by Joshua B. Hoe This weekend is the premier of the NWA biopic (Straight Outta Compton)...It is crazy that it is coming out at the same time Ferguson is blowing up again. When NWA was talking about police violence (and getting called out along with Luke and many other MC’s by Congress) many (white) people thought they were crazy. Or they felt that the violence was always the result of black crime (and therefore always deserved). Oh how times have not changed.
The last year has been (more or less) a never-ending string of the exposure of the racism inherent in many of our Police Departments
You would like to think that decades after artists like NWA and Ice-T exposed what was going on with police, it would have made a bigger difference. But, it took the advent of cell phone cameras all these many years later to vindicate rap.
But, I knew what they were saying was true at the time…
Before I get to the details. Let me mention that I grew up in NYC and was pretty used to urban environments...When rap broke I was living in Oklahoma, but I went to a Federal experimental magnet school that was based around 50/50 integration. I was surrounded by all kinds of music during this time including punk and rap. I loved both (and still think of punk and rap as related).
I loved Grandmaster Flash (& Melle Melle) and the Furious Five, I loved Run DMC, I loved Kool DJ Herc, of course Beasties, and I really loved BDP and PE….And eventually I started to like West Coast acts like NWA.
Anyway, the seminal moments in my rap education were the original rap movies...magazines...and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing...
‘That’s the triple truth Ruth.’
Okay, back to the police. and why I never really doubted what MC’s were saying.
1980’s + My Terrifying Experience
I was living in the Dallas area in the mid 80’s and I had personally seen too much bad police behavior to doubt what rap was saying.
It wasn’t hard to understand that violence is always a possibility in a police encounter. I am not anti-police but I am not naive. We may have an expectation that all officers will act professionally..but, that is just not the way the world works.
I was a club kid and dressed and acted the part (mohawk, eyeliner, black nails, crazy clothes..the whole enchilada) and I was working a short stint at Club Clearview. Two police officers stopped me in the Deep Ellum area as I was walking from a friends car to go to work, they questioned me, started to brace me, and ultimately grabbed me and tore each of my jacket sleeves to “see if I had track marks.” It was a terrifying experience.
It was very dark, we were off the main drag, and for the first time in my life, I got the feeling that the line between harassment and deadly force was razor thin.
It was a dark area, they had guns, and they were not listening to reason at all...It was clearly harass the freak night for them….and if I had not kept it together and been very respectful even in the face of threats, it could have gone really bad.
And I am middle class and white.
I remember the very public story (in Dallas) of police raiding the wrong house and shooting an elderly man who came to the door holding a broom (one of the officers thought it was a gun apparently).
This is the problem with the conventional narratives around the subject of police abuse. Most of us have met plenty of good officers, who work hard, and really try to help people. But, anyone who has seen the darker side of policing understands that there are bad apples.
And anyone who has experienced the dark side, cannot go back to ever feeling safe or protected...Once you have felt the people who are supposed to protect you turn on you and threaten your safety...You will always have a different kind of anxiety when you have an encounter with the police.
And the feeling of insecurity goes beyond the presence of officers..Your whole belief in the system and in the promises of Democracy...and feeling safe is something that pervades people's’ lives in every way every day.
Acknowledging that most police are good does nothing to stop bad apples...And often, in our haste to show we are in solidarity with the police, we forget to clean up the bad apples. Or worse, we pass laws that make it virtually impossible for anyone to clean up any bad apples (or often even fire them).
And, in the police unions haste to remind everyone that most police are good, they start to pretend they do not know that they have bad apples...they start to tell the story that all police are good. And for many citizens, who have never experienced the dark side of police contact, that seems reasonable...I mean these are people who risk their lives for public safety every day.
And that part is true, I can only imagine what it must be like to know every day that you could be put in a situation that could be deadly. I have serious empathy for the stress and ptsd officers must experience.
But the idea that all police violence is okay - that bad police do not exist is just is not reality...and especially not in many communities of color.
There are bad apples, and I suspect if you talk to most officers off the record, they would admit it.
Where Do Bullies Graduate To
We all remember the guys in high school who wanted to fight more than anything, who seemed to enjoy hurting people, many of those guys are drawn like magnets toward police work exactly because police work promises legal violence.
In my (sad) time incarcerated, I saw from the inside that most police precincts and correctional facilities are fully aware they have these folks. In precincts these officers are sent in to hot scenes first….In correctional facilities they are usually called the ‘goon squad’ and are sent in when cracking heads is necessary (and oddly, they all shave their heads bald and wear gloves all day).
On the record, nobody will admit this...But, I guarantee many of them would say privately that having these kind of people on the force is critical to the proper functioning of law enforcement and the operation of correctional facilities.
Violence is an inherent part of communicating deterrence.
Unfortunately, people pass laws that make it virtually impossible to prosecute these kind of officers and so they cannot be herded like cats by the chain of command.
When they go rogue...there is very little anyone can do. In many states in this country, all an officer has to prove is that they thought they were in danger to justify a shooting. That is an insanely low bar.
So, because we now have cameras everywhere...sometimes even put up by city administrators...the covering up is getting harder and harder….but the stopping the violence or even firing the officers is still very hard.
It seems like our reaction is cognitive dissonance...For an entire year, we have seen increasingly insane irrefutable acts of extra-legal violence perpetrated by police officers across the country. But, instead of a wave of reform, mostly I see officials doubling down.
The Real Deal
Here is the truth….Police are generally good (even great people)...Even during my arrest and incarceration I met some police who were amazing people. They went out of their way to be human and professional...Many even showed kindness and support when they could have just shown scorn.
I have met hundreds of correctional officers who really did go the extra mile to be human in one of the most depressing places on earth. I once met a highway patrolman who left his job as an EMT because he felt he could save more lives as an officer. There are great people in law enforcement.
But I also saw the other officers. And I saw the things they did. I saw the physical and emotional results.
Police are overwhelmingly professional, but inappropriate police behavior is not an exception...It is normal. Often it is part of the functioning of the system…
I saw a story yesterday that was talking about correctional officers participating in crime in New York State prisons...This is also not exceptional. While most CO’s are not corrupt, there are corrupt officers at every facility I was ever at (ask yourself where the drugs in prison come from).
In some ways, the policing enterprise requires violence because it faces and tries to control violent people and events.
This might be part of why so many people are willing to look the other way, it is often an impossible job...and the police are surrounded by so much sadness and depression and soul destroying human misery that it has to be corrosive.
It has to be tough to remain professional for even the best officers. To have the patience and judgement of Job day after day, night after night, and terrible situation after terrible situation has to be unbelievable….A never ending Kafkaesque struggle.
That doesn’t explain why it seems to only happen to Black Americans (or primarily to Black America).
There are certainly explanations for this too like that communities of color are often poor and have less power so are targeted more...like that there is more violence in these communities and therefore more police violence...but we know this is at best only a partial explanation.
But, for people in urban neighborhoods it is also a never ending Kafkaesque struggle...and for many of them, harassment and abuse by police is a normal (not an exceptional) experience. A never ending and omnipresent danger looming around every corner...Home can never be safe.
A few years ago, I read a story about a young kid (black) who had driven home from college to visit his parents in Houston...And this was not even a bad neighborhood...For some reason the police decided he “didn’t belong” and questioned him in the driveway...somehow they decided he was a risk (even though he had no record and was literally at his home)...They shot him….his parents came out and intervened and they threatened them too (I believe some violence was done to the Mother)....Crazy.
This is the real truth, many people in this country cannot feel safe driving home to see their parents...I am sure when NYC had stop and frisk, people of color could never relax...The point isn’t that all police want to harass them...It is that they never really feel safe anywhere. They all know, from experience, that they are always vulnerable to search and harassment...and that any single incident of being searched or stopped can end in violence or death.
As a felon, I know this feeling well. But I certainly recognize that I did something to bring this reality on myself. Many people in communities of color experience this everyday and have done nothing to deserve it (except live in the wrong geographic area).
For most people in this country, there is a feeling that they can only be stopped or searched for legitimate reasons. And, if you have not done anything wrong, who cares. But once you have felt violated, and been told that the violation was legal and legitimate, you feel a different kind of vulnerability...A different kind of unsafe.
Again, I am not talking about people like me (felons)...I get that I have created suspicion of myself and that I have made myself constantly vulnerable. I am talking about people who never hurt or wanted to hurt anybody. People who were just trying to drive their cars...People who just wanted to be left alone in their homes. People whose only crime was being suspected.
Ralph Ellison + NWA + PE + BDP + Ice T + Black Lives Matter
Way back in the day, there were some prophets of rage...If I remember correctly it started with Ralph Ellison (1952) then years later BDP (RIP Scott La Rock)....PE, NWA..etc.
Ellison introduced the character Clifton in his novel Invisible Man who was shot dead by police for selling sambo dolls on the street without a permit...When I was born (1967), Jim Crow laws were just ending in this country...This violence being captured today on cell phones is old old violence (we may pretend that slavery was eons ago...but Jim Crow was in my lifetime).
Yes, the 80’s groups started the explosion of rap as the prime mover of the music business that it is today (Ice-T called it home invasion at the time)...But, at the time, these groups were constantly being accused of inciting violence...of glorifying violence. My memory might be off, but I seem to remember that all of them would usually respond something like this:
“We are telling the stories of what we see in the hood, we are reporters...this is not fiction, it is what we see everyday in our neighborhoods...on our streets.”
I will admit, that I can understand why people got mad at Ice-T’s song Cop Killer (even though he purposefully made it from a fictional character's perspective)....But, I think they would all say that they were surrounded by violence, much of it from the state (at the time).
I think we could fairly say that they were reporting exactly what they were seeing in their own communities. But, still we judged.
And this is the embarrassing part for all of us,
Why did white Americans care more about NWA’s ‘F The Police’ than they did about police violence in urban communities?
Why were we as a society willing to render their experience invisible so we could bask in safe outrage?
Why are we still erasing the experiences we see with our own eyes to bask in safe outrage (Eric Garner for God’s sake)?
Are we really saying that we care more about the continued seamless functioning of the police than we do about the people frisked, hurt, and killed?
Is it more important to us to constantly reaffirm our unwavering support for official violence and the agents of that violence, even at the expense of justice?
All of the backlash reminds me a bit of getting mad at Mr. Johnson (Texas v. Johnson) for being unpatriotic as he exercised speech rights inherent to our democracy. We sometimes seem to cling so hard to the symbols of our democracy that we forget what the symbols represent….a simple notion:
Every person has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Black rights matter too.
Why are we more worried about continuing the seamless functioning of the police enterprise than we are about the people whose lives are constantly being disrupted and exposed to legal violence?
Black Lives + Absurd Reactions
Why do white Americans today think that the point of ‘Black Lives Matter’ is somehow exclusionary?? Why would anyone’s first response to a movement spurred by violence against Black Americans to be to worry about white people.
I keep hearing people responding to Black Lives Matter - with All Lives Matter...How crazy is that.
The whole point of Black Lives Matter is that Black Lives should be considered as important as all other lives.
The people in this movement are loudly and desperately trying to remind people that they are human and should be counted as such...That they should be protected from legal killing, just like everyone else is.
It seems to me you have to have a certain amount of willful ignorance not to see that the point is that black people want to be counted as much as everyone else (not more).
‘Black Lives Matter’ is about exposing privilege NOT about excluding people.
It is about asking why every story on television about police violence is always about violence against someone with black skin.
Not white skin.
As someone else put it….Black Lives Matter TOO (as in also).
Way back in the day NWA was saying the same thing. They were saying that black communities matter, and that people should not be harassed and killed by police. Ice-T was saying things were so bad that people were considering anarchy as a realistic alternative (nobody beat Chris Nolan up too badly suggesting the same thing in his Batman trilogy). BDP and PE were saying that racism was a feature of the system...That Black Lives were counted as less than other (often white) lives.
And they were screaming it over twenty years ago.
Summing it Up
Why do we care more about if people from Black Lives Matter interrupt Bernie Sanders than we do about what they thought was important enough to interrupt Bernie Sanders?
Have you seen one television station or network focus on what they said after taking over his rally? If they thought it was worth taking over the stage...isn’t what they said important?
Why do we care more about who plays Ice Cube in the biopic than how prescient NWA was?
I am always worried when we start turning history into entertainment...People often start thinking that the problems are finished...or that they have actually participated in change by watching a movie or television (or listening to music).
Most police are good….I cannot say this enough...But it is a problem when good police refuse to act to stop bad police...It is a problem when police unions insist that bad police do not exist...And it does not mean that police violence is a rarity or exceptional. It is even worse when communities are so tied to the idea of the police being infallible that they make it virtually impossible to even hold rogue officers responsible.
We should celebrate the thousands of great things police officers do every day across this country...And we should certainly honor every officer who is hurt in the legitimate line of duty...We should honor them every time and treat them just like we would treat soldiers and other heroes. We expect a lot of police and they often sacrifice themselves to make us safer.
But, this is not always the case. We should not ignore the bad, or pretend that no bad exists. And we should certainly notice that the vast majority of the bad seems directed against particular communities across this country.
Illegitimate police violence happens all the time. What is important about the NWA movie is that decades later….what NWA was reporting is still standard operating procedure in way too many neighborhoods across this country.
I guess at the end of the day, I wish we could just grow up and admit we have a problem. I wish we could:
- Tell police unions to stop making things worses (please stop defending the indefensible)
- Stop telling the story that any investigation on police is an affront to all police
- Change the laws so that police can actually be prosecuted when they do something wrong
- Create special prosecutors in every state and federally who ONLY work on police cases and do not rely on the police they oversee for investigations
- Make certain that any changes ensure due process and rigorous investigatory standards to protect any and all investigated police officers
And, the root is not inherent criminality in these neighborhoods...although that is also present...Of course, KRS-1 suggested a solution to this way back in 1988 (that still has some truth today). Maybe, much of this would go away in an America where we don’t pick and arm winners and losers in pharmaceuticals:
So here is the deal and here is the facts
If you ever wonder why they can't stop crack
The police department is like a crew
It does whatever they want to do
In society you have illegal and legal
We need both to make things equal
So legal is tobacco, illegal is speed
Legal is aspirin, illegal is weed
Crack is illegal 'cause they cannot stop ya
But cocaine is legal if it's owned by a doctor
(Boogie Down Productions, “Illegal Business”, By All Means Necessary, 1988, Jive/RCA)
If we were, God forbid, to decriminalize we would probably have less crime, for certain we would have less violence, and also way less police violence...just sayin’ (and no, I do not use illegal drugs at all)
Fight the Power! Black Lives Matter!
What are your memories of the rise of NWA? What are your feelings about the Black Lives Matter movement? Leave a comment, we would love to hear from you!