Music

How The Hip-Hop Community Is Addressing Police Brutality

At an already perilous time in American history, police brutality against Black Americans is rearing its ugly head again. In March, Breonna Taylor was murdered by Louisville Metro police after they barged into her home on a search warrant — for a person who had already been arrested. Earlier this week in Minneapolis, George Floyd was callously suffocated by since-fired officer Derek Chauvin, who kneeled on Floyd’s neck for at least eight minutes despite the 46-year-old pleading that he couldn’t breathe. (There was also the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, which involved an ex-law enforcement official.)

Former NBA player Stephen Jackson, who called Texas native Floyd his “friend” and “twin,” said that Floyd had moved to Minnesota to change his life, only to die violently at the hands of the state. Video footage shows MPD officers unlawfully pulling Floyd out of his car (on suspicion of using a forged check in a nearby store) and manhandling him even though Floyd gave no resistance.

The four officers involved in the incident (two of which are Chauvin and Tou Thao) have been fired, but their removal does nothing to shift the praxis of an American police system that is fundamentally predacious toward Black people. As of March 31st, at least 31 Black people have been shot dead by police in 2020, according to Statista.com. Taylor and Floyd are the latest public faces of a police brutality prevalence that doesn’t feel like a series of anomalous incidents as much as a natural consequence of a racially biased system. Outrage over Taylor and Floyd’s deaths has been widespread, especially from members of the hip-hop community that is disproportionately targeted by police.

There has been even more uproar about Floyd’s plight, with the likes of Diddy, Snoop Dogg, Talib Kweli, and more taking to social media and calling for action. Meek Mill bemoaned, “Its 2020 don’t even bring up a protest!!!!!! Now they killing us on camera it’s no excuses left!” But what does a proper civic response to police brutality look like? One can look through the hip-hop community to see that different people have different answers.

Stretches of Minnesota went up in flames last night at the hands of protestors, and people took to the streets of Los Angeles in outrage. Martin Luther King Jr. famously called uprisings, reductively framed as riots, “the language of the unheard.” Cardi B expressed the rage of that silenced hoard by venting, “As much as I don’t like this type of violence it is what it is. Too much peaceful marches, too much trending hashtags and NO SOLUTIONS! The people are left with NO CHOICE.”

That surge of emotion stems not only from the audacity of bad cops, but the emissaries of the state who rarely hold them accountable. Trae Da Truth, a Houston icon who called Floyd “one of our own from 3rd Ward Cuney Homes,” posted the badge number of Chauvin and Thao on Instagram and alerted that he was “applying pressure,” likely for them to be prosecuted. (As it turns out, George Floyd was a member of a Houston-based rap group in the ’90s) LL Cool J surmised, “These 4 evil cops need to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and put in prison for life.” T.I. spoke on the three Louisville Metro Police officers involved in Breonna Taylor’s murder on Instagram, noting that “there is no way in hell the officers responsible for murdering (Tayor) can be allowed to walk free.”

At the very minimum, incarcerating the offending officers would ensure that they are no longer abusing their powers to assault the community they swore to protect and serve. But expecting carceral politics to resolve an issue of its own making is injudicious. If convicting cops actually served as a warning to others who commit state-sanctioned violence, then the high profile 2019 conviction of officers like Amber Guyger, who murdered Botham Jean after barging into the innocent man’s home, would have moved the needle. But instead, the violence persists.

Along with the prosecution of offending officers, many police critics are calling for reforms that they believe will hold more officers accountable and make their interactions with citizens a matter of public record. People have suggested demilitarization, body cams, local oversight committees, and other deterrent measures. Raising awareness of reform through music, social media interaction works, but the next step in actionizing those measures is through policy, specifically local politics.

In 2014, when asked about how to enact change, St. Louis-born rapper and activist Tef Poe said that, “I think that when the smoke clears (in Ferguson), a lot of our plans are just to become a self-sufficient community and to really break away from the Democratic and Republican game of charades.” He’s been on the frontlines protesting police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri for most of the last decade, challenging the police department and politicians to enact legitimate justice for Black people in the wake of Mike Brown’s unjust murder by former Ferguson Police Department cop Darren Wilson in 2014.

Though the national political arena is downright depressing for many, there are still opportunities to engage municipalities and create a better quality of life through policy. Many liberal politicians have been smart enough to embrace hip-hop as a direct pipeline to young voters. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Bottoms, who put T.I. and Killer Mike on her transition team, is a chief example. In 2019, she pulled 25 officers out of joint task forces with the Drug Enforcement Administration because the federal agents were trying to prohibit the local cops from wearing body cameras. Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields, likely also speaking for Bottoms, challenged, “If you’re policing and you’re policing properly…you have nothing to fear” from wearing a body cam.

That principled stand speaks for Bottoms’ desire to hold the police accountable for their actions, which is more than many politicians are doing. That’s what onetime Chicago mayoral candidate Toni Periweckle sought to do amid the city’s FBI investigation for corruption. Chance The Rapper endorsed her in 2019, saying she was the best person for the job in part because she’s a “person who’s going to account for the police,” as he noted in a city hall speech. But unfortunately, Periweckle lost to Lori Lightfoot, who is a figure of ire for Chicago progressives.

In theory, more rappers should join TI, Killer Mike, Chance, and Meek Mill (who participated in a police reform town hall) in standing behind candidates that they believe in who can push for police reform. Many top rappers ideate themselves as the “kings” of their city because of their commercial stature, but galvanizing political change is a true sign of influence. Even when legislation is enacted, though, it doesn’t necessarily change the psyche of officers like Chauvin, who knew he was being filmed but still kept his knee firmly planted down on Floyd’s neck.

The prevalence of filmed instances of egregious violence indicates that there are cops who aren’t deterred from being aggressive on camera, and one instance of police brutality is too many. Police are held to a higher standard than civilians but the malice Chauvin showed feels no different than that of ex-law enforcement officer Gregory McMichael and his son Travis McMichael, who were recently charged in the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery. Arbery was jogging through a South Georgia neighborhood before being accosted by the McMichaels while William Bryan Jr. (who was also charged) filmed them. McMichael had worked for as police officer at the Glynn County Police Department from 1982 to 1989, and an investigator in the Glynn County District Attorney’s office for 24 years. He was almost suspended in 2014 when the office found out that had worked for years without the required firearms and deadly force training. Would his actions or disdain for Arbery’s mere presence have been any less if he were in a cop uniform? This reality makes many believe that stumping for police reform is such an uphill battle that it’s the wrong fight to have, and police should be outright removed from the equation.

On Tuesday, underground hip-hop legend Immortal Technique took to Instagram and expressed that “police exist in a society when it’s necessary to prevent rich and poor people (from coexisting) together” and deemed them “pawns of the system.” There are others who believe that while there are police officers who respect the humanity of the communities they serve, they don’t offset the hoards of corrupt officers. And more importantly, they believe that cops’ systemic criminalization of poor people of color doesn’t allow them to see the humanity of the people they cross paths with, which leads to brutality.

However, those seeking abolition of the current police system don’t want an environment without conflict resolution. Yesterday, Kehlani called for “death to the badge” on Twitter, but also shared a thread from Twitter account @a_busy_woman with valuable resources for those seeking alternatives to calling the police. The Unitarian Universalist Association seeks to “guide us away from punitive solutions into restoration and transformation.” Critical Resistance’s Abolitionist Toolkit “is designed primarily for U.S.-based community organizers already working toward abolition and our allies.” The kit contains a thorough explanation on alternatives to policing such as transformative justice, which relies on community networks and mediators instead of the police.

From gang interventionists who have halted cycles of gun violence to circles — an indigenous practice where mediators talk through offenses with the perpetrator, victims, and their communities — there are already non-punitive alternatives to policing. Increased awareness of these roles could lead to more people assuming them, and more self-policing communities throughout the country. It’s also worth noting that police abolition work goes in tandem with advocating for economic and social policies that reduce the factors that lead to crime.

Clearly there are different perspectives on how to tackle police corruption from reform to revolutionary ideas. Black activists have always differed on grounds of reform vs. radicalism, even butting heads over it. But no matter how we think justice should occur, the one thing that everyone can agree on is that it needs to happen before it’s too late — for the sake of everyone in this country.

Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.

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