There is a growing scandal in the Bronx that has led to the resignation of two legal aid attorneys (Ryan Napoli and Kumar Rao) and calls for the defunding of Bronx Defenders, an organization that represents over 35,000 indigent persons each year under a $20 million annual contract with the city. The controversy erupted after the release of the video below entitled “Hands Up” featuring a popular rap artist and noting sponsorship and participation by the Bronx Defenders. The video includes repeated images to two African-American men about to shoot a white police officer and lyrics call for the shooting of police officers.
Napoli and Rao appear in the video and an investigation found that Bronx Defenders were fully informed of the lyrics of the song. Both the audio and written lyrics were attached to the invitation email and then discussed by lawyers in the office, according to an investigation. Napoli appears the first to have been contacted through the girlfriend of producer James Barrett who works in the office. The group’s executive director, Robin Steinberg, is also under fire. Steinberg will be suspended for 60 days without pay, but some have said that a suspension is insufficient given Steinberg’s approval for the participation in the video.
In watching the video, I was at first skeptical of the criticism of the young lawyers. They are not participating in the anti-police language and are merely shown counseling a client. However, the investigation showed that the lyrics and audiotape were given to the office, including both lawyers, and that there was a full discussion over the lyrics and the participation of the office. Rao has been with the Bronx Defenders seven years after leaving a commercial law firm. He insists that he never saw the images (which is perfectly believable) and expected to be able to edit the lyrics. However, there remains a question on why the office would participate in the first place given such offensive and loaded lyrics (even on the chance that they might be edited later). Bot Rao and Napoli admitted that they were fully aware of the cop-killing language before seeking approval for their participation.
The rap song in the video for retribution against police for the shooting of unarmed black men. It features images of both shootings of black suspects and an image (that we have previously seen) showing two black men about to shoot a helpless white officer in the head. “Cause I’m black, police think they got the right to shoot me,” the lyrics say. “Time to start killing these coppers.”
The lyrics by the song by “Uncle Murda” include:
I spit the shit the streets got to feel Fo’ Mike Brown and Sean Bell a cop gotta get killed Cuz I’m black, police think they got the right to shoot me No jail fo’ them, their punishment is death’s duty They’re either killin’ us or throwin’ us in the cage Martin Luther King is rollin’ ova in his grave (What happened to the dream?!) Time to start killin’ these If Malcolm X was alive, he’ll be next to me with them choppers (At the window) By any means necessary lets make em respect us These cocksuckers supposed to protect us Killin’ unarmed black men, makin’ mothers holla And this what the government payin’ with our tax dollars?! (Crazy!) All these unjustified shootins Then they call us animals when we start lootin’ Those kids ain’t had no gun and the police knew it Jay need to talk to Obama or let me do it!
I find the decision of the group to participate in such a rap video to be incomprehensible and reprehensible. However, there is a move to defund the group which supplies legal representation to thousands of indigents in the area. This is an office — and attorneys — who have spent their careers working for indigent people at a fraction of what they could earn in the private sector. Defunding such an office is not as easy as people suggest. There are thousand of ongoing cases and those people will require continued representation. The question is what should be deemed sufficient punishment. There have been two resignations and a suspension from this group. What should be deemed sufficient to close this matter?
Here is the video: Hands Up Video
Source: NY Times