Sally Kohn: Beyoncé is seeking not only to make music but to make a difference
It's important that Americans of all races learn facts about police violence and discrimination against blacks, she says
Editor’s Note: Sally Kohn is an activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter: @sallykohn. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
With references to the Black Panther Party, Malcolm X and Black Lives Matter, Beyoncé used her massive mainstream audience for her Super Bowl halftime show to deliver a pointed and powerful political message. But that message is now being twisted and perverted by police unions with an interest in preserving the unjust, anti-black status quo.
During the live performance of her latest song, “Formation,” Beyoncé was backed by black women dancers wearing black berets and black leather that clearly invoked the Black Panther Party.
In a backstage photo tweeted out by the racial justice activist group The Dream Defenders, the dancers were shown raising their fists in the traditional black power salute.
And writer Jamilah King tweeted a picture of Beyoncé’s dancers holding a handmade sign that read “Justice 4 Mario Woods” – a reference to a 26-year-old black man who had been shot and killed by police in San Francisco just a few miles from the Super Bowl site. (Woods allegedly had a knife and refused to drop it, so the cops shot him 20 times. An autopsy showed that six shots hit Woods in the back).
None of this should be controversial.
Beyoncé is seeking not only to make music but to make a difference – as have generations of musicians and other cultural icons before her. In fact, the two have arguably always been intertwined.
“All of that art-for-art’s-sake stuff is BS,” writer Toni Morrison once said. “What are these people talking about? Are you really telling me that Shakespeare and Aeschylus weren’t writing about kings? All good art is political! There is none that isn’t. And the ones that try hard not to be political are political by saying, ‘We love the status quo.’ ”
Beyoncé, it would appear, does not like the status quo. And nor should any of us witnessing the repeated injustices and structural oppression wielded against the black community. But critics of Beyonce’s performance are planning a pro-police protest outside NFL headquarters on Tuesday.
Christopher Burgos, president of the State Troopers Fraternal Association, reportedly asked the NFL to distance itself from the performance. Echoing this message, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani called Beyoncé’s performance “a platform to attack police officers.”
And Republican Rep. Peter King made it clear the objections are largely tied to Beyoncé’s embrace of Black Panther iconography. King argued Beyoncé’s performance “was extolling the Black Panthers, who were a terrorist organization, killing police officers in the ‘60s and ‘70s.”
All of which echoes a lot of the police rhetoric against the Black Lives Matter movement today, the argument that by protesting wanton police abuse and violence against the black community, both movements are inherently anti-police.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
In 1966, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense when both were still students at Merritt College in Oakland, California. They were plainly fed up with the continued oppression of the black community in America, including virulent racial discrimination in housing and employment and every single aspect of society. But perhaps the most painful and pressing incarnation of systemic injustice was the violence routinely carried out against black men and women by police – the very part of the system that was supposed to protect and safeguard everyone was instead its most vicious offender of injustice.
Context is everything. The Black Panthers did not unilaterally launch protests and hostility against the police but were simply reacting to the brutal and racist climate cops had created.
In fact, the choice of the panther symbolism is illustrative of this fact. Newton said they picked the black panther because the animal doesn’t strike first, “but if the aggressor strikes first, then he’ll attack.” Black Americans were sick and tired of being struck by police. And through the Black Panthers, they struck back.
The connection to the Black Lives Matter movement today is clear – and disturbing if you consider how little police treatment of people of color has improved in the intervening 50 years.
And the critique from the right is also the same. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has accused the Black Lives Matter movement of “calling for the murder of police officers” and Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz alleges Black Lives Matter protests “have embraced rabid rhetoric, rabid anti-police language, literally suggesting and embracing and celebrating the murder of police officers.” Bill O’Reilly has compared Black Lives Matter to racist Nazi hate groups.
Wrong. As Black Lives Matter declared last fall, quite clearly, as such accusations were swelling:
“We’re targeting the brutal system of policing, not individual police. The Black Lives Matter Network seeks to end the system of policing that allows for unchecked violence against black people. Right-wing portrayals of this as targeting of individual police are deliberate distortions to derail growing public debate about white supremacy, the ongoing epidemic of violence against black people, and the need to end institutionalized racism in the policing and criminal justice systems.”
Then, as now, the right wing has tried to insist that anyone protesting violent, abusive policing is anti-police. But here’s a different take: If the police are tired of people protesting violent, abusive policing, how about they stop doing it. Want to prove that you aren’t a trigger happy, white supremacist? Then instead of defending the status quo every time another young black man is shot by cops, proactively acknowledge the systemic problems against which the black community is protesting and fix them.
The protest against Beyoncé’s performance falls on the same day that Stanley Nelson’s documentary, “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” premiers on PBS stations nationwide. It’s a complex, historically rich film that, among other things, documents how our federal government created a domestic spying program explicitly to attack and undermine the Black Panthers and how the police repeatedly harassed, framed and in at least one case murdered Black Panther leadership.
The documentary also goes beyond whatever simplistic smears have been made against the Panthers.
Yes, sexism and the subjugation of women within Panther leadership was a problem, though at the same time Newton gave speeches advocating that the Panthers unify with “the various liberation movements among homosexuals and women.” And the documentary shows how multiracial many Panther protests actually were.
It is important that we, as Americans of all races, learn the facts – including the facts about unconscionable police violence and discrimination against the black community and the historic efforts organized by the black community in response, including the Black Panthers 50 years ago and the Black Lives Matter movement today.
Unfortunately, too many police continue to show themselves to be far more interested in reactionary defensiveness and preserving the abusive status quo.
Beyoncé wants to educate us about the truth and encourage us to fight injustice. She’s like a political superhero with rhythm.