Summer's end always forces me to think -- to take stock of the season's events and reflect on the issues and incidents that mattered most to me. This summer ended with an east coast earth quake that cracked the Washington Monument and a substantial storm named Irene that forced the postponement of our national celebration to mark the unveiling of the Martin Luther King, Jr, monument on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Yet, in a summer where I have met a past president and communed with industry leaders and community activists, it is actually the case of the Monumental 5 that weighs on my mind.
Recently hip-hop music has taken a collaborative turn. Nas and Damien Marley's Distant Relatives, Jay-Z and Kanye's Watch The Throne, and rumored collaborative albums by Lil Wayne and Drake, as well as Nas and Common, have all helped to foreground artistic collaboration in hip-hop music. In that spirit, super producer, Pete Rock teamed up with Brooklyn rap duo, Tek & Steele (also known as Smif-N-Wessun) to create their recently released collaborative album, Monumental. Monumental is a throwback to mid-1990s/Golden Era hip-hop with Tek and Steele taking verbal turns with a handful of well-known guest artists. It's an album made for aging hip-hop heads like myself -- who are unfortunately all too familiar with the legacy of police brutality in hip-hop generational communities.
In celebration of the release of Monumental, the artists, friends and family held a sold-out party in Manhattan's Tammany Hall on June 28th. At the conclusion of the party (which was by all accounts a peaceful gathering) 15-20 uniformed police officers from the seventh precinct in New York City arrived on the scene. By multiple eyewitness accounts and from shockingly detailed video from phones and cameras, it seems clear that the officers were agitated, unnecessarily forceful and in some cases downright brutal in their treatment of the party goers. The Monumental 5 are five of the victims who were actually charged with inciting a riot and other such defensive charges made by the officers on the scene. According to Ken Montgomery the attorney for the M5, the officers' "behavior was unjustified, unprovoked, and simply barbaric considering there was no provocation."
As the summer ends, and this case continues to unfold, the eroding relationship -- between police forces and the black and brown and/or poor communities that they are charged to protect -- still begs to be confronted on national media and political platforms. The legacy of police brutality and this tension between communities and those charged with serving and protecting communities is strikingly violent and too often tragic in its consequences. On "Night Time," one of the first videos released from the Monumental album, Pete Rock raps: "If you black or Puerto Rican, undercover D's reaching. Why, sir? It's a wallet... " These lines are a brief lyrical reflection of this tension, in a song that matter-of-factly details the night life of its narrators. The "wallet" reference is a direct allusion to the tragic murder of Amadou Diallo by four plain-clothed police officers in 1999. Is it irony or prophecy that this lyrical allusion was recorded on a record that's title is now an infamous reminder of the fact that we have failed as a society to repair the collective relationships between criminal justice institutions and black and brown communities?
This failure is especially visible and audible within hip-hop culture. For those of us who were reared on the Rodney King Video, the crimes committed against Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, and too many others to name here, are the flagrant reflection of an aggressive criminal justice system that indoctrinates our civic protectors to profile us and too often to treat us as criminals.
Several community leaders and activists, including April Silver ( of Akila Worksongs) and Kevin Powell have worked to draw attention to this case and the fact that Mr. Montgomery -- the attorney for the Monumental 5 -- was at the event and an eyewitness to its aftermath should serve the interests of justice. But the fact remains that something is horribly wrong. Police brutality has been too prevalent for too long. It feeds an unhealthy disconnect between law abiding citizens and those who we employ to help uphold the law. In my conversations with Mr. Montgomery he is committed to resolving the charges filed against his clients -- whom he maintains are actually five of many victims in this case -- but he is saddened by the events and disappointed that we seem unable as a society to make real progress on this issue. I share Mr. Montgomery's disappointment and as we consider our monumental matters during these final days of summer I hope that the spirit of those leaders whose monuments populate the National Mall will serve as beacons guiding us beyond the malaise of police brutality that continues to plague our communities.