Scott Sturgeon is skillfully cracking open a lobster claw as he launches into another tirade about killing cops.
"I'm not so militant that I think every cop should be killed," he says, with a bit of butter dripping down to the tattoos on his chin. "But I think that in order to affect change, you have to have extremist art and extremist positions in art, like people talking about killing cops."
This is the public persona he has built for himself over the last two decades. He is Stza Crack, as his fans know him, the outspoken, antagonistic punk provocateur. At 40, with his greased back hair and slender frame, he is the unmistakable frontman of the controversial and divisive bands Choking Victim, Star Fucking Hipsters, and, most notably, Leftöver Crack. He is the Lower East Side fixture who, just five blocks from this Manhattan restaurant where he is indulging in a seafood lunch, was arrested in 2008 for whipping donuts at officers from the NYPD's 9th precinct who were monitoring his performance outside Tompkins Square Park.
"People make a choice to become police officers," he continues, "but then if they get hurt in the line of duty, it's this huge tragedy when they've actually signed up for this job—the job where you might get shot at. Whereas a citizen that gets murdered by a police officer never signed up to be in a position where they might get killed. To not say that's a bigger tragedy, that's ridiculous."
When he is in this mode, talking about his favorite subject, police brutality and corruption, there is fire in his voice. His eyes light up to a cartoonish width, steel blue and wily in this afternoon light, almost possessed. He goes off on long, passionate diatribes that race out of his brain faster than his mouth can catch up. At points, he gets himself so worked up that his outrage pushes him to the verge of tears.
"The only way to have a successful revolution is to fight back," he says, jabbing his fork into the air. "If police keep murdering innocent people, and citizens don't fight back, then it'll just get worse and worse. They'll kill with more impunity and will be less accountable, and, at some point, we'll be in a complete police state."
This is his passion. He is obsessive about it. It consumes him. It seems like nothing can break his focus when he's on a tear like this. Until he is asked a question about his personal life. Then he reverts to his natural state. His voice quickly grows soft and shaky, and his eyes shrink back to near-human size as they gaze down, towards the various insignia tattooed on his wrists and forearms. His index and middle fingers are adorned with the fading words KILL COPS. Suddenly, Stza Crack is gone, and he is once again Scott Sturgeon, a man looking sheepishly at his hands.
The earliest memory Scott Sturgeon has of dealing with the police is from when he was 12 years old and came home from school to find several officers in his apartment after his stepfather committed suicide.
"My first reaction was: Why the fuck are there police here? How is this their business? This is a personal thing, this is private, this is upsetting. They don't belong here," he remembers. "To this day, I don't think that's appropriate. I think that put it in my head that they weren't welcome in my life."
Sturgeon lived with his mother and older brother after that, and had a lonely childhood in Manhattan. He only ever had one friend at a time and never belonged to a group. It wasn't until he was in high school and discovered punk rock that he met people he connected with. But even then, his mother, who he describes as an overprotective Jewish mom, forbade him from walking across town to CBGB to catch punk shows at night. "I'm 16 and I gotta be home by midnight? I'm just starting to make friends!" he remembers. He soon realized he couldn't live under her roof anymore.
He left home for California under the guise that he would live with his biological father in Marin County. He spent one night with his dad, who he says was a photographer who didn't get much work and was on welfare, before leaving. He took a bus to San Rafael and spent his first night there sleeping on the roof of a McDonald's and fell in with other street punks and homeless people in the area, passing time by getting drunk, graffiting, and sleeping in public parks. He started splitting his time between squats on both coasts, hopping freight trains between them, and eventually picked up a drug habit, doing crack and heroin, which he cites as having a positive impact on his social life.
"You find new people and you go on these missions that are hours long sometimes, and at the end, you're rewarded with drugs, and you get high with them," he says. "Those are some of my best friends to this day, people I met through drugs. Overall, I think drug use was a positive thing in my life, because I was very lonely and suicidal. If I didn't have drugs, I would've killed myself, for sure."
In 1992, a song was released that changed Sturgeon's life, Body Count's "Cop Killer." The song saw frontman Ice T fantasizing about murdering members of the LAPD in response to their gross misconduct that came into the public eye after the Rodney King beatings. But it wasn't the music or the lyrics of the song that sparked Sturgeon's interest so much as the reaction to it.
A full-on war was waged against Ice T and his record label, Warner Bros. The New York Patrolmen's Benevolent Association led a powerful boycott against the label, threatening to cost it millions. The NRA took out ads promising to "deploy its full legal and financial resources against Time Warner and its marketing accomplices on behalf of the interests of any police officer shot or killed by someone shown to be influenced by this incitement and provocation." Tipper Gore and the Parental Music Resource Center brought the issue to the national forefront, leading then President George H.W. Bush to criticize the label's judgment in releasing it. Death threats poured into the Warner Bros. offices from angry citizens. Ultimately, Ice T conceded to have the song removed from the album on which it appeared and left the label soon after. His musical career was effectively derailed and would never regain the same momentum.
"It was so ridiculous. They made Ice T apologize and say it was a fantasy," says Sturgeon. "Well, I'm not apologizing."
In the late 90s, after the dissolution of his first band, No Commercial Value, Sturgeon formed a group called Choking Victim, and carried the spirit of Body Count with him, writing songs that pushed the boundaries of the First Amendment. They advocated shoplifting, smoking crack, and committing suicide, while vehemently denouncing world trade, and of course, the police. The band didn't last, technically breaking up on the first day of recording their only album, 1999's No Gods, No Managers. But Sturgeon's peculiar songwriting style helped the record find an audience and established him as an unlikely figurehead.
The multi-instrumentalist is something of a punk virtuoso. He likens himself to "Prince, if Prince were shitty." He is a student of all genres of music and has a particular fondness for hip-hop, especially Tupac, whose face adorns a velvet poster that hangs above his bed in C-Squat, the famed NYC punk house on Avenue C. Sturgeon also pays homage to Pac's THUG LIFE abdomen tattoo with his own crustpunk version: BUG LIFE.
Sturgeon essentially invented a type of music, dubbed "crack rock steady," which fuses elements of punk, ska, thrash, and black metal, and is peppered with themes of Satanica and classical interludes. It is so distinct that it could never be justly replicated. His singing voice is wholly unique as well, a demonic growl which he can turn on and off like a lightswitch. He pushes words out with it as fast as he can, fitting as much information into the songs' spaces as possible. It's a relentless style that he cites Operation Ivy singer Jesse Michaels as the inspiration for.
"He's got this wild energy where he combines pop punk with black metal or something. I don't even know how to describe it," says Michaels. "There's a certain type of person in music—the big personality, creative force of nature-type. Sturgeon is definitely that type."
But it wasn't until the band dissolved, and he formed Leftöver Crack, that Sturgeon really stretched the confines of good taste enough to face a label dispute of his own. For the band's debut album, he designed a cover featuring his arm holding a gun against the backdrop of a playground full of children above the title: Shoot the Kids at School. This being not long after the Columbine shootings that claimed the lives of 12 students and a teacher, the band's label, Hellcat Records, an offshoot of Epitaph Records founded by Rancid and Operation Ivy member Tim Armstrong, refused to release it as it was.
"I remember my jaw dropped at the idea of calling an album Shoot the Kids at School," says Jeff Abarta, a 25-year employee of Epitaph, who notes that changing it was an extremely rare case of censorship for the label. "That's the only time, to my knowledge, we've ever pushed back against an artist for something like an album title or theme. That's not how we do things… but I just think there's some kind of line that got crossed there."
Sturgeon begrudgingly changed the cover to an incredibly unremarkable black and white photo of the band performing and capped off his "fuck you" to the label's censorship with a new title: Mediocre Generica.
"I think they censored us thinking every band I was in was gonna implode or I was gonna die of an overdose and they wouldn't have to deal with me the next year," says Sturgeon. After all of these concessions were made, the album's release date overshadowed the controversy: September 11, 2001.
That day, while the world watched in horror as the Twin Towers collapsed, Leftöver Crack's drummer Ara Babajian had a moment of bittersweet relief. Up until September 7, he worked in Tower 2 before quitting to go on tour with the band. The man who filled his position, along with many of his coworkers, was killed in the attacks.
"That was one of the great Scott moments," Babajian remembers. "I got a call from him on 9/11, saying, 'You okay?' and I said, 'Yeah.' And he said, 'Okay, cool. Just want to let you know: the tour is still on.' He just had the vision. Now he had even more fire to go out and do his thing."
With the horror of the terrorist attacks fresh on the country and most Americans still unsure how to wrap their brains around what the fuck was going on, Sturgeon used his nighty platform to preach about the faults of Western imperialism. He went on long rants between songs, holding the United States government responsible for the death toll and calling world trade a death machine. His sentiments would later become largely validated, but at the time they sounded like the radical conspiracy theories of a fringe lunatic.
I think they censored us thinking every band I was in was gonna implode or I was gonna die of an overdose and they wouldn't have to deal with me the next year.
At a show at the New York venue, the Knitting Factory, he decorated the stage with two large paper mache buildings into which he crashed a toy plane and smoke bomb.
"As that tour got rolling, Scott was going off about the government, and I had a really hard time reconciling my experience with his views," Babajian says. "After about a month, I couldn't take it anymore. I had to walk away for a while." He quit the band for three years.
Not only were Sturgeon's antics putting him at odds with his bandmates and record label, they were also making him enemies within the punk scene. Three weeks after an indoor fireworks accident ignited a blaze that killed 100 people at a Great White concert in Rhode Island in March 2003, Leftöver Crack was scheduled to play a matinee show at the venue Northsix in Brooklyn.
"My friend was making a flyer for the show," recalls Sturgeon. "I gave him all the information and said, 'Oh, and somewhere on there, write down: FEATURING A SPECTACULARLY DANGEROUS PYROTECHNIC DISPLAY.'"
The flyer circulated and caught the attention of the FDNY, who already had Sturgeon on their radar due to his 9/11 rhetoric. A small army of them turned up to the show along with riot gear-clad police and shut it down, pushing all the punks out. The venue managers were slapped with a long list of violations to be brought up to code, and the place was forced to close for a month after that.
Word gets around fast in New York, and after Leftöver Crack doomed Northsix, they were blacklisted from just about every venue in the city. CBGB, ABC No Rio, the Knitting Factory. Nobody wanted to work with a bunch of homeless, troublemaking drug addicts. They had a stink on them, literally. (One person interviewed described Sturgeon's stench as "the worst smell I've smelled on a person that wasn't dying.") Even now, many of the venue bookers are still bitter enough to have declined to speak on record about their past dealings with Sturgeon, but suffice it to say, the word "asshole" was used quite a bit.
"I was rabble-rousing, pushing the envelope of good taste," says Sturgeon, noting that he deliberately tried to be as offensive as possible without being racist, sexist, or homophobic. "I was just like: What is free speech? Where can we take it? They always say you can't yell 'fire' in a theater… but what if it's part of the play?"
Leftöver Crack was a bridge-burning machine, making enemies with other bands, audiences, writers of zines, and punk collectives around the country. By the time the band was ready to release their follow-up album, Sturgeon was intent on pushing his reputation even further. With the support of a new label, Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra's Alternative Tentacles, the sophomore record was released in 2004 and was promptly banned by many retailers for its title, Fuck World Trade, and its cover image featuring Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, and Rudy Giuliani pouring Halliburton gasoline on the burning Twin Towers.
What is free speech? Where can we take it? They always say you can't yell 'fire' in a theater… but what if it's part of the play?
It was on this Steve Albini-produced album that Sturgeon wrote the song he'd become most notorious for, his own "Cop Killer." He called it "One Dead Cop," and its incredibly blunt chorus repeats the phrase "kill cops!" over a dozen times. The band also sold shirts around this time featuring the phrase in large letters and it became a rallying cry at their shows.
The song was not a call to go out and kill all cops, he says, but was a means of grabbing people's attention to raise awareness for the need for police reform. "I'm not a hate monger. I'm not a violence purveyor," he explains. "I'm an artist and an activist, and if I need to sing about killing cops to get people to pay attention to reforming the police, then I'll write another dozen songs about it."
When asked how he would feel if someone murdered a cop and cited the song as motivation, Sturgeon takes a long pause to think about it.
"I can't say. The circumstances are vague," he finally says. "I'm not gonna downright say that I would feel terrible about it or apologetic. People have tried to blame art for crimes for decades. They were blaming jazz music for drug use. I think one of the reasons to sing about it is to see. Part of me is curious. What if that did happen? I'm singing about something while the police are actually murdering innocent people. I think art and action are different things, and I will always defend art. In art, you should be able to say whatever the fuck you want, and people can take it as they will."
Unsurprisingly, Sturgeon had a combative relationship with the police after "One Dead Cop" was released. They became a regular presence at Leftöver Crack shows, and he was their favorite easy target, finding himself frequently detained, arrested, and harassed. International touring became particularly difficult and run-ins with Homeland Security resulted in him being searched and handcuffed. His infamous "donut social" near Tompkins Square Park, in which he flung a dozen donuts one by one at police officers while performing drunk, sparked a small riot that resulted in five fans being arrested according to the New York Daily News, who reported that "one person threw a chair at a cop, while two others tried to shatter the windshields of squad cars, police said. Sturgeon, 32, was charged with harassment, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest."
Though Leftöver Crack's politics were radical and they had built up a cult following, the turmoil and instability that plagued the band rendered them something of a joke among punks. It was hard to take them seriously as artists since their shows were constantly being shut down and they had a difficult time maintaining a regular lineup, with members quitting, feuding with each other, or dying. (Drummer Brandon Possible died of a drug overdose on tour in 2004 while Sturgeon slept beside him. Sturgeon woke up to find him in the same position and unresponsive.)
For years, Sturgeon was arguably the most prominent—if not the only—musician in the country singing about the evils of militarized law enforcement, but his message was eclipsed by his behavior. He started to seem less of a visionary artist and more like a punk jester. The band developed a stigma as being too entry-level punk, and their "kill cops" rallying cry was reduced to generic sloganeering for the types of kids who wore anarchy t-shirts. "We were seen as too gateway or something," he laughs, "which is funny because we were a lot more hardcore than some of these D-beat bands that don't sing about shit."
By the end of the 2000s, after fighting for years against their own reputation, Leftöver Crack was put on hold, becoming largely inactive while Sturgeon ventured out into a slightly less politically contentious direction with a new project, Star Fucking Hipsters.
[I]f I need to sing about killing cops to get people to pay attention to reforming the police, then I'll write another dozen songs about it.
It wasn't until late last year that Leftöver Crack resurfaced with a new album, Constructs of the State, their first in over a decade, and a new Scott Sturgeon emerged with it. While the album still carried the band's aggressive anarcho-political themes, Sturgeon made a conscientious decision to scale back on the cop-killing rhetoric, not because he no longer believes it, but because he doesn't have to anymore. Others have since taken up the cause.
America's relationship with the police has changed a lot in the 11 years between Leftöver Crack albums. The rise of smartphones and social media has taken the subject of police brutality once relegated to inner cities and poor communities and forced it into the face of white America. Cases of abuse are finally starting to be reported and statistics are being compiled. In many cases, the offending officers are still not facing suspension or indictment for their crimes, but the evidence of corruption and incompetence is mounting. The country is either headed for reform or revolution. Either way, change in the air.
"To some extent, I've purposefully toned down the message, because the most important part is being heeded," Sturgeon says. "So instead of being the crazy person telling everybody to kill cops, I try to just be a part of the discussion." Leftöver Crack no longer sell their "Kill Cops" shirts, but have replaced them with ones that say "Film Cops," with a 150-word screed printed on the back, informing people how to exercise their Fourth Amendment rights when dealing with police.
It seems like between every meeting I have with Sturgeon over the course of a summer, another instance of horrific killings by cops is captured by citizens on video and makes national news. On the evening of July 7, following the stories of back-to-back murders committed by police on two black men, Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, a rogue shooter retaliated by opening fire on Dallas police at the end of a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest, killing five and injuring nine.
When I call Sturgeon the next afternoon, he is just waking up. He spent the night in Oakland, participating in a protest march, holding a sign that read END POLICE
BRUTALITY. Riot police lined up outside a police station there that had become the object of scorn when protests turned ugly, getting red paint and trash thrown at it. Sturgeon posed for a photo along the side of the building where a 40-foot-long cock had been spraypainted beneath the words ALL COPS SUCK, which he swears he had nothing to do with. He gets choked up when discussing the video of Castile, describing it as "the most heart-wrenching thing" he'd ever seen.
People are finally paying attention, I tell him from New York. Cops are being held accountable. This is what you wanted, isn't it?
"This wasn't my endgame. It wasn't to say 'I told you so' or 'look, I'm right,'" he tells me. "I wanted people to wake up and see that this was a problem and has always been a problem."
Then I ask him if he would write "One Dead Cop" today and he is quick with an answer.
"No, I wouldn't. Because when I'm writing political songs, I'm always searching for the thing that's not being said or the thing that's not being paid attention to."
The police don't harass Scott Sturgeon much these days. He is no longer an easy target for them. He isn't addicted to any substances anymore, though he admits to not being completely sober, either. He exercises regularly and spends time traveling with his partner whose gender he asks me to omit to "leave a little mystery."
"As I get older, maybe I'm not drunk in public as much. I'm not hopping the turnstiles. And I'm a white person and I'm older—I'm 40," he rationalizes as we walk to the subway, carrying a bag of leftover vegetables from our lunch. "The police aren't trying to victimize people that might be in a position to fight back legally or financially."
As we're waiting to cross the street, he admits that he was apprehensive about letting me tail him for a few days. I ask why. "I don't know," he says with a shrug. "Nobody's ever wanted to talk to me for more than an hour."
Just then, a police cruiser rides up alongside a teenager on a bicycle and motions for him to pull over for, from what it appears, the infraction of riding a bike while black. The teen nods in acknowledgment and starts to slow down. But he pulls a fast one, abruptly cutting right and darting up a one-way side street. The cop flips the cruiser's sirens on, screeches a U-turn through an intersection, and races up the block after him, but his car is immediately thwarted by a parked moving truck blocking the street. The cop slams on his brakes and pounds his fist into the steering wheel in frustration.
Watching this unfold, a maniacal grin grows on Sturgeon's face. A crook forms in his eyebrow and his blue eyes go wide and wild. He looks at me and flashes that Stza smile. "Now doesn't that just make you feel good inside?"
Dan Ozzi is on Twitter - @danozzi
Live photos by Scott Murry. All others by Rebecca Reed.