A Brief History of the Phrase ‘F*ck the Police’
Protesters chant it in Ferguson. Ice Cube wrote about it. How oppressed Americans turned three words into bullets.
Because they are frequently the targets of comedians and commentators, warning labels are often misconstrued.
When a company chooses to put “Product May Contain Peanuts” or “Caution: Coffee May Be Hot” on their packaging, it’s not to protect the consumer, if it were, the product would be manufactured in a facility where accidental peanut exposure was impossible and beverages would be served at drinkable temperatures. Instead, those warnings are to protect the company in the event of a lawsuit.
In the United States, law enforcement serves a similar function.
A woman with advanced dementia walks down the street in her bathrobe, her adult son, who is black, follows close behind her, desperately trying to get his mother back in the house.
The police car arrives and aggressively questions the old woman. Bewildered by their inquiry, she tells them she doesn’t have a son. The officers slam the grown man to the ground.
Fuck the police.
In 1988, N.W.A. released their groundbreaking record Straight Outta Compton. On it, was the track “Fuck tha Police.”
The song title was so controversial that the word “fuck” did not appear on the album packaging. Instead, the song was listed as “blank-blank-blank-blank Tha Police” with the instructions to “fill in the blanks.”
On the front of the record was a small rectangle that warned potential listeners “These Songs Contain Explicit Lyrics: Parental Guidance Suggested.”
Straight Outta Compton was among the first records to receive the label and one of the first rap albums of its kind. The warning was an early iteration of what was known as the “Parental Advisory,” or “Tipper” sticker, so named for the most visible member of the group responsible for its conception, Tipper Gore.
Gore was one of the founding members of a group called the Parents Music Resource Center, allegedly formed after the future vice president’s wife accidentally bought a Prince record for her daughters. The album, Purple Rain, was filled with salacious lyrics that shocked Tipper like “I met her in a hotel lobby, masturbating with a magazine.” Gore tried to return the album, but was denied a refund as it had already been opened.
When the PMRC released their “Filthy Fifteen,” a list of songs they felt should be banned in America, the Prince song was no. 1 on the list. And while two of the fifteen songs were selected for inclusion because of violent imagery, the dominant reason for appearing on the list was mentioning or alluding to sex. Nine of the fifteen songs were cited for sexual content.
Within one year, the PMRC managed to extract a promise from record labels that future releases with “questionable” content would be labeled as such. In addition, the Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation agreed to convene hearings on the “Contents of Music and the Lyrics of Records.”
Senator John Danforth (R-Missouri), whose investigation of the Waco Massacre would later clear the government of any wrongdoing (despite FBI agents admitting to perjury), was the chairman of the committee.
In his opening remarks, then Senator Al Gore said “the proposals made by those concerned about this problem do not involve a government role of any kind whatsoever.”
Less than a year later, Los Angeles Police raided the home of Jello Biafra on suspicion of “distributing harmful material to minors” for Frankenchrist, an album by his band Dead Kennedys. The obscenity charge did not stem from the music or the lyrics, but a poster called “Landscape XX” that had shipped with the album by Swiss artist H.R. Giger. Biafra has said the L.A. City Attorney’s press release “described the poster, and its objections, the same way Susan Baker of the PMRC had described it to Variety magazine.”
The Biafra obscenity trial ended in a hung jury and Judge Susan Isacoff dismissed prosecutorial motions for a retrial, but it had achieved its goal. Not of putting Jello behind bars, but in sending a message to retailers and record producers that they could be held criminally liable for selling “obscene” material.
Although Biafra and his co-defendants “won,” the trial’s cost had been almost one hundred thousand dollars. Without donations from supporters and a generous helping of pro-bono legal aid, the small record label could not have afforded its defense. In a 1997 interview with Gil Kaufman at MTV, Biafra said, “[prosecutors] called it a ‘cost-effective way of sending a message’… In other words, let’s bash a small independent in hopes of getting rid of Ozzy, Judas Priest and Prince.”
When called to the stand, the arresting officer who conducted the search of Biafra’s home lied to the jury about a variety of “facts” including the number of officers present and the behavior of both the investigating officers and the defendants.
Prosecutor Michael Guarino has since publicly apologized to Biafra.
Fuck the police.
Two officers, their badge numbers covered by black tape, watch as guests disperse from a house party they have recently disrupted. A woman who is black theorizes out loud about the size of their genitals.
They tell her to put her hands behind her back.
They wrestle her to the ground when she refuses.
In the back of their patrol car, with her hands cuffed behind her, she mocks their cowardice. They pepper spray her at point blank range through the window of the vehicle then wait outside until the gas has dissipated enough for them to safely re-enter.
She is nineteen years old.
Fuck the police.
Commemorating the anniversary of Straight Outta Compton in 2014, BJ Steiner of XXLMag.com said the album “was a commercial smash… largely independent and without the help of major radio play.”
The 25th anniversary of the release elicited many similar praises, most of which cited the record’s success despite no mainstream exposure or music retailer distribution. Many of those commemorations made no mention of the legal threat faced by smaller artists with “controversial” music at the time.
Straight Outta Compton, released less than one year after the end of the Biafra obscenity trial, received no radio play because stations and stores had heard the PMRC loud and clear. While there was little possibility of jail time, step out of line, and the legal costs could put small businesses under.
Even without “Fuck tha Police” Straight Outta Compton, drew controversy for its misogyny, language, and style. One song, “Parental Discretion Iz Advised” dealt with the PMRC directly and featured Dr. Dre rapping “I don’t give a fuck about radio play.” According to Terry McDermott at The Los Angeles Times, “Fuck [tha] Police” almost didn’t make it on the record. In the April 14 edition of the paper McDermott wrote: “When Cube first showed the lyrics to Dre, he passed. ‘What else you got?’ Dre asked. It was only after Dre and Eazy were caught shooting paint balls at people at Torrance bus stops that Dre changed his mind about the song.”
When the threat of legal action was insufficient to prevent the release of songs like “Fuck tha Police,” law enforcement stepped up their game, thereby proving the need for such songs. In John Borgmeyer and Holly Lang’s book Dr. Dre: A Biography, the authors write: “The Fraternal Order of Police officially voted to boycott any group that advocated violence against law enforcement officers.”
The issue came to a head when Ruthless Records received a letter from Assistant Director of the FBI Milt Ahlerich condemning the song. Ahlerich, who later admit to not having heard the song, wrote: “Advocating violence and assault is wrong, and we in the law enforcement community take exception to such action…Seventy-eight law enforcement officers were feloniously slain in the line of duty during 1988, four more than in 1987…recordings such as the one from N.W.A. are both discouraging and degrading to these brave, dedicated officers…I wanted you to be aware of the FBI’s position relative to this song and its message. I believe my views reflect the opinion of the entire law enforcement community.”
The “entire law enforcement community” that Ahlerich mentioned in his letter did take exception to N.W.A. as they went on tour to promote the album. Writing for The New York Times, Jon Pareles said: “local police departments faxed a version of the song’s lyrics from city to city, and since off-duty police officers often double as concert security personnel, promoters found it increasingly difficult to put on N.W.A. concerts without them.” Several cities, including Washington D.C. and Milwaukee, cancelled planned performances by the group. Borgmeyer and Lang also stated that “[a]t a concert in Detroit, local police showed up in huge numbers. The crowd chanted “fuck the police” all night, so the group decided to play the song. As soon as Ice Cube uttered the opening lyrics, police rushed the stage and the group fled.”
Police later questioned the rappers in their hotel room as to their intentions. No charges were filed. Dave Marsh and Phyllis Pollack, who wrote on the incident in The Village Voice, quoted a Hollywood Reporter story about the event in which a local police officer said “We just wanted to show the kids that you can’t say ‘Fuck the Police’ in Detroit.”
Ahlerich would go on to serve as vice president of security for the NFL until 2011. He was in charge of the investigation into quarterback Brett Favre that cleared the athlete in any wrongdoing for sending unsolicited pictures of his penis and sexually explicit messages to reporter Jenn Sterger. For anyone who has ever wondered why criminal complaints against professional athletes are handled differently than similar crimes committed by the non-athlete segment of the population, appointing a former FBI director may go a long way toward explaining the disparity. The current NFL VP of Security, a position now known as “Director of Strategic Security,” is the former commissioner of the Pennsylvania State Police, Jeffrey B. Miller.
Many commentators then and now saw the official “approbation” as helping publicize the album and increase sales, but a comparison with 1988’s #1 and #2 bestselling albums of the year (George Michael’s Faith and the soundtrack to Dirty Dancing) puts that myth in startling contrast. Each sold over 10 million copies compared to Straight Outta Compton’s three million.
The oppressive climate of 1980s America was dry kindling and “Fuck tha Police”’s message spread like a fire. Like Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, which premiered the next summer (to similar objections from nervous, white protestors) it was the eighth highest grossing movie in America and earned $27 million dollars, despite appearing in only 534 theaters worldwide. Had Straight Outta Compton been played on MTV, listened to on the radio, and been available for purchase in big box retailers like Walmart, there is a good chance it would have eclipsed the Dirty Dancing soundtrack.
Two years after Straight Outta Compton, Body Count, a metal band fronted by accomplished rapper Ice-T, released the song “Cop Killer” on their self-titled album. The chorus of “Cop Killer” made heavy use of the phrase “Fuck the Police” injecting it between a catalogue of law enforcement’s brutalities including the Rodney King beating and then LAPD chief Daryl Gates (the inventor of the SWAT team).
The law enforcement backlash to “Cop Killer” was equally severe. Sixty members of Congress condemned the song. Paragon of virtue Oliver North called for charges to be filed against Warner Brothers Music. A Texas police organization called for a boycott of parent company Time Warner. In the book Footsteps in the Dark: The Hidden Histories of Popular Music, author George Lipsitz described how police in Greensboro, NC, “delivered an ultimatum to the management of one retail store that, if it kept selling Body Count, the police would not respond to any emergency calls at the establishment.” Both President George H.W. Bush and Vice-President Dan Quayle spoke out against it publicly. Eventually, Time Warner issued a voluntary recall of the record and a new version of the album removed the offending song.
Although the “Cop Killer” is performed in the style of metal popular in the ‘80s and ‘90s, critics frequently referred to the song as rap. Responding to the attack, singer Ice-T has said, “There is absolutely no way to listen to the song “Cop Killer” and call it a rap record. It’s so far from rap. But, politically, they know by saying the word rap they can get a lot of people who think, ‘Rap-black-rap-black-ghetto,’ and don’t like it.”
The underground success of songs like “Fuck tha Police” and “Cop Killer” exposed more listeners to rap music and its rise in popularity coincided with the largest drop in American crime rates in a generation. Rather than incite violence, the songs’ ubiquity undercut its critic’s message. Soon cover versions were recorded by acts like Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Dope, and Rage Against the Machine. In the next few years, artists like Slick Rick, KRS-One, and Queen Latifah expanded on the themes developed in albums like Straight Outta Compton to explore a range of issues from global politics to domestic violence.
By the end of the decade, white concertgoers were chanting the slogan during a Rage Against the Machine performance at Woodstock ‘99 when security guards refused to let the attendees leave a designated alcohol serving area. No violence occurred.
Sporadic riots and fires did break out later during the festival. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, an all white band during whose sets the fires began, have never been publicly threatened or investigated by the FBI.
Fuck the police.
A detective drives through dark city streets and stops at a traffic light.
A group of young men, who are black, walk past.
For the crime of crossing the street inside a crosswalk, the detective says to the assistant district attorney in the passenger seat, “Look at these hooligans. They must be up to no good.”
Fuck the police.
The phrase “Fuck the Police” is near perfect in its simplistic construction and combination of both older, Germanic English and more modern, Latin English.
Although the origins of “Fuck” are unknown, it is believed to have entered English by way of Germany in the 15th century. The British predilection for French provides an explanation for the introduction of the word “police” to English, with the first appearance of the term occurring around 1530. “Police” allegedly gained its modern meaning from a law enforcement detail assigned to the River Thames in the waning years of the 18th century. Almost immediately, the Marine Police Force, as the privately funded organization was known, met with resistance. A mob of 2,000 men, alarmed at the possibility of authorities shutting down their underground market for stolen merchandise, attempted to “burn down the police office with the police inside.” The all white mob killed the first ever policeman to die in the line of duty.
Using the word “fuck” in writing had been criminalized in the America by the 1873 Comstock Act. According to the law and legal reference library at law.jrank.org, Anthony Comstock, for whom the act was named, “targeted what he considered to be easy prey…Typically poor and uneducated, the defendants first prosecuted by Comstock often failed even to present a defense on their own behalf.” Numbered among Comstock’s admirers was futures FBI director J Edgar Hoover. Allegedly, Hoover became interested in Comstock’s work while studying law at George Washington University and visited America’s first “vice cop” to learn his methods.
Google’s Ngram Viewer shows the phrase “fuck the police” first entering the printed lexicon in the 1960s, after the Supreme Court decision in Miller v. California loosened the parameters for establishing obscenity. Appearances mostly occurred in crime novels like “Bondage and boyflesh” by Newt Jennings. Jennings’s use of the term was dismissive, with a character employing it to explain why their hostages would protect them from law enforcement interference. The phrase also appeared in Robert Alley’s Last Tango in Paris and the film adaptation. It’s one of the last things Marlon Brando’s character, Paul, says before being gunned down by his former romantic partner.
An instance of the phrase is cited in New Zealand law journals from the 1970s for a case in which a man appealed his obscenity conviction after shouting “fuck the police” for some unknown reason during an “Anzac commemoration service in Christchurch.”
American protestors were saying “fuck the police” in the 1960s, starting with Marvin Jackmon’s 1965 poem “Burn Baby, Burn” (PDF) written in the wake of the Watts Uprising. Addressing the causes of the protests after the fact, the Kerner Commission Report found “violence usually occurred almost immediately following the occurrence of the final precipitating incident, and then escalated rapidly… prior incidents, which increased tensions and ultimately led to violence, were police actions in almost half the cases; police actions were “final” incidents before the outbreak of violence in 12 of the 24 surveyed disorders.” The Kerner Report was published in March 1968. The next summer, its chairman was investigated for tax fraud. In 1973, he was convicted on seventeen counts and sentenced to three years in federal prison. The Former Governor of Illinois and onetime US Senator, Otto Kerner, died of cancer in 1976.
Use of “fuck the police” exploded in the U.S. during the 1980s, almost exclusively because of the rise of rap artists like N.W.A. and, ironically, the conservative politicians that actively suppressed them. Rather than attack popular social programs (primarily used by white constituents, even to this day), white supremacist attacks focused on “cutting taxes” to “starve the beast.”
When N.W.A. released Straight Outta Compton a long simmering political anger focused into a message perfectly suited to the contemporary media landscape. Deprived of an effective defense against the increasingly militarized tactics of overzealous police departments, “fuck the police” became a rallying cry. In an interview with John Leland for SPIN magazine in 1989, Ice Cube said, “Our people been wanting to say, ‘Fuck the police’ for the longest time. If something happened in my neighborhood, the last people we’d call was the police. Our friends get killed; they never find the killer. 387 people were killed in gang activity in L.A. in 1988. Nothing was said about that. But when this Korean girl got killed in Westwood, a white neighborhood, now it’s a gang problem. As long as [they] was killing each other, there wasn’t nothing said.”
The shooting Ice Cube was referring to was the accidental killing of Karen Toshima by a stray bullet. “Thirty detectives were assigned to investigate the homicide, and police patrols in Westwood were tripled,” wrote Miles Corwin in a recent article commemorating Toshima’s death on Zócalo Public Square, a project of the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University. “A neighborhood merchants association offered a $10,000 reward, and City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky asked that the city post a $25,000 reward, but later withdrew his request after the angry response by those who saw this as part of the Westwood-South L.A. disparity.”
The situation has barely improved since the 1980s, between then and 2010, a study of FBI reports by the Scripps Howard News Service found “the percentage of unsolved homicides nationwide has risen sharply, while the homicide rate has dropped to levels not seen since the 1960s.” Despite murder rates reaching 50 year lows, police are now worse at solving killings than they have ever been. While sociologists debate the cause of the lull in violence, they are in agreement that law enforcement had very little to do with it.
All this at a time when police corruption is so rampant that, at its most extreme, in some areas 99 percent of brutality complaints against officers go uninvestigated. Even when they are scrutinized, the Bureau of Justice Statistics report in 2006 showed that investigating parties find the actions on the part of the police require no disciplinary action in 92 percent of cases.
So if American police only solve crimes half the time, are known to be the primary instigators and exacerbators of civil disturbances, and have a reputation for brutality unmatched in most industrialized countries; then why has their business continued to operate as it has?
Like warning labels about hot coffee and possible peanut contamination, the stated purpose of law enforcement is inherently misleading. Due to the dogmatic “tax cutting” ethos of conservative politicians, police officers in America have become an irreplaceable tool in shoring up the revenue streams of cash strapped state and municipal governments.
As a result, the resonant and appropriate message of “Fuck the Police” has become an inseparable part of protests both in the United States and around the world. It is a message that made Ice Cube a millionaire several times over, and turned Dr. Dre into the world’s first billionaire rapper. An N.W.A. biopic titled Straight Outta Compton will hit theaters across America in 2015.
More importantly, “Fuck the Police” has appeared all over recent protests in Ferguson, Missouri. From tattoos, to protest chants, and as John Oliver has pointed out, random graffiti in pictures that will be remembered by American history as Tiananmen Square is in China.
Two teenage boys walk in the street of Ferguson, Missouri, on a summer day.
At high noon, a patrol car pulls up and the officer at the wheel tells them to get on the sidewalk.
Their refusal leads the officer to shoot one of the boys to death.
Fuck the police.