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"Who Got the Camera?": Hip-Hop's Quest for Social Justice

By Mark Anthony Neal
Huffington Post Black Voices

Spence_Stare coverIn an era marked by the increased presence of law enforcement in Black communities -- a by-product of buy and bust forms of policing, that fed the expansion of the prison industrial complex -- young Black men were particularly susceptible to blatant forms of police brutality. As such, so-called "gangsta rap "-- in spite of its problematic narratives with regards to gender, sexuality, and violence -- was likely the most organic documentation of police brutality in Black communities. As political scientist Lester Spence notes in his book Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip-Hop and Black Politics, he was "hard pressed to find a single song that was uncritical of the police." The Rodney King beating highlighted, the power and importance of counter-surveillance of law enforcement in this country--a value that was instilled within the Black body politic twenty-five years before the Rodney King beating, by the Black Panther Party.

Nelson_Body coverTo be sure The Black Panther Party (for Self-Defense), with founders the late Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, were not the first individuals within Black communities to attempt to hold law enforcement accountable, but at the height of the Civil Rights/Black Power Movement the Black Panther Party became the most visible proponents of the power of policing the police. As Alondra Nelson notes in her new book Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination, the Black Panther Party was founded on the premise of "afford[ing] protection for poor blacks from police brutality." In its earliest incarnation in late 1966, armed Black Panther Party members oversaw police activities in Black communities from a distance allowable by law. The Mulford Act, which outlawed loaded guns in public, was passed by the California State legislature a year later, in direct response to the activism of the Black Panther Party.

Twenty years later, Hip-Hop culture reanimated this particular activist thread, lyrically reporting on the nature of unfairness of the judicial system and the abuse of power by law enforcement. Yet even in that mode, Hip-Hop narratives seemed to lend itself to visual sensibilities and the coming digital revolution. In his book In Search of The Black Fantastic: Politics & Popular Culture in the Post-Civil Rights Era, political scientist Richard Iton observes that Black Popular Culture became "suddenly, particularly, and violently public...a development that led to a range of gatekeeping responses from those committed to restricting the circulation of certain kinds of information within black communities and maintaining 'order'." (104) According to Iton, this heightened visibility and "policing" was coupled with the "proliferation of hand-held and surveillance video cameras, camera phones, and the awareness of these new technologies," creating the "internalization of the expectation that one is always potentially being watched." (105)

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