Every generation gets the “fuck tha Police” it deserves. The 1988 title by NWA is a brilliant stomp. The production shares some anxious Public Enemy–style siren bleat, adds a Twilight Zone guitar figure and rollicking rhythm. It is crassly homophobic. It is celebratory in equal parts to its rage, putting the police on trial in a dream reversal. The late Eazy-E gilds the closing statement with a veritably Socratic gesture: “Without a gun and badge, what do ya got? A sucker in a uniform waiting to get shot.”
The moment of truth precedes this by seconds: “They put up my picture with silence cuz my identity by itself causes violence.” The cops don’t need just cause, much less anthems; they’re the militarized edge of white supremacy, after all. Against this, the song’s antagonistic spirit registers both bravado and slyness, a rip in the fabric of the dark blue night. It was a chance to roll around Los Angeles shouting “Fuck the police!” at volume and maybe get away with it. Three years later, the beating of Rodney King. A year after that, the verdict. And the riots.
In 2009, the year Baton Rouge rapper Lil Boosie was sentenced to jail, where he would spend time through 2014, he included a song with roughly the same title on a mixtape. In the interval, there had been no shortage of like offerings. Boosie’s “Fuck the Police,” featuring Webbie, is grim, sinister. It’s a conversation, mostly about the endless threats, humiliations and violations experienced at the hands of various cops. The chorus is roll call and response: “Cities, fuck ‘em! Narcotics, fuck ‘em! Feds, fuck ‘em! DAs, fuck ‘em!” It comes to a familiar conclusion, in familiarly uncivil language: “Without that badge, you a bitch and a half, nigga. Fuck the police!” The song is not defeated. But it is flattened, coiled, darkness audible: the steady-state sonics of a permanent disaster that has befallen a people.
There has been no dearth of complaints that contemporary struggles have not been met with anything like the vaunted protest music of the past. Tracks by Lauryn Hill and others notwithstanding, the complaint has been repackaged lately to note that Ferguson has yet to yield its “Ohio,” written just a couple of weeks after the Kent State shootings. Perhaps this is a sign of pop culture’s increasing fracture from lived politics. Or perhaps some songs have already been written. Sometimes, culture uses whatever it finds lying around. It is precisely the lack of novelty that underscores Michael Brown’s murder by Darren Wilson; how are you going to say you need something new? What better than “Fuck the Police” to narrate this nightmare repetition? It seems right, doubly right, no matter the times. The song’s atmospherics capture the long wave of anti-black repression, criminalization, harassment, now more than ever entangled with an economy heavy on sticks, light on carrots. And it gets the mysterious suspension of the present moment: an era seeming to have ended six or seven years ago with nothing new on the horizon, just this paused and hollow persistence. We are in a grim, unmoored moment, and it sounds like Boosie.
It certainly does in Ferguson, where Michael Brown lay dead in the street for four hours. Boosie’s “Fuck the Police” has become an anthem there, the most insistent sentence thumping from cars and boom boxes, punctuated by Young Thug and Three 6 Mafia. It’s what life sounds like, though some manage to hear the music differently. “He had taken to rapping in recent months,” noted The New York Times, blowing the racist dog whistle in Brown’s obituary, evidence that he was “no angel.” On August 23, a young man was arrested just for playing “Fuck the Police” near the McDonald’s on West Florissant Avenue; a phalanx of cops moved in and locked him down. Is this not protest music, then?
There remains something tremulously larger than itself about rapping in this flattened and bare suburb with its chop suey joints and beauty salons, the McDonald’s closing at 5 pm, the QuikTrip now cold ash. On another night, three well-dressed men started rhyming in the downtown zone occupied by a menagerie of law enforcement reminiscent of Boosie’s chorus, a couple small tanks, other power tools. A group quickly gathered around, spilled into the street. Whatever the rhymes’ content, the crowd wasn’t following the official orders to keep marching. Community leaders and clergy implored them to move along, to march in the way of official protests. Nobody in the huddle really wanted to. Things got tense. Some masks appeared. The debate about how to fight back—about strategy and tactics, if no one used those words—hung in the air, where it has been for two weeks.
The two weeks have been the novelty. It is fading as I write. Still, the counterattack against the police has lasted longer now than the Rodney King riots. Longer than the Watts riots. Longer than the Plainfield and Newark riots, the Detroit riots of 1943, the Harlem riots of the same year. This is a double-sided fact. It bespeaks the remarkable courage and insistence of the people of Ferguson. It suggests also that for all the immobilizing weight of dread, something has changed, something subterranean. Maybe the barriers to entry are lower and there are fewer reasons not to fight back; maybe immiseration looks like this now, like coming out night after night. Maybe the world had changed beneath our feet, behind the song, and there is more like this coming.