Posts Tagged #racism
It’s like some evil game
of Simon says
Why do so many people
who look like me
comb over the footage,
looking for a misstep?
The questions begin,
cloaked in willful blindness
the cloak victim-blaming
“Yeah but–was he
Why didn’t he
The wrong questions,
world without end
Just ask Charles Kinsey
if hands up & unarmed
& lying on your back
on the road
begging for reason
will keep a black man from being
shot if someone decides
he looks like a threat
because he is breathing
Like someone decided
Tamir was a threat,
sitting alone, dreaming
that will never come true.
I dream of a world where
people who look like me
will ask vastly different questions,
again and again
until this world ends
And a new world opens
one where police will be expected
to protect and serve
a father of four
car broken down
who has his hands in the air
is the absolute expectation
A world where
would still be here
The small man
Builds cages for everyone
While the sage,
Who has to duck his head
When the moon is low,
Keeps dropping keys all night long
The beautiful, rowdy prisoners.
It is their ghosts I think of as I walk past cell after cell. (I know. It’s easy, in such a ruin, to imagine ghosts.)
Silent screams echo through the ruins of Eastern State Penitentiary in the trendy Fairmount neighborhood of urban Philadelphia. This prison, now an historical museum site, has not housed inmates since its closing in 1971.
Maybe it was the humidity, pressing down on me the hot summer afternoon I visited. But I felt what I felt. I felt heavy layers of despair. I heard voices, and not just the recorded ones in the audio headset. I also heard the voices of prisoners past and prisoners present, calling me to attention.
This place was, back in the early 19th century, thought of as a ground-breaking, humanitarian response to reforming criminals. The Quaker-inspired system was based on the belief that solitude and work would allow convicts to focus on their wrong-doing, and become truly “penitent.” Prisoners, many in for crimes like horse theft, saw no one, spoke with no one, touched no one, and smiled at no one, day after day. When necessity forced prisoners to leave their cells, they were hooded so that they had no visual interaction with other humans.
Eastern State is where solitary confinement was pioneered, and perfected, the audio recording hissed in my ears, as I peered in cell after lonely cell. The Pennsylvania System, as it was dubbed, was hailed as a model.
It didn’t work. It did not reform.
But “solitary” remains a punishment used at many modern prisons in the US and is even used on prisoners under the age of 18. US state and federal prisons are currently holding as many as 100,000 inmates in solitary confinement or isolated housing, according to ACLU reports.
Human Rights Watch notes that as of 2006, the rate of reported mental health disorders in the state prison population is five times greater than in the general adult population.
What 17-year-old deserves solitary confinement? What mentally ill person deserves it? Which criminals deserve this, exactly? And who is empowered to decide and implement this torture that takes place far from the eyes of mainstream society?
As Charles Dickens said, after visiting Eastern State in 1842:
“….I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye… and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment in which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.”
I wonder at how I have slumbered. In the courtyard of Eastern State sits a sobering, three dimensional bar graph, charting the rate of incarceration in US prisons versus the rest of the world. The US has achieved world domination here. With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.
Processing all this, I walk the corridors of Eastern State. A fog of cognitive dissonance begins to cloud my mind. The light here is soft, and beautiful as the light through any rose-windowed cathedral. The arched corridors are beautifully proportioned. In its heyday, Eastern State was hailed as a model of justice and technological advancement. On the surface, it appeared to be such a good idea. An unquestionable system, implemented by a government that knew what it was doing.
This is a reminder, one of the little voices whispers to me.
A reminder to wonder, to question. A reminder to look beyond, to see what is really happening.
I’m not entirely sure what all this means. But I know it’s not good. I keep reading. The United States prison population has increased by 500% in just thirty years. I learn that that minorities and impoverished people—the most voiceless, the least powerful— are far more likely to end up doing time. Hard time.
Meanwhile, according to the New York Times, prisoners are being put to work filling government contracts. Think “slave labor.” Federal Prison Industries, also known as Unicor, uses prisoners for labor, and pays as little as 23 cents an hour. And, according to the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, thirty-seven states have legalized the contracting of prison labor by private corporations who bring their operations inside prison walls.
Suddenly, as I write this, I hear other voices too, jeering ones, asking me if I’m forgetting the victims, in all this wondering? No, I’m not forgetting.
But there can be many kinds of victims, after all. And many kinds of crimes, not all of them carried out by individuals.
The ghosts in my head remind me to keep wondering, to keep questioning why we as a nation keep building so very many cages.
Links to more information on this topic:
“I don’t understand,” you commented, “how is it racist?
If those kids were raised right—they wouldn’t be shot.”
Raised right, commenting friend?
I choke on my anger
but I’ll try not to judge you
I used to believe in TV news and fairy tales, too, but now
I want you to imagine reality.
Imagine it, commenting friend,
you, who probably hunt ducks or deer with
your stocky white son, tramp the countryside
waving shotguns and rifles, never imagining:
your son executed for playing with a pellet gun
Imagine it, commenting friend,
imagine your son, gunned down, then framed for his own murder
imagine your daughter, trying to save her little brother
imagine some asshole, hundreds, thousands of assholes, saying
you raised him wrong
Promise me, commenting friend
you’ll imagine your son, wide-eyed with fear, as he bleeds
turns the snow beneath him pink, then red, while his sister
who ran to save him is tackled and bound
as the officers stand, hands on hips, not even pretending to help
Imagine later, commenting friend
when you, rightfully outraged, sick with grief
wait for justice
surely this time, this time—an indictment? It’s all on video!
He was just twelve, playing alone—surely this time, this time?
Tell me now, commenting friend
Do you still think it’s not a race thing?
I’d rather reach your heart and change your mind
than leave you untouched while children are shot and left to die.
I bleed out, listening to you who was “raised right.”
3/2/15: This is a second draft of a poem originally published 12/6/14. It is quite different from draft one, and I think it says what I want to say more accurately.
Tamir Rice was playing with a pellet gun on a Cleveland, Ohio playground when someone called the police. The caller told 911 that the gun was “probably fake.” Surveillance video released by the police shows the officers’ car pulling up right next to the boy, and shows an officer shooting Tamir in the stomach within seconds of pulling up. Tamir was 12.
Officer Loehmann, the shooter, was not indicted.
“I can’t breathe!”
Eric Garner’s last words,
gasped as Officer Pantaleo’s hands
squeezed his windpipe shut.
“I can’t breathe,” Garner pleaded
as he died, begging—
every cell in his body
screaming for oxygen.
“No reasonable cause,”
said the D.A.,
when the grand jury choked on logic
refusing to indict even though
the medical examiner ruled
Garner’s death a homicide.
“I can’t breathe!”
“This fight ain’t over, it just begun,”
said Esaw Garner. In her voice
I hear every cell in her body
screaming, begging, pleading for justice.
I saw a picture of
Michael Brown’s mother
as she heard the verdict.
I felt her mother’s pain
radiate into my heart,
into my safe flat-screened life
a roaring scream—
and with the pain,
my own weak shame:
in my white-bubble youth
I was taught justice would be served—
to everyone, it says so right here.
No. Justice fled, unarmed
was shot dead
in an alley
on a street
in the dark
in the night—
Justice was too threatening,
I think that was it?
Justice was gunned down
in a hail of close-range verdicts
excusing the inexcusable:
racism denied is still racism.