This summer, four college interns will be working at the Arlington office of Friends of Justice. Each week, each intern will write a blog post on a topic of personal interest. Chaka Holley, a student at the Chicago Theological Seminary, arrived in Texas on Monday night and has been hard at work ever since.
By Chaka Holley
“Well I’m just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood”
Hip-hop artist, poet and actor Common recites these old-time lyrics in his song “misunderstood”. The lyrics seem fitting now that Common’s creditability, character and personhood are being attacked after First Lady Michelle Obama invited him to perform poetry at a White House event. Fox News and conservatives like Sarah Palin, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity have criticized the Obama’s for the inviting a supporter of “cop killers” to the White House. Critics accuse the Obama’s of exercising poor judgment due to Common’s support for Asata Shakur and Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Critics fail to mention the controversy surrounding both individuals. Asata Shakur, a member of the Black Liberation Party (BLA), is commonly considered a political prisoner due to her affiliation with the BLA. According to Wikipedia:
Shakur has been indicted in relation to six alleged criminal incidents—charged with murder, attempted murder, armed robbery, bank robbery, and kidnapping—resulting in three acquittals and three dismissals. In 1977, she was convicted of the first-degree murder of New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster and of seven other felonies related to the shootout.
Shakur’s case is highly disputed, largely because she became a target of the FBI’s COINTELPRO operation.
Likewise, Mumia Abu-Jamal, a member of the Black Panther Party, is the center of one of the most debated cases of our time. Mumia is a death row inmate accused of killing Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. Mumia has been called “the best known Death-Row prisoner in the world”.
In “God is Freedom,” a poem recited by Common on the HBO show Def Poetry Jam, common says “Flyer say Free Mumia on my freezer”. The poem is an encouragement for those who struggle to “keep on”. Common details some of life’s struggles followed by the phrase “keep on”. Conservatives have acquainted these lyrics with the celebration of a copkiller rather than as an attempt to motivate those that pursue justice.
Palin, O’Reilly and Hannity fail to understand the nature of poetry and rap music. Common, and other artists of his genre, craft language and image from a creative place which uses both experience and imagination. The experience of Mumia Abu-Jamal symbolizes the pain of a community that has to “keep on” in the midst of a struggle for freedom.
Similarly, the ode to Assata represents a rebuke to sexism and racism.
A Chicago native, Common grew up in an environment in which police brutality and torture were not only permissible but knowingly accepted by a long list of public officials for decades .
At the instigation of John Burge, a former Chicago Police Department detective and commander, police officers tortured over 200 criminal suspects between 1972 and 1991. The abuse included squeezing testicles, suffocation, Russian roulette and being tied to steaming hot radiators.
Common was born in 1972, the year this reign of terror began. Growing up, he likely understood that he and other young black men could easily become targets of police torture. Although the police review board found John Burge guilty of torture in 1993, he has never, and will never, serve prison time for the crimes committed due to statues of limitations.
Young men tortured into confessions under the Burge regime remain in prison today. The Jon Burge case has been covered extensively in the public media. Yet, we can only imagine that there are a number of undocumented cases that rest in the memories of Chicagoans.
Good artists uniquely marry experience and imagination, creating material that is often abstract and difficult to interpret. This skill requires openness, freedom of thought and critical thinking. The attack on President and First Lady Obama expresses a disdain for the movement from group-think to critical thought. Fox News featured rhetoric from critics whose only agenda was to condemn the Obamas. No one asked why Michelle Obama might consider a poet like Common an appropriate choice for the White House event.
Sarah Palin noted that “it’s too easy” to criticize the First Lady’s invitation to rapper/poet Common. Palin’s blatant confession of her desire to attack the president reveals her commitment to group think and rightwing political dogma. It is precisely this sort of bias and lack of free thought which allowed Jon Burge to torture hundreds of helpless victims. Once the young men were labeled as criminal suspects, the presumption of innocence was replaced by the presumption of guilt.
This tendency to label allows us to understand why so many innocent defendants plead guilty to to a crimes they have not committed. As Palin says, “it’s too easy”. There is an automatic assumption that the Obama’s exercised poor judgment. The president and First Lady are placed on the defensive. This type of thinking leaves no room for criticism of the criminal justice system. Law enforcement is thus free to continue corrupt practices which oppress the very people the law is designed to safeguard against harm.
In the Lewis Gates episode, President Obama openly criticized the criminal justice system when it has purported justice while practicing injustice. He paid the price for his honesty. By stirring up false controversy, Fox News intentionally discourages free thinking about the criminal justice system
The Obama’s are often berated for their association with the American people. One of Obama’s greatest strengths during the 2008 presidential campaign was his ability to interact with citizens from various races, classes, genders and ages. President Obama opened his ears and arms to all Americans regardless of their flaws. He viewed everyone he met as citizens of the country he desired to lead. His ability to think freely allowed him to find common ground with some people that supported positions he did not. (This tendency continues in his bi-partisan negotiations over the budget). His ability to be relevant rather than dogmatic enabled him to lead the American people and not just a political party. This virtue, unappreciated by Fox News, has repeatedly opened the Obamas to charges of “guilt by association”. This was seen throughout the presidential election and now with the controversy surrounding Common’s invitation to the White House.
These petty attacks will continue as long as dogmatic group-think overshadows free inquiry. Until then, we await the next indictment.