Ever since Dan Berrigan's death, I have been thinking of the role of poetry in social protest, and how it is more powerful and also how it avoids all the traps of statements. It lets me say what I feel without having to justify anything. Last week, my son Luke's friend Brian, both of them part of Philly Student Union, got a concussion at school while trying to go to the bathroom, because he was held in a choke hold by a school security guard. I am not kidding you. But the coverup is underway. So the poets must come forth....
The Color of Orange
My son, sixteen, knows her son, eighteen.
My (white) son, sixteen, knows her (black) son, eighteen.
So we all know that what we are reading in the paper--
the statement by the school district--
is a lie. I am a poet, so I want to write something true
even though it is not official and will not be believed.
[ I am white, and I finished a top university,
so I have been conditioned to expect that what I say
will be listened to.
This is the background of this poem.
This is the foreground of this poem.
This is why the school district spokesman will be believed
and her son (eighteen, black, five feet four, eleventh grade) will not be believed
even though his body carries the evidence. ]
Ben Franklin was a poor (white) boy who did well,
became healthy, wealthy, and wise from going to bed early apparently,
so it was appropriate for his City of Brotherly Love
to name an institution of learning after him.
In the high school named for him,
all the bathrooms are locked, and there are school military police
on every other floor. To use the bathroom, you need a pass or go at pass-time.
To get a pass is usually impossible. The police-guards sometimes let you in,
or you have to try another floor, another guard. Good luck.
Her son needed to use the bathroom at pass-time.
(How many times did I walk into a bathroom today and use it?)
The guard (over six feet, white)
refused. This guard has been giving him the evil eye anyway.
Damn. Try another floor, another guard.
(Why do we have guards instead of counselors and nurses?)
The next floor. Same guard. Got here ahead of him, looks mad.
(Reader, are you wetting your pants yet, remembering high school,
having to go,
what if you wet your pants in high school
outside a locked bathroom.
But I digress, and anyway, you didn’t go to a high school with locked bathrooms,
did you?) Refuses to let him use the bathroom.
Her son is not violent. He is smart and committed to justice.
But he has been pushed to the edge, he has to go.
He hurls an orange against the wall.
(You could see the mark of the orange on the opposite wall before
they cleaned it up and said instead that he threw in the other direction,
at the guard’s head. Lots of people saw it, but then,
they were just black and brown kid-people.
The in-charge people had it erased by a brown janitor.)
The police-guard was angry. Two crushing fists into the student’s face now
(five feet four, brown boy son), then
head smashed against the floor,
the choke hold.
On the video taken on the iphone of his friend
(brown boy, armed with technology that can witness) we see only
the chokehold part. For two long seconds, I hear his imploring words
as he holds his phone, knowing it is the defense his friend
will need, urging the guard:
“Let him go, dawg—he isn’t even resisting.”
I watch her son
pinioned in the blue grip, lying on the floor of the school
named for Benjamin Franklin in my fair city of brotherly love.
He is getting quieter, face flushed,
losing air, consciousness,
(Oh sorry, that was us seeing the black…)
I pause this poem while I go use my unlocked bathroom
and as an aside, thank God
there is finally some kind of technological witness,
the only way even good (white) people like me--
whose experience is that we are listened to –
will actually believe what goes on,
and still we think it must be a trick, an isolated case;
the film must have been tampered with.
This new technological witness troubles our restless (white) dreams--
Rodney King, Fruitvale Station, Eric Garner—
lifting them into digital brightness.
Luckily there is always the white fallback:
the cover-up about what came before the tape,
the myth of the violent black-brown man.
He cursed and he hurled an orange. Fact.
Orange at the opposite wall.
Sticks and stones, but words shall never hurt me.
Let these words hurt you.
Let these words hurt you.
The administration makes the iphone boy (brown, young)
erase the video from his phone.
The boy (brilliant, loving justice) goes home
and pulls the video from the cloud of witnesses
which is why I am even writing this poem,
and why the school district had to make a statement
duly dispersed and digested by reporters:
School District spokesman Fernando Gallard disputed the choke hold, saying it was “clearly a restraining hold and not a choke hold.”.... the student “voluntarily” began banging his head on the floor, an act that was witnessed by the school's principal, Gallard said. “After all this occurred, the student is declaring he was assaulted by the school police officer,” Gallard said. “We are now conducting an investigation because we take those accusations seriously.”
It doesn’t really matter. We are a culture of lies anyway.
Consider this description on the website of the high school of one thousand students named for Benjamin Franklin in our fair city in which every day bathrooms are locked:
A comprehensive high school where graduating students embark on one of these pathways: attend a 4-year college or university, attend an accredited 2-year technical program or trade school, join the military, or enter the workforce.
The school will consist of two small learning communities: 9th- and 10th-grade community, and 11th- and 12th-grade community. Each community will have a coordinator and counselor dedicated to develop programs, celebrate successes and support student academic and career goals.
I see her son’s head smashed against the wall like an orange.
I see hallways of students: Black: 78 percent. Latino 14 percent. Asian 5 percent. White 2 percent. The fairest, brilliant of my fair city still full of courage.
Let him go, dawg, he isn't even resisting.
I write this poem because I want all of us to resist.
I don’t want to stay part
of the willing unknowing cloud of un-witnesses any longer.
I can no longer bear to pull on my white skin--
my pass for the bathroom and my pass for life—
without naming its power.
I write this poem to say something true,
but also because I do not know what part of her son’s injuries
allow my son to breathe clear air.
-Dee Dee Risher