On Thursday, Lonnie D. Franklin Jr. was convicted of murdering 10 people–nine Black women and a teenager–over the course of two decades in South Central Los Angeles. A former mechanic with the sanitation department, Franklin was dubbed the “Grim Sleeper,” because after slaughtering several women during the 1980s, he seemed to take an extended break, only to revive his killing spree in 2007. While investigators now suspect Franklin never actually stopped racking up victims (they found more than 100 pictures of unidentified women in his home), one reason he was able to terrorize Los Angeles for so long was because he targeted vulnerable Black women.
From the beginning, many in the community accused the LAPD of not taking the murders seriously because the killer seemed to target Black sex workers. In fact, the slayings were initially dubbed the “Strawberry Murders”–”strawberry” being slang for women who trade sex for drugs–and the case languished for years. Activists accused the police department of purposely putting other women at risk because of the lack of information, and attention, given to Franklin’s victims.
Margaret Prescod, a community activist who founded the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders in the mid 1980s, said police told her not to be concerned because “only hookers” seemed to be the killer’s target.
“We went down to what was then Parker Center Police Headquarters to find out about the murders, see what was being done about it, how the community was being informed, and we were told by the guy in charge…’Why are you concerned about it? He’s only killing hookers,’ ” Prescod told NPR.
Unfortunately, Prescod’s experience isn’t unique. In 2011, Anthony Sowell was convicted of killing 11 women between 2007 and 2009 and scattering their remains around his Cleveland home. The families of two of Sowell’s victims accused the Cleveland Police Department of not taking their missing persons reports seriously, paving the way for more women to be murdered. While police refute their claim, a woman came forward in 2008 to accuse Sowell, who previously served 15 years in prison for rape, of robbing and assaulting her, but she was also dismissed by police as non-credible.
“Sadly there’s a stereotype about the minority community that there’s criminal activity, and people are becoming desensitized, thinking it’s normal,” Natalie Wilson, co-founder of the Black & Missing Foundation, told me back in 2014.
Her point? Many times law enforcement officers don’t take the complaints of Black victims and their families seriously, even if there’s proof that something is amiss.
This fact–that Black people’s–and in particular, Black women’s–lives are often viewed as disposable, particularly if they’re deemed imperfect victims–was exactly what motivated former Oklahoma City Police Officer Daniel Holtzclaw to target and sexually assault 13 women while he was on duty. Holtzclaw’s ultimate mistake was choosing a “good” victim–someone without a criminal record–that wasn’t afraid to come forward and who police couldn’t just brush aside. However, if he had continued preying upon women that society regards as bad–sex workers, women with criminal records or drug habits–he might be still on the force instead of serving 263 years in prison.
In a 1962 speech, Malcolm X called Black women “the most unprotected” people in America. Today, more than 64,000 Black women are missing, we’re murdered at three times the rate of white women, Black female victims do not garner nearly as much media attention as their peers, and when it comes to getting justice, unless victims are deemed worthy enough, that too can be almost impossible to attain.