The Battle of the Police and Rage


Police boycott of NBC over Rage Against the Machine performance sends an icy message
Posted Nov 15, 1999 at 12:00am
I recently watched Rage Against the Machine's galvanizing performance of "Testify" on Late Night With Conan O'Brien. It was a performance that defied the threat of a boycott against NBC by the Fraternal Order of Police. The FOP is angry about Rage's ardent support of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a black journalist and political activist who was convicted of murdering a police officer in 1981 and who now sits on death row. The members of Rage are far from alone in their belief that Abu-Jamal did not get a fair trial and should not be executed.

But it really doesn't matter if Abu-Jamal is guilty or innocent, and it wouldn't matter if Rage were the only group in the world behind his cause. The band has every right to protest his death sentence and to rally support for him. And the FOP has an equal right to denounce Rage for their actions and to picket their live appearances. Those are all perfectly legitimate exercises of free speech.

The problem begins with the FOP's threat to organize a boycott of NBC because one of the network's shows booked the band. That action is wrong for every conceivable reason. Most significantly, it is not an expression of free speech, but an effort to inhibit the free speech of others. Beyond that, it is putting pressure on a third party -- NBC -- in a effort to make the network think twice before it provides a forum for anyone with controversial ideas. This is what the Supreme Court has called a "chilling effect." After all, if the threat of a boycott had the effect the FOP desires, it would have an impact well beyond Rage, Mumia Abu-Jamal and Conan O'Brien. Every show on NBC -- and probably other networks and cable stations, as well -- would come under scrutiny for the political opinions expressed by its guests or in its programming.

A boycott of NBC is extremely unlikely to work, you may think. Strictly speaking, that's right. But even in these racy times, corporations are hardly well-known for their brave, principled stands -- check out the current film The Insider if you have any doubts about that. Often the threat of controversy is enough to make advertisers and shareholders nervous and to convince boards of directors to back down.

It wasn't so long ago, after all, that law enforcement groups focused enough heat on Warner Bros. Records and its parent company, Time-Warner, to force the label to drop the rapper Ice T because he released a song called "Cop Killer" with his thrash band, Body Count. And you don't have to go back much further than that to recall how N.W.A's label, Priority, was threatened by the FBI after the furor caused by the group's incendiary song, "Fuck tha Police."

What's even worse about the current situation is that, while those songs described violent confrontations with the police -- a subject that might understandably raise the hackles of law enforcement officials -- the members of Rage have merely expressed an opinion about a matter of public debate. The band engaged in some offhand "Free Mumia" advocacy while performing on the David Letterman Show the day the group's new album, The Battle of Los Angeles, was released. That, no doubt, was the real reason behind the concern over the group's appearance on Conan, which went off without incident.

All of these situations reflect the tense relations that have existed for many years between the police and minority communities all across this country. The recent battle over "racial profiling" -- which essentially amounts to highway patrolmen being able to stop black drivers at will on the assumption that African-Americans are more likely to be engaged in criminal activity -- is only the latest flare-up in that struggle. The FOP would be far wiser to address that issue in the real world rather than attempting to incite a network boycott because of the political views of a rock band.

Ultimately, the courts will be where the fate of Mumia Abu-Jamal will be determined. The media provide a forum in the battle over public awareness of that issue, however, and it's critical that the media be able -- indeed, encouraged -- to give voice to as wide a range of ideas and opinions as possible. People who want to censor never say that that's what they intend to do. On the contrary, they always couch their intentions in the most high-minded terms -- anti-violence and the rule of law, in this case -- and they always believe that they are acting for the greater good.

But that is never true. Artists must be free to speak out -- whether it's a guerilla outfit like Rage Against the Machine or a pop band like Third Eye Blind, whose record company, Elektra, recently insisted that the group remove a song about teen violence from its new album, partly for the Orwellian reason that it didn't work in the "current social climate." Such reprehensible attempts to silence speech are far more corrupting than even the vilest idea -- and far more dangerous to all of our freedoms.

Written by ANTHONY DECURTIS for RollingStone.com News

Add a Comment
0 Comments

Similar Guitar News

Readers' Poll: Best Rock Headphone Song Ever — "Comfortably Numb" (Pink Floyd) Vs. "Killing in the Name" (Rage Against the Machine) (10/30/2015)
What, exactly, is a headphone song? The definition changes depending on who you are. For audiophiles, a headphone song—or album, for that matter—is a work that is so exquisite that it demands you listen to each beautifully recorded note under a ...
Rage Against the Machine Announce 'Live at Finsbury Park' DVD (8/17/2015)
Rage Against the Machine have announced a new live DVD, Live at Finsbury Park. The film, which documents the band's free 2010 concert at London's Finsbury Park, will be released October 16 via Eagle Rock Entertainment. It will be available on ...
Andy Summers' Top 10 Guitar Moments with The Police (7/14/2015)
As a result of their world-conquering commercial success, it's easy to consider the Police—Sting, Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland—mere "hit makers." But stopping there would undermine a truly phenomenal—and musically progressive—body of work ...
Andy Summers Reflects on His Years with the Police and His Most Trusted Guitars (10/13/2015)
Early on in his new documentary film, Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving the Police, guitarist Andy Summers talks about needing a sense of closure on the band that brought him massive fame in the Eighties. Before imploding from internal tensions...
Amazon Releases Amazon Acoustics with Train, Michelle Branch, Surfer Blood, Toyko Police Club and More (7/31/2015)
Amazon today announced the availability of Amazon Acoustics, a collection of over 30 original acoustic recordings available exclusively for streaming on Prime Music and purchase on Amazon. Established and up-and-coming artists can be heard acou...
2-Year-Old Boy Plays Rage Against the Machine's "Bulls on Parade" on Guitar Hero — Video (6/15/2015)
If you've read this story's headline, you already know what lies ahead. Ergo, we hope you enjoy this video of a 2-year-old kid playing Rage Against the Machine's "Bulls on Parade" on Guitar Hero. The clip, which was posted to YouTube June 12, is...
Andy Summers Documentary, 'Can't Stand Losing You: Surviving the Police,' Opens Today — Video (3/20/2015)
Can't Stand Losing You: Surviving the Police, a new documentary based on Police guitarist Andy Summers’ memoir, One Train Later, opens today, March 20, in New York City. The feature-length film features Summers, Sting and Stewart Copeland and te...
Andy Summers talks guitars, effects, The Police and his new band, Circa Zero (3/27/2014)
Read more about Andy Summers talks guitars, effects, The Police and his new band, Circa Zero at MusicRadar.com
Former Police Guitarist Andy Summers Discusses His New Band, Circa Zero (7/23/2013)
Circa Zero — a new band featuring guitarist Andy Summers (the Police), singer/bassist/guitarist Rob Giles (the Rescues) and Canadian drummer Emmanuelle Caplette — got together after a mutual friend invited Summers to Giles' shows with the Rescue...
Tom Morello: "No Plans" for New Rage Against the Machine Music (12/4/2012)
Rumors and reissues do not a new album make. Despite all the buzz surrounding the release of XX, the 20th anniversary edition of Rage Against the Machine's eponymous debut, guitarist Tom Morello maintains that there are no current plans for the...
Exclusive: Rage Against the Machine — "Killing In the Name" Demo (11/15/2012)
Today we bring you the exclusive stream of the demo version of "Killing In the Name" by Rage Against the Machine. This previously unreleased track is from Rage Against the Machine — XX, Legacy Recordings' new release commemorating the 20th anni...
Rage Against the Machine to Release 20th Anniversary Box Set (10/9/2012)
Rage Against the Machine took to Facebook earlier today to announce the release of a special 20th anniversary box set to commemorate two decades since the release of the band's debut self-titled album. Titled XX, the box set will reportedly feat...
The Hunt for Pussy Riot: Russian Police Search for Two More Members of All-Girl Punk Rock Band (8/20/2012)
This past Friday, August 17, three members of Pussy Riot, a feminist, all-girl punk-rock band based in Moscow, were convicted of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred." Each woman was sentenced to two years in prison. What did the Pussy Rio...
Stewart Copeland on recording Police hits, soundtracks, Tama Drums and more (7/22/2012)
"I'm an ecstasy player," says Stewart Copeland. "I'm an exuberant, leaping forth explosion." © Brendan McDermid/Reuters/Corbis Polo player, author, documentary filmmaker, movie score composer, photographer – by any measure, it's safe to say that...
French Police: Woman Admits to 'Inadvertently' Taking Axl Rose's Necklaces (6/6/2012)
As reported earlier today, Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose was robbed of three necklaces worth $200,000. The three gold-and-diamond items disappeared after GNR performed at Bercy Stadium in Paris, France, last night. According to RTL.fr
French Police: Axl Rose Robbed of Necklaces Worth $200,000 (6/6/2012)
A police spokesman has reported that Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose has been robbed of three necklaces worth $200,000. The three gold and diamond items disappeared after GNR performed at Bercy Stadium in Paris, France, last night. Rose wasn't w...