Twenty years ago, as Tupac Shakur lay bleeding to death in the arms of Chris Carroll, a Las Vegas Metropolitan police officer, Carroll pressed him for information on who he thought shot him. At first, the legendary rapper ignored the questions, fighting just to keep breathing.
“And then I saw in his face … all of a sudden in the snap of a finger, he changed,” Carroll told Vegas Seven 18 years later. “And he went from struggling to speak, being noncooperative, to an ‘I’m at peace’ type of thing. Just like that … And that’s when I looked at him and said one more time, ‘Who shot you?’… I thought I was actually going to get some cooperation. And then the words came out: ‘Fuck you.’"
Throughout his short life, Tupac embodied the ethic of his last words. As a Black man born in East Harlem and raised in the “thug life” in Baltimore and Oakland, Tupac was in a continuous struggle with the criminal legal system—a struggle he embraced. For Tupac, “Fuck the Police” was not simply a track that bumped or the callousness of a rebellious gangster, it was the politic of his revolutionary spirit.
That spirit was part of a notable lineage. Tupac’s mother, Afeni, was a prominent figure in the Black Panther Party, and the message and philosophies of the Panthers, who were created in part in response to police brutality, lived on in Tupac. As a rapper, Tupac infused his music with a blunt critique of the nation’s system of policing and in doing so created a bridge from the Black Panthers that extends into the movement moment of today. And as the movement for black lives currently faces pressure to respond to accusations of eliciting violence against the police, the lyrics, interviews, and radical thought Tupac contributed are more relevant than ever.
Tupac’s five studio albums are filled with references to police brutality, mass incarceration, and injustice. In a world where the police present a consistent threat to Black people, Tupac made the case that to not resist was to invite death. “Drop them or let them drop you?” he asks on “Soulja’s Story,” a record from his second release, 2pacalypse Now. “I choose droppin' the cop!” he answers. 2pacalypse Now included another, more well-known song about the police, “Trapped.” On it, Tupac rhymes:
“They got me trapped | Can barely walk the city streets | Without a cop harrassing me, searching me | Then asking my identity | Hands up, throw me up against the wall | Didn't do a thing at all | I'm telling you one day these suckers gotta fall…”
“Trapped” and “Soulja’s Story” were art reflecting life. A month before 2pacalypse Now was released, Tupac had a run-in with Oakland police in 1991 that left him bloodied and bruised. In October of 1991, Tupac is reported to have been walking at the intersection of 17th Street and Broadway in downtown Oakland when he was stopped by officers for jaywalking. He described what happened next in an interview with Bay Area radio personality Davey D months later:
“For everyone who doesn't know, I … an innocent young black male was walking down the streets of Oakland minding my own business and the police department saw fit for me to be trained or snapped back into my place. So they asked for my I-D and sweated me about my name because my name is Tupac. My final words to them was 'f--- y'all' . Next thing I know I was in a choke hold passing out with cuffs on headed for jail for resisting arrest. We're currently letting the law do its job by taking it through the court system. We had to file a claim. We're in the midst of having a ten million dollar lawsuit against OPD. If I win and get the money then the Oakland Police department is going to buy a boys home, me a house, my family a house and a 'Stop Police Brutality Center.’”
Tupac did, in fact, sue the Oakland Police Department and won a reported $42,000 settlement, the majority of which went to his legal fees.
Just two years after the release of 2pacalypse Now and the Oakland incident, the rapper was charged with two counts of aggravated assault in the shooting of two police officers in Atlanta after an incident in which a car Tupac was riding in allegedly almost hit the off-duty cops. The New York Times reported:
“After the couples were nearly hit by a car, the two officers, who were both in civilian clothes, argued with the driver and passengers of the car as well as the occupants of a second car that pulled up. According to some accounts, [one of the off-duty officers] pulled out a gun. It was not clear whether he fired it, said both Atlanta and Clayton County police. Witnesses said Mr. Shakur then fired a gun…”
Charges against Tupac were ultimately dropped when witness testimony later supported that the officers were the initial aggressors.
The history of state-sanctioned targeting of Black people -- men and women -- by police is well documented, along with law enforcement’s use of violence to “snap” Black folks into subjugation. Even more, the dramatic disparities in arrests, sentencing rates, and lengths, and countless other measures show that there’s a significant and systematic and racial problem at every single step of our criminal legal system.
Tupac, arguably more than any other public figure of his generation, understood that the United States of America is engaged in a police-led War on Black people. He articulated that understanding in his work, albums, and songs that would sell by the tens of millions. Twenty years since his death, Tupac’s radical approach to and defenses against the American police state are reflected in the philosophies and tactics of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I'm not saying I'm gonna change the world, but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world,” the rapper famously once said. Time would prove him right.
The phrase “black lives matter” was coined in 2013 with a post to Facebook by activist and Oakland native Alicia Garza in response to George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the murder of Trayvon Martin. “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter,” wrote Garza. Her friend Patrisse Cullors responded with a message that included the now famous hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Along with Opal Tometi, the women would go on to found an organization by the same name, a leading group in the current movement for black lives. Recently, organizations from the movement convened to develop and publish a list of demands, many of which read like words from Tupac’s mouth.
“Instead of war on poverty, they got a War on Drugs so the police can bother me,” Tupac rapped on “Changes,” a song recorded in 1992 but was released posthumously in 1998. The lyrics could easily be followed up with the demands of the Movement for Black Lives. “We demand an end to the war against Black people,” one demand states. "Since this country’s inception there have been named and unnamed wars on our communities. We demand an end to the criminalization, incarceration, and killing of our people.”
There have also been high-profile events this year that suggest black Americans are increasingly taking up self-defense as a tactic for combating police brutality and harassment. Most notably, Korryn Gaines was killed and her five-year-old son wounded in an August shootout with Baltimore County officers after they broke into Gaines’ home to serve a warrant for a driving violation.
Today, as the movement for Black lives navigates questions about its position on the use of violence, Tupac’s legacy is that much more important. The use of self-defense against police brutality was something the rapper believed in strongly and advocated for loudly. And as music lovers all over the world celebrate the rapper’s flow, style, and lyricism, it’s worth asking what he might make of the resistance of individuals like Korryn Gaines.
Chris Carroll, the officer who questioned Tupac on his deathbed withheld what are said to be the rapper's last for nearly 20 years. He says he did it because he didn't want them to make Tupac into a martyr or hero.
“I didn’t want to give him that,” Carroll told reporters in 2014. “I didn’t want people to say, ‘Even when the chips were down, his life on the line, he still said “Fuck you,” he still wouldn’t talk to the police.’ I didn’t want him to be a hero for that. And now enough time has passed, well, he’s a martyr anyway; he’s viewed as a hero anyway.”
Many today rightly regard Tupac as a musical visionary and a leader within the counterculture of the 20th century. However, to remember the rapper without acknowledging his bold and occasionally violent response to police brutality is to miss a significant aspect of Tupac’s legacy and contribution. Through his personal example and music confronting America’s criminal legal system, the rapper may not have ended state violence against black Americans, but there's reason to believe he sparked minds within a radical generation that could.