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Cartoon About Police Shootings In Boston Globe Provokes Controversy

A photo of a cartoon that ran in the opinion section of Monday's 'Boston Globe'.
Cartoon by Mike Luckovich, photo taken by WGBH News staff

Officials with the Boston Police Department are upset over a tough cartoon about police shootings of black men that appeared on the opinion pages of Monday’s Boston Globe. But the Globe’s editorial-page editor is standing by it. And the president of the local NAACP defends the cartoon as a satirical comment on a tragic reality.

The cartoon, by Mike Luckovich of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a Pulitzer Prize winner whose work is nationally syndicated, depicts a white police officer. In one frame, labeled “For White People,” he is seen holding a piece of paper that says “Miranda Rights.” In the other, “For Black People,” a piece of paper says “Last Rites.”

Veteran Boston journalist Michele McPhee, who hosts a talk show on WMEX Radio (AM 1510), reported on her public Facebook page Monday that Boston Police officials were “infuriated” by the cartoon, which, she wrote, appeared to depict the officer as “an Irish cop with a bulbous nose.” On Monday she hosted Patrick Rose, president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, who has called the cartoon “morally reprehensible” and has said it could “incite racial tension.” McPhee quoted from Rose’s letter to the Globe, which has not yet been published:

The Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association and its members, along with their families, wish to express our absolute disgust and disappointment with this cartoon. A law enforcement officer’s job is difficult enough without the Boston Globe publishing unwarranted hatred towards police.

McPhee also quoted Lt. Mike McCarthy, a spokesman for the Boston Police, as saying that the department has “a 73 percent approval rating in this city,” adding: “It’s disturbing to us to see this comic strip. It is not reflective of our city, our officers in any way. We're out there doing our part, making a difference.”

But Ellen Clegg, the Globe’s editorial-page editor, defended the Luckovich cartoon, and said the paper would be giving “ample space” to letters objecting to it in Wednesday’s edition. “Our op-ed pages run opinions on local, national, and international issues every day,” Clegg said in an email. “We’ve long run a cartoon roundup on Monday featuring syndicated cartoons from around the country. Cartoons are by nature provocative—no matter what the opinion expressed.”

The Luckovich cartoon follows several years of mounting outrage over a number of incidents in which police officers have shot black men under questionable circumstances (and yes, the victims have been disproportionately black, as this Washington Post analysis makes clear), giving rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. In addition, there have been several occasions recently in which police officers have been gunned down in apparent retaliation—most notably in Dallas, where five officers were killed by a sniper during a peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstration.

When I asked Clegg about the decision to run Luckovich’s cartoon given the violence directed at police officers, she cited a Globe editorial following the Dallas shootings that said in part: “The protesters were airing their outrage. The police were listening. Most important, the sides were talking to each other, as the photos posted to social media from the event showed. Multiplied a millions times over, those protests, and those interactions, are what America needs to heal its racial divisions.”

She also cited a March 2015 Globe editorial that praised the Boston Police for reaching out to the black community after an officer was shot and seriously wounded and his assailant was shot and killed.

I also asked Michael Curry, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, for his reaction, and asked him specifically to comment on the propriety of running such a cartoon in a city that has so far managed to avoid the kinds of interactions that have provoked outrage elsewhere. He responded with a long, thoughtful email, which I am posting in its entirety:

Political cartoons are meant to be simplified illustrations, usually laced with some social message and satire, depicting current events and issues. This one speaks to a nation of people of color and others who see unarmed Black men shot by police almost weekly on television, whereas the most violent white suspects are apprehended. To deny the perspective and experience of millions of African Americans and others is inherently racist, and is typical with privilege.

As for Boston being different and our not having a recent shooting death of an unarmed Black man, we would raise two issues. First, officers can't be in lock step with Dallas and New York when it comes to attacks on officers and issuing statements of shared threat and misunderstanding, but then you want to divorce yourself from Ferguson, Baltimore, Chicago and New York when it comes to racial bias, stop-and-frisk and other systemic practices that violate the rights of African Americans.

Secondly, Boston is definitely better than many others cities, but who believes we don’t have racial tension in our streets or BPD doesn’t have many blatantly racist cops? If you do, you either don’t know what “racism” is, haven’t read the news lately, or you haven’t asked your local police officer for the real story. Of course not all cops are “bad” and the image may falsely lead some to believe that all cops choose last rites over Miranda for Black people. But I believe most socially conscious Americans will see it for what it is: a satirical cartoon and statement about a broken and racially biased practice of policing in America—with Boston as no exception.

There’s no question that Luckovich’s cartoon is harsh. (It’s worth noting that Luckovich drew an evocative cartoon of the Martin Luther King Jr. statue in tears after the Dallas police shootings.) At the same time, the Globe’s decision to publish it comes at a time when tensions are running high between the BPD and the local media.

Both the Globe and the Boston Herald have published editorials (here and here) in favor of experimenting with body cameras for police officers, yet no officers have volunteered to take part. The Herald published a tough editorial decrying “sarcasm and scaring the pants off people” on the part of officers who sent a letter to Mayor Marty Walsh and Police Commissioner Bill Evans seeking higher-powered weaponry. And, just today, the Globe reported that a mediation program to handle minor grievances has failed “because the officers involved have refused to participate.”

Though it’s understandable that police officers would object to Luckovich's cartoon, it’s just not credible to think that illustrations on the editorial pages of daily newspapers would lead to violence. Given the horrendous series of events that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement, it should be seen as tough but fair comment—exaggerated, of course, as good cartoons always are.

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