From Cows in French Banlieues to Pigeons in Popular Culture | Fahim Amir | Tuesday, 28.07.2015

Dreams and Deserters of Aroofa, Tar Beach

Imagine if Ice-T, the notorious rapper of the track “Cop Killer” were a cop. 1“Imagine Ice-T was a cop” was the main directive that producer Dick Wolf gave to the rap artist for the role of Tutuola. See Chris Harnic, “Law & Order: SVU: Ice-T, Dick Wolf Look to Season 14,” The Huffington Post, May 24, 2012, For gender issues, see: Sarah Britto, Tycy Hughes, Kurt Saltzman and Colin Stroh, “Does ‘Special’ Mean Young, White and Female? Deconstructing the Meaning of ‘Special’ in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, vol. 14 (2007), 49-57. Susanna Lee, “These Are Our Stories: Trauma, Form, and the Screen Phenomenon of Law & Order,” Discourse, vol. 25, no. 1-2 (2003): 81-97. Julie Levin Russo, “Sex detectives: Law & Order: SVU’s Fans, Critics, and Characters Investigate Lesbian Desire,” Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 3, 2009. That, in fact, has been the case for the last 16 years – at least in his role as police detective Odafin Tutuola in one of the most successful U.S. television series of all time: Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. While Tutuola is the second-longest-serving cast member, it is only in the handful of episodes focusing on the only black member of the elite squad chasing rape victims that some information about his personal background is revealed. 2As an African-American detective in the U.S. television landscape, Tutuola’s role is confined to “an underdeveloped character, maintaining a peripheral and largely subordinate role”. See Sorah Mi (blog), “Underdeveloped and Powerless: African-Americans in Crime Investigation Television,” December 10, 2012, In an interview from 2012, Ice-T puts it eloquently: “I wouldn’t mind knowing a little more about (him)... I’ve never been home. I don’t have a car. I don’t even know if I’ve kissed a girl in 13 years.” See Morgan Jeffery, “Ice-T on Law and Order: SVU: ‘I Want More Character Development,’” Digital Spy, May 10, 2012, quoted in Mark D. Cunningham: “Members of an Elite Squad: Ice-T and the Imagining of ‘Fin’ Tutuola,” in Josephine Metcalf and Will Turner, Rapper, Writer, Popcultural Player: Ice-T and the Politics of Black Cultural Production (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, 2014), 115-136. One of these rare episodes is titled “Rooftop.” 3“Rooftop,” Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Season 3, Episode 4, aired on October 19, 2001 by NBC. Here we learn about Tutuola’s age indirectly: he was six years old when the 1968 riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. hit the hood. And it is another “King” who will be found responsible for the rape and killing of black, underage girls on the rooftops of Harlem at the end of this episode: Malik “King” Harris, a music promoter, who uses his rhetorical skills to seduce women by pretending to enhance their career in the music business. While engaging in the plot of finding the perpetrator, this episode actually deals with the status of race relations after the American civil rights movement with a complex play of zootropes involved.

After Harris has come under suspicion, two incidents lead to his successful arrest:

(1) He is “ratted out” to Tutuola by a drug dealer, because the informant despises the self-proclaimed “King” Harris, who seems to make his living by smooth-talking affluent females to finance his lifestyle and then drops them when they discover his true intentions. “He is a catman,” says the drug dealer, explaining his disgust for Harris to Tutuola. In my reading, this derogatorily used labeling signals a shift in a hegemonic figure of black U.S. popular culture: from autonomous and feminized cats to hyper-masculinist pack dogs. In the “former” King’s time, activists like Abbie Hoffman would address one another as “cool cats” and a black militant organization, the Black Panther Party, named itself after a big cat. In the 30 years to follow, however, it was dogs that rose to prominence, especially in the context of gangster rap, used as a term to address fellows, depicted on CD artwork, and included in music videos alongside rap artists. It was thus only logical that Snoop Dogg invented the new persona Snoop Lion, moving from dog to cat and signaling a change in his status coming with age, spiritual growth, and economic success. 4

“Rooftop” is in many ways the counterpart to an earlier episode titled “Manhunt” (Law & Order: SVU, Season 2, Episode 18, aired on April 20, 2001 by NBC), but the other way around. It is winter, all the victims are white, and it is Tutuola’s partner, Munch, who is very emotionally involved in the pursuit of the killers. The landscapes they traverse leave the city behind and encompass an all-white countryside. The killers are white lowlifes who engage in paramilitary exercises and appear to be engaged in “operations” when they assault, torture, and kill their victims. Instead of verticality, horizontality figures prominently in this episode: the abductions and killings cover some ground and are geographically unforeseeable. Whereas in “Rooftop,” a seductive foreplay lures the victim into the trap, here the victims are captured in a blitz attack. But similarly, the image of an animal leads to critical breakthroughs (as long as they are in the city). The main clue is a tattoo on the arm of the wanted attacker, a fictitious U.S. Army Ranger emblem featuring a bobcat and bayonets. In contrast to African animals like tigers and lions, here an animal native to the United States is literally inscribed into the skin of the perpetrator. When Tutuola and Munch break into the suspect’s home, they find a framed image of the emblem on the wall. Tutuola mumbles “Cool Cat” to himself, in a tone that oscillates between irony and sarcasm.

(2) But in order to be sentenced, Harris must reveal his hidden "animality". Because an illegally obtained DNA sample is rebuffed by the courts, Tutuola is forced to “con the con” with the help of a third “King” – Rodney Thompson, the brother of one of the victims, and whose name invariably recalls that of Rodney King, the victim of police brutality that incited the L.A. Riots of 1992. Tutuola persuades Rodney to physically attack Harris at his court trial and Tutuola’s plan works out: Harris bites Rodney in his defense and Malik’s saliva in Rodney’s bite mark secures a legitimate source of DNA to send Harris to death row (as the episode’s ending suggests). The most animal-like form of defense, biting, has brought down the catman and adds a second proof to the genetic one: the eloquent Harris (for a moment) resembles a rabid dog, a human who has lost his humanity.

For the first half of the episode, the elite squad had been chasing an innocent black young man, Leon Tate, who had been just released from prison but labeled a “sexual predator” by leading police officer Elliot Stabler. After been repeatedly HIV-shamed by Stabler and dogged by the whole team, Leon cannot take it anymore and overdoses on the rooftop of his apartment building. It is a pigeon’s fancier, indulging in his passion on Harlem rooftops, who exonerates Leon posthumously: “He wanted to feed the birds and found a dead black girl instead,” the local police officer reports. 5In “The Quick Fix,” Episode 1, Season 2 of the criminal procedural series The Shield,we learn that certain gang members tattoo a dove onto their rape victims. This can be understood as signaling that all females can be victimized and are latently already vulnerable as prey, and that now, manifestly, a layer of shame is added. Aired on January 7, 2003 by the FX Network. Since the last killing occurred when Leon was already dead, he could not have done it. Next to the ravished female corpse and a pigeon coop, Stabler realizes that it was because of his single-minded concentration on Leon as the primary suspect that the true killer could freely pursuit his prey.

The rooftop is the crime scene for all the rapes and murders in this episode, and it is also where Leon (Latin for lion, another great cat) chooses to end his life. Before Tutuola und Stabler find Leon’s dead body, Tutuola recounts that he was also up on the rooftops when he was young, since the girls would hang out there and he liked the lights, the views, and the respite from his overcrowded home: “When I was a kid you couldn’t afford to go to the Island of Aruba, so we had to go to the Island of ‘A-roof-a’: Tar Beach.”

The rooftop is a high plane where people come for a break from everyday life; the height and the sights might make you feel less affected by the sorrows of life in a world riddled in inequality and injustice. It is a place where you can feel free, at least temporarily. In the course of this episode of Law & Order: SVU,Martin Luther King’s dream, where freedom rings from all the heights, has transformed into a nightmare where the heights are now the stage for new frauds, injuries, and death. In Tutuola’s youth, the rooftop was still safe, he tells Stabler. Now the rooftop has become the place where dreams end brutally (the dream of a career in the music industry in the case of Harris’ rape victims; the dream of a normal life after prison in the case of Leon).

The moral of this episode leaves no place for heart-warming motivational speeches that promise you can achieve anything you want, as long as you work hard and believe in yourself. While earlier antiracist discourses connected the persistence of racism with underlying class issues, the new technologies of diversity management are linked to the neoliberal management of the self. The comic absurdity of Tracy Jordan’s famous pigeon pep talk in the television series 30 Rock lies in his belief in motivational mantras by any means necessary: “Stop eating people’s old french fries, pigeon. Have some self-respect! Don’t you know you can fly?” 6“Somebody to Love,” Episode 6, Season 2 of 30 Rock aired on November 15, 2007 by NBC. Tracy Jordan is the rich and famous B-list movie star character from the television series 30 Rock, played by the actor Tracy Morgan. While Ice-T’s performance in Law & Order draws from his negotiation of the persona of Ice-T with the character Tutuola, in the case of Tracy Jordan, personality traits and life events are taken from Tracy Morgan’s own life.

We don’t know if the pigeon fancier in the above-mentioned episode of Law & Order would shout or mumble encouragements to his pigeons, since he does not have any screen time in the show. But a colleague of Ice-T in the show, guest actor Jamie Hector, who plays a minor role in a later episode of the same season, will bring the character Marlo Stanfield to life in another, widely acclaimed TV series, The Wire. Marlo Stanfield is the most ruthless of all gangsters, who also happens to be a pigeon fancier, connecting the postindustrial landscape of Baltimore with Marlon Brando’s On the Waterfront and Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog. This lineage will be the topic of my fifth and last blog entry.