‘This fucking city is run by pigs,’ cries a raspy voice into the listener’s ears. For whom it’s not immediately clear who are meant by ‘pigs’, the song’s title is helpful: ‘Police Story’ (Black Flag 1981). In this 1981 song, punk band Black Flag powerfully expresses its immense aversion from law enforcement in just 1 minute and 33 seconds. This is expressed through striking phrases like ‘We hate them’, ‘I flip them off’, and ‘I tell them to go get fucked’.
However, the line on the pigs already makes clear that it’s not just profound disgust that’s being expressed, but also substantive criticism. The illegitimate excessive amount of authority of the police addressed in this opening sentence is complemented further on in the song by examples of the huge imbalance of power, and the aggressive abuse thereof: the off-flipping is met with a hit with a billy club, the recommendation to go get fucked results in incarceration. This unequal and unjust situation is additionally depicted as one without an end. The audience is told to ‘Understand we’re fighting a war we can’t win’, which is reaffirmed with ‘We can’t win, no way’, and that ‘Nothing I do, nothing I say’ can help.
The inevitable frustration and anger caused by this hopeless situation is strongly conveyed through the lyrics, but is even more powerfully brought to the fore through the more properly musical elements of the song. Singer Rollins’ voice is a point in case. The way his hoarse voice screams the rebellious words, at times deforming into a wordless shriek, intensively expresses frustration. The accompanying instruments significantly augment this. Drummer Robo hits his drums like a madman, while guitarists Cadena and Ginn make their guitars cry loudly and erratically. Thus, the song is able to not only describe an unjust and hopeless situation, but also to effectively convey the affective consequences of that unjustness and hopelessness.
It is precisely this last point that forms the main contribution of this frantic song to another strand of criticism of the police and the penal system. Excellent representatives of the informative texts constituting this strand are ‘Are Prisons Obsolete’ and ‘Envisioning Abolition Democracy’ by respectively Angela Davis (2003) and Allegra McLeod (2019). Eventhough these authors do express their frustration with the current system without mincing their words, the reader isn’t as affectively touched as by ‘Police Story’. It seems reasonable to suspect that the musical medium is extraordinarily well suited to convey emotions in general. In this case, frustration seems to be more akin to the erratic sounds of guitars, the energetic beating of drums, and the staccato exclamations of a raspy voice, than to well-thought-out sentences on paper.
This does not mean that such sentences are inferior, or even wholly superfluous. On the contrary, Davis and McLeod prove that the two forms of criticism are complementary to each other. One of the advantages offered by their textual medium is that it offers more room for a thorough critique. Although ‘Police Story’ does indeed point to the problem of illegitimate and unbridled authority, its message nevertheless consists mainly of the aversion and frustration that results from this. In contrast, Davis and McLeod focus extensively on the fundamental underlying problems. For instance, Davis (2003, 11-15) describes how a complex network has been constructed in which economic and political interests are intertwined with the penal system. The resulting so-called ‘prison industrial complex’, she claims, leads to an incentive to build ever more prisons and imprison ever more people. McLeod (2019, 1628-1630) adds, among other things, that the police are allowed to exercise their power in too many domains, such as issues related to mental-health, drugs, and poverty.
These texts also differ from the song in another way. The fatalism of ‘Prison Story’ is substituted by determination, as Davis and McLeod see opportunities for a brighter future. No one said this would be easy, though. The complexity of the problem also means it’s impossible to simply do away with the police and prisons. So ‘rather than try to imagine one single alternative to the existing system of incarceration, we might envision an array of alternatives that will require radical transformations of many aspects of our society’ (Davis 2003, 108). This means for instance the decriminalization of activities like drug use (Davis 2003, 108-109), decriminalization of people like black persons (McLeod 2019, 1622), a more economically just society (McLeod 2019, 1616), and a different approach to conflict resolution (Davis 2003, 114-115). That this is not just utopian wishful thinking is made plausible by successful experiments such as those in Chicago (McLeod 2019, 1620-1623).
So, the forms of criticism by Davis and McLeod on the one hand and Black Flag on the other are best seen as complementary. Through the textual medium, the former’s strength lies in substantive criticism, while Black Flag’s musical medium is more suitable to address the affective aspects. Considering the proposed response, however, the punk band’s fatalism contrasts sharply with the abolitionists’ ambitious but hopeful alternatives. The decades following ‘Police Story’ have shown a growing influence of prison abolitionism (Davis 2003, 19-20). Let’s try to stay hopeful and keep this influence growing, which only becomes more likely with the help of art’s affective capabilities. We shouldn’t let the pigs run the fucking city. We can win the war.
Black Flag. 1981. “Police Story.” On Damaged. SST Records.
Davis, Angela. 2003. Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press.
McLeod, Allegra. 2019. “Envisioning Abolition Democracy.” Harvard Law Review 132:1613-1649.