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Black Women’s Lives Matter: Film Reveals Little-Known Story of the Grim Sleeper

Posted on Dec 18, 2014

By Sonali Kolhatkar

“Tales of the Grim Sleeper” trailer image from YouTube

As an invigorated movement emerges against police killings of black men, a timely new documentary examines American law enforcement’s negligence in the grisly killings of black women for over two and a half decades. The HBO documentary “Tales of the Grim Sleeper,” by filmmaker Nick Broomfield, delves deep into the story of a man who is allegedly responsible for the murders of African-American women in South Los Angeles.

That man, named Lonnie Franklin Jr., was arrested by the Los Angeles Police Department four years ago, and as his pretrial hearing continues at a snail’s pace, Broomfield’s film successfully attempts to indict him for killing untold numbers of poor black women. Importantly, the film also shines a spotlight on the LAPD, and city- and state-level authorities (such as former LAPD Chief William Bratton who now heads the NYPD, and California’s then-Attorney General Jerry Brown, who is now the state’s governor), for condoning the killings through a reluctance to investigate or even educate the public that a murderer was on the loose.

Los Angeles in the 1980s and ’90s was an epicenter of violence and drugs, and the worst impacted part of the city was South L.A. The majority of residents were unaware of the spate of murders of mostly young black women that took place around a particular set of city blocks, or that those murders went unsolved for decades. The victims were aged 14 to 36, and some of them, but not all, were sex workers. The murderer was dubbed by journalists following the story as the “Grim Sleeper” because it was thought that he took a break from killing for more than a decade before starting up again in 2002. It is possible that there was no such break, however, given that the bodies of many missing women were simply never found.

Franklin has been charged in connection with the killings of only 10 women. But in “Tales of the Grim Sleeper,” Broomfield narrates that it is thought he killed more than 100 women over a 25-year period. One of the latest victims of the Grim Sleeper was 25-year-old Janecia Peters, whose lifeless body was found in a dumpster on New Year’s Day 2007. As reporter Christine Pelisek, who has closely followed the story, summarized, “Most of the victims were shot with a .25 caliber pistol, and their bodies were found along Western Avenue in South Los Angeles, discarded like trash. Most had been sexually assaulted.”

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Franklin owned a .25 mm gun and lived right in the area where the women were turning up dead. He worked as a mechanic for the LAPD and a sanitation worker for the city of L.A. Franklin was arrested after DNA from his son linked him to saliva and semen found on the bodies of victims. Police found thousands of photographs of hundreds of women in his home, among them images of Janecia Peters and several other women who were found dead or are still missing. Franklin was well known in the local community. He dealt in stolen cars and had a number of male friends who had serious inklings about his interest in luring desperate women to his home and garage. The question that looms large is: Why did it take police so long to find Franklin and arrest him?

When I watched “Tales of the Grim Sleeper” ahead of an interview with the filmmaker and a concerned activist, I immediately imagined the manhunt that would have ensued had the victims hailed from a different part of the city, with higher incomes and lighter skin tones. It is a sentiment that arises time and again. As one L.A. Times reader commented, “it’s sad that so many black woman [sic] had to dye [sic] before the system finally caught up with this coward. ...Wonder if the effort would have been the same if the victims would have been white?” Margaret Prescod, founder of the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders, and host of “Sojourner Truth” on KPFK, Pacifica Radio, told me in an interview last week, “If it is one young, white West Virginia student that goes missing, it’s on the news every day. The whole world knows about it.” Prescod has led the community response to the murders since the 1980s, the decade they first began. She and other female activists in Los Angeles have been on the front lines, asking law enforcement tough questions about why the murders remained unsolved for so long.

Around the same time as the murders started in the 1980s, the crack cocaine explosion in L.A. took off in a story that deeply implicates the CIA, as investigative journalists have revealed. High rates of drug addiction in South L.A. enabled someone like Franklin to prey on young women, as his friends narrate to Broomfield on film. It left significant numbers of the city’s residents unemployed, often as a result of felony convictions on drug-related charges. Many jobless South L.A. residents turned to the underground economy, which Franklin centrally figured in.

Prescod is convinced that the cocaine explosion and the murders are connected, saying, “We see a community that’s been devastated. We see very high unemployment rates, we see very little for young people to even do…. We see the safety net shredded where single mothers can no longer get any access to resources.” She lamented that the Grim Sleeper victimized members of what she called a “throwaway population ... a community with so few resources, that most people would like to forget about.” Perhaps nothing symbolizes the dehumanization of the victims by police better than the term the LAPD had used to describe some of the murders—NHI, which stands for No Human Involved—a label for cases where sex workers or drug addicts were involved. Many of the Grim Sleeper’s victims were both.

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