The Bronx Defenders are a public-interest law firm under contract with New York City to represent low-income people. The group is currently under fire because two of its attorneys appeared in the rap video below.
Because two attorneys from the organization appeared in a video that may endorse violence against police, some law enforcement organizations are now demanding that the city terminate its $20 million contract with the group. First, let’s get this out of the way: Appearing in the video was unquestionably a bad idea. Not because the critics are correct, but because it has put the organization in a position where some are calling for an end to its funding. The attorneys in question should have at least had an inkling that they were courting the sort of controversy that put their firm at risk. There are multitudes of ways to express support for police reform. Appearing in a video that could be interpreted as a call to violence against cops while you work for a firm that has a contract with the city is, to say the least, a massive error in judgment.
That said, the critics are calling for a punishment that’s nowhere near commensurate with the crime. Which isn’t particularly surprising, given who the critics are. There are a lot of points to made here, and other people have already made them very well. For example, there’s the question of whether the video above really does promote violence against cops. Civil liberties blogger Mark Draughn explains why it does not, or at least why that question isn’t particularly important:
For starters, most songs are fiction. I’m not just talking about movie musicals and theatrical songs. Lots of popular music — rap and country more than most, I think — is storytelling, with the artists taking on a persona as part of the performance. They play a character in a story.
The story told by the lyrics could be true, but it’s more likely to be an exaggeration, if not complete fiction. Eminem didn’t really kill his ex-wife. Bruce Springsteen has a blue collar background, but he’s spent most of his life as a musician, not a factory worker. Alanis Morissette probably gets pissed off now and then, but she isn’t really as angry as she was on Jagged Little Pill. Bob Marley did not shoot the Sheriff, Johnny Cash never shot a man in Reno, and NASA is not planning a rescue mission for Major Tom. . . .
Actually, let me step aside from my main point for a few paragraphs to point out something about the lyrics of “Hands Up” that seems to be missed in all the ruckus: Despite what the quoted phrases seem to mean when taken out of context, the song as a whole doesn’t actually advocate shooting police officers. I can’t believe that I’m explaining rap to anybody, but if you’re going to raise hell over a song, you really ought to pay attention to the lyrics. Uncle Murda starts “Hands up” like this:
I spit that [s—] the streets got to feel
For Mike Brown and Sean Bell, a cop got to get killed
In other words, he’s talking what the urban black community is feeling. People are angry about young black men like Mike Brown and Sean Bell getting killed by the police, and some of them are angry enough to kill cops. A little later, Maino raps about someone more specific:
My lil’ homie told me he ready to riot
Ferguson was on his mind, he ready to fire
I’m too old and white to have any idea what the relationship is between Maino and his “lil’ homie,” but it’s clear that he’s describing someone else’s violent thoughts, which is not the same as advocating violence. . . .
I’m not saying “Hands Up” is preaching a message of non-violence. But neither is it telling people to kill cops. It’s a five minute song about how police killing young black men is making them angry enough to want to respond violently. The video repeats the scene of two young black men pointing their guns at a young white NYPD officer’s head several times, but they never pull the trigger. It’s not advocating killing. It’s saying that people are angry enough to kill.
For that matter, the majority of the song is not about anger or retaliation but about the reason for the anger: Cops killing young black men without consequences.
So it isn’t even clear that the song advocates violence. The next point to be made here is that even if it does, did the attorneys know that? Did Bronx Defenders head Robin Steinberg? Here’s New York City criminal defense attorney Scott Greenfield:
This is, how can I say this kindly, complete [b——-]. Robin Steinberg has her plate full with the zillion indigent defendants her group handles, in one of the toughest courthouses anywhere in the world. Robin is not only a brilliant lawyer, but one of the smartest people I know.
She never would have allowed this had she known the entirety of the project, not because of the ridiculous notion that it suggested she or her organization endorsed killing cops (the idea is so utterly absurd as to be laughable), but because she knows better than to get embroiled in time-wasting controversy . . .
And to anyone who has any knowledge of how stuff works, the idea that two Bronx Defender lawyers played any more than a bit part in this video, and were either told or shown its entirety as if the rappers wanted their approval, is almost as silly as suggesting Bronx Defenders endorses cop killing.
The real tragedy here is that by all accounts the Bronx Defenders are very, very good at what they do. They don’t just represent the indigent in court; they employ what they call a “holistic approach” to representation that includes social work, counseling and other services. The goal isn’t just to get charges dismissed or reduced, but to to actually help lift indigent clients out of the spiral of poverty and despair that can take hold once they become entangled in the criminal justice system. They’re the inspiration for the great work being done in St. Louis by the ArchCity Defenders.
Here’s an excerpt from a letter to the editor of the New York Times signed by more than 30 New York City law professors.
Now some are calling for the city to defund the Bronx Defenders. That would be a terrible mistake. For nineteen years the Bronx Defenders has served tens of thousands of indigent Bronx residents facing criminal charges, while assisting community members with housing, family, child-custody, immigration, and school-related issues. The office supports and empowers Bronx residents to help themselves, working tirelessly to restore dignity to those most affected by the often-dire consequences of life in the Bronx’s poorest neighborhoods. Bronx Defenders is a shining model of how New York can lead the way in addressing the national problem of access to justice.
In some ways, this story reflects a couple of ongoing problems within the criminal justice system itself. There is, for example, a problem with defendants getting punished for mistakes made by their attorneys. Many wrongful convictions are the product of public demands for a suspect after a high-profile crime and mounting pressure on police and prosecutors to produce one. In the Bronx Defenders, we have group that knows how to work the system. It has irreplaceable institutional knowledge of the city’s bureaucracy, its courts and its social welfare system. Its lawyers put that knowledge to work to better the lives of poor people. For the sake of argument, let’s stipulate that the video above really does call for violence against cops. And let’s stipulate that the attorneys who appeared in it knew as much ahead of time. Terminating the city’s contract with the Bronx Defenders would placate angry law enforcement groups and their supporters. But who would it punish? The Bronx Defenders staff are by all accounts talented attorneys. They’ll find jobs elsewhere. The people who will be punished are their indigent clients — both present day and in the future. Because two attorneys appeared in a rap video, the poor in the Bronx will be robbed of one of their most powerful and effective advocates. That’s some pretty severe misplaced accountability.
If you think the rap video above calls for the killing of cops and you think the attorneys who appeared in it were aware of that, then it’s perfectly understandable to want to see some consequences. But let’s not send the message that any consequence will do.