In 2014, Alex Nieto, 28, died in a hale of 59 bullets in Bernal Heights. In 2015, Mario Woods, 26, was shot 20 times in the Bayview. Not long after, Amilcar Perez-Lopez, 21, and Luis Gongora, 45, fell to gunfire in separate incidents in the Mission District. All of these Black and Latino men were killed by San Francisco cops. None of them had guns.
Among those protesting the stark pattern of police terror in San Francisco are quite a few musicians, including rappers Equipto, Selassie, and Ike Plump—three of the so-called “Frisco Five” hunger-strikers looking to oust Police Chief Greg Suhr. It took another death—that of Jessica Williams, 29, slain last week by SFPD in the Bayview—for Mayor Ed Lee to mind the protesters’ demands and advise Suhr to resign.
And out of this maelstrom wafts Sonny Smith‘s breezy pop song, “White Cops on Trial”.
The San Francisco songwriter has said that the track, taken from Sonny & the Sunsets’ forthcoming Polyvinyl full-length Moods Baby Moods, is inspired by the killings and the demonstrations alike. But rather than the humorless didacticism often associated with protest music, Smith sets his wry though nonetheless direct attack on police impunity within spritely pop. His opening lines in “White Cops on Trial,” describe citizens awaiting news of a verdict at home, then we glimpse the media scrum outside of the courthouse. Satirizing jurors, Smith then sings, We have found him guilty because we are insane / Blah blah blah blah blah, we’re crazy.
In the context of the music—a featherweight raft of chintzy keys and twinkly guitar that evokes the bedroom post-punk cataloged on compilations such as Messthetics—Smith’s simple rejection of the judicial process conveys the exasperation of protesters who keep finding that ample evidence isn’t enough to hold local cops accountable.
The dark irony is that most police killings don’t make it to trial.