The Bronx Defenders, a non-profit law firm in New York, are taking some heat because two of their lawyers, Kumar Rao and Ryan Napoli, acted in a few scenes of a rap video which were filmed in the firm’s offices. The song, “Hands Up,” is not my kind of music, but if you want to watch it, here it is:
Just looking at the freeze frame should give you some idea what the controversy is all about. The lyrics include lines like “For Mike Brown and Sean Bell, a cop got to get killed” and “Time to start killing these coppers.”
Needless to say, this has not gone over well with the NYPD, prosecutors, and various other participants in the criminal justice system.
On Thursday, New York City investigators sharply criticized the two public defenders for participating, concluding that they knew beforehand that the lyrics endorsed deadly retribution for the death of Mr. Garner, in July after a confrontation with police officers.
The city’s Department of Investigation also determined that the founder and executive director of the Bronx Defenders, Robin Steinberg, approved the organization’s involvement without reviewing the lyrics and later misled city officials about her role. The city has demanded that the Bronx Defenders, known for its aggressive defense of low-income and minority clients and receives about $20 million a year in city funds, take disciplinary action against the two lawyers by Feb. 4.
I can understand why people would get upset about lyrics that endorse killing cops, and everybody has a right to tell Uncle Murda, Jay Watts, and Maino to take their stupid song and shove it up their ass.
That said, this pisses me off for so many reasons.
For starters, most songs are fiction. I’m not just talking about movie musicals and theatrical songs. Lots of popular music — rap and country more than most, I think — is storytelling, with the artists taking on a persona as part of the performance. They play a character in a story.
The story told by the lyrics could be true, but it’s more likely to be an exaggeration, if not complete fiction. Eminem didn’t really kill his ex-wife. Bruce Springsteen has a blue collar background, but he’s spent most of his life as a musician, not a factory worker. Alanis Morissette probably gets pissed off now and then, but she isn’t really as angry as she was on Jagged Little Pill. Bob Marley did not shoot the Sheriff, Johnny Cash never shot a man in Reno, and NASA is not planning a rescue mission for Major Tom. (It is, however, the dawning of the age of Aquarius.)
Actually, let me step aside from my main point for a few paragraphs to point out something about the lyrics of “Hands Up” that seems to be missed in all the ruckus: Despite what the quoted phrases seem to mean when taken out of context, the song as a whole doesn’t actually advocate shooting police officers. I can’t believe that I’m explaining rap to anybody, but if you’re going to raise hell over a song, you really ought to pay attention to the lyrics. Uncle Murda starts “Hands up” like this:
I spit that shit the streets got to feel
For Mike Brown and Sean Bell, a cop got to get killed
In other words, he’s talking what the urban black community is feeling. People are angry about young black men like Mike Brown and Sean Bell getting killed by the police, and some of them are angry enough to kill cops. A little later, Maino raps about someone more specific:
My lil’ homie told me he ready to riot
Ferguson was on his mind, he ready to fire
I’m too old and white to have any idea what the relationship is between Maino and his “lil’ homie,” but it’s clear that he’s describing someone else’s violent thoughts, which is not the same as advocating violence. (In this, “hands up” is unlike certain other Uncle Murder songs.)
I’m not saying “Hands Up” is preaching a message of non-violence. But neither is it telling people to kill cops. It’s a five minute song about how police killing young black men is making them angry enough to want to respond violently. The video repeats the scene of two young black men pointing their guns at a young white NYPD officer’s head several times, but they never pull the trigger. It’s not advocating killing. It’s saying that people are angry enough to kill.
For that matter, the majority of the song is not about anger or retaliation but about the reason for the anger: Cops killing young black men without consequences. A few more lyrics:
Cause I’m black, police think they got the right to shoot me
No jail for them, their punishment is desk duty
These cocksuckers supposed to protect us
Killing unarmed black men, making mothers holler
And this who the government paying with our tax dollars
All these unjustified shootings
Then they call us animals when we start looting
Those kids ain’t had no gun and the police knew it
Black boys running from white cops
Who are they to determine just if our life stops
Please your honor, tell me if I’m a goner
“I can’t breath, they’re choking me”, words from Eric Garner
You know this shit just ain’t right
My son ask me this morning, “Daddy, we safe, right?” (No)
How the fuck I will tell him we ain’t got the same rights
They put our babies in coffins, this shit just ain’t life
That’s also what much of the video is about, and most of the violence in the video is by police, captured from real life on cell phones. The two public defense lawyers who appear in it are comforting a woman who appears to be grieving.
The New York Times story talks about the Bronx Defenders getting that $20 million a year as if it was some kind of benefit that the city was doling out. It’s important to realize that the Bronx Defenders are the Bronx County public defenders. [Update: They’re actually one of two organizations that provide public defense.] They have the contract to handle indigent criminal defense throughout the borough. They get that money because Gideon v. Wainwright (the Supreme Court decision which established the public defender system) requires the City of New York to make sure that someone does the job that Bronx Defenders are doing. They’re as much a part of the justice system as the police or the District Attorney’s office.
It’s not like the Bronx Defenders spent public money to make a music video about killing cops. Most of their money does come from a pair of government contracts, but the cost of making the video wasn’t actually billed to those contracts. This was just a side project by a few employees who got the boss to let some local rappers make a video on the premises.
The Bronx Defenders do a lot of outreach and get involved in the community, so it’s not hard to imagine that if some employee came to them and said a friend of hers is a video producer who would like to shoot a video in the building for a few hours on a weekend — and would some of the lawyers like to be in it? — they might agree without giving it a whole lot of thought.
Mr. de Blasio, whom many police officers accused of tolerating anti-police rhetoric by some protesters, was pointed in his criticism of the Bronx Defenders, saying that unless the group promptly addresses the concerns, “the city will take all legal and contractual actions available to it.”
The city could cancel its contract with the Bronx Defenders, which serves about 35,000 clients a year.
Last year the city of New York procured more than $17 billion from thousands of vendors, and I’ll bet a lot of them have employees who’ve said things that the Mayor and the NYPD don’t agree with. So why is the city singling out the Bronx Defenders?
I don’t think it’s because of some low-budget video by some moderately successful rappers. This is really about the job the Bronx Defenders do every day. They’re well known for providing defendants with zealous representation and they offer a broad base of services to people who are accused, likely to be accused, or convicted of all kinds of crimes. When they do their job well, they undoubtedly piss people off. And now somebody’s decided to take this opportunity to give them a little payback. The Mayor needs to get the police back on his side somehow, after all.
(Here in Chicago, the Law Office of the Public Defender doesn’t have the freedom to represent people so broadly, so non-profit organizations like First Defense Legal Aid try to step in. When I wrote my post about the 50th anniversary of Gideon about FDLA, I asked the Bronx Defenders Executive Director, Robin Steinberg, for a quote about the benefits of pre-arrest representation, and despite the diminutive stature of Windypundit in the world of legal journalism, she was nice enough to take the time to give me something.)
To be sure, getting involved with the video was a fuck-up. When you’re responsible for providing indigent defense for 35,000 people, you better not do anything that would jeopardize your funding. Somebody — either the lawyers involved or Robin Steinberg — should have done a better job of making sure that the video didn’t have anything in it that they wouldn’t want to be associated with.
At the same time, however, the City’s response is more than a little disturbing. Except where the speech is an intrinsic part of what is being contracted, the government has no business telling people or organizations what they can or cannot say.
I mean, what’s the theory here? That no person or organization that receives money from the government should ever say anything upsetting or controversial? Is that really the standard? Where else would that apply? A bus driver who complains about stop-and-frisk at a community meeting? A construction contractor who gives an anti-gay sermon to his independent church group? Or how about the city’s colleges and universities? Could the city stop a CUNY theater workshop from performing a puppet show that portrayed cop-killing in a positive light? Would anybody even care?
Naturally, the investigators are not admitting that this is about free speech. They have a rationalization:
“If you’re an organization primarily funded by the city, you can’t use your premises and you can’t sponsor videos that call for killing police officers,” said Mark Peters, commissioner of the Investigation Department. He added, “When people in your organization do something that so damages your reputation, it also damages your ability to efficiently advocate in front of judges and in front of prosecutors.”
What a crock. This is a half-assed attempt to rationalize punishing them for their speech by latching onto the only possible justification. And technically, he’s got a point: The Bronx Defenders involvement in the video is Not Going To Help Their Clients, and on that basis it was certainly a mistake.
But let’s be realistic about it. Does Mark Peters know what criminal defense lawyers do for a living? That they defend rapists and murderers? And he’s saying a music video might damage their reputation? I’m just guessing, but I’m pretty sure that the Bronx Defenders have represented more than one actual cop killer. You don’t think that pisses people off? Like anybody who does criminal defense, they’re used to working around much larger conflicts than some stupid video.
And what does Peters mean when he frets about the their “ability to efficiently advocate in front of judges and in front of prosecutors”? They’re not the ones who are so upset about the video. Their advocacy isn’t going to be affected at all. What Peters is really saying is that judges and prosecutors might be so unprofessional as to let their feelings about the video influence their decisions in matters of justice, which could harm Bronx Defenders’ clients. As I’ve said, that’s a fair point, and they should have been more careful, but the Bronx Defenders are not the only problem here.
The report says the Bronx Defenders told investigators that they were prepared to issue all three employees 30-day suspensions without pay and to demote Mr. Rao and Mr. Napoli.
But in a statement, the Bronx district attorney, Robert T. Johnson, deemed those steps “insufficient.”
The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association went further, demanding that the Bronx Defenders be shut down.
The district attorney and the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association are just about the last people you’d want to influence policy for indigent defense. I’m sure they’d both be happy if the Bronx Defenders were replaced by a more subservient organization.
Ultimately, the Bronx Defenders have to do what is best for their clients, which may mean giving in to extortionate demands. But it makes me angry that they are under pressure over something as stupid as this. The Bronx Defenders are doing important work in their community, and I support them. Literally.
(Hat tip: Scott Greenfield)