Political Cartooning: Steve Sack for the Star Tribune

A collage of political cartoons

Veteran, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Steve Sack takes a straightforward approach. Instantly recognisable: the police car, the state, the policeman kneeling on the neck of a downed person, that person’s embodiment as Justice, the mode of that murder. The message is just as easy to parse when you’re aware of the subjects of reference: The Minneapolis police were acting against justice when they knelt on the neck of George Floyd. Similarly implicit is the injustice of this assault’s development into murder, as it must be known by anyone reading a newspaper that George Floyd died when he was knelt on by Derek Chauvin, his longterm colleague elsewhere (the El Nuevo Rodeo club).

Steve Sack's cartoon I can't breathe" for the Star Tribune, May 27th 2020
Steve Sack’s cartoon “I can’t breathe” for the Star Tribune, May 27th 2020

To a foreign viewer, it appears that Sack uses the recognisable positioning of a license plate to mark the car as a police car, and the shape of the vehicle to inform where he should letter “MINNEAPOLIS;” a labelling akin to the familiar do-you-get-it comprehension guides of the “FAT CATS” or “EUROPE” of ye olde politicale cartoones. In fact, this is not the case. It’s simply an accurate rendering of the vehicle genuinely involved in the murder. They say that truth is stranger than fiction, and that satire is dead, and both of those look true when a police car from Minneapolis patrolling within Minneapolis has POLICE for its license and MINNEAPOLIS on the fender.

Sack’s reproduction of the killer Chauvin’s face is also accurate and plainly referenced, when compared to an image from the video of his murder used in the UK’s Metro. Other stills show Chauvin’s face more clearly, and this poses a question. Why did Sack choose a blurrier shot to draw from? His talent for likenesses is good, though public figures usually appear in his work in caricature. Perhaps he preferred not to extrude humour from a man caught mid-racist murder. Does a lower-clarity face make it easier for the reader to subconsciously acknowledge that Chauvin was behaving in a way that he knew he was, as a white American policeman, secure—that this could be (and has been) many other police persons? The police shield, which many have recently learnt from social media is the design descendant of the slave patrol badge, is much clearer in Sack’s rendering than it is in the still from the recording. At the time of this cartoon’s publication, Chauvin had not yet been arrested.

Apart from the removal of the road, and its replacement with a largely white background, the only difference between Sack’s work and its twin frame from the filmed assault and murder of George Floyd by the on-duty policeman Derek Chauvin is the replacement of Floyd’s victimisation with the figure and scales of Lady Justice, a derivation of the Roman goddess Iustia whose blindfold was added in sixteenth-century Europe. This visualisation of the concept is valued in many countries, often white-majority countries, including America, and effigies of the icon can often be found outside or upon courthouses and government buildings. She is, fairly explicitly, an ideal claimed by the American government before the world. Additionally Lady Justice is recognised in respect by the American public, including great swathes of white Americans. In parallel, plainly, by her use in them, understood as such by Englishspeaking countries whose leaders and citizens can easily, immediately, and in volume condemn her mistreatment in terms english-speaking Americans can read and digest.

Lady Justice having dropped her scales, which symbolise balance, which symbolises fairness—justice—is a visual sentence: Justice is not only being murdered by this policeman, she’s also lost the measure by which appropriate behaviour can be measured. The police, it says, have removed the usual measure of appropriate behaviour. In this way, this cartoon speaks in favour of both protest, and protest riot. It also implies that prohibition of police would restore balance: remove the police from this picture, and would the Lady have dropped her measure? She would not.

The removal of George Floyd from the scene of his murder isn’t just, because there being a scene of his murder is unjust. In reproduction, Sack could make nothing of George which he hadn’t already been in life—he had meaning, because he was alive and real, and his death itself exhibits that meaning by its loss. Though it is uncomfortable to see a black corpse replaced by a white icon, and though it’s disgraceful that this is done in order for white people to achieve an understanding of the loss of that black man—because no other demographic but the dominant one can fail to perceive the craven nature of systemic racist violence with enough impact that white-establishment (however liberal or historically leftist) newspaper cartoons must be produced for their edification—that uncomfortability and that disgrace are created by desperate measures taken to reach the bigotry so ingrained within pleasant white society by white supremacy that it allows the creation of black corpses, with regularity, and those by a force alleged to “serve and protect.” Sack has produced a cartoon which may fail through the existence of that which it attempts to speak to directly. The below, by Ky Williams, provides another perspective.

Claire Napier

Claire Napier

Critic, ex-Editor in Chief at WWAC, independent comics editor; the rock that drops on your head. Find me at clairenapierclairenapier@gmail.com and give me lots of money