Criminals with Mohawks and vigilantes

Posted: April 22, 2012 in Culture, Movies
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Boy, there sure were a lot of street criminals with Mohawk haircuts back in the ’80s. They were young. Kids, really. And there were DROVES of them out in the city streets, menacing law-abiding citizens. It seemed you couldn’t set foot in an alley without one of them pulling a knife on you.

That was the situation in the comic books, anyway. A lot of movies, too. The streets were packed with violent, youthful predators. And they all had Mohawks.

Which was kind of weird, when you think about it. I mean … yeah, you’d see people around with Mohawks back in the ’80s. But as I recall, they were a lot more likely to be art school students than street criminals. About the most menacing thing they’d do would be to bore you at a party with an annoying rant about what a self-destructive genius Sid Vicious was.

So why all the pop culture street criminals with Mohawks?

My theory? They were stand-ins.

See, the comic books back in the ’80s reflected the fears of their time. No surprise there. They’ve always done that. Around World War II, comic book heroes battled Nazis. In the post-war decades, they took on megalomaniacal villains intent on destroying Western Civilization. Kind of like a bunch of Fidel Castros and Che Guevaras with a more flamboyant fashion sense.

By the ’80s, they were dealing with a rising tide of street violence. In Frank Miller’s classic “Dark Knight Returns,” for example, Batman goes up again street gang that has brought Gotham City to its knees. And yes, its youthful members tend to favor — you guessed it — Mohawks.

This was all happening at a time when crack was starting to break out in the cities, with its resulting violent turf wars. And an ascendent Republican Party under  Ronald Reagan was eminently willing to stoke white, middle-American fears about those scary inner city criminals.

This was a time when pop culture celebrated vigilante violence as just plain awesome. Even necessary. Let the wussy relics of the hippie era snivel about how these kids just needed to be understood. What the inner cities REALLY needed was The Punisher or Batman or Charles Bronson to wade in there and give them a good beatdown.

I guess you see where this is going. The movies and comic books featuring heroes shooting or punching out a bunch of teenage inner city street criminals were obliquely dealing with the crack epidemic, and the era’s paranoia about inner cities.

But they sure as hell couldn’t make those street gangs consist of minority youths. Because then the subtext is right out there, and the whole thing takes on an ugly connotation. Suddenly, Bruce Wayne isn’t just a watchful protector standing between the law-abiding citizens of Gotham City and an onslaught of violence and savagery. You could make the case that he’s a rich white guy who — as a hobby, basically — puts on a costume and beats up poor black kids.

It seems to me that the whole trend of vigilante worship abated somewhat with the Rodney King beating, and the riots that came afterward. As a culture, we got to see a “Dirty Harry”-style fantasy come to life. And it wasn’t awesome. It was ugly as hell.

Lest I sound like too much of a sanctimonious scold here, let me say for the record that I like “The Dark Knight Returns” and the Dirty Harry movies. I don’t believe that type of entertainment caused racism, vigilantism or civil rights violations, any more than “Rebel Without a Cause” or EC Comics caused juvenile delinquency in the 1950s, as some self-appointed guardians of public morality argued at the time.

I believe they reflected some larger trends in society. Trends that still crop up. And it’s important to periodically remind ourselves of the vast gap between pulpy entertainment and reality.

Ah hell. I really didn’t intend to bring up the Trayvon Martin case. I didn’t create this blog to address the big, heavy issues. But I feel that there’s no getting around it at this point.

I’m not going to hash out the details of the case here. And I’m certainly not going to assign guilt or innocence to either Martin or George Zimmerman. I believe in the principle of “innocent until proven guilty.”

Zimmerman is entitled to his day in court, just like anyone else charged with a crime. I also believe attempts to present Martin as a violent thug solely on the basis of his cutting class and smoking pot is bullshit.

Regardless of who’s guilty or innocent in the Martin case, however, one thing’s for sure. The whole thing’s exposed something very hurtful in our society. Something that can’t be glossed over with a car chase, a few explosions and a catch phrase.

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