Musician and poet Michael Franti was working in a Miami studio when he got the news that a grand jury had decided not to indict police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of unarmed civilian Eric Garner. "I was really shocked," he tells Rolling Stone. "Having seen the tape of the Garner killing, I could not see how no indictment was possible. When I saw Garner's family members speaking on TV, it was really emotional for me."
In response, Franti wrote "Same as It Ever Was (Start Today)," which he recorded with producer Di Genius. The lyrics to the song call for change and a better understanding between police and communities. "When we used to have a problem we used to call the police," he sings somberly at one point of the song, "but who we gonna call when the police make a problem?" Amid jazzy piano and a down-tempo beat, Franti asks everyone to start reassessing their attitudes toward one another today. "I really wanted to write something that would touch hearts, make people think and be moved to work for change in our country," Franti says.
Franti says the song is not an indictment against police officers or police departments. But he thinks officers should be held accountable when they make wrong decisions and innocent lives are lost. "When the decisions to indict police officers are repeatedly denied behind the closed doors of a grand jury and the people are not brought to justice in the public eye of a court room, it breaks all of our trust and it reinforces the idea that there is little or no accountability when it comes to the police killing of African-American men and other people of color," he says. "That their lives are worth less than the lives of others.... It is not due process, it is not just, and it is not acceptable. If that's what the law says, then I believe it's a law that should be changed."
We spoke with Franti who expounded on some of the themes of "Same as It Ever Was (Start Today)."
In your opinion, what could ease tensions between police and civilians?
What we see today is the result of generations of mistrust in our communities: Rodney King, the Watts Riots, the Black Panther movement, the Civil Rights movement all played out with police and people in the streets. It's no secret that the police and black people haven't exactly sat down and sipped tea together. We see incidents like killings taking place and it brings everything to the surface, but honestly it's the way police deal with individuals one-on-one on a daily basis over the years that makes or breaks the trust in the community. So in two words: "respect" and "accountability."
The police will never develop the respect of the community if unarmed men of color continue to be killed and the cases never go to trial in a public courtroom. And does it really take a dozen bullets, or a chokehold to arrest an unarmed man? They seem to manage in other countries all the time. Take England for example, where police do not carry firearms. Despite the Eric Garner decision, police wearing cameras has proven to reduce the rate of complaints against them by as much as 80 percent in communities that use cameras. Equally important is for police to know who they are protecting and serving, perhaps live in the communities or be from them.
How can people rebuild trust with police?
The first thing is people need to have an opportunity to vent their emotions in a safe way. People are hurt, and they need to be able to safely take to the streets. Cases need to be tried in courtrooms and not behind doors. My goal with this song and video is to promote conversation between friends, family members, in schools, the workplace, and on social media. Today, we have an unprecedented opportunity for dialog to take place, and hopefully action that leads to substantive change. Change in the way our communities are policed, change in the way the judicial system works and perhaps change in the way our communities view and relate to the police and judicial system. It's on everyone's minds right now; it should not be swept under the rug.
How hard of a decision was it to include footage of Eric Garner's death in the clip?
It was a very mindful decision, but not a difficult one. It's a horrible thing to see. But in order to discuss it, we have to be open to what we are actually talking about. I know some people will be offended by it, and others might be offended by the picture of the black boy hugging a white police officer. Some will not like that I show a sign that reads "black lives matter," as though I'm saying "other lives don't." Some will not like that I show signs that read "All lives matter," as if I'm diluting the message that black men are being killed by the police. Others may disagree that I say in the song that all of us have a role to play in making these changes possible. I wrote every word and selected each image to trigger dialog. I'm okay with that, because that's where substantive change can occur and healing can begin.
What else would you like to say?
My birth mother is Irish, French and German, and my birth father is African-American. I was raised by Finnish-American parents, who had three kids of their own before adopting me and another African-American son. For as long as I can remember, race and the questions surrounding it have been a part of my life. My mother taught me at a very early age that I should respect law enforcement, but also to be aware that being one of the only people of color in my community that their might be some not so good officers I should be looking out for.
Today, I live in Hunter's Point, San Francisco, a community that is 90 percent African-American. I have had bullets rip through two walls of my home from shots in the community, and I have a neighbor whose unarmed son was killed by police. Last summer, I was stopped, handcuffed and accused of a double homicide while on the way to the movies with my teenage son. I was eventually released. Being wrongly accused and handcuffed in front of my son left me enraged, but I must admit, had my son been the one who got shot in the double homicide that day, I might have been demanding the cops were at least out looking for the perpetrator.
It's easy for people to generalize and say all cops are bad or all black youth are trouble. It makes headlines, and it makes situations like the Mike Brown tragedy easier for people on both sides to rationalize. We all have a stake and a responsibility in bringing about these changes. We might not ever live in a society that is just, unbiased, kind and peaceful all the time, but I know for sure we can all do way better than what we are doing right now. So let's not give up trying. That is the challenge today and we've all been called to play a role in, let's start today.