It’s a Damned Shame! The Theater and Purgatory of the American “Perp Walk”


“Adam and Eve Driven Out of Paradise”, from The Story of the Bible by Charles Foster. Illustrations by F.B. Schell

by Legacy Russell

The cultural practice of the “perp walk” is a form of social performativity. The perp walk itself is not a performance, singular. Rather, it is a myriad of happenings, spectacles that are historically and ontologically specified, a genre of modern pop ritual recognized and claimed as an informal aspect of the judicial system, most specifically within the United States of America. The practice itself is somewhat of an extension of Puritan practices of shaming (Goldstein, New York Law Journal), wherein public humiliation enacts a pressure on an accused body within the public realm. During the Puritan age the path from the prison to the scaffold where the gallows loomed was typically reserved for a body that had already been found guilty. Conversely, the contemporary use of the perp walk seems to serve a different purpose, signifying a shift in status away from ordinary citizen for individuals (often high-profile, whose visibility would be of popular interest), a transformative ceremony that brands a body, preparing it for the formality of further conviction.

In his article “The Big City; Even Perps May Prefer Walk of Fame,” John Tierney comments on this aspect of the practice, noting:

Your changing social status necessitates a rite of passage, which anthropologists define as having three stages. The perp walk is the first stage, called separation, in which you’re stripped of your old status. That leaves you outside the social structure in what is called the betwixt-and-between stage. The final phase, reintegration, comes after the verdict, when you’re assigned a fixed status as either a convict or a law-abiding citizen . . . the walk symbolically reconciles people’s contradictory feelings about the perp: while they think he’s probably guilty (since most defendants are eventually convicted) and hope the crime has been solved, they also believe that he should be presumed innocent and treated fairly.(Tierney, The New York Times)

A “perp walk” is “an arranged public appearance of a recently arrested criminal for the benefit of the media [1].” “Perp” is an abbreviation of “perpetrator”, a word that hails from “perpetrate,” meaning “to perform or be responsible for (a deception [or] crime)”[2] Perpetrators are, for all intents and purposes, suspects — the accused, not the convicted. The perp walk, therefore, is the physical act of moving a person on foot (and often handcuffed) from one site to another, as in from the jail to the courthouse, or perhaps from the courthouse to a nearby vehicle. It is the sheer fact that the walk often takes place before the arrival at a set verdict (guilty or innocent) by a judge or participating jury that makes the use of the perp walk by officials a source of controversy, as it challenges notions of due process and lends power to the informal public as live participants in doling out culpability.

In the 2000 case of Lauro v. Charles, the American Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that “perp walks staged for the benefit of arresting officers and the media constituted unlawful search and seizure per the Fourth Amendment.” Several years later, in the 2003 case of Caldarola v. County of Westchester in New York, ” . . . the same court ruled that perp walks may [in fact] serve the public, which has a right to know who is arrested and why, as well as provide further transparency with regard to law enforcement practices.” (Callahan, New York Post) Thus, a person doing a perp walk becomes simultaneously “an instantly recognizable icon of guilt” (Rovzar, and, in this state of pariah, a symbol made available for an ever widening breadth of popular consumption. In toeing the line between these identities, the “perp” becomes a living, breathing paradox.

Lee Harvey Oswald was shot by Jack Ruby during his perp walk  in 1963. Photograph by Bob Jackson

Whether it is Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden, or those involved in the downfall of Enron being publicly fingered, history is peppered with examples of these walks of shame, fame — and often, of infamy. In 1963 Lee Harvey Oswald, accused assassin of American President John F. Kennedy, was murdered by a nightclub owner named Jack Ruby during Oswald’s perp walk parade. This renegade act brought to light the reality that perp walks, beyond exposing the accused to public criticism and critique, also create a forum for potential acts of violence (Mullen), both literally and metaphorically. Written in 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter begins with two chapters, one titled “The Prison Door”, the other “The Market Place”. It is the passing of the physical body beyond the “door” and into the “market” that denotes a movement from privately monitored and regulated space, into public space, what Richard Schechner calls, “transformance (Schechner, 186).” In Publics and Counterpublics, Michael Warner makes a similar distinction, utilizing “bedroom” and “market” as representative domains of the private, versus the public:

Throughout the Western tradition, private and public have been commonly and sensibly understood as distinct zones. The boundary between bedroom and market, home and meetinghouse can be challenged violated, but it is at least clear enough to be spatially distinct. Moving from one to another is experienced as crossing a barrier or making a transition . . .  (Warner, 26)

Hawthorne dubs this journey of “the culprit” between sites as, ” . . . a penalty which . . . would infer a degree of mocking, infamy and ridicule . . . [perhaps] invested with almost as stern a dignity as the punishment of death itself (Hawthorne, 38).” This “social death” is what makes the implications of the perp walk so powerful — a moment for a perpetrator’s public, all at once audience and witness, to seize authority, participating in a dialogue that otherwise they might be excluded from, and, once and for all, to strip the accused of whatever moral authority they may have previously held.

With the rise of handheld mobile devices capable of capturing video, the perp walk has the capacity to extend beyond the realm of the street — the pathway between the proverbial door and the market — and into the virtual realm, stripping these sort of spectacles of their site-specificity, and placing them under the scrutiny of a more international lens, one that extends beyond American soil. In a YouTube-infused culture, any member of the assumedly righteous public can participate in the practice of shaming and of documentation, creating new media “courtroom sketches” in motion—archiving perp walks and disseminating these videos with ease, a dawning of unprecedented directions in both democratic and gonzo journalism alike.

Richard Schechner in his Performance Theory muses,

Western thinkers have too often split ritual from entertainment, privileging ritual over entertainment. It has been accepted wisdom to assert that ritual comes first (historically, conceptually), with entertainment arising later as a derivation or even deterioration of ritual. Ritual is ‘serious’ while entertainment is ‘frivolous.’ These are prejudiced culture-bound conclusions . . . entertainment and ritual are braided together, neither one being the “original” of the other. (Schechner, 173)

The perp walk, a ritual preserved for posterity and made available for public viewing and entertainment sends the message that, “no one is above the law.” (Tierney, The New York Times) In On Television and Journalism, Pierre Bordieu comments, “. . . production is a collective enterprise.” (Bordieu, 23) In the increasing convergence of popular culture, media, and contemporary legal exercise in the production of spectacle, such a statement continues to ring true.

American national news correspondent Jeanne Moos of CNN demonstrates one way that suspects have been known to disguise their identity when perp walked. Broadcast May 17 2011.

There are three stages within American history that track the transition of the perp walk from a private march made for the exclusive benefit of a select grouping of reporters, into the realm of a more public riot — a frenzy of live public participants, press, and passive spectators, present all at once. In an article for The New York Times, reporter Blaine Harden interviews journalist — and spokesman for former New York City Police Commissioner William J. Bratton — John Miller, mapping out the course of this shift:

The first version held sway into the 1940s in the basement of the old police headquarters on Center Street, where suspects were routinely paraded across a stage in front of reporters who sized them up for newsworthiness. . . . The second version, which lasted from the 1940s into the late ’60s, featured reporters sitting around in station houses across the city as suspects were being booked and fingerprinted. Reporters would often have a chance to chat with suspects. Photo opportunities were usually worked out informally with the station house captain. . . . The third version of the perp walk began in the early 1970s, a function of suspects being hauled from precinct station houses to a central booking center and of the rapidly proliferating number of news media outlets in New York. (Harden, The New York Times)

The inception of perp walks as we may know them is often tied to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s J. Edgar Hoover, ” . . . who [during his time with the FBI] understood the priceless public relations value of an image that showed a cuffed bad guy in the grasp of a federal agent.” (Krajicek) In more recent history, the tradition is “often attributed to Rudy Giuliani, who gleefully paraded a series of white-collar criminals — like Tim Tabor and a weepy Richard Wigton, who never even saw trial — before the cameras when he was U.S. Attorney back in the eighties.” (Rovzar, When former International Monetary Fund (IMF) president and French citizen Dominique Strauss-Kahn was publicly media-marched by the New York Police Department in 2011, New York City Mayor Bloomberg was first quoted saying, ” . . . if you don’t want to do the perp walk, don’t do the crime[3].” Though he later apologized[4], such a statement highlighted the contradictions encapsulated by perp-walk-as-practice — the fact that the walk alone is often enough to convince the public of the accused’s guilt, regardless of what the final outcome of the trial may be.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn walks the walk.

If politicians doing the perp walk stands to illustrate that even the rich and powerful can be brought down, the perp walk for Hollywood-style celebrities acts as a physical manifestation of the tabloid genre of “realism”, a potent example of what Bordieu eloquently cites as “slices of life” (Bordieu, 48). This “cultural ‘fast food'” (Bordieu, 29) is ” . . . a bizarre and compelling type of urban theater that is filled with anticipation and a constantly changing cast of characters” (Martin, Chicago Tribune) plays into the notion that “Stars Are Just Like Us[5]!” In her 2011 essay on the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the role of the perp walk, Columbia law professor and The Nation columnist Patricia Williams, underscores this phenomenon:

See Lindsay Lohan without her makeup! Mel Gibson with his eyes crossed! Charlie Sheen with a manic film of sweat! The French press was deeply unsettled to see their former finance minister dragged through a forest of photographers, rumpled, handcuffed and red-eyed. Some French analysts saw it as a kind of democratizing gesture, a bracing reminder that elites need to be taught that they’re just like everyone else. (Williams, The Nation)

With a culture that aims to see itself in the Starbucks trips of starlets and socialites, sensationalizing the theater of justice and the criminalized marginal body with movies like Scared Straight![6] (1978) and television shows like Judge Judy[7] (1996-present), perp walks continue along a similar vein, stressing that highly produced and packaged products of fame are no stranger to the drama of law-breaking. For celebrities who are seasoned in performing on the public “stage,” trials and court hearings offer another opportunity for an excellent photo-op. If the perp walk is already a mode of spectacle, the celebrity perp walk takes the practice to the extreme, blurring lines between the “high” elite culture of the law, and the “low” culture of Hollywood yellow journalism for a gossip-hungry public, inciting new ” . . . norms of membership in a diffuse way that cannot be controlled by a central authority.” (Warner, 78) Thus, perp walks for the highly visible make law-breaking somewhat aspirational, a necessary credential to check off the list as an individual makes their way up the ranks toward ultimate super-stardom.

In “Turning the Perp Walk Into a Runway Strut” (La Ferla, The New York Times) Ruth La Ferla observes, “The movie offers may not be rolling in these days, but Lindsay Lohan is camera-ready and intent . . . on parlaying the traditional walk of shame en route to court into an image-boosting stroll of fame.” Lohan, who in March of 2011 found herself courtroom-bound on a charge of felony grand theft, wore a dress designed by Kimberly Ovitz that, ” . . . retail[ed] for $575 . . . [and] was sold out within days at the online boutiques that carried it.”

Thus, the perp walk is not only a chance for the accused to perform penance, or solely to be trotted out and scrutinized against their will, but also a chance to sell a product, and a key moment for a star to make a clear statement to the general public about their own individual brand identity. This collision of capitalist consumption, pop culture, individual branding and legal practice creates a strange niche wherein a perp walk becomes an opportunity to engage face-forward in a market, enhance one’s visibility via media exposure, and participate in the systems of law, all at once. The celebrity perp walk presents a particular inversion of what the perp walk aspires to do, as the opportunity to turn the perp walk into a perp-runway or perp-press-conference strips the practice of its original intent to shame, and instead prioritizes the spectacle itself as a central element of the process, the court sentencing or prison term becoming less of ” . . . an ordeal than a ri[te] of passage (Givhan, The Washington Post).”

Photograph from The Huffington Post. “Lindsay Lohan, Naomi Campbell Turn Perp Walk Into Catwalk.” March 17 2011.

In Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Michel Foucault notes, ” . . . it is the certainty of being punished and not the horrifying spectacle of public punishment that . . . discourage[s] crime; the exemplary mechanics of punishment changes its mechanisms. As a result, justice no longer takes public responsibility for the violence that is bound up with its practice (Foucault, 9).” If the sort of “social death” that is wrapped up within the practice of the perp walk is no longer the imminent threat to the body being paraded in the streets, one must begin to wonder — does the perp walk really serve a purpose at all, beyond providing a perfect stage for performative action? Has the “scaffold” — once reserved for the guillotine, the lynching or other modes of corporeal punishment — been replaced by a market-driven agenda for advertisement and self-promotion? It seems, for some, it has. In May of 1995, Alex Hirsch, “a 30-year-old rock performer and son of actor Judd Hirsch . . . was arrested by Chicago police . . . for felony possession of marijuana. During a perp walk with two other defendants, Hirsch didn’t proclaim his innocence or sob for the cameras. Rather, he reminded reporters — repeatedly — that his band was playing that weekend at a nearby club (Martin, Chicago Tribune).”

Yet, away from the glitz and glamour of the Hollywood hustle, the perp walk proffers a darker side. Whereas some might argue that the practice enhances transparency within social and legal systems, it does not do so across the board. Enacted upon “ . . . the extremes of the class spectrum: either highly visible figures whose images may be sold at platinum prices to the likes of People magazine, or poor non-white denizens whose dark unhappy images evoke shock and horror in service to what author Michelle Alexander calls ‘the New Jim Crow[8]’” (Williams, The Nation), the practice capitalizes on cultural anxieties, polarizing the American class system, creating a chasm within what Herbert Gans calls “taste cultures” (Gans, 7) — an onlooking public, consumers of this niche genre of voyeurism, mass produced and freely distributed. Those intrigued by these varying scenes of scandal create an “intimate public” (Berlant, 10) in which the high gloss of Hollywood-style popular culture overlaps with the low grime of a pulp crime newscast, kissing cousins under the umbrella of reality television and “true life” media representation. The meeting of the two assert the existence of truly “. . . aesthetic worlds that are juxtapolitical, flourishing in proximity to the political because the political is deemed an elsewhere . . . ” (Berlant, 3) yet somehow still politically punch-packing, as the social shaming catalyzed by the perp walk performance has the capacity to sway opinion. In the convivial salivation over and lauding of the flashy body of the accused celebrity, the public may overlook the negative impact of such an action on those who do not have the economic agency or cultural capital to spin such a performance in their favor.

The same aspect of the perp walk that aids the branding of fame and acts as a catalyst in increasing visibility for a notable personality might, in fact, have an inverse effect for those of a lower socio-economic standing, branding with the same unwavering force specific types of criminal acts as typical of disenfranchised communities. In short, the perp walk gives a proverbial “face” to wrongdoing, and through fear mongering and stereotype sells the “product” of “poor non-white” (Williams, The Nation) bodies as a looming threat to order within the American social system, in the same way that Lindsay Lohan’s parading provides a perfect platform for the sale of a dress and, in turn, the peddling of a starlet persona. When the corpus of the accused is abused in this way, the participation of legal bodies in such a practice calls into the question the use of physical aesthetic as an ethical violation, a malfeasance of the worst kind.

The contradiction presented in this split calls into question the relationship between ritual and entertainment in contemporary culture. Does the collision of these two realms compromise the intent — and thereby, the potential for any semblance of integrity — of both? If there is a difference in integrity or moral standing between the two, how can that which is offered up as entertainment, also be ritualistic — and is it a violation to offer up such a ritual as the perp walk to the judgment of a polarized public? A perfect theatrical storm, the perp walk combines “ . . . three categories of performance: 1) aesthetic, where the audience [(the public-as-participating-and-live-audience and the media, or press)] changes consciousness while the performer[—the accused—]‘rolls over’; 2) ritual, where the subject of the ceremony is transformed while the officiating performer[—a participating legal officials or authority, such as a member of the police force—] ‘rolls over’; 3) social drama, where all involved change.” (Schechner, 194) Yet whereas Schechner and Victor Turner both address the process of “Breach — Crisis — Redressive action — Reintegration[9]” — necessary elements for a true performance — the perp walk carries the accused through only the first three stages, seeming to fail at the final stage, leaving the criminalized corpus in social and legal purgatory, neither innocent nor guilty, and therefore neither reintegrated, nor fully exiled. An ordinary citizen put through this practice is often robbed of any proper recourse in scrubbing themselves clean of social indictment, even if the outcome of the trial is “Not guilty.”

The perp walk, in its existence, negates the presumption of innocence[10] and instead establishes a new norm of “innocent until photographed.” In an age increasingly marinated in visuality, as manifested in the insatiable consumption of pop culture, the philosophical Cartesian logic of cogito ergo sum is usurped by something with far more ominous implications: “I am documented, therefore I am.” When the task of participation, in the form of documentation, falls to the public, what theater is staged beyond the streets — in the courtroom — becomes secondary, a near after-thought, carried through for the sake of procedure and tradition. Does placing the power of shame in the hands of the people create an imbalance in the machinations of the American justice system? It seems, in the case of the perp walk, that this performative practice continues to prompt a hung jury.

Works Cited:

Berlant, Lauren. The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality. Duke University Press. 2008.

Bordieu, Pierre. On Television and Journalism. Pluto Press. 1998.

Callahan, Maureen. “Innocent until perp walked.” New York Post. May 21 2011. Online. Accessed: January 2013.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Second Vintage Books Edition, May 1995. First American edition originally published by Pantheon Books, January 1978.

Gans, Herbert J. Popular Culture and High Culture: An Analysis and Evaluation of Taste. Basic Books. 1999.

Goldstein, Howard. “‘Perp Walks’ Undermine Presumption of Innocence.” New York Law Journal: Corporate Update. January 7 2010. Online. Accessed: January 2013.

Givhan, Robin. “COURTHOUSE CHIC / The perp walk as fashion statement.” The Washington Post. July 17 2005. Online. Accessed: January 2013.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Dover Publications. 1994.

Krajicek, Dave. “The Crime Beat: Perp Walks.” Online. Accessed: January 2013.

La Ferla, Ruth. “Turning the Perp Walk Into a Runway Strut.” The New York Times. March 16 2011. Online. Accessed: December 2013.

Martin, Andrew. “Facing The Music.” Chicago Tribune. July 14 1997. Online. Accessed: January 2013.

Mullen, Shaun. “Are Perp Walks Legal, Let Alone Constitutional?” The Moderate Voice. May 17 2011. Online. Accessed: January 2013.

“Perp Walk.” The Brian Lehrer Show. WNYC. May 20 2011. Online. Accessed: January 2013.

“Perp Walk: The History Of Parading Criminal Suspects.” All Things Considered. National Public Radio. July 7 2011. Online. Accessed: January 2013.

Rovzar, Chris. “Walk Like a Perp: A Brief History of Making an Entrance in Handcuffs.” New York Magazine. May 19 2011. Online. Accessed: January 2013 via

Schechner, Richard. Performance Theory. Routledge. 2003.

Warner, Michael. Publics and Counterpublics. Zone Books. 2002.

Williams, Patricia. “L’Affaire DSK: Presumption of Innocence Lost.” The Nation. May 24 211. Online. Accessed: January 2013.

Tierney, John. “The Big City; Even Perps May Prefer Walk of Fame.” The New York Times. March 1 1999. Online. Accessed: December 2013.

Tierney, John. “The Big City; Walking the Walk.” The New York Times. October 30 1994. Online. Accessed: December 2013.


[1] “perp walk.” Collins English Dictionary — Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. HarperCollins Publishers. Online. Accessed: January 2013 via

[2] “perpetrate.” Collins English Dictionary — Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. HarperCollins Publishers. Online. Accessed: January 2013 via

[3] The Telegraph. “Dominique Strauss-Kahn: Michael Bloomberg defends ‘perp walk’.” May 18 2011. Online. Accessed: January 2013.

[4] Seifman, David. New York Post. “Mike now balks on perp walks.” July 6 2011. Online. Accessed: January 2013.

[5] “Stars Are Just Like Us!” is a regularly occurring section in the American tabloid publication US Weekly. The section focuses on documenting, through photographs obtained via the paparazzi, notable celebrities doing “common” things, such as getting coffee, going for walks, spending time with their families, et cetera.

[6] Directed by Arnold Shapiro, this documentary follows a group of delinquent teens as they meet with a group of real-life convicts.

[7] Judge Judy is an American reality television court show, “starring” the retired Manhattan Family Court Judge Judith Sheindlin.

[8] Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New Press. 2012.

[9] To expand on this process: “1. Breach of regular, norm-governed social relations. . . . 2. Crisis during which . . . there is a tendency for the breach to widen. . . . 3. Redressive action [ranging] from personal advice and informal mediation or arbitration to formal judicial and legal machinery and, to resolve certain kinds of crisis or legitimate other modes or resolution, to the performance of public ritual. . . . . Redress, too, has its liminal features, its being “betwixed and between,” and, as such, furnishes a distanced replication and critique of the events leading up to and composing the “crisis.” This replication may be in the rational idiom of a ritual process. . . . . 4. The final phase. . . . . consists either of the reintegration of the disturbed social group or of the social recognition and legitimization of irreparable schism between contesting parties. (Turner 1974: 37-41).” (Schechner, 187)

[10] More commonly known within popular turn of phrase as, “Innocent until proven guilty.”

About the Author:

Legacy Russell is a writer and curator. Born and raised in New York City, she is the Associate Curator of Exhibitions at The Studio Museum in Harlem. Recent exhibitions include Projects 110 : Michael Armitage, organized with Thelma Golden and The Studio Museum in Harlem at MoMA (2019); Dozie Kanu : Function (2019), Chloë Bass : Wayfinding (2019), Radical Reading Room (2019) at The Studio Museum in Harlem; and MOOD : Studio Museum Artists in Residence 2018-19 (2019) at MoMA PS1. Russell’s ongoing academic work and research focuses on gender, performance, digital selfdom, internet idolatry, and new media ritual. She is Visual Arts Editor of Apogee Journal, a Contributing Editor for BOMB Magazine online, and a Senior Editor at Berfrois. Russell is the recipient of the Thoma Foundation 2019 Arts Writing Award in Digital Art and a 2020 Rauschenberg Residency Fellow. Her first book, Glitch Feminism, is forthcoming from Verso Books in Fall 2020. | Instagram: @ellerustle | Twitter: @legacyrussell.