Jinho “The Piper” Ferreira wants to take his show, Cops and Robbers, to Ferguson. Like that town this week, his show centers on an officer-involved murder. But some people in Ferguson might not want to hear what he has to say.

Ferreira suggests that we as a country are fooling ourselves into scapegoating cops for chronic violence in places like West Oakland. We’re trying to blame the game on the goalie when there are eleven other players on the field. “By the time a child is old enough to be arrested, there are all these other institutions that have failed him,” says Ferreira, “and when the cops come and finish up the process of disenfranchisement we’re outraged.”

Ferreira takes the example of racial profiling, “cops don’t have spare time to go around stopping whoever they want—they respond to phone calls. We get the call every day, ‘there are three black men in hoodies, they haven’t done anything but they look suspicious,’ that’s the call we get! So racism is an American problem, it’s not a cop problem.”

You might not buy that. I hear you. But consider this: during our interview I found myself vaguely disappointed by his report of life inside the Alameda County Sherriff’s Department because it didn’t help me to universally vilify the police force. I am not qualified to refute Ferreira on any specific point but even if I were I think it’s worth noting that sense of disappointment: we lose the pleasure of emotional lucidity when cops are unavailable for us to scapegoat; there is nothing but diffuse emotional helplessness in the act of raging against broad and abstract systems of power.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EGkj_OfkGa4&w=560&h=315]

Ferreira has spent his whole life devising and revising his theory of change for inner city life. His hip hop group, Flipsyde, never blew up in the states, but they love him in India. And Germany. And Brazil. You can watch them on Youtube performing to crowds of hundreds of thousands of people in foreign countries. But his music is about Oakland, specifically Ferreira’s home, West Oakland.

“We had these political messages, but the music never reached the audience it was meant for,” says Ferreira. And besides, “it’s beautiful to make art that can be the soundtrack to a movement, get people to feel something together, but ultimately, your three-and-half minute song isn’t doing anything for the movement unless you have allies on the inside of these institutions.”

So Ferreira did something that confused a lot of people. “I couldn’t even really explain it to myself at the time,” he says, “I became a cop.” If performing conscious rap overseas was too removed from the local violence and trauma that Ferreira’s work responds to, becoming a cop couldn’t be any closer.

“We’re not happy with the way cops are doing their job, we want more from them or less or different—let’s do it right then,” he says, “Let’s do it for ourselves.” To Ferreira’s mind, going into criminal justice was the ultimate way to take personal responsibility for the security of his community.

But the artist can’t help but make art. After a few years in the service, Ferreira says he felt like he was going crazy. “I felt like my spirit had been exposed to so much trauma,” that even though he was worried he’d lose his job, or that he’d be betraying the black community, “I said f— it. And I just wrote the play.”

The script for Cops and Robbers was written in three weeks. He showed up at a high school theater teacher’s door and performed the show in her living room on the spot. He’s since performed it for prison inmates and students and cops and highbrow audiences all around the Bay Area.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MapFo4vc0Dc&w=560&h=315]

To see the play is to understand why Ferreira was nervous about the reactions he’d get. He doesn’t rely on the tropes that put white-guilt liberals at ease, he won’t demonize cops alongside the radicals, and he’s unflinching about the horrors committed by gang members. Ferreira privileges true complexity over false-but-coherent propaganda. The story is not contrived in the service of politics, but politics follow self-evidently from a story that originates in such a lucid, unthinking familiarity with the cycle of violence.

“I believe things can change,” says Ferreira, “We need more of our resources devoted to stemming criminogenic factors and we’re doing that.” To hear more about the community-based security programs devised by the Youth and Family Services Bureau  of the Sheriff’s Office and other nonprofits in Oakland, you can attend the talk-back series after each performance of Cops and Robbers. You’ll want to stick around after the show for this. It will help.

Cops and Robbers, a one-man show
August 16 – September 13
The Marsh Berkeley Arts Center
2120 Allston Way
Tickets: $20 – $35
(510) 841-1903

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2 Responses

  1. Justin Alan Ryan

    I’m honestly really intruiged by this and may go to catch it, but I am also really concerned at the course of thought. It’s one thing to hear stories that make it difficult to vilify the police force, esp the individuals, many of whom are hard working and have personal views and attitudes with at least a dash of sanity.

    While I strongly agree that, as Jinho says, “By the time a child is old enough to be arrested, there are all these other institutions that have failed him”, a chronic problem I see in Oakland politics is the drive to spend money on a police force that has never been successful, while defunding education and other important programs. I don’t want to assume how he feels about this, but I certainly wouldn’t be very interested in the views of a person who can’t see that simple truth.

    Oakland and the east bay in general are continually pouring money into law enforcement strategies that don’t work and putting almost no energy into trying to create alternatives to a life of crime that is always there to say, “Hey, feeling hopeless? Here’s an easy way out.”

  2. OaklandNative

    I might see the play. I don’t see his position (as stated in this interview) as being confusing or controversial. I know many, if not most, African Americans who agree with him.

    The problem is stating this in mainstream media. Many of them will take such statements out of context and vilify African Americans in general. This starts a cycle.


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