Monday, May 16, 2011

Iconic Monday: The Art of the Perp Walk

Strauss-Kahn and police escort. Photo by Joe Marino/New York Daily News
The people of France woke up yesterday morning to the news the Dominque Strauss-Kahn, considered a leading contender to the be the nation's next president, had been arrested in New York City on charges of attempted rape. This morning, the French, who love tradition and ritual as much as anyone, were treated to one of the NYPD's most beloved ceremonies: The Perp Walk, a.k.a. "The Walk of Shame."

As a piece of theater, the Perp Walk is both drama and farce. The display of the recently arrested for the benefit of news photographers may be staged, but the tragedy inherent in the event is real. The Perp Walk is when reality and television police procedural become one in the same. Defense attorneys have complained that the Perp Walk photo is prejudicial, but so far at least the need for visual narrative has taken precedence over absolute legal fairness.

The narrative is especially satisfying when the person in handcuffs is famous or powerful in some regard. It's human nature to want to see the high and/or mighty brought low—from WikiLeaks mastermind Julian Assange, arrested in the UK for earlier sex charges, to former congressman Tom "The Hammer" Delay, caught up campaign finance shenanigans.

Julian Assange after arrest. AP PHOTO

Tom Delay (center) walks the walk
 High-flying businesspeople are among the most visually delectable Perp Walk subjects, a fact prosecutors are exceedingly well aware of. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out in this Perp Walk portfolio, the spectacle sends a clear message that no one is above the law.

Former Bear Stearns fund managers being escorted to jail in 2008. REUTERS PHOTO
The Perp Walk is, of course, only Act I the legal drama that ends with a trial and verdict. But each of these later acts comes with its own visual rituals, such as the arrival at the courthouse of the defendant. An example:

Lohan strolls the stroll
In this photograph, Lindsay Lohan arrives at a Los Angeles court last February 9 in a tight, white thigh-high dress that prompted New York Times fashion journalist Ruth La Furla to wonder whether the actress was turning the Walk of Shame into an "image boosting stroll of fame."

Of course the most infamous Perp Walk photo was taken on Sunday, November 24, in the basement of the Dallas Police Headquarters.

Lee Harvey Oswald was supposed to be transferred from the police building to the county jail that morning, with journalists on hand to watch. Also on hand was nightclub operator Jack Ruby, who, at 11:21 AM, turned this walk of shame into something truly shameful.

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