41 Shots: Bruce Springsteen and freedom of expression

Wednesday, July 12, 2000

Here’s a tip for anyone organizing a boycott of a public performance:
Check with the scalpers first.

Upset over a new Bruce Springsteen song called “American Skin (41
Shots),” the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association of New York City called for a
boycott of Springsteen’s performances in the city. The song — which
Springsteen has performed only a handful of times in concert — refers to
the shooting death last year of black West African immigrant Amadou Diallo by
white New York City police officers. Diallo was shot 41 times by four
officers who said they believed the wallet he held was in fact a weapon.
All four were acquitted this year of murder charges.

In a letter to his membership, PBA President Patrick J. Lynch wrote:
“The title seems to suggests that the shooting of Amadou Diallo was a case of
racial profiling — which keeps repeating the phrase, ‘Forty-one
shots.’ I consider it an outrage that he would be trying to fatten his
wallet by reopening the wounds of this tragic case at a time when police
officers and community members are in a healing period.”

Lynch then went on to urge that PBA members not moonlight as security
at Springsteen shows. “The PBA strongly urges you not only NOT to work
this or any other Springsteen concert, but also not to attend,” Lynch

Of course, there was only one down side for the union to this kind of
boycott. It largely went unnoticed. Springsteen’s 10 shows at Madison
Square Garden were all sold out, and scalpers were able to sell tickets at
multiples of the face value.

There is also a danger in calling for a boycott before you’ve had a
chance to reflect on what a piece of art represents.

As Elysa Gardner of USA
pointed out in her review of Springsteen’s performance,
“Those who would cast ‘Skin’ as an anti-police diatribe were off the mark. The
song is more elegiac than angry in tone, expressing sorrow for all parties
involved in the incident and, on a larger scale, asking what we can do to
overcome the lack of communication that leads to such tragedies.”

This is not the first instance of police officers boycotting a
performer because of a controversial song:

Police unions across the country last year protested appearances
by Rage Against the Machine, a band that supports Mumia Abu-Jamal, a black
journalist and political activist who was convicted of killing a police officer
and awaits execution on death row in Pennsylvania. The National Fraternal
Order of Police urged its local officers to boycott Rage Against The Machine
shows. That has led to police protests outside concert halls and the
refusal by off-duty officers to work security. Again, ticket sales didn’t
suffer. In fact, the controversy may have driven additional sales.

Police officers also protested appearances by rap artist Ice-T after
he wrote and recorded the controversial “Cop Killer” in 1992. Even after
Ice-T bowed to public pressure and pulled the song from his CD, police
continued their protests. In Pittsburgh, one club owner canceled a show,
telling a reporter he “made a business decision not to jeopardize my
relationship with officers.”

So how is the First Amendment involved in all of this? Can
police officers refuse to work a show when they disagree with the

The First Amendment prevents on-duty officers from refusing because
government employees can’t deny services to the public in retaliation for
offensive speech.

But the First Amendment also gives police officers the right to
express their own opinions, which they can do by refusing to moonlight as
concert security.

Having the legal right to refuse off-duty security work, however,
doesn’t necessarily make it a good idea. Police officers are recruited
for these events because they have special expertise in crowd control.
When they refuse to work a Bruce Springsteen show, they’re not punishing the
performer, they’re punishing the people of New York who happen to enjoy
Springsteen’s music.

And while no one denies police unions their right to protest, the
practice of boycotting sometimes-controversial performers may be
self-defeating. The protests can alienate the public, but they also draw
disproportionate publicity to the subject of their protest. In Springsteen’s
case, that means a largely unheard and as-yet-unrecorded song has become the
stuff of rock ‘n’ roll legend.

During the Rage Against the Machine controversy, the Prince George’s
County police union found a reasonable middle-ground by criticizing the band,
but working the concert.

Union President John Bartlett told a reporter: “As a union head, I
have a responsibility for public safety.”

Then he added, “And more than anyone, I believe in the First
Amendment. Rage Against the Machine has a First Amendment right to

Everyone’s best interests are served when police officers find a way
to protest unpalatable speech without punishing it.

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