Poetry has long been a vehicle for voicing unrest, from the words of Maya Angelou to Nikki Giovanni. A new series, "Poetry for the People" Read-Outs, is using the words of poet-activists like Audre Lorde, Lucille Clifton and more to add Miami's voice in the fight for justice for Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager who was killed by Ferguson, Mo. police officer Darren Wilson. The gatherings, held October 21 and October 28, will feature FIU students and faculty members reading works by renowned poets as well as original works.
A read-out was recently held at FIU's Biscayne Bay Campus, which included a chance to sign the Change.org petition, to "establish state-wide task forces to provide community oversight of the Florida Police Departments," which will be sent to Rick Scott. The events at the Modesto Maidique Campus will give students and faculty an even bigger opportunity to air their concerns about current racial issues plaguing the country.
Dr. Donna Weir-Soley, associate professor of FIU's Department of English, says the name of the event comes from the late poet/activist June Jordan's poetry group at the University of California, Berkeley.
"I knew June Jordan while I was a student at Berkeley, and I joined her and other activists to celebrate the end of apartheid in South Africa. I recall that we danced the Toi-Toi (a South African freedom dance) on Sproul Plaza when Mandela was elected president of a free South Africa," Weir-Soley said. "I named the read-outs after June Jordan's group because she was a true poet of the people.
"She never pandered to the subtle (and not so subtle) demand that poets be apolitical... She spoke truth to power...that is one of the main things I think poetry ought to do -- expose the raw underbelly of social structures and of human nature and push us to change, to transform, to be kinder, to use our words to demand life, justice and peace for all of us."
Weir-Soley, who works with activist-poets, reached out to her colleagues in FIU's English and African and African Diaspora Studies departments about developing a read-out to support Ferguson and connect today's issues on race and police brutality with America's history of racism, suppression, and violence in black and brown communities. Weir-Soley, who put together the event with friend and co-organizer Tiffany Austin, hopes the events trigger a larger sense of artistic activism in Miami.
"According to a seven-year long FBI study that ended in 2012, a minimum of two black men are killed in police custody every single week in America. The report says there could be more because there are deaths in police custody whose causes are unaccounted for and the FBI only reported the ones they were sure were directly caused by the police," Weir-Soley said. "We are approaching the end of 2014, so I am sure those statistics have gone up since the study was done -- it sure appears so. Either way, two deaths per week already boggles my mind. I hope most Americans would want to see due process served rather than have cops serve as judge, jury, and executioner of young black men, [most of them] barely out of boyhood."
Weir-Soley also cites that more black people are stopped by the police and harassed or even arrested for minor infractions that white Americans wouldn't be harassed for. "This is one way to criminalize black and brown bodies. Most white Americans do not know this and some do not believe it when you tell them," she wrote. "But, at the very least, I would hope most of them would agree that killing black men without even bringing them to jail, without even bringing them before a jury and a judge, is a violation of human and civil rights."
The read-outs echo the amount of marches, rallies and petitions that have defined Ferguson in the past few months. There have been many instances in which black men and women have been persecuted by police or renegade individuals. Quite a few of the cases stem from Florida.
Three cases include Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Miami Gardens teen killed in Sanford by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. Another is Marissa Alexander from Jacksonville, whose 20-year sentence for firing a warning shot into the air to keep her husband from attacking her has recently been overturned. Also from Jacksonville is Jordan Davis, a teen who was killed in 2012 by Michael Dunn for playing loud music. Dunn was sentenced to life in prison without parole plus 90 years for three attempted murder charges and 15 years for firing into an occupied vehicle.
"What you see in Ferguson is, I believe, a result of years of pent-up frustration at inequality, police brutality, and domestic terror in the form of extreme socio-political and economic disenfranchisement and the erosion of human and civil rights in that region and across the United States," Weir-Soley said. "Mike Brown, John Crawford, Eric Garner, Daren Hunt, Renisha McBride, Oscar Grant, and a lot more young black people have been killed nationwide primarily because of their race. Many of them are killed by the very police who are supposed to protect them from violence. They are killed without due process, and that is the part that really gets to me."
Weir-Soley echoes what many black Americans already fear: "It can happen to anyone of us and it is very scary to be black right now, especially if you happen to be a black male or the parent of one," she said. "Perhaps Mike Brown is our wake-up call to just how pernicious and ubiquitous racial terror and violence is in our society. Most Blacks are terrified of the police. We don't see them as our protectors, we see them as our potential killers."
Two of the readers at the previous read-out, Ashley M. Jones and Cathleen Chambless, poetry MFA candidates for FIU, discussed how the event gave them a chance to join the fight against police brutality.
"[It] was an opportunity to use my poetry for an important cause, and I wanted to show solidarity with people who are displeased with the injustices that occurred in crimes against black people and people of color in this country," Jones said. "From a political standpoint, it's necessary because these issues affect us as Floridians and Americans. From an arts standpoint, Miami is extremely arts-centric, so it would only make sense that we would use our art for political reasons."
Chambless, who was asked to join the event by Jones, felt the event also gave political poets a viable platform for expression. "[Jones] and I are one of the few political poets in our MFA program at FIU," she wrote. "I felt honored to be asked and was happy to participate. I wanted to participate because these crimes against humanity should not go unnoticed. These victims deserve justice and recognition."
Some of the poets that have been read, though still considered contemporary, are from the '60s and '70s, such as the poetry of Audre Lorde. Chambless says that the words are as relevant today as they were years ago. "Not much has changed. Donna Weir-Soley said [at the read-out] that our poets need to be listened to, and clearly have not been, which is why they need to be read again," she said. "I hope people also find some sort of connection with the poetry and it stirs up a fire within them to help become part of the process of change, to not be complacent."
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Weir-Soley encourages people of all trades and interests to attend and contribute. "You do not have to be a writer yourself to contribute. You can read the work of a famous or not so famous writer. We also need journalists, photographers, audience members, and just people of good will cheering us on and doing their part in whatever way they can.
"I hope they learn that what affects one of us affects all of us. I hope they will put color, class, race, and ethnicity and personal prejudices aside and join in this effort to confront racism and police brutality because it is the right thing to do."
The read-outs at the Modesto Maidique Campus will take place at 1 p.m. in front of the fountain near the Charles Perry (Primera Casa) Building. The event is free to the public and is co-sponsored by FIU's Department of English. Call 305-348-6860.