Liberal Arts and Sciences

‘Our art is a reflection of our reality’ – Ice Cube

This article, written by our second year student Jack Dignam, was originally published last year in UCG’s very own journal SLASH.

Rodney King was unjustly beaten by the officers belonging to the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) on the 3rd of March, 1991. The 9th of August, 2015 saw Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager from Ferguson, die from a shot fired by a police officer. On the 19th of April, 2015 Freddie Gray died due to injuries caused while travelling in a police vehicle following his arrest. On the 4th of March of 2015, the New York Times published an article after the United States of America’s department of justice released a report on the Ferguson, Missouri police department (Matt Apuzzo, 2015). The report revealed that the Ferguson Police Department had been routinely violating the constitutional rights of its black residents. Bias against African-Americans was standard and thorough, affecting ‘nearly every aspect of Ferguson police and court operations’, according to the report. The report confirmed that for African-Americans, distrust and fear of the police was warranted. This report clearly conveys that there is some sort of perceived difference between young, black men and other groups in the United States and this results in their disenfranchisement. Straight Outta Compton[1], sees the world’s most dangerous group, N.W.A, emerge from the streets of Compton, LA in the mid 1980s and revolutionise Hip Hop with their music and lyricism that tells tales from their lives. But Straight Outta Compton is about much more than the musical careers of Eric ‘Eazy-E’ Wright, Andre ‘Dr.Dre’ Young, O’Shea ‘Ice Cube’ Jackson, Lorenzo ‘Mc Ren’ Patterson and Antoine ‘DJ Yella’ Carraby. The film explores themes of racism, police brutality and disenfranchisement of young, black men that are as relevant today as they were when N.W.A. released the protest anthem ‘F**k Tha Police’ in 1988. This essay will provide a critical analysis of Straight Outta Compton and will focus on the themes mentioned and how they are presented within the film along with an analysis of the disenfranchisement of young, black men in the United States with direct reference to the film and the aforementioned report. This essay is aimed at furthering an understanding of the disenfranchisement that the black community has undergone for too long.

Firstly, to further an understanding of the disenfranchisement of young, black men in the United States it is important to establish where the perceived difference between young, black men in the US and other groups derives from. The report, previously discussed in the first paragraph of this essay, reveals that only 67% of the Ferguson population is black and yet 88% of force used by police was on the black community. In an article published in March of 2015, other startling facts were revealed; although 67% of the Ferguson population is black, 88% of force used by the police was against the black community between 2012 and 2014. Additionally, the report also revealed that the Ferguson police department excessively used tasers and dogs on black suspects.

‘In 2013, one man was chased down and bitten by an officer’s dog even though the officer had frisked him and knew the man was unarmed. The officer’s supervisor later justified the use of force with a patently untrue statement, suggesting that the officer feared “that the subject was armed.”’

It is clear that this perceived difference exists but it is still to be established where it comes from. This data shows that there is no empirical evidence to explain the perceived difference. The report goes on to suggest that this perception spawns from ignorance.

‘Several police and court employees expressed racist views in emails and interviews. Messages between Ferguson officials compared African-Americans to chimpanzees and characterized a black woman’s abortion as an effective crime-stopping tool.’  The film suggests the same idea. Upon leaving his Aunt’s home, located on the same block that he grew up on, Ice Cube is harassed by police who have rounded up a group of local black male teens and are searching them for any narcotics, despite having no justification to do so. Cube’s parents arrive on the scene shortly after and a police man threatens to ‘ruin [Cube’s Mother’s] night’ and then another cop proceeds to slam Cube on the car bonnet and thus, uses excessive force. The same cop uses the word ‘nigger’ while shouting at Ice Cube and says, ‘This is LAPD, I’m the only gangster around here.’ It is here where the perceived difference between young, black men and other ethnicities can be seen. The policemen, without any reason to believe so, assumes that Ice Cube must have narcotics on his person. Although the police never offer any reason for their assumption, the policeman’s use of the word ‘nigger’ and his later comment on how he is the only ‘gangster’ around here implies that due to his skin colour and image, Cube must be involved in a life of crimes and drugs at least in the eyes of the law enforcement. It is clear that there is some sort of racial bias going on. The policeman’s ‘gangster’ comment also suggests that he believes Cube idolises gang culture again, because of his skin colour. This scene helps to recognise that the perceived difference between young, black males and other groups exists and to understand that it comes from a place of ignorance and a lack of understanding rather than any empirical evidence.

Secondly, the disenfranchisement of young, black males has resulted in a number of riots and protests over the years and it should be investigated why this is the case to further an understanding of the aforementioned topic. After the United States Justice Department revealed the report mentioned earlier, a protest outside the Ferguson Police Department took place. This was not an isolated incident. On the 12th of April 2014, Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African American resident of Baltimore, Maryland, was arrested by Baltimore Police Department officials. Although in good health at the time of his arrest, Gray received injuries to his neck and spine while being transported in a police vehicle. Gary died on the 19th of April 2015 after falling into a coma the previous day. Riots in Baltimore began on the 18th of April over the treatment of Gray and his subsequent death (Laughland, Farrell, Lewis, Jacobs, & Swaine, 2015). These resulted in lootings, fires and and high levels of violence. The people of Baltimore felt angry and cheated by a system designed to protect them, according to an article published by The Guardian on the 28th of April (Lewis, Swaine, & Jacobs, 2015).

‘Quatiarra Bonaparte, 14, said the unrest was a vent for the rage young people in her neighbourhood felt over Gray’s death. She pointed out that the six officers involved in his arrest, who are under investigation, have been suspended on full pay. ´When we kill each other, we get consequences,´ she explained. ´But when they kill each other they just get a paid vacation.´’

Straight Outta Compton suggests that these riots are in fact a result of the disenfranchised African-American community feeling as though they have been wronged. In 1991, Eazy grimaces as he watches the Rodney King beating on TV, and later the not-guilty verdicts. Los Angeles soon erupts in flames. At an interview that Ice Cube had thought was on the recent Rodney King riots, a journalist states that the FBI and American Government believe the lyrics of ‘Fuck Tha Police’ advocate violence against American law enforcement. Ice Cube retorts, ‘Fuck tha Police’ is just a warning, that’s it. You can’t treat people like that and expect them not to rise up.’ Cube shares similar feelings to that of Bonaparte and her community; people do not like being oppressed and after a certain point, they will react to the oppression. This scene of the film helps to recognise and understand the frustrations of the black community, an important aspect of understanding such a complicated issue. Understanding why people are upset and understanding the rationale behind riots and protests helps to improve the relationships between the black community and those around them, namely law enforcement.

Lastly, to further an understanding of the disenfranchisement of young, black men in the United States the actual act of disenfranchising black youths and what can be done to further improve the situation must be considered. The Justice Department’s report on the Ferguson Police Department described a city where police officers did not know the law or did not bother to follow it.

‘Internal documents showed Ferguson police officers conducting “pedestrian checks,” in which they stopped people walking down the street and demanded to see their identification without any probable cause. One officer cited in the report told investigators he considered people who refused to show identification to be suspicious or aggressive, and typically arrested them.

When people refused to comply with — or even questioned — unconstitutional orders, police sometimes responded with force. Stun guns, for example, were commonly used even when officers were not threatened. “Supervisors seem to believe that any level of resistance justifies any level of force,” the report found.’

Straight Outta Compton’s soundtrack helps to further our understanding of the actual act of disenfranchisement. ‘Fuck Tha Police’ is played more than once in the film and is probably the real-life group’s most recognised song. During the Rodney King riots, it became a protest anthem. Youths would often tag the streets with ‘Fuck tha police.’ But ‘Fuck Tha Police’ is much more than just a battle cry against systematic oppression. ‘Fuck Tha Police’ explains the problem at hand.

‘A young nigga got it bad cause I’m brown // And not the other color so police think

they have the authority to kill a minority // … Searching my car, looking for the product // Thinking every nigga is sellin narcotics // You’d rather see, me in the pen // than me and Lorenzo rollin in a Benz-o’

Although the writer, Ice Cube, is referring to the LAPD in particular, what he said is applicable to the police mentioned in the report. These police are not being trained to protect justice but instead they are trained to win every argument, every situation, every altercation which results in excessive violence and feelings of frustrations and anger from the black community. Understanding how the police operate is key to further an understanding on this topic when they are so responsible for the disenfranchisement of young, black men in the U.S. Additionally, both the report and the film have ideas about how the situation can be improved from two different perspectives. The article states these findings will result in the Ferguson Police Department being forced to make changes or face a federal civil rights lawsuit. In this case, policy makers must fight for real change and more systematic oppression must be revealed for the situation to be corrected. The film instead focuses instead on how the black community can proceed. During an interview about their track ‘Fuck Tha Police’, the group is told that their music promotes violence and celebrates criminality. Ice Cube responds with ‘our art is a reflection of our reality.’ The film advocates the thought that through art, something real can be achieved and tracks like ‘Fuck Tha Police’ are an example of this. Similarly to the article, it is about revealing systematic oppression but it is about revealing it in an entirely different way, revealing it through art and self-expression which are drastically different to the revealment of stats and figures.

Ultimately, the disenfranchisement of young, black males is still as relevant today as it was 25 years ago and articles like the New York Times’ on the Justice Department’s report on the Ferguson Police Department show the perceived difference still very much exists. But films like Straight Outta Compton help to consider the disenfranchisement that young, black men are confronted with everyday and help to further an understanding of this very real and topical issue. Straight Outta Compton reveals that this perceived difference is a result of some sort of racial bias rather than empirical evidence which is hugely important to improve an understanding of the problem. Moreover, it makes known how those being oppressed feel and offers a justification for the riots and protests that are so commonly seen in the United States both lately and historically. Understanding the rationale behind the riots is vital to improving relationships between those being oppressed and those around them, namely the oppressors. Finally, the film helps to explain the actual act of disenfranchising along with offering a way to move forward through art and self-expression, a much more powerful tool to understanding issues that are, sadly, so common in everyday life.

Sources

Laughland, O., Farrell, P., Lewis, P., Jacobs, B., & Swaine, J. (2015, April 28). Baltimore riots: looting, fires and unrest as Freddie Gray police clashes unfurl – as it happened. Retrieved January 18, 2016, from http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/live/2015/apr/27/baltimore-police-clash-protesters-freddie-gray-live

Lewis, P., Swaine, J., & Jacobs, B. (2015, April 28). “This is not the justice we seek”: sorrow in Baltimore as grief turns into riots. Retrieved January 18, 2016, from http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/apr/28/baltimore-riots-fires-reaction-looting-protesters-hurt-community-unrest-just-beginning

Matt Apuzzo And. (2015). Ferguson Police Tainted by Bias, Justice Department Says. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/05/us/us-calls-on-ferguson-to-overhaul-criminal-justice-system.html

[1] The film takes it title from the group’s 1988 debut album.

 

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