Sunday, October 17, 2010

Day 290- Monsters

Dear Mr. President:

This is Maurice Clemmons:

This is the flukeman monster from the x-files:

This is what any one picking up a copy of the Sunday Seattle Times saw today:

I've written to you about Clemmons before. He committed robbery and assault, raped children and eventually murdered four police officers as they drank coffee. Clemmons is exactly the kind of monster I used to worry about as a small child when my father would get called in the middle of the night to a homicide, or when my mother was out on patrol. He's the kind of man whose madness and brutality and desire to dominate made him violent, erratic and dangerous. But now that I'm grown up and dealing with dangerous people in my own job, I don't believe in monsters. I couldn't grow up in the law enforcement community the way I did and not have an intense, emotional reaction to a cop killer and his disturbing history. But he's no creature, no phantom, he is just a man.

The illustration on the front page of today's Times left me feeling strangely all day. I don't feel sympathy or sadness for Clemmons, I don't want to make excuses for his life or his crimes, I don't want to defend or apologize for him. But I don't like the visual implication that he was sub-human. For one thing, I don't think that the Times would have chosen to illustrate him in such a disturbing way if Clemmons had been white. Mostly, I don't like the editorial decision by the Times to use an illustration rather than his photo. Clemmons wasn't a villain out of a comic book or horror story. He was a man. A terrible, frightening, disturbed man who needs no additional hype to haunt my nightmares. I think the media's inclination toward sensationalism creates the false sense that these dangerous people can be identified on sight. That we will know monsters by their look, or that that they cannot walk among us unnoticed.

This is not, of course, limited to the Seattle Times or to Maurice Clemmons. We make monsters out of our enemies every day, and we've done it throughout history. We comfort ourselves with the idea that you can't understand why some one would become a suicide bomber, that terrorists and killers are just mindless monsters. Maybe this helps some people distance themselves from the terrifying truth that each of us has something in common with those people that we fear. Helps people believe that good people look one way and bad people look another. I don't think that this is a useful lie to tell ourselves. I don't believe that we are safer this way.

Maurice Clemmons is dead. He met his end trying to kill another police officer, and I am not sorry for it. And the Times may well sell more papers (and, apparently, books) attempting to frighten people with this image of Clemmons as a monster, but I will not buy in to the notion that he or any killer is somehow a different creature than me, or than any one of us. The truth is, humans are far more frightening than any monster we can imagine and we will never be able to keep ourselves completely safe from the darkness that lurks where we can never see it coming.

Respectfully yours,



  1. Sorry Kels, I really still don't see even a little what about this illustration is supposed to be racist. Or even that monster-like. I think it's just a shitty sketch that looks somewhat like him, at least more like him than it looks like the flukeman monster. I don't see how this would have been any different at all if he was white. And I don't know this to be the case, but isn't it possible they used an illustration just because it's a courtroom or prison still where they aren't allowed to take pictures? I wholeheartedly agree with the idea the the media sensationalizes everything and should tone it down, but I don't see the problem here.


  2. Art is totally relative. If you don't see anything sinister/monster like in that drawing I can't prove to you that I do. The eyes are darkened, the face is distorted and I think that the decision to use a sketch instead of a photo (which is a choice that some one consciously made) was solely for fear/dramatic effect. And this is not a courtroom sketch, (why would he be on the phone?) Also, you can see from the very first picture of my post, there are plenty of actual photographs of him from when he was alive, and so no NEED to use a sketch.

    And while I can't prove to you that they wouldn't do this if he were white, I can point to past coverage in the Seattle Times of white killers. Gary Ridgeway, who is white and a serial killer was depicted in photos, as was Robert Yates Jr. I'm not sure there's research on the subject, but if I find other examples I will point them out.

    Let me just say this; I've read the newspaper since I was a little girl. My dad being a homicide detective made me particularly interested in the coverage of killers and their trials, since I often heard a different version of those stories (or at least a different perspective) at home. I pay attention to these and I can't think of any other killer (and there have been plenty of them) who was shown on the front page drawn like this. The illustration bothered me and that alone is enough to tell me that there's something wrong with it because a.) I've seen a lot of newspapers and a lot of coverage of killers so I'm not easily surprised by them and b.) he's a cop-killer and I have an even more emotional reaction to those because of my parents.

    So I can't empirically prove that this is racism or that it is unusual, just as you can't empirically prove that it isn't. I think that you are disposed to disagree when some one thinks something is racist if you didn't already notice it, (and I don't know why and I don't think that is in any way a reflection on you personally, but you have to admit that this is a particular area of sensitivity for you.)

    Newspapers are not art. They are meant to be sources of facts and information. The images on the front page are especially important because they will affect people's perception even (and maybe especially) when those people don't read the rest of the story. Using a man's photo shows who he is and what he looks like. Using art (especially nonrealistic art like this) is deciding to send an emotional, dramatic message because it deviates from the "facts" of a photograph. Art's purpose is to suggest, evoke and illustrate emotion, and my reaction to this art tells me that the artist was trying to depict Clemmons as sub-human and frightening, which is exactly the way that the white establishment has stoked fear of non-whites since the beginning of fucking time.

    That's the problem here.

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