The Politics of Protest: Rap, Race, and Riots


Editor’s Note: This is Part 1 of’s month-long series , “Rap, Race and Riots: Hip-Hop 20 Years after the L.A. Rebellion.”

“Only in Cali where we riot/ not rally” – “California Love” –Dr. Dre and 2Pac

Recently, in Memphis, the shooting of African American teenager, Thomas Martin King, Jr., by George Earl Koontz, a white, off duty security guard at the Loraine Hotel, sparked waves of protests. King was shot while returning from the grocery store with a small bag of Marvin’s Mini Marshmallows, which Koontz thought was crack. Days later, Civil Rights leaders held voter registration and fish fry rallies calling for the prosecution of Koontz, and people across the country sent used marshmallow bags to the Memphis Police Department in protest. Thirty days later, the murder is a distant memory, and Koontz has still not been charged with murder. However, the local civil rights organization has new office furniture, and the stock of Marvin’s Marshmallows has risen 100%. Sadly, the King family is without a son or Justice…

Although it is said that “April showers bring May flowers,” this month also seems to rain revolution. Forty-four years ago this week, America went up in flames following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (April 4, 1968). Twenty years ago, L.A. was almost burned to the ground following the acquittal of the four police officers who, unmercifully, beat Rodney King (April 29, 1992). And 11 years ago a rebellion broke out in Cincinnati following the murder of Timothy Thomas at the hands of a cop (April 9, 2001) . Fast forward to April, 2012, and people across the country are protesting the murder of Trayvon Martin at the hands of a self-proclaimed neighborhood watch captain.

Anybody else see a pattern here?

While people often get caught up in the emotionalism of tragic events, it is critical for us to study how they are – continuously – able to pull off these acts without causing a Revolutionary War.

To remix that Jay Z line from “30 Something”, “We respect the one who got shot/ they respect the shooter.”

While heavy-handed government suppression of “militants” is often seen as the ideal way of countering urban unrest, the most strategic methods are done more subtly.

The blueprint on how to tactfully handle racial disorder in America, the Kerner Commision Report, was released February 29, 1968, ironically, six weeks before the King assassination. The report dealt with various strategies on how to prevent urban unrest in America.

A generation later, Dr. Brenda Wall in her book, The Rodney King Rebellion, stated that the day of the rebellion the judge in the trial of the LAPD officers gave police officials a two hour notice, “realizing the tension that the verdict might unleash.” She also wrote that the LAPD also had a million dollar contingency plan for civil disturbance.

It’s no wonder that the Trayvon Martin murder took so long to gain public attention. Somebody must have needed a head start.

According to Kalonji Jama Changa, founder/national coordinator of The FTP Movement and author of the book, How to Build a People’s Army, “The state has definitely adopted improved methods to keep the people in check. They have recruited more buffers between the people and the state to keep the flames low.” Perhaps that’s why we don’t see “militant” rappers and “intelligent hoodlums” addressing social issues like we did in the early ’90s.

Back during the Rodney King Era, we had Sister Souljah to speak for the ‘hood. Now, we only have Sista Soledad O’Brien.

Big difference.

Another tactic that has been used is turning public outrage into a business. Peter Dogget in his work, There’s a Riot Going On, wrote about an October 1968 meeting held by “advertising agencies and entertainment conglomerates,” called, “Selling the American Youth Market”, where attendees learned how to capitalize off the Vietnam War/Civil Rights protests.

Following the L.A. Rebellion, you could hardly keep track of the videos, books and talk shows that tried to hip a horrified, middle class, white America to the plight of young, “urban” males.

In a recent Associated Press article called “Trayvon, Inc.”, Curt Anderson reported how some people are using the tragedy to hawk T-shirts, bumper stickers, hoodies, and posters, etc., and how “pass the hat rallies” are raking in thousands of dollars.

What must be remembered is that the periods of racial turmoil of ’68, ’92, and 2012, have something in common: they all happened during election years. And in an election year, everything is political. The Republicans need another “Black boogey man” in order to push their ” blame the victim/get tough on crime” agenda.

And, the Democrats desperately need a quick way to energize a disenchanted Black base who are asking themselves, “Are we really better off now than we were four years ago?” Already, we have seen Civil Rights leaders and media celebrities try to turn the Trayvon tragedy into a glorified “register to vote rally.”

The pimpin’ of the people continues, which is easy when the masses don’t know what to do when the racial emergency alarm goes off. Do you fill out a voter’s registration form? Buy a bag of Skittles? Or do you find the nearest window, and throw a brick through it?

A wise man once said that “voting is a Democracy’s alternative to rioting in the streets.” So it is always in the state’s best interest to “keep hope alive” and preach the gospel of “Change.” However, history seems to suggest that America won’t budge until she smells smoke – as fire has served to be very motivational.

During the turbulent ’60s, according to Herbert Hains in his book, Black Radicals and the Civil Rights Movement, the Feds, corporations and philanthropic organizations shelled out major dollars in order to keep the peace.

Lou Cannon wrote in his book, Official Negligence, that after the looting of businesses during the L.A. Rebellion “RLA (Rebuild LA) promoted perhaps 500 million dollars of development in the riot area.”

As of this writing, all of the singin’ and marchin’ for justice for Trayvon hasn’t gotten us anything but sore throats and calluses.

Apparently, sometimes crime does pay.

How the powers-that-be can successfully contain public outrage in a post-“Occupy Wall Street” era of Twitter-generated flash mob protests, when more young people are getting their news from YouTube and Facebook than CNN and MSNBC, remains to be seen.

However, no matter how one chooses to express his sense of moral outrage, one thing is certain. This April, you better get your umbrella.

Like Arrested Development once sang:

“It’s raining revolution/ It’s raining solutions.”

TRUTH Minista Paul Scott’s weekly column is “This Ain’t Hip Hop,” a column for intelligent Hip Hop headz. He can be reached at, on his website,, or on Twitter (@truthminista).