Commentary: Every time a black person is killed by police, Americans search for Chris Rock

More than 15 years after it first aired, a skit from Chris Rock's eponymous show on HBO has taken on a strange second life.
(Charles Sykes / Invision / Associated Press)

Chris Rock is a popular comedian, with a lot of popular skits viewed frequently online. But after this week’s police shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, one of Rock’s oldest skits has become more popular than it's been all year.

It seems that every time a high-profile police shooting of a black person occurs, Americans become very interested in the skit titled "How Not to Get Your Ass Kicked by the Police.”

In the skit, Rock delivers a mock public service announcement that essentially says as long as young black men obey the law and use common sense, they will not have any trouble with the police.

Note: The following video contains vulgarities:

Taken within the context of Rock’s body of work, most audiences see the skit, recorded more than 15 years ago, as parody – a commentary on police racism with a few in-jokes aimed at other black people. Among Rock’s tips to avoid getting beaten: “Get a white friend” to ride with.

But for some viewers, this context has been lost and the old video has taken on a strange second life  as a rallying point that allows some people to avoid the difficult discussion of racism. 

As protests surged following the 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., a major St. Louis paper published a letter to the editor that cited Rock’s video as “the only message that will lead to healing in Ferguson.” The writer said that black people are being “misled into believing this is all about the color of their skin,” and begged Rock to come to Ferguson and “tell them they don’t need to be afraid of police."

But it wasn’t just newspapers that showed this trend. In general, Americans suddenly seemed to become very interested in this video.

Nationwide, Google searches for “Chris Rock police” spiked in August 2014 during the Ferguson protests. Searches spiked even higher in November 2014, as Americans learned of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old black boy who was shot while playing with a toy gun in a Cleveland park.



11:35 a.m., July 10: An earlier version of this article said Tamir Rice was shot in a Cincinnati park. He was shot in a park in Cleveland.


The peak on the left is number of Google searches for "Chris Rock police" during the Ferguson protests in August 2014; the large spike on the right peaks just after Tamir Rice was killed in November..

After the death of Walter Scott in April 2015, interest in the skit rose again. Then, as protests flared in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray later that month, they spiked once more, increasing nearly tenfold overnight:

The large spike peaks from late April to early May 2015, during protests in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray.

February 2016 brought another blip in searches when Rock hosted the Oscars, and delivered a speech that touched on police brutality.

Within the last few days, immediately after the release of videos of the police killings of Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., and Castile in a St. Paul, Minn., suburb, interest has spiked again.

At the time of publication, interest in the video continues to climb.

It seems that people are literally searching for something – even a comedy skit – to help them make sense of the shootings.

Some relate to the bitter irony of the skit’s simplistic “public service” message that cooperation with the police will keep them safe. If only.  

Rock himself has recently been posting selfies when he’s pulled over by police as a criticism of racially based profiling.

But it’s also clear that the video seems to have a particular attraction for people who want to ignore the part that racism plays in police brutality.

A number of conservative blogs ran headlines recommending the video as an “educational video” for “Ferguson Thugs” in 2014. As protests continued in Baltimore in 2015, two morning show hosts at a New Jersey radio station recommended it as “helpful.”

Within the last two years, comments on YouTube video clips of this skit have become overwhelmingly negative, and often blatantly racist.

“Someone copy and paste this in the comments of every black lives matter post you see on facebook,” one person wrote. Another blamed Sandra Bland, who died after a traffic stop in Texas last year, for her own death because she “mouthed off to the cop. act respectful, and just comply. if she had, she might still be alive……"

Then there’s this comment, posted just this week:

“Alton Sterling sure could've used this video. His shooting was PURE Darwinism at work.”

It is within this blame-the-victim context that Diamond Reynolds found herself in Falcon Heights, Minn., inches away from Castile, her boyfriend, as he was killed and she broadcast the scene in real time over Facebook Live. 

“He’s a good man,” she pleaded  – to the officer, to the people watching via Facebook, or to God. Or perhaps all three.

If Reynolds’ description is accurate, Castile did everything right, even according to that silly Chris Rock skit. He attempted to take out his license as instructed, and he warned the officer that he had a firearm.

As far as the video shows, Reynolds also did everything right. It’s almost shocking how well-composed she is. As the officer shouts and curses, she replies in a calm voice, and calls him “Sir.”

And still, her boyfriend died. And still, she was put into a squad car.

And still, black people will have to not only worry that they may become the next hashtag, but that when they try to express their pain or their concern, an acquaintance will send them a link to that Chris Rock video, and suggest that the solution to what even Minnesota’s governor called “racism” can be found in a comedy skit, instead of within their own hearts.

Follow me @dexdigi for more on the intersection of culture and the Internet.


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