Junior Murvin’s Vision of Police Brutality

Despite the sustained protests and pleas for justice and peace, demonstrations, and riots, George Floyd’s murder continues to resonate because it accompanies an interminable chronicle of shame connecting it to other recent events. It becomes another tragic entry in the Book of Disgrace. In this sense, Floyd becomes other victims of the police. He becomes Eric Garner, attacked from behind and strangled on the sidewalk in broad daylight. He becomes twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, murdered while playing in the park. He becomes seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones. He becomes Miriam Carey, Thurman Blevins, Javier Ambler, Manuel Ellis, Terence Crutcher. Atatiana Jefferson, Elijah McClain, Aura Rosser, Rayshard Brooks, Antwon Rose II, Cedric Chatman, O’Shae Terry, Sam DuBose, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, Diante Yarber, William Debose, And he also becomes Stephon Clark, India Kager, Amari Malone, Oscar Grant, Jonathan Ferrell, Pamela Turner, Nathaniel Pickett, Jr., Junior Prosper, and Laquan McDonald. The lives of these black men, women, and children quickly ended when they interacted with white representatives of law enforcement. Committed painfully to cellphone video, their hideous final moments are unforgettable.

Yet we never bore witness to the murder of Botham Jean, a black man shot to death on his own couch by a white police officer who mistook his apartment for hers. We didn’t see Jonathan Sanders choked to death with a police flashlight. Nor did we witness the murders of Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Demarcus Semer, Shereese Francis, Freddie Gray, Alberta Spruil, Jamel Floyd, Rumain Brisbon, Terron Boone, Sharmel Edwards, John Crawford III, Alteria Woods, Malice Green, Rekia Boyd, Amadou Diallo, Ronald Madison, Breonna Taylor, Michael Noel, Christopher Whitfield, Aaron Campbell, Dondi Johnson, Melvin Watkins, Sean Bell, Shantel Davis, Michael Dean, James Brisette, Akai Gurley, LaTanya Haggerty, Tanisha Anderson, Jordan Edwards, Natasha McKenna, Shereese Francis, Gregory Gunn, Michelle Cuzzeaux, Yvette Smith, Christian Taylor, Dominique Fells, Brendon Glenn, Akiel Denkins, Ezell Ford, Riah Milton, Billy Ray Davis, Manuel Loggins, Jr., Asshams Pharoah Manley, Kendra James, Ramarley Graham, Quintonio LeGrier, or Bettie Jones. The list goes on.

Has the nauseating reverberation of George Floyd’s public execution taught us anything? Are we any closer to closing this loop of police lawlessness? In 1977, a young musician by the name of Junior Murvin told a story that feels contemporary to this moment — a horror story of predatory cops and the consequences of their authority. Of the contradictory role they play embracing crime in the name of stopping it. Prescient, ahead of and in front of its time, it was a story told through the voice of an angel. Murvin, a singer and guitar player in Montego Bay, Jamaica, became known for his limber, ethereal falsetto, a voice reminiscent of sixties soul genius Curtis Mayfield. Taking cues from Mayfield’s gospel-inflected singing voice, Murvin developed and perfected it, in a register so clear-pitched and penetrating that he blacked out once in the middle of a song.

Murvin was writing songs and auditioning for producers when he crossed paths a second time with Lee “Scratch” Perry in 1976. Along with King Tubby, Perry was considered a visionary and an architect of dub. At his renowned Black Ark studio, Perry enlisted his studio band, The Upsetters to accompany Murvin in making what became his most celebrated work, Police and Thieves.

The layering of melodies, softened by Murvin’s pliable, weightless voice, contains what Dotun Adebayo calls an “indictment of policing.” Writing in The Guardian, Adebayo says that the song “Police and Thieves” was intended to describe the “manipulated war zone” of Kingston, Jamaica in the mid-1970s. In his 2014 novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James describes a Jamaica where the police and gang members were interchangeable. In an interview with The Guardian, James says, “America has developed a weird kind of third world police, which horrifies people like me and my friends from Kenya or Nigeria.”

How is the brutal lawlessness of American policing any different from the immorality of the police force in 1970s Jamaica? Adebayo continues: “What we didn’t get at the time was that the ‘police’ and the ‘thieves’ were the emissaries of the politicians who ran the system.” But Murvin did, and his lyrics which struggled with the police state of 1970s Jamaica are applicable to the United States of 2020.

Police and thieves in the streets
Fighting the nation with their guns and ammunition
Police and thieves in the streets
Scaring the nation with their guns and ammunition
From Genesis to Revelations, yeah
The next generation will be, here me

All the crimes committed, day by day
No one try to stop it, in any way
All the peacemakers, turn war officers
Hear what I say, hey-he-he-he-he-he-hey!

The United States overflows with first-hand accounts of violence and depravation by the authorities. And in the New Yorker, Hilton Als wonders: “Why are these stories becoming conflated?” He believes that these stories have all become a single story in the mind of the media. “Inevitably,” Als says, “we are losing sight of the individual stories, because it takes too long to consider them one by one.”

Murvin’s voice, on “Police and Thieves” yanks us back into those stories, like a sudden slamming of the brakes. But his skill for casting a glimmering sheen upon dismal lyrical subjects, diverts attention away from other powerful tracks on the album, like “Lucifer,” a haunting piece of music confronting the enslavement and sexual assault of black people. Surrounding him in a sonic wetland of echoing guitars, horns, and drums, Murvin sings:

What happened in the dark
Must come to light
That’s true, and you know it too
They took away our gold and land
And parked us in the sinking sand

After “Lucifer” and Police and Thieves, Murvin remained active, releasing new material, though nothing surpassed his 1977 classic. (The Clash eventually covered the title track on their first album.) Murvin continued to create music in the early twenty-first century but his awareness of the significance of Police and Thieves — the album and the song — remained with him. Interviewed by United Reggae’s Angus Taylor in 2011, Murvin said that the message behind the song was still alive, saying that Police and Thieves has progressed from a mere song to a proverb. “A proverb is greater than a song,” Murvin says. “So as long as the man them sing the conscious things we can uplift the nation with it.” Other songs, like “Solomon” begin with the soulful texture of Marvin Gaye circa What’s Going On—until Murvin reaches for the first verse and the melody becomes unidentifiably sublime.

Junior Murvin left us in 2013 after battles with diabetes and hypertension. But his genius remains within reach. And his vision of police violence and peacemakers transformed into corrupt instruments of war will remain with us too, as will the growing list of victims and additions to the Book of Disgrace.

Works Cited ((Adebayo, D. “Junior Murvin has died but the story of Police and Thieves lives on.”
Marlon James,  “US afflicted with ‘third world’ police”, Agence France-Presse in Paris, September 11, 2016
Schulman, Michael, and Hilton Als. “Hilton Als’s Homecoming and the March for Queer Liberation.” The New Yorker, 26 June 2020,
Taylor, Angus. “Interview: Junior Murvin,” United Reggae, 20 October 2011.))

Jason M. Thornberry is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Chapman University. His work has appeared in The Stranger, Adirondack Review, In Parentheses, ALAN Review, OC Weekly, URB Magazine, and elsewhere. His work examines disability and social justice. Jason previously taught literature and writing at Seattle Pacific University. He can be reached at: thornberryj1@gmail.com. Read other articles by Jason.