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NEAR TRUTHS:
WINDS OF CHANGE
(AND TEAR GAS)

WINDS OF CHANGE (AND TEAR GAS): The winds of change are most certainly howling in the smoke-filled air of civil disobedience. This generation will have its moment to effect change. The disgraceful President of the United States has retreated to his bunker and finally built his wall—around the White House. Former Defense Secretary Mattis and top generals are pushing back at Trump’s threats to use troops against protesters. Disgruntled Republicans of the Lincoln Project fill the airwaves and socials with devastating anti-Trump ads. Meanwhile, Ferguson has elected a black woman mayor (two firsts in one) and a long-serving white-supremacist congressman, Iowa’s Steve King, has been primaried out. Most relevant for the present moment, all the cops behind George Floyd’s murder now face serious charges.

There are, in other words, signs of hope amid the terror, anarchy and relentless trolling. That hope is carried by demonstrators from coast to coast, who are weathering tear gas, rubber bullets and nightsticks to confront institutional injustice. With the GOP now scrambling to find a convention locale that shares its disdain for COVID-19 protections and hemorrhaging support from everyone but its rabid base, can we anticipate a Republican version of Chicago in ’68? We may be on the verge of a giant pendulum swing back toward sanity, assuming Trump, Barr and their private army of Bureau of Prisons goons don’t drag us into martial law. 

“BAD APPLES” AND OTHER ROT: As the flames of revolt spread across the U.S., National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, the very model of a white-bread, right-wing government functionary—but worse, because he works for Trump—told CNN’s Jake Tapper, “I don’t think there’s systemic racism.”

O’Brien added that “99.9% of our law enforcement officers are great Americans,” and blamed horrors like Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis on (wait for it) “a few bad apples.”

It’s clear to everyone not living in some Fox News twilight zone that this isn’t merely a dissenting opinion or even an “alternative fact.”

It’s a lie.

The Trumpians know there is systemic racism in the police because they depend upon it. It is what Trump himself sells at his rallies when he calls for authorities to be “tough” on demonstrators. It’s what his festering coalition of admirers, from ivory-tower racists like Stephen Miller to street-fascist “Boogaloo Boys” infiltrating the nationwide protests, depend upon as they pour gas on the fire.

It is how Trump has made good on the dog-whistle rhetoric of his campaign, which assured certain disaffected white folks that the “right” sort of people would be singled out for punishment, giving those white folks a heady bump of power by proxy. The systemic racism of men with guns is the #1 sales proposition in Trumpland; without it, the Orange Infection would’ve been cured in November 2016 by President-elect Hillary.

(And let us remember that the lives of black citizens like Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin were not claimed by on-duty police but by an ex-cop, a private security officer and other civilians who believed that their very whiteness extended to them paramilitary privileges.)

Trump clearly feels he can stride to re-election in a cloud of tear gas as the “law and order President,” wielding a prop bible like a truncheon and claiming the police boot as his own. His attempt to criminalize dissent (with Antifa as his scapegoat) is the fulfillment of his authoritarian tendencies but also a bid to asphyxiate his opposition.

But back to the thin blue lie. Even if we were to swallow O’Brien’s contention that just 0.1% of cops are responsible for the sadistic murder of countless people of color year after year after year—a preposterous notion in its own right—why have the 99.9% who are “great Americans” done next to nothing to hinder the bloody work of those “bad apples?”

It’s a lie. Police departments nationwide have become a comfortable nest for racist serial killers because of the culture that police departments have been permitted to develop. Until well into the ’60s, a poster reportedly hung in LAPD headquarters featuring a picture of former first lady and social-justice advocate Eleanor Roosevelt with the legend “N***** LOVER.” In 1982, the LAPD’s virulently racist police chief, Daryl Gates–an architect of the force’s latter-day militarization—said black people tended to die in police chokeholds because “their arteries don’t open as fast as they do in normal people.” The force that squeezed the life out of George Floyd has been coming down on black folks for a very long time, with little or no accountability.

THE SAME CONVERSATION: Black adults today must counsel their kids on navigating a world in which the police might very well do them harm—while recalling similar conversations they had, as children, with their own parents. For all the alleged progress we’ve made, we are still mired in a nightmare of sanctioned oppression. If you are fortunate enough to have been spared this nightmare, imagine it for yourself. Now picture how you would respond and consider whether clutched pearls over broken shopfronts or looted liquor bottles would be foremost in your mind.

And so anguish over the injustice wrought by the people who are supposed to serve and protect us all has once again boiled over. As it did in 1992 after the acquittal of the predator cops who savaged Rodney King. As it did in Watts in 1965 (resulting in 34 reported deaths), Detroit in 1967 (43 reported deaths) and countrywide in the wake of MLK’s assassination in 1968 (at least 39 deaths).

JFK’s 1962 admonition was this: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Decades of institutional violence, government gaslighting, voter suppression and propaganda have done their bit to head off that peaceful revolution. And so crowds are once again facing down cops, police cruisers have been torched, shop windows shattered, protesters and journalists bruised by rubber bullets, the National Guard deployed to contain the fury.

Yes, here we are again, in 20fucking20, grief-stricken, enraged, despairing, terrified, in another chaotic whirl of screaming and flame and busted glass.

There is some consolation in seeing the rise of something we’ve been missing: A large, engaged and persistent protest movement. The peaceful marches in the area around our offices, haloed by honks and fist-waves of support, are a reminder that there is broad desire for a justice agenda. When viewed without media gloss, this ongoing demonstration feels historic.

Even so, at some point the protests will end, the debris will be swept up, the boarded-up shops refurbished and repaired. This will be followed by task forces and initiatives and earnest conversations about change.

What we will never get back is the lives we’ve lost. What we will not have changed is that it is not safe to drive, walk, jog, shop, look at birds or sleep in your own fucking apartment while black in America.

And that’s far from all, in the present nightmare. Amid a raging pandemic, people of color have disproportionately sickened and died because they were pushed, unprotected, into public-facing or otherwise high-exposure jobs on which their survival depended. Their lives were not deemed sufficiently important to justify pumping the brakes on the economy, per the calculus that informs every choice our leaders make.

The boot, the knee, the hand has never been off the neck of black Americans. The question is, do those of us spared the strangulation—for now, at least—have the luxury to turn away?

We have work to do.

BLACK MUSIC MONTH MATTERS: Our industry, once dashed on the shoals of technological change, has been rescued and transformed by the work of black creators. Black music is the primary driver of a marketplace that thrives even with all concerts shut down by the pandemic. Black artists in America have consistently made the most essential recordings, the most elementally important songs, the music that facilitated ecstatic celebration and intimate connection alike, anthems that gave voice to our anger, exorcised our sorrow, kept faith glowing in the direst of nights. Like all great art, but in a quintessentially American way, black music is the alchemy that transforms life’s bitterness into something sweet.

We celebrate Black Music Month in June, and the fact that it coincides with this hellfire moment in America does not diminish the importance of that commemoration. In fact, it should cause us to turn up the volume on America’s most vital playlist. From Billie Holiday on “Strange Fruit” to Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” to  Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” to N.W.A’s “Fuck Tha Police” to Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” black artists have been telling us the truth about the terrible cost of inequality forever. Even as many of us listened, we didn’t really hear. At best, we have put a Band-Aid on a cancer. At worst, we’ve allowed that cancer to metastasize.

So let’s try to listen a little more closely. Let’s amplify the message of those and other songs to dispel the poison and lies. Let’s be healed and inspired by the work of Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, Aretha, Smokey Robinson, Al Green, J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, SZA, Tyler, The Creator, Lizzo and countless others. And let’s use our platform, our megaphone, to call for real change and real justice. Let’s make sure Black Lives Matter is an operating principle of our culture and not just a slogan that makes us look woke.

BUSINESS AS UNUSUAL: We must also acknowledge that our industry still falls far short when it comes to having diversity at the highest executive levels. Black execs such as Jon Platt, whose recent statement was perhaps the most resounding issued by a music professional, and Sylvia Rhone, who is calling upon a lifetime of activism to inform and empower the community, have indicated what’s possible. Rhone’s mom marched with MLK and Adam Clayton Powell, and young Sylvia’s Harlem upbringing underscored the reality of the struggle and the potential of people-powered mobilization.

Jeff Harleston, already doing double duty at UMG corporate and at Def Jam, and  Motown chief Ethiopia Habtemariam were tapped, logically, by Sir Lucian Grainge to head the group’s newly empaneled task force (“to accelerate our efforts in areas such as inclusion and social justice.”).

Meanwhile, Jay-Z, who has risen to the top as both artist and exec/entrepreneur, has effectively raised his voice to demand change.

But the overwhelmingly white and male composition of the upper tier of the biz is sadly reflective of the country’s macro issues. While the handful of top-level black execs are dynamic and influential, they are still a handful; it seems we must wait for the next generation of rising professionals to fulfill the oft-cited commitment to a more diverse industry leadership.

So: What can the music industry as a whole accomplish at this watershed moment? What can our platform achieve? What words should we say into our enormous megaphone? That conversation—among the most crucial of our lives—is underway in earnest right now. The music biz has gotten mixed reviews at best for #TheShowMustBePaused, with a number of prominent activists and artists alike understandably questioning whether it will have any impact. Will this be another instance of institutional platitudes before the resumption of business as usual? We mustn’t squander this opportunity.

Let’s get to work.

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