Clapping Back: Police Brutality and Rap

By:

On February second, 18-year-old Ramarley Graham of the Bronx was shot and killed by police just a few feet from his grandmother in her home. He was unarmed. Allegedly following a “stop and frisk” incident, the officers kicked in the door to Graham’s home and cornered the young man in the bathroom. A single point-blank shot to Ramarley’s chest ended his life.

The murder was on the heels of the severe beating by Bronx police of Jatiek Reed, 19, on January 26, seen here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=LvDXTnflraY

And once again, the brutality and murder was all but entirely neglected by the national media. Televised and web-based national news organizations could not find time in their 24-hour cycle to mention yet two more instances of police-state tactics in the American inner-city. A story untold by our so-called press is a bit like the proverbial tree that falls in the woods with no one to hear: it’s not really happening if no one is talking about it. That silence allows suburban and rural Americans imagine that we do live in a post-racial era, and not in what Michelle Alexander calls “the new Jim Crow” of race-coded criminality.

That’s where Hip hop comes in. “We’re underground reporters,” said Eazy-E, commenting on his work as member of seminal agitprop rap act N.W.A. The group’s song “Fuck tha Police” succeeded in announcing to middle America what urban people of color knew all too well, that a violent police state increasingly operated in many urban neighborhoods. Following trailblazers like N.W.A. and Public Enemy, the 1990s brought 2pac, dead prez, Mos Def and a great many others who offered reportage on the growing crisis of police brutality and mass incarceration (i.e., a police state) for Black and Brown citizens. Mos Def described “the nationwide project-prison-industry complex,” for which he used the model of the military-industrial complex to explain the ways that profit and power were derived from the effective warehousing of Black Americans. In a surprising move, Jay-Z hopped on a dead prez joint to report to white America: “I’m only trying to show you how Black niggas live […] Lil’ Amy told Becky, Becky told Jenny / Now they all know the skinny.” Rap music became an essential line of communication between the otherwise neglected hood and the wider nation.

Thankfully, many rappers remain outspoken about the contemporary brutality of the police and the steadily ongoing injustice of the penal system. Just before the recent tragedies in the Bronx, Queens’ Himanshu delivered an encyclopedic account of the NYPD’s history of brutality in “New York City Cops.” The Bronx’s Rebel Diaz has helped lead protests in the wake of the police’s crimes. The brilliant Hip hop philosopher Cornel West helped bring the attention paid to last fall’s Occupy Wall Street protests to the racist “stop and frisk” policy of the NYPD, getting arrested in the process.

Rappers from across the country lamented the shocking murder—caught on harrowing video—of Oakland’s Oscar Grant by police. California’s Crooked I, New Jersey’s Joe Budden, Mississippi’s Big K.R.I.T. and Queens’ Tony Yayo (among others) all broadcast news of Grant’s murder on record. Joe Budden connected the West Coast Grant murder with New York’s Sean Bell incident. Slaughterhouse-mate Joell Ortiz expanded the matter to encompass immigrant communities and all people of color, using the 1999 Bronx Police murder of Amadou Diallo—an incident referenced by artists as varied as Jay-Z, Le Tigre, Rage Against the Machine and Bruce Springsteen.

On the eve of the paradigm-shifting Occupy protests, Atlanta’s Killer Mike delivered a moving address to students and activists gathered to protest the execution of Troy Davis, who many saw as a victim of a racist penal system which assumes guilt according to race. Mike Bigga’s speech is essential viewing for anyone not acquainted with the anger and fear of Black and Brown Americans who exist in such life-and-death precariousness vis-a-vis police and the prison system.

While many so-called news organizations have bureaus around the world—London, Tokyo, Cairo and elsewhere—what they glaringly lack is any real attention paid to the decaying and danger-ridden inner-cities of the United States itself. They lack a hood bureau. The journalistic neglect of the inner-city (and of poor people generally) has persisted for decades, maintaining a racial and class-based divide which paradoxically produces more ignorance than understanding and thoroughly complicates any potential remedy. The police brutality accompanying the Occupy movement, then, came as a surprise to many white observers, who recoiled in shock at the brutal—yet non-lethal (thus far)—tactics of the NYPD and other police forces. They were largely ignorant, it seems, of the long and bloody history of police brutality. Police brutality in all its forms will persist as long as the victims see themselves as disconnected from one another, as long as the explicitly political use of police against Occupy is seen as different from cases like Jatiek Reed and Ramarley Graham, which are no less political. An organized resistance across racial and economic lines might replace assaults like that of Jatiek Reed with instances like these:

http://youtu.be/vUIMnTXyp4o