Fear of Formation
Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff is the Opinions Editor at Gal-dem, an online platform for young women of colour. Here, she discusses the negative reaction to Beyoncé’s Formation in the wider context of race relations in the US.
Beyoncé’s black anthem, Formation, dropped during the USA’s Black History Month and proceeded to take over the internet. While the song itself makes reference to Beyoncé’s pride in her own blackness – “I like my baby hair, with baby hair and afros. I like my negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils” – what has caused an even bigger uproar was its music video and subsequent performance at the Super Bowl.
These events have caused Javier Ortiz, director of Miami’s Fraternal Order of Police, to announce that their union will be boycotting the kickoff of Beyoncé’s worldwide tour. If the boycott goes ahead, it will be yet another symbolic form of police brutality against black people in America.
Although there are some problematic aspects of Formation and the furore it has caused – Dianca London for deathandtaxes magazine puts it best: “it is dangerous when we fail to consider the ways in which songs such as Formation or last year’s Flawless are essentially an advertisement for Beyoncé’s brand” – the logic of the Miami’s FOP is still difficult to fathom.
“Why would any group of working men and women support a rich celebrity who openly glorifies murderers?” asked Bill Johnson, the executive director of the National Association of Police Organisations, who have also pledged their support for the boycott. But while they make the excuse of Beyoncé’s wealth, the main problem for the police is that she has recognised the legacy of the Black Panthers.
"The main problem for the police is that Beyoncé has recognised the legacy of the Black Panthers"
In their eyes, the video, which shows an unarmed young boy dancing in front of a line of all-white policemen (who put their hands up in an action connected to the graffiti shown in another shot which reads ‘stop shooting us’), promotes an “anti-police message”. In response to Beyoncé’s performance at the Super Bowl, which saw her reference the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther movement, Ortiz stated, “I salute the dozens of law enforcement officers that have been assassinated by members of the Black Panthers.”
However, as Andrew Anthony pointed out in The Guardian last year, despite the fact that some of the Black Panthers were “pathological killers, ideological madmen and depraved opportunists… as long as African Americans are subjected to police brutality and racism, it remains a future that’s well worth remembering.” The Panthers had their problems, but saying they shouldn’t be remembered is equivalent to saying good police work shouldn’t be celebrated. Their story is even more relevant at a time when racial tensions in the US are teetering on a knifepoint of unrest.
"To to actively deny Beyoncé protection reads as a type of brutality"
The fact that the police killed over 100 unarmed black people in 2015 makes it clear that police brutality and racism is alive and kicking in the States. The Black Lives Matter movement might be dismissed by men like Ortiz, but it is addressing legitimate concerns that systemic racism is still a massive issue within the police and beyond. The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Sandra Bland, and all the other victims of a society favouring power and privilege intrinsically tied to whiteness, should not be forgotten. As noted by Stanley Nelson, the director 2015 movie Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, “The magnitude of police mistreatment of African Americans is real, and it’s been going on for a long time.”
The irony of this incident has not been lost on the wider public. Beyoncé makes a video where she essentially says the police aren’t working as they should to protect black people. Police respond by refusing to protect a black performer. To be upset with Beyoncé over her political views is one thing, but to actively deny her protection, which categorically must be influenced by her race (can you imagine the police behaving in the same way towards a white artist?), reads as a type of brutality.
"This isn’t just about black people and the police – this is about all people and the police"
The police claim that Beyoncé is fostering anti-police sentiment, but seven out of eight officers killed by gunfire in the United States
so far in 2016 died at the hands of white men. “These shootings have nothing to do with Black Panthers or modern black activism,” wrote Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King in his New York Daily News column. “That, though, is the popular story in America right now, and it is nothing more than a lie.”
Ultimately, this isn’t just about black people and the police – this is about all people and the police. Those with power should wield it in a responsible manner and just as they deserve to have a union to protect them, they also deserve to be criticised, strongly, without being able to use that criticism as a means to refuse elements of their job.
Luckily, Beyoncé has the support of a whole raft of other people. Kendrick Lamar also stuck his finger up at the establishment and revelled in his blackness at the Grammys, while Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Fruit of Islam (FOI) said during a recent speech, “Look at how you treatin’ Beyonce now. You not gonna offer her police protection. But the FOI will.”
Whether it’s an offer Beyoncé will take up remains to be seen – but there’s no denying that her work has unleashed opinion, black and white.
To read more of Charlie’s writing, visit charliebrinkhurstcuff.com