A post for MLK day

I’m putting the final touches on my syllabus for a new course I’m teaching called “Music and American Counterculture.” It’s an undergrad course on the development of a hip sensibility from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s. Needless to say, I get to have my students listen to a lot of extremely awesome things.* For example, Gil Scott-Heron — you know, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Everyone likes to say that this track is still relevant. I dunno . . . I have another candidate for the “still relevant” category. For MLK day, when we might profitably spend a moment thinking not only about Dr. King’s brand of black empowerment but the wider spectrum of black liberation in the 1960s, allow me to suggest Scott-Heron’s rap on “No Knock”:

You explained it to me I must admit
but just for the record you were talking shit
y’all rap about no-knock being legislated
for the people you’ve always hated
in this hellhole you, we call home
no knock, the Man will say
to keep that man from beatin’ his wife
no knock, the Man will say
to protect people from themselves
no knockin’, head rockin’, enter shockin’
shootin’ cussin’ killin’ cryin’ lyin’ and bein’ white
no knock
no knock on my brother Fred Hampton
bullet holes all over the place
no knock on my brother Michael Harris
and jammed a shotgun against his skull
for my protection?
who’s gonna protect me from you?
the likes of you?
the nerve of you?
to talk that shit, face to face
your tomato face deadpan
your dead hands ending another freedom fan
no knockin’, head rockin’, enter shockin’
shootin’ cussin’ killin’ cryin’ lyin’ and bein’ white
but if you’re wise, no knocker,
you’ll tell your no-knockin’ lackeys
ha! no knock on my brother’s head,
no knock on my sister’s head
no knock on my brother’s head,
no knock on my sister’s head
and double-lock your door
because soon someone may be no-knockin’
ha ha
for you.

(“No knock”: to be slipped into John Mitchell’s suggestion box.)

The context of this was the Nixon-era use of “no-knock” raids on political radicals, including Fred Hampton, a Black Panther leader who died in a no-knock raid so vicious it amounted to extrajudicial assassination. Violent forced-entry paramilitary style raids have become more and more common in recent years, with predicably horrifying results. The Cory Maye case is a particularly bad miscarriage of justice, though no-one outside of civil libertarian circles seems to have heard of it.**

The rage of Gil Scott-Heron’s “No Knock” reminds us that, in the 1960s, no-knock raids had a distinct overtone of racial violence: they were a means of state power to stifle black dissent. Now it is a means of state power to stifle anyone who uses illegal drugs, which is, uh, well, most Americans, at some point or other, though its weight still falls disproportionately on black Americans.

Penn and Teller put it well.

*I continue to be worried about my over-use of the word “awesome.” This locution will be clapped out in about five minutes, and I don’t want to be left behind, like some loser on a mid-market TV news show calling things “fresh” and “dope.” Dinosaurs have a possible answer. I’m going to have my students listen to some joyous music.

** See Radley Balko’s excellent reportage on this case on his blog, The Agitator.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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One Response to A post for MLK day

  1. Matt says:

    Thanks for that. I was just listening to ‘No Knock’ as it randomly rolled around on my mp3 player and was thinking quite how relevant a lot of what GSH said is today.
    Here in the UK, our (much less violent but no less racist) equivalent were the ‘sus’ laws which allowed on-the-spot searches without warrant. Like no knock, this policy was used almost exclusively against black Britons.
    Today’s stop and search laws with their anti-terrorist veneer target young British Asians in much the same way and lead to the same sort of resentment and anger.
    Oddly enough, next up on the player was ‘Police and Thieves’ by the Clash. Wierd.

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