I am not a poet. Nikky Finney, Audre Lorde, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Pat Parker are. I started writing poetry when I was eleven years old. My poems were melodramatic diatribes about poverty, homelessness, and war. I was a strange kid who grew into a weird adult who is not a poet but reads, loves, and still occasionally writes poems in her journal.
I am an organizer: a prison abolitionist who wants to see black people, my people, free. To achieve this goal, we need imagination. Poetry helps me to imagine freedom.
It is possible ...It is possible at least sometimes ...It is possible especially nowTo ride a horseInside a prison cellAnd run away…— From The Prison Cell by Mahmoud Darwish
Over the past year and a half, more people across the US have been circulating images of black death in part because of the current focus on police violence and impunity. These images, however, are traumatic and to some degree mind- and soul-numbing. How do we mourn? How can we grieve? I think poetry opens a door. Poetry helps us to resist.
Last summer, I stood on a soapbox, a real one, and used poetry to call out the cops while grieving in public.
The previous Friday, Dominique “Damo” Franklin, Jr. had been laid to rest after having been tased to death by police. I hoped to attend his funeral but in the end I was unable due to a previous commitment. It was just as well. I hate funerals, especially when the person being buried is in his early twenties.
i sawthree little black boyslying in a graveyardi couldn’t tellif they were playingor practicing.— Rehearsal by Baba Lukata
On an overcast Saturday afternoon, on a concrete island at the intersection of Ashland, Milwaukee, and Division, I joined a couple dozen people (mostly young) who were reading and performing poetry in opposition to state violence. The organizers of the gathering were from the Revolutionary Poets Brigade of Chicago and they invited me to say a few words. I said yes, hoping to find an outlet to express my grief.
I was preceded by Damo’s good friend, artist and activist Ethan Viets-VanLear, who shared an original poem:
And the police of the block that got a vendetta on every Black boy child;The perpetrators of this fabricated peace we’ve apparently disturbed!I was born in the gutterhandcuffed on the curb.I was born in a dungeon,medicated and shackled,smothered so I couldn’t speak.
I was transfixed by Ethan’s words and gutted by his pain. His poem was part eulogy, part primal scream. I hoped that his spoken words were a catharsis on the long journey toward healing. Maybe poetry can be a balm. When one reads Dennis Brutus, for example, it is impossible not to believe in the healing power of art:
Somehow we surviveand tenderness, frustrated, does not wither.— From Somehow We Survive
Three kicks between the legsThat kill the kidsI’d make tomorrow.— From Third Degree by Langston Hughes
At some point, we will meetat the tip of the bullet,the blade, or the whipas it draws blood,but only one of us will change,only one of us will slippast the captain and crew of this shipand the other submit to the chainsof a nationthat delivered rhetoricin exchange for its promises.— From Endangered Species by Ai
As I read, I pictured Damo being tased (twice) by Chicago police and hitting his head so hard that he was brain dead when he arrived at the hospital. Unable to adequately convey my horror, I borrowed the poet’s tongue and took comfort in losing myself in another’s words.
The gathering was titled “‘No Knock’ an Artistic Speak-Out Against ‘the American Police State.’” The title was of course inspired by Gil Scott-Heron’s poem “No Knock.”
No Knocked on my brother, Fred Hampton,bullet holes all over the place!No knocked on my brother, Michael Harrisand jammed a shotgun against his skull!
It is as it ever was. No knocked on Damo who is now six feet underground.
Passersby stopped to listen as various people read poems about Guantanamo, police violence, prisons, surveillance, and more. Lorde is right:
Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest external horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.
There is magic in hearing voices speaking out for justice over the din of a bustling city. Gathering as a collective to recite poetry can’t end state violence but it can lift our spirits so that we might live another day to fight for more justice. Now more than ever we need words to help us think through that which cannot be thought. Poetry can help lift the ceiling from our brains so that we can imagine liberation.
Mariame Kaba is the founder and director of Project NIA, a grassroots organization with the long-term goal of ending youth incarceration. Her work focuses on ending violence, dismantling the prison industrial complex, and supporting youth leadership development.