‘this fucked up situation, and these fucked up police’
– Sublime (1996)
The police brutality against the African American man Rodney King led to several protest songs. Such as Rodney K. by Willie D., Cop Killer by Body Count, and Rodney King Song by Bob Rivers. With lyrics such as ‘fuck police brutality’, or ‘fuck Rodney King in his ass’ (meant sarcastically), the protest songs are typically against police and condemn their actions against Rodney King. In her Article ‘What a body can do’ the philosopher Elsa Dorlin addresses Rodney King and the existing paradox of self-defence: the more Rodney King defended himself, the more he became an agent of violence and the more he was beaten (Dorlin 2019, 6). However, Dorlin’s politics of self-defence, doesn’t focus on the aftermath of violence.
Instead, I want to focus on the song April 29, 1992 (Miami) of the reggae rock band Sublime, that doesn’t simply criticize the police brutality conflicted on Rodney King, but also address the inequality of black people as a systematic problem. The song describes the band members taken part in the Los Angeles riots of April 29 1992. The band points out that rioting people would not only steal liquor and TV-gear, but also essential needs such as Pampers. Although the band does acknowledge the frustration of poor black people, with lyrics such as:
Cause everybody in the hood has had it up to here It’s getting harder, and harder and harder, each and every year
They also stress that this problem is far more broad and systematic:
But if you look at the street, it wasn’t about Rodney King. And this fucked up situation, and these fucked up police. It’s about coming up and staying on top
The real issue was not about this isolated incident of Rodney King, but police brutality and gap between rich and poor. Sublime’s song evokes the question whether the riots were justified at all.
In her paper ‘Envisioning Abolition Democracy’ Allegra McLeod argues that abolitionist justice challenges existing ideas of legal justice (2019). Abolitionist justice does not focus on individual punishment and remuneration, but rather reparation and reconciliation of the harm done to victims and trying to change ‘the systemic bases of inequality, poverty, and violence’ (McLeod 2019, 1616). This kind of transformative justice focuses on the needs of victims and tries to minimize future harm (McLeod 2019, 1646). In the case of Rodney King, transformative justice is helpful to analyse the context of his experienced harm and provide a way in which this harm can be prevented (McLeod 2019, 1630). This abolitionist approach condemns rioting as a means to ‘justify’ police brutality and would also disapprove of the band members of Sublime partaking in looting.
On the other hand, Sublime’s song can also be seen as an approval of looting to fight the ‘fucked up situation’ that black people are in. In her book In Defense of Looting Vicky Osterweil argues that looting is an effective tool to make a positive change within society. Looting is a way to redistribute property and wealth and an ‘essential tactics in fighting racial capitalism’. (Osterweil 2020, 93). Stealing property is an effective strategy for marginalized groups to get essential needs for life, as well as making a political statement. The BLM supporter Kimberley Jones also supports looting, saying that ‘when the riots happen and if they present an opportunity of looting, that’s their only opportunity to get it.’ (CARJAM TV 2020, 2:10). Thus, looting is a powerful weapon to disrupt the status quo and to elevate the poor and marginalized.
While McLeod reminds us that transformative justice is an interesting abolitionist approach to fight inequality, Osterweil stresses looting as an accessible weapon of marginalized people to fight inequality, which are both possible solutions to the systematic problems Sublime address in their music.
CARJAM TV. ‘#BLM How Can We Win? Kimberly Jones Powerful Speech Video Full Length Black Lives\ Matter #BLM 2020,’ Youtube video, 6:46. June 9, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=llci8MVh8J4.
Dorlin, Elsa. 2019. ‘What a body can do.’ Translated by Kieran Aarons, Radical Philosophy 205 (Autumn): 3–9.
McLeod, Allegra M. 2019. ‘Envisioning Abolition Democracy.’ Harvard Law Review 132 (Spring): 1613–1649.
Osterweil, Vicky. 2020. In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action. New York: Bold Type Books.