Interviews

Illustrating a Police Sergeant’s Interrogation of a Black Boy

A new collaborative comic illustrates a leaked transcript of a Minneapolis PD sergeant’s 1996 interrogation of a 14-year-old black child.

A page from <em>Sgt. Kroll Goes to the Office</em> (2006), published by Red76 and Beyond Repair, Minneapolis (all images courtesy Sam Gould, Red76, and Beyond Repair)
A passage from Sgt. Kroll Goes to the Office (2006), published by Red76 and Beyond Repair, Minneapolis (all images courtesy Sam Gould, Red76, and Beyond Repair)

Kroll: First, you have the right to remain silent.
Otis: What does that mean?
Kroll: Why don’t you take your hands away from your mouth for me and sit up there and talk like a man.
Otis: Okay?
Kroll: You have the right to remain silent. Do you know what that means?
Otis: no.
Kroll: Do you know what … what … what word there? There’s “you” “have” “the” “right” “to” “remain” “silent.” Is there one word you don’t understand in those seven?
Otis: What? I don’t know?
Kroll: YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO REMAIN SILENT … okay, what grade are you in?

The first 10 of the 32-page illustrated transcript of Minneapolis Police Department Sergeant Bob Kroll’s interrogation of Otis, a 14-year-old black child, continue in a manner that is simultaneously berating and confounding. Otis was in the eighth grade when he was arrested in 1996 for riding in a stolen car in Minneapolis. He maintained his innocence despite Kroll’s repeated attempts to extract a confession from him using the Reid technique, an archaic set of interrogation methods contested by ACLU and American Bar Association for producing false confessions, especially in children. Currently, Bob Kroll (now a Lieutenant) is the controversial union president of the Minneapolis Police Federation, who has admonished the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of Philando Castile’s fatal shooting by a police officer of St. Anthony, Minnesota, in June of 2016 and Jamar Clark’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis PD officer  in November of 2015.

Copies of <em>Sgt. Kroll Goes to the Office</em>
Copies of Sgt. Kroll Goes to the Office

In August the complete transcript of Otis’s interrogation was anonymously delivered to Beyond Repair, a bookstore and independent publishing house run by the artist Sam Gould. He saw an opportunity to put the principles of the publishing house and bookshop into action. Gould sees publishing as an act of public making and as a social force with the power to allow difference to be recognized and maybe even understood. A project of the publication Red76, Beyond Repair prints and sells small press runs of books on the intersection of life and art. Just as integral to Gould and his collaborators, Beyond Repair acts as a space for questioning within its neighborhood, where an expanded view of publication can lead to neighbors collaborating on creative resistance to outside interests. Upon receiving the transcript, Gould enlisted Tom Kaczynski of Uncivilized Books — a comics publisher based in Minneapolis — and a team of 18 artists and illustrators, to illustrate each page of the transcript and produce the comic book Sgt. Kroll Goes to the Office. The illustrated format makes the power disparities between a white male police officer and a black child transparent and obvious.

Beyond making visible an issue of social concern previously concealed from public view, Gould’s project is an intervention that attempts to bridge the divide between law enforcement and the community it serves. When Sgt. Kroll Goes to the Office was published, Gould hand-delivered it to Minneapolis’s mayor and members of its city council. Eventually, the comic made its way into the hands of Kroll himself, initiating a conversation about the comic book, the interrogation techniques Kroll used on Otis, and policing in America.

I first met Gould in Minneapolis the day before he had a private meeting with Kroll at Minneapolis City Hall, and interviewed him about the comic and the encounter a week later.

A page from <em>Sgt. Kroll Goes to the Office</em> (2016), published by Red76 and Beyond Repair, Minneapolis
A passage from Sgt. Kroll Goes to the Office (2016), published by Red76 and Beyond Repair, Minneapolis

*  *  *

Risa Puleo: Sgt. Kroll Goes to the Office came out very soon after the fatal shooting of Philando Castile on June 6, 2016. How did you come to the decision to make a comic book about police brutality?

Sam Gould: This summer I received, anonymously, a transcript of a young sergeant, Bob Kroll, interrogating a 14-year-old African American boy named Otis. While from 1996, the transcript paints a portrait of the “school-to-prison pipeline” in ways both clear and disturbing.

Kroll is now the President of Minneapolis’s police union and a public figure who, for all appearances, courts controversy. In more ways than one, he epitomizes the distrust, violence, and antagonism felt by many Minneapolis citizens regarding the role the police play in our day-to-day lives. The intent of the publication was to simply and urgently illustrate how systematic oppression — and, in turn, profit — is constructed, piece-by-piece, through daily social interactions such as the one between Kroll and Otis. While they are two real people, living an experience together, the narrative allows them to step into the roles of literally millions of individuals across the country who have been incarcerated since the implementation of the Clinton Crime Bill and the so-called “War on Drugs.” But even more important to me, it’s a local story about our lives here, in Minneapolis. What and who we value, and what we are willing to discard and put out of sight.

RP: How did you choose a comic book format for this project?

SG: When I initially received the transcript of the interrogation I ran through a number of scenarios for how to make it public. That element — “making it public” — was at the forefront from the beginning. Simply alerting various powers to the existence and narrative of the transcript wouldn’t do, as various incidents such as this have been described again and again in cities across the country. The idea of a comic, soon enough, seemed the perfect fit. Tom [Kaczynski] had been in and out of the shop quite a lot since we’d opened our doors, and we’d been discussing various collaborations for some time. Jordan Shiveley, one of the contributors and an editor with Tom at Uncivilized Books, is the head chef at Taco Cat next door to us. And Fiona Avocado, who lives down the street and is an illustrator who has worked in comics form, has been volunteering at Beyond Repair since early on. With the type of work I do, I’m an ardent believer in utilizing the resources around you and making the sourcing and instrumentalization of those resources readily apparent. In the afterword for the comic we made light of this as a method to inspire other people — who might think “but what can I do?” — to realize that through shared action what “we can do” is quite a lot. And you don’t need more than the skills and energy already available to you to get it done.

Furthermore, comics, historically, are seen as disposable. As a conceptual device it seemed a natural container for the delivery of a story wherein one person, representing an uncaring system, illustrates their disregard for another human being. The feeling was that, in some form or another, people would intrinsically understand that correlation between the historical/material form of the comic and the narrative that was contained within the form of this particular comic itself.

A page from <em>Sgt. Kroll Goes to the Office</em> (2016), published by Red76 and Beyond Repair, Minneapolis
A passage from Sgt. Kroll Goes to the Office (2016), published by Red76 and Beyond Repair, Minneapolis

RP: It was a bold move to distribute the comic books to members of city council and Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges. You very quickly got the attention of Lieutenant Kroll himself. What did you discuss in your meeting?

SG: Kroll and I met in the reception area of the offices for the city council members. He’d suggested the Police Union Headquarters, but I declined since I had no idea how things would go down once we were alone with one another — a prospect that many people advised me against. Surprisingly, from the start, he really wanted to explain himself. It didn’t at all seem confrontational. Kroll didn’t want to make excuses, but show how, in his mind, he was simply doing his job. He began our conversation by going page-by-page through the comic, explaining the techniques and methods he’d been taught and how they related to his encounter with Otis. And I, almost each step of the way, countered with my assertion that, if bullying, belittling, or not considering the circumstances which lead him and Otis to meet in the first place were elements that were required of him in his role as a police officer, his job was bullshit and those elements had to be addressed. While these methods are questionable while interrogating an adult, the thought of treating a 14-year-old in this manner is unconscionable. And yet the reason the comic is so powerful is not due to its extraordinary narrative, but readers’ realization that what they are experiencing through the text is a portrait of a system in micro, not an anomaly within the system.

One point that we agreed upon is that what is asked of police across the country is radically divergent from what he and I — and arguably millions of others — feel is the job of police. The shift in policing over the last 20 some odd years has transformed, arguably, from neighborhood-based security to, in many areas, armed occupation. The parallel effects of widespread defunding of social services and increase in the number of felonies, etc., has lead to an aggravated “Us vs. Them” relationship between police and neighbors that is untenable without a drastic transformation of each of those roles.  I think we both left with a desire to consider how reflecting on what those changes are might lead to systemic transformations in how police and neighbors meet, both inside and outside of conflict. We need new language to illustrate our desires and, in turn, inform our actions and responsibilities toward one another. Policing as we currently understand it is based on methods of control and surveillance. What would a whole new method of policing look like, developed from below, on ideas of harm reduction and cultural difference?

RP: Before coming to Minneapolis, you participated in the artistic and activist communities of Chicago and Portland, Oregon, where you collaborated with the artist-produced publishing collaborative Temporary Services and continue to do so with the publication Red76, respectively. Each city has produced different strains of social practice. How do you apply these ideas at Beyond Repair?

SG: I moved to Portland in the late 1990s from my hometown of New York City. I arrived with a very different sense of urbanism and of the role of publics within the social landscape of cities. For a good portion of my time in Portland, for one reason or another, I felt the need to “pass” and was reluctant to share my Jewishness (an anxiety I recently discovered I shared with others in the area, of varying ethnicities). I bring all this up to say that, at the time, Portland seemed like a place that lived outside of time, and therefore, inaccurately, outside of ideas of race and, to a lesser extent, class. While there’s so much about this that I find the need to critique, it’s undeniably liberating in a utopian sense — living within walking distance of the horizon line and the desire for social transformation outside of time. Of course this is impossible, but utopian desire, mixed with critical engagement of the social landscape, is something to strive for.

Chicago was the exact opposite of Portland: A crash course in systems and structures, histories of class, race, and power where artists and activists freely found common ground around war resistance, prison abolition, and more. I spent less than a year in Chicago, opening up Mess Hall, with Temporary Services and a handful of other socio-politically engaged artists, like Dan S. Wang and Mike Wolf. When I returned to Portland, I found myself mixing these two strains of engagement freely, fostering spaces of shared learning, group critique, radical imagining — a mash-up of the Portland and Chicago schools of practice.

Reaching Minneapolis in 2010, my desire was to engage these strains as locally as possible. It took a little while, but in 2014 I gave myself the mandate of committing as much of my practice as possible, for five to ten years or so, within walking distance of my home. I’d spent so much time on the road, and wanted to see what this amalgamation of practices could manifest when it was concerned not just with a geographically specific location, but a distinct social landscape that I was responsible for, and in turn was responsible to me — a neighborhood. The first year and a half opened up our home to these desires through a variety of projects and actions that focused on the false narrative concerning the divide between notions of public and private space. When a spot opened up in the Midtown Global Market — a vibrant, ethnically and economically diverse public market two blocks from my home — I talked with the management about opening up Beyond Repair. They’d never had anything like it before and, to their credit, were interested in the creative and social experiment I hoped it would be.

The hope, which seems to be being realized, is that my neighbors moving in and out of the market experience Beyond Repair as a space for questioning, with an expanded notion of the outer limits of publication at its core, a project that manifests those Portland and Chicago strains of social practice through constructive “downtime.” Dreaming and doing colliding together to positively change the ways we live with one another from the ground up.

RP: What are the next steps?

SG: I asked Kroll if he would speak publicly about these topics with others. He said he would. My thought is that, if he and I can keep talking, others can enter into the conversation — which is vital. A private conversation between two white men will lead nowhere. Other voices, histories, and experiences, must enter this dialogue. Otherwise, it is just a monologue. From my perspective, this broader conversation must start from below, with the people who engage within this narrative day-to-day, away from the “management class” of politicians and nonprofits. Police and neighbors have to meet first, as they affect one another’s lives most. While the cops hold so much power over the movement and agency of thousands, they are not THE power, they are a mechanism thereof. Every social revolution over the last 500 years has begun when the security forces and the polis have joined forces. So if we want real change — not reformation, but true transformation — of neighborhood security, it won’t be body cameras, or implicit bias training, despite whatever real help these policy changes may provide. Real change will result from a reconsideration of our lives and roles together. Face-to-face interactions between neighbors and rank and file police able to radically transform what safety for all really means, from the ground up. It’s imperative that we make the politicians and those who profit off of crisis play catch-up.

A page from <em>Sgt. Kroll Goes to the Office</em> (2016), published by Red76 and Beyond Repair, Minneapolis
A passage from Sgt. Kroll Goes to the Office (2016), published by Red76 and Beyond Repair, Minneapolis

So, what’s next? Keep talking and keep the door open. Add more voices from varying perspectives of police/neighbor antagonism. Make more histories visible. Upset the rhythm by any means necessary. I’ve already met with Kroll again and, once more to my surprise, the conversation was very productive and proactive. We’ve agreed to bring more people into the conversation and, as trust is built, make it more and more public to the point where, through public gathering and work-shopping, social tools can be suggested for neighbors and police to implement, rather than simply leaving the work to policy change and political will.

RP: Since we first spoke, an election has been lost (or won) in a disappointing and unexpected way. As an artist who directs his art toward questions integral to life, including the governance of citizens, what advice do you have for artists seeking to build alliances with community members as well as with forces that seem oppositional?

SG: Understand where you meet and what spaces of questioning can be developed around those collisions. Accept conflict as a necessary element within social evolution and not a stumbling block. There is an entire system that profits off of crisis and antagonism and, worse still, actors at varying levels within that system who instrumentalize crisis as a mechanism for profit. No matter our differences — which are many — most of us do not want to live within these states of antagonism. And yet conflict and antagonism are the ways we often find ourselves meeting for the first time. It’s imperative that we become familiar with spaces of conflict as vehicles for transformation. Get as close as you can to that conflict and attempt to recognize one another. Don’t comply. Don’t accept differences that you find ethically abhorrent. But do go there and attempt to stay there. Agitate for spaces of questioning in as close proximity to conflict as possible. Because there are people out there, people who rarely find themselves in proximity to the friction that produces social transformation, who need us to be oppositional on the ground to stay in power. When that antagonism begins to change shape, they begin to lose their grip on the levers of power.

As artists we have the ability to suggest other ways of living to a degree that most people do not. The events of the last few weeks have ensured the entire country that “another world” is coming. Artists are in a position to help fashion spaces and questions that direct that world toward justice and shared agency. We can open the door so that others can rush in.

Physical copies of Sgt. Kroll Goes to the Office have all been distributed, but a PDF of the comic is available for free here.

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