Last Tuesday, as part of what organizers are calling the start of the Hip-Hop Power Movement, tens of thousands of young people converged on City Hall in a mobilization for education, a collaboration between music mogul Russell Simmons’s Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN), the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), and the alliance for Quality Education (AQE). The event, to protest over a billion dollars in education cuts, was the largest protest action since Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been in City Hall—a fact that has been overshadowed by the criticism, misinformation, and marginalization of the event.
While organizers hailed the rally as an overwhelming success demonstrative of hip-hop’s ability to parlay its power and influence into a viable political force, newspaper headlines focused on the number of arrests. The significance of the turnout and its political implications have not been analyzed or even acknowledged, among charges that the hip-hop community was played as a pawn in a contractual chess game between the mayor and the teachers’ unions. In effect, hip-hop has not been credited with the ability to have its own agenda and political free will in dealing with an entity presumed to be more politically astute.
Minister Benjamin Chavis Muhammad, president and CEO of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, sees it all as a concerted effort to deprive the hip-hop community of a success. “There are a lot of Monday-morning quarterbacks who say that they would’ve played it differently, but ain’t nobody got a crowd that size,” Muhammad told the Voice. “No leader, no organization, nobody got a crowd that size. Why do you think the police are putting out that it was 20,000 when everybody knows it was 100,000? They don’t want the young people to have a victory.”
He also vehemently denied that the hip-hop community was used or manipulated. “The UFT didn’t come to us. We went to the UFT,” said Muhammad. “The UFT certainly benefited by us coming to them, but do you think anybody in the UFT started joining with the hip-hop community? No! You’re giving them too much credit,” he said.
Both Muhammad and Simmons said they attended an earlier budget-cuts rally and were appalled at the absence of African American and Latino leadership. After all, they reasoned, the students in the school system are 85 percent Black and Latino, and yet Sex and the City star and AQE spokesperson Cynthia Nixon was getting arrested.
They decided to hold a rally on June 4 to mobilize their community. “Once we called the demonstration,” said Muhammad, “we found out that the UFT already had a permit. When the UFT first got a permit, they were only going to have a union rally. Before we got involved, the teachers weren’t saying, ‘No budget cuts.’ The only thing they were saying was ‘Give us a contract.’ So, it wasn’t a case of them using us, not at all,” he said.
Recognition of the magnitude of the mobilization has yet to come, but criticism came swiftly. Instead of acknowledgment of the relative peacefulness of the demonstration, the 10 arrests were played up. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly questioned the wisdom of bringing so many students out on a school day. Ed Skyler, Mayor Bloomberg’s press secretary, expressed concern over teachers allowing students to leave school early or offering them encouragement.
“I think Commissioner Kelly himself was expressing that phobia that officials in the police department have of the potential force for change young people have,” said Muhammad. Indeed UFT president Randi Weingarten had to concede the hip-hop community’s contribution. “I’m very gratified that the hip-hop community wanted to join this, embraced it, made it their own,” Weingarten said at the rally. “This should be as much celebration as it is demonstration.”
The problem is the perception that the event was heavy on celebration and light on demonstration. Above all else, there was skepticism as to demonstrators’ intentions and the credibility of an event described in one editorial as a “rally-cum-party.” “Even though there was obviously an attempt to deny a massive show of dissent,” said Muhammad, “this was a protest. This wasn’t a Sunday school picnic.”
But did the participants know this? Critics continue to question the commitment of the crowd and the artists to the agenda of opposing the education budget cuts. Many point to the dispersal of the crowd once it was announced that “the hip-hop portion” of the rally was over.
“Do they think the kids are that stupid?” asked Simmons. “Many kids came because it was the place to be, but many people went to the Million Man March because it was the place to be. But they went home changed. Whoever came and didn’t know the issues, knew the issues when they left. But everyone knew. It was very clear they came to protest,” he said.
Helena Mayrant, 14, came to the rally to show students have strength in numbers. “I’m trying to support the community,” she said at the rally. “They want us to be better, but we need an education for that. We have a voice and it needs to be heard, and if they’re not trying to listen to us there’s other ways.” A group of young men near the entrance of City Hall Park said cuts to summer school funding were their reason for attendance but admitted that the prospects of meeting members of the opposite sex also sweetened the pot.
Even if the participants were there exclusively for the celebrities, some didn’t see that as a negative. “We’re here to see them,” said 17-year-old Rushell Marshall, “but they’re going to say something that we’re going to listen to.”
But were the artists saying anything of substance? Mutulu, a/k/a M1, a grassroots activist and one-half of the politically charged rap duo dead prez, saw the event as an exercise in futility. He told the Voice that the presence of the artists may have merely cloaked the absence of true meaning. “They pulled a big charade. They intended for us to be overwhelmed by celebrity star power, but it was politically empty,” he said.
Muhammad disagreed. “We saw hip-hop icons and hip-hop moguls not only take to the stage to present something entertaining, but each of them spoke. What Puffy said, what L.L. Cool J said, what Rah Digga said had meaning,” he said. “Each artist addressed the issue. So this was not for entertainment. This was for education.”
And interestingly, the politicians turned out, from City Council Speaker Gifford Miller to Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, and even Mark Green, whom Simmons supported for mayor last year. When queried about Green’s presence at the event despite turning off African American and Latino voters in the last minute of his mayoral campaign, Muhammad said, “When organizers found out he wanted to come, they said, ‘Fine.’ Bloomberg could have come, but he chose not to do it.”
“Mark Green was one of many Democrats who came in to cash in. It was not about partisanship, but it did happen that no Republicans showed up,” said Simmons.
“The bottom line is that it was a successful event despite the fact that obviously the cops were unprepared for the big crowd,” said Muhammad. “We had 100,000 people. Nobody was seriously injured. There were no major incidents, and 100 percent of the minor incidents were precipitated by the ignorance and the unpreparedness of the police.”
According to Muhammad, the hip-hop community has made a statement. If that statement will have any real significant impact remains to be seen. When Mayor Bloomberg finally presents a budget to the City Council, we’ll find out whether or not the city government will holla back.