This past weekend, musicians and activists convened in Missouri to commemorate the first anniversary of the killing of Michael Brown. Alongside panels featuring luminaries such as Cornel West, Talib Kweli organized two shows in St. Louis, which included the Tom Morello–headlined Ferguson Rocks show featuring the guitarist’s Freedom Fighter Orchestra, Boots Riley, Outernational and Steffanie Christi’an.
For the outspoken rocker, who released the song “Marching on Ferguson” last fall, what happened a year ago to Michael Brown and the continued injustices towards black Americans at the hands of police officers is more than just a worthy cause he’s attaching his name to; it’s a reflection of his own experiences as a black man growing up in the predominantly white suburb of Libertyville, Illinois. “A few years ago, I was walking home from a bar in Libertyville at night, when two squad cars pulled over and handcuffed me in the streets of my hometown,” he recalls. “Their excuse was that someone had been breaking into cars. Countless times pulled over in my old van in Beverley Hills when I first moved [to L.A.]. It’s not a foreign concept. It’s not like I’m flying in to go see what racism is like. It still remains a prevalent, underlying fact of American life. The more we continue to resist it, the better it’s going to be.”
Morello spoke with Rolling Stone on Friday, just before flying out to Missouri. He reflected on his own relationship with racial injustice and all that has happened in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting.
Police brutality existed long before Michael Brown’s death and has continued to be a major issue in the year since. What do you think made his shooting such a turning point?
Yeah, there are thousands of cases, countless cases of white police officers murdering unarmed black people and getting off scot-free. What happened in Ferguson was that the community reacted in a way that was newsworthy on a global scale. If there had been one prayer circle and everybody singing “Kumbaya,” that would’ve been completely swept under the rug. The outrage of there being no indictment really cast a global light on the kind of racism that is America’s original sin. The Michael Brown case was the first domino in the 21st Century that we’ve seen. I don’t need to remind you how; all you have to do is turn on the news every two to three days. Horrendous incidents. But now people have their cameras. If there had not been an uprising in Ferguson, there would not have been indictments in Baltimore. There’s a greater vigilance.
There are plenty of police officers who are not racist and endeavor to do a good job and do not inflict violence with a racial bias. But what’s a good cop? A good cop is one who exposes, denounces and prosecutes racist cops in their own ranks, and that is not happening. That’s the key. It’s one thing to say it may or may not be a small minority who harbor these views and act on them, but if police officers generally and literally turn their backs on criticism and the patently obvious genetic problem in police forces across the country, then they’re not part of the solution; they’re still part of the problem.