Eight months after 40,000 people converged on Jena, Louisiana, justice still awaits the six young men whose cases inspired one of the biggest civil rights marches in recent history.
This Friday, special judge Thomas Yeager will consider a motion made on behalf of the Jena 6 to remove Judge J.P. Mauffray from their cases. Mauffray had previously denied motions by 5 of the defendants to recuse him from their cases. But last week, the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeals appointed Yeager to preside over this unusual hearing in Mauffray's own courtroom.
Supporters of the Jena 6 say that the motion to recuse Mauffray is part of an effort to give them a fair trial. "Judge Mauffray is the man at the center of Jena's broken justice system and now he is forced to justify his bias in a court of law with the entire nation watching," said James Rucker, Executive Director of Color of Change, the 400,000 member group that served as the key organizing body of last September's protests.
Flashpoint For Racial Justice
Last summer, the Jena 6 cases became a flashpoint in the national discussion over racial justice, and more disturbingly, a catalyst for further hate incidents.
On August 31, 2006, two nooses were found on an oak tree at Jena High School, an event that polarized the student body along racial lines. The school principal recommended that the three white noose-hangers be expelled. But the LaSalle Parish School Board -- advised by attorney J. Reed Walters, who as District Attorney would later prosecute the Jena 6 -- voted 7-1 instead to suspend the students. The only African American board member offered the dissenting vote.
After months of racial tensions, including incidents in which white Jena High student Justin Barker and others made racial insults at African American students, Barker was beaten by the boys who would become known as the "Jena 6". Barker went home hours after the fight and participated in an evening public ceremony.
But DA Walters charged the 6 African Americans with attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit attempted second-degree murder. The disparity in the sentencing spurred calls for a massive September march in Jena.
In the two months following the demonstrations, at least 50 noose incidents were reported nationally, including one found on the door of a Black professor's office at the Teacher's College of Columbia University. New York Governor David Patterson recently signed a law making displaying a noose a felony crime.
In the first Jena 6 case to come to trial, an all-white jury convicted one of the Jena 6 defendants, Mychal Bell, in adult court. After Bell spent 10 months behind bars, an appeals court threw out the conviction saying Bell could not be tried as an adult and remanded the case to juvenile court. Bell was freed on $45,000 bail.
But just two weeks later, Judge Mauffray agreed with DA Walters' motion to send Bell back to jail, on the grounds that Bell's involvement in the beating of Justin Barker had violated his probation for prior convictions. Mauffray then sentenced Bell to 18 months in a juvenile facility, where he is now serving his time.
Supporters of the Jena 6 say this was only one of the ways Mauffray demonstrated bias against the young Black men.
In his motion to recuse Mauffray, David Utter of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana and attorney for Jena defendant Jesse Ray Beard, outlined a pattern of judicial bias.
Before Utter took Beard's case, he writes in his motion, Mauffray told him that white beating victim Justin Barker was lucky that he did not "bleed to death". Mauffray also called the Jena 6 "real troublemakers", and discussed alleged incidents involving the defendants. Utter and others later investigated the rumored incidents and found them to be false.
In March, Mauffray told Beard's lawyers, "Does anyone know when [Jesse Ray Beard] started his career? His first participation in a crime of violence? It was December 25, 2005." Utter writes that, in response to a discussion about potential alternatives to incarceration, Mauffray scoffed and said, "Jesse Ray needs severe consequences, short term."
A similar motion to recuse District Attorney Reed Walters, on the grounds of racial bias and conflict of interest, is pending.
At just after midnight on Monday, October 24, the Village Voice announced that its parent company, Village Voice Media, will merge with the New Times.
That means that competition in the "alternative weekly" sector has been all but eliminated. The New Times is adding magazines like the Los Angeles Weekly, City Pages, and Seattle Weekly to its list, and will command 25 percent of the market.
It is now the Clear Channel of alt-weeklies.
There is no longer anything "alternative" about the alternative. The long goodbye to an oppositional politics and aesthetics begins now.
This deal was first reported as more than a rumor in the San Francisco Bay Guardian over a month ago. The BG reported that the New Times would take a 62 percent stake in a new LLC while Village Voice Media would take 38 percent. A plurality, if not a majority, of the new LLC board would be venture capitalists.
The New York Times confirmed the details of this arrangement. It also cited New Times CEO James Larkin as saying that they expect to buy out the VCs in 5 years. Apparently, the new company will be called Village Voice Media, but clearly the Voice will be changing to become more like the New Times, not the other way around.
Current union contracts with the Voice would be honored -- and that, friends, is another story in itself. But others would likely be dealt with nastily. Earlier this year, there was a bruising battle at Cooper Square over union givebacks that resulted in small concessions from union members, and deep cuts in rates to freelancers.
This is no small matter -- the Voice once paid the best rates in the industry. By contrast, New Times freelancers received much less, and largely remained a point of entry for new writers. This merger is likely to push freelancer rates even lower, as NT execs ask editors why they are paying so much for mere "content". Writers, after all, are worth much less than a dime a dozen.
In the meantime, David Schneiderman, the man who sold the Voice, is reportedly ready to receive a cool half mill as a bonus to close the merger deal, and will become the VP of online operations.
Peter Scholtes at the City Pages sounds an ominous note on the future of the merger:
"Ã¢â‚¬Â¦the first business decision of the long-rumored new company, which now owns City Pages? Feed the scoop to the New York Times, not its own reporters. So much for our vaunted "online effortsÃ¢â‚¬Â¦"From the point of view of the principals, the NT/VVM merger is the next logical step in rationalizing the industry.
Here's a business that started in the McCarthyist 1950s as a true alternative -- the papers used to be called "undergrounds" -- and took flight during the "whole world is watching" media explosion of the '60s. Lots of assholes got exposed, lots of rebels got their shine, and lots of cutting-edge culture got introduced to the world. Then, just like a lot of lefty orgs in the '70s and '80s, the alt-weeklies began to implode. Those decades were rife with purges, shakeouts, closures, and union-busting drives.
All these burned bridges were long forgotten by the go-go '90s, when dot-com money flooded alt-weeklies across the country. That's when VCs started checking out the scene, and corporate hounds like Larkin started moving in.
(This period also led to the rise of a new generation of writers -- one much more clean-scrubbed, signifier-savvy, overeducated, and arch-browed than the drug-slammed, whiskey-swilling, ink-stained renegades of an earlier era. The New New-New Journalists were culturally sharper and, much too often, politically less committed. They could take apart a movie or a CD for you in a smarter, funnier way than any overly earnest hippie ever could, but they couldn't tell you why they were getting paid so poorly for it, or organize anything more impactful than a kegger. And yes, I absolutely include myself in this not-so-wild bunch.)
But then the bubble burst, and everyone was assed-out again. Since then, the NT and VVM have been slowly coming together in a death dance.
In October of 2002, NT and VVM cut a deal to split markets -- not at all unlike what radio has done after consolidation: here's your turf, here's mine. NT closed the LA New Times and let VVM and its LA Weekly imprint have the run of the place. In Cleveland, VVM shut down its Cleveland Free Times so that NT could rock on with its Cleveland Scene title.
What media conglomerates began to learn after 2000 was that it wasn't enough to be the big daddy, to have collected all the pieces on the Monopoly board. Properties actually had to make money, and after the bubble, there was a whole lotta head-scratching going on.
In the San Francisco Bay area, an area not big in numbers but huge in mindshare, the NT decided to go after the independent San Francisco Bay Guardian in a big way -- through predatory pricing and conglom-to-conglom sweetheart deals -- essentially offering heavily discounted ads to tackle the market. (Note that this is the same company that now blames freebie Craigslist for its financial woes.)
By all accounts, this has caused all three major weeklies -- the NT's SF Weekly and East Bay Express, and the Bay Guardian -- to suffer heavy losses. Staffing-wise, the BG is a skeleton of what it was 5 years ago; it keeps going not because its staffers are inspired by the paper's maverick mythology, but on the backs of its freelancers who must sometimes wait longer than 6 months for an actual check. And if the BG account is to be believed, the NT/VVM merger may actually force the NT to close one or both of its titles here.
While predatory pricing undoubtedly is a factor in the Bay Guardian's falling Ã¯Â¬Â�nancial fortunes, the impact of Craigslist and on-line personals and sex ads, as well as younger audiences going to the Internet in droves, have contributed to the ongoing decline of weeklies across the country.
In the meantime, the thing that got the alternative press going in the first place -- content -- suffers.
The Voice, sort of the alt-weekly of record, has been undergoing an extreme makeover during the past 3 years, heading towards a NT template: shorter, less substantive pieces, writing that veers toward breezy over deep, less investigative and more pop-cultural. Some of the changes have been good, a necessary updating for a new generation of readers. Others have left great writers like Gary Giddins (and many others who, unlike Giddins, decided to stay) completely denatured.
With 100-word reviews and 500-word news bits, lots of brilliant writers have been basically reduced to adding sugar to the kool-aid. The only good news here is for younger writers: there's going to be lots of opportunity for you, especially if you don't aspire to pay rent and feed yourself, if you're bored with fighting City Hall, and you love Kenny Loggins.
But when the paper becomes only about selling the latest CD, concert ticket, movie ticket, sex toy, or call-girl service, what the hell is "alternative" about that?
Outside the Houston Astrodome earlier this week, dozens of tents for State Farm Insurance, Bank of America, Chase, Veteran's Aid, and many more seemed to promise a quick return to something like shopping-mall normalcy. It was easy to sign up for a credit card. An ATM city had sprung up, so you could slide your new card in and get cash right away, and pay the bill later.
At press briefings organized by local officials, the story was upbeat; a shining example of government, business and charity coming together to do good. Thousands of evacuees were being processed, more than 500 children were been reunited with their families, and life went on. But behind the doors of the Astrodome, survival and frustration were the order of the day. Jamel Bell, who fled his flooded Ninth Ward in New Orleans, found no salvation here. "Inside it feels like prison," he said. At curfew, he says, the evacuees were locked in.
News teams from independent sources, such as our own, were continuously harassed by local officials and police. Reporters from KPFT, the Pacifica station in Houston, tossed their press badges for Red Cross volunteer badges in order to do their work. In Baton Rouge, hip-hop journalist and WBAI reporter Rosa Clemente was arrested and briefly detained after National Guardsmen attempted to confiscate her recording equipment.
Despite news reports that evacuees were being moved through the system and out of the center efficiently and quickly, there were up to 35,000 evacuees daily in the building. Cots filled with weary people stretched across the floor. Celebrities, followed by television cameras, filed in and out. The food was terrible, the meat in the sandwiches sometimes served still frozen. Surveillance was heavy, and tensions on the floor remained thick.
Many evacuees tried to forget the brutal images of their evacuation: skin sores on a man wading through toxic waters, a chaotic stampede of evacuees on a bridge toward a line of buses, the traumatic separation of families at evacuation checkpoints. Amidst the apocalyptic scenes, Dionne Wright, a custodian in her mid-30s, tried to calm her daugher. "This is not the end," she said. "This is not the end."
Raver Price, 19, from the largely black and poor Ninth Ward, said she heard rumblings before the levee break, and wondered if they were the sounds of dynamite. When she and her hungry friends took food from a flooded store, she said she encountered a Guardsman who sneered at her and said, "I can't wait to kill you bitches."
Among the displaced New Orleans youths in the Astrodome, some neighborhood rivalries did not go out with the tide, and fights sometimes broke out between different crews. Many evacuees said that when they went to sleep, they kept one eye on their belongings.
Before dawn, often as early as 5:30am, lines for basic services -- including those to find housing or obtain the much-desired $2,000 relief check from FEMA and the $235 relief check from the Red Cross -- began forming. Processing continued until 8pm.
Many people were mystified by FEMA rules. Households are only allowed to report one address for the one-time check to be sent to. For families still in the midst of being reunited, or on the verge of being sent to another evacuation center or even another city, the logic seemed bizarre.
Yet some families left without anything. Immigrants, including many of the estimated 30,000 displaced Vietnamese Americans in Houston, were being turned away. Even legal residents learned that their green cards were not enough to qualify them for disaster aid. These realizations invariably came after hours of waiting. And FEMA and the Red Cross had no translators on hand.
Au Huynh came down from Philadelphia to help in the relief efforts. "I was a refugee, I came here in 1989," she said. "I don't think there is a political mark on being a refugee. [Being a refugee means] being displaced because of political reasons or environmental reason. It's important to recognize the rights of refugees, it shouldn't be based on being a citizen in terms of getting relief."
Huynh had called the Red Cross to volunteer as a translator, but they said they had no need for her. So, through the Internet, she found a small Houston group called Save the Boat People SOS that was setting up relief efforts. The organization is one of the Asian American community organizations working with a network of Buddhist temples in Houston on an extraordinary parallel relief effort.
With most Asian American evacuees being routed away from the Astrodome, volunteers took them in at the Hong Kong City Mall. In the parking lot, there are piles of donated clothing. At a card table, volunteers work on their own personal laptops and cell phones to find shelter, make urgent medical referrals and reunite families.
Some 50,000 Vietnamese worked the Louisiana coast as fisherman and in New Orleans in the service and manufacturing sectors, alongside a large community of Filipino American shrimpers, the oldest Filipino community in North America. So the volunteers at the Hong Kong City Mall expect many more evacuees.
But these efforts are short-term. Houston officials have been pushing to move all the evacuees out of the Astrodome and the Reliant Center by Saturday into the Reliant Arena. They say that they might not be able to complete the efforts until next week.
Meanwhile, the evacuees wonder and worry about their future. Many want to return, and most believe they will be able to do so in a week or two. But while New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin has allowed the homeowners and business owners of the Garden District and the French Quarter to return this week, there are still no dates set for neighborhoods like the Ninth Ward to reopen.
Evacuees are being shipped all over the country -- San Francisco, Michigan and New York -- with no return ticket. As pundits and planners across the country have begun to call for neighborhoods like the Ninth Ward to be bulldozed and permanently abandoned, many evacuees voice their fears, wondering if there is an agenda afoot to eliminate the city's poor and people of color. Organizers from the New Orleans organization Community Labor United have begun calling for "evacuees from our community to actively participate in the rebuilding of New Orleans."
In the Astrodome, Dolores Johnson has another cold sandwich and shakes her head. "We're able-bodied," she says. "Why can't we be involved in the process to rebuild our homes?"
Oscar award-winning screenwriter Paul Haggis' directorial debut, "Crash," is the movie many people are still talking about this summer. Writing in the New Yorker, David Denby said it "makes previous movie treatments of prejudice seem like easy and self-congratulatory liberalizing." Ella Taylor of Los Angeles Weekly hailed it as "one of the best Hollywood movies about race."
Set in post-riot, post-9/11 Los Angeles, "Crash" literally slams together a number of racialized "crashes" that drive the film forward. It openly draws on L.A. films like "Grand Canyon" and "Falling Down," as well as the works of Spike Lee. Although studios have shied away from dealing with race since 9/11, "Crash" is being marketed as "a provocative, unflinching look at the complexities of racial conflict in America." It is meant to challenge its viewers "to question their own prejudices" through the multiple perspectives of its star-studded, multiracial cast.
So what does it mean to be a post-9/11 race movie? Is "Crash" better than its Hollywood predecessors? Is Hollywood finally dealing with race? Cultural critics Jeff Chang and Sylvia Chan sat down, Ebert and Roeper-style, to figure it all out.
Keeping it Real
Jeff Chang: They're pitching "Crash" as a "race movie," a genre that has been anathema to Hollywood after 9/11. There isn't any explicit reference to the Iraq war, but I think the war is what "colors" the entire movie.
Sylvia Chan: What is a post-9/11 race movie? How have perspectives on race changed since 9/11? Besides the fact that there's an Iranian shop owner, this film could very well have been made before 9/11. What does it mean to be a good "race" movie, period?
JC: To begin to answer that, we have to go back to the 80s. After the blaxploitation era, a particular kind of race movie really took off: stories that were essentially about blacks or people of color redeeming whites. Start with Spielberg and "The Color Purple" and move on to "Mississippi Burning," "Cry Freedom," "Driving Miss Daisy." "Grand Canyon" is the crowning point of this genre.
SC: It continues to now with "Monster's Ball."
JC: And let's please ignore most of Queen Latifah's recent work. At the end of the 80s, Spike Lee says that he wrote "Do The Right Thing" to confront exactly this kind of movie. In turn, "Do The Right Thing" opened up the door to Black films being financed by the major studios, a trend that accelerated after the Los Angeles riots in 1992.
The other thing that happened after the riots is that Hollywood naturalized race by actively casting non-white co-stars or supporting actors. Race but without the racism, or as Greg Tate would put it, "everything but the burden." These days, the subtext of most movies is that we're all working and shopping in this beautiful, multicultural America together. It's the suppression of racial conflict through easy images of pluralist capitalism.
So "Crash's" neo-realistic take on race--the slurs, the appropriation of hip-hop, the tensions that refer back to pre-Rodney King Los Angeles--can be received literally as the real deal.
Black and White and Everyone Else
SC: I thought "Crash" was so unrealistic. Matt Dillon's cop character Sgt. Ryan walks into that HMO office and says, "My father helped black people and you just have a job because of affirmative action and that's why I don't like you, you bitch. Now give me what I want." If people spoke like that it would be great, because then you would know exactly where people stood. But it's not like that, and that's what's so unrealistic. Most people don't even know how to talk about race like that.
JC: For Haggis, the "crash" is the metaphor that holds everything together. He seems to believe race is only discussed when we collide with each other, and friction starts. It's a very interesting concept that resonates post-riots, post 9/11. But there's very little character development in the movie, and even less insight into race.
SC: The entire notion that racism can be instigated by "crashes" and collisions is steeped in a certain perspective: if I don't crash into you, I'll never get to know you, because you don't live in my neighborhood, and I don't have any friends that are not of my race or class.
The whole idea that you don't have to think about race until you "crash" into it is not what most people have the luxury of doing. And that is what white privilege is. White privilege is not having to think about race. Which is why I think many people have the reaction they do of coming out of the movie and bawling, thinking they've learned something.
JC: Haggis seems to use his black characters, on the other hand, to elaborate his view of race. It's interesting that Don Cheadle's conflicted, melancholy Detective Graham Waters--who remains a mystery to the end, even to himself--is the one who is given the lines about crashing.
SC: Ludacris' character Anthony is the most ridiculous kind of black nationalist. He looks like a fool most of the time. Then it turns out he's a criminal, too. Radical thought has to be associated with petty criminality. It parallels how radical thought was criminalized in the American justice system during the Reagan era.
JC: During the 60s, Tom Wolfe portrayed black and Samoan activists in San Francisco and New York City as race hustlers and poverty pimps in "[Radical Chic and] Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers." Anthony is just an update of a kind of 60s white liberal take on radicals of color.
He is redeemed at the end of the movie, after taking a lesson from the Terence Howard's bourgeoisie, white-identifying black director Cameron, who sheds his Oreo aspirations by confronting the police harder than Anthony ever would. Anthony then goes on to free the Thai slave workers.
Haggis seems to be saying that the kind of nationalism and separatism Anthony is spouting is not the way forward. What's new in "Crash," if anything, is a recognition that assimilation into whiteness may not be the way to go either. But either way, non-whites need to get over their anger about racism, because they need whites.
SC: At the same time, I thought the white characters were the most realistic characters in the movie, and I probably wouldn't have had as many problems with this movie if it had been structured more like 1993's "Falling Down," where it was about whiteness under siege. If it was about white people being afraid, suspicious, angry, resentful, and confused by non-white people, then it would be very accurate. White people are afraid of non-white people, even if they can't vocalize or verbalize it.
JC: The characters that are not white or black are more thinly drawn. Shaun Toub's Iranian store owner Farhad -- whose doctor daughter Dorrie (Bahar Soomekh) sets up the only war reference when she is buying a gun from a racist white shopkeeper -- is simply another "bad Arab," if a powerless one. The Chicanos are the most redeemed, but they are magical-realist archetypes more than characters.
The two Asian characters Choi and Kim Lee are set up for a very cheap reversal. Asians are supposed to be the model minorities -- hard-working pursuers of the American Dream. Instead, this husband and wife are revealed to be human traffickers, bad drivers, and bottom-line materialists. (To show just how cheap the reversal is, the human trafficker gets paid with a personal check. What human trafficker gets paid with a personal check?) So the question is: what prejudice about Asians were we supposed to confront here? These are stereotypes on steroids.
The last image of an Asian person is of the newly freed Thai boy, looking like the classic "angel with a dirty face," only now he is staring into the store glowing with walls of DVDs. This is why they want to come to America, right? Because of the movies.
Crash of the Civilizations
SC: Many people have had an extremely visceral reaction to this film. Why does "Crash" move people so? Why has it received these glowing reviews? Why is it deemed so realistic, when it's not my reality, or the reality of anyone I know? It points out deep divides of how people approach issues of race.
Take David Denby who reviewed "Crash" in the New Yorker, and loved it. If you go back, he hated "Do the Right Thing," famously wrote that it was reactionary and terrible. But to me, a good movie about race would be one where white viewers walk out angry, confused, and frustrated, because for once, they would get a chance to look at the world from a non-white perspective. To make you feel what it's like to be angry, confused, and frustrated all the time is exactly what a movie about race should do, because that's what it feels like when you tell me that if I do this, this and this, I can get this. But, it's just not true.
JC: The main reversal of the movie is when Officer Ryan, who humiliates Cameron's light-skinned wife Christine (Thandie Newton), is forced to save her from a burning car. He learns that he can't blame his problems on blacks, or take it out on them. He needs them to save his father and himself.
SC: One of the central contradictions of the American narrative is between whiteness and diversity. Are we a white nation that has to claim Western culture as our own, or do we subscribe to a liberal narrative of diversity, where we are a melting pot, a nation of immigrants? The first option is Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations" thesis, in which he asserts we must claim our white "western" heritage to maintain America's global power against threatening "Islamic" and "Sinic" (Chinese) culture. Huntington also says that Latinos pose the greatest threat to the nation from inside the nation's borders, because they pose a threat to "us" culturally. These theories guide much of U.S. foreign and domestic policy.
Now in "Crash," there is a desire to subvert the narrative of whiteness, to say, no we're not a white nation, we are a diverse nation. But it also shows us how diversity is so problematic. The story winds up the same old way -- telling us "we" can be diverse, but only if a certain racial hierarchy remains, where whiteness is always redeemed, and whiteness always will save you. African Americans have to be co-opted, to be included in the national "us" in order to consolidate the nation against these "threats" -- which are the Muslims, the Arabs, the Chinese, and the Latinos.
Race During Wartime
JC: In the 1980s, people were very hungry for images of people of color. That was what drove the radical multiculturalism movement and led to the success of artists like Spike Lee and Public Enemy. What we wanted at the time was to see a broad spectrum of representations of ourselves. But what's happened is that now movies for audiences of color financed by studios are largely comedies -- in fact, class aspirational comedies at that.
SC: Like "Barbershop."
JC: Or "Diary of A Mad Black Woman" or "Hitch." Nothing wrong with that, but it represents only a fraction of the kinds of representations people were hoping to see.
SC: No more "Boyz in the Hood."
JC: With a few exceptions -- "Rize," "Hustle & Flow," "Coach Carter" -- the street drama and the urban noir have migrated to cable TV and gangsta rap. Historical dramas are dead, except again for TV. The family drama is long gone -- "Lackawanna Blues" was on HBO. Don't hold your breath waiting for the next "To Sleep with Anger" to be greenlit. In that sense, a post-9/11 Hollywood race movie is an anomaly.
SC: Bringing it back to this post 9/11 moment, "Crash" is coming out during a time of war. Our nation is in "crisis," we have a "deeply divided nation," as the media keeps telling us. When "Grand Canyon," and one of the first white liberal Hollywood movies, "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner," were released, the nation was at war. Times of crisis and war are when whites have the strongest desire for reconciliation with blacks, when blackness is most desired as part of a triumphant narrative of nation.
Don Cheadle's character is a type of black male protagonist who's very common these days: a proxy for the state, working against all the unruly elements of internal diversity and external threat. Think Denzel Washington in "The Siege," Will Smith in "Men In Black" and "Independence Day," Samuel L. Jackson in "Rules of Engagement," Morgan Freeman as the president in "Deep Impact." This is the type of narrative Hollywood needs to keep putting out there right now--the black man as the symbol for our nation, the guy who's going to provide order for not only the U.S., but for the world. And let's be real: this isn't happening in real life.
In the end, the film paints racism as a postmodern malaise where conflict happens because we don't touch each other except when we crash. That's bullshit. Racism is structural and institutional more than it is personal and sentimental.
JC: The pitch is go to see "Crash," then go home and ponder your prejudices. For some people it may do that. For a lot of people, though, it won't. It's the feel-good race hit movie of the summer.
Hip hop had blown out of its niche into the mainstream. It suddenly seemed difficult to remember a time when youths of color had not been represented in the media, whether as consumers or producers. But just as hip-hop was now crucial content for the consolidated media, media consolidation also affected hip-hop's content. Women in hip-hop lost the most.
During the late 1980s, videos had been a boon to women rappers. Queen Latifah, for instance, presented herself in the Fab 5 Freddy-directed video for "Ladies First" as a matriarch, military strategist and militant. Others – Salt-N-Pepa, MC Lyte, Roxanne Shante – established their own personalities, equals alongside their male peers. A decade later, successful female artists like Missy Elliott and Lauryn Hill were the exceptions rather than the rule. Scantily-clad dancers seemed in endless supply, while women rappers were scarce. Big money clearly had a distorting effect.
At the same time, hip-hop feminism emerged in the work of writers and poets like Joan Morgan, Toni Blackman, Rha Goddess and dream hampton, offering a loyal but vocal opposition to hip-hop's ubermasculinity. Hip-hop feminism's musical counterpart was not in rap but in the so-called "neo-soul" movement, a genre opened up by Elliott and Hill, Mary J. Blige, Meshell Ndegeocello, Jill Scott, and Erykah Badu, that put the groove back into the music and the love back into lyrics. Emblematic of the shift was Angie Stone, who had been a female rap pioneer in The Sequence, and now returned to the limelight as a singer.
In one sense, "neo-soul" was a clever marketing strategy, invented by Motown exec Kedar Massenburg to package R&B artists that he had discovered, including Badu, India.Arie and D'Angelo. In time, the artists themselves would disavow the term, a reflection of their sensitivity to the fickleness of the market and the cycle of cool. But neo-soul also created space for voices to dissect the masculinist attitudes and ideals projected in the hip-hop mainstream. Badu sang, "The world is mine. When I wake up I don't need nobody telling me the time."
There was an unstable mix of Million Woman March-styled self-empowerment and AIDS- and gangsta-rap-era self-defense in the music, perhaps best epitomized by Hill's hit "Doo Wop (That Thing)." In these songs, critiques of hip-hop and patriarchy came together. Jill Scott imagined reconciliation, no longer having to love hip-hop from a distance. On "Love Rain," she sang of meeting a new man: "Talked about Moses and Mumia, reparations, blue colors, memories of shell top Adidas, he was fresh like summer peaches." But the relationship ended badly: "All you did was make a mockery of somethin' so incredible beautiful. I honestly did love you so." If hip-hop had dominated discussion of the crisis of gender relations with a boys' locker-room point of view, neo-soul responded with the sista-cipher.
Neo-soul's hip-hop feminist critique came into sharp relief in 2001. After years of flying high, rap sales crashed by 15 percent, leading a music industry-wide plunge. But newcomers Alicia Keys and India.Arie were honored with a bevy of Grammy nominations, and embraced by millions of fans. Keys and Arie celebrated "a woman's worth" and were frankly critical of male irresponsibility. India.Arie's breakout hit "Video" – in which she sang, "I'm not the average girl from your video" – took joy in flipping the music that had once been sampled for Akinyele's deez-nuts ode, "Put It in Your Mouth." On "Fallin," Alicia Keys wove the chords of James Brown's "It's a Man's World" into a complicated examination of a relationship. In her video, it became a symbol-laden examination of black love – the man caught in the prison-industrial complex, the woman torn between loyalty and leaving.
The questions raised resonated far beyond the fraught issues of gender: what did it mean to "keep it real" anymore? What did it mean to be true to something when that something had changed? Could one preserve any kind of individual agency or did one have to ride with the new flow of exploitation?
Identity was on sale. Brands had become sophisticated. During the 2001 holiday season, the Modernista!-designed Gap ads sold a single line of clothes by using different artists as stand-ins for different niches: Sheryl Crow for the VH1 lifestyle, Seal for the SUV lifestyle, Liz Phair for aging indie-rockers, Robbie Robertson for aged arena-rockers, India.Arie for urban hipsters, Shaggy for urban players.
Media monopolies favored artists who did not merely produce hits, but synergies of goods. In this new corporate order, a song could become a movie could become a book could become a soundtrack could become a music video could become a video game. Here was the media monopolies' appropriation of dub logic, profits stacking up with each new version.
The biggest artists were brands themselves, generating lifestyles based on their own ineffable beings. Sean "P-Diddy" Combs leveraged himself across music, film, television and high fashion. Jay-Z peddled movies, clothing, shoes and vodka. Once the journey of cool had made the complete circuit from the artist to the mall, the artists had to reject what they had created, and reinvent themselves. In Jay-Z's case, the ultimate reinvention would be retirement, as if to recognize that excessive branding and positioning had prematurely exhausted the possibilities of art.
The cycle of cool was the oldest hip-hop story ever told. Busy Bee had influenced his followers, like a young Run DMC, to wear bugged-out, geek-chic, plaid-striped suits. Run DMC then commanded their black-on-black sporting audiences to throw their white Adidas shelltoes in the air, branding-on-top-of-branding. The difference was in scale. At the turn of the century the hip-hop generation was now at the center of a global capitalist process generating billions in revenues. "We're survivalists turned to consumers," rapped Talib Kweli.
Just as brands developed their niches, each niche, in turn, came with its own set of brands. "Political rap" was defanged as "conscious rap," and retooled as an alternative hip-hop lifestyle. Instead of drinking Alize, you drank Sprite. Instead of Versace, you wore Ecko. Instead of Jay-Z, you dug the Roots. Teen rap, party rap, gangsta rap, political rap – at the dawn of hip-hop journalism these tags were just a music critic's game. Now they had literally become serious business.
What materially separated Jay-Z from a rapper like Talib Kweli? The answer was in the marketing. Media monopolies saw Jay-Z as an artist with universal appeal, Kweli as a "conscious rapper." A matter of taste, perhaps, except that the niche of "conscious rap" might be industry shorthand for reaching a certain kind of market – say, college-educated, iPod-rocking, Northface backpacking, vegan, hip-hop fans. In this late-capitalist logic, it was not the rappers' message that brought the audience together, it was the things that the audience bought that brought the rappers together.
So Talib Kweli faced the uniquely thorny problem of the "conscious rapper." "Once you put a prefix on an MC's name, that's a death trap," he said. When he unveiled a song called "Gun Music" – a complicated critique of street-arms fetishism – his fans grumbled he wasn't being conscious enough. At the same time, Kweli worried that being pigeonholed as "political" would prevent him from being promoted to the kids who loved Jay-Z. In fact, Jay-Z had cut anti-war and anti-police brutality raps. But by the turn of the century, to be labeled a "conscious" or" political" rapper by the music industry was to be condemned to preach to a very small choir.
Christgau's old-school observation – that hip-hop exploitation had layers of complication – had boomeranged back.
Fifteen years ago, rappers like Public Enemy, KRS-One and Queen Latifah were received as heralds of a new movement. Musicians--who, like all artists, always tend to handle the question "What's going on?" much better than "What is to be done?"--had never been called upon to do so much for their generation; Thelonious Monk, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder were never asked to stand in for Thurgood Marshall, Fannie Lou Hamer or Stokely Carmichael. But the gains of the civil rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s were being rolled back. Youths were as fed up with black leadership as they were with white supremacy. Politics had failed. Culture was to become the hip-hop generation's battlefield, and "political rap" was to be its weapon.
Today, the most cursory glance at the Billboard charts or video shows on Viacom-owned MTV and BET suggests rap has been given over to cocaine-cooking, cartoon-watching, Rakim-quoting, gold-rims-coveting, death-worshiping young 'uns. One might even ask whether rap has abandoned the revolution.
Indeed, as the central marker of urban youth of color style and authenticity, rap music has become the key to the niching of youth culture. The "hip-hop lifestyle" is now available for purchase in every suburban mall. "Political rap" has been repackaged by record companies as merely "conscious," retooled for a smaller niche as an alternative. Instead of drinking Alizé, you drink Sprite. Instead of Versace, you wear Ecko. Instead of Jay-Z, you listen to the Roots. Teen rap, party rap, gangsta rap, political rap--tags that were once a mere music critic's game--are literally serious business.
"Once you put a prefix on an MC's name, that's a death trap," says Talib Kweli, the gifted Brooklyn-born rapper who disdains being called "conscious." Clearly his music expresses a well-defined politics; his rhymes draw from the same well of protest that nourished the Last Poets, the Watts Prophets and the Black Arts stalwarts he cites as influences. But he argues that marketing labels close his audience's minds to the possibilities of his art. When Kweli unveiled a song called "Gun Music," some fans grumbled. (No "conscious" rapper would stoop to rapping about guns, they reasoned, closing their ears even as Kweli delivered a complicated critique of street-arms fetishism.) At the same time, Kweli worries that being pigeonholed as political will prevent him from being promoted to mass audiences. Indeed, to be a "political rapper" in the music industry these days is to be condemned to preach to a very small choir.
"Political rap" was actually something of an invention. The Bronx community-center dances and block parties where hip-hop began in the early 1970s were not demonstrations for justice, they were celebrations of survival. Hip-hop culture simply reflected what the people wanted and needed--escape. Rappers bragged about living the brand-name high life because they didn't; they boasted about getting headlines in the New York Post because they couldn't. Then, during the burning summer of the first Reagan recession, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released "The Message," a dirge (by the standards of the day) that seethed against the everyday violence of disinvestment. Flash was certain the record, which was actually an A&R-pushed concoction by Duke Bootee and Melle Mel, would flop; it was too slow and too depressing to rock a party. But Sugar Hill Records released the song as a single over his objections, and "The Message" struck the zeitgeist like a bull's-eye. Liberal soul and rock critics, who had been waiting for exactly this kind of statement from urban America, championed it. Millions of listeners made it the third platinum rap single.
Through the mid-1980s, Melle Mel, Afrika Bambaataa and Soul Sonic Force, Run-DMC and others took up the role of the young black lumpenrapper opposition, weighing in on topics like racism, nuclear proliferation and apartheid. And just as the first Bush stepped into office, a new generation began to articulate a distinctly post-civil rights stance. Led by Public Enemy, rappers like Paris, Ice-T, X-Clan, Poor Righteous Teachers and Brand Nubian displayed the Black Panther Party's media savvy and the Minister Louis Farrakhan's nationalist rage. Politics were as explicit as Tipper Gore's advisory stickers. As the Gulf War progressed, Paris's "Bush Killa" imagined a Black Power assassination of Bush the Elder while rapping, "Iraq never called me 'nigger.'" (Last year, he returned to cut an MP3-only critique of the war on Afghanistan, "What Would You Do?") Rappers' growing confidence with word, sound and power was reflected in more slippery and subtle music, buttered with Afrodiasporic and polycultural flavor.
Many of these artists had emerged from vibrant protest movements--New York City's resurgent Black Power movement; the swelling campus antiapartheid/multiculturalism/ affirmative action movement; local anti-police brutality movements. In each of these, representation was the cry and the media were a target. Rap "edutainment" came out of the convergence of two very different desires: the need for political empowerment and the need to be empowered by images of truth. On 1990's "Can I Kick It?," A Tribe Called Quest's Phife Dawg captured the mood of his audience sweetly and precisely: "Mr. Dinkins, will you please be our mayor?" But while Mayor Dinkins's career quickly hit a tailspin, hip-hop rose by making blackness--even radical blackness--the worldwide trading currency of cultural cool.
In the new global entertainment industry of the 1990s, rap became a hot commodity. But even as the marketing dollars flowed into youth of color communities, major labels searched for ways to capture the authenticity without the militancy. Stakes was high, as De La Soul famously put it in 1996, and labels were loath to accept such disruptions on their investments as those that greeted Ice-T and Body Count's "Cop Killer" during the '92 election season. Rhymers kicking sordid tales from the drug wars were no longer journalists or fictionists, ironists or moralists. They were purveyors of a new lifestyle, ghetto cool with all of the products but none of the risk or rage. After Dr. Dre's pivotal 1992 album, The Chronic, in which a millennial, ghettocentric Phil Spector stormed the pop charts with a postrebellion gangsta party that brought together Crip-walking with Tanqueray-sipping, the roughnecks, hustlers and riders took the stage from the rap revolutionaries, backed by the substantial capital of a quickly consolidating music industry.
Rap music today reflects the paradoxical position of the hip-hop generation. If measured by the volume of products created by and sold to them, it may appear that youth of color have never been more central to global popular culture. Rap is now a $1.6 billion engine that drives the entire music industry and flexes its muscle across all entertainment platforms. Along with its music, Jay-Z's not-so-ironically named Roc-A-Fella company peddles branded movies, clothing and vodka. Hip-hop, some academics assert, is hegemonic. But as the social turmoil described by many contemporary rappers demonstrates, this generation of youth of color is as alienated and downpressed as any ever has been. And the act of tying music to lifestyle--as synergy-seeking media companies have effectively done--has distorted what marketers call the "aspirational" aspects of hip-hop while marginalizing its powers of protest.
Yet the politics have not disappeared from popular rap. Some of the most stunning hits in recent years--DMX's "Who We Be," Trick Daddy's "I'm a Thug," Scarface's "On My Block"--have found large audiences by making whole the hip-hop generation's cliché of "keeping it real," being true to one's roots of struggle. The video for Nappy Roots' brilliant "Po' Folks" depicts an expansive vision of rural Kentucky--black and white, young and old together, living like "everything's gon' be OK." Scarface's ghettocentric "On My Block" discards any pretense at apology. "We've probably done it all, fa' sheezy," he raps. "I'll never leave my block, my niggas need me." For some critics, usually older and often black, such sentiments seem dangerously close to pathological, hymns to debauchery and justifications for thuggery. But the hip-hop generation recognizes them as anthems of purpose, manifestoes that describe their time and place the same way that Public Enemy's did. Most of all, these songs and their audiences say, we are survivors and we will never forget that.
The "conscious rap" and "neosoul" genres take up where 1970s soul experimentalists like Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield left off. At their best, they are black-to-the-future havens of experimentation that combine a grandiose view of pop music's powers, an earnest hope for a better world and a jaded insider's disdain for rote commercialism. Crews like Blackalicious, the Coup, Jurassic 5, Zion I and dead prez have attained modest success by offering visions of twenty-first-century blackness--hypertextual rhymes, stuttering rhythms and lush sounds rooted in a deep understanding of African-American cultural production and ready-made for a polycultural future. The Roots' album Phrenology stretches hip-hop's all-embracing method--the conviction that "every music is hip-hop" and ready to be absorbed--to draw from a palette as wide as Jill Scott, Bad Brains, James Blood Ulmer and the Cold Crush Brothers. Common's Electric Circus takes cues from Prince and Sly Stone in reimagining the hip-hop concept album.
Tensions often spring from the compromises inherent in being given the budget to build a statement while being forced to negotiate the major label's Pavlovian pop labyrinth, and others have left the system to, as Digital Underground once famously put it, do what they like, albeit for much smaller audiences. Public Enemy has gone to the Internet and to indies in order, they say, to "give the peeps what they need," not what they think they want. After spending more than a decade in unsuccessful efforts with major labels, rapper Michael Franti now records on his own Boo Boo Wax imprint. It's hard to imagine his latest effort, "Bomb Da World"--whose chorus goes, "You can bomb the world to pieces, but you can't bomb it into peace"--passing muster in the boardrooms. Berkeley-based rapper Mr. Lif cut two of the most funky and politically challenging records of the year, the Emergency Rations EP and I Phantom LP, for the indie Definitive Jux. The EP's clever conceit--that the rapper has literally "gone underground" to escape angry Feds--is easily the wittiest, most danceable critique yet of the USA Patriot Act.
Hip-hop has been roundly condemned within and without for its sexist, misogynistic tendencies, but it has also created room for artists like Me'shell N'degeocello, Mystic, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Goapele and Angie Stone to mix up and transform both rap and r&b. "Neosoul" has been especially attractive to women and post-young 'uns. Its hip-hop feminist critique came into sharp relief last year. After years of flying high, rap sales crashed by 15 percent, leading an industrywide plunge. But multiplatinum newcomers Alicia Keys and India.Arie were garlanded with a bevy of Grammy nominations. Keys and Arie celebrated "a woman's worth" and were frankly critical of male irresponsibility. India.Arie's breakout hit "Video"--in which she sang, "I'm not the average girl from your video"--stole the music that had once been sampled for a rap ode to oral sex called "Put It in Your Mouth."
Hip-hop feminism has been articulated by Joan Morgan as a kind of loyal but vocal, highly principled opposition to black (and brown and yellow) male übermasculinity. In the same way, neosoul dissects the attitudes and ideals projected in the hip-hop mainstream. Me'shell N'degeocello's compelling Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape opens with the line, "You sell your soul like you sell a piece of ass." The most commanding of the neosoul artists, Jill Scott, imagines reconciliation, no longer having to love hip-hop from a distance. On "Love Rain" she sings of meeting a new man: "Talked about Moses and Mumia, reparations, blue colors, memories of shell-top Adidas, he was fresh like summer peaches." But the relationship ends badly, "All you did was make a mockery of somethin' so incredibly beautiful. I honestly did love you so."
Neosoul personalizes struggles, but the approach has its limitations. India.Arie's Voyage to India, for instance, suffers from reducing black radical conviction to self-affirmation mantra. At the same time, the genre mirrors a deeply held conviction of the hip-hop generation: Revolution does not come first from mass organizations and marching in the streets, but through knowledge of self and personal transformation. "Back in the '60s, there was a big push for black senators and politicians, and now we have more than we ever had before, but our communities are so much worse," says Talib Kweli. "A lot of people died for us to vote, I'm aware of that history, but these politicians are not in touch with people at all. Politics is not the truth to me, it's an illusion." For a generation that has made a defensive virtue of keeping it real, the biggest obstacle to societal change may simply be the act of imagining it.
These are the kinds of paradoxes the silver-tongued Kweli grapples with on his second solo album, Quality, as masterful a summation of the hip-hop generation's ambivalent rage as Morgan's book, When Chickenheads Come to Roost. On one of his early songs, Kweli synthesized 1960s militancy and 1990s millenarianism in a phrase, rapping about the need for "knowledge of self-determination." At one point on the Nina Simone-flavored "Get By," he sees the distance his generation still needs to cover: "We're survivalists turned to consumers." Echoing Marvin Gaye's "Right On," he measures the breadth of his generation--from the crack-pushers to the hip-hop activists. "Even when the condition is critical, when the living is miserable, your position is pivotal," he concludes, deciding that it's time to clean up his own life.
Kweli never fails to deliver fresh, if often despairing, insights. On "The Proud," he offers a sage reading of the impact of 9/11 on the 'hood--"People broken down from years of oppression become patriots when their way of life is threatened." Later in the song, he cites California's Proposition 21--the culmination of nearly two decades of fears of gangs, violence and lawlessness--and ties it to the intensifying nationwide trend of profiling and brutality against youth of color. But he scoffs at a revolution coming at the ballot box. Of the 2000 Florida elections, he angrily concludes, "President is Bush, the Vice President is Dick, so a whole lotta fucking is what we get. They don't want to raise the baby so the election is fixed. That's why we don't be fucking with politics!"
But politicians can't stop fucking with rap and the hip-hop generation. Senator Joe Lieberman regularly rallies cultural conservatives against the music. Michael Powell's corporate-friendly, laissez-faire FCC has censored only the white male rap star Eminem and the black feminist hip-hop poet Sarah Jones. Texas Republican John Cornyn overcame African-American Democrat Ron Kirk's November Senate bid by linking him to police-hating (and, interestingly, ballot-punching) rappers. When Jam Master Jay, the well-respected, peace-making DJ of rap group Run-D.M.C., was murdered in October, police and federal investigators intensified their surveillance of rappers while talking heads and tabloids like the New York Post decried the music's, and this generation's, supposed propensity for violence and lawlessness.
Now a hip-hop parent, Kweli hopes to steel his young 'uns for these kinds of assaults. "I give them the truth so they approach the situation with ammunition," he raps. "Teach them the game so they know their position, so they can grow and make their decisions that change the world and break traditions." While he critiques his elders for failing to save the children, he knows his generation's defensive b-boy stance is not enough: "We gave the youth all the anger but yet we ain't taught them how to express it. And so it's dangerous."
Here is the hip-hop generation in all its powder-keg glory and pain: enraged, empowered, endangered. The irony is not lost: A generation able to speak the truth like no other before is doing so to a world that still hasn't gotten the message.
Ever since John Lennon and Yoko Ono led a raucous crowd of flower-toting, peasant-bloused hippies in a pot-hazy chorus of "Give Peace a Chance," it seems to have been a pop axiom: When the United States goes to war, the musicians begin calling for peace.
Opposing war hasn't always been a popular position, but it has created some great music. During the Vietnam era, songs like Edwin Starr's "War," Jimi Hendrix's cover of "All Along the Watchtower," Funkadelic's "Maggot Brain" and "Wars of Armageddon," Jimmy Cliff's "Vietnam," Country Joe and the Fish's "Fixing to Die Rag," Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Bad Moon Rising" and "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?" and Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" turned defiance into a raging, soaring, brave and melancholic gestures of community.
Even our allegedly apathetic post-Lennonist generation has extended the tradition. When Bush Senior sent troops to Kuwait in 1991, rappers Ice Cube and Paris trained their verbal guns on the White House in "I Wanna Kill Sam" and "Bush Killa," while Bad Religion and Noam Chomsky split a 7-inch into a no-war-for-oil seminar. Antiwar music has become a time-honored balance to "bomb 'em all and let God sort 'em out" fervor. So why, since Sept. 11, have we heard so little new music protesting Bush Junior's war on evil?
Artists who were once outspoken peaceniks seem to have lost their certainty, or even switched their position. For years, U2 led crowds in chants of "No more war!" during their concerts. But during their surrealistic Super Bowl half-time performance this past January, they offered deep ambivalence -- a stark display of the names of Sept. 11 victims set to "Beautiful Day."
Neil Young's "Ohio" memorialized Kent State University's murdered antiwar protesters of 1970; his "Cortez the Killer" condemned imperialism. Now we find him on his post-Sept. 11 cut, "Let's Roll," singing, "Let's roll for freedom; let's roll for love, going after Satan on the wings of a dove."
Young wrote the song to honor the heroes of Flight 93, who subdued their hijackers and paid the ultimate price. But if you believe "Let's Roll" -- with its Bush-reduced ideas of "evil" and "Satan" -- is a cry for peace, you've probably already cleaned out your bomb shelter and reviewed your duck-and-cover manual.
As Leslie Nuchow, a Brooklyn-based folk singer who has been touring the country, says, "Speaking on or singing anything that's critical of this country at this time is more difficult than it was a year ago."
We've seen dozens of acts quietly bury their edgier songs. We've seen radio playlists rewritten so as not to "offend listeners." And we've seen Republican officials and the entertainment industry -- long divided over "traditional values" issues such as violent content and parental advisory stickering -- bury the hatchet. White House Senior Adviser Karl Rove has been meeting regularly with entertainment industry officials to discuss how they can help the war on terrorism.
The result? Not unlike the network news, there's been what a media wonk might call a narrowing of content choice. Think eagle- and flag-adorned anthologies of patriotic music, prefab benefit shows screaming CONSUMER EVENT, Alan Jackson's "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" and Paul McCartney's "Freedom." Perhaps this may all be good for the record business, no small thing for an industry that found itself shrinking by 3 percent -- about $300 million in revenues -- last year. But it's hardly the stuff of great art.
A Twisted Sense Of God
Where are the alternative voices? Let's start with hip-hop, the most socially important music of our time and, until recently, the most successful. Hip-hop's sales led the plunge last year -- by 20 percent, according to Def Jam founder and rap industry leader Russell Simmons.
And so did its vision. While Congress debated the Patriot Act and air strikes left Afghan cities in ruins and untold innocents dead, Jay-Z and Nas declared their own dirty little war for the pockets (if not exactly the minds) of the younger generation.
Jay-Z's dis of Nas, "The Takeover," was based on a sample from the Doors' "Five to One," an anti-Vietnam War song released during 1968's long hot summer whose title supposedly alluded to a demographic menace: five times as many people under the age of 21 as over.
Here's Jim Morrison's original: "The old get old/ And the young get stronger/ May take a week/ And it may take longer/ They got the guns/ But we got the numbers/ Gonna win, yeah/ We're taking over!" Here's J-Hova's slice: "Gonna win, yeah!" Released on Sept. 11, his album, The Blueprint, sold 465,000 copies.
Nas came back with Stillmatic, an album seemingly conceived from a marketing blueprint. Over a decade ago, Nas debuted during the height of hip-hop's social consciousness. To appease these aging fans, he included songs on Stillmatic like the decidedly non-flag-waving "My Country" and "Rule," which bravely ask Bush Junior and the secret bunker crew to "call a truce, world peace, stop acting like savages". But kids love that shit-talking, so there's "Ether," dissing "Gay-Z and Cock-a-Fella Records." Guess which of these songs gets the most rewinds?
In fact, many musicians are commenting on the war, they just aren't being heard. On a new album for Fine Arts Militia called We Are Gathered Here ... , Public Enemy's Chuck D has set scathing spoken-word "lectures" to rockish beats by Brian Hardgroove. Chuck takes apart the war-mobilization effort and condemns the arrogance of the president's foreign policy on "A Twisted Sense of God." But while the song will be available as an MP3 on his website -- slamjamz.com -- the album has found no distributor yet.
He says, "You got five corporations that control retail. You got four who are the record labels. Then you got three radio outlets who own all the stations. You got two television networks that will actually let us get some of this across. And you got one video outlet. I call it 5-4-3-2-1. Boom!"
When the World Ends
Message music is being pinched off by an increasingly monopolized media industry suddenly eager to please the White House. At least two of the nation's largest radio networks -- Clear Channel and Citadel Communications -- removed songs from the air in the wake of the attacks. Songs like Drowning Pool's "Bodies" and John Lennon's "Imagine" were confined to MP3 sites and mix tapes. And while pressure to maintain "blacklists" has eased recently, the détente between Capitol Hill, New York and Hollywood -- unseen since World War II -- has tangible consequences.
Bay area artist Michael Franti and Spearhead were invited last November to play The Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn. Franti obliged with a new song, "Bomb Da World." Yet the song's chorus -- "You can bomb the world to pieces, but you can't bomb it into peace" -- was apparently too much for the show's producers. Months later, and only after a Billboard magazine article exposed the story, the clip finally aired.
"It's funny," Franti says. "In the past, I'd hear some folksingers singing folksongs or 'Give Peace a Chance' and think, God, this is really corny. But then you realize, in a time of war, it's a really radical message."
Little wonder that artists have quietly censored themselves. The Strokes pulled a song called "New York Cops" from their album, and Dave Matthews decided not to release "When the World Ends" as a single. It's easier to do an industry-sponsored benefit or to simply shut up and go along, than to fight for a message and find it pigeonholed.
As monopolies segment music into narrower and narrower genre markets to be exploited, protest music becomes the square peg. Perhaps the question isn't only whether protest music can survive the war but whether protest music can also survive niche-marketing.
Take KRS-One's new album, Spiritual Minded. In part a reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks, the album reconciles Christian spirituality with a radical notion of diversity -- putting together Bronx beats, Cantopop, biblical chapter and verse, and the words "peace" and "As-Salaam Alaikum" in the same song.
"We live in a Christian nation," he says. "I can only give the public that which it can digest. So I put this album out. The door swings open. Christians are like, 'Yeah, wow, KRS! He finally came over.' Now I'm over. Now let's talk."
But if this is his most subtle effort yet to promote a message of peace and unity, it is still a record that needs to be marketed. So while Spiritual Minded has been a dud in the hip-hop world, it topped the less lucrative Gospel charts earlier this year.
Even indie labels no longer provide an alternative, says Joel Schalit, the Bay Area-based editor of Punk Planet and a member of dub-funk band Elders of Zion. Schalit's new book, Jerusalem Calling (Akashic Books), features a chapter that indicts the indie-punk scene, a movement which began as a highly charged reaction to Reaganism and major labels and ended up a calcifying, apolitical, "petit bourgeois" feeder-system for the same majors.
"I think our generation has started to move in the direction of formulating its own distinct progressive political positions, but in many respects, I think that the trauma that was Sept. 11 has thus far stopped them from doing anything new," he says. "There haven't been people rushing out to print 7-inch singles attacking American foreign policy like there was during the Gulf War."
He adds, "A lot of label owners, especially on the independent level, are very concerned that promoting ideology is not the same as promoting art."
If that sounds reasonable at first glance, consider the question that Bay Area anti-prison activist and Freedom Fighter Music co-producer Ying-Sun Ho asks in reference to rap: "You don't think a song that talks about nothing but how much your jewelry shines has a political content to it?"
Acts like Jay-Z are seen as artists with universal appeal, while niche-marketing lumps together acts that have little in common. The subcategory of "conscious rappers," for instance, has been used to sell Levi's jeans and Gap clothing to college-educated, disposable-income-spending hip-hop fans. In this logic, it's not the rappers' message that brings the audience together, it's what their audience wears that brings the rappers together.
Part of the recent wave of "conscious rap" acts promoted by major labels, Dead Prez disdains the entire category. Positivity isn't politics, rapper M-1 argues. Hip-hop has not yet produced much antiwar music because a lot of "conscious rappers" were never clear about their political positions in the first place, he believes, and Sept. 11 revealed their basic lack of depth.
"There's a lifestyle that goes with not being aligned with the politics of U.S. imperialism. It's not just a one-day protest," he says, while working in Brooklyn on Walk Like a Warrior, the follow-up to Let's Get Free. "We're in a new period. A lot of people are not seeing what has to be and are looking at it from just a red, white and blue angle."
Hard Rain Gonna Fall
But perhaps, in this connected world, we also possess accelerated expectations. History shows that radical ideas don't take hold overnight. World War II's hit parade featured sentimental escapism like Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" and sugary patriotism like the Andrews' Sisters "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy."
During the '50s, a progressive folk movement emerged, but it wasn't until Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Joan Baez revived folk amid the early-'60s ferment of student organizing that ideas of disarmament and racial justice began to take root.
As Craig Werner, professor of African American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America (Plume, 1999), tells me, "The foundation of the anti-Vietnam War music was in the folk revival. It was almost as if there were an antiwar movement that was in place that was doing the groundwork. They'd been writing those kinds of songs for years when Vietnam came around."
Werner dates the emergence of anti-Vietnam War music to ex-folkie Barry McGuire's 1966 hit "Eve of Destruction," a song that faced widespread censorship. "I was growing up in Colorado Springs, which is a military town. The week that 'Eve of Destruction' came out, it broke onto the Top 20 charts on the local station at No. 1. And then was never heard again."
That moment is not near in these early days of the war on evil. In the long run, Nas' "My Country" and "Rule," with their laser focus on cause and effect, or Outkast's anti-recessionary global humanism on "The Whole World" may prove to be more prophetic.
For now, confusion and flux and omnidirectional rage carry the day. Bay Area rapper Paris recently addressed the second Bush in "What Would You Do," a track on his upcoming Sonic Jihad album "Now ask yourself who's the one with the most to gain/Before 911 motherfuckas couldn't stand his name/Now even niggas waiving flags like they lost they mind/Everybody got opinions but don't know the time." Ghostface Killah seems to have captured the moment on Wu-Tang Clan's "Rules." Addressing Osama bin Laden directly about the attacks on New York, he raps, "No disrespect, that's where I rest my head/ I understand you gotta rest yours, too." But since bin Laden has brought the bombs -- "Nigga, my people's dead!" -- it's officially on: "Mister Bush, sit down! We're in charge of the war."
Still, musicians must do what they do, and the story is not yet over. Folkie Leslie Nuchow believes in music's ability to transform the people who listen to it, and she doesn't waste a lot of time worrying about who will distribute it. Recently, she recorded the mesmerizing "An Eye for an Eye (Will Leave the Whole World Blind)." Accompanied only by piano, she elaborates on Gandhi's famous line mostly in a tortured whisper. It's only available through her website slammusic.com.
Nuchow -- who likes to point out that our national anthem "glorifies war" but has agreed to sing for U.N. troops stationed in Kosovo later this year -- believes music is not merely a product, it's a process. After watching the Twin Towers collapse from her Brooklyn building, she spent that evening agonizing over what to do next. "I kept on saying to myself, what could my political action be?" Then she realized, "I'm a musician. Ri-i-i-ight. Let me do music!"
She went to demonstrations and gatherings, and handed out fliers inviting people to come and sing the next morning. About 50 people showed up. They walked through the streets singing "This Little Light of Mine," "America the Beautiful" and "Dona Nobis Pacem (Give Us Peace)."
"We walked as close to ground zero as we could get, and we sang for the firefighters," she says. "We sang for the rescue workers and the firefighters. We went up to the hospitals, and we sang for the doctors, and we sang for the volunteers. And then -- this was the hardest -- we went to sing for the families who were trying to find out what happened to their loved ones."
Nuchow recalls that the music did exactly what it was supposed to do. "People wept. Other people came and joined us," she says. "And to me, that's action. That's making a statement through music, using music as a healing force."
And for now, perhaps, that's more than enough.
Jeff Chang writes for numerous publications, including Colorlines, the Source and Wiretapmag.org.
During the 90s, Public Enemy leader Chuck D's voice sounded like a clarion call. At one point he promised to use his music to train 1000 young black leaders for the new millennium. Now that the 21st century is here, he hasn't stopped fighting. Aside from independently distributing his music and ideas through his websites, www.rapstation.com and www.slamjamz.com, he is starting up a new book imprint and setting his lectures to music on a new album by the Fine Arts Militia. A new Public Enemy album is also slated for later this year.
More recently, he has appeared in the media to debate the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, including a recent interview on CNN in which he was set against Maureen Faulkner, the wife of officer Daniel Faulkner, the man Mumia allegedly murdered. I spoke to him at his Long Island home about Mumia. He hasn't lost any sense of urgency. We spoke about Mumia's resentencing, the culture industry, and what they both mean for the future of a generation that Chuck fears could be lost.
Q: When you first heard about the decision by U.S. District Judge William Yohn to have Mumia resentenced and taken off death row, what were your thoughts?
I thought it was a step forward. But you can't jump off and celebrate because when they talk about the appeals and the resentencing, a step forward can still mean three steps back.
Q: Are you worried about the possibility he could get resentenced to death?
Yeah, of course. You're in America. I'm one person, a quote unquote celebrity who has lent his profile to explaining the reasons and the causes around this. I divert a lot of the attention to Pam Africa and Ramona Africa and also people that have been in the mix, like Sam Jordan, cats that have been working diligently at this everyday. So if someone wants to put me on CNN, I have to be really specific about why I'm there. We have to understand our roles. My role is being an antenna to the situation, not overstepping my bounds.
Q: Let me ask you about your CNN appearance, because they put you alongside Maureen Faulkner.
Yeah, I thought that was very unfair. This is a company looking to get eyeballs and some kind of spat started. It figures.
Q: Faulkner and a lot of editorialists contend that many people support Mumia more as an icon than as an individual who might have committed murder. The implication, of course, is that people who support Mumia are either caught up with his aura, or they're just plain malicious in refusing to see the truth. The CNN host, for instance, asked you, "Did you ever think you were wrong [about Mumia]?"
Nobody was there. All this is speculation. They say, OK, a person got shot and killed, and they're saying this black man has done it. He's spent close to 20 years in jail, even though they don't know for sure.
But you gotta understand, I'll tell you right now, I am biased. Judging the history of America, I have a right to be biased. If we're caught in the aura of Mumia and the hyperbole of the situation of Mumia, then why not? If you don't fight for something that stands in the face of wrong, you're gonna collapse to that storm.
My whole thing is to inform people so we won't be "sheeple". People are programmed to be robots in these times, to not challenge anything that comes across, to not use their common sense. I'm answering questions to lend to the situation, and all of a sudden I find myself juxtaposed against the man's wife. Her husband got killed. I can't say she shouldn't feel that way, I can't tell her how not to feel.
Q: Do you think it's impossible for Mumia to prove his innocence given the way they media and the courts are set up?
There's a lot of folks that moved up--from Mumia himself telling me--that moved up the ladder in the judicial system and the governmental system of Pennsylvania. That state is the Alabama of the fucking millennium. So if Mumia is let go, heads are gonna roll, you understand? People are 20 years deep on moving up the ladder. You don't know how much that corruption has leaked to the top.
But at the same time, it's not about getting frustrated, because this shit has been here before we was born. It just that you gotta overstand, ride the situation, and figure out how to get in where you fit in. And then be able to say to shorties around you that, ok, have fun with your young life, but this is what's happening on this other end. When you get past 18, first it's about accountabilities and responsibilities and then you have your fun. And that's what folks are getting twisted about. They trying to extend their teenage years to 29 and then they get fucked up.
See, another situation that's gonna go down in this decade and it's gonna fuck up a lotta cats that turned 20 in the 90s is the hurdle of 30. I've been having conversations with cats that all of a sudden they turn around, they got three seeds, two baby mamas, and they come out of the haze like, "Damn, I got no skills, for real. Fuck a regular goddamn job and these young cats is out-hustling me. At the same time, yo, the weed and the Playstation is wearing off." What you're gonna see in the next ten years is a large suicide rate.
Q: You think so?
Yeah man, cause they can't handle the hurdle of 30. Your years from 18 to 25 are key areas of development for understanding and handling the period from 30 to 50. That's why jail is such a detriment to the black community. Because from 18 to 26, black males is in fucking jail. That's college-age category, that's critical to be able to live through 30 to 50, as opposed to just survive. You're just surviving because you didn't understand the road map, or wasn't given a roadmap at that key developmental age.
There are so many distractions and releases and escapes, that a lot of cats don't even have talking skills anymore. When it comes to talking to a female, those guys are not really saying anything. The security blanket is the Xbox or Playstation 2. I gotta talk to a bunch of guys and tell them, "Hey look, you gotta be able to get out of yourself for a second."
But it's a whole mentoring thing. They're trained by the culture that's being processed around them. They're living vicariously through their cultural outlets. You ever watch the NBA when somebody dunk on somebody and jump in somebody's face? They ain't fighters, why are they fighting? That's in the game, leave it there. But it's the hip-hop mentality which has been twisted by corporate processes. Everyone thinks they gotta slump down and shimmy the shoulder and have the skully halfway over the eyelid, and think that this [look] is gonna keep a motherfucker off me. OK alright, now how you gonna engage upon expressing yourself? And there are not a lot of roadmaps there.
All this is new, because new mediums of trying to get into people have been developed in the last 15 years. The difference when I was growing up is that when you went to a female's house you had to say something. But now it's so many distractions that a cat can leave. My friend was talking about this cat came over to her house and he brought an Xbox! He's thirty years old. She was like, 'Yo set the Xbox by the door.' He sets the Xbox by the door, so they on the couch and she's dozing off a little. I said, 'So how many times did he turn around and look at the door?'
Q: Instant gratification.
And when that stuff is more gratification than your woman, you got problems.
Q: You met Mumia for the first time last year. What was that like?
Going to Greene County in southwest Pennsylvania? It was wack. It was enlightening to talk to him face to face. But through plexiglass and handcuffs, the whole nine, it was wack. Why wouldn't it be? You can't go in there with some dumb shit like, "Yo, so whassup?" And so it was a lot of talking without saying a lot of words, but nodding heads like, yup, the shit is fucked.
The thing that got me the most is that he does a lot of writing, but they don't even give him the outside of a pen. He has to write with a filament, because they don't want him to have hard plastic. So therefore he has calluses on his hands from writing with the plastic tubing. Also, he can look on TV and when he looks at it, he's blown out because he says when he went in, he says it was all about Soul Train. Now when he sees some MTV video he's looking at it like, 'What the fuck?'
Q: Which goes back to what you were saying about the cultural distractions having taken over everybody's lives.
He says, "Yeah, I see black folks on TV but, at the same time--OK, what does that mean?"
These days, it may be dangerous to be a revolution-minded rap act called the Coup. But in recent months, the members of the brilliant, battle-hardened crew have refused to make things any easier for themselves.
On Sept. 11, with the release of "Party Music" approaching, the album's cover -- depicting Bay Area rapper Boots Riley and DJ Pam the Funkstress detonating the World Trade Center with a guitar tuner -- suddenly took on a new meaning. The record label hastily replaced the image with a flaming cocktail. (The explosion ended up on the inside cover, blocked by the band's red-star logo.) Since then, Boots has used his media platform to question U.S. foreign policy, inciting denunciations from conservatives and liberals.
Hip-hop hasn't been this controversial since the early '90s, when acts like Public Enemy and Ice Cube garnered headlines and collected fans for their contrarian political stances. On the Coup's fourth record, the group, which proudly proclaims itself anti-corporate and "anti-Republican-and- Democratic" ("If they self-destruct, that's anticlimactic," says Boots), comes ready with answers for its critics.
At a time when millionaire rappers waste precious CD time by airing their personal beefs with each other, the Coup takes on big targets -- capitalist greed, police brutality and government corruption -- while trying to connect with the smaller-than-life. On "Nowalaters," Boots reveals a deep sympathy for a single mother, despite the fact that she once lied to him claiming that he was the baby's father. "I know that you must have been scared," he says. "Thank you for letting me go."
These are not stereotypical tales from the 'hood. On the Coup's last album, "Steal This Album," Boots's epic "Me and Jesus the Pimp in a '79 Granada Last Night" painted a picture of an orphaned boy in search of a father figure that was so rich it inspired author Monique Morris's novel "Too Beautiful for Words." Like a rap Randy Newman or a hip-hop Tom Waits, Boots has a gift for sketching lovable losers. They are fully human in their failings, poor people just trying to catch a break.
On the other hand, the rich and powerful bring nothing but misery with their moral certitude and selfishness, and are therefore ripe for lampooning. On "5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO," Boots cracks, "Tell him that boogers be sellin' like crack/ He gon' put the little baggies in his nose/ And suffocate like that."
The touching "Wear Clean Draws," dedicated to his baby girl, could be the best cut on an outstanding album. The funny, loving paean advises common sense as the best path through a world in which the odds are consistently stacked: "If somebody hits you, hit 'em back. Then negotiate a peace contract."
These lines are delivered with Boots's distinctively flat Cali drawl over a rough-edged, turntable-hyped, '80s-styled funk that points back to the P-Funk All Stars and Prince. In other words, while political music often proves stiff, pompous and didactic, reduced to mere messages, "Party Music" really has everything it takes to move the crowd, in the clubs or the streets. It could be one of the most important pop records of this turbulent, historic year.
Jeff Chang writes for numerous publications, including Colorlines, the Source and Wiretapmag.org. An earlier version of this article appeared in the Washington Post.
He ordered a call-up of 50,000 reservists--the first step towards reinstituting the draft--while preparing Americans for a long, ground war that could leave many innocent Afghanis dead or displaced. Reversing the Powell doctrine to seize upon a desire for vengeance, he warned that there may be no forseeable end to this war, and declared no specific enemy.
This does not bode well for the hip-hop generation. As STORM, the Bay Area hip-hop activist organization says, "Increasingly, safety at home will require justice abroad." Bush's open-ended war could leave us increasingly insecure, subject to more terror not less, with less justice for all in the world.
Because of its history, the global hip-hop generation can play a crucial moral role in the call for peace--peace on the streets where we live, and a global peace free from terror.
At one time, others dissed our generation by saying that we were privileged, that we had never been tested by war. [This was before Bush's father opened the Persian Gulf War.] The fact is that hip-hop was born under the conditions of war. It grew and spread as a global alternative to war.
Before hip-hop, during the early 1970s, Jamaica's bloody tribal wars fostered a music and culture of defiance in roots, dancehall and dub reggae. This music and culture--a safe space from the bloody gang runnings on the street--immigrated to the Bronx--a space so devastated by deindustrialization and governmental neglect that when Ronald Reagan visited in 1980, he declared that it looked like London after World War II. In the Bronx, the Universal Zulu Nation, hip-hop's first institution and organization, literally emerged from a peace forged between racially divided, warring gangs.
As Reagan took office, immigration was rapidly browning the face of America. The "culture war" was declared--a way to contain the nation's growing diversity. Culture warriors went after youth in their schools; they fought multiculturalism, ethnic studies, and affirmative action. In Congress, they sought limits on movie and music content.
Hip-hop turned out to be everything they detested--it was real, truth-telling, unapologetic, and, worst of all, their kids loved it. Imagine how they felt when Chuck D enlisted millions into the opposition by rhyming, "They'll never care for the brothers and sisters cause the country has us up for a war."
In one sense, hip-hop won the culture war. By the end of the 80s, Public Enemy and Spike Lee, John Singleton and N.W.A., and other brothers and sisters had crashed the lily-white pop culture mainstream. Hip-hop became the single most potent global youth force in a generation.
But the culture war had serious political consequences, too. Right-wingers manufactured the conditions--moving drugs and guns into the ghetto via the wars in Central America--for a resurgence of gang warfare. And they succeeded in stigmatizing inner-city gangs--whose ranks, of course, were swoll with young, poor people of color--as mindlessly, irredeemably violent and evil.
Hip-hop reveled in the young generation's diversity. The culture warriors taught other generations to be afraid of it. When the 90s came, they warned of a coming wave of juvenile crime, one that would crest with the darkening demographic surge.
Their apocalyptic predications began a dramatic shift in juvenile justice, away from rehabilitation towards incarceration. 48 states made their juvenile crime statutes more punitive. Dozens of cities instituted curfews, anti-cruising laws, and sweep ordinances (which were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court but have reappeared in many cities).
Especially after the 1992 Los Angeles riots, as urgent gang truce work forged peace across the country, the new laws were implemented at a feverish clip and enforced with a heavy hand. Juvenile arrests and detention populations skyrocketed, even as juvenile violent crime rates plummeted.
Local police, the FBI, and private companies began compiling gang databases. Every young boy or girl of color who fit the profile--sagging, baggy jeans, athletic shoes, hip-hop swagger--became fodder for the gang databases. In Cook County, IL, the gang database was two-thirds black. In Orange County, CA, 92 percent of those listed in the gang database were of color. Angry Black, Chicano and Latino parents in Denver, CO, learned that eight of every ten young people of color in the entire city were listed.
Post-modern racial profiling was invented for the hip-hop Generation, the most catalogued and surveillanced in history. Along with the "war on drugs"--the only result of which has been racist sentencing and the largest prison population in world history--what hip-hop activists called the "war on youth" left a generation staring into a tense present and an insecure future.
These are the reasons why thousands of hip-hop activists came out to protest at the Republican and Democratic Conventions last year. They took courageous stands against the massive profiling and imprisoning of a generation; against the death penalty; for better education; and for stopping gang violence. They linked these issues to global struggles for economic and racial justice.
Now that President Bush has declared an open war with no clear enemy, the global, multiracial, polycultural hip-hop generation can elevate beyond the chant of "No justice, no peace"--a cry that, in truth, sounds much different when uttered by Bush.
If we can understand the history of wars from Israel to Afghanistan the way that we understand our own generation's history, we can link what is happening on our streets with what is happening in our world.
We can call for peace on our streets--to be free from profiling and imprisoning, to be free from the cycle of violence that causes us to kill each other needlessly.
And we can call for peace in our world--to be free from the kind of terror that strikes our bodies and our hearts, to be free from the cycles of violence driven by geopolitical posturing and economic greed that cause us to kill each other needlessly.
Everyone deserves a better, safer future. Hip-hop has already survived many wars. Time and again, we have learned how to react to crisis by forging a principled peace. As we stand on the brink of the biggest war we have ever faced, let us come together to find the most powerful, lasting peace yet.
-30- [The following is by STORM (Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement), Bay Area activist group with deep hip-hop roots.]
9-11 ATTACKS: STORM'S FOUR MAIN POINTS IN RESPONSE TO THE BOMBINGS OF THE WORLD TRADE CENTER & THE U.S. PENTAGON 1. Oppose terrorism, and build people's power: We mourn the loss of life and the great pain endured by those who have suffered as a result of these attacks. Those of us who desire a world free from exploitation and oppression must rely on the consciousness, capacity and confidence of working class and oppressed people to carry out our own liberation. There are no shortcuts in this process. Acts of terrorism against civilian targets do not advance this process, but retard it. We oppose the use of terror tactics - especially such tactics against civilian populations -- as destructive to the fundamental aims of the liberation movement. We must organize our people to liberate themselves with the clarity of their own minds, the courage of their own hearts and the work of their own hands.
2. Oppose the narrowing or elimination of the people's democratic rights: The U.S. government must stop using the suffering of the victims of these attacks as an excuse to narrow and eliminate the people's democratic rights. We oppose any and all efforts to increase the funding and authority of U.S. police and intelligence agencies as a "solution" to this crisis. We are disgusted by the present attempts by the U.S. security and surveillance establishment to use this tragedy to orchestrate a cynical power grab and to cash in on the pain of the victims. We oppose any efforts to wipe out the people's fragile and precious privacy rights; we oppose any efforts to curtail the people's basic First Amendment rights to assemble, speak, publish, protest and organize free from government harassment and surveillance. We must now be extraordinarily vigilant against threats directed against the people - not from underground cells, but from the highest levels of government.
3. Rely on global justice to deter future attacks: The system, in the United States and worldwide, has continually denied peaceful, "legitimate" attempts by those seeking justice and freedom. Through its own reckless, violent and oppressive actions against poor people and people of color, the United States government has fueled frustration, grief and outrage here and across the globe. Just as we mourn the pain and the loss of life stemming from these recent attacks on U.S. soil, we continue to mourn the pain and the loss of life that U.S. military and economic domination inflicts on people worldwide. Suffering under this oppression, people throughout the world are becoming more and more desperate. Neither police repression at home nor U.S. bombs abroad will ease this fundamental despair; to the contrary, such actions will only continue this vicious cycle of frustration and violence. Ordinary people in the United States can best deter future attacks by insisting that the U.S. government abandon its oppressive role of keeping down workers and dominating poor nations around the world. Increasingly, safety at home will require justice abroad. Intensified police crackdowns at home and military savagery abroad are not the answer; the answer is justice. We must not allow the United States to respond with bombs for Third World people and continued support for repressive dictatorships and rapacious corporations. Instead, we demand that the US respond to this crisis with efforts to meet the legitimate demands of the majority of the human family.
4. Oppose racist, anti-Arab bigotry: The media is already feeding the frenzy of anti-Arab hysteria. We cannot allow U.S. racism to blind our minds or cloud our hearts. Stereotypes and scapegoating will not lead us out of this crisis. Solidarity and compassion will. All people -- and especially African-Americans, Asian/Pacific-Americans, Latinas/os and Native Americans -- must stand in solidarity with our Arab and Muslim sisters and brothers.
FOR MORE INFORMATION, CALL STORM/Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement, 510.496.6094
To respond to this article write to: firstname.lastname@example.org
I was as deep as you can get in a gang," says Carlos*, a 26-year-old Chicano from the Los Angeles area. Because Carlos lived on the border of rival gang turfs, simply crossing the street meant venturing into enemy territory.Carlos was smart. He had ambition. But in Carlos' barrio, there were "no community events, no activities," he recalls. "Every time I tried to do something [positive], it was stopped. And the gang was conducive to doing something, not necessarily good, but something."Three blocks away from his house, at a sunny fourth of July picnic, one of his friends was murdered by the rival gang, his body torn apart by bullets from an AK-47. Carlos began thinking about protecting himself, about what his affiliation really meant.Soon after, Carlos was arrested for carrying a concealed knife. Tried as an adult, he served six months in county jail. It was his first bid, and it taught him something -- something that prosecutors and politicians don't talk about."When you're from southern California in a Chicano gang, you could choose to disassociate yourself with your Sure�o friends and fend for yourself," he says. But fending for yourself means trying to survive the most dangerous place in the United States alone, with a sell-out reputation. "It ends up being better in the end to join up."Carlos was stuck. "I remember being told by people in school, 'You are a bright kid, you could do anything you want.' So if I go to prison, I'll be the best that I can be. I'll be in the Syndicate [Mexican Mafia], and be what's called a carnal, a shot-caller," he says.In California, Carlos' dilemma could be faced by many more young offenders if voters approve the so-called Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act. The Act proposes to, among other things, unseal confidential juvenile records, make it easier to try juveniles as young as 14 as adults or to send them to adult prisons, and severely increase punishment for a number of juvenile crimes. Youths could face three years for just $400 of vandalism, or the death penalty for a "gang-related" homicide. Call it the War On Youth, in which youths of color are public enemy number one. Supporters argue the Initiative will discourage youths from joining gangs and committing crime. But opponents say that, like Propositions 184, 187, 209, and 227, this "Juvenile Injustice Initiative" is a frontal attack on communities of color, reflecting the impulse to sweep up youths of color and put them away.The Initiative is the latest battle in a nationwide, decade-long contraction of youth services and expansion of aggressive policies that have combined to criminalize young persons of color. Call it the War On Youth, in which youths of color have become public enemy number one.The Sky is Falling During the early 1980s, the government declared a War on Drugs, and a host of repressive new laws took hold in communities of color. Many now question the effects of these laws. Prison expansion and racial profiling have started to come under sustained attack in recent years. Even General Barry McCaffrey, the White House drug czar, recently criticized discriminatory drug sentencing, saying, "It is clear that we cannot arrest our way out of the problem of chronic drug abuse and drug-driven crime."Yet one core aspect of the War on Drugs remains unchallenged -- the targeting of urban youth of color as superpredatory, ultraviolent, drug-infested gangbangers. Here, public opinion has been herded in quite the opposite direction -- towards increasing fear.As so-called Generation Y comes of age some seventy million strong -- a cohort projected to swell the under-18 population by as much as 24 percent -- criminologists like Northeastern's James Alan Fox, Princeton's John DiIulio, and conservative congressmen like Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) have predicted a juvenile crime wave of tsunami proportions."America is a ticking violent crime bomb," warns a widely influential 1996 report, "The State of Violent Crime in America," by the Council on Crime in America (co-chaired by former President Reagan's Secretary of Education, William Bennett). "(R)ates of violent juvenile crime and weapons offenses have been increasing dramatically and by the year 2000 could spiral out of control." In the wake of Columbine, the chorus for punishing juvenile offenders has grown more urgent.In fact, violent juvenile crime rates have plunged during the 1990s. National homicide arrest rates dropped by forty percent between 1993 and 1997. Last year, California reported its lowest juvenile felony arrest rate since 1966. And nationally, juveniles account for just 17 percent of all violent crime arrests. The Juvenile Injustice Initiative reflects the impulse to sweep up youths of color and put them away. But the facts don't matter to race-baiting proponents of the War on Youth. The number of young blacks and other people of color is growing much faster than the number of young whites. Fox points to these numbers as an ominous sign. Does he have the sickening hope that racist stereotypes will prove his juvenile crime wave theory or is he just living, as Public Enemy once put it, in fear of a black planet?No Better Tomorrow Fear of youth and demographic change is not limited to rightwingers. Despite steeply dropping crime rates, most opinion polls find that adults are pessimistic about today's young people. A recent study by Public Agenda and the Ad Council found that three-quarters polled viewed children, especially teenagers, in negative terms.That pessimism is reflected in a major shift in juvenile justice priorities. "We all know that it's a cool thing [for politicians] to be tough on crime. What that translates into for us is being tough on kids," says Lateefah Simon, 22-year-old executive director of the Center for Young Women's Development in San Francisco.In 1899, Progressive reformers sought to reverse the horrible conditions and violence that children faced in adult courts and prisons by establishing a separate juvenile justice system. One hundred years later, tough-on-crime politicians seem to have abandoned the idea that youths deserve rehabilitation and concern. Instead, they seem to be embracing the notion that offenders are only worthy of restraint and containment. Nationally, although whites make up 68 percent of all juveniles, 63 percent of youths in custody facilities are of color. This notion is being implemented in state legislatures across the nation. Since 1992, 48 states made their juvenile crime statutes more punitive. Forty-one states made it easier for prosecutors to try juveniles as young as twelve as adults. The number of young adults sentenced under mandatory minimums or jailed in adult prisons has grown dramatically. Forty states have been moving to make it easier to unseal confidential juvenile records.Across the country, the war has turned against young people. "In Florida, the same number of kids (have been) sent to adult prison on the whim of prosecutors than by the decisions of judges in all the other states combined," says Jason Ziedenburg, policy analyst for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. "And Florida still has one of the highest crime rates in the nation."Not surprisingly, youths of color are the overwhelming majority of the War on Youth's casualties. Nationally, although whites make up 68 percent of all juveniles, 63 percent of youths in custody facilities are of color. In California, 86 percent of wards in the California Youth Authority are of color."The stark reality is that racism is alive and well in the juvenile justice system," says Mimi Ho, an organizer for Californians for Justice. "They are saying, `Youth are our future -- but not kids of color.'"Code Word: Gangs The War on Youth's buildup began in the late 1980s, as jurisdictions increasingly fretted about rising juvenile crime rates and the "out-of-control" youths behind the numbers. In that decade, these "out-of-control" youths were labeled within a single racialized code word: gangs.But even the Department of Justice finds gang membership difficult to pin down. Gangs are often informal, with unstable memberships. Add the inconsistent data collection criteria in police agencies, and you have Department of Justice estimates of the number of gangs in the U.S. that vary from 4,800 to 23,338.If the numbers are elusive, the political opportunism is real. In 1988, then-California Governor George Deukmejian signed the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act of 1988 (STEP), a model effort that the U.S. Department of Justice called "the most extensive statutory scheme to criminalize gang acts."The law gave gang-related offenses enhanced punishments, and created new crimes specific to gang activity. Under STEP, gang membership is punishable by up to three years in state prison. Most importantly, STEP wrote into law a process of determining who was a gang member. Today, most major cities and at least 19 states have laws similar to STEP and anti-gang units to enforce them.In 1987, the Law Enforcement Communication Network and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department began developing a large database -- the Gang Reporting, Evaluation, and Tracking System (GREAT) -- to collect, store, and analyze personal information about suspected gang members. Now simply known as CalGang, the database contains more than 300,000 names and is used by departments across the country. The Justice Department and the FBI also fund national databases.Databases indiscriminately criminalize youths, identifying "suspects" before any crime has been committed. Indeed, the definition of a "gang member" is hotly debated. In several cities, the ACLU has filed suits challenging local authorities' definitions of gang membership. Abuses are rampant. Racial profiling, it seems, is most virulent when it comes to youth of color.In at least five states, wearing baggy FUBU jeans and being related to a gang suspect is enough to meet the "gang member" definition. In Arizona, a tattoo and blue Adidas are sufficient. With so many of the crucial details left up to prejudice, the results are not surprising.In 1992, Actions for a Better Community (ABC) in Denver began protesting to local police that the city's gang database was criminalizing thousands of innocent youths of color. "Employers could call the gang list to see if a young person was on the list," says Gloria Yellowhorse, an organizer with ABC. A year later, investigations revealed that eight of every ten young people of color in the entire city were listed. Police met with ABC and quietly changed their database protocols.But minutes away from downtown Denver in suburban Aurora, any two of the following may still constitute gang membership to the local police: "slang," "clothing of a particular color," "pagers," "hairstyles," or "jewelry." Nearly eighty percent of Aurora's list is African American. The local head of the ACLU was heard to say, "They might as well call it a black list."But Aurora is no aberration. In Cook County, Illinois, the gang database is two-thirds black. In Orange County, CA, where less than half of young people are of color, 92 percent of those listed in the gang database in 1997 were youths of color. "The 'gang label' has everything to do with race," says John Crew of the California ACLU. "Frankly, we do not believe that this tactic would have spread so widely, and come to be accepted within law enforcement generally, if it was not being applied almost exclusively to people of color."To Sweep And Destroy At Coronado Mall in Albuquerque, NM, youths cannot even congregate. Like many shopping centers across the country, Coronado enforces a policy forbidding young people to gather in groups of three or more. Violators are cited for trespassing and banned from the Mall. Their records and photos are then turned over to the police gang unit for possible listing. "It's very scary for policy makers, for people in power, to see the numbers of young people of color." Like other War on Youth initiatives, youths of color were the primary targets. "By [one security guard's] count, at least ninety percent of the kids that they brought in were Chicano or Latino," says Robby Rodr�guez, the 24-year-old coordinator of the Southwest Organizing Project's campaign against the Mall. "Ninety percent of the youth [hanging out] in the Mall were not Latino.""[The mall operator's] reasoning was that when young people get together, there's a tendency for them to misbehave and to get into trouble," says Rodr�guez. Such is the logic of the sweep -- whether public space or private, youth of color have been turned into a generation of suspects.In the last decade, sweep laws -- laws against loitering, anti-truancy ordinances, anti-cruising laws, and curfews -- have proliferated across the country. The result? Curfew arrests nationwide doubled between 1988 and 1997. In California, they quadrupled during the same period.But evidence suggests curfew enforcement is not color blind. According to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, Ventura County, CA, arrests Latino and black youths at over seven times the rate of whites. In New Orleans, blacks are arrested at 19 times the rate of whites.The most famous sweep law was passed in Chicago in 1992 -- a gang anti-loitering ordinance that made it illegal to stand on the street with any person whom a cop "reasonably believes" to be in a gang. Under the ordinance, 43,000 young Chicagoans were arrested in just two years, the vast majority of them youth of color. Only a tiny fraction of them were actually charged with a crime."They were arresting lots of innocent people. It takes police away from the real work, and pushes them to simply sweeping youth off the street," says Jeremy Lahoud, a youth organizer with Chicago's Southwest Youth Collaborative. The law was so broadly dismissive of basic liberties that it was declared unconstitutional by the conservative U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year.The sweep mentality now pervades even school safety policy. In Oakland, CA, the school board recently voted to spend $1.13 million a year to maintain its own 24-hour-a-day police force. The only board member to vote against the plan said, "When we have to take money from our core educational function, the children suffer."At Lolita Roibal's high school in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a modern cavalry of police officers patrols on three-wheelers. "Motorized tricycles," she calls them. Students are searched before they enter the dilapidated buildings. "It just feels more like a jail than like a school," says Roibal, an 18-year-old Chicana.One day, she recalls, two sophomores got into a fight, "so out of nowhere like seven cop cars pull up." As Roibal watched, a cop yelled at a fleeing boy, "Stop, or I'll shoot, you little fucker!"Shocking? "No, I wasn't shocked," Roibal concedes with a sigh.No More Rehabilitation In California, a crucial vote on what opponents call the Juvenile Injustice Initiative will take place in March 2000. Co-sponsored by David LaBahn, deputy director of the California District Attorneys Association, and former Governor Pete Wilson, the Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act is a 43-page prescription to overhaul the juvenile system. At the heart of the initiative is the idea that offenders are incapable of rehabilitation.Supporters of the initiative want to scare the criminality out of young people. "Just like the Three-Strikes law has been a deterrent to repeat felons, if you realize that these are the consequences of your actions, we believe that most likely you'll decide a different path," says Mitch Zak, spokesperson for Californians to End Gang Violence and an Initiative supporter.These "consequences," say experts, would roll the crime system back to what it was in the 1800s. If the Initiative passes, 14-year-olds will be given adult sentences in adult prisons, including life without parole -- even for property offenses. And yet studies show that juveniles tried in adult courts are twice as likely to recidivate than their counterparts tried in the juvenile justice system.The law would also expand juvenile sentencing under Three-Strikes, and add to the number of crimes punishable as "gang-related." Before being placed in an intervention program, a youth would be forced to admit guilt in court. Cops could wiretap young people they identify as gang members, and those youth would have to register with the police like sex offenders. The law would also allow schools and employers to review juvenile court records by removing confidentiality rules, eliminating the chance that youth can outgrow their mistakes and move on with their lives.The result is a ballot measure -- one that the independent California Legislative Analyst's Office estimates could cost "hundreds of millions of dollars annually" in additional court and prison costs -- that many believe will be a more effective sweep of young people of color than all the gang injunctions, gang databases, anti-loitering ordinances, and curfews have ever been able to muster.The Task of Transformation Why this Initiative now? "It's very scary for policy makers, for people in power, to see the numbers of young people of color," believes Lateefah Simon of the Center for Young Women's Development. Her group is organizing against the Initiative as part of the Critical Resistance Youth Force Coalition.The Initiative may prove a turning point in the War on Youth, transforming many youths into activists. "The right wing picked the wrong group to mess with, because a lot of young people have already been politicized by Propositions 187, 209, and 227," says Mimi Ho, an organizer with Californians for Justice, which is also fighting the Initiative. "People are looking at this Initiative as a real youth movement-builder."Carlos' own road toward transformation began when a friend helped him enroll in community college and a Chicano studies class. Hoping to finish his education and develop his activism, he now calls himself a lucky one. Yet he still lives on the edge, always within the grasp of the system or the streets."I think for me I feel like I'm always walking on a tight rope," he says. "I will always forever be in [a gang] because the police have put me down in their records, the courts have put me down in their records, and if things ever get bad for me, it would be really easy for me to jump back into the mold.""The transformation is possible, but it's really, really big," he says. "I'm still going through it, and I don't know if I'll ever finish it." If the Juvenile Injustice Initiative passes, thousands of youths like Carlos may never get the chance.*Names have been changed to ensure anonymity.Ryan Pintado-Vertner works with the DataCenter's ImpactResearch Team and is a member of the ColorLines staff. Jeff Chang is managing editor of ColorLines.