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Is outrage over Beyonce's 'anti-police' Super Bowl performance justified?

FILE - In this Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016, file photo, Beyonce performs during halftime of the NFL Super Bowl 50 football game in Santa Clara, Calif. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)

As debate intensified Thursday around Beyonce's Super Bowl 50 halftime performance, with protests and counter-protests being planned, the singer herself has said very little on the controversy.

The star performed her new song, "Formation," Sunday in front of a TV audience of 111.9 million people with a squad of dancers whose black berets and black outfits recalled the Black Panther Party of the 1960s, and the video for the song, released online Saturday, makes clear references to the Black Lives Matter movement and Hurricane Katrina.

Many feminists and activists have praised "Formation" and the Super Bowl performance for celebrating black womanhood and culture. Some conservatives, however, took offense at Beyonce's message, which they claim is anti-police and racially divisive.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani called the halftime performance "a platform to attack police officers."

Rep. Peter King (R-NY) also argued on Facebook that the song took a dangerous attitude toward law enforcement and is "one more example of how acceptable it has become to be anti-police."

Tomi Lahren, an anchor for The Blaze, blasted Beyonce's performance as "unfair to white girls" and promoting "the notion that black lives matter more."

An Eventbrite listing for a rally against Beyonce and the NFL planned for February 16 at NFL headquarters declares the "halftime show "a race-baiting stunt" and "a slap in the face to law enforcement."

Some have also mocked the singer for getting a police escort to the stadium for the show and then performing a song that they perceive to be critical of the police.

Beyonce told Entertainment Tonight after the halftime show that she is "proud" of the performance.

"I wanted people to feel proud, and have love for themselves," she said of the new song. She has not commented on it since then.

Activists say the singer was unaware that some of her dancers held a sign calling for justice for Mario Woods, a black man killed by San Francisco police in December, according to the Daily Mail.

The apparent homage to the controversial Black Panther Party (BPP), which was founded 50 years ago, in the dancers' outfits particularly angered some viewers.

Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clark called the BPP a "subversive hate group" and a Detroit police sergeant posted an image on Facebook equating them with the Ku Klux Klan.

According to NJ 101.5, the president of the State Troopers' Fraternal Association of New Jersey wrote a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell complaining about the "blatantly anti-police message" of Beyonce "praising" the Black Panther movement.

The FBI describes the BPP as "a black extremist organization" that advocated violence and guerilla tactics. The group had many conflicts with police in the late 1960s and early 1970s. One of its founders was convicted of killing a police officer during a traffic stop, but he was retried twice and the case was ultimately dismissed.

Others have defended the evocation of the BPP by noting that the group's goals included freedom, equality, and an end to police brutality. They have also highlighted the community programs the movement operated.

On Facebook, a member of the National Alumni Association of the Black Panther Party praised the singer for her courage. "I am sure she understood the backlash that would follow her performance," William Johnson wrote.

Some Beyonce fans on social media seemed to enjoy the backlash from white conservatives.

They also say critics are misinterpreting the song and video, which they do not believe is anti-white, anti-male, or anti-law enforcement.

Kevin Allred, an adjunct professor at Rutgers University who has studied political themes in Beyonce's music, said "Formation" represents a more explicit message than her previous work but is still a "natural progression."

"If you had been ignoring all the politics in her other music," he said, "it's obviously come as a shock to a lot of people, both positive and negative."

He rejected the notion that this is a case of an artist suddenly becoming an activist, saying she has been touching on similar issues in her lyrics and videos since 2006.

"I'm surprised at how many people are saying this is a new thing, like 'Oh, Beyonce just got political,'" Allred said.

In a Huffington Post article, writer Zeba Blay made a similar point and suggested "Formation" took Beyonce's politics to a new level because she now has the power to do so.

"Beyoncé has been playing the long game," Blay said. "She's used her universal appeal to gain the kind of success that results in access and power. She's situated herself so firmly at the top of the mainstream music food chain that no criticism (not even from Rudy Giuliani), can stop her from making music that's more blatantly black and blatantly political than ever."

According to JeffriAnne Wilder, an associate professor of sociology at the University of North Florida, what is unexpected about "Formation" is that it focuses so heavily on racial themes.

"We have seen Beyonce at the center of a lot more feminist discourse than racial discourse," she said.

Wilder has found the backlash and the calls for boycotts to be more shocking than anything in the performance, in particular the way people have zeroed in on the idea that there was something violent about it.

"In my mind, that was a really huge leap and I wasn't expecting that."

Despite the Black Panther imagery and the black power salutes, she feels it is unfair to tie "Formation" to the violent element of the movement or make comparisons to white supremacist groups.

"I don't think that's necessarily where she was going," she said.

Given the sensitive subject matter Beyonce was touching on in a very high-profile way, though, some degree of pushback would be expected.

"She was using her artistry to exercise her activism," Wilder said.

Allred is not surprised to see the singer under fire.

"There's always a backlash, no matter what she does," Allred said. With a popular and polarizing artist directly addressing racial issues that are already controversial, the criticism aimed at her seems inevitable.

Between the imagery in the video and the lyrics in the song, there were many overt political messages involved, but Wilder saw nothing intentional in the performance that justified the level of outrage with which some have responded.

"There's a lot of political statements she was making," Wilder said. "I don't think any of the statements were wrapped in violence, though."

It is unclear how many of the millions watching were truly offended on Sunday night. Social media can amplify the complaints of a small group or it can reflect a broader trend, and it will be a while before the implications for the artist are known.

Allred predicted the storm would blow over once people move on to the next pop culture outrage, but with Beyonce's tour and a possible new album coming up, the issue could be revived by other songs or performances.

"I guess it's kind of a waiting game for a little bit," he said.

"I think people are perfectly entitled to, and we should respect, their right to protest," Wilder said, but she argued that focusing on the anti-police perception diminishes the broader message of the performance.

That said, she does not expect Beyonce to come forward and offer any explanations or apologies.

"It's open for interpretation for those of us who are taking in her message, but I don't think she owes us any more than she has already given us," Wilder said.

"I think that's the beauty of being an artist."

Allred agreed Beyonce has no responsibility to elaborate on the issues raised by the video and the performance or to respond to her critics.

"In the past, she's not really commented much on any of her work and I guess that's part of her brand."

He believes she accomplished exactly what she set out to do with "Formation," though.

"She wants to start the conversation, and she's done that in a way that few people could have," Allred said.

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