There often seems to be so much injustice to the American justice system, and how does one process all of it, particularly if one loathes authority being deployed unjustly and in an abusive manner.
Artist Molly Crabapple has sketched Guantanamo Bay prisoners at military commissions hearings. She’s drawn sketches of Chelsea Manning at her military trial. She has drawn Monica Jones, a student and sex-work activist, who was arrested by Phoenix police for “manifesting prostitution.” She has sketched Syrian refugees in camps in Lebanon. (You can find links to much of her work here.)
She was the interview guest on “Unauthorized Disclosure” this week and talked about her profound loathing for authority deployed unjustly and how she uses art to therapeutically process what she witnesses in courtrooms.
“I’m an artist by training, not a journalist. I only started writing, god, only a year and a half ago and before that I had spent the last 24 years drawing every single day of my life. So I tend to see things as an artist. That’s just my native language, that’s my background. And when I was in the courts, there was such a surreal environment that I had to react to that,” she says during the interview.
She explains, “The first trial I ever drew was actually the sentencing for a hacker named Andrew Auernheimer, who I have a lot of mutual friends with. And during his sentencing he reached for his phone and was beaten up in front of us by the bailiffs for that. And I didn’t expect to be drawing that day. I just always keep my sketchbook with me, and I was watching this guy that I knew be beaten up in the middle of court and be dragged out.”
“I can’t do anything for him obviously, but I could draw him. So I just drew him to kind of keep myself calm.”
Crabapple recently wrote, “Theater of Justice,” for Vice, which described how trials she had attended to draw sketches were like performances, a must read if you have not read it yet.
During the discussion portion of the show, Rania Khalek and I talk about ABC News hiring former NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly, the White House launching a community channel on Buzzfeed, Mike Rogers leaving Congress to become Glenn Beck and how Obama rewrote the history of the Iraq War when denouncing Russia.
A partial transcript of the interview appears below. The podcast is now available on iTunes for download. For a direct link (and direct download), go here. And, below is a player for listening to the podcast without getting it from iTunes:
RANIA KHALEK, Dispatches from the Underclass: You start off [in your piece] by talking about Cecily McMillan’s trial, which happened recently. Before we get into the broader issue of trials, can you give a little background on who Cecily is and what happened to her?
MOLLY CRABAPPLE, artist: Cecily McMillan was an Occupy Wall Street activist, and she was someone with this really passionate commitment to nonviolence. She was a very very instrumental figure.
And one night, a plainclothes policemen grabbed Cecily’s breast from behind during a protest so hard he actually left a bruise the shape of his handprint on it. And she didn’t know who this was she just thought a man was attacking her from behind and so she reacted instinctively, she elbowed him. And the police beat her so badly that they broke her ribs. I was actually at the protest and I saw her having a seizure on the pavement. The crowd begged the police to call 911 but they refused.
And now it’s two years later and Cecily is up for assaulting a police officer and she’s facing seven years in jail for this.
KHALEK: It’s outrageous. So you open with that and then you go from there talking about the courtroom, how it’s a theater and one thing I loved is you called it a secular church, you were like “courtrooms are secular churches” and you compared it to factory farms—literally every sentence jumps off the page. So can you talk a little bit about your experience with, because you’ve covered so many cases from Guantanamo to Chelsea Manning, just your experience of courtrooms and trials as this sort of performance art?
CRABAPPLE: When you go into a courtroom, everything is set up like a theater. You even have the judge as the audience and the lawyers performing towards the judge. There’s this whole ritual of when you stand, when you sit down. You have to be very, very solemn and respectful that this is a very important place.
Courtrooms are totally interwoven with the mythology of America. We watch them for entertainment, whether they’re real trials or whether they’re dramas like “Law and Order.” And this whole thing sort of belies the fact that courtrooms are actually these processing facilities where mostly black and brown men are locked up.
KEVIN GOSZTOLA, Firedoglake: Molly, you include this part in your assessment of this “theater of justice” that you have this pressure when you’re covering these cases to include this “of course”, these things like the reality that you’re expected to not be honest about your interpretations.
CRABAPPLE: When you’re covering anything about the criminal justice system, there’s this real pressure to say, “Of course there are rapists and murderers. Of course there are bad people who need to be kept away from society. Of course there are good cops. Of course there are prosecutors.”
But the fact that you have to say this, the fact that this is what needs to be emphasized, it actually excuses all sorts of other things that are going on with the criminal justice system, like the fact that half of all people in jail are in jail for drug crimes. So I want to kind of push against the “of course,” the caveat that you’re expected to say because I think that while it’s true, there are rapists and murderers and there are police who perceive themselves as good people, that that’s almost a less important reality to the other state violent reality that’s going on.
GOSZTOLA: I’m sort of interested in the decision to be more—I guess the word would be creative—in the way that you present what is happening in the justice system. And I’m familiar with your work and I know that you’ve even taken this approach in Syria, so I was wondering—this probably goes more towards a question of how you do your craft—but just what goes into this decision to not just produce a straight news piece but to be more interpretive?
CRABAPPLE: I’m an artist by training, not a journalist. I only started writing, god, only a year and a half ago and before that I had spent the last 24 years drawing every single day of my life. So I tend to see things as an artist. That’s just my native language, that’s my background. And when I was in the courts, there was such a surreal environment that I had to react to that.
The first trial I ever drew was actually the sentencing for a hacker named Andrew Auernheimer, who I have a lot of mutual friends with. And during his sentencing he reached for his phone and was beaten up in front of us by the bailiffs for that. And I didn’t expect to be drawing that day I just always keep my sketchbook with me and I was watching this guy that I knew be beaten up in the middle of court and be dragged out and I can’t do anything for him obviously but I could draw him. So I just drew him to kind of keep myself calm.
KHALEK: That’s really interesting, so it’s therapeutic in some ways. One thing I find really amazing is your work really resonates with a really broad audience and you’re a brilliant writer. I can’t believe you weren’t writing before a year and a half ago, I didn’t know that. But I always see really mainstream people—you’re work really resonates with them as well. And I think that’s really exciting because a lot of times when we, coming from the journalist angle, inject our opinions in things, people tend to not take us seriously. So I guess I just want to say I appreciate the fact that your work gets out to this really broad audience.
CRABAPPLE: Thank you so much and I so understand what you’re saying about this perception that a serious journalist is a certain type of person and an unserious journalist is another type of person. But that idea that there is a certain thing that is objectivity is such bullshit and it’s so woven in with all sorts of institutional biases. Reality is so complicated that even the people you choose to interview show where your heart is, they show where your bias lies. It shows your bias when you choose who you’re going to believe, when you decide who’s credible.
KHALEK: I also wanted to ask you about Syria, which I think that sort of goes into. You did this amazing piece at The Guardian talking about, what was the campaign, 100,000 names? And you had drawn all these people who had died in Syria and I love that you addressed this. You addressed the fact that there was a segment of the anti-war left that still till now is very dismissive of the Syrian uprising and in some cases excuses Assad for the horrific crimes he’s committing and you got attacked for pointing this out. I’m just curious like how that’s been coming from people on the left who typically I guess would support your work.
CRABAPPLE: It’s been interesting. I have to admit I was somewhat hurt by some of the accusations I got of being an imperialist warmonger. But I think it’s a true thing and it needs to be addressed.
Very often on the left there’s this way where we simplify things, where we’re like, “America has fucked up in the Middle East, America murdered hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq.” And then we look at something like Syria where a nonviolent opposition was met with extreme violence and then after trying to arm themselves they were asking for military aid and we’re like “America’s fucked up in the Middle East, America’s murdered hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq. Let’s not even look at these people. Let’s pretend they don’t even exist.” And I think that there’s a legitimate debate about military aid and intervention.
Many people I deeply respect are anti-intervention for good reasons. Other ones were pro certain sorts of intervention. But I think what is absolutely wrong is to pretend the Syrian revolution didn’t exist, to pretend that these activists weren’t amazing people and to just sort of close your eyes to that and be like, “oh, foreign war with crazy brown people,” which is kind of what we always accuse the right of doing. And the other thing that really frustrated me is to see so many people who call themselves revolutionaries who were totally dismissive of real revolutionaries, people like Razan Ghazzawi, who they could learn so much from if they just bothered to open their eyes and look at them.
Photo by Dellvium, used under creative commons license