Comment: Real Life and the New York Post's Cartoon Violence

2-25-09, 10:11 am

As has been widely reported this month, the New York Post published a sociopathic cartoon that depicted cops riddling a chimpanzee with bullets as they say, 'They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus package.' Without a doubt, the cartoon linked Obama to the chimpanzee. The cartoon was apparently “inspired” by both the recent police killing of a pet chimpanzee who attacked and maimed its owner and the paper's opposition to the president's economic stimulus plan. There are mounting protests against the New York Post, its editor and the cartoonist. The Post initially issued an “apology” that expressed more hostility to its critics than any remorse at the harm the cartoon may have caused. If this were the 1980s or 1990s or even the Bush era prior to the economic collapse and the emergence of Barack Obama, the response from establishment sources would have shared in the New York Post's opinion in response to critics of the cartoon. They would have smirked at 'political correctness,' and for the most part would have enjoyed the cartoon's appeal to racial prejudice in the same way Rush Limbaugh’s attacks on Femi-Nazis, Don Imus “funny” use of racist epithets and impersonations were ignored for years. Reverend Al Sharpton, who has played a major role in the New York City protests against the Post, would have been made into the real villain of the situation, not the cartoon or the editor. We have entered a new period, however. It is a period when the struggle to “de-Bushize” is reminiscent of the way millions of Americans during the New Deal era struggled to cast off the political and cultural baggage of the 1920s. So we can’t see the New York Post cartoon and its response to criticism as just good clean KKK or neo-Nazi fun, or even worse, an acceptable expression of “conservative” political opinion.

When I saw the cartoon, I immediately thought of Julius Streicher, the 'editor' of the Nazis anti-Semitic tabloid, Der Sturmer. That publication specialized in portraying Jews as both lecherous beasts and degraded, dehumanized creatures. Streicher acted as one of Hitler’s propagandists in a war against “cultural bolshevism” and the Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy,” a culture war against the “liberal Weimar Republic” whose policies, in the Nazi view, had undermined German “military greatness” and opened the country to “foreign, inferior anti-German elements.”

Urban intellectuals laughed at Streicher's rantings until they became official policy under the Hitler regime. The cartoons and caricatures in Der Sturmer along with the rest of the fascist media egged on people to assault Jews, communists, social democrats and other anti-fascists, to attack, maim and kill people in the streets before Hitler came to power and to promote such actions when they became government policy.

Streicher was eventually hanged after the Nuremberg Trials for crimes against humanity.

Racist portrayals of African Americans as either comical or violent animals, who can or should be beaten and killed for the pleasure of superior whites was long a staple of newspaper and later animated cartoons in US popular culture. The thousands of lynchings of African Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were praised, condoned and encouraged by the kind of cartoons, not unlike the New York Post's recent cartoon, that populated the pages of the country's newspapers.

The message from 'mainstream' publications that have fought the “culture war” against the “liberal” 1960s civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, etc, is simple: Blacks, Jews, or you select a target, forfeit the right to be considered human if they don't stay in their place. “We” can turn on them, even a President of the United States, when he dares come forward with an economic rescue plan that the corporations and the rich don’t like. Even President Obama can be portrayed as chimp shot to pieces by cops, as a warning to any African American that he or she can be killed with impunity if they don't do what is expected of them. And, of course, these message-laden caricatures, once they become acceptable for use against African Americans don’t stop with African Americans.

Cartoon violence and the real world

On New Years Eve, in the affluent Houston suburb of Bellaire, Robbie Tolan, the son of former Major League baseball player Bobby Tolan, and his cousin were stopped by police as they drove into the driveway of Bobby Tolan's home. According to media accounts, the police failed to identify themselves and began to arrest the two, forcing them onto the ground.

When Bobby Tolan and his wife, in pajamas, walked out of their home and tried to tell the police officer that the two were his son and nephew and that the car was his, he was pushed against a door and his wife thrown against a garage door. After his son, lying on the ground, turned around and cursed the policeman for pushing his mother against the garage, the police officer shot him in the chest. The horrific events continued as Bobby Tolan, his wife and his nephew were packed into police cars. 

It seems that the police had run the license plate of the car incorrectly and concluded that it was a stolen car. Even with the mistake, the police failed to follow even elemental police procedure.

Tolan later told the media that as he sat in the police car, he could hear the dispatcher say the car was in fact not stolen. Tolan and his family were kept the cars, however, as a large number of police gathered around trying to figure out what to do. Eventually, he, his wife and his nephew were released and were able to get to the hospital to see Robbie, whose life was literally at stake. With the help of a supportive hospital staff, the police were kept away from Robbie. Though he survived, Tolan still has a bullet in his liver. 

In a radio interview with sports journalist Mike Francesa, the senior Tolan discussed the events and stated that all his family has asked for is an apology from the local government and the police. So far they have received nothing, except silence or statements that the investigation is ongoing.

As I see it, the New York Post cartoon and the shooting of Robbie Tolan (or the police slaying of Oscar Grant in Oakland last month) are not disconnected events. The “cultural values” in the New York Post cartoon were in effect acted out by real live cops as part of a pattern of ideological and institutional racism.

If a president who won a decisive electoral victory and happens to be an African American can be so portrayed, why not the son of a distinguished major league baseball player? During their interview, Francesa asked Tolan if he thought it would have helped if he had told the police about his baseball background. Tolan said he wouldn't do that, but in a community where African Americans constitute one percent of the population and an estimated 44 percent of police stops, the racial profiling that the local police are denying seems to be a way of life.

So there are bigger issues here. It is not just about one Rupert Murdoch tabloid that hipsters in New York usually laugh at. It isn't just about one more rich white Southern suburb whose police hunt down Blacks the way soldiers search for potential invaders across a militarized border. It is about the anxieties and anger of those social forces that were decisively defeated in the last election. They sold racism along with other prejudices and sheer ignorance to advance their political agenda for so long and now have become more rabid than ever before.

For them, President Obama is to be ignored at best, race baited at worst, as a way to affirm the “morning in America” culture that Ronald Reagan portrayed in the 1980s, a back-to-the-future America populated by happy suburban white people watching African American athletes and entertainers perform for them in a society where they believe there is no such thing as a 'race problem.'

Civil rights groups are calling for a boycott of the Post. I think they should go further and call for a boycott of businesses and groups whose ads appear in the Post. A federal investigation of the Tolan shooting and the Oscar Grant murder are also in order.

Racism, in all of its forms, ideological and institutional, is still on the playing field. It feeds off inequality, offering scapegoats as a substitute for policies to face the present economic crisis. It must be literally knocked down with reasoned condemnation and firm action every time it raises its head. The actions represented by both the Post cartoon and the shootings of Robbie Tolan and Oscar Grant shouldn’t be buried or forgotten, or considered minor or “unimportant.” To take that view only legitimizes racism and strengthens those who use it and profit from it.

--Norman Markowitz teaches history at Rutgers University and is a contributing editor of Political Affairs.