Bronx Public Defender Resigns After Appearing in Rap Video That Endorses Cop Killing
Legal nonprofit Bronx Defenders is facing criticism over a music video.
Update, Feb. 4, 7:03 p.m.
At least one attorney who appeared in a controversial rap video has resigned from his position with the Bronx Defenders, a legal nonprofit that represents indigent clients in New York City. Kumar Rao submitted a letter of resignation this afternoon, according to his attorney. Meanwhile, NY1 reporter Dean Meminger has reported on Twitter that another attorney who was involved with and appeared in the video, Ryan Napoli, likewise resigned from the group. NY1 also reports that the organization's executive director, Robin Steinberg, has been suspended for 60 days without pay.
— Dean Meminger (@DeanMeminger) February 4, 2015
Rao's letter, addressed to Steinberg, explains that he is "heartbroken" to leave the nonprofit after six and a half years, but that he had "concluded that my ongoing employment with the office is no longer in the best interest of the organization." Another Bronx-based public defender who has worked with Rao in the past told the Voice his loss would be a blow to the organization. A media representative at Bronx Defenders did not immediately return calls for comment.
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The organization, which receives city funds to provide constitutionally mandated legal representation to those who can't afford it — essentially acting as a public defender's office would — has been under fire over the last week after a city report found that the group allowed its facilities and personnel to be used in a music video for a track called "Hands Up (Eric Garner Tribute)." The video, which was partially shot in the Bronx Defenders' offices and which portrays Rao consoling a sobbing client, features rappers Uncle Murda and Maino holding guns to the head of a police officer. The Department of Investigation determined that the organization failed to properly vet the content of the song, a protest anthem that suggests killing police officers in response to the high-profile deaths of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Sean Bell in New York.
The video, which was released in December, intersperses the filmed footage with statistics about police violence and news footage of fatal shootings by police. The lyrics are pointed:
By any means necessary let's make 'em respect us
These cocksuckers supposed to protect us
Killing unarmed black men, making mothers holler
And this is the government paying with our tax dollars?
All these unjustified shootings
Then they call us animals when we start looting.
Investigators were specifically concerned about a scene early in the video in which the two rappers point handguns at an actor playing a police officer. And additional lyrics — like the line "for Mike Brown and Sean Bell, a cop got to get killed" — amounted to "advocating violence against police officers," DOI commissioner Mark Peters said.
"These attorneys have abysmally failed to meet their obligations to their clients," Peters said in a press release, "to the courts, and to the city as a whole."
On their website and in their responses contained in the report, the Bronx Defenders said they didn't know about the content of the song before they agreed to participate. A statement on their website read, "The Bronx Defenders abhors the use of violence against the police under any circumstance. We have always been an organization that is committed to preserving life, dignity, and respect for all people. The Bronx Defenders never approved the music video 'Hands Up,' and never saw it before it went online. We deeply regret any involvement with this video."
On January 31, Mayor Bill de Blasio hinted that the organization could face retaliation if action wasn't taken — Bronx Defenders last year had revenues of around $22 million, almost all of it coming through the city. "The city will take all legal and contractual actions available to it," de Blasio told the Times, if the organization didn't act fast. The Post reported that Comptroller Scott Stringer had also called for action from the group, saying the video represented a "deplorable violation of its mission and responsibilities."
Read the report, see the video, and judge for yourself below.
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