Friday, August 21, 2009

"Cop Killer" Poetry

This is a difficult post to write because it is critical of a community that is dear to me, so dear as to command from me an almost religious reverence. It's the community of poets I belong to, or used to belong to. While I have specific scene and locale in mind, I will redact the names of the place and person(s) involved because I believe the problem I want to discuss is not specific to that poetry scene but is general to most of the poetry scenes I've been involved with.

One night at an open-mic poetry reading, a night where there was a pretty good crowd, a poet went up to the podium and said: "Repeat after me"

Poet: "KILL!"
Audience: "KILL!"
Poet: "COPS!"
Audience: "COPS!"

This poet then launched into a poem--I forget if the poem was technically good or just a rant, but my point holds even if the poem was a technical masterpiece. This poem criticized the cops and the oppression and violence of police brutality. The criticism targeted an important issue: the power of the state and how it is sometimes unjustly used against people. But I have a hard time reconciling that critique with the poet's original admonition to "kill cops."

Cops are people, too. They feel pain and they have families. They have a hard job (I, for one, would probably call 911 if I ever feared for my life. And if the fear for my life is justified, calling 911 probably means asking a cop to place his or her life in danger.)

They make mistakes and sometimes do unconscionable things (one gets plenty examples of this in Chicago, and the examples are probably just the tip of the iceberg for a larger problem). These commission of these unconscionable acts are probably part human weakness, part systemic, and part "fog of war" type responses to uncertain situations. (By "fog of war," I mean, for example, it's easy to criticize after the fact a decision to shoot someone who points a water gun at a cop, but it's harder if one is in the situation where one doesn't know if the water gun is a real gun or a toy).

They are human, and no one, I believe, is 100% evil (nor is anyone, I believe, 100% good). Counseling a "kill them all" attitude is wrong because it fails to treat cops as human beings. Even if it's done "in jest" it is wrong, because it creates a callous atmosphere that is that much more excepting of unwarranted and indiscriminate violence (unwarranted because there are other solutions to police brutality and indiscriminate because it identifies all cops as a general category).

Now, I don't for a moment believe that this particular poet really wanted people to kill cops. I should also admit, shamefacedly, that when he said "repeat after me" and "KILL!," I repeated after him. I demurred (I memory is fuzzy) when he said "COPS!"

But neither do I believe that this poet was merely speaking for a character. In other words, he wasn't writing a poem from the perspective of a would-be "cop killer" but was himself playing to the crowd.

Many of my poetry friends, who I value dearly even though I am not really in that community anymore, liked to protest, vocally, against the very real injustices our society and world face. Police brutality is as important as any of them, but there is an entire list others as well.

I do believe, however, that these peaceloving poets--and I do believe they are sincerely lovers of peace--need to realize that the distance between sincere love of peace and recourse to violence is smaller than many of them think. I'm not anti-violence in the sense that I believe that violence is sometimes necessary to achieve some ends although I am anti-violence in the sense that I think it is best avoided. I do argue that it should be the last resort and the "ends" must be good enough and clearly realizable by the use of violence; but that's the subject of another post. I also think it is unconscionable to counsel, even in wink-and-a-nod jest, the unreflective killing of others who, like all of us, are imperfect beings.

My poet friends, in short, need to learn a lesson that I have had to learn and relearn and will probably have to relearn again: we are all capable of doing some very bad things and in order to choose to do good, we have to have a sense of what we're capable of. Otherwise, we risk descending into a self-righteous version of that which we oppose.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love this post. It definitely makes the point that hate in any form is still hate. :)