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American Skin: Racial Tensions With Law Enforcement Chronicled Through Music History

by Sean Smith

Over the course of the past two weeks protests have been held in cities and towns across America to protest grand jury decisions in both Ferguson, MO and Staten Island, NY that failed to indict white police officers in the deaths of two unarmed black men. As I have observed the reaction to these two decisions in the news media as well as in personal conversations, I have noticed that there are basically two views on the subject. The first, those who agree with the protesters, are upset by the decisions in both the Mike Brown and Erik Garner cases. They are of the opinion that there was a racial element at play in the deaths of those two unarmed men and see an injustice in the grand jury decisions not to indict the officers. The second reaction I have observed in reaction to these cases is one in which the people who hold it simply cannot understand the outrage being expressed by the people out protesting the decisions. The people I have encountered who hold this second view, mostly white people I will note, look at the decisions as the justice system working as it should. Grand juries were convened, they looked at the evidence and testimony presented to them, and a decision was made on that basis.

I personally don’t know if the grand juries convened in the Mike Brown and Erik Garner cases made the right decision by not indicting the officers involved. However, I do recognize that for many protesters the outrage they are voicing is about more than just these two cases. There is a feeling, especially in the minority community, that law enforcement has a history in this country of treating minorities in an unfair manner. This is not a new feeling. It is a sentiment that has been long held and documented. So with that being said, I would like to take a moment to look at some songs released over the past few decades that encapsulate some of these feelings. This in an effort to better understand some of the sentiments behind the ongoing protests we are seeing today.

In the 1960s America was in the midst of the civil rights movement. It was a time that law enforcement and state governments in the South actively played a role in the murders, and subsequent coverups of murders, of many African-Americans and civil rights activists alike. In 1964, singer Nina Simone put to song the outrage felt by many in regards to state sponsored injustice with “Mississippi Goddamn”.

Two years earlier, in 1962, Bob Dylan wrote the song “The Death of Emmet Till” which detailed the brutal murder of a black teenage boy in Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman. The two white men responsible for the murder were acquitted at trial but later openly admitted to killing Till, knowing that they could not be tried again for the murder in criminal court.

As we entered the 1970s, the R&B icon Marvin Gaye spoke to the perceived injustice he still saw in America post-civil rights movement, when in 1971 he released “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)”. In the second verse of that song, Gaye speaks specifically to the distrust for law enforcement by mentioning “trigger happy policing”.

In 1975 Bob Dylan once again took up the issue of race when he wrote the song “Hurricane”. This song, which I wrote about previously here, tells the true story of a boxer named Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Carter was a black man who was wrongly arrested and convicted of murder and spent 19 years in prison before a judge set aside the conviction citing the fact that the prosecution of Carter was “based on racism rather than reason”.

In the 1980s hip-hop music was born and with it came more than a few songs which spoke to the issue of race and law enforcement. In 1989 rapper KRS-ONE released a song called “Who Protects Us From You?” which talks about the way race played a factor in policing with lyrics like “Well, back in the days of Sherlock Holmes a man was judged by a clue, now he’s judged by If he’s Spanish, Black, Italian or Jew.”

In the 1990s the issue of race and police brutality was front and center in the public eye when Rodney King was beaten excessively by Los Angeles police officers and it was captured on video. An LA based rapper named Kid Frost put out a song in 1992 that talked about racial profiling by police and mentions the Rodney King beating specifically in the line “Yo, go ahead and write your ticket but hey yo, Mr. Officer, you know where you can stick it, I say this to myself, I let him do his thing or he might beat me down just like he beat down Rodney King.”

In February of 1999 an unarmed African immigrant named Amadou Diallo was shot 41 times in front of his apartment by plain clothed police officers as he was reaching into his jacket to get his wallet. The killing of Diallo led to a number of songs speaking to the injustice of the situation. One of those songs was “American Skin (41 Shots)” by Bruce Springsteen.

In 2007 an unarmed black man named Sean Bell was shot to death by cops in New York City the night before his wedding. That case was mentioned in several rap songs. And now of course with the latest incidents in Ferguson, MO with Mike Brown and the Erik Bernard case in New York City, artists are once again turning to song to voice their frustrations.

As you can see from this abbreviated list of songs, an undercurrent of distrust towards law enforcement in the minority community has been present in this country for decades. So yes, while people are out protesting these past few weeks because of the two most recent cases in Ferguson and New York City, the demonstrations and public outcry are about much more than just those two isolated cases alone. The anger being voiced on our country’s streets is a manifestation of decades worth of feelings of injustice. And the sooner we as a society recognize this feeling, whether we agree with it or not, and start the process of having a real conversation in our society about how we can address these grievances, the sooner we as a country can progress and become a more perfect union.


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