an American poet, rapper, songwriter, producer, screenwriter, humorist, political organizer, community activist, lecturer and public speaker—best known as the lead vocalist of The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club. His new book is Boots Riley: Tell Homeland Security–We Are the Bomb.
Legendary hip-hop artist Boots Riley has just published a new book, "Tell Homeland Security–We Are the Bomb," of his songs, commentaries and stories from his work with the Oakland hip-hop group The Coup and the band Street Sweeper Social Club. Riley has been deeply involved in political activism for decades, from taking part in protests against police brutality to supporting Occupy Oakland to speaking out on Palestinian issues. Last week, he joined more than 1,000 black activists, artists and scholars in signing on to a statement supporting "the liberation of Palestine’s land and people." He also describes how his his cousin, Carlos Riley, who was accused of shooting a police officer in Durham, North Carolina, in 2012 was just found not guilty of shooting the police officer.
AMY GOODMAN: "Dig It," by The Coup, here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Tell Homeland Security—We Are the Bomb, that’s the name of a new book by the legendary hip-hop artist Boots Riley. He’s best known for his work with the Oakland hip-hop group The Coup and the band Street Sweeper Social Club. Boots Riley has been deeply involved in political activism for decades, from taking part in protests against police brutality to supporting Occupy Oakland, to speaking out on Palestinian issues. Last week, Boots joined more than a thousand black activists, artists, scholars in signing on to a statement supporting, quote, "the liberation of Palestine’s land and people."
Boots Riley has also been speaking out in defense of his cousin, Carlos Riley, who was accused of shooting a police officer in Durham, North Carolina, in 2012. Well, just two weeks ago, jurors found Carlos Riley not guilty of shooting the police officer. Boots Riley joins us here in studio.
Welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Let’s start with your cousin and what actually happened in this highly unusual trial and what he was accused of.
BOOTS RILEY: Yeah. So, a cop stopped my cousin, early morning in December 2012. For what, we don’t know, because somehow they lost the records of why he was stopped. And the cop started assaulting my cousin, verbally told him, "I’m going to kill you," started to pull out his gun and shot himself while he was pulling out his gun.
AMY GOODMAN: The police officer shot his own self, himself?
BOOTS RILEY: The police officer shot himself in the leg while he pulled out his own gun. And this is actually somewhat common. And my cousin took the gun from the officer, helped him get out of the car so he could get away. And he had to take the gun because, as we’ve seen from Walter Scott, he could have been shot while he was getting away. And he didn’t want to be there while the police got there, because we wouldn’t have been talking about this story right now. And so, he ran away. He turned himself in three hours later.
He was accused of shooting the cop, accused of assaulting the cop and accused of robbing the gun from the cop, as if it was just a robbery. As we know, he took the gun so that he wouldn’t be shot. All the physical evidence, all the witnesses that the state brought to trial—this went to trial—they all corroborated my cousin’s story. But I think the DA thought that just the simple fact that there was a black man that didn’t let a cop—this was a black cop—but didn’t let a cop shoot him, they thought that the jury would be incensed and find him guilty anyway, even though all the physical evidence and witnesses backed up my cousin’s side of the story. So he was found not guilty of everything but common law robbery. And the reason that they found him guilty of common law robbery had to do with the judge’s instructions. The judge didn’t allow the jury to think about him taking the gun as self-defense.
AMY GOODMAN: So the common law robbery was, they were saying, robbing the police officer of the gun—
BOOTS RILEY: Of his gun.
AMY GOODMAN: —that he, the police officer, had shot himself with.
BOOTS RILEY: Yeah, yeah, after threatening to kill my cousin. And the cop even testified on the stand that when my cousin had the gun, he looked at him and said, "I don’t believe you just tried to kill me." And then he helped the cop out and left. And by this time, the cop was in his car. It was really—it was crazy.
AMY GOODMAN: We have the police’s own gunshot report—
BOOTS RILEY: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —that we are showing for our viewers. And for listeners, you can go online at democracynow.org. It states one shot fired by officer.
BOOTS RILEY: Exactly.
AMY GOODMAN: Now—
BOOTS RILEY: And the DA saw this. The whole police department knew this.
AMY GOODMAN: But this didn’t come up in the trial?
BOOTS RILEY: This didn’t—this was not presented by the state during the trial. But the state knew about it. So, they tried to railroad my cousin. They tried to steal 38 years of his life. He’s still in jail right now for robbing the gun that—robbing the officer of the gun that he wanted to kill him—that the officer wanted to kill him with. So there are appeals going on.
The DA tried to get the—the first time this lawyer had ever seen that. This lawyer, Charns, Attorney Charns, had—has been doing police brutality cases for 32 years, and the DA tried to get him thrown off the case, had a private session with the judge, tried to get him taken off the case for incompetence. First time that this has ever happened. The lawyer actually put this on the record in court and stayed on the case. But so, the state gets to decide who gets to do the appeal for my cousin, and they don’t want Attorney Charns on there, because he did a good job. And what’s more, so many public defenders wouldn’t take my cousin’s case, because it was publicized as a—I suspect because it was publicized as a guy shoots a cop.
AMY GOODMAN: Though he was acquitted of this.
BOOTS RILEY: Exactly.
AMY GOODMAN: And the police’s own report said that the cop shot himself.
BOOTS RILEY: Exactly. They knew from the get-go.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about your book, Tell Homeland Security—We Are the Bomb. What does it mean?
BOOTS RILEY: Well, in one way, you could take it as braggadocio, right? That we are the bomb, like we’re the—but in reality, we are—we are the weapon against the state. We are the weapon against the ruling class.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you perform a rap for us, one of—the shorter one, as we have not a lot of time?
BOOTS RILEY: OK. This one is from a song called "Ghetto Blaster." It’s:
Listen to the, shotgun sonata from personas non grata
With a plot to rock harder than the Second Intifada
I do drink firewater but I’m more like Hiawatha
and will slaughter, slaughter, slaughter, your armada
Inform your scholars that our alma mater’s squalor
So my squad’ll pull your collar at your black-and-white gala
We’re canon fodder for dollars both under Bush and Obama
I’m not a baller I’m a brawler callin y’all to come harder
I’m from the land o’ the free labor that planted the plan of the
black-and-branded to scram it over to Canada
A fan of radical bandits and bandanas
who crammed in the banana clip and rat-a-tat-tat-tatted-a
They spat the grammar to scam y’all to clamor up
The damn ladder to grab for Excalibur
Not a rap battler, but the next calibre
Catch the program and not just my pentameter.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Boots Riley, American poet, rapper, songwriter, producer, screenwriter. We just have about 15 seconds. The importance of art in bringing that to your political activism?
BOOTS RILEY: Well, art is the—are the words between the words. It unifies us and allows us to know that other people are thinking the same thing we are. And it’s part of—an essential part of building a movement.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to continue the conversation and post it online at democracynow.org. Boots Riley, Tell Homeland Security—We Are the Bomb.