FOR DARRIN BELL, the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown and Tamir Rice at the hands of police strike a personal chord. When he draws cartoons about such tragic incidents, he remembers “the talk” he once had with his mother — and anticipates “the talk” he will one day need to have with his own son.
“My mother, who’s white, had ‘the talk’ with me when I was around 6 or 7,” Bell, a political cartoonist and creator of the strip “Candorville,” tells The Post’s Comic Riffs. “She was terrified because she’d caught me playing with a water gun another kid had loaned me. It looked like a real gun. She told me I’m a lot more likely to be shot by police than my friend was if they saw me with it, because police tend to think little black boys — even light-skinned ones — are older than they really are, and less innocent than they really are.
“We have studies now that prove this,” Bell continues, “but at the time, that was her perception, growing up as she did in the ’50s and ’60s, I thought she was living in the past.”
As Bell reads about, and editorially responds to, the recent high-profile killings of black males by officers, he is reminded that more than one cycle continues.
“It’s personal because I’m going to have to have that talk with my baby boy in about seven or eight years, about how to behave when police are around, so as not to provoke them … ,” the Southern California-based cartoonist says, “and that’s the kind of talk a parent should only have to have with his child with regard to pitbulls.”
Comic Riffs caught up with Bell (author of the Trayvon Martin-alluding “Does the Afterlife Have Skittles?”) to talk about his personal experiences and professional responses in the wake of the latest no-indictment decision involving a white officer and a black man turned fatality:
MICHAEL CAVNA: You’re so adept at turning around editorial ideas, and art, quickly. Could you walk us through how you approached thus cartoon once you heard [Wednesday’s] Eric Garner/NYPD no-indictment news?
DARRIN BELL: There was so much I wanted to say. So many points I wanted to make. I wanted to comment on the difference between how authorities arrest white-collar criminals and the average suspect — especially when that suspect is an average minority. I wanted to address how body cameras will be useless if even a high-quality video of a senseless killing by police doesn’t sway a jury. I wanted to compare it to Ferguson and say it doesn’t matter whether a large, unarmed black man is moving toward the cop — as [Officer Darren] Wilson alleged Brown did — or moving away from the officer, as Garner clearly did in the video. The officer just might see him as a mortal threat either way.
I wanted to follow up on the Ferguson grand jury cartoon [I drew] by showing that graffiti being etched in stone, because it’s possible the Ferguson ruling set a precedent — raised the bar significantly from discovering probable cause to discovering guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. It’s not a trend yet — three would make a trend — but these two rulings at first glance seem to encroach on the duties of trial juries.
I wanted to comment on how far we wouldn’t have to travel along the jackboot spectrum to cover the distance between “unaccountable law enforcement” and “police state.” I wanted to comment on all that.
But whenever I have several competing ideas I want to get across, that tells me my ideas are just planets orbiting a star, and it’s really the star I should be commenting on. That’s when it’s time to (at the risk of mixing metaphors) put it all in a crucible and burn away everything until I’m left with the common denominator. That’s how I arrived at this cartoon.
MC: Your new cartoon of course also speaks to Ferguson. You had a verbally spun Ferguson cartoon the other day [above]. Do you find yourself having a sad and unfortunate wealth of ideas lately on this issue?
DB: I do, and it’s one of those times when I really, really hope I won’t have a chance to make use of any of my ideas. But then people keep giving me more chances.
MC: Sometimes I draw editorial cartoons from the head, sometimes from the heart — some are methodical, some are emotional — depending on my connection to the material. How personal, or not, are these Ferguson and NYPD cartoons to you as subject matter?
DB: They’re personal, because every time police brutality and police killings of unarmed black men make it into the news, the reaction is the same: Some people reflexively argue that the guy must’ve had it coming. Raising your arm to deflect the blow of a baton becomes an “aggressive movement.” A screwdriver in your backpack becomes a “burglary tool.” Everything you’ve ever done wrong — including ever having been suspended from school — is dug up and becomes proof, in some quarters, that you were a scumbag — a rabid animal who needed to be put down.
It’s personal because I know that if I were ever to be killed by police, I would receive the same treatment. Even though I’m the kind of guy who smiles, says, “Yes, officer,” makes no sudden movements, gives them whatever documents they ask for and keeps his hands in plain view at all times. … If one of them shot me, plenty of people would assume I provoked it somehow. And the cop would almost certainly not be held accountable.
It’s personal because I’m going to have to have that talk with my baby boy in about seven or eight years about how to behave when police are around, so as not to provoke them. And that’s the kind of talk a parent should only have to have with his child with regard to pitbulls.
MC: You lived in the L.A. during the Rodney King verdict, and your [late] granddad might have spoken [to you about] the area’s Watts Riots. In what sort of historical context do you put recent riots over police actions and justice in relation to those key times in L.A. history?
DB: Riots are insane. But the thing is, when you know there’s a historical pattern of this sort of thing happening — when you see it happen again and again before your eyes and so many people not only don’t care, but blame the victim — and you know that tomorrow it can be you or your child that it happens to, and that the ones who do it can do it with impunity, that drives you a little crazy.
Rioting is wrong. Rioting is self-defeating, and far less effective than sustained, nonviolent protest. But it’s also a natural reaction to being abused by authorities and having nowhere to turn for justice. America has a LONG history of rioting, by white people as well as black. The LA Riots were one of those spontaneous eruptions of frustration and rage, and then opportunists swooped in to take advantage of the situation and “get free stuff.” That happened in Ferguson too.
Every uprising has that: people who are genuinely outraged and flailing in blind rage at the status quo because they can’t take any more … and leeches who come along for the ride. That’s not unique to riots — that’s human nature. In politics, you’ve got statesmen trying to govern, and crooks trying to score. In business, you’ve got people trying to build a fortune and build up the country, and along for the ride are people trying to build their fortune by stealing what little other people have. In war, you’ve got soldiers trying to win and live, and you’ve got those who’re out to pillage and loot. And in policing, you’ve got the majority who are trying to serve and protect, and then along for the ride are those who abuse, steal — sorry, “confiscate” — and murder.
Rioters aren’t the only ones who take advantage. They’re not even the most common.
MC: You created an especially memorable “Candorville” week of Trayvon’s post-life train ride. Do you have any plans to handle these two police deaths from the summer, and the no-indictments, in future strips?
DB: Yes, but not those two in particular, because those two aren’t isolated incidents.
MC: What do you hope to most communicate to your readers about the state of things on this issue, as a commentator — if not also as a citizen and father?
DB: The reason those incidents in particular — and all the incidents that happened in this long, hot summer and fall — provoked such frustration and anger is, they’re representative of what happens regularly in this country. It happens to white people, too, but white people tend to trust the police more than black people do, so they assume in those cases that it was either justified, or an awful mistake that was nobody’s fault. When the Arizona police executed that homeless man who was trying to gather his belongings and leave, as they’d told him to, I expected outrage, and I was ready to comment on it. But America paid attention for a few hours and then shrugged its collective shoulders and forgot about it. Outrage only happens when you notice that abuse of power — which encompasses an entire spectrum from unfair traffic stops, to “confiscation” of valuables and cash without cause, to cops in your neighborhood thinking they have a right to poke their heads out of their windows and demand to know where you’re going, to brutality and finally killing — happens regularly. Outrage happens when you realize that “isolated incident” and “happens regularly” are mutually exclusive concepts.
Most police, from what I can tell, are honorable and genuinely trying to just do their job, help people and make it home at the end of the day. But the problem is, they protect their own. They’re comfortable being part of a system that protects the bad apples among them from accountability. They don’t “snitch.” That’s why plenty of people who’ve grown up around gangs view the police as just another — better-armed — gang.
But it’s wrong to stereotype cops, to profile them all based on the actions of just a few. Just as it’s wrong to profile people like Eric Garner, to consider a black man to be potentially a violent threat you have to erase just because he’s large and has sold untaxed cigarettes in the past.
MC: Anything you’d like to add, from opinions to [personal] anecdotes?
DB: This is something I never told my mother, because I was certain she’d never let me go play outside alone again. In light of all that’s happened, I think it’s relevant here:
My mother, who’s white, had “the talk” with me when I was around 6 or 7. She was terrified because she’d caught me playing with a water gun another kid had loaned me. It looked like a real gun. She told me I’m a lot more likely to be shot by police than my friend was if they saw me with it, because police tend to think little black boys — even light-skinned ones — are older than they really are, and less innocent than they really are. We have studies now that prove this, but at the time, that was her perception, growing up as she did in the ’50s and ’60s. I thought she was living in the past. And I resented what happened next: She took me to the corner store and bought me a bright-green, transparent plastic water gun. It was humiliating. But she said it would keep me alive, because the police would never mistake it for a real gun.
A few weeks later, I walked by myself to the pizza parlor around the corner to play some video games. Along the way, I decided I was Han Solo and I kept “shooting” the bushes, the fire hydrant — and every other inanimate object I could pretend was a Stormtrooper — with my water gun. The only time I stopped shooting was when I knelt down by the side of the road to reload my bright-green, transparent gun in a puddle.
I don’t recall the sound of the voice that said “PUT IT DOWN,” but I still remember the officer’s sunglasses, his tie clip, and his hand on his unholstered weapon. I remember standing and freezing. I remember it seemed like it took forever before he holstered his weapon and walked toward me. I remember him saying something about “complaints,” asking me where I was going, asking me over and over where I lived and what I was doing here. I remember him taking away my bright-green, transparent water gun, saying something else to me, and leaving.
I remember running home; and I remember wanting to thank my mom for taking away that realistic gun, but instead going straight to my room because I didn’t want her to decide I could never leave home alone again.
All I’ll say is this: My 1-year-old boy is never going to even touch a toy gun.
[SEE: 15 of the Most Striking #Ferguson Cartoons So Far]