By Regina Austin
The crack epidemic began more than 30 years ago, but its toll on poor black women is still being tallied. The costs the drug has exacted from them are significant because of its highly addictive nature, easy method of delivery, low price, and the women’s reliance on sex or prostitution as a means of supporting their drug habits. Failed motherhood, the high incidence of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, and increased incarceration top the list of negative consequences. Moreover, crack drastically lowered the status of women users in their communities and altered the social norms that governed male-female relations in highly dangerous ways. Because the women were not considered “good victims,” their suffering did not generate investments of public resources to protect their health and safety.
This state of affairs existed throughout the country, but in South Los Angeles it provided the backdrop for a serial killer, according to Nick Broomfield’s HBO documentary “Tales of the Grim Sleeper.”
“The police don’t care because these are black women… . It’s not like Lonnie killed no high-powered white folks. We don’t mean nothing to them. We’re black. What the @@@@. Just another @@@@@ dead. The @@@@ should not have been out there on drugs.”
Pamela Brooks, in “Tales of the Grim Sleeper”
“Tales of the Grim Sleeper” is a clear indictment of the police whose lack of regard for Lonnie Franklin’s (a/k/a the Grim Sleeper) black female victims allowed him the freedom to carry on his murderous behavior for over two decades.
In 1985, Margaret Prescod, founder of the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders, saw a pattern in the deaths of poor young drug-addicted black women in South (Central) LA and challenged the police to do more to investigate the crimes, find the culprit, and alert the community to the possibility that a serial killer or killers lived among them. Because “he was only killing hookers,” the matter was not a priority for the authorities. Indeed, during the height of the crack epidemic, the murders of drug addicts and streetwalkers were designated “NHI” or “No Human Involved” by the LAPD.
By 1988, the police knew or should have known that a single slayer was preying on black women in the area and leaving their bodies amid trash in dumpsters and alleyways. Rather, according to Coalition activist Nana Gyamfi, they “allowed black women to walk around, when someone was hunting them, not knowing that they were being hunted.”
Because there appeared to be a 14-year gap in the killings between 1988 and 2002, the perpetrator was dubbed the “Grim Sleeper” by the press. In 2010, public officials, including the mayor and police chief, held a press conference to announce that Lonnie David Franklin, Jr. had been arrested and charged with 10 murders and one attempted murder attributed to the Grim Sleeper. Margaret Prescod grabbed the mike to emphasize the role the community played in pressuring the authorities to bring the killer to justice. In remarks addressed to the press and public officials and available on YouTube, she added, “Please stop referring to these victims as prostitutes. They were women, they were mothers, they were loved by their families and their communities.”
On May 5, 2016, after the release of “Tales of the Grim Sleeper,” Lonnie Franklin was found guilty of 10 counts of murder and one count of attempted murder. The penalty phase of the case has revealed there was no hiatus in the murders. Franklin was guilty of the deaths of more black women than he was tried for. If the police had acted earlier and more aggressively lives might have been saved.
“Gender power shifts in … crack cocaine culture … such that women become denigrated and men become empowered.”
LeBlanc & Wallace, “Sex for Crack Cocaine Exchange”
After Franklin was arrested, Director Nick Broomfield plopped himself down in Franklin’s community and, working like an anthropologist doing field research (ably assisted by Pam Brooks, native informant), reconstructed the social and economic environment that provided the context for Franklin’s killing orgy. This part of the film is not always easy to follow or to watch. The information is sometimes more than one wishes to know and the images, more than one wishes to see. “Tales of the Grim Sleeper” reveals how Franklin took advantage of crack culture which deemed his victims undeserving of protection in life and justice in death. Crack culture supported a way of life that was so little challenged that it allowed a serial killer of poor black women to operate almost in plain view. It allowed Franklin to take the lives of black women whose vulnerability—often exacerbated by addiction, but attributed to immorality—virtually made them seem a greater threat to communal well-being than a multiple murderer.
One of the strengths of “Tales of the Grim Sleeper” is the attention it pays to its middle-aged, poor and working-class black male informants. These men considered themselves Franklin’s friends and buddies. Hardly monolithic, they were a varied mixture of vices and virtues. Franklin’s arrest for multiple murders came as a shock and at first they did not want to believe that the accusations were true. It must be emphasized that they are not to blame for Franklin’s crimes, nor were they his knowing collaborators. They are not the creators of crack culture. Still, events forced them to reassess their everyday practices and attitudes and to hold themselves accountable in some extent. As Margaret Prescod says in the documentary, South LA is “a community that has survived, has survived against all odds.” Industries folded, jobs dried up, and then came the crack epidemic, high levels of poverty, and the riots. As Broomfield remarks, “Tales” is “not just a story about Lonnie, but about a people in one of the world’s most prosperous cities who’ve been left behind.”
The material deprivation of South LA and the spiritual degradation the crack epidemic laid on black women spawned a misogynistic culture that allowed Franklin, an undeniably social person, to exist in the company of adult black men from whom he hid the full extent of his sexual depravity but around whom he could reveal or expose bits and pieces of himself that solidified the bond they shared.
In the view of the men, Franklin was both a good guy and a good neighbor. They liked him. He was well-known for fixing cars and dealing in stolen cars. He could get you whatever you needed. He went out of his way to help people. Just don’t ask questions. He was financially better-off than his neighbors. He was someone to turn to for help, for a meal, a loan, or an odd job. Broomfield says that “[e]veryone wanted to work for Lonnie.”
Franklin exploited his material advantages in carrying out the murders. As a result, several of his least well-off associates came close to interacting with Franklin the Grim Sleeper. They seemed most like the females Franklin despised in terms of their drug and alcohol use, homelessness, and lawbreaking. One torched cars for him, i.e., “insurance jobs” or so he assumed. The arsonist “didn’t think anything of it” when one of the cars had blood all over the backseat and floor and on a lady’s undergarments he found upon searching the vehicle.
Another was able to provide first-hand accounts of Franklin’s sexual behavior with women who exchanged sex for drugs or money, so-called “strawberries.” According to health disparity experts Tanya LeBlanc and Barbara Wallace, authors of “Sex for Crack Cocaine Exchange: The Continuing Impact of Crack Cocaine on Poor Black Women and Their Families” which appears in the Journal of Equity in Health for Feb. 2014: “Crack is a powerful, uplifting tool for any disenfranchised male who may resort to the abuse of that power through social interaction with a desperate crack cocaine addicted poor black woman.” This informant saw Franklin, with “a grin and a wink,” physically “torture” women, but he never saw Franklin kill any of them. He went along because Franklin provided him with crack. In hindsight, the man “asked God to forgive him for what he did but he knew for a fact he did not kill [the women].”
At the other end of the spectrum was a neighbor who had a home, appeared to be sensible and sober, and expressed sympathy for the victims of what is “truly a tragedy.” He and Franklin shared an interest in amateur pornographic photography and spent time sharing images of the “freaks” they each knew. He admitted that he was “not proud of what he did … but was certainly not into killing and all that.” Moreover, looking back, his doubts about Franklin grew as he remembered the time Franklin likened his own behavior (carrying a .25 automatic and keeping handcuffs in his car) to that described in a wanted poster offering a substantial reward for information about the Grim Sleeper. Was Franklin hinting that his neighbor should turn him in?
Franklin was admired by men in the community because he would not tolerate crack dealing on his block. He hated female crack addicts (his first wife had been one) and joked about killing them and cleaning up the streets. Franklin was not always circumspect in his public behavior toward such women. A male friend was riding in Franklin’s car when Franklin jumped out and dragged a woman down the street by her hair. Franklin seemed to have taken leave of his senses. Her screams attracted attention and the police. Franklin and his friend spent several hours in the precinct house without being booked. Franklin’s wife eventually came to get them.
Perhaps in Franklin’s own mind, he was a vigilante dedicated to cleansing his community of the embodiment of the scourge of drugs. His conduct was certainly read that way after the fact. His son was astonished by the cops, others in law enforcement, “weirdos in the street,” and writers of “lots of fan mail” who expressed appreciation for his father’s crimes after his arrest for the Grim Sleeper murders.
“There are few things as corrosive as the notion of the worthy victim.”
Gary Younge, “The Good Victim,” Nation, May 7, 2007
Women were part of the crack culture that Franklin outwardly abhorred and secretly exploited. A number of those pictured on the LAPD’s roster of 180 unidentified or missing women were actually alive and capable of giving an account of their interactions with Franklin. Whereas the male informants came forward or fell into the filmmakers’ laps like low-hanging fruit, the females had to be tracked down. They were reluctant to speak with the authorities or feared going public in any way. Here, the filmmakers were blessed in finding and hiring Pamela Brooks, a self-professed former crackhead and prostitute turned investigator.
Pam is the most intriguing person in the film. Four years sober at the time of filming, she is proud of how far she has come and brings dedication and efficiency to the mission of locating witnesses to tell the women’s side of the Grim Sleeper story.
Blunt and outspoken, Pam, a Franklin survivor herself, provides important commentary as she rides through the streets, with the filmmakers, sometimes as passenger and sometimes as driver, rocking to the music playing on the sound system. Pam recalls the “excitement,” “drama,” “the thrill,” and “the chase” of sex work, and the kind of hubris that could land a woman, unprepared for the sort of “shenanigans” Franklin had in mind, in the clutches of a serial killer. Pam remembers her last encounter with him. She sensed that something was wrong. He said “you never want to do what I want you to do” and referred to her by a term applied to female canines. Taking umbrage, she replied that she was not a dog and immediately got out of the car.
Other women sensed the danger too and the need to exercise a measure of self-protective agency, to escape. One put Visine in a drink to put Franklin to sleep. Another fled down the street, naked and screaming for help. Because of their addiction and the way they supported themselves, they could not turn to the police for protection. As for pimps, Pam has “no respect for any man who puts a woman out here and makes her sell her[s] … and he ain’t selling his.” “That’s wrong.” “Put your skirt on and get out here and work with her.”
Pam expresses regard for the women working the streets. She does not separate herself from the lost souls who died and the lost souls still alive. “I used to do the same thing,” she tells one who worries that Pam is a cop. “You still look good girl,” Pam says to another woman, older than she, who has been working the streets for at least four decades. As for the woman who babysat Franklin’s son, Pam sympathetically describes her as “a sweet girl but she’s looking for love in all the wrong … places.” As Pam ends her conversations with women conducted at the curb through an open car window, she tells them to “be safe.”
Pam’s wit and wisdom provide an organic response to the misogyny of male-dominating crack culture. She speaks of and to the women on the street like they were “good victims.” All of those who suffer are deserving of respect, of being the recipients of concern. Her notion of propriety may not satisfy black middle-class standards, but it is totally compatible with the politics and policy of “all black women’s lives matter.”
Pam’s words end the film: “Just because they have Lonnie doesn’t mean this is over with. There’s another @@@@ out there just as sick as he is. You know what I mean.” It could happen again. The mass murder of poor, vulnerable, drug-addicted black women, maybe. And the notion that black women must be good victims before anything will be done to protect them, certainly. Challenging that cultural conceit cannot wait for bad times to turn worse. It must be mounted every day like the culture in which it is embedded. Furthermore, we should begin to deal with the suffering ignored by our past insistence on “good victims.” Confronting the incarceration of women who were the victims of crack culture might be a good place to start.
This post benefited from research by and discussions with Frank White, Penn Law ’16.