Saturday, March 7, 2009

"The Grim Sleeper": A Classic Cold Case of Racist Misogyny

This blog entry examines a variety of ways that racist-misogyny--always infused with classist elements, expresses itself in society. I bring forth some examples from media, most especially one that almost didn't make it to press: the case now known as the search for "The Grim Sleeper".

The ABC news program, Nightline, recently aired a segment about a case of gynocide that has gone unexamined for twenty years or so, due to the fact that the women murdered were African American, and not "well-to-do". The first victim was found dead in a dumpster in 1985. Of twelve victims found in South L.A. to date, one was male, also African American, and also disenfranchised in other ways, such as by class.

L.A. Police Chief Bill Bretton, a white man, says this case would not have been handled with more concern or swiftness if the victims were "well-to-do white women". "I don't go along with that. Not at all. We value every life," he says. (That's called lying through your teeth, or being so seriously delusional about reality that you ought not be a police chief.)

Diana Ware, the step-mother of one of the 1987 victims, says "I think if it were in Hollywood [...] it would have been handled much differently. I think they would have told people; I think it would have been out there in the public. [She pauses.] It wasn't done, and I think that was a big mistake."

Another white man, lead investigator Detective Dennis KilCoyne, was asked what the victims have in common. "They're all from the same general area of the city in South Los Angeles; I don't think I would label them all as 'prostitutes' per se [he makes the quotation mark gesture with his hands as he says that], but they certainly have troubled lifestyles, they're broken people and they're easy targets."

First of all these particular women (and one man) are dead. They are no longer "easy targets". There is an implication in Kilcoyne's statement that their (collective, same) "lifestyle" is largely to blame for their demise, and that they are not individuals the way Nicole Brown Simpson was an individual. They are, rather, a type of people, the kind that can be summed up crudely and inhumanely as a semi-human "them" that while dead, somehow still walks the Earth. This group is leading a life that is dangerous; it's not life that is dangerous, you see. It's the way they were living their lives that brought danger to them, like a moth to flame. If they weren't 'prostitutes', if they weren't 'broken people' with 'troubled lifestyles' would they be alive today? We are supposed to answer yes, even though the murder of women by men crosses all socio-economic divides.

I wonder: if this did happen in an affluent Caucasian section of L.A., would he describe the women who live there as troubled, broken, and easy targets--and imply that they are a group that lives on to this day, perilously drawing [ungendered] danger to them? Isn't the single most common criteria for being a likely target having "the lifestyle" of being a woman who lives at home with a man? And what if they wereprostitutes? Is there an implication here that their murders would be less worthy of investigation? Or, in that case, that they were (even more clearly) "asking for it"? I wonder.

Homicide Detective Bill Fallon, an African American man, was asked to describe a plausible profile of this serial sexual killer (in the press now called "The Grim Sleeper"). "I believe it's a young man that's very angry with women. I mean some woman I believe somewhere has hurt him down the line and he's taking it out on the women." No man in front of a camera will tell us the truth about gynocidal atrocities: they are done by men because men can do it, they have access, and they usually get away with it, the "Grim Sleeper" being a case in point.

What male abusers of women and girls have in common is not a traumatic past, abuse in childhood, or being mistreated by a woman at some point down the line. If that were the determining factor, the common denominator, then almost every woman I know, lesbian or not, of color or not, would be a serial killer--but of whom? Plenty of women I know were abused by their mothers, yet don't make it a practice in adulthood to begin killing parents--or women--randomly. If men are abused by their bosses, and have issues with authority based on past traumatic encounters with hurtful authority figures, why isn't there a rash of boss-killings across the Western world?

Ever diligent and dutiful, allegedly valuing every human life equally, it was not the police force that discovered they were dealing with a mass murderer of women (and one man). It was a white woman reporter for L.A. Weekly, Christine Pelisek, who put elements of this story together, making it clear that the perpetrator was a serial killer, that the deaths and disappearances were connected and worthy of further investigation into a case that had been "cold" for over twenty years. She had to alert the police, and some of the family members of the victims, to this fact.

This is Christine Pelisek's initial report:
DNA "Familial" Search Can't Find Elusive Serial Killer
Wednesday, Dec. 3 2008 @ 1:41PM

The Los Angeles Police Department's search for the Grim Sleeper, an extremely elusive serial South L.A. killer, suffered a big blow Tuesday when a long-shot effort to identify the man through DNA "familial" testing came up empty-handed. The existence of the murderer, who is the longest-operating serial killer West of the Mississippi, was first reported by the L.A. Weekly in an August 29, 2008 exclusive.

The Los Angeles Police Department's search for the Grim Sleeper, an extremely elusive serial South L.A. killer, suffered a big blow Tuesday when a long-shot effort to identify the man through DNA "familial" testing came up empty-handed. The existence of the murderer, who is the longest-operating serial killer West of the Mississippi, was first reported by the L.A. Weekly in an August 29, 2008 exclusive.

The serial killer, who has been stalking African American women in South Los Angeles since 1985, has left his saliva and other DNA at several killing sites. Police had hoped to locate the unknown killer's relatives (and through them, his whereabouts) by scouring the state's DNA database of more than one million felons. Familial DNA testing is a controversial method of policing first approved by Attorney General Jerry Brown last spring. Its employment in the hunt for the Grim Sleeper was the method's first major use. Brown's office gave the LAPD the bad news yesterday. The announcement was also a letdown for victims' families.

"It is disappointing but I feel good because my parents are getting some closure," says Donnell Alexander, the brother of teenage victim Monique Alexander, who was killed by the Grim Sleeper in 1988. "It has been over 20 years but at least it is giving my parents some comfort because they are looking into it."

Dubbed the "Grim Sleeper" by L.A. Weekly when this newspaper broke the story that the killer is still operating in South L.A., the murderer left the bodies of 10 women and one man almost exclusively along a section of Western Avenue. The victims were shot or strangled.

Eight of the 11 killings occurred between 1985 and 1988. Then, in November of 1988, a ninth intended victim escaped after being shot. She described her attacker as a 30-ish black man driving a rust, red or orange Ford Pinto. The bullet removed from her chest was matched to the gun used to kill the first eight victims.

The killings then abruptly stopped for 13 years. Police did not realize the killer was active again until LAPD started a cold-case unit under then-Chief Bernard Parks to investigate unsolved killings. Crime lab workers hit pay dirt when they matched DNA taken from murder scenes in 2002 and 2003 to DNA found at the 1980s murder scenes. The Grim Sleeper most recently struck in January, 2007: A homeless man discovered the body of Janecia Peters, and a DNA match linked her death to the others.

Police were stymied by the fact that the Grim Sleeper's DNA profile didn't match any sample in the state offender or federal crime databases. In June, the LAPD quietly launched the 800 Task Force to track the elusive killer.

Some family members, like Alexander, are still hopeful.

"We haven't gotten over it," says Alexander. "The shock is still there. Hopefully we are going to get this guy."

[End of Christine Pelisek's article.]

It is typical of media to give a catchy nickname to the undiscovered man, singular, who repeatedly kills women, plural. This has the political and cultural function of doing two things simultaneously. It both invisibilises the female victims as actual individual people, with their own lives, their own particular histories, friends, family, and interests, and it also elevates the serial killer's status to that of a fictional superhero or comic book villain, each of which boys and men are known to worship and try and emulate.

We might also note the similarity between names given to gynocidal killers and those given to media superheroes or comic book and graphic novel villains: Batman and Robin, The Lone Ranger and the racistly tokenised sidekick, Tonto, The Vampire of Paris, Dracula, The Night Stalker, The Beast of the Black Forest, Jack the Ripper, The Terminator, The Mad Bomber, The Mad Beast, The Red Demon, The Red Spider, The Green Hornet, The Green Lantern, The Green Man, Pogo the Clown, The Werewolf of Wisteria, Bluebeard of Paris, The Dark Knight, The Dark Strangler, The Death Maker, and The Grim Sleeper. (If you can, without Internet help or texting a friend, distinguish fictional comic book characters from actual serial killers in the list above, I am amazed. But here's a big clue: only four are fictional.)

If you are unclear which is which, you might find out at this "Fun Trivia" site. How degraded do women (and children) have to be to make their killers into fun trivia? Under male supremacy, to be a villain is to be masculinised, to be a victim is to be made more feminine. This is partly why so much is made of anyone, rape survivor, incest survivor, who identify primarily as "a victim". Boys and men often claim they are more of a man now, having been so brutalised in the past. They don't want the degrading effect of femininity on their names or reputations. Females who survive systematic male assaults are also heroes for figuring out how to survive the atrocity. But this is a point made only when the effort is to pretend she's "not really a victim--because if there really was a victim, that would mean there's a victimiser, and let's just move on and talk about how brave her escape was. Uhhhh, there's nothing systematic going on here, after all." This point is recently became clear to me in this piece by radical feminist Jennifer McLune.

In a case where all victims are African American, in which the perpetrator's identity and his race is unknown, note how a newspaper cover image (above) portrays the women as very white "street-walkers", and the perpetrator as unambiguously, ominously black. The cover's pun on The Grim Reaper is made with him holding a street lamp pole instead of a sickle; this certainly implies that getting a good look at his victims is critical to who he chooses to kill. In this image, dominant media is using a case involving the mass murder of primarily Black women as an opportunity to sell one of the U.S.'s most white male supremacy-protecting myths: the utterly racist idea that Black men are the threat to white women. As if white men aren't. As if men, collectively, aren't. The inference is that only when crimes are committed against white women do "we" care, and when committed by a Black man, the hushed and not-so-hushed talk never ceases among white folks; witness the endless referencing of the case of Nicole Brown Simpson's "alleged" murder by jock-star O.J. Simpson. Being rich, white, "pretty", blond, and female helps being featured in the media... a lot. Hence the dehumanising phrase "The Missing White Girl S yndrome".

It's almost always seen, by dominant culture, as "taking up space in media" when the murder and disappearance of girls of color is the atrocity. Dr. Phil had advertised a whole program about this matter of the race of missing children who get media attention, but that actual discussion was relegated to the last few minutes of the show, which otherwise focused on the disturbing disappearance of a white girl.

It's not that white girls and women disappearing gets "respect" exactly, in the media. Those stories are made into a spectacle, a voyeuristic journey the public can take, exploiting the humanity of the disappeared and dismembered. In this op-ed piece from the Washington Post, writer Eugene Washington seems to disrespect middle class white women and girls, in part by referring to them as "damsels" and implying [even] these stories aren't really worth reporting on: "Every few weeks, this stressed-out nation with more problems to worry about than hours in the day finds time to become obsessed with the saga -- it's always a "saga," never just a story -- of a damsel in distress." His lack of understanding of misogynist violence as "a central story" of the United States that actually gets far too little coverage, from radical Womanist and feminist perspectives, alarms him not in the least. And he's not alone: his many white brothers and brothers of color who have controlling access to media don't care either.

The "newsworthy" case of singer-celebrities Chris Brown and Rihanna (his beating of her), is newsworthy only because it's a Black man that did the violence. This story would garner far less public attention were the victim not female, and the batterer not Black--or at least Brown. And if Rihanna was a white woman celebrity, the press would be foaming at the mouth.

Washington, in his essay, captures something central to the fears of the dominant class media, in a white male supremacist society: "It's whiteness under siege." Females are just too devalued to even mention; it's the death of the white child that's the shame, not the death of a girl; were we to care about girls and women, the chronic disappearance and murder of girls and women of color, caused by men, would find respectable space in the press as a serious problem. It would also be recognised as a central tactic in men's war against women. Alas, no such status for any woman or girl exists, in media, so the discussion will not focus at all on "women under siege [by men]". Whiteness and maleness being under siege: now that's something serious.

Witness the pro-white Americana, pro-boy media presentation in this piece from the Atlantic, by Christina Hoff Sommers, the anti-Womanist and anti-feminist writer and pro-white patriarchy activist. White men support and encourage white women stepping out and taking heat for defending us; and white men will gladly publish all materials that make any claims that we (white men), not "they" (everyone else) are the ones in trouble. (Hoff Sommers' work is published by Simon & Schuster, which is owned by CBS, a conglomerate controlled by Leslie Moonves and Sumner Redstone [pictured below].

Washington continues:
"This is not to mock any one of these cases (except Runaway Bride) or to diminish the genuine tragedy experienced by family and friends. I can imagine the helplessness I'd feel if a child of mine disappeared from a remote beach in the Caribbean. But I can also be fairly confident that neither of my sons would provoke so many headlines.

"Whatever our ultimate reason for singling out these few unfortunate victims, among the thousands of Americans who are murdered or who vanish each year, the pattern of choosing only young, white, middle-class women for the full damsel treatment says a lot about a nation that likes to believe it has consigned race and class to irrelevance.

"What it says is that we haven't. What it says is that those stubborn issues are still very much alive and that they remain at the heart of the nation's deepest fears."