The Beat Within: This Is a Poem About What Causes Poems Like This to Be Written

Before I begin this poem ...
I'd like to ask you to join me in a moment of silence …
In honor of those who died in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon
On September 11th 2001 ...

I'd also like to ask you to offer up a moment of silence …

For all those who’ve been harassed, imprisoned, disappeared, tortured, raped or killed in retaliation for those strikes ... for the victims in Afghanistan, Iraq, in the U.S. and throughout the world ...

And if I could add just one more thing ...

A day of silence.

For the tens of thousands of Palestinians who died at the hands of U.S.-backed Israeli forces over decades of occupation.

Six months of silence ...

For the million and a half Iraqi people … mostly children ... who died of malnourishment or starvation as a result of a twelve-year U.S. embargo against that country … before the war ever began … and now … the drums of war beat again ...

Before I begin this poem ...

Nine months of silence
For the dead in Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Where death rained down and peeled back every layer
Of concrete, steel, earth and skin
And the survivors
Well they went on as if they were alive ...

One year of silence …

For the millions dead in Vietnam ... a people ... not a war ... for those who know a thing or two about the scent of burning fuel — their relatives’ bones buried in it — their babies born of it ...

Two months of silence ...

For the decade of dead in Colombia ... whose names … like the corpses they once represented … have piled up and slipped off our tongues ...

Before I begin this poem ...

Seven days of silence ... for El Salvador
A day of silence … for Nicaragua
Five days of silence … for the Guatemalans
None of whom ever knew a moment of peace in their living years …

1,955 miles of silence …
For every desperate body that burns in the desert sun
Drowned in swollen rivers at the pearly gates to the empire’s underbelly
A gaping wound sutured shut by razor and corrugated steel ...

Twenty-five years of silence …
For the millions of Africans who found their graves far deeper in the ocean than any building could poke into the sky
For those who were strung and swung from the height of sycamore trees
In the South
The North
The East
The West
There will no DNA testing or dental records to identify their remains ...

100 years of silence …
For the hundreds of millions of indigenous people from this half of right now
Whose land and lives were stolen
In postcard-perfect plots like
Pine Ridge
Wounded Knee
Sand Creek
Fallen Timbers
Or the Trail of Tears
Names now reduced to innocuous magnetic poetry
On the refrigerator of our consciousness ...

From the somewhere within the pillars of power …
You open your mouth to invoke a moment of silence …
And we are all left speechless
Our tongues snatched from our mouths
Our eyes stapled shut

A moment of silence …
And the poets are laid to rest
The drums disintegrated to dust ...

Before I begin this poem.

You want a moment of silence …
You mourn now as if the world will never be the same
While the rest of us hope to hell that it won't be
Not like it always has been
Because you see
This isn't a 9/11 poem
This is a 9/10 poem!
A 9/9 poem!
A 9/8 poem!
A 9/7 poem!
This is a 1619 poem!
A 1492 poem!
This is a poem about what causes poems like this to be written
But if it is a 9/11 poem
It's a September 11, 1973 poem for the people of Chile
It's a September 12, 1977 poem for the Steven Biko of South Africa
It's a September 13, 1971 poem for the brothers at Attica prison in New York
It's a September 14, 1992 poem for the people of Somalia
This is a poem for every date that falls to the ground
Amidst the ashes of amnesia
This is a poem for the 110 stories that were never told
The 110 stories that history uprooted from its textbooks
The 100 stories that CNN, ABC, The New York Times and Newsweek ignored
This is a poem to interrupt their programs
This is not a peace poem
Not some poem of forgiveness
This is a justice poem
A poem for never forgetting
This is a poem to remind us
That all that glitters
Might just be
Broken glass
And still you want a moment of silence for the dead?
We could give you lifetimes of empties;
The unmarked graves
Lost languages
The uprooted trees and histories
The dead stares on the faces of nameless children.

Before I begin this poem …

We could be silent forever ...
Or just long enough to hunger for the dust to bury us
And would you still ask us for more of our silence ...

Well if you want a moment of silence ...
Then stop the oil pumps
Turn off the engines
The televisions
Sink the cruise ships
Crash the stock markets
Unplug the marquee lights
Delete the emails and instant messages
Derail the trains and ground the planes

If you want a moment of silence …
Put a brick through the window of Taco Bell
And pay the workers for wages lost …

Tear down the Liquor stores
The Townhouses
The Penthouses
The Jail houses
And the White Houses

If you want a moment of silence ...
Then take it now!
Before this poem begins
Here’s your silence
Take it!
Take it all!
But don't cut in line
Let your silence begin
At the beginning of crime …

Jesse Jackson, 52, is currently in the San Francisco County Jail for a probation violation. He has spent the better part of the last 35 years in and out of the criminal justice system.

The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth, was founded by David Inocencio in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in California, six other states and Washington, D.C. Submissions and new partners are welcomed. Write to him at

Young People a Focus for Anti‑Fascism, Anti-Trump Movement

NEW YORK — It was a school night and well past Joshua Vega’s bedtime when most of the world learned that Donald Trump had won the 2016 election and would become the 45th president of the United States. The then-third grader said he didn’t get the news until the next morning when he asked his grandmother for permission to use her phone to look up the election results.

A year later, between chants of “No Trump, No KKK, No Fascist USA” and while holding a sign that read, “The Nightmare Must End: The Trump/Pence Regime Must Go!” the 9-year-old from Queens spoke as passionately as any adult in the crowd.

“I don’t want Donald Trump to keep making the bad decisions he’s making now,” said Vega, who attended the rally with his mother, Madison, and his two younger siblings. “I hope he can become a better president — or we’ll get someone better,” he added.

Vega was one of what organizers estimated to be about 1,500 (New York police estimated 300, according to Newsweek) who attended a rally and march on Saturday in New York City to call for an end to the Trump presidency. Protesters rallied in Times Square, then marched through the streets of Manhattan before ending with a second rally in Washington Square Park. Similar events were held across the country. Refuse Fascism, the group that organized the event, vowed protests will continue across the country until Trump is ousted.

Nine-year-old Joshua Vega (center), marching with his mother and younger siblings at the Refuse Fascism protest on Nov. 4, 2017.

“If this can work, we need millions of people in the streets, we need to awaken the people who are angry at the president and turn it into a movement,” said Jack, a 25-year-old student organizer with Refuse Fascism, as he welcomed young participants to the rally.

Jack, who prefered not to use his last name, said he hasn’t personally felt targeted by the Trump administration’s policies, but blames President Trump for letting his friends in Puerto Rico suffer after Hurricane Maria. He said other friends — even those who are in the country legally — are afraid to go home to other countries for Christmas because they don’t know if they’ll be able to return to the United States due to Trump’s attempts to implement and enforce a travel ban.

[Related: Scenes From A New York Protest]

“I’m seeing my friends and family and people getting hurt — I can’t stand by on the sidelines,” he said.

Queens resident Brianna Hoobraj, 15, attended the rally on behalf of her 26-year-old brother, who couldn’t come.

Nine-year-old Demiana Doss riding on the shoulders of her father, Peter Doss, as they march from Times Square to Washington Square Park on Nov. 4, 2017.

“My brother has a disability and he [Trump] doesn’t like people with disabilities,” said Hoobraj, at the rally with a friend. In November 2015, then-candidate Trump mocked New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, who has arthrogryposis, a congenital joint condition.

Dismayed by attempts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, Peter Doss, a physician from Warren, New Jersey, brought his two children to the rally and march.

“It really pains me, what’s happening to health care in this country simply out of spite for a program that Obama wanted to put in place — there’s absolutely no policy justification for what’s happening,” said Doss as he helped his 9-year-old daughter Demiana make a sign to carry during the march.

Most, but not all, of those at the rally and march were there to protest the Trump presidency.

Brianna Hoobraj (center left) marching with a friend at the Refuse Fascism march in New York City on Nov. 4, 2017. Hoobraj said she was protesting the Trump administration’s attitude toward the disabled.

Fifteen-year-old Jonathan, a Queens resident who preferred his last name not be used, was one of about 20 loosely organized counter-protesters who paced around the perimeter of the Times Square rally and followed protesters through the streets of Manhattan to Washington Square Park.

In the days before the march, rumors of an upcoming civil war swirled online, but with the exception of a few minor shouting matches, the New York event was nonviolent.

“I’m pretty sure people have heard about the rumors of an antifa [anti-fascist] civil war — that’s not what’s really going on, at least not here in New York. Left-wing liberals, or however they want to call themselves, are more civilized here than in other areas,” Jonathan said. “Charlottesville isn’t going to happen here.

“Before the election people thought he’d never be able to win,” Jonathan said, adding that he supports Trump because of his never-give-up attitude.

Refuse Fascism organizers say they won’t give up either and plan to continue protesting until the Trump administration is ousted. Organizers like Jack say young people are crucial to their success.

Fifteen-year-old Jonathan, a Trump supporter from Queens, discussing politics at the Refuse Fascism march in New York City on Nov. 4, 2017.

“We need students involved — no mass protest movement can go without the students,” Jack said. Young adults will be affected the most by Trump’s policies, and he hopes to soon have young people organize high school and college walkouts, he said.

Like Jack, Doss is looking toward the future. Along with health care, he said he worries about what the Trump administration’s policies are doing to the environment.

“What’s happening at the EPA is absolutely disgraceful,” said Doss, referring to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s recent appointment of a scientific advisor who once said the air is “too clean for optimal health” and is reported to have said that children need to breath irritants in order to build up their immunity.

“I believe this is just absolute kleptocracy — it’s rule by corporations and rule for profit and with absolutely no consideration for the world that we’re leaving for our children,” said Doss, referring to the close relationship between the petrochemical industry and some of President Trump’s science appointees.

Pausing for a moment, he glanced down at a sad red face his daughter was drawing on her sign, at his son standing nearby and then out into the crowd.

“These are my children, this is the world they are going to inherit,” he said.

This story has been updated.

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Pondering the Limits of Criminal Justice Reform

John LashOn Monday I spoke via Skype with a group of students enrolled at Georgetown University. Some friends of mine teach a class on social justice and conflict studies. Twice I have joined the class to discuss my own experiences with the criminal justice system, restorative justice, my current work, and any other insightful (and difficult) questions they come up with.

Several wondered how prison could be changed to address issues of safety and violence, and whether or not restorative responses still allowed for incarceration. These are interesting topics to me, and I am able to talk about them with ease, but a few questions left me pondering the limits of criminal justice reform. These were questions that addressed what I think of as structural issues.

For instance, why does the average prisoner have an elementary school reading level? Is he in prison because of that, or are people with that level of education more likely to be incarcerated? Why are African Americans disproportionately incarcerated? It is not because they are more likely to commit crimes. Even when the circumstances of a given crime and background are accounted for, they are more likely to be sent to prison and to receive longer sentences. The same is true for Latinos, poor people, Native Americans, and other traditionally disadvantaged and marginalized groups.

One of the greatest writers in the field of conflict studies, Johan Galtung, introduced the concept of structural violence in a 1969 article for the Journal of Peace Research. For Galtung, structural violence is an “avoidable impairment of human needs.” This definition includes a lot of “isms” including racism, classism, sexism, and others. It doesn't take a lot of investigation to see how these phenomena can be connected to the current system of justice.

Even if we were somehow able to create the perfect prison, with programs that are effective, safe living conditions, supports for maintaining family connection, and relevant educational classes, it still would not address the issues that lead to incarceration in the first place.

I don’t wish to ignore personal responsibility, but I also recognize that environment and other factors outside of the individuals control have an impact on their perception of choices and ability to transcend hardships. Consider a November 4th article in the New York Times entitled "After the Violence, The Rest of Their Lives".

The article tells the story of The Chicago Project, led by Northwestern University psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor Linda A. Teplin, a study of 1,800 youth who entered the juvenile justice system at an early age. The youth, interviewed between 1995 and 1998, have been tracked ever since.

Consider a few statistics from the study. Over 80 percent of the juveniles who enter the system early are gang members, 70 percent of the males have used a firearm (starting at an average age of 14), 20 percent of the participants on a given day are incarcerated, and 71 percent of the men and 59 percent of the women are unemployed. The youth surveyed in the study die, usually violently, at a rate three to five times as high as comparable residents of the county.

All of these statistics do not flow from personal choice, and to ignore that fact is to hide from reality. Do some individuals rise above the circumstances? Of course, but these exceptions to the rule, while admirable, do not excuse the rest of us from considering the realities of stark contrasts in equality, opportunity, and risk that exist between most Americans and those that live in the worst areas of the nation. Until these structural issues are fully faced and dealt with we will always have injustice, no matter how much we “improve” the criminal justice system.

Considering the Eighth Amendment and Juveniles

A New York Times story examines the possibility of the U.S. Supreme Court in the near future taking up the question of whether a life sentence for a killing committed by a juvenile constitutes a violation of the Eight Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

A year ago, the high court ruled such sentences did violate the Eighth Amendment in cases not involving a killing. According to the story by Adam Liptak and Lisa Faye Petak, such a decision would affect some 2,500 prisoners.


OxyContin Abuse Plagues Ohio

Ohio is struggling with a severe prescription drug abuse epidemic, according to a story in The New York Times. In the last decade, fatal overdoses surpassed car crashes as the leading cause of accidental death in the state.

Most popular among drug addicts is the painkiller OxyContin.  Read more about the devastating effects of prescription drugs and OxyContin abuse in Prescribed Addiction, the first in our ongoing series, Journeys.


States Reconsider Laws That Force Kids Into the Adult Justice System

A new study by the Campaign for Youth Justice reports that states across the country are reversing legislation that is pushing 250,000 kids a year into the adult justice system.

Following a spike in juvenile crime in the 1980’s and 1990’s, many states began lowering the age that children could be prosecuted as an adult.  According to the study, incarcerating youth in adult prisons, “puts them at higher risk of abuse, injury, and death while they are in the system, and makes it more likely that they will reoffend once they get out.”

Fifteen states have already completed the changes necessary to put fewer kids in adult prisons and nine more have legislation in the works.  Georgia (along with Colorado, Texas and Washington) has updated its mandatory minimum sentencing laws for juveniles.

However, Georgia is still holding on to a law that automatically transfers children aged 13 and older who commit one of the “seven deadly sins” to adult court.  Offenses include murder, rape, aggravated child molestation, aggravated sodomy, aggravated sexual battery,  voluntary manslaughter and armed robbery with a firearm.

States Roll Back Prosecuting Teens as Adults

An era of prosecuting juveniles as adults may be coming to an end in numerous states as criminal justice officials face a growing recognition that many underage offenders have been mishandled in the adult system, details a story in Sunday’s New York Times.
While states from Connecticut to Wisconsin have started to roll back the generation’s old policies, many other states remain resistant to the change, citing the higher cost of adding more people to the juvenile systems at a time of crushing budget problems, says the paper.

New Interactive Mapping Tool Shows Who Your Neighbors Are

If you’re looking for something to think about over the holidays, this could be it.

The New York Times has used Census Bureau data to map out the distribution of racial and ethnic groups across the country. You can literally put in your zip code and see the breakdown in your town. You can even scroll your mouse over different areas to see detailed percentages.

This could be useful to schools, police departments, juvenile courts and those who may be interested in the disproportionate minority contact problem facing the nation.

To check out the map out, click here.