The more things change, the more the more they stay the same. - Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr
“How It Is With Brothers,” this week’s episode of Penny Dreadful: City of Angels has perfect timing of sorts. The episode centers mostly on the LAPD station of Tiago Vega and Lewis Michener and mostly on the interrogation of Diego, the Pachuco associate of Fly Rico and Rio/Magda. You also get to see the racism and hatefulness of many of the other cops at the station, particularly a friend of the late Officer RIley, Frank Murphy (Scott Beehner).
Officer Murphy illustrates a simple truth: It’s never just one racist, corrupt, and violent cop. The LAPD is one of the most feared and dangerous police forces in the United States. After all, Los Angeles is where Rodney King, a Black unarmed motorist, was nearly beaten to death by four LAPD officers, Stacey Koon, Timothy Wind, Theodore Briseno, and Laurence Powell. They struck him with their batons over 33 times and kicked him seven times, resulting in broken bones, lost teeth, and permanent brain damage. The only reason we know that these four cops did to Rodney King is because there was a video camera recording the whole thing.
A jury in conservative Simi Valley acquitted them.
This led to five days of rioting throughout Los Angeles; the flashpoint was the intersection of
53 people died, although some totals list the deaths as high as 63, and the LAPD did not respond to the unrest until three hours later. Chief of Police Daryl Gates went to a political event in Brentwood and told people there, because the news had already spread, that “There are going to be situations where people are going to go without assistance.” Gates was the brutal head of a largely paramilitary style police force that answered to no one and held none of their officers accountable for their violence. The first victim killed was a Mexican man named Arturo Carlos Miranda. LAPD squad cars drove right past the crowd of angry people who pulled motorist Reginald Denny out of his truck and four residents of South Central LA; Bobby Green, Lei Yuille, Titus Murphy and Terri Barnett, rushed over and saved him. Think about it. Four citizens saw a man being beaten on live TV and chose to do something to save him when the LAPD did nothing. Granted, the LAPD officers that the good samaritans saw driving off had already met up with a determined crowd at 71st and Normandie and were fleeing the area. Tensions among the Black community were exacerbated by the unprovoked murder of 15-year-old Latasha Hawkins at Empire Liquors by Soon Ja Du, thirteen days after the Rodney King beating. Unlike the King defendants, Du was convicted, but was given a suspended sentence. Think about that. A suspended sentence and community service for shooting a 15 year old girl in the back of the head over a carton of orange juice. A carton that she had the money to pay for, but that the clerk didn’t notice.
From 1933 to 1937 in Los Angeles, both the city government and the LAPD were very corrupt. The Mayor, Frank Shaw, police chief James E. Davis, and Shaw’s brother and aide, Joe Shaw, had an entire system of graft and protection rackets with the LAPD’s Vice Squad as enforcers. The corruption ran rampant until it was challenged by Angeleno Clifford Clinton (you might remember him from last week’s column as the founder of Clifton's Cafeteria) and a private investigator and former police officer, Harry Raymond. Both Clinton’s home and Raymond’s car were bombed by the police. Clinton’s taxes were raised. He was denied permits for another restaurant. His family was threatened and his reputation was attacked by none other than the Los Angeles Times for his inference and insistence on inquiry on the Mayor’s, the Police Chief’s and the LAPD’s flagrant criminal activity (that included collusion with the Mafia).
Mayor Shaw was recalled, the first recall of a big city mayor in US history, and James E. Davis, along with 23 other LAPD officers, were forced to resign in 1938 when a new mayor was elected and when Davis was called as a witness at the trial of Captain Kynette, the man responsible for the bombings. It was then the criminal LAPD operation was exposed to the new mayor and former judge Fletcher Bowron. The scandal nearly took down LA District Attorney Buron Fitts too, but instead he was shot multiple times through his windshield in 1937 in a murder attempt that was never solved. Fitts was also known for allegedly taking a bribe to protect the statutory rapist of a 16-year-old girl, and blocking charges against the Metro Goldwyn Mayer sales rep David Ross who raped Patricia Douglas at a private studio party in 1937. This was documented in the film Girl 27.
This gives some perspective on how deep the corruption in the LAPD and the LA City government has been and continues to be.
This episode, directed by Roxanne Dawson and written by Vinnie Wilhelm, is a combo breaker in the series. There’s no teaser mystery or set piece, just Tiago and Lewis talking about what they’re about to walk into. The officers waiting for them start immediately harassing both the suspect and Tiago. He gets accused of getting Riley killed, they ask if Diego is his cousin, and demand to do the interrogation, obviously indicating that they want to start beating him again. Murphy starts mockingly singing the song “La Cucaracha” which means The Cockroach. “La Cucaracha” is actually a Spanish folk song, but is most consistently identified with Mexican people. There are many interpretations of the song, the title cockroach is female and was said to possibly refer to a Soldadera, a female soldier or associate of the Mexican army, during the Mexican Revolution. The song is also said to refer to the Mexican general Victoriano Huerta, who deposed President Maduro during a coup and who I’ve mentioned before. The song’s verses were continually updated. Murphy also calls Diego “Paco,” what he would consider a generic Mexican name as an insult, and a “wetback.” He’s clearly spoiling for a fight and wants revenge. Murphy is doing everything he can to provoke Tiago and Diego, hoping that one of them will lose their temper at his childish and racist insults and do something foolish that he can take advantage of. He’s also doing it because he enjoys it. He’s a racist who likes insulting Mexicanos and Pachucos.
As a context to current events, because this episode is especially relevant to the now, one of the things that keeps happening over and over again during the George Floyd protests is that cops keep escalating tensions by firing tear gas and “non lethal” projectiles into crowds or at individuals, including credentialed journalists holding up their press passes and protesters with their hands up and shoving or beating those same people with their batons.
In this clip, a NYC cop shoves a woman violently to the cement without warning or provocation. Dounya Zayer had a seizure and ended up in the ER.
On Melrose Ave in Los Angeles, a cop starts shoving protesters, daring them to react. The cops then start beating a man who’s on the ground, from behind.
In Minneapolis, Michael Anthony Adams - a Vice reporter with a press pass, is forced to the ground and pepper sprayed when he tries to get the cops to acknowledge that he’s press. He was not resisting.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
I’ll put it to you this way. If you find the police brutality and violence in the show hard to believe, watch these videos. This is what the cops in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and New York City are doing to people in public right now. They have no regard for women, the press, or people who are unarmed and in submissive posture on the ground. They just keep beating people or shoving them. If they will do that to civilians and journalists, who can later report on what they are doing with a national spotlight, or while video cameras are rolling, what do you think they do when they have someone alone? In a station house or somewhere where no one will know what they did? Think about that for a minute and then think that under the right circumstances, they will do that to anyone.
Diego is insolent and seems to be taunting Tiago with a secret. Lewis can tell that something is up that he doesn’t know about. Diego asks for a soda, a Nehi. Tiago and Diego take the opportunity to speak frankly. Diego threatens to tell everyone that Mateo was the fourth member of the group and involved in the killing. Unless Tiago will help him escape by unlocking his cuffs and giving him his gun so he can attempt to shoot his way out. (No one said that Diego had a good plan.) Tiago is unwilling, but he doesn’t have a lot of options. The Captain, Vanderhoff, gave Diego to them for interrogation instead of giving him to Murphy. As always, he stresses that they need a confession and a patsy or fall guy to blame for the Hazlett murders and now, Officer Riley’s death. He suggests that it would be convenient, if their suspect was that person who could be blamed for both murders. Vanderhoff tells them that he’s trying to do the right thing, but he needs to throw someone to the wolves. He needs a sacrifice, so that this will all go away. Tensions among the cops and fear in the city are too much. He doesn’t particularly care who it is, just as long as it gets done quickly. Tiago tries to scare Diego with tales of how he’ll be portrayed at trial and the graphic tale of a killer, Luther Jones, who was dispatched in the Carson City, Nevada gas chamber. He shows Diego the execution photo. Yes, Luther Jones was real.
You might ask yourself, so do cops really do this? Yes, they do. In January of this year, 20 cops of the LAPD Metro Division, a division that I am familiar with from Occupy LA, were under investigation for adding people to the gang database who were not gang members. Police Chief Michel Moore said that he was “very concerned.” It seems the people who were affected were largely Black and Mexican American.
While speaking with the Captain, who is irritated that they don’t have a confession yet, Vanderhoff tells them that they have an hour left to break Diego or Murphy and his thugs get their turn. When they walk out into the main part of the station, Murphy and a couple of other cops are there waiting. When asked where everyone is, Murphy replies that they are out rousting Pachucos and searching for the killers. Murphy starts singing “La Cucharacha” again, making his intent to punish Diego as soon as he gets his hands on him obvious. Back in the interrogation room, Diego continues to hint and push Tiago’s buttons and Lewis gets more and more suspicious. Things finally come to a head when Diego threatens to tell them who the fourth Pachuco is and Tiago rips his gun from his holster and puts it in Diego’s ear, threatening to kill him.
Lewis hauls Tiago out, shocked and filled with foreboding. He demands that Tiago tell him the truth and Tiago finally does. Michener is outraged because he feels betrayed that Tiago didn’t give him the trust of a partner. Tiago responds, but it is my family, how could I tell you that? Tiago adds that Lewis doesn’t understand because he, “has nobody.” This draws a hearty “fuck you” from Lewis. But finally they both understand each other. The quandary: what can be done to resolve the case and save Mateo? I wasn’t sure what the truth was last week, but Tiago doesn’t know that Riley raped Josefina. He blames Mateo’s actions on himself for shooting Raul.
It’s a bad situation with no good way out. Once again, the idea of sacrifice rears its head.
Lewis decides to solve the problem as best he can. He convinces Diego that if he rats out his friends, he’ll suffer when he gets to jail. If he confesses, he’ll be a big man in prison and a hero to his community for not snitching. Diego, the sacrifice - like an Aztec victim, takes the offer for the good of the people and because he has very few more attractive options. If Murphy gets his hands on him, he might not make it to trial. You can see in Nathan Lane’s face how defeated he is. He’s saying the words, but he doesn’t mean any of it. The weight of denying justice, even for the sake of his partner, is heavy. He’s not a bad cop, he might be somewhat willing to bend the rules for the sake of his people, but snapping them in two and sending an innocent person to jail doesn’t sit well with his conscience. The work between the actors in the interrogation scenes, along with the scenes with the Captain and Murphy are excellent. The intensity of the confrontational eye work and Tiago’s last ditch attempt to coerce Diego with his sidearm is astonishing. But at the center of everything is Nathan Lane’s cynical but buoyant, broken hearted romantic, a true believer in justice. It’s an indefinable moment of character to watch his soul crisp around the edges and see a part of it struggle and die.
It’s a bit like the sequence last week, but a polar opposite, watching the joy of Charlton Townsend dancing around his hillside home with the pure unabashed joy of love coursing through his veins. The at long last love of a man who never thought he would find it, expressed in a bit of soft shoe. When people talk about the show, I can’t help but think of those beautiful human moments, among a terrific ensemble cast, Would that they had more time to let the story and the characters breathe more, I think that more people would see the beauty of the human nature, good and bad, exposed in the acting work and the moments of the actors who express them. Adan Rocha is also to be commended for his intensity as Diego. While Lewis makes the character assessment that Diego isn’t a killer, there’s still something in Diego - as played by Rocha, that is off in some way. It’s tiny and subtle, but it’s there. You can tell that John Logan loves actors and the work. There’s also the scene where the longing of Sister Molly and her apparent choice of Church over love is expressed simply through her rendition of “But Not For Me” by George and Ira Gershwin on stage.
The last precinct scene is a slow motion, fantasy scene of togetherness and belonging. Now that Lewis and Tiago have “solved the case” and turned in a guilty Pachuco, they are accepted. The ending moments are a soft haze blur of happy policemen drinking whiskey who only care that a Mexican is going to jail. All the animus is gone because Tiago has proved himself by betraying his people. He is one of them. No one cares about justice, only putting the case files away and going back to normal. No one but Lewis and Tiago, whose faces are anything but happy. They are filled with guilt and shame.
Part of why it’s so difficult to find police guilty of misconduct or outright criminal behavior is the honor code that they have developed. This code is not based in justice either. It was originally known as the Blue Wall of Silence. It is that the boys in blue will never inform on each other, even if their fellow policemen are engaged in any kind of wrongdoing, no matter how serious it might be. The concept has evolved over time to be called The Thin Blue Line which is also the idea that the police are the only ones who hold back the forces of chaos which really means any upending of the status quo. It was popularized in the documentary of the same name directed by Errol Morris based on the case and trial of Randall Adams who was wrongly convicted of killing Texas police officer Robert Wood.
The phrase “the thin blue line” was used by the prosecutor in the case and the police liked it so much that they started adopting it more and more. It had also been used previously by LAPD Chief Bill Parker in the 1950’s and by William Friedkin in a previous documentary about the police also called The Thin Blue Line.
‘It ties in to the concept of Blue Lives Matter, and is a counter-movement to Black Lives Matter. The use of the term “Thin Blue Line” by police after Errol Morris’ documentary came with a side of irony that the cops didn’t seem to notice. That irony is that the man accused of the crime wasn’t guilty and was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death, while the real killer went on to murder others. Blue Lives Matter has a digestif of irony because part of the purpose of the movement is to pass laws that make killing a cop a hate crime. However most municipalities already have laws on the books that penalize criminals severely for the murder of public servants. Blue Lives Matter has also taken up the custom of wearing the symbol of the comic book anti-hero The Punisher as a symbol for their work as police officers. They wear pins and t-shirts and get it painted on their large vehicles. “The Thin Blue Line” is seen by outsiders as a way to mythologize being a police officer and to justify protecting other officers from accountability in general and make sure they are not answerable to authorities outside of the force itself. In their minds, the most important thing is to protect other officers from the consequences of their actions as they would protect you. They see a morally compromised comic book anti-hero and serial killer as their lodestar and hero. The Blue Line that is the police protecting society from chaos is also a separation from civilians and society itself.
The Punisher, Frank Castle, is a former Marine turned vigilante who kills people out of the need for revenge or to punish those that he feels are wrongdoers. Their worship of this fictional character is, in some ways, a fantasy of total power and the ability to do without the constraints of the legal and judicial system as judge, jury, and executioner. They know better than you and you will obey them when they give an order. They are the black-clad rebels of extrajudicial punishment and murder. Meanwhile, they have some paperwork to finish, sorry.
As an aside, conservative host Sean Hannity of Fox News recently wore a Punisher pin on air while discussing protests against police violence. That was Sean sending a message to his fans, police, the military and Q Anon.
The circle comes back to 1938 and Tiago and Lewis. In betraying themselves, their community, and their sense of justice have paid the toll to enter the club with the rest of the policemen of their precinct. They have agreed to support the status quo and protect the cabal above all other things. They are not the servants of the people, but the arbiters of their particular brand of justice and thus have won the acceptance of their peers. They are now brothers. Familia.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Dolores Quintana is a Chicana actor and writer from Southern California who lives spiritually in her beloved Los Angeles at all times. She has written for Pocho.com, Nightmarish Conjurings, The Theatre @Boston Court and late period Buddyhead. All praise, complaints, celebratory rituals and debate challenges should be directed at the author on Twitter.com.