(BALTIMORE – August 22, 2021) – In 1988, when a little-known underground rap group from Compton, California, named N.W.A produced a song called “F*ck that Police,” the lyrics stuck and became an anthem for most Americans who experienced negative police tactics over the years and even for those who had not. They tapped into the sentiment of stressed and fed-up African Americans in urban America, but connected the dots and revealed that police brutality had no city limits. I first heard the song on a cassette tape in a small Alabama town long before social media. The name of the group alone—Niggaz Wit Attitudes, or N.W.A—ignited what social media does every day: make everything provocative.
If you don’t know N.W.A, the young rappers, active as a group from 1987 to 1991, were teenagers with talent and ambition enough that a few of them morphed into billionaires who live upgraded lifestyles that they could not even have dreamed of while growing up in what they described as the ghetto. They glamorized this ghetto backdrop, glorified gangs, motivated deadly assaults on people of the same race, prioritized prison culture and used the “b” word to define women. But still one of their most popular hits was “F*ck tha Police.”
I should add here N.W.A. wrote FTP ahead of the 1992 L.A. riots, and since it was recorded, it has been used as a protest song for any police-related incident. The song explains the strain between police and communities in urban areas. It also puts on display that expecting Black police officers to be any different is controversial as well.
While I have always had concerns about the responsibility of rap artists to transfer messages of hope that would inspire young people to build and become stewards of communities, groups like N.W.A. fell short of that mission. However, they do leave a trail for sociologists and historians to do what hip-hop has not been trained to do. The first observation is the timing and embrace of hip-hop as urban American folk music during the 1980s. This was the first era of free, uncensored thought in African American folk music. Regardless of what I think about their neglect in writing dutiful themes of uplifting to empower community, it seems they rocked the masses on their terms. In regard to history, their timing could not have been better. It has been argued that by spewing lyrics like “F tha police,” “Boyz-n-the-Hood” and “Gangsta Gangsta,” N.W.A seeded the 1994 Crime Bill by influencing young people to do crime. But it is also true that policymakers did not consider attempting to understand the broken systems that caused the cry of the protest song. Instead, elected officials coined their own mantra and sang, “tough on crime” and empowered police and prosecutors with funding while reducing federal funding for families and communities.
As recorded, the last 30 years or so have transformed the vision of the neighborhood police from “officer friendly” walking the little lady across the street to a traumatized racist who would rather kick, beat, or shoot an unarmed pedestrian to prove a point. However, since the video recording of the beating of an unarmed Los Angeles motorist Rodney King in 1992, the citizen surveillance footage has been central to building a case for victims of police brutality. These deadly events are well documented and generated millions of dollars in legal fees, prison terms, and settlements that could have been avoided if there was collaboration between the co
mmunity and law enforcement as well as some effort to promote the value of meeting people where they are and understanding their pain. That collaboration is my hope and seems to be the only option left to combat the chaos that exists now that police officers are scorned and spat upon like military personnel who returned from Vietnam in the 1970s. What the anti-war and anti-police activists seem to forget is that what soldiers and officers have in common: They both are connected to families who simply want them to come home. Oh, and unfortunately the politics of our times control their actions in whatever uniform they wear so they become easy targets for scrutiny and ridicule but never rehabilitation.
If there is any example of the target that is on the back of the police it is the case out of Baltimore where two officers came upon what should have been a routine incident involving a stolen car that had been tracked on a system, thanks to technology. Because of the lack of trust in police or in the spirit of vigilante justice, it is the practice in some urban areas for the owner of a stolen car to track the vehicle himself and assault the person accused of taking the vehicle. In this case, the attack was bloody and almost deadly. Luck was on the side of the car thief because the police arrived and intervened. However, while taking the standard steps to secure the car thief who had been attacked and to question his attacker (they are both victims of crimes at this point), the attacker breaks away from one officer and takes another chance to attack the already brutalized car thief. We should not be surprised that the victim who attacked the car thief was arrested and taken to jail. I’m sure that because of technology, it will be easy for the car thief to be arrested and processed. However, there is a third victim in this circumstance—the officer who questioned the attacker. This police officer was charged with reckless endangerment and police misconduct for not securing an already enraged victim of a crime.
There is much work to do if we as a community are going to have motivated citizens who will be interested in a career as police officers. The current atmosphere doesn’t paint a welcoming picture for what treatment of “women and men in blue” looks like now or for any time in the future. Work needs to be done on all sides to understand the history of why systems in communities are broken, why policing must be redefined to meet the challenges of our times, and why the collaboration of the community and the police should be a priority because trust is a true value.
For a group of kids who just wanted to make rap beats, N.W.A in all their provocativeness really made a name for themselves. They have gone global, and many of the artists from that group, as stated, have become very successful. Additionally, the groups of young people who have gained their political consciousness since 1992, 2012, 2014, and up to 2020 represent a class of Americans who are desirous of a change in policing citizens, but we can’t change anything if we don’t work together. We all play a part in building the necessary trust. The story of the Vietnam veteran leaves a trail of tears for us to follow and correct.
President; NAACP, Maryland State Conference
Executive Director; Park Heights Community Health Alliance