By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
The ongoing tensions between Hip Hop artists and the New York City police seem to have heated up. At the same time, some rappers started fighting back this fall with planned lawsuits over what they charge have been unlawful arrests.
For some years here in New York the frequent arrests of MCs and others around the "Hip Hop Nation" have spurred rumors of a "Hip Hop Task Force"a kind of Rap COINTELPROwithin the New York City Police Department. The department has consistently denied the existence of such a unit, and did not return phone calls for this story. Though a number of artists have been charged over the yearsmostly with marijuana and gun possessionthe Hip Hop community questions the circumstances of many of these arrests. The overwhelming majority of incidents occur when rappers are stopped in vehicles and searched [See Sidebar, "Bum Raps?"]. Often it is not clear why the vehicle was stopped in the first place. Are stop-and-search incidents simply to be accepted as a way of life because a few searches have garnered weapons or weed? Perception in the Hip Hop community is that these incidents are a form of racial profiling, while well-known artists are targeted because they are rap artists.
On September 3, NORE, Tragedy Khadafi, and three other companions were pulled over in NORE's Hummer on 15th Street. Again, the police claimed a report had been made about an occupant of an identical car brandishing a gun. The police searched the car and the occupants but found no gun. They found "a small amount of marijuana" on one person, according to Kamau Karl Franklin, NORE's lawyer. Franklin said the police found a single blunt in the car after the men were in custody and the vehicle was impounded. All five were charged with criminal possession of marijuana. Charges have been dropped on three of the men, and, according to the lawyer, are soon to be dropped on NORE. The one remaining individual "who continually told police the weed was his, will be pleading out," Franklin said, adding that NORE and Tragedy plan to file suit against the NYPD for false arrest and excessive force in January.
Also that month, Stic.man, one half of revolutionary rap duo dead prez as well as some of their colleagues, was arrested in Brooklyn during a photo shoot. As reported in The Village Voice, on an unseasonably warm late-September day in Crown Heights, the small group of rappers were having pictures taken when two beat cops approached the group and demanded to see IDs, saying they had seen some suspicious activity. The group refused, stating that they had done nothing to warrant the request for identification. The cops called for backup and a short time later, the five men had been roughed up and arrested. All save one were released the next day with no charges brought against them.
"It's safe to say that the police approached dead prez not because of any report of wrongdoing," says Reuben Wright, a Hip Hop historian, "but because of the stop-and-search police credo. [To them] groups of black and Latino men are criminals. 'Stop and search enough of them and you'll find something illegal soon enough,' which might be true but if you randomly search white kids like they do usthink of all the pills and powders they'd find. But the cops don't care that there's heroin or coke or Ecstasy in some rock and roll band's tour bus. They're only concerned with the little marijuana busts they keep hitting these rappers with."
Conversely, a "get up, stand up" mindset has taken hold among some rappers. Franklin, who is also dead prez's lawyer said that a notice of claim to sue will be filed this week. At an October 29 press conference, Franklin said they had filed a complaint with the CCRB for false arrest and excessive force.
Platinum recording artist Fabolous has also stated plans to sue the NYPD for $5 million over an incident last spring. On March 24, within weeks of having a gun charge dismissed without prejudice, Fabolous was arrested again for weapons possession. He was charged even though his bodyguard, who is licensed in another state, claimed responsibility for a gun found in a parked van. Fab had just finished performing at Webster Hall when club security supposedly saw a weapon and informed police.
Days later his attorney, Albert Ebanks, wrote the prosecutor asking him to reconsider the charges against Fab. The "unwarranted arrest has tarnished my client's image, may affect his present and pending endorsements, and will certainly have a negative impact on his long-term marketability and earning potential," Ebanks stated. "More importantly, as our client is an icon to many young and impressionable fans, this unjustified prosecution could potentially glamorize a lifestyle that Mr. Jackson neither maintains nor condones."
Though all of these incidents can be written off as everyday police procedure, other reports indicate a more organized effort by the NYPD to lock down certain individuals. These individuals appear to have been targeted not just because they're black men but also because they were under surveillance.
Jay-Z had just wrapped up a surprise performance at Manhattan's Exit early on April 13, 2001. He left the club with bodyguard Hamza Hewitt, and entered a waiting SUV. Before the car could get more than a few yards, it was pulled over. When the cops searched the car and its occupants, a gun was found on Hewitt, who is licensed to carry one, but not in this state. Police said they had seen the gun. All four men in the car were arrested and charged with weapons possession. Jay-Z's charges were later dropped.
Last New Year's Eve, 50 Cent was on his way to a gig at Manhattan's Copacabana. His rented SUV had just pulled in front of the club when police appeared in an undercover taxicab. The officers forced the men to drive around the corner where the police conducted a search. Two firearms, a .45 and a .25, were found on the floor of the car. All the occupants were charged with weapons possession even though 50's guards claimed ownership of the guns.
Although rappers are the ones catching most of the harassment, reports of police presence at Hip Hop-related parties are now common. In early November at Nell's, police raided an open-mic event known as "Braggin Rites." Eyez, one of the series' founders, was outside the club when the police appeared.
"When the cops arrived they ran up in the club next door [2ii's]," said Eyez, "where they were having some sort of reggae party. Then they came up in Nell's. They looked around and couldn't find anything. They kept [badgering] until they found one grown-ass woman who was obviously of legal drinking age but didn't have ID though she had a drinking [wrist] band. The cops hit the owners with a summons. Because of that summons [the owners] no longer want to hold Braggin Rites events."
One of New York's leading club promoters says that such occurrences are not at all infrequent. In fact the cops hang out in and around the clubs he promotes, looking for violations and harassing partygoers. One of New York's top party promoters, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Voice he's sure there's a Hip Hop unit in the NYPD.
"Hell yeah, there's a Hip Hop unit. Not only are they outside my parties in droves almost every night in uniforms and plainclothes, they also come in the clubs wearing some Sean John apparel, buying bottles with taxpayer money, trying to fit in and observe who's who." When asked how he knew they were cops if they were undercover, he chuckled, then added, "Because the bouncers make them leave the clips from their guns at the door."
"It's a culture that cops find very offensive," Lieutenant Tony Mazziotti said about Hip Hop on mtvnews.com. "I tell my 16-year-old daughter I don't want her listening to it. She'll have a hard time memorizing the Pledge of Allegiance, but she'll know all these rap lyrics by heart. Frankly, it's tough for cops to have objectivity about it. It's the total antithesis of what most cops believe. . . . To [rappers], that's a badge of honor, but when you've seen the ugly side of what they're praising, when you've seen the reality, that's what's offensive," Mazziotti said. "As cops we've been there to notify families at 3 a.m. that their loved one was just murdered. These guys want to glamorize guns and the drug trade, but there's a lot of innocent people whose lives are ruined, little kids getting killed in random shootings, and for them to glorify that lifestyle, it's just repulsive to most cops."
So often, the plain facts are grossly overlooked. Remember at the end of "The Message" video when Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five get arrested for just rapping on the street corner? Though the media lately has been churning out one-sided stories about police activity within the Hip Hop world, the plague of police terrorism is nothing new. When Hip Hop was just a thought bubble, communities of color were marginalized and brutalized. The war on crime is the same war as the war on drugs is the same war as the war on Hip Hop. People get ready.