. The charge of manslaughter didn’t trigger anything on the criminal background check run by the appliance store. I assume murder would have.
If his first victim had been given the respect & justice due her by the courts, several other lives might have been saved. But I guess being poor/addicted minority women,they were considered of less value, too.

#4 Comment By Meerkat On September 26, 2016 @ 1:20 pm

“There should be no “low value” victims. Put another way, the message would be that black lives matter, and especially black women’s lives.”

Remember the Daniel Holtzclaw case? The guy was a beloved college football hero, affectionately known by local folks as “The Claw”, who also happened to be a cop of white/Japanese descent.

Yet he got sent away for 200+ years? For raping black women? Some of whom were prostitutes and drug abusers?

I feel entitled to a shaky optimism regarding crime and punishment in America. Because of cases like Holtzclaw’s. Maybe someday they won’t seem miraculous.

#5 Comment By Meerkat On September 26, 2016 @ 2:06 pm

Then again, R. Kelly.

He had an illicit marriage to a fifteen-year-old Aaliyah. He urinated in an underage girl’s mouth in a sex tape. The journalist, Jim DeRogatis, who broke the story years ago was dismissed as a jealous hater. Never mind that he dug up numerous affidavits accusing the singer of rape in exhausting detail. You can’t make up court documents.

DeRogatis in his own words: “The saddest fact I’ve learned is nobody matters less to our society than young black women. Nobody. They have any complaint about the way they are treated: They are “bitches, hos, and gold-diggers”, plain and simple. Kelly never misbehaved with a single white girl who sued him or that we know of. Mark Anthony Neal, the African-American scholar,
makes this point : one white girl in Winnetka and the story would have been different.”

Backlash against the singer has revived in recent years, though. Weird, but I’ll take it!

#6 Comment By FiveString On September 26, 2016 @ 7:08 pm

The author and a number of commenters are ignoring proven institutional racism that exists in this country. This article explains in a lengthy nutshell the reasons for Black Lives Matter (note that the DOJ made similar findings in Baltimore): [4]

#7 Comment By EliteCommInc. On September 26, 2016 @ 7:56 pm

This is a rather sketchy gambit here. It’s loaded with so many maybe’s could be’s and ifs that outline a theory no much in the way of fact.

Sure there are blacks who have been serial murderers, even if it has taken a lowering of the bar to include more cases. Serial murder is human failing. Blacks are human and no doubt some number have that failing. I have no issues here and never have.

What does perk my attention is the inflated magnitude of what is clearly an unresolved matter. It’s not new. But it is disconcerting. Blowing up of black anything to demonstrate that blacks are worse. This has that feel to it. There is no way to escape the race card built by the country. One just has to acknowledge it and move on.

I have never met anyone nor have I ever read anything of influence that labels all police officers as racist. Has it been system to ensure ‘blacks stayed in their place’ I think the record is clear. Does that excuse the small umber of blacks who engage in criminal behavior — no. Is there spill over from the use of police to manage blacks that have been examples of abuse, I think the record is clear on that is well.

It cannot be said enough that Heather MacDonald’s ‘Ferguson Effect’ has been ruled as knee-jerk response to the call to hold police accountable for mistakes, regardless of their views on color. As a result her rushed analysis upon examination falls drastically short of her conclusions.

A spike in crime is not the same as an upward trend.

The issue being pressed and about which there has been so much white backlash is the confirmation that the police are being exposed a having some serious deficits.

Te reason that society does not fall apart is become some 250 million people don’t engage in criminal behavior. It’s not because the police keep us in check, while helpful. In reality we keep ourselves and each other in check.

Frankly, a conservative, I tend to distrust government agents and rightfully so.

There are kinds of new sources on issues, that appear to be enlightening. But in the end on this issue, there’s not much new under the sun, or a reason for e to go spinning off to find it. Until my foundational grounds falter, I intend to stay rusty.

To be clear, human failing is irrespective of color.

#8 Comment By mrscracker On September 27, 2016 @ 10:16 am

EliteCommInc.:

“To be clear, human failing is irrespective of color.”
***********
For sure, but sometimes the criminal justice system is not. And not only regarding color, but social class, too. The amount of justice victims receive can vary depending on their race & social standing.
We had a little 12 year old black girl disappear a decade or so ago. Later her body turned up dumped alongside the river like trash. Her mother’s live-in boyfriend was arrested. The mom worked for the sheriff but claimed she had no knowledge the boyfriend was a child molester. Even though a 30 second search on the county sex offender site, maintained by the sheriff, would give that info.
As I recall, there was little to no publicity outside local news media & even that was meager.
Several years later a 19 year old white debutante was fatally shot in a robbery just hours after dancing at her cotillion.It was front page news forever. The family was always actively involved & formed a crime prevention group, 1000 folks showed up at the funeral, a soccer field was named in the deceased girl’s memory.
Our school district had so many pregnant middle school students, ages 11-15 that a fulltime faculty position was created to teach them. They were predominately poor, black girls who’d been sexually used by older men. Much like the little murdered 12 yr old.
When I asked someone at my son’s school what could be done to help remedy things, I was told it was “just part of their culture.” In other words, different things were expected of black families than of white ones.

#9 Comment By Stephen Gould On September 27, 2016 @ 12:09 pm

@EliteComminc:a conservative, I tend to distrust government agents and rightfully so.

Thank you! All too many conservatives of my acquaintance will distrust Federal and state governments about everything until it comes to the use of state-sanctioned force…

#10 Comment By Joshua B On September 27, 2016 @ 3:10 pm

“Law and order,” as Trump emphasized last night, is undermined when the community does not trust the police.

#11 Comment By Kurt Gayle On September 28, 2016 @ 9:12 am

Joshua B writes: “’Law and order,’ as Trump emphasized last night, is undermined when the community does not trust the police.”

In the Gallup Polls’ latest “Honesty and Ethics of Professions Ratings” 21 professional groups are rated. Based upon percentages given for a “very high/high” rating for honesty and ethics police officers are ranked 5th:

1. Nurses (85%)
2. Pharmacists (68%)
3. Medical doctors (67%)
4. High school teachers (60%)
5. POLICE OFFICERS (56%)
6. Clergy (45%)
7. Funeral directors (44%)
8. Accountants (39%)
9. Journalists (27%)
10. Bankers (25%)
11. Building contractors (25%)
12. Lawyers 921%)
13. Real estate agents (20%)
14. Labor union leaders (18%)
15. Business executives (17%)
16. Stockbrokers (13%)
17. Advertising practitioners (10%)
18. Car salespeople (8%)
19. Members of Congress (8%)
20. Telemarketers (8%)
21. Lobbyists (7%)

[5]

#12 Comment By SteveG On September 29, 2016 @ 11:49 am

The biggest danger of all to the black community is the culture of never talking to the police.
One prominent rapper proclaimed that if he knew a black neighbor was a serial killer he would not tell the police, because you are to never “snitch” to the police on any black brother.

#13 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 2, 2016 @ 12:32 am

“When I asked someone at my son’s school what could be done to help remedy things, I was told it was “just part of their culture.” In other words, different things were expected of black families than of white ones.”

Sadly untrue. Different things are expected among families regardless of skin color.
_______________

Excuse me. Even I am surprised by this number . . . the men ad women with weapons tasked to ensure public safety are thought to be honest just over half the time. I was sure it would be higher.
_______________

“One prominent rapper proclaimed that if he knew a black neighbor was a serial killer he would not tell the police, because you are to never “snitch” to the police on any black brother.”

I am not sure I believe this. But I am not sure I get the point. There is a general sense among some groups, not to snitch —

the military
lawyers
doctors
police officers
teachers
nurses
wall street brokers
Families is perhaps the most intense, next to the “blue wall of silence.”

I cannot resolve that paradigm since the man left the garden. All we can do is teach people that living in a community occasionally requires tattling, when that time is can be complex. But what i have read is that black people get arrested every day tried and convicted by black people. It’s safe to say, rapper or no rapper, there are people willing to share information to hold blacks in their community accountable.

#14 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 2, 2016 @ 12:45 am

Wow. Consider that,

When an officer testifies, people think they are being truthful 56% of the time. What dos that say about what they think about convictions.

Whether I consider an officer’s testimony truthful is dependent on the circumstances.

But 56% of the time is if it were accurate would not be very discouraging. I tend to think they are more honest than most people seem to rank them.

#15 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 2, 2016 @ 10:23 am

“The biggest danger of all to the black community is the culture . . . ”

Since this is not a unique staple pf any culture, I doubt it’s weight. I would be curious to know what black culture is . . .

#16 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 2, 2016 @ 11:45 am

The only whistle blower to the issues regarding Se Clinton seems to have been a black admin.

We can certainly run rival closed non law enforcement community comparisons:

White Italians – in relation to the Mafia or any criminal enterprise, that included members of law enforcement and politicians

White Irish communities — in relation to the Irish mob and any criminal enterprise that included members of law enforcement and the FBI, along with politicians

And you want frustration, talk to law enforcement regarding the white Russians, Croat, and Ukrainian communities.

look the largely white community within the CIA —

Trying to run the racial game in this manner is always going to be a tough slog.

I guess it is convenient to ignore, Neo-Nazis and other said oriented groups organizations.

#17 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 2, 2016 @ 1:37 pm

Whites should come out to vote for Mr. Trump. But making a case that unless they do, the black criminal is going to be out in force to get them is hardly a case that any conservative should be making.

It lacks little evidence and fosters the same ethic one accuses democrats and liberals have been fostering.