While Netflix’s hit miniseries Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, focuses primarily on the gruesome journey of a serial killer from odd child to murdering man, it also pays close attention to the systematic failures that allowed Dahmer to continue his killings. In one harrowing sequence early in the series, Dahmer (Evan Peters) lures a 14-year-old boy, Konerak Sinthasomphone (Kieran Tamondong), to his apartment, drugs him, and assaults him. The boy briefly escapes, but despite the pleas of Black neighbors Milwaukee police officers believed Dahmer’s claims that everything was fine, and sent Sinthasomphone back into the apartment, where he was killed.
I grew up in Milwaukee, and the Dahmer case made apparent to the entire city the sharp tension between the mostly-white city government and Black residents, immigrants, and queer Milwaukeeans. The killings were a horror, yes, but it was clear one reason they’d gone on for years was that no one in authority cared about the victims. I wanted to know how the success of the Netflix series was landing in Milwaukee, and whether things felt different in the city, 30 years later. I spoke to Justin Roby, the director of HIV care at Diverse and Resilient, a Milwaukee-based nonprofit focused on LGBTQ health care and safety. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Dan Kois: As a Milwaukee native, I always feel a lot of shame when the Dahmer story comes up in conversation. It’s like the most awful thing for my hometown to be known for—not only for the killings themselves, but for what they seemed to display about the city. Do you feel that Milwaukee has gotten over those killings at all?
Justin Roby: Oh, we absolutely have not gotten over those killings. My mother and my uncle were friends with Tony Hughes and spent time with him at Tina’s. She always said he was the life of the party. I’ve been living a lot of her vicarious trauma the last few weeks.
That’s terrible. But I understand that’s not unusual in your community.
No, there are a lot of connections. After the series released on Netflix, my Facebook feed was inundated with people talking about their experiences, describing some of the victims, remembering what it was like at that time. And reconciling with the fact that that could have been us. Younger people, we are looking at our former selves. There’s no other way to put it. People are saying, “Yep, that would’ve been me. I would’ve been caught. I would’ve been one of Dahmer’s victims if this was now and here in this day and age.”
I was a white teenager in the Milwaukee suburbs in 1991. It was the first real glimpse I had into the way that the city’s black and gay populations were totally invisible to people in power—that more than a dozen people could disappear, and everyone in those communities could know something was going on, but no one in my world was talking or writing about it. Do you think that that has changed? Could something like this happen now?
I absolutely believe that it is still possible for a Jeffrey Dahmer situation to happen here in 2022. We can’t pretend that we have all of a sudden started to value Black and brown queer lives when we haven’t. This year alone here in Milwaukee, two Black trans women were murdered. We were at one vigil, and I could count maybe 30 of us, all from within our community. We did not have the larger community there. We did not have the Milwaukee Police Department there with us that day as we pleaded for someone to come forth with information about who killed our sister.
The MPD held a press conference Monday in which they talked about the Netflix series. They talked about being a “new department” with new outreach to the LGBTQ community. Have you or your organization seen results from this?
Not at all. As a matter of fact, our voice wasn’t even included. Yes, I do believe MPD is trying to make a safe space, but it still does not center the most disproportionately affected people within our community.
It seemed to me that the reason that they were responding specifically to the series is because of the scene in Episode 2, the Konerak Sinthasomphone sequence. That’s a very well-known story to Milwaukeeans, but it’s been very shocking to a lot of viewers who are not familiar with that part of the story. I found the scene really, really hard to watch. What did it mean to you when you watched that scene?
It is difficult. And then to know that that was actual fact, that was not part of the dramatization of the series. To hear that officer on the police radio say that he needed to be “deloused” after being in that apartment—that just points to the level of discrimination that is swept up under the rug within police departments around the United States, not just here in Milwaukee.
They placed those officers on administrative leave, but ultimately that was overturned. They got their jobs back. So ultimately it was a huge slap in the face because we know the police are going to protect their own in a way that is empowered by their budgets, that is empowered by their power, all of which the LGBTQ community don’t have. [In the series they are given “Officer of the Year” commendations, which did not happen, but one did later become the president of the local police union.]
So it is hard to watch an officer be able to respond that way without repercussions. And then to hear stories again throughout my timeline of Black and brown people wanting to engage with the police, but then we’re told that they don’t believe the story, or they think that we put ourselves in this danger because of the community that we are in. All we ask for is safety. That is all we ask for, human rights. And those seem to not be important to institutions like MPD who think that, after experiencing us, you need to be deloused.
In the scene, there are Black residents there exhorting the police officers to do something. That too really happened. And then watching these three white guys, the two cops and Jeffrey Dahmer, walk back into the apartment, and despite all of those warning signs, the two white cops feel like they still had more in common with the serial killer than they did with any of those other people. That’s really hard to see.
I’m really just surprised that MPD hasn’t released a better statement, to say, like, Yes, this is a part of our past. We own it. This happened, but this is how we’re going to move forward. We can’t change how it happened or how it played out at this point, but staying silent means that, like, yep, that’s who we are. Who are these people? We don’t owe them an apology.
I wonder if the series is worth it. Do you think the show is a kind of tribute to the victims? On your Facebook feed, are people responding to this series positively, because they’re glad the victims’ story is being told? Or do people feel like it’s digging something up that they wish they didn’t have to think about?
Definitely 50/50. Look, I enjoyed it. I binged it. It was a story. But the amount of vicarious trauma that is around this situation … What is the value in reliving things and bringing up facts that we already know? I think there was nothing brought to light that was new. It’s just a retelling of the same thing. They’re opening up the same wounds.
Was it for the victims? No, I don’t think so. I think it was more so for capitalism. Now it’d be different if they took the money and said, well there’s no memorial, so here’s a check. Because this is what we are saying that we’re trying to do for the victims. But right now it just seems like you’re just, you’re using our pain, our trauma of this story to elevate yourself.
Yeah, the show ends with that little note about how there’s no memorial in Milwaukee to the victims. It’s delivered like, “Shame on you, Milwaukee.” But it does seem like a really complicated question whether there should be a memorial. What are the arguments around that question?
The argument against establishing a memorial is that there will ultimately be fans of Jeffrey Dahmer who will show up, people who have idolized him. Is that really want the families of the victims want? I feel like there is value in a memorial, even if it’s—we have the Hoan Bridge here in Milwaukee, that we light up for different events. So even if it’s just an evening where we light the Hoan and just acknowledge the victims, and the families can come out and share words. I think a healing process is necessary. This won’t be the last time Dahmer is immortalized in film. So what do we do to counter that?