The Battle of the Police and Rage
Transcribed by Jonathan Ashley

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.

ANTHONY DECURTIS (November 15, 1999)