Government agencies like the F.B.I. are no stranger to harassing Black activists and using racist propaganda to promote public pandemonium. Eartha Kitt, Josephine Baker, Black Lives Matter Leaders, and Professor Kathleen Cleaver, whose family fled the United States to escape pressure from COINTELPRO are just a few examples of the government’s tactics to suppress oppositional protest and free speech.
Check out Professor Cleaver’s video on COINTELPRO and the government’s response to oppositional free speech.
In my opinion one of the most fascinating and publicly demonstrated government persecutions was that of 5 Black men from Compton, California named Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, DJ Yella, Arabian Prince, and MC Ren. The men were members of a small group you might have heard of called N.W.A.
In 1988, the group released a song that thrust them into the cross hairs of the F.B.I. called “Fuck Tha Police”. Recently, the biopic Straight Outta Compton, which follows the group’s lives, explains the motivation behind the song. While the group was recording their debut album, they were harrassed by a group of police officers outside a recording studio.
I have to admit, I struggled with my decision to write on this topic. Mostly because of the explicitness of the song’s title, and the tension it speaks to even 29 years after its release. But N.W.A.’s own experience with censorship, public harassment, and decision to stand firm on their first amendment rights gave me all the courage I needed to write this post.
The First Amendment in its entirety states:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
From this small piece of law, many areas of expression and points of contention have blossomed.
On August 1, 1989, the Assistant Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations’ Office of Public Affairs sent a letter to the members of N.W.A. via its Los Angeles based record label Priority Records. Read a copy of the letter below:
Let’s start from the beginning. The FBI sent a rap group a letter expressing their discontent with the “disrespect” shown to “law enforcement officer” (Somebody should have proof read this letter) on the Straight Out of Compton album, which the song at issue is a part of. My first thought is, how many of these letters have the Klu Klux Klan received for their advocacy of violence against people of color?
I read the letter a few times, looking for some hint that there was a violation of Federal Law, but nope, just hurt feelings. There’s no other explanation for this letter than that of a passive aggressive attempt to censor N.W.A.’s music. This is the F.B.I., the letterhead alone is enough to be taken as a threat.
My second thought was, I bet they didn’t even listen to the song. That’s, of course, me giving them the benefit of the doubt. Because obviously if they had listened to the song, then they would have addressed the police brutality it outlines. Right? I mean, this is Los Angeles, home of Adolph Lyons, The Watts Riots, and Rodney King.
Jacobellis v. Ohio, a case about the censorship of sexually obscene materials, outlines the standard for banning speech and expression.
The test for obscenity is whether to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material, taken as a whole, appeals to prurient interest.
A work cannot be proscribed unless it is “utterly without redeeming social importance…The constitutional status of allegedly obscene material does not turn on a “weighing” of its social importance against its prurient appeal, for a work may not be proscribed unless it is “utterly” without social importance.
“Fuck Tha Police”, no matter how you may personally feel about the song or police brutality in general, has obvious social importance. On behalf of anyone who has been brutalized by the police, the song unapologetically challenges the police and its unfettered state support. The song creatively highlights the government’s conscious effort to support the system of policing over the protection of some of its most vulnerable citizens.
“Fuck Tha Police” discusses the over policing of Black neighborhoods, stereotypes, Black police officers who brutalize minorities, the police’s perceived threat of Black men, and unnecessary escalation.
In light of these guidelines, what does this letter actually mean? We know that N.W.A. didn’t violate any laws. If they had, this letter would have been more legal and less emotional. The F.B.I. letter does nothing more than prove their point. It ignores the statistically supported issue of police brutality, at the expense of its victims, to preserve the honor of law enforcement.