Beyonce a political superhero with rhythm

Story highlights

  • 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

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.

(CNN)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.' "
    Sally Kohn
    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. Ne