This Assembly Is Unlawful: notes for a future poem in memory of George Floyd

Poetry written in the moment and shared immediately has the quality odds stacked against it. Poetry needs the distance of time, revision, perspective. On the other hand, some events cry out for immediate response: collective tragedies, crises, injustices. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, people turned to poetry for solace, clarity, vision. Today, after the police brutality murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, poets don’t have the luxury of editing, revision, or careful reconsideration of diction and meter. If we want our poems to speak to the moment, in the moment, better be like the best freestyle rappers and just spit it out there.

But I haven’t been able to write a poem for George Floyd. My mind is too tangled.

If I were to write a poem in memory of George Floyd, I’d want it to have as much heart and smart as Gwendolyn Brooks’ writing about Emmett Till. I’d want it to have the fury of an Amiri Baraka poem and wry wisdom of Gil Scott-Heron. I’d want it to have the American sweep of a Whitman, the incisive zing of a Dickinson. The courage of a Bob Dylan protest song or a Curtis Mayfield record. The agile lyrical ninja power of a Kendrick Lamar rap.

Most importantly, I’d want it to somehow powerfully convey the theme of home. George Floyd never made it home that day. He called out for his mother in his dying moments. America has denied the spiritual sanctuary of home for a whole swath of its citizens. Is there a poem that can convey that wound, that pain? The fear of wondering that if you go out on the American street with dark skin you might be arrested or killed before you make it back home?

Musician Sidney Mills posted to Twitter a few days ago as he walked toward his New York City home as police began enforcing curfew during continued protests against the killing of George Floyd. Listening, I was struck by the contrast of his voice (“Tryin’, still tryin’ to get home, people”) with the rising crescendo of police instructions from a loudspeaker (“This assembly is unlawful. If you do not disperse, you will be subject to arrest.”). The blaring police command repeats 13 times over the crowd noise. Mills finishes the post by saying, “OK, this is on my block where I live. And if I’m not careful, I could get arrested on my way home. Crazy.” The juxtaposition of Mills’ humanity with the harsh militaristic tones of the police is the difference between poetry and anti-poetry.

Mills’s Twitter post captures just one soundbite of this tumultuous American tragedy, but it is a good starting point for a poet’s preparation to write. “I can’t breathe,” of course, is the starting point of the starting point.

It’s not insignificant that Mills’s work with Boogie Down Productions and Steel Pulse reminds us that hip hop and reggae have been ringing the alarm on police brutality for decades. Respect due to the poets of justice.


Note on the DNA audio: I converted the police command into MIDI and applied a hi-hat sound, then a “klang” sound from the Ableton library. The mix goes from the original sound to the blended digital sounds. Intentionally unmelodic and harsh, a note/sketch for a future mix.

Boogie Down Productions “Who Protects Us From You”

KRS-ONE “Sound of Da Police”

Collection/Bibliography: Poems of Protest, Resistance, and Empowerment

Also check for more musical responses to the murder of George Floyd.

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