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Thursday, May 11, 2006 06:31 am

The new face of crime?

Updated symbol appears to recycle some old-fashioned prejudices

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There’s a new kid in town. He’s a shadowy figure — wears a mask and a backwards baseball cap. As the new icon of the common criminal, he’s slowly taking over the turf occupied by that classy fellow with the snap-brim fedora and opera cloak. The new kid is pictured on the neighborhood-watch signs posted on the bucolic little street where I live. These snazzy placards started being phased in by Springfield Police Department all across town more than a year ago, but I never noticed until a young couple out for an evening stroll brought this fresh symbol to my attention. They had two questions. First: “What happened to the Caper?” And then: “Are they trying to insinuate something?”
Now, before we go one word further, you deserve a chance to judge for yourself — so you can either motor over to my little corner of Springfield or surf to www.nnwi.org, the Web site of the National Neighborhood Watch Institute. There you will see three choices of signs. One is a blue rectangle with a big black-and-white eyeball, one is the classic that the young couple dubbed “the Caper,” and the third is this new kid. As it turns out, the chap with the fedora has an official name: “Boris the Burglar.” The new kid, on the other hand, is trademarked under the generic tag “Masked Bad Guy.” I called around until I found the man who created Masked Bad Guy. Right up front, he told me he doesn’t want his name publicized, so I’ll just call him Watchful Citizen. Citizen lives in California and has so many college degrees that if he laminated them all, he’d have a lovely set of placemats. He’s mainly a financial whiz, but he has dabbled in art (one of his degrees is in glassblowing). He told me that, aside from MBG, he has created one other artistic icon. “Around 1985, in preparation for Snow White’s 50th anniversary, I created a passport with a [commemorative] coin in it,” he says. “Disney ordered half a million of them.”
More than a dozen years would pass before he came up with his next artistic masterpiece. It was around 1999, and Boris the Burglar was embroiled in some sort of controversy. Citizen refuses to reveal the exact nature of Boris’ problem — “These are issues that I really can’t talk about. I wish I could but I’ve been sworn to basically secrecy,” he says — but it seems to have had something to do with licensing. At any rate, a decision was made by NNWI to invent “an updated crime-prevention symbol,” Citizen says, something “more contemporary.” Even so, Masked Bad Guy was conceived quite by accident, when Citizen was just fooling around. “One day I was just fiddling on the computer, and I saw something I had created I thought was appropriate. I went, ‘Hmm. I think this looks like a crime-prevention symbol,’ ” Citizen recalls. Unlike Boris, who sounds like a refugee from the Cold War, this new little criminal was not given the kind of traditional name that might provide insight as to his ethnicity — which is not to say that he was christened without thought. “My father, George, came up with that — Masked Bad Guy,” Citizen says. But the couple who introduced me to MBG don’t buy into that generic name. They believe he’s really a Carlos or a Pedro, or maybe a Cedric or a Maurice. “He’s about our age, and he’s either brown or black,” they say. Citizen disagrees. “I don’t think he has a race. He’s just a graphic symbol. Criminals come in every color,” he says. “You could create anything that’s a graphic depiction of a human being, and people will look at it and read into it anything they want.” My concern is for a family farther down my street — a family that has welcomed the kind of foster children who are hardest to place. I often see these kids walking on my block, and they look like the character on the sign, minus the mask. “If those same kids were to change the way they dress and the way they speak, they would go a long way toward furthering their success in society,” Citizen says. When I relayed Citizen’s comment to the foster father, he agreed. “He’s jumping to the conclusion that the ghetto language and ghetto talk don’t get you very far,” the foster dad said, “and he’s absolutely right about that.” He and his wife didn’t tolerate that kind of talk, backward caps, or low-slung pants with their two kids — both of whom are now doctors — he says. But the symbol on the sign does trouble him: “I think what they’re trying to say is ‘Watch out when you see a minority with his hat on backward. He’s gonna attack you.” Whether or not Citizen meant to send a racial message doesn’t matter to this dad, struggling to raise righteous kids. “You have to live black,” he says, “to know the subtleties of racial prejudice.” Not always. The young couple who first showed me the sign? They are both white.
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