SACRAMENTO - Shawn Thomas apparently got the wrong idea from a Western that he saw on late-night TV.
That's likely the place where Thomas, a.k.a. the gangsta rapper C-Bo, picked up his approach to handling guns. It was his loose ways with firearms during a 1994 melee that got C-Bo on probation. And it was his probation status that got C-Bo dragged back into jail last week for the offending lyrics on his sixth album - his first national release - and into the headlines as a poster boy for an impassioned debate on free speech.
Thomas wasn't charged with shooting anyone, mind you, that afternoon back in 1994. According to county probation officials, the original violation took place during a video shoot in South Sacramento. The public was invited, and a raucous mood turned ugly. When a fight broke out on the set, C-Bo pulled a John Wayne, attempting to quiet the crowd by firing a gun into the air. Instead of quelling the violence, the gunshot led to an escalation: One of the combatants drew his own weapon and shot another dead. At the end of the afternoon, C-Bo was arrested for the illegal discharge of a firearm and was eventually sentenced to four years in state prison.
Thomas was released in 1996 after serving 15 months. As a condition of parole, he promised "not [to] engage in any behavior which promotes the gang lifestyle, criminal behavior and/or violence against law enforcement." He also pledged not to associate with any gang members - par for the course for ex-cons.
Within months, C-Bo was back in the studio. And, as will happen with rappers, he laid down some distinctly graphic tracks.
Days after his album hit the stores, Sacramento County sheriffs deputies picked Thomas up, citing a parole violation via lyrical content. After further investigation, parole officials charged C-Bo with nine violations, including failure to report a police contact after he was stopped for a traffic infraction, and not following the instructions of his parole officer, i.e., refusing to surrender the complete lyrics of his new album.
C-Bo's spokeswoman, Burbank-based Phyllis Pollack, contends that it's the political content of the lyrics - not the perceived threat to society - that got C-Bo into trouble.
"A lot of this is a personal vendetta," Pollack said in an interview. "The parole people are like Kenneth Starr, independent counsel - they think they can do anything they want."
Thomas is, she said, "a political prisoner."
After news of C-Bo's arrest hit the national press, officials with the State Prison Board backed off the lyrics charge. Thomas pleaded no contest to six other minor violations, and the constitutionality of imprisoning him for his art was never addressed. The deal comes down to 15 days of additional jail time; C-Bo will be released March 18.
During a pause in a pick-up basketball game near where Thomas once lived, his contemporaries stood by C-Bo and what he raps. Interviewed at a community center in the largely African-American and Latino neighborhood of Meadowview, the hoopsters readily engaged in debates over free speech and police brutality.
"I got the album just to hear what he was saying," said Carey Dickerson, wiping the sweat from his brow. "I don't see what's the big deal. It's all just hook lines. It's not like he's actually doing any of that stuff."
"But really," another on-looker added, "he's rapping about what we see in Sacramento - in this neighborhood right here."
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"Yeah, and right here," said Dickerson, pulling up his pant legs to reveal quarter-inch welts around both his ankles. "Look at these scars. This is from when they put cuffs on my ankles over two years ago and started to kick me in the balls while they put me in the back of a car."
"That's nothing," basketballer Mark Frye added. "This guy I was with once, about two blocks from here, [the police] hit in the head with a flashlight until there was blood everywhere. There was blood on the street for two weeks."
Dickerson resumed, "Look at me. I went to college. I'm just an average person trying to make a living and still - regular people - they'll just pull you over and kick your ass."
"Bottom of the ticket," said Frye, "C-Bo is in jail. What it all boils down to is that when you think you got rights, you really don't have any."