Black Flag: Police Story

‘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.

Mees Wolffs


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.



Violence and Nonviolence

Robin Thicke: Blurred Lines

What causes racist violence? Judith Butler (2020) and Elsa Dorlin (2019) offer an interesting perspective on this, namely that it is linked to perception. Both authors give poignant examples of racist violence from the recent past to clarify this. Consider, for example, the famous Rodney King incident in 1991. It seems evident from the video footage that an unarmed black man is the victim of an outburst of excessive violence by a gang of white cops.[1] Nevertheless, the officers pleaded that they had acted correctly, as King would have posed a great danger. The (largely white) jury went along with this: the officers were acquitted. Did the police and the jury knowingly distort the facts so clearly revealed in the footage? No, argues Dorlin. Indeed, she thinks King really was perceived as an aggressor, wherefore this amount of force was actually felt to be legitimate and necessary (Dorlin 2019, 5-6). This is an excellent illustration of what Butler would call a ‘phantasmagoric inversion’ (Butler 2020, 114). These phantasmagoria are capable of imaginatively inverting fleeing black persons, depicting them as a threat instead. Thus, this twisted perception causes and provides the justification for one’s own aggression, or, seen from this fantastical perspective, self-defence (Butler 2020, 112).

Butler and Dorlin are mindful that this twisted perception is not a homogeneous phenomenon. For instance, black men and black women are twisted differently (Butler 2020, 112-113). This diverse manifestation raises the question whether twisted perceptions also play a role in other forms of systematic violence against oppressed groups. The top hit ‘Blurred Lines’ provides an indication that this may indeed be the case with sexual violence towards women (Thicke 2013).

In their catchy song from 2013, artists Robin Thicke, T.I. and Pharrell take the first-person perspective of a man with sexual interest in a woman, presumably at the club. In the lyrics, the man articulates the discrepancy between what the woman expresses what she wants and what she actually wants. For example, the chorus consists of the repeated phrase ‘I know you want it’. In other words, the woman doesn’t show it directly, but the man knows what she desires, namely, him. She is urged to stop hiding these sexual intentions: Thicke calls for ‘no more pretending’ and sings that he hates her ambiguous ‘blurred lines’. The capability of the male gaze to see through the facade of unwillingness to uncover the craving essence of the woman is reaffirmed with the following line: ‘But you’re an animal. Baby, it’s in your nature.’

It’s insightful to consider the accompanying video as well.[2] Whereas in the real world, the singer finds himself in a club with a woman who doesn’t respond to his advances, the video shows what the situation actually is like, according to the man. In the uncensored version, the three performers are paired with three models. The performers wear suits and sunglasses, the women just panties. These almost naked women dance sensually around the centrally positioned men, who move in a more modest way. Thus, in this twisted perspective, the roles are completely reversed: the cool man is now seduced into sex by desirous female “animals”.

The racist and the sexist perceptions seem to be similar to the extent that they both twist reality to the disadvantage of the considered group. Nevertheless, these twists manifest themselves in different ways. For instance, the racist perception as proposed by Dorlin and Butler seems to have a more fundamental character. Whereas the fleeing black man is turned around by the fantasy to become an approaching attacker, the sexist perception of Thicke and his colleagues does show an unwilling woman, but places an underlying reality behind this. Hopefully, this makes progression relatively more feasible, as men “only” need to be convinced not to fill in sexual intentions for women. In other words, to dismiss the underlying layer they perceive.

However, until that point is reached, it seems reasonable to assume that both kinds of twisted perceptions at least share their most problematic element, namely, their capability to lead to violence. Instead of shootings and beatings, this sexist perception is likely to stimulate sexual violence. This presumption is made more plausible by the (not so) remarkable fact that Thicke himself was accused of sexual assault by one of the models in the clip (Mulligan 2021).[3]

Mees Wolffs


Butler, Judith. 2020. The Force of Nonviolence. London-New York: Verso Books.
Dorlin, Elsa. 2019. “What a body can do,” translated by Kieran Aarons. Radical Philosophy 205: 3–9.
Mulligan, Euan O’Byrne. 2021, October 4. “Emily Ratajkowski accuses Robin Thicke of groping her during filming of Blurred Lines.” The Guardian.
Thicke, Robin, featuring Pharrell Williams and T.I. 2013. “Blurred Lines.” Star Trak-Interscope.

Racial Violence and Representation

Louis Armstrong: I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You

The 1932 Paramount film ‘I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You’ starts by showing the cartoon characters Betty Boop, Bimbo and Koko moving through the jungle (Fleisher 1932).[1] This happy scene is disturbed when, all of a sudden, they are surrounded by a gigantic amount of identical looking black men. These men are scantily clad, with only some leaves around the pubic area, and decorated with bands around their ankles and wrists, and rings in their ears and noses. Furthermore, they are holding a knife and fork. There is no room for doubt: these men are depicted as cannibalistic savages. After kidnapping Betty Boop, they make sexual advances towards her, while dancing rhythmically around her, accompanied by drum music. Meanwhile, Bimbo and Koko narrowly escape death by cannibalism. The happy end consists of Bimbo and Koko managing to free Betty Boop, and their pursuing assailants getting killed by a volcanic eruption.

As if this showy racism isn’t enough already, the savages are also in a fairly direct sense equated with the musicians accompanying the animation, namely black icon Louis Armstrong and his orchestra. This is, for example, done by morphing the floating animated head of one of the savages chasing Bimbo and Koko smoothly into the filmed head of a singing Armstrong, which is changed back to the savage again before the chase ends. In this way, not only the stereotypical African savage, but by extension the entire American black community is portrayed as a homogeneous, primitive group; sexually dangerous to white women and physically dangerous to white men.

How can this painfully racist film be of value in contemporary times? One opportunity this combination of image and sound plausibly offers, is being useful as a means to rehabilitate the resistive sides of the painful history of black subjugation. The importance of this is stressed by Fred Moten (2003) in his book ‘In the Break’. Interestingly, Moten empasizes the role of sound as a medium of resistance. How can the music provided by Armstrong and his orchestra be deployed as a way to reconfigure this blatantly racist short as a testament that proves that black persons treated as objects ‘can and do resist’ (Moten 2003, 1)?

 Armstrong and the orchestra most likely weren’t in a possition to influence the scandalous way they and black people in general were portrayed in the film. Still, they had some freedom of movement in the domain of sound. Indeed, the song they play, in which the suggestive title ‘I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You’ is repeated over and over again, is ‘a formula for offering resistance to white authority, cloaking insult with flattery’ (Raeburn 2013-2014, 65). This became clear to Armstrong a year earlier in Memphis. After he and his band were detained by the police for being on a bus that was ‘too nice’ for them, he had to do a free performance in return for their release. During this performance, he dedicated this particular song to the police who had imprisoned him on racist grounds. Much to the band’s surprise, this dangerous move did not lead to white violence; instead, the police responded positively to the dedication. White Americans did not recognise the insult; however, many African-Americans who heard the performance over the radio did (Raeburn 2013-2014, 63-65). With Paramount, Armstrong repeated this subversive tactic, reaching an even larger audience.

This way, it’s possible to reconfigure the film as a testament of resistance. Nevertheless, the question could be raised to what extent this view would overly glorify Armstrong’s role. Eventhough he was able to express a subversive message, the question remains if his participation didn’t contribute to the legitimation of the racism of the film, and if this possible negative contribution doesn’t outway the positive subversive side. Wouldn’t it be better if he hadn’t participated at all? On the other hand, it could be said that he was forced to comply with the violent white culture in some way, since his career and life as an artist were at least partly dependent of a white dominated industry.

In conclusion, Paramount’s ‘I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You’ can be reconfigured as a testament of black resistance, relying on the subversive music accompanying the racist pictures. This case is even more interesting as it simultaneously highlights the difficulties in constituting such testaments. It points to the nasty way a oppressive white world forces suppressed black people towards the difficult path of negotiation between, and combination of, compliance and subversion.

Mees Wolffs


Fleischer, Dave. 1932. I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You. Fleischer Studios.

Moten, Fred. 2003. In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Raeburn, Bruce Boyd. 2013-2014.  ““I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead”: Louis Armstrong’s Smack Down with White Authority and his First Films, 1930-1932.” Southern Quarterly 51(1-2): 58-72.




Gendered Violence

2Pac: Brenda’s Got a Baby

Violence against women is not an isolated, nor a universally homogenous phenomenon. It should be seen as a pluralistic and complex form of violence that is inextricably linked to other forms of violence, as Vergès and Gago convincingly show in recent texts. This means that it is incorrect to depict gender-based marginalization, assault, and even murder as caused by the inhumane actions of some deplorable bad men (Gago 2020, 63). Instead, underlying economic and racist structures, among others, should be given due attention (Vergès 2022, 13-14; Gago 2020, 74). Vergès for instance points out that sexual harassment in the workplace is linked to racially motivated underpayment (Vergès 2022, 23), and Gago claims the increase in domestic violence is partly causes by deteriorating conditions of the traditional male breadwinner (Gago 2020, 59). As a result, it is also incorrect to talk about ‘the’ oppression and mistreatment of women. Indeed, the complex intersectionality ensures that oppression takes specific forms, whereby simplistic universalistic claims should be rejected and replaced by an approach that starts from particular situations (Gago 2020, 57).

Although both Vergès and Gago use concrete examples to support their more general theoretical claims, neither zooms in on an individual life to explore how gender-based violence can manifest itself  over time. Focussing on a personal story allows the requested specificity to be met, and gives the opportunity to examine how different forms of violence interact. Music is evidently a powerful medium for telling such a personal story. Hence, a song that focuses on the story of a woman’s life ravaged by violence can plausibly contribute to Vergès’s and Gago’s texts.

‘Brenda’s got a baby’ by 2Pac (1991) is suitable for offering such a view on the overarching problem of violence against women through a personal lens. In this song, the listener is told about the story of a 12-year-old girl from an American ghetto. Central to this story is the event from which the song takes its name: a teenage pregnancy. 2Pac doesn’t present this as an isolated drama, but places it in broader contexts. He tells about the way various forms of violence have followed each other in the life of the girl. This includes her wretched home situation. Her father is a ‘junkie’, her mother is almost like a stranger to her, and both of the parents don’t care about their daughter beyond her capability to bring in money. The video accompanying the song shows that this mistreatment should not be seen as separated from the relationship she enters into with her cousin. While the parents argue, Brenda looks lovingly at her boyfriend; supposedly her refuge for safety and affection. However, this seemingly (much) older lover turns out to be a molester, who furthermore abandons her during her pregnancy. To make things worse, Brenda is barred from her parents’ house after giving birth, as she is no longer economically profitable to the family. Left alone with the baby, she decides to sell drugs, but soon turns to prostitution after being robbed. In the following confrontational words, 2Pac ends the song, the prostitution, and Brenda’s horrible life: ‘Prostitute found slain, and Brenda’s her name. She’s got a baby.’

2Pac not only cogently connects the successive forms of violence Brenda faces, but is furthermore not blind to the economic and racist structures that underpin this cycle of violence. As shown, economic precarity is assigned a major role: not only does it lead Brenda’s parents to neglect their child, but it also causes Brenda to feel compelled to sell drugs and to prostitute herself. In addition, it is clear that this is all linked to racist structures. Indeed, as shown in the music video, the ghetto in which Brenda grows up contains only black people. Significantly, white people only enter the video when Brenda’s life has already come to an end, as police officers come to autopsy the corpse. Finally, 2Pac is not only concerned with the economical marginalization of the racialized inhabitants of the segregated ghetto, as the song’s opening words demonstrate: ‘I hear Brenda’s got a baby, but Brenda’s barely got a brain. A damn shame, the girl can hardly spell her name.’ Educational means seem to be severely lacking as well.

Thus, with this personal story, 2Pac provides a powerful realization of the emphasis on specificity and intersectionality of violence against women that Vergès and Gago would call for some 30 years later. Nevertheless, it would be unwarranted to blindly follow 2Pac’s depiction of the situation. For example, the question could be asked if a severe lack of educational means is the proper interpretation, or that 2Pac is merely dismissing Brenda’s intelligence. Or both? Brenda’s own side of the story would be helpful, or even required. In general, this points to the fact that not only the particularity and the structural background of violence on women should be taken in account, but also that multiple perspectives are needed.

With this particularistic, structuralistic, and multi-perspectivalistic view in mind, there’s also a chance to think about appropriate kinds of action to be taken. For example, it would be would be insufficient to blame and prosecute Brenda’s parents and boyfriend. Instead, for the particular forms of violence women face, the structures that give rise to it should be laid out in a joint effort, and should subsequently be attacked. Obviously, exactly what structures are to be attacked depends on the case. For Brenda’s case, this undoubtedly means that a war should be started against the racist US ghettos as a manifestation of structural marginalization.

Mees Wolffs


Gago, Veronica. 2020. Feminist International: How to Change Everything, translated by Liz Mason-Deese. London: Verso Books.

Vergès, Francoise. 2020. A Feminist Theory of Violence; A Decolonial Perspective, translated by Melissa Thackway. London: Pluto Press.

Border Violence

Alexiane: Blue Hearts

A passionate exclamation in a foreign language immediately grabs the attention, but soon fades away to give way to a sweet-toned feminine voice. Accompanied by soft, mournful music, this voice sings that she has been woken up by a bird telling her stories about ‘children with blue hearts’. Children who are unheard, children who cry. The listener is informed that the time of looking away is over, as voice and music jointly climb the dramatic ladder. During this climb, in which the voice becomes more emphatic and the music swells, the artist asserts to sing for ‘life’, for ‘rights’, and for the ‘children with no voice’. Everything indicates that an issue of great importance is being raised here. No effort is spared to get the audience emotionally involved. But what children exactly is this all about? This is revealed in the chorus, when the top of the dramatic ladder is reached. The line ‘flows of us lost at sea’, quickly followed by ‘protection for the smuggled hearts’, leaves no room for doubt: it’s about the miserable fate of the youthful victims of human trafficking. The ‘blue hearts’ must stand for these innocent unfortunates.

But the blue hearts Alexiane (2022) sings of in her identically titled song stand for something else as well, as becomes apparent from the website of the UNODC (United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime). This organization runs the campaign ‘blue hearts’, of which the song is a part. They state that these blue hearts are supposed to symbolize not only the ‘sadness of those who are trafficked’, but also the ‘cold-heartedness of traffickers’.[1] In this way, victim and culprit are lucidly and seamlessly linked.

The solutions envisaged by the UNODC naturally follow from this simple problem analysis. On the one hand, they try to raise funds for the victims, and, on the other, further cases are sought to be prevented by helping governments to make effective migration policies and supporting their efforts to prosecute traffickers.[2] By doing this, the UNODC claims to contribute to one of the Sustainable Development Goals, namely to: ‘facilitate orderly, safe, and responsible migration and mobility of people’.[3] Thus, the UNODC offers a crystal-clear picture of victim, perpetrator, tactics, and goal regarding human trafficking which is airtight. Right? Well, no. Anything but. While it is clear that migrants are indeed victims, the UNODC’s assertions about the causes, the proper strategies, and the disered goals are not only dubious, but harmful as well.

Starting with the cause. So, who is actually to blame? The focus on human traffickers of the UNODC should be seen as a ‘comfortable alibi for evading or denying any responsibility’, as Di Cesare (2020, 69) claims. ‘A clutch of unscrupulous ‘smugglers’, ‘slavedrivers’ and ‘traffickers’’ is thus designated as completely guilty and the only real cause of migration (Di Cesear 2020, 69).[4] Looking at it more critically, however, it should be seen that the foundational causes are not trafficking practices, but state practices. Firstly, it should be recognised that states by erecting restrictive borders are the more fundamental factor, simply because, as Walia (2021, 149) writes, ‘the economy for extorting traffickers would collapse if there were no border controls’. Secondly, that people despite the deadlyness of the borders make the life-threatening decision to defy them is in large parts a result of the colonialist and capitalist exploitation by the very same states that are now fighting ruthlessly against these self-inflicted migrations (Walia 2021, 155).

Furthermore, this misindication of causes inevitably leads to the proposal of inadequate and harmful strategies as well. Chasing the traffickers, hypocritically helping the migrants, and making “better” policies concerning the borders, respectively ensure that migration goes further underground, that the racist idea of ‘white man’s burden’ is reinforced, and that exclusionary border policies become even more restrictive (Walia 2021, 149,155; Di Cesare 2022, 69).

Finally, the pursued goal. In seeking orderly migration, UNODC shows itself most clearly as an arm of the intergovernmental organisation the United Nations, by defending the interests of states. Instead of striving for a world in which migration is no longer necessary, but nevertheless possible by guaranteeing the human right to move freely, their aim is to further strengten the already predominant sovereignty of states by bolstering their deadly border policies in order to make migration ‘orderly’ (Di Cesare 2022, 14).

In conclusion, ‘Blue Hearts’ by Alexiane is an example of the legitimation of a problematic problem analysis of human trafficking, and thus of the restrictive border project. Not only the lyrics themselves, but also the emotional charge of the song, the use of a singer with roots in the targeted region (Senegal), and the incorporation of an indigenous language in the song (the ‘foreign language’ at the beginning is Wolof, a language from West Africa) all contribute to the message that Europe and Africa, and in fact the whole human race, must turn against the inhuman acts of a group of bad guys. But as shown, the suggested crystal-clear picture of the problem turns out to be a misleading and damaging mirage on closer inspection instead. It is time to counter this hypocritical marketing aimed at further restriction with a truly fundamental critical voice. It is time to replace symptom control with cause control.

Mees Wolffs


Alexiane. 2022. “Blue Hearts.” Gion Records.

Di Cesare, Donatella. 2020. “Migrants and the State.” In Resident Foreigners: A Philosophy of Migration, translated by David Broder, 5-77. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Walia, Harsha. 2021. “Fortress Europe.” In Border & Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism and the Rise of Racist Nationalism, 135-160. Chicago: Haymarket Books.



[3]  As stated on the Blue Heart campaign brochure, accessible via
[4] Ibid.