Are Cops Treating Chief Keef Like a Terrorist?

Authorities shut down a virtual concert citing unspecified threats to public safety, but the real threat may be to the First Amendment

Chief Keef in 2013. Credit: Rebecca Smeyne/Corbis

Authorities in Hammond, Indiana, shut down a holographic performance by rapper Chief Keef on Saturday night, citing unspecified threats to public security and a previous warning by the mayor that the artist wouldn't be allow to appear. In what may come to been seen as a Lenny Bruce moment for the 21st century, police shut down the show about one minute after Keef's digital self took the stage, which is located about 25 miles outside of his hometown of Chicago.

The stoppage has raised important questions regarding First Amendment activity, and appeared to illustrate two important trends in U.S. law enforcement in a single event. One of those is an idea known as radicalization theory, which holds that extreme ideas or speech are a precursor to violence – an assertion that many scholars dispute. The other is the increasing common tactic of prosecutors using rap lyrics as evidence of criminality in trials across the country. Critics argue that both of these developments chill free speech and put government in the federal and local levels in the arguably unconstitutional position of outlawing speech it deems to be unacceptable.

Faiza Patel is the co-director of the Brennan Center's Liberty and Security Program at New York University, and a close observer of civil liberties abuses in the war on terror. "Shutting down Chief Keef fits into the pattern of the government seeking to ban speech that it considers offensive," says Patel. "For example, we've recently learned that the Justice Department is contemplating prosecuting companies like Facebook and Twitter for failing to take down content that it regards as terrorist-related."

The rhetoric used by Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and Hammond mayor Thomas McDermott to describe Chief Keef is surprisingly similar to the ways that federal law enforcement officials have described various ISIS propaganda efforts on social media, as well as the Islamic cleric and U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2011.

Emanuel's office has called Keef "an unacceptable role model" whose music "promotes violence," and who "posed a significant public safety risk" even if he appeared via hologram. A Chicago theater earlier cancelled a holographic performance by Keef – scheduled for a week before the Hammond show – following a request from the mayor's office to shut it down.

McDermott went even further in explicitly tying his decision to unplug the hologram with Keef's artistic output. "I know nothing about Chief Keef," Mayor McDermott told The New York Times. "All I'd heard was he has a lot of songs about gangs and shooting people — a history that's anti-cop, pro-gang and pro-drug use."

The idea that songs or public statements that "promote violence" are a threat to public safety hews closely to how cops throughout the U.S. have applied radicalization theory, usually in the context of policing Muslim communities. Before and after al-Awlaki's death, the U.S. government painted him as the most prominent radicalizer of Western would-be jihadists. During testimony in 2010, then-FBI director Robert Mueller said the Bureau was "attempting to identify persons who were radicalized by al-Awlaki or others overseas, never traveled overseas but have been radicalized to the point that they want to commit terrorist attacks against the United States." In other words, the government argued that al-Awlaki's inflammatory YouTube videos were responsible for real-world terrorism. More recently, Retired General Wesley Clark called for Americans who had been "radicalized" by ISIS propaganda distributed on social media to be held in internment camps until the end of the war on terror due to the alleged danger they pose to society.

In general, expressing ideas that appear to "promote violence" or seem "anti-cop" are broadly protected by the Constitution, as long as they do not intentionally incite criminal acts in the imminent future – you can say "Fuck the Police," but you can't tell a crowd of people to commit a felony against a specific officer. But this decades-old legal line has begun to blur with the recent increase in criminal cases involving rap lyrics. An ACLU study last year found 18 cases in which prosecutors introduced rap lyrics as evidence against a defendant, sometimes in instances where the lyrics had little if anything to do with the alleged crime. These cases have contributed to a hyper-policed climate where otherwise reasonable people think it makes sense to ban a rapping hologram.

The idea that dangerous ideas in music will have a corrupting effect is not new. In many ways, the banishment of Chief Keef's virtual avatar echoes arguments that date back to the early 1990s, when everyone from Tipper Gore to President George H. W. Bush attacked "Cop Killer," by Ice-T's metal group Body Count, for its supposed negative impact on society. The advent of social media, however, has made it possible for ideas the government considers extreme to be disseminated on a level that would have been previously unthinkable.

Since the ACLU study last year, prosecutors have continued to bring violent lyrics cases, according to Erik Nielson, an assistant professor of liberal arts at the University of Richmond. He is also the co-author of a New York Times editorial critical of prosecutors using rap lyrics as evidence, and often serves as an expert witness for defense teams in these cases.

He sees the increasing crackdown by law enforcement against artistic expression of rappers as especially disturbing following the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. "Somehow, in this climate of police overreach and all of these stories about police violence, against unarmed, usually black men, it's ironic that in that climate they've gotten so much bolder about policing the speech of those men," Nielson says. "You would think at some point they would get the message that the solution here isn't to close off legitimate ways for people to escape a world of violence, but instead to take steps to address underlying issues that are causing violence in these communities."

Adds Nielson, "It's much easier to distract us and refocus things [to Chief Keef] instead of discussing the structural conditions – widening inequality, for example. Let's instead focus on this one villain we've created, then we can stop talking about the more difficult issues."