Human Rights

There's a Reason Why "F#&k Tha Police" Is One Of Hip Hop's Most Popular Refrains

The frustration we're seeing in Ferguson has as much to do with the racist nature of policing nationwide as it does with Mike Brown's fatal shooting.

In 1988, three years before a man focused his hand-held video camera on four Los Angeles police officers severely beating a 25-year-old black man named Rodney King, a group of young black males from the rap group N.W.A. released a song called, "F*ck Tha Police."

The tune, which is a hip-hop classic, was an urban, griot-style narrative of what life was like for black men in Los Angeles who were under constant fear of harassment from law enforcement (though black women are equally affected by police brutality). The youths, who seemed unlikely to be future millionaires—Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, in particular—echoed the pain and anger of millions of young black men and women across the country whose interactions with the police were always accompanied by the fear of death.

"They put out my picture with silence, Cause my identity by itself causes violence," rhymed the late Eazy-E in the track.

But N.W.A. did something with the song that seems impossible, even in real life: they reversed the rules, and got justice for themselves through a mock trial that prosecuted a racist cop. In the song, Ice Cube, MC Ren and Eazy-E took the stand to give testimony about their experiences with police brutality. At the end of the track, Dr. Dre, who played the presiding judge, delivered the ruling: 

[Dre] The jury has found you guilty of being a redneck, White bread, chickenshit motherf*cka
[Cop] But wait, that's a lie! That's a god damn lie!
[Dre] Get him out of here!
[Cop] I want justice!
[Dre] Get him the f*ck out my face!
[Cop] I want justice!
[Dre] Out, right now!
[Cop] F*ck you, you black motherf*ckers!

Mainstream America abhorred this five-minute indictment of law enforcement for its violent lyrics and desires to inflict physical pain on police. What was largely ignored, however, was the police-administered anguish these young black males were living under in the 1980s. The chasm between black and white Americans over the song couldn't have been wider. It was only when George Holliday's footage of King's beating was broadcast over network television that many white Americans began seeing what many black and Latino Americans often witnessed: that too often, police treat black and brown people like cattle.

But even the tape didn't matter. A Ventura County jury acquitted three of the officers in King's beating, but could not decide the fate of the fourth. The rioting that followed, unfortunate and tragic as it was, mirrored an internal rage that had been festering in disenfranchised blacks after years of being ignored and abused by a society that deems them unworthy of protection.

What we're seeing in Ferguson, MO, in the aftermath of Mike Brown's killing, is a reflection of the same hurt that pushed residents of Los Angeles over the edge. Just as the jury largely ignored the video tape that captured King's plantation-style beating, police in Ferguson have been acting with the same overseer demeanor. Based on news reports, the officer who shot Brown had no legitimate reason to engage the college-bound youth to begin with—other than insisting he get out of the street. And in another example of disregard for black humanity, Dorian Johnson, a friend of Brown's and one of the witnesses who saw the cop kill his friend, offered to give police his side of the story, but they declined.

The message to the people of Ferguson was clear: "F*ck you."

So, in a display of misplaced but justifiable anger, people looted and nearly three dozen arrests were made Sunday evening. The looting that took place was many residents' way of saying, "F*ck you, too." But despite that evening of frustration, most of the residents of Ferguson have been remarkably peaceful despite the Bull Conner-style police crackdown on their community.

That is what made the urban narrative emanating from N.W.A.'s "Fuck Tha Police" so effective, and dare I say, therapeutic; it was a graphic but non-violent way for those young black men to express hurt without actually hurting anyone or causing any property damage. This can't be said for the police officers who have unjustifiably snatched black lives with impunity over the years.

Here in New York City, the New York Police Department is no better. Just three weeks ago, the NYPD put Eric Garner in a chokehold, killing him. Though the chokehold was captured on video and Garner was clearly heard saying, "I can't breathe," Pat Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, said it wasn't a chokehold. Lynch, who is not a doctor, added that the medical examiner was wrong to call Garner's death a homicide.

It is this kind of unbridled arrogance and disrespect that makes young black and brown people say, "F*ck the police," because, basically, Lynch was telling black and brown New Yorkers, "F*ck you." The NYPD essentially said, "F*ck you," when they shot Sean Bell dead, just one night before he was to marry. And even when the NYPD decides not to shoot or choke a black or brown person to death, officers use the racist "broken windows" policy to treat minority residents like they're slaves wandering off the plantation without freedom papers.

It's the reason Kanye West said, "I say f*ck tha police, that's how I treat 'em. We can buy our way out of jail, but we can't buy freedom."

A Gallup poll conducted in July of last year found that 1 in 4 black men believe they were treated unfairly by police in the last 30 days. Another study that measured African Americans' trust of the police found blacks believe the police could conduct a fair investigation of police brutality if the victim was white. That it took more than a month for police in Sanford, Fla., to arrest George Zimmerman after he killed unarmed Trayvon Martin is indicative of the study's findings. And it took more than a year for Cook County authorities to bring criminal charges against Chicago police officer Dante Servin for shooting unarmed 22-year-old Rekia Boyd in the head, after Servin confronted Boyd and her friends over loud music coming from a house party he accused them of attending. A trial date hasn't been set.

While respectability politics would like to intellectualize why these injustices take place, the reality of police brutality sends a clear message to minorities: F*ck you. There is nothing respectable about the murders of black people. There was nothing respectable about Mike Brown's body lying in the middle of the street for public consumption like those postcards of lynched black people that many Americans deemed suitable items of postal communication.

So let us not focus too much of our energy on the looting. Instead, let's focus on the criminal justice system, that more than 30 years later, has so many young black and brown people saying, "F*ck Tha Police" and walking around like "N*ggaz With Attitudes."

Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior editor at AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter @Russian_Starr.

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