Don’t Die, I Say: 3 Poems on Gun Violence and Police Brutality

On the Anniversary of Sandy Hook, Responses from Activists and the
Loved Ones of Victims, Nationwide

December 14, 2017  By Literary Hub

Our country is in the grips of a gun violence crisis. It has crept into our neighborhoods, towns, cities, and states. It has created fear in spaces of joy and innocence, like movie theaters and schools. It costs our cities and towns millions of dollars and leaves holes in our communities that can never be filled. It makes our country stand out in the worst of ways.

Article continues below

Neither of us began our lives in public service thinking that gun violence prevention would be our life’s work. But gun violence shattered our lives as we knew them, and we won’t stop fighting to prevent mass shooting tragedies and the gun violence that occurs on our streets and in our homes every single day.

Survivors, advocates, and allies can change hearts and minds—and move more people to join our fight for solutions— by telling stories about the irreparable damage that gun violence does to families and communities across the country.

–Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and Captain Mark Kelly 

Article continues below

When I Think of
Tamir Rice While Driving

Reginald Dwayne Betts

in the backseat of my car are my own sons,
still not yet Tamir’s age, already having heard
me warn them against playing with toy pistols,
though my rhetoric is always about what I don’t
like, not what I fear, because sometimes
I think of Tamir Rice & shed tears, the weeping
all another insignificance, all another way to avoid
saying what should be said: the Second Amendment
is a ruthless one, the pomp & constitutional circumstance
that says my arms should be heavy with the weight
of a pistol when forced to confront death like
this: a child, a hidden toy gun, an officer that fires
before his heart beats twice. My two young sons play
in the backseat while the video of Tamir dying
plays in my head, & for everything I do know, the thing
I don’t say is that this should not be the brick and mortar
of poetry, the moment when a black father drives
his black sons to school & the thing in the air is the death
of a black boy that the father cannot mention,
because to mention the death is to invite discussion
of taboo: if you touch my sons the crimson
that touches the concrete must belong, at some point,
to you, the police officer who justifies the echo
of the fired pistol; taboo: the thing that says that justice
is a killer’s body mangled and disrupted by bullets
because his mind would not accept the narrative
of your child’s dignity, of his right to life, of his humanity,
and the crystalline brilliance you saw when your boys first
the narrative must invite more than the children bleeding
on crisp fall days; & this is why I hate it all, the people
around me,
the black people who march, the white people who cheer,
the other brown people, Latinos & Asians & all the colors
of humanity
that we erase in this American dance around death, as we
are not permitted to articulate the reasons we might yearn
to see a man die; there is so much that has to disappear
for my mind not to abandon sanity: Tamir for instance,
about him, even as his face, really and truly reminds me
of my own, in the last photo I took before heading off
to a cell, disappears, and all I have stomach for is blood,
and there is a part of me that wishes that it would go away,
the memories, & that I could abandon all talk of making
it right
& justice. But my mind is no sieve & sanity is no elixir &
I am bound
to be haunted by the strength that lets Tamir’s father,
mother, kinfolk resist the temptation to turn everything
they see into a grave & make home the series of cells
that so many of my brothers already call their tomb.


Response to “When I Think of Tamir Rice While Driving”
from Samaria Rice, Mother of Tamir Rice

Article continues below

When I think of Tamir as his mother, the woman who gave birth to him, I wonder why my son had to lose his life in such a horrific way in this great place we call America. Police terrorism is real in this country. In many countries this may seem normal, but in America this is not supposed to be normal.

Tamir was an all-American kid with a promising and bright future. Tamir was the life of his family, and I always knew that my son would make some type of change. He was a talented, caring, and loving child. When I lost Tamir, I lost a piece of myself. I was thrown into the political lights and now I am a national leader fighting for human rights.

American police terrorism was created to control the black and brown people of slavery. This remains vivid today. We need change across this country and accountability for our loved ones whose lives have been stolen by American terrorism. Who will govern the government when they continueto murder American citizens? Injustice in this country is pitiful and pathetic. The injustice starts with economics, education, and politicians.

Tamir will always be the reason I continue to do this work and fight for equality of human rights in this country. I am not afraid of the leadership that I have come into upon the death of my son. I am not afraid to create change and to be a part of change.

Article continues below


Brian Clements

The guy my girlfriend ran off with
in 1983 drove a rusted-out Beetle
and carried a .22 pistol for runs to the bank
to drop off nightly deposits from the General
Cinema, where he was Assistant Manager
and where I worked and saw Rocky Horror
about 20 times more than I wanted to
in egg-and-tp-drenched midnight shows.
He lived in a rat-trap, roach-infested, leaning-over
shack on the edge of The Heights,
a few streets over from the house where,
in 2004, a local TV reporter was murdered
in her bed, her face beaten beyond recognition.

In 1988, on my first night as Assistant Manager
at a restaurant in Dallas, a fight broke out
between a pimp and a private investigator,
who also may have been a pimp. A group
of frat boys decided to jump in and knocked
the whole scrum over onto the floor
just on the other side of the bar from me.
The pimp came up pointing a .22 semiautomatic
directly at the closest object, which happened
to be my forehead. He didn’t shoot—
just waved his gun around until everyone
cowered under their tables—then
calmly walked out the front door and down the street.

Article continues below

My best friend in sixth or seventh grade
moved to Arkansas from New Mexico.
Ron’s skin was lizard-rough.
He raised hamsters and hermit crabs.
I struck him out for the last out of the Little League
Championship. We went out to his father’s farm
and shot cans and bottles with his .22 rifle.
Back in New Mexico, he’d had some health problems
and his mother had shot herself in the head.
A few years ago, a dead body was found
buried on his father’s property. Ron’s son
ended up shooting himself in the head as well.
He was 22.

On December 14, 2012, an armed gunman
entered the Sandy Hook School with two pistols,
a Bushmaster .223, hundreds of rounds of ammunition,
and a shotgun in the car. Rather than turn right,
toward my wife’s classroom where she pulled
two kids into her room from the hallway,
he turned to the left, murdered twenty children
and six adults, including the principal
and the school psychologist, both of whom
went into the hallway to stop the gunman,
and shot two other teachers, who survived.
After that, a lot of other things happened,
but it doesn’t really matter what.


Response to “22″
Po Kim Murray,
Cofounder of Newtown Action Alliance

It did not matter to the National Rifle Association (NRA), the Republican members of Congress, Donald Trump, Republican governors, Republican state legislators, and some Democratic leaders that my neighbor killed his mother in her bed, then drove to Sandy Hook Elementary School to brutally gun down twenty children and six educators with an AR-15 with high-capacity magazines, or that a hundred thousand Americans are killed or injured by guns in our towns and cities across the nation every single year, or that there are nearly three hundred mass shooting incidents annually.

It mattered to us. We are a group of Newtown, Connecticut, neighbors and friends who formed the Newtown Action Alliance, a grassroots group advocating for cultural and legislative changes to end gun violence in our nation.

It mattered to 90 percent of Americans who support expanded background checks. It mattered to families of victims and survivors directly impacted by gun violence.

Because it still matters to us, we will work to hold all state and federal elected representatives accountable for standing with the NRA instead of taking action to keep all of us safe from gun violence.

Despite the NRA rhetoric, we know firsthand that guns kill and guns don’t make us safer.

The Leash

Ada Limón

After the birthing of bombs of forks and fear,
the frantic automatic weapons unleashed,
the spray of bullets into a crowd holding hands,
that brute sky opening in a slate metal maw
that swallows only the unsayable in each of us, what’s
left? Even the hidden nowhere river is poisoned
orange and acidic by a coal mine. How can
you not fear humanity, want to lick the creek
bottom dry to suck the deadly water up into
your own lungs, like venom? Reader, I want to
say, Don’t die. Even when silvery fish after fish
comes back belly up, and the country plummets
into a crepitating crater of hatred, isn’t there still
something singing? The truth is: I don’t know.
But sometimes, I swear I hear it, the wound closing
like a rusted-over garage door, and I can still move
my living limbs into the world without too much
pain, can still marvel at how the dog runs straight
toward the pickup trucks break-necking down
the road, because she thinks she loves them,
because she’s sure, without a doubt, that the loud
roaring things will love her back, her soft small self
alive with desire to share her goddamn enthusiasm,
until I yank the leash back to save her because
I want her to survive forever. Don’t die, I say,
and we decide to walk for a bit longer, starlings
high and fevered above us, winter coming to lay
her cold corpse down upon this little plot of earth.
Perhaps we are always hurtling our body towards
the thing that will obliterate us, begging for love
from the speeding passage of time, and so maybe
like the dog obedient at my heels, we can walk together
peacefully, at least until the next truck comes.


Response to “The Leash” from Caren Teves,
Mother of Alex Teves, Killed in the Aurora,
Colorado, Shooting

July 20, 2012, 12:38 a.m.: A 24-year-old white male enters an Aurora Cinemark movie theater through an unalarmed security door. Fueled by a self-admitted desire for infamy and armed with three guns and six thousand rounds of ammunition that he easily and legally obtained, despite his past and current mental health history, he begins shooting with the intent to kill everyone.

In the rear of the theater, another 24-year-old man performs a selfless act of love. Knowing the risk to himself, he immediately pulls his girlfriend to the floor using his body to successfully shield her when he is hit in the forehead with a single armor-piercing bullet, violently ending his life.

My husband, Tom, and I were not surprised by the heroic actions of our first-born son, Alex Teves. He was always kind and fiercely protected those he loved. We miss him every moment of every day. Alex is one of over 30,000 people killed annually with guns in the United States.

The quest for fame is a well-known motivating factor in rampage mass killings. Upon learning this, we founded, calling for responsible media coverage of these killers in an effort to save lives.

Excerpted from Bullets into Bells: Poets & Citizens Respond to Gun Violence, Edited by Brian Clements, Alexandra Teague, and Dean Rader, with an introduction by Colum McCann and a foreword by Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and Captain Mark Kelly (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with Permission from Beacon Press.

More Story
Life in the Body of a Runner My first run ever was in Ashiya, a bedroom community situated between Mount Rokko and Osaka Bay in southwestern Japan. Our elementary...

Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.