THE OTHER DAY, some cops of various hues were hanging around a neighborhood picnic in a racially mixed area.
Some white cops were loading white, black and Latino kids into a cruiser and giving them a ride around the hardtop. A black cop was lifting kids up and seating them, one after another, on his motorcycle.
Just as we too often associate crime with city kids, we too often think only of police out of control. Most kids are not hoods, and most cops are not out of control.
Were a group of police supporters to do a rock song about mowing down kids on the corner, the reaction would be outrage. But this guy, Ice-T, can rap about wasting cops, and we actually debate the fine points of artistic freedom. The street kid is not debating such subtleties; he's just hearing these words:
"I got my 12-gauge sawed off.
I got my headlights turned off.
I'm 'bout to bust some shots off.
I'm 'bout to dust some cops off."
The name of this little ditty is "Cop Killer," and subtle it isn't. It is a mean-spirited anthem of hate. It promotes, legitimizes and encourages violence against those who, at daily risk to their lives, try to save the lives of others.
Are there bad cops? You bet there are. Always have been; always will be. I've seen them in action -- as a kid, as a reporter, as just plain citizen. Some need discipline. Some need expulsion. Some need prison time.
But most cops are good people, engaged in a job the rest of us would have neither the courage nor reflexes to do; a job that too many educated Americans demean as beneath them; a job for which society pays too little in training, prestige and money.
People I respect say Ice-T is really not threatening cops, just reflecting the reality of the streets. You could have fooled me, and, more important, the cops, and even more important, the kids who listen to this stuff and get inspired.
"I'm 'bout to kill me somethin'.
A pig stopped me for nuthin'!"
Ah, yes, stopped for nothing. Oh, it happens, and not just in the black or Latino neighborhoods. There are cops who just aren't well trained, and cops who are too young and feel threatened by other young men, and cops who are racists, and cops who panic, and cops who throw their weight around.
But being "stopped for nothing" is also the age-old cry of the local wiseguy, the one with a long-playing record of arrests and suspended sentences, the one who bullies a neighborhood but manages to get away with it.
The cops will stop such a guy just to let him know they know who and what he is, and, in so doing, they might just be protecting the rest of the street.
But I guess you can get away with anything if it's artistic expression. A long time ago, the Nazis made a propaganda film about Jews, whom they depicted as rats. You have to give the Nazis this -- when it came to films, and pageantry and music, they were very good at it. Real artists, you might say.
I wonder if anyone back then said, "Well, you see, they don't
really want to hurt Jews; they just are reflecting the reality of angry Germans."
I shall not come down here for censorship, but I wonder if rapping about killing cops doesn't fall under the category of shouting fire in a crowded theater.
I also wonder what it must be like for the cops who the other day were playing with the kids and for their families to hear that piece of rap, or just to know it is out there.
Rap about cop-killing will not bring sympathy and money to those who are or feel oppressed. It will bring, instead, only distrust and perhaps hatred, of which we have more than enough in this nation, thank you.
So it could be that Ice-T is an artist. And it could be he is a thug, too.
Could be he is also one dumb guy.
Alan Lupo is a Boston Globe columnist.