Soundtrack for a Police State
Police have made themselves a spectacle in Ferguson, Missouri. While the job of defending white capitalist state power and brutalizing black people is never a clean business, the debacle in the St. Louis suburbs has taken on a far more menacing appearance than usual. This has happened to the extent that mainstream journalists and liberal humanitarian NGOs have taken notice, which shows the staggering scope of the Ferguson PD’s miscalculations. Not to mention the anxiety provoked by cops decked out in heavy armor Americans are more used to seeing rolling around Baghdad streets than on the streets of Somewhere, USA.
Perhaps this post will seem too featherweight for the occasion. But rather than duplicate some of the more impassioned or in-depth analyses I’ve seen, I would like to encourage everyone to stay vigilant and informed on the matter. My own contribution is a musical one. Or, rather, a document of some of the music that might inspire, unite, and comfort in light of what’s happening. While the main importance of a protest or moment of contemplation is the content and force of the people involved, music has always had an important supporting role to play in people’s solidarity, revolutionary movements, and past socialist states. Since the current moment is characterized by grieving and anguish, more celebratory songs didn’t feel appropriate. The following, therefore, is a mostly sombre list of songs alloyed with a reminder that hope never dies and that the masses make history.
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey: “The Burning”
This movement from the group’s 2011 album Race Riot Suite dramatizes the terrorization and ultimate destruction of a prosperous black community in Tulsa, OK in 1921. Tulsa became the first city in America ever bombed from the air, and this took place against the backdrop of a storm of racist violence that is definitive of American history. While the crowd’s enthusiasm for this live performance can be unnerving given the music’s narrative context, the piece itself is appropriately frantic. It gives a degree of life to a mostly forgotten period of history that bears a painful resemblance to the present.
Bambu: “Pepper Spray”
Bambu is a Filipino nationalist rapper and Los Angeles community organizer who discusses the pernicious power of the police in a number of his songs. This one, however, seems to fit Ferguson the best. It’s fairly blunt and self-explanatory, and it has the clarity we need at a time like this.
Killer Mike: “Reagan”
Draws some crucial connections between American imperialism on “home soil” and abroad. The answer is unsurprisingly connected to the profit motive, though not always in a simple or transparent way. Also takes some well-placed shots at one of history’s most visible monstrosities.
Charles Mingus: “Original Fables of Faubus”
While the record label forced Mingus to strip the lyrics from the version of the song that got a studio release, this live cut preserves its mordant political wit intact. It reminds us of the historical continuity where Ferguson is situated, and how little progress has been made since Faubus sat in the governor’s chair.
Christian Scott: “K.K.P.D.”
I wanted to end on a more contemplative piece. Even as we should keep our anger stoked and our eyes sharp for what comes next in Ferguson, we need to remember to refrain from being rash, especially if we’re not in the community. While we can recognize the sinews––capitalism, imperialism, the resulting white supremacy and media obfuscation that result––we can’t forget that the people who are suffering experience this anguish more immediately. Eventually, the standoff in Ferguson will probably end, but the underlying mechanisms that explain its origin will continue to oppress, exploit, and kill those who don’t amass obscene profit from it. We can’t be bystanders, but we must temper our rage with wisdom, direct our will to act with proper understanding. Most of all, we need to go out into the world and organize in our own communities, whether we’re working with a party or not. And remember that, however sensational and bizarre the images we see on the news or online appear to be, they are only the mundane reality of capitalist USAmerica.