On June 18, a pair of brothers named Rodrigo and Gonzalo Venegas decided to take a friend visiting from Chicago for a city tour. The brothers Venegas, who comprise two-thirds of the activist hip-hop group known as Rebel Diaz, are big on the Bronx, and one of the sites they wanted to show their pal was the wonderful wall mural dedicated to the late rapper Big Pun on Westchester Avenue in Hunts Point.
Gonzalo Venegas, 22, whose rap name is G1, tells what happened when they reached the corner of Westchester and Simpson Street: “We see police picking up boxes of street vendors’ product and throwing it away. This one vendor was looking all bewildered and helpless. We approached him, and he says in Spanish that he doesn’t understand why they are taking his stuff.”
The pair asked the police if it was all right for them to translate. The cops, Gonzalo says, didn’t seem to have a problem. One of the officers explained that there were health-department violations, but others became belligerent, he says, and told the brothers to butt out. This degenerated further when the brothers asked for badge numbers.
It is important here to understand that in addition to being rappers, the brothers Venegas—whose Chilean parents fled into exile after Pinochet’s coup—are also organizers. In fact, the slogan of their group is: “If Hip Hop organized, the whole world would be in trouble.” It is not a coincidence that one of their big tunes is a rap version of the old labor standard “Which Side Are You On?” This is sung with the familiar, ominous minor-key drone of the title, while hip-hop lyrics pound alongside: “This music is resistance/It’s the voice of the poor.” Rebel Diaz, which, along with G1, include 27-year-old Rodrigo (“RodStarz”) and Teresita Ayala, a/k/a Lah Tere, see their music as an organizing tool. One of the areas they focus on is police behavior—hence the brothers’ decision to ask about the officers’ identities.
“This one officer started to get a little agitated,” says Gonzalo. “He says, ‘Back up. Get back on the sidewalk.’ We said, ‘Well, we will be on our way when we get the badge numbers.’ One of them puts his hand over his badge so we couldn’t see it. I pull out a piece of paper and a pen and begin to write down the number. At this point, the officer goes to grab my arm, and all of a sudden, there is this rush of police.”
Thanks to the miracle of modern gadgetry, what followed was recorded by the friend from Chicago on the video device on his cell phone. The resulting video, visible on YouTube and the Rebel Diaz website, shows police grappling with the brothers, pinning them down, and cuffing them. “They were on top of me,” reports Gonzalo. “One cop is sticking his knee on my back and jabbing me with his baton. That felt great.”
The brothers insist they did nothing wrong: “At no moment did we physically try to obstruct them,” says Gonzalo. “We were not belligerent, and we did not lay a hand on them.”
The brothers were taken to the 41st Precinct, where they were held for 10 hours and charged with resisting arrest and obstruction of justice. If not for the video, the Venegases believe they would have been charged with assault, since one officer injured his hand during the arrests. Meanwhile, more than 150 protesters demonstrated outside the precinct. “When I found out they got arrested, I was like, ‘What is going on?’ ” says Wanda Salaman, the executive director of Mothers on the Move, an organization that has worked with the rap group. “I know them. They are not troublemakers or gangbangers. What they do is help kids in the neighborhood use music to express themselves. They don’t talk about killing or shooting everyone.”
This incident might have quickly faded away, just another collision between police and the policed, if not for what occurred a few days later. At 2 a.m. on June 24, Gonzalo Venegas was up late working in his East Harlem apartment when four uniformed police officers burst past his unlocked door, guns drawn. The police ordered Venegas, his roommate, and a friend who was staying over onto the floor, shouting questions at them, according to Venegas.
“They were yelling, asking who we were, what we were doing, pointing the guns at us. They said, ‘If we find out you are fucking lying . . .’ It was like from a movie, except it was completely over the top. It seemed like a scare tactic.” The police said they were in pursuit of a fugitive, but they didn’t search the apartment and left after a few minutes.
The next day, Venegas called local precincts, where he was told no one had any knowledge of the raid. “It is hard to believe that what went down in my apartment is a coincidence,” says Gonzalo. “Were they really looking for somebody? What we are into right now is not a joke.”
At police headquarters, a spokesman said there were no 911 calls regarding Venegas’s building that night and “no need for police activity at this location at this time.” But he said he recognized the brothers as the same troublesome duo who had recently had a run-in with cops in the Bronx.
“Yeah, they were pains in the asses at certain points. They got involved with some police action,” said Detective Martin Speechley. “Two wannabe hip-hop guys decided they didn’t like someone being written a summons. And they got involved, and they tried to fight us, and they went to jail for it. Kind of what happens when people are idiots.”
This is not how the police usually talk about arrests, but take it as an indication of the kind of animosity that simmers barely beneath the surface these days. The attitude is troubling to Norman Siegel, the civil-rights lawyer who is representing the brothers. “The middle-of-the-night visit by NYPD is very questionable,” he says. “We have to get answers to who ordered it, and what was the rationale.”
One fan of the group who spread the word about the arrests is Mark Naison, professor of African-American studies and history at Fordham University. Naison met the brothers when they were performing at a Bronx high school a few years ago. This year, he took Rebel Diaz to Berlin to perform at a conference and in immigrant neighborhoods. “Their ‘Which Side Are You On?’ is the most powerful use of hip-hop for politics I have ever seen,” says Naison. “These are extraordinary young people.”
Naison introduced the group to Nancy Biberman, director of the Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation, which hopes to create a community center for Rebel Diaz in a new low-income housing complex that will open this fall at Intervale Avenue and Southern Boulevard. “These guys are sensational,” says Biberman. “They seem to be able to pull in the most disaffected young people and get them on track.” Which is something you’d imagine that police wouldn’t have a problem with.