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New London poet laureate's poem riles police officers

New London — Joshua Brown made it clear when he was named the city’s poet laureate earlier this year that he was looking to inspire tough conversations.

He’s done just that.

During his appearance at the July 14 swearing-in ceremony for New London Police Chief Brian Wright, Brown marked the occasion with a poem that touched on the struggles of Black teens growing up in a world where they are targeted by police and need to survive “driving while Black,” a cynical term used for racial profiling.

Dozens of police officers and police chiefs from around the region were in attendance. Some observers saw it as speaking truth while others saw it as police bashing.

New London Police Officer Ryan Soccio recently wrote a letter to the editor saying “Joshua Brown denigrated us in a disgusting display of grandstanding.”

A spokesman with the police union and Chief Wright said they were disappointed.

Police union President Joseph Buzzelli, when contacted by The Day, called the poem disparaging to members of the department. “Mr. Brown went so far as to literally call us racist in the middle of the poem,” he said.

“What should have been a night celebrating the achievements of Chief Wright (not Officer as Mr. Brown repeated) and his almost three decades of service to this City was instead an evening tarnished by the efforts and words of Mr. Brown. While every officer experiences comments of this nature during their career, you can only imagine the shock of hearing it during an event of this nature.”

The premise of the poem was how one of Brown’s students received a driver’s permit and why he had to apologize for the abuse the student was likely to receive at the hands of police as a result.

“See you are no longer a teenager, instead you are ‘now fits the description’ and ‘can you step out of the vehicle sir?” Brown proclaimed in his poem. “In Connecticut you won’t get far without your license, but for you young Black man, you won’t get far assuming equal rights are righteous. You are 63% more likely to be stopped and 115% more likely than your white counterparts to be searched by police.”

Brown said if Soccio was impacted enough by his words to write a letter to the editor, then the poem did what it was supposed to do. “I’m supposed to be a voice of the people. What better place to talk about how the community feels than with the police?"

He said the poem was a reference to a real student who received his driver’s permit and what should have been an occasion for celebration was instead a cause for “fear for his safety.”

“I’m excited and then ... I instantly start warning him and telling him things not to do. I couldn’t even enjoy my student getting his permit without him fearing for his life," he said. "I think about what Black and brown parents go through.”

“I didn’t write this from a place of bashing police,” Brown said. “(Soccio) took it as a personal attack. I don’t see anything inappropriate about me talking about the fear I have for my students. This isn’t about me. This is about the way the community feels.”

Brown said people came up to him afterward and said they appreciated his words. He also left the stage to applause.

“There was no malicious intent in my words. I never said all police officers were racists," he said. "I did say the system itself was based on a corrupt system, which it true.”

Reached by The Day this past week to respond to the controversial poem, Wright said the topic of Brown's poem is an important one that “mandates discussion” but the venue and timing was not appropriate.

“Unfortunately a situation was created that drew people away from listening to understand,” Wright said. “A divisive dynamic instead of unifying dynamic was created. General categorization is never appropriate. Consideration and empathy is important and essential for everyone. I would welcome the opportunity to share dialogue with Mr. Brown at a time and setting that provides the opportunity to exchange insight and perspective. I think it would be beneficial for us both.”

Members of the New London chapter of the NAACP in attendance at the ceremony defended Brown.

NAACP President Jean Jordan said Brown “spoke the truth of what is going on in the world around us and it is uncomfortable for many people to hear.”

“There are still people, after George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, et al that still don’t believe it,” Jordan said. “If people were uncomfortable, they need to question why they were uncomfortable and have that discussion.”

NAACP Vice President Tamara Lanier said she found the poem to be “honest, edgy and perhaps uncomfortable for those who don’t appreciate the concerns of the many, both young and old, who took to the streets in protest after the death of George Floyd.”

“I saw this young man as seizing an opportunity to speak truth to power during this changing of the guard ceremony,” Lanier said. “He was calling for a change in police practices.”

The poem goes on to touch on issues that have been the topic of discussion here in New London and calls for a shift in funding away from the police budget in order to fund things like crisis intervention and social workers.

It ends on a request to Wright.

“Officer Wright, I charge you to be a Police Chief of honor and dignity. I charge you to be a police Chief of ALL the citizens of New London and not just those in power.”

“There’s a real issue in our community,” Brown said of the community’s connection to police.

“The only way we are able to really address any of these issues and solve any of these issues is to have these conversations," he said. "This is how many people feel.”

g.smith@theday.com

The poem

It's a pleasure to inaugurate our First Black Police Chief in New London, Officer Brian Wright

Let's honor him at this time:

Now this is ironic for me because I recently congratulated one of our youths

So I'm going to let you have your moment Officer Wright, but I have to give a shout out

So to my student, who just received his drivers permit

I want to recognize you and

I want to apologize that I robbed you of your joy

In your moment of triumph your youth was forfeited

And as much as I know you can't wait to be "grown"

statistically, you're already viewed as older when compared to white teenagers

Before you ever started driving, research shows that 10 year olds with darker complexion

are assumed to be "less innocent"

See you are no longer a teenager,

instead you are now " fits the description" and "can you step out of the vehicle sir?"

In Connecticut you won't get far without your license,

But for you young black man, you won't get far assuming equal rights are righteous

You are 63% more likely to be stopped and 115% more likely than your white counterparts to be

searched by police

To my student, who just received his drivers permit

I have no time to give you props and congrats

Because the only thing on my mind is you surviving "driving while black"

Look, I know you like to crack jokes but if your stopped

Don't talk back when they ask you questions (Sandra Bland)

Remember to keep your music down (Jordan Davis)Don't reach to quickly for your glove box (Jerame Reid)

And keep your hands where they can see them (Philando Castile)

And at that moment.... it hits me,

like the police dog that dragged me when I was 11

How corrupt is the system when a permit terrifies me?

How can I teach my students that they can be anything, when my skin color still defines me?

How many white parents are mortified when their children start driving?

It's as antagonizing as officers that harassed and laughed at me in my hospital bed...

How many scenarios run through their heads?

because I could weep for this young man's childhood

To my student, who just received his drivers permit

I understand why you no longer want police on your school campus

Ironic how you can feel targeted and at the same time feel abandoned

Students miss school for court cases,

Just for Judges to through those same cases out, because the officer mixed up their black faces

But let's not assume they are racist

Imagine, if we funded our youth like we said we do

There would be fewer moped hot pursuits

No wonder students feel they must race

When every time they see police their hearts race

Our whole life we are raised to make white people- I mean officers comfortable

Innocent until we say so, Suspects must practice restraint

The weight of it all could crush your chest...like

like the 5 officers that pinned me to the ground during my mental breakdown

To our Police Chief, inaugurated on this day

I agree when you say, communication is key

However I believe that actions will always speak louder

Our community has spoken, the New London Police budget is swollen

And the City has fed its citizens crumbs

The burden of responsibility falls to you

It has become painfully obvious that the state of policing in America is beyond repair

There is no simple fix for a system that found its origins in slave catching

and there are only so many hours of training

for a force that targets and over-polices its black and poor citizens

The fraction of the New London Budget given to crisis intervention, peer navigators and social

workers is shameful

Paling in comparison to the Police Increase whose employment is gainful

Now, Officer Wright you can relate with how it feels to negotiate

But understand the state of crisis concerning the disenfranchised of New London can't wait

To my student, who just received his drivers permit

I am proud of you

At times being carefree and black is an act of revolution

I pray that you never meet a bad apple that fell from the rotten tree

I pray that you never have to scream "I can't breath" (George Floyd, Eric Garner, New London's

own Lashano Gilbert)

Officer Wright, I charge you to be a Police Chief of honor and dignity.

I charge you to be a Police Chief of ALL of the citizens of New London and not just those in

power.

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