On ‘Don’t Tread on Me,’ rapper Mos Def speaks out against Stop and Frisk

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The historic trial Floyd, et al. v. City of New York, et al.a federal class action lawsuit challenging the NYPD’s controversial Stop and Frisk practices – has finally closed after a grueling nine weeks of arguments.

Hip-hop artist Yasiin Bey, also known as Mos Def, continues to draw attention to the issues at the core of the trial in a PSA-styled video that was released on May 21st in conjunction with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and Communities United for Police Reform (CPR).

The message of “Don’t Tread On Me”

In the spare video directed by Anthony Marshall, images of the artist recording in the studio are meshed with footage from the 2012 documentary film, The Hunted And Hated: An Inside Look at the NYPD’s Stop and Frisk Policy, as the haunting title track “Don’t Tread On Me” plays.

The PSA is punctuated by statistics that highlight the issue of allegedly racially discriminatory policing at the center of this landmark trial. For instance, according to CCR and CPR reports, up to 533,042 stops occurred in 2012 alone, with black and Latino New Yorkers making up 85 percent of those stopped.

The motivation behind the project

TheGrio spoke with Annette Dickerson, Director of Education and Outreach at CCR, who led the coordination of the PSA, to find out more about the project.

“I think it is a wonderful example of an artist using his influence and his own personal experiences to address an injustice and achieve social change,” Dickerson said of the collaboration with Bey.

Noting the socially conscious raps of artists such as Public Enemy and Grand Master Flash, Dickerson drew connections between hip-hop and the issue of Stop and Frisk.

“There are many urban communities plagued by police harassment,” she said. “It has, since its beginnings, been the unique power of hip-hop and spoken word to address issues of injustice and to incite social change. It’s also why I think a major hip-hop artist like Yasiin Bey is able to relate so deeply to this issue.”

Mos Def’s political past

The CCR brought the class action Stop and Frisk lawsuit on behalf of its four plaintiffs with the help of co-counsel, Covington and Burling and Beldock Levine & Hoffman. This organization believes Stop and Frisk is racially-motivated, and that these stops by the NYPD, targeting thousands of black and Latino New Yorkers, are unconstitutional.

Through “Don’t Tread on Me,” the artist formerly known as Mos Def highlights his alignment with the fight against Stop and Frisk.

Yasiin Bey’s political views have made their way into his music and public appearances on more than one occasion – most notably in his criticisms of the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina when he still called himself Mos Def. Def was famously outspoken on this issue on Bill Maher’s show in 2007, and on the song “Katrina Clap.”

Ultimately, Ms. Dickerson said “Don’t Tread on Me” was a labor of love, and “a commitment to ending an injustice that has such a negative impact on our communities.”

Keeping an eye on Stop and Frisk practices

In addition, the project came together through, “Suemyra Shah, an intellectual property attorney and longstanding admirer of CCR’s work who had contacts in the hip-hop community from her days working as a media professional,” Dickerson continued. “She approached Yasiin and he immediately connected with the issue, and was from the beginning 100 percent committed to the project, penning the title track heard on the PSA in a matter of days.”

The final outcome of the Stop and Frisk trial remains to be seen. A decision from presiding Judge Shira Scheindlin is not expected for several months. During those deliberations, public advocacy campaigns such as the “Don’t Tread on Me” PSA will likely ensure that the legality of NYPD policing practices and their impact on black and brown communities remains a subject of public scrutiny.

Chase Quinn is a freelance writer, art critic, and budding novelist, who has worked with several leading human rights organizations in the U.S. and the U.K., promoting social and economic justice. Follow Chase on Twitter at @chasebquinn.