Why Are We Still Working? (If Not Now, When?)

One morning recently I woke up thinking about how everyone I know (myself included) is still going to work. What is so damn important that we continue to work while 7 million people have died in just over a year, with as many as 900,000 in the US, and many more than that experiencing long term disabilities as a result of this illness?

Throughout the last year, I have had many conversations with loved ones about how concerned and reactive we should be to the political failures and crises around us. Should we have a go bag on hand? Should we be ready to flee? Where would we go, and when would we do it? One question seems to lie at the heart of these: What crisis is THE crisis? When is the moment when everything changes?

I have learned from history as well as from the experiences of my friends and comrades, and even from my own experiences, that such a moment does not necessarily exist. In this past year in the US, many of us seem to feel that if we were really in a social collapse (akin to the ones we’ve read about or seen in movies over and over), we would know it. It’s too easy to miss the point that most people inside of historical events didn’t know or did not change their behavior to recognize and engage the social crises they were living through.

The reality is that during a dictatorship, during a genocide, during a rebellion and a revolution, daily life continues. People go to work, people cook meals, people go to school, there are in fact some people whose lives can feel almost unaffected by what is going on around them. The testimonies of people who were tortured during the last military dictatorship in Argentina are rife with anger about the silence of their neighbors as they were being kidnapped from their homes, as well as a whole slew of films examining how upper class and otherwise privileged people convinced themselves to ignore what was going on in dictatorships throughout the Southern Cone and beyond as they reaped the benefits of “social order.”

But you can see the same social life playing out in the background of countless other situations, too. People continue shopping, working, participating in the economy and other institutions to which they belong, while others may be actively refusing all of that and uprooting their lives completely (or having it foist upon them). A few years ago in Honduras, Karla Lara explained another version of this dichotomy by saying there are two kinds of “bubbles”: activists, political people, and those being victimized by the state are aware of the situation there—the narco-dictatorship of Juan Orlando Hernández— while the other “bubble” is full of people who shop, go to work, watch the TV news, and think things are generally fine.

Put in such a way, the “everything is fine” bubble sounds incredible. But put another way, it’s not incredible at all. The same concept has already been happening in small and large ways in the US since its foundation; after all, the majority of us go about our daily lives never thinking about the 2.3 million people imprisoned in the US, or the torture, sexual assault, and other forms of harm that befalls them every day, in part because we believe in the necessity of such a system.

I do not mean to flatten the important differences between all of these examples. But I believe there are also important similarities as well here too, and they are worth thinking through. The pandemic is perhaps only the latest version of the question: should we be going to work with this number of people dying each day? It seems critical to explore this question because it’s uncomfortable to think about the forces that compel most of us to keep going on with our normal-ish daily lives as if nothing was the matter when so much is the matter.

One reason we continue to work is that we need to. We work in order to have money to feed ourselves and our families. We need to work to have a place to live. And work is not the same for all of us, it is not socially valued in the same way for all of us, some work is both critical and unpaid, and, crucially, we are not all in equivalent need of money for food and shelter. I cannot of course deal with all these differences here, nor do I mean to try. My goal here is to point out that even within, between, and across these differences, there are overarching moments for collective and individual reflection.

What I want to point out is that if we feel we must work even in the midst of social collapse because otherwise we will lose food and shelter, this is not an accident. This is a purposeful entanglement of capitalism. It bears repeating and highlighting. It’s also certainly worth noting that capitalists themselves had a banner year last year despite all the hand-wringing about “the economy.” In a year of catastrophe, some individuals made unimaginable sums of money even as the people responsible for their profits lost their lives on the job and millions more lost their jobs. The 719 billionaires in the United States made $1.62 trillion dollars between March 18, 2020, and April 12, 2021, including Jeff Bezos, whose income has grown by 74 percent, and Warren Buffett, whose income has grown by 50 percent in this period.

If we are forced to continue to work even when thousands of people per day are dying in our own society (to say nothing of worldwide death tolls), or when the National Guard is occupying your city to quell a rebellion against the continual execution of people on the streets by police, when would be the moment that we would or could refuse work? These are both individual and collective questions.

While I mean for these questions to be provocative in the literal sense, I don’t mean for these questions to be rhetorical. I don’t think I have all the answers or that the answers for our times—or for each of us—will necessarily be obvious. I think these questions merit and require examination, and perhaps merit continuous reflection, beyond the expression of exhaustion and mild pushback to being asked to meet the same productivity standards.

I ask these questions both as someone who did refuse to continue working in an unsafe service job during the pandemic, but only once I found another job option. Not so long ago, I was also convinced to go into work and teach a class at the university when a toxic cloud of uncontrolled flames could be seen from both my house and the window of my classroom.

If we haven’t yet refused work (again the “we” is both individual and collective) how could we each go about loosening our relationships to work, or conversely, strengthening our ability to refuse work when it becomes dangerous for us individually and collectively?

Like other forms of refusal of the status quo, it is important to think about these questions and actively practice the pieces that answering them will require in our lives before the moment arises. So much of our daily life, in movements but also at work, at home, wherever, is also a rehearsal. One of the functions of certain social movements or collective spaces has sometimes been to create protected spaces to “rehearse” ways of being with each other. In Two Cheers for Anarchism, James Scott gives a good example of practicing disobedience by occasionally breaking small laws or rules like refusing to wait for a traffic light when no one is around. The idea is being prepared to disobey and practicing it as a counter to the deep socialization in which we are steeped.

One important piece of the puzzle of rehearsal (but not the only one), are the simple abilities to say no and to experience conflict. The ability to refuse work is first premised on the ability to say no. Are we still working because we haven’t practiced this? It seems that we must be able to say no to protect our boundaries, and to say no for whatever reason. Can we say no to our bosses, for both little and big things? And if not, how can we practice that? And what else must we first practice? Because it will only get harder when the stakes get higher.

Given that the climate crisis is already intensifying and that many of us work for revolutions of various kinds in our social conditions, I think it is necessary to ask ourselves these questions and reflect on them. Who are we, and what role do we expect to play in various kind of social crises and events that are either already happening or that we can foresee or hope to see happen in the future? Under what conditions would we stop working, if not now? Why is it so damn important to go to work, and who are we enriching with our labor? And if we don’t feel we can quit work, how can we strengthen our ability to do that in the future?

the police just keep murdering people

the last time I sat down to write, I was trying to write about the police killing Black people, and about the widespread harm the police do in general. it was last Wednesday, and Daunte Wright was still alive.

my poet friend really described this best in “Next Black Murder

in an effort to spread ideas, hope, and care for each other, and to fortify our abolitionist networks, here are some things folks can do about the violence that is inherent to policing:

What Does It Mean to Feel Hopeful Right Now?

Mariame Kaba says “hope is a discipline,” and of course, as in most things, she is completely right. What makes me so devastated is that right now I see so many people (ahem white liberals! but others too) digging for and grasping at false hope. Yes, we absolutely must have some hope for better times ahead in order to get through tough situations, like the coronavirus pandemic we’re living through right now. But to me it is critically important to distinguish “hope” in the generic sense from the kind of hope that Mariame Kaba is talking about, or the kind that I embrace as I face the world anew every day. Irrational hope that things will just get better on their own; the mistaken but common belief that massive, systemic problems will resolve themselves through the simple passage of time (“history moves forward”); and false hope in bad solutions or ones that simply sidestep issues and create new and different systems of inequality – I can only see this hope leading to more cynicism, depression, anxiety, and hopelessness. Hope in *anything* just for the sake of *having some hope* doesn’t really seem like hope to me at all.

I do not feel any hope in a vaccination roll out that continues right down the genocidal and imperialist path we are already walking down. Seeing and hearing people more focused on how quickly we can fulfill our own desires than on how they can work with others to leave fewer people behind fills me with despair, not hope.

Hope, for me, comes from the visionary organizing of disabled people who have fought for priority access to the vaccine. Hope, for me, comes from learning how to design solutions to this pandemic that would actually work for most or all of the population by working collectively in struggle with the groups that are most affected by it, not by listening to some blowhard politicians that actually do not give a shit if people die. Actually what I mean is some politicians that are interested in killing people so they can profit off of it or, best case scenario, would not bother to help us even if they had the chance to cast a winning vote.

Hope comes to me in letters from prison and in messages from Honduras and in emails from long-lost friends. It says “they tried to separate us but they could not.” It says “they tried to kill our visions but they could not.” It whispers “they tried to tell us the sun would not rise unless we gave up everything that meant anything to us but they were wrong.” It reassures me “They tried to make us afraid to live with dignity but I’m not afraid if we do it together.” Turning to the discipline of hope, I can tell myself that there are many things that I might want to make my life more comfortable/relaxing/fun right now, but I can sit down, take a deep breath, and reach within my network and my imagination to find how can I meet that need in another way without leaving someone else behind. I have hope that my sacrifices are actually saving and improving lives, and that my work matters to someone.

I am deeply, deeply angry – I am in a rage a lot of the time. But I have a lot of hope too. I am inspired by the brave and visionary people all around me, and I learn constantly how to do a better job working to create a different and better world together with those people. This hope is not always easy. It requires work. But it is built on my real experiences and relationships, not lies. It is hard to let go of the easy, shiny promises and false hopes being hawked but I know I am not alone and I know these hopes are solid. I know that the only way to a future I want a part of is one that I take an active part in creating and understanding and in that, there is also hope.

Pink and gray images of a wrench with a heart in the middle. Text says "The virus is capitalism. A new world is upon us. Let's build it together."
art by Christeen Francis @ Justseeds Collective

Fiction I read in 2020

I believe that fiction, and art more generally, is never frivolous. Abolition, to give one potent example, relies heavily on the power of imagination because we must be able to imagine a world beyond cages, beyond borders, beyond policing of all kinds as we begin to build that new world. This work requires us to strengthen our imaginations, and part of the work of abolition is also recuperating imagination from capitalism, which is relentlessly working to kill and co-opt our ability to imagine things for ourselves. Capital (and capitalists) wants to show us things as it sees them, as it wants things to be; it wants to shape the world and sell it back to us. It does not thrive when we are able to imagine, shape, and reshape the world for ourselves. Human beings have powerful imaginations, but only when we cultivate them.

Fiction is critical just when things seem to be at their most serious, and, in that spirit, I share some food for your imagination.

***

I strongly encourage anyone purchasing books to avoid Amazon in particular and other large chains in general (the library is also always an option). If you don’t have a particular independent bookstore or even if you do, you can order any of these books easily online at Bookshop and support independent bookstores.

***

  • The Plague – Albert Camus – Very cliché read, and yet I cannot say enough how many passages leapt off the page as if they had come out of the Washington Post. I thought this would be depressing and yet it was validating (and infuriating). The excitement in the air about the vaccine feels so much like the end of the book.
  • Loop – Brenda Lozano – A very apt book for right now. A book about waiting, and about nothing and everything.
  • The Death of Vivek Oji – Akwaeke Emezi — Powerful, affirming, sad book about nonbinary gender, but not as sad as I thought it would be.
  • Signs Preceding the End of the World – Yuri Herrera – A beautiful allegorical tale about the borderlands between the US and Mexico, recommended by many readers of Mexican literature as an alternative to Jeanine Cummins book (please don’t read that book)
  • The Deep – Rivers Solomon – Aching, haunting, powerful but not devastating. Perhaps one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read.
  • The Shadow King – Maaza Mengiste – An intersectional tour de force on colonialism, class, gender, caste, and race, and maybe one of the most difficult books I’ve read for me personally, possibly because of the combination of the subject matter, format, and unfamiliarity with the history and region. A difficult read that was worth it.
  • Storm of Locusts — Rebecca Roanhorse – the sequel to Trail of Lightning which I loved last year. It did not disappoint!
  • Mildred Taylor’s Logan Family series  – This is highly recommended YA by the woman who wrote Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. It turns out Taylor wrote a whole series of books around multiple generations of the family in that book, beginning with The Land. In August I disconnected from all electronic communication and hung out in my house to detox. During that period, I read five books, and in the end, The Land was the one I ended up recommending to everyone.
  • American Marriage – Tayari Jones – A really compelling and engrossing book about the effect of large social forces on one family.
  • Brooklyn Brujas series — Zoraida Córdova – YA about Chicana teenage witches. Do I need to tell you more, really?
  • The Distance between Us – Renato Cisneros – Part family memoir and part reflection on individual roles and responsibility? ignorance? innocence? in the midst of governmental terror, this is the true/fictional account of the son of a Peruvian general in the 1970s and 1980s, given to me by a close friend who lived through the same period and recently translated into English by the wonderful Charco Press.
  • The City We Became – NK Jemisin — If you are not yet reading everything by NK Jemisin, you may want to start. I am, so I will continue to recommend it.
  • Unpregnant – Jenni Hendricks and Ted Caplan – A very funny book about a serious subject (restrictive abortion laws). I recommend that this become a genre.

Especially good non-fiction:

  • Who Killed Berta Cáceres? – Nina Lakhani – A powerful investigative account of how the murder of Berta Cáceres was arranged and how the crime is embedded in larger forces of extractivism, corruption, and especially counterinsurgency tactics linked directly to the US. Some of the clearest writing I’ve read describing how counterinsurgency actually works inside communities.
  • Indigenous People’s History of the United States – Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz – Should be required reading for every white and/or settler person in the United States. I had picked and chose chapters to read previously, but Dunbar-Ortiz’s thesis grows slowly over the course of the book and I appreciated the ideas much more deeply when I read the whole thing straight through.
  • Dead Girls – Selva Almada – Imaginative, powerful, and intimate book about femicide and machismo exploring the unresolved murders of 3 girls in the interior of Argentina in the 1980s and their ghosts. Just short enough and just the right tone to be read without quite breaking my heart completely.
an image relevant to the COVID era from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince

Why Hillbilly Elegy Makes Me Angry

Just a quick post throwing together many great essays and discussions that explain why I’m not in to Hillbilly Elegy, movie and book, now that it’s getting even bigger. I know some people in my life have found it compelling, because I know it does show some things that some of us identify with, and that most people really want to see ourselves and the conditions of our lives represented in books and movies. But I think we can and should find better versions of this representation, and this is why:

  1. Most importantly: JD Vance’s personal politics are terrible – he hobnobs with Charles Murray and the American Enterprise Institute, he does not believe that people need or deserve social assistance and actively promotes policies to cut food, shelter, healthcare for others. Ask yourself why this person has written this book and what its purpose is. This podcast is a great summary (on this and the whole thing): https://citationsneeded.libsyn.com/news-brief-review-netflixs-charles-murray-themed-hallmark-film-hillbilly-elegy
  2. The whole thing REEKS “culture of poverty” – when will we be done with this idea and the damage it has caused?
    https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/10/hillbilly-elegy-review-jd-vance-national-review-white-working-class-appalachia/
  3. “The problem with Hillbilly Elegy’s version of the Pygmalion story is that it never reckons with the fact that J.D.’s whiteness—bought and paid for, in part, by Scots-Irish ancestors through bloody colonial warfare—is not just incidental but integral to his triumph. Hillbilly Elegy is a Bildungsroman about becoming middle-class white that never asks why that gold standard is problematic.” The book and the author’s politics are absolutely about promoting biological notions of race and other forms of white supremacy, even more so because it is claiming not to be about race (again, look up Charles Murray!):
    http://bostonreview.net/arts-society/ellen-wayland-smith-mythic-whiteness-hillbilly
  4. There are real questions of “poverty porn,” driven particularly by questions about who made the movie and who wrote the book (Vance doesn’t seem to be particularly tied to the community, or maybe what I mean is, allied with it – is he really writing about himself?). More to the point there is a long history of harmful representation and Appalachian stereotypes: https://www.americamagazine.org/arts-culture/2020/11/25/hillbilly-elegy-poverty-porn-239358
  5. This story disappears many other communities in Appalachia – what do we get by continuing to only represent/consume this subset of experiences? https://theoutline.com/post/3147/elizabeth-catte-what-you-are-getting-wrong-about-appalachia-interview?zd=1&zi=ymnfodks
  6.  It’s a terrible (inaccurate) way to understand the “white working class,” which is precisely what many “coastal elites” have tried to do with this book: https://prospect.org/culture/books/unlearning-lessons-hillbilly-elegy-nov20/
JD Vance, a white man, with a blue tie and light gray jacket, with his mouth open at a podium.
JD Vance

every day I get up and I do one thing to move in the direction of freedom

Every day I get up and I work on my long list of small tasks dedicated to moving us toward liberation, toward the revolution, toward supporting a comrade, toward righting an injustice. In times like these, every night I lie down to sleep and I wonder if I’ve done enough, if my small contribution can possibly be weighed against the thousands of lives lost that day to the combined weight of coronavirus, racism, capitalism, imperialism, settler colonialism, and heteropatriarchy. This is an ugly kind of math, and one that I can never win. How can the phone call I’ve made, the letter I’ve written, even the hours I may have spent or the miles I might have marched measure up to these lives? And yet, it seems to be the only kind of math I know how to do at the moment.

The more relevant kind of math, the one I know from decades of activism, is that change and movements are made for the most part by small, regular, granular level actions. While the scale of what we are organizing against is massive and horrific, what it takes to bring it down, I think, is steady work. Maybe it is wrong to use the term work here – maybe I mean effort. Or steady dedication. Chipping away at. After all, the systems of injustice and oppression are also made up of a series of smaller things: rules, people, policies, particular institutions, attitudes, habits, actions, and so on. They are not singular, enormous horrors but composites of smaller things too.

 I know I am not the first to say this; I am not saying this because I think it is news. I am saying this to remind myself and recall myself to this truth. I am writing for myself because I am writing myself back to this truth.

Because in the mode of crisis, it is hard to remember. And these days I feel I live in a crisis. This is no accident but part of both Trumpism’s strategy as well as endemic to capitalism. This week alone there was the tense national election in the US; the hurricane that hit my comrades in a Honduras already devastated and made fragile by narco-dictatorship and neoliberal plundering; and the surge of coronavirus cases in the ongoing pandemic. People close to me need support for other private troubles; the source of these troubles are almost all located in larger systems of structural oppression intensified by certain news cycles. In the crisis mode, it is hard to remember that I’m working together with others for big, long-term changes, and also small gains. It’s hard to remember that I exist in larger communities of talented, visionary, resilient people, and that we want it all – small immediate changes now, and big stuff, and everything in between even as I recognize no change will last forever. I am lucky to exist in communities with these people, I am honored to learn constantly from them, and overjoyed to have the skills and resources to be able to find ways to support their work.

Crisis is the vision of the right wing that does not value Black life, Indigenous life, or life itself; it is their mode. I was reminded by Hoda Katebi that we already have our own, better plans; I was reminded that, as Mariame Kaba says, “hope is a discipline”; I was reminded to listen to all the wisdom right around me insisting that even cracks of light in a dark time are necessary and vital forces.

I will continue to wake up every day and commit to organizing in movement with other people or somehow acting in solidarity with others or supporting my folks. I will continue doing one thing every day to build a better world, and I will know that in doing so, I am building some version of that world. This struggle is long and it will never be done but struggling together is how we get free.

An illustration of various masked people in shades of blue hovering across the image, connected to each other by white constellations. One person is holding a sign that says “the future is collective care,” one person is sitting in a wheelchair, and other people are holding megaphones.
“We keep each other safe in the streets by building connecting beyond the physical” by Molly Costello in collaboration with Lifted Voices.

Neglect Fatigue Syndrome

Neglect Fatigue Syndrome
by Maurece L. Graham

I don't want to love no more,
I've loved all that I can
This ain't no march for Blake
I'm Black
I can walk til they name a street after me
legislate til they put my name on a plaque
get arrested til the system cracks
talk til I can't breathe
and still this place won't love me

I don't want to love no more
you equivocate every time I die
and only ask why
I kill myself too,
never acknowledging the arrows
pointed at you
I'm a talking point in your news
something that validates your views
of my death being justified no matter
how I died

No, I don't want to love no more
you mock my soulful pleas
snicker if I'm liberal
snub my misery
by listening to someone else tell my story
like my plight is a policy
able to change with a stroke of your opinion

I don't want to love no more
Dr. King loved much greater than me
John Lewis got beat much
worse than me
we've forgotten more of their love
than I'll ever have to give
why should I love anymore
when you've treated even them
like this.

This is a poem written by my friend and penpal of 4 years. I am honored to share space with an imprisoned Black poet. He wrote the poem; I chose and am responsible for the image/flyer content and everything else which accompanies it.

Next Black Murder

Next Black Murder
by M.L. Graham

Next Black Murder
is one too many
words, that is
because Black and Murder
together are a given
should have an apostrophe
make it a conjunction
that way there'll be less to
explain.

Again?
Daniel Prude was craazy
not for being naked in the sleet
that's American
craazy
for not running
for laying on the concrete
in front of police
like life is sweet.

I hear white lives matter
too, that they
die more than blacks
but instead of
protesting the police
they protest us
like they don't care
about their dead
only about diminishing ours.

Who is it that
strangles the truth
like they strangled Acevedo
and Garner and Floyd?
Who blames cities for laws
that are passed by states
and blames us
for wanting real change
for wanting them to say our names?

Black lives do matter
saying so does respect all life
but you've rejected even that
simple statement
like "your" can't mean "our"
just this once
like the next black murder
will mean something different
to you.
Orange and black poster that says Abolish police!!! All power to the people. Disarm.  Dismantle. There is no justice for anybody before Black Liberation ... so fight for nothing less!
Image by Shiva Addanki at Justseeds Collective

This poem was sent to me to publish by a currently imprisoned friend and penpal of 4 years.

(He did not choose the graphic to accompany it however.)

Moving in to Year Two

This week, I celebrated an important milestone: it has been one year since I launched my freelance public sociology business. It has been a strange year, to be sure, and an uncertain one in which to be working on a freelance basis without institutional support. But I am happy to say that this first year has been a huge success, and I want to take a moment to thank everyone, because I could not have done it without all of you, clients, readers, and friends!

I have been extremely lucky–a concept that always comes with a heaping side dish of privilege–in the ways I’ve been able to weather the pandemic economy so far despite the cancellation of several speaking events in the spring. I especially want to thank everyone who invited me to give talks (special shout out to the folks at Macalester for making the Minneapolis trip possible!), hired me to do editing or research work, shared my work with their friends, or helped me design this website. I have learned an incredible amount this past year, from self-employment tax deductions to writing white papers, but the most exciting is that I have been able to connect almost so much of my work to movements for social justice. Out here, I have created the academic home for myself that did not exist in the academy, doing work that I believe matters to the struggle for a better world.

In the coming year, I plan to focus on growing my diversity, equity, and inclusion work on improving workplaces for trans and gender nonconforming people–especially now that we have civil rights in all 50 states! And let me clarify: I believe my program is different, because I’m not just offering one-day trainings for employees. I’m offering a comprehensive consultation that uses research, evidence-based workplace change, and management-level trainings to create a gender-friendly workplace. As always, let me know if you want work together.

This is a critical time to do transformative work with the insights and skills of social science in the broader world. Last year I decided to take a leap of faith in order to pursue my belief in the importance of doing just that; I stopped looking for other jobs and decided to create my own. I was not certain whether I could turn that leap into something sustainable, but I was willing to try. This year, that work–the work of public sociology–is my everyday reality.

GF 1619-2020

G.F. 1619-2020
by M. L. Graham

Ask
and ask
and then ask
why we can't breathe
why we can't see each other
in 'we'
at least not officially
why whenever we speak of history
it's dotted with caveats
inclusive I's
exclusive we's
narrating our story
while we can't breathe
ask why
grown men holler momma
eighteen months after she's passed
eight minutes before we do, too
which we know thanks to a seventeen
year old --
or so we're told
or so we're shown.
ask why
slave patrols kept their colors
their vicious dogs
their strikes like bloodhounds
unerringly cracking black spines
black kidneys
black arteries
until we can't breathe
Who's in control of the city?
Why we riot whenever we bleed?
Why we get asked to trust
those who've robbed our best,
robbed our breath?
Why black anyways,
isn't that the mark of a slave?
why not call me by my name?
There's nothing black about me
that wasn't left by brutality,
boots, batons, knees,
the hearts of those who refuse to hear my pleas.
ask, and ask why
ask until you hear your voice in
every preacher's cries
ululations, protestations,
hymns
parched and inflected
pitched and hoarse,
ask again
ask why you think riots
are uncalled for
when injustice is ringing
when the police who cleared the
streets
were still writing
false reports in our names
signed by the silent
coauthored by the medic
who backed our killer's tale
before they thought we knew.
I don't want your stores
or their windows
your streets strewn with broken glass
your loot,
we want to breathe,
like Eric Garner, Rodney King,
Philando Castile, Freddy,
Tamir, George, Brianna,
You & Me
Ask why
I had to write this
for 'We the People'
it's not for a cause
it's because 'it' happened again
and again
and again
and I'm not sure what 'we'
means anymore
they want prison for the perps
I want justice for all
they want harsher charges
I want a sweeter liberty
we can't have both
but we can have neither
ask why it seems that's what
we've got.
Ask why you think
peaceful protests are best
we had those three years ago,
at Trump's inauguration
at his appointment of Gorsich,
at the Kavanaugh hearings,
the Mueller findings
the Impeachment proceedings,
and yet Manafort is free,
as is Stone,
Sheriff Arapaio,
Giuliani & Co.,
and of course Trump is
still president
the glory of peaceful protests!
like flowers at a cancelled wedding,
like Floyd's nonresistence.
"Just be calm," he whispered
"I can't breathe," he replied
and peaceful crowds were dispersed
helicopters hovered
tear gas bursting in air
proof through the night
that they don't care.
Burn, New York!
Burn, Baltimore!
Burn, Louisville!
Burn, L.A.!
Burn, Seattle, Minneapolis, St Louis,
Houston, Oakland, Miami,
Burn! Burn! Burn --
with the flame of indignation,
the heat of reprehension,
the fire of compassion,
light up the skyline
with refrains
from Malcolm, Huey,
Angela and Martin
let your silhouettes flicker
to the tune of unrequited memorials
that ask why
through dead black throats
ask why
we can't keep our bowels from releasing
ask why
the EMT can't find our pulse
ask why
when your soul died you took my body
with it
ask why
our eyelids can't lift so we can
stare into the camera,
past the little girl holding it,
into your living room
He killed us!
His stare is still here,
we cannot convict him
he is us
ask why
convicting him is not suicide for you,
for all of you who didn't ask why
just repeated the lies
just retweeted the myths
covered the blows with words
hid the strangle holds behind
other breaking news,
concealed your broken face
behind 'my' facts
ask why
like you've never asked before
so you'll never have to ask again
ask
"Why can't you get in the car, George?"
and ask
"Why won't you be still, George?"
then ask again
"Momma!"
Why can't we breathe

This poem was sent to me to publish by my friend and penpal of 4 years who is currently imprisoned. I am happy to have a space to share with a Black poet, and am honored to call Mr. Graham my friend. Our letters have been a constant source of inspiration, intellectual exchange, and hope over the years. I would say a lot more, in less formal terms, about this poet and our friendship, but for his life being at the mercy of the ever watchful prison.

Syrian artists Aziz Asmar and Anis Hamdoun finish a mural depicting George Floyd in the town of Binnish in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province on June 1, 2020. (Photo by OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP via Getty Images)