Degradation Ceremonies and Perp Walks
“Perp walk” is a term that describes the parading of an arrested or accused person past the media and others. The person may have been just accused of an offense rather than convicted of one.. However, the perp walk gives the impression that the person is guilty as they walk handcuffed, often in prison garb, and surrounded by tough and serious law enforcement personnel.
These perp walks are under media scrutiny because of the case of a man accused of rape in New York City, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, whose case may not result in a conviction. His international prominence propelled his perp walk into the global media and made it a topic of world-wide discussion.
A recent NPR story on this situation explained that most perp walks occur after someone has alerted the media ahead of time so that they can attend with enough vigor to report the story widely. The reporter mentioned that he thought that perp walks were fading already but that the Strauss-Kahn case and technology would help them fade even faster. He reasoned that people were becoming more aware of the problem of parading suspects who are later exonerated and also noted that digital media can disseminate photos quicker than the low-tech perp walks could.
Using a sociological perspective, I would disagree with the reporter’s view that perp walks will fade into obscurity. Perhaps technology will change how they are done, but the ritual the perp walk represents is important for society – even when the suspect may eventually be exonerated.
Harold Garfinkel’s concept of the degradation ceremony explains why perp walks will be with us in the long term.
A degradation ceremony involves bringing shame to the individual in question by publicly calling attention to their (allegedly) errant behavior. It also emphasizes the importance of conforming to the social norms of the society that were (allegedly) broken by the individual’s actions. A perp walk fits the definition perfectly.
Photographing the walk into and out of legal establishments with the person shackled creates a public spectacle where people can clearly see the person who was (allegedly) involved in a situation of shame. Whether or not the individual feels shame or is defiant isn’t as important as how it looks to the public.
Will technology replace the perp walk? Technology may make it possible to disseminate the photos more widely when people go to and from courtrooms and police departments, yet society still needs to call attention to the event. Sending the photos to the media to run as a story doesn’t (yet) have the same salience as those are static photos taken at one time while the perp walk is an ongoing performance.
The perp walk may be a more recent iteration of the public hanging, which was also , a ceremony of sorts that had many witnesses. A ritualistic behavior that people witness is more powerful a reminder of societal norms that web surfing photos of people whose deviance may not even be obvious.
Using your sociological imagination, what how do you think the perp walk might evolve as technology changes?