The Boss, the police and `American Skin'

Sore spot: Springsteen's lyric take on the Amadou Diallo shooting stirs up anger in New York.

June 18, 2000|By Julian E. Barnes

NEW YORK - Bruce Springsteen began a string of sold-out performances Monday night in New York City, with fans - and new-found foes - waiting to hear if the Boss sings a song deploring the killing of Amadou Diallo by four New York City police officers.

The new song, "American Skin," begins with Springsteen repeating the words "41 shots," the number of times Diallo was shot in front of his apartment in the Bronx, and includes lyrics like "You can get killed just for living in your American skin."

Although the song has not been formally released, controversy has built around it since Springsteen first performed it June 4 in Atlanta during his current tour. Diallo's mother has praised Springsteen's work, saying she took it as a sign people cared about her son, but police officers have frowned on it.

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Police Commissioner Howard Safir on Monday added their voices to the critics. The Patrolman's Benevolent Association has attacked the song for labeling the shooting of Diallo a case of racial profiling. The four New York City police officers were acquitted of murder and other charges in February.

Pat Lynch, president of the police union, has asked officers to boycott the concerts, and Bob Lucente, president of the New York state chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, called Springsteen a "dirtbag."

Despite the recent criticism, Springsteen has long been a favorite of police officers. Springsteen's songs speak to the life experiences of many officers, and he has performed benefit concerts for the families of slain officers, said Eric Alterman, the author of a 1999 book about Springsteen called "It Ain't No Sin to be Glad You're Alive."

Since Springsteen first played the song, bootleg copies have been posted on the Internet.

Diallo was shot on Feb. 4, 1999, as he stood at the front door to his apartment building. He was approached by the four officers, who thought he was reaching for a gun. Diallo was unarmed and was apparently reaching for his wallet, a fact Springsteen focuses on in the song.

"Is it a gun?/ Is it a knife?/ Is it a wallet?/ This is your life," Springsteen sings.

Officers reading the lyrics of Springsteen's new song have reacted most strongly to the chorus: "It ain't no secret/ The secret my friend/ You can get killed just for living in your American skin."

Giuliani said Monday that some of the comments deriding Springsteen were inappropriate but that he understood why the officers were angry about the song.

"There are still people trying to create the impression that the police officers are guilty, and they are going to feel strongly about that," Giuliani said.

Safir, speaking at the same news conference, said that while officers should not denigrate Springsteen with racial, ethnic or sexual innuendos, they have a right not to like his music.

"I personally don't particularly care for Bruce Springsteen's music or his songs," Safir said.

But Alterman said he found much of the political controversy around the song silly. In the new song, Springsteen is not clearly condemning the officers or arguing that they should have been convicted, Alterman said. Instead, Springsteen is taking artistic inspiration from social injustice, as he has done in countless songs, Alterman said.

"Bruce is saying there is something wrong with a society that you can be shot for taking out your wallet," Alterman said. "He is saying an injustice was committed against this man and this man's family."

Julian E. Barnes wrote this article for the New York Times, where it first appeared.

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