"For the Record": 7 Poems Resisting Police Violence

Image of three young poets of color performing on stage with a black background. Three individuals with short hair stand in the back wearing black t-shirts and khaki shorts; an individual with long braided hair wearing a black shirt and jeans stands in front, with their arms extended. Screenshot of of the Atlanta Team performing their poem "Rosa Parks" at the 2015 Brave New Voices Finals.

Image of three young poets of color performing on stage with a black background. Three individuals with short hair stand in the back wearing black t-shirts and khaki shorts; an individual with long braided hair wearing a black shirt and jeans stands in front, with their arms extended. Screenshot of of the Atlanta Team performing their poem "Rosa Parks" at the 2015 Brave New Voices Finals.

by Abaki Beck

When this was published, 510 people had been killed by police in the United States in 2017. Let me repeat: just in 2017. Robin White. Juan Manuel Avilla. Toni Jo Collins. Yia Lee. These are the names of just a few of the people who lives were taken at the hands of those sworn to protect us (whoever that "us" may be). At the beginning of March, an 8 year old was handcuffed at school. In April, a 10 year old autistic boy was handcuffed at school and was forced to spend the night in juvenile detention. These stories are not just individual stories, but part of a tangled, racist system of violence. This issue will not be solved simply by holding officers accountable who needlessly kill people (often, we can't even get that far). We must reimagine what community safety and accountability looks like. There are many individuals - like prison abolitionists like Angela Y. Davis and incarcerated activists who lead labor strikes - who are already doing this work. 

We've compiled seven of our favorite poems on state violence - from emerging youth poets to Audre Lorde and Langston Hughes. Let us continue to fight against racist police violence and uplift the stories of those most impacted by it. 

Field Trip to the Museum of Human History by Franny Choi

"Dry-mouthed, we came upon a contraption
of chain and bolt, an ancient torture instrument

the guide called “handcuffs.” We stared
at the diagrams and almost felt the cold metal

licking our wrists, almost tasted dirt,
almost heard the siren and slammed door,

the cold-blooded click of the cocked-back pistol,
and our palms were slick with some old recognition,

as if in some forgotten dream we did live this way,
in submission, in fear, assuming positions

of power were earned, or at least carved in steel"

 

Rosa Parks by the Atlanta Team at the 2015 Youth Poetry Slam Finals

 

For the Record by Audre Lorde

"and I am going to keep writing it down
how they carried her body out of the house
dress torn up around her waist
uncovered
past tenants and the neighborhood children
a mountain of Black Woman
and I am going to keep telling this
if it kills me"

 

When the Officer Caught Me by Nate Marshall 

 

For Peshwar by Fatimah Asghar 

"Every year, we call them something new.

British. Americans. Indians. Hindus. Terrorists.
The steady dirge of our hearts pounding

vicious, as we prepare the white
linen, as we ready to wrap our bodies."

Emmet by the Philadelphia Team at the 2015 Youth Poetry Slam Festival 

 

Let America be America Again by Langston Hughes 

"O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,

Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)"

 

And a few more resources: 

Hands Up Don't Shoot: Exploring what it means to be black in America, special issue of Winter Tangerine Review

#GetFreeWrites: Writing Prompts on Police Brutality and Racist Violence by the Dark Noise Collective 

PENS UP | How Writers Can Join the Fight Against Police Brutality by the Dark Noise Collective

Poems About Police Violence collected by Mariame Kaba

Our Prison, Police, and State Violence page, which has dozens more resources and readings