by Benjamin Linzy
The July 10, 2019 issue of Marvel Comics The Punisher included an interesting series of panels. The titular vigilante anti-hero of the comic, Frank Castle, is cornered by two police officers who, upon recognizing him, confess their support for his work. The Punisher responds by rebuking the officers, tearing a distinctive “Punisher’s skull” decal off their patrol car, and ripping it up in front of them.
This criticism of the fictional officers came directly on the heels of Punisher creator Gerry Conway’s Tweet, castigating the use of the symbol by real-life law enforcement.
However, some within the law enforcement community have called for police to use the “Thin Blue Line Punisher” logo as a symbol of solidarity. Ed Clark, president of the St. Louis Police Officer’s Association, for example, asked officers to post the image to their Facebook pages in support of 22 officers under investigation for racist social media comments.
Making his first appearance in The Amazing Spiderman #129, in 1974, the character’s origin story helps to explain his popularity to many in the military, police, and militia group communities. Castle was a United States Marine Corps Vietnam veteran whose wife and child were gunned down by members of an organized crime family after witnessing a mob hit. When the system failed to deliver justice, Castle became the Punisher, dealing out deadly retribution.
The Punisher character archetype was a staple of post-Vietnam fiction and film, from Don Pendleton’s Executioner series of novels (1969) to Clint Eastwood’s star turn in Don Siegal’s film Dirty Harry (1971).[ii] As a whole, these characters rejected the police reforms, such as 1966’s Miranda v. Arizona. They tapped into a part of the conservative psyche that saw itself losing control on the streets and in the courts, especially in the wake of America’s military defeat in Vietnam and the loss of faith in the Republican-led government following the Watergate scandal.[iii]
However, the last Dirty Harry movie was released in 1988, while the first (forgotten) Punisher movie was not released until 1989. Since then, in addition to the ongoing comic series, the Punisher has had two more movies and two seasons of an acclaimed series on Netflix. Securing the support of the police and active-duty military portions of the fanbase was so important that actor Jon Bernthall specifically addressed them, “I know how important he is to law enforcement, to the military, and I look at this as a huge honor, a huge responsibility, and I give you my absolute word: I’m gonna give everything that I have.” In an interview with Abraham Riesman of Vulture, law enforcement officer Jesse Murrieta expressed a sentiment common in the law enforcement community: “Frank Castle does to bad guys and girls what we sometimes wish we could legally do, Castle doesn’t see shades of grey, which, unfortunately, the American justice system is littered with and which tends to slow down and sometimes even hinder victims of crime from getting the justice they deserve.”
This fantasy of dispensing “justice” without the hindrance of the justice system is concerning considering the rates of police brutality in the United States. In addition to the above-mentioned investigation into the St. Louis police, it was revealed in 2011 that a group of “rogue” officers who called themselves the Punishers had been operating in the Milwaukee Police Department as far back as the October 24, 2004 beating of Frank Jude Jr by off-duty police officers. This group “wore black gloves and caps embossed with skull emblems while on patrol” and at least one alleged member had a Punisher tattoo. Despite this troubling history with the symbol, the merchandise was still being advertised by the “We Back the Blue” Facebook page with the Milwaukee Police emblem and the Thin Blue Line Punisher skull.
In the wake of the May 25, 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police, a series of protests erupted across the nation and the world. In numerous instances, the police response to these peaceful protests has been violence against both protestors and the media covering the events. Images of police wearing Punisher skull patches have made the rounds on Twitter. Once such tweet by New York City Police Commissioner Dermont Shea was a photo of 5 NYPD Mid Town South officers, all of whom are wearing the patches.
It is not just the police who are using the Punisher skull. In 2018, Three Percent Nation, an antigovernment militia, unveiled a logo that incorporated the image.
The Punisher skull has also been incorporated into Boogaloo memes, and a Punisher skull patch was on the plate carrier of Robert Roden, the man arrested for entering Stony Brook University Hospital with multiple incendiary devices.[iv] A video posted by Shaun King of counter-protesters at a Black Lives Matters march in the village of Bethel, Ohio, shows a group wearing Punisher t-shirts and Confederate Flag bandanas assault a peaceful protester.
Most Punisher skull paraphernalia is easily accessible on Amazon or other online platforms, and it would be a mistake to think that everyone with a Punisher shirt or hat is associated with an extremist group. With that said, its use by extremist groups and police organizations is concerning due to the shorthand that the symbol creates. The Anti-Defamation League details the ways that militia groups like the Oath keepers target military and police through the oath sworn to defend the Constitution. This ties directly into the Punisher fantasies of enacting “justice” without being restrained by what they see as an unjust—or unconstitutional—order. Part of this obsession with constitutionality centers around the fear that the government is going to restrict access to firearms, that the white establishment might be disempowered by voting fraud, or that immigrant groups could “take over.” To combat these bogeymen, the “Punishers” weaponize U.S. gun culture, providing another point of potential convergence between the police and militias.
These militia recruitment efforts mirror those of explicitly white supremacist groups, who, according to an FBI report released in 2006, have been actively working towards “infiltrating law enforcement communities or recruiting law enforcement personnel.”[v] Part of this process is a method known as “ghost skinning,” in which the recruit “avoid[s] overt displays of their beliefs to blend into society and covertly advance white supremacist causes.” Additionally, like the militias, many white supremacist groups like to focus on gun control as a recruitment tool and often point to distorted crime statistics in order to vilify minority groups. This distortion has found a sympathetic ear with some police officers who feel they are unfairly scrutinized for their interactions with minorities. Authors Will Carless and Michael Corey, for example, identified a consistent trend when they investigated private police-related Facebook groups. They found that “Hundreds of active-duty and retired law enforcement officers from across the United States are members of Confederate, anti-Islam, misogynistic or antigovernment militia groups on Facebook.”
Police officers often excuse the Thin Blue Line Punisher skull as merely a symbol of fraternity. They, however, are not the only ones to use the symbol. A shared perceived meaning of duty and honor beyond the system makes the Punisher emblem a powerful symbol that can be used by extremist groups to signal their own type of brotherhood silently. A brotherhood that is often anti-authoritarian, white nationalist, or white supremacist. Even without this potential for recruitment to extremist movements, the symbol is problematic when fetishized by police. The symbol stands for vigilante justice and punishment, something that we all should find unsettling when worn by those who are supposedly sworn to protect us.[vi]
Benjamin Linzy is a Ph.D. Candidate in history at Marquette University. He has presented his research into transnational conflicts and political violence across the United States. His interests include international reactions to genocide, domestic right-wing terrorist movements, and transnational paramilitarism. In addition to his studies, Benjamin works as an Office & Research Coordinator for the Center for Urban Research, Teaching, and Outreach and hosts a weekly history podcast: Evoking History.
[i] Becky Cloonan, writer. The Punisher (2016). #13. New York: Marvel Comics Group.
[ii] Likewise, Paul Benjamin, main character of the 1972 Death Wish novel and Paul Kersey of the 1974 film adaptation of the same name and Taxi Driver protagonist Travis Bickle fit the type. Pendleton’s Executioner protagonist Mack Bolan’s origin is almost the same as Frank Castle’s. Gerry Conway went on record in 1987 about the similarities, “I was fascinated by the Don Pendleton Executioner character, which was fairly popular at the time, and I wanted to do something that was inspired by that.”
[iii] For more on the impact of Dirty Harry on the zeitgeist of the time, see Patrick McGilligan’s piece in Jacobin.
[iv] The Boogaloo adherents differ from many other militia groups mentioned here in that they wish to see a second Civil War break out. This has resulted in internal schisms as some within the community believe they should reach out to BLM to form an alliance in the wake of police killings while others consider BLM to be racial enemies.
[v] American policing evolved out of slave patrols and US law enforcement has a long history of aligning themselves with racist vigilante groups—officially and unofficially. For more, read Timothy Winkle’s Smithsonian article, Gary Porter’s The History of Policing in the United States, and David M. Oshinsky, “Worse than Slavery:” Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice. New York: Free Press, 1996.
[vi] Over the last few days, Gerry Conway has worked to reclaim the Punisher symbol for BLM.
Thank you for this post – explains some car decals I’ve seen here… Unsettling is putting it mildly.
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