‘Black lives matter,’ the slogan of the Ferguson protestors, says it all. The struggle in Ferguson, on Staten Island and across the country is about as basic as they come. It’s about people being treated as if they were disposable, lesser humans – and this is 150 years after the end of slavery.
When I was making TALES OF THE GRIM SLEEPER in Los Angeles, I came across a very similar slogan: ‘Black women’s lives matter… Every life is of value.’ Put forward by the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders, it referred to over 200 black women who disappeared over a 25-year period, most of whom have never been accounted for. This took place in the middle of Los Angeles, not 15 miles from where I live, in South Central – the black area of town – and would have been unthinkable in Beverly Hills or Santa Monica.
I also came across the term ‘NHI’, an LAPD slang expression meaning ‘No Human Involved’ and used mainly in relation to murders of black prostitutes, drug addicts or gang members. It’s a term that refers to those not worthy of full personhood – disposable people, not seen as deserving of a proper enquiry, forensics or any follow-up. This is exactly the attitude we have seen at play in Ferguson with the killing of Michael Brown, with Trayvon Martin in Florida, Eric Garner in New York, and most recently the killing of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio – and, of course, the countless others that died in equally tragic and horrible circumstances but never made it into the press.
These are all heartbreaking stories that shake our belief in the so-called rule of law to its very core. These cases share a systematic brutality, violence and inhumanity that are completely unacceptable in a country that prides itself on its justice system and calls itself a democracy.
While filming TALES OF THE GRIM SLEEPER I became increasingly aware that there are two cities operating in Los Angeles – an apartheid system, with very two different sets of values and expectations, and virtually no communication between them.
I had never before seen anything that drove home to me the indifference of the police and the lack of protection for the people in these communities. I’m white and fairly comfortable, and my answer to everything would be, ‘Go to the police and make a complaint.’ There is a moment in the film when one of the women says, “If you are an African American and you go to the police to make a complaint, the chances are that this is not going to end pleasantly for you.”
When she said this, it hit me, because of course it wouldn’t. But until she said it out loud, I hadn’t made the connection between the way black people are treated by police in this country and why black people cannot seek out the police, even in a dire emergency.
The breakdown of communication in South Central between the police and the community caused a mini-genocide to take place over a 25-year period. Astonishingly, there still has not been any kind of official investigation into how 200 women could disappear and not be accounted for. People who were interviewed in the film had specific knowledge of a large number of the victims – and they still have not been interviewed by the police. The only reason I can muster for how this could happen is that this community has no highly paid lobbyists or lawyers to represent their interests. They are disposable. They simply do not matter.
I was recently talking to a good friend of mine – a successful businessman who lives in Accra, Ghana – who told me that it is difficult for him and many Africans visiting the USA because they find themselves for the first time in their lives being constantly treated as second-class citizens, and constantly under suspicion from the authorities. He’s like many African students coming to this country: they break off their studies and return to their homeland, because they find the overt everyday racism here intolerable.
People in the South Central community are in general poorer today than they were three decades ago. Less than half the community graduate from high school. Pam Brooks – the main character in TALES OF THE GRIM SLEEPER, who was the mainstay of the production, who’s highly organised, reliable and super-bright, and who would have been the head of some corporation if she’d been born in a rich white neighbourhood – struggles every month to pay the rent.
When the film came out and she found herself in the newspaper, she beamed with surprise. “That’s wonderful,” she said. “I thought that the only way I’d ever get into a newspaper would be in the obituary column.”