South Mpls. poet stirs the imagination with poem about police reform
Junauda Petrus asks: What if we 'give the Police Department to the grandmothers?'
This is part of a monthlong series looking at how the community has transformed the site of George Floyd’s killing — 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis — and at the people behind its transformation. It is the culmination of reporting over several months, and a partnership with South High School to engage neighborhood youth in telling their community’s story.
Junauda Petrus lives near 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, where George Floyd died during a police stop in May, and where community members and activists have created an autonomous zone to protest the killing. She’s an activist, experimental performance artist and filmmaker. She is also the award-winning author of the book, "The Stars and the Blackness Between Them."
Petrus wrote the poem "Give The Police Department to the Grandmothers" after Michael Brown was fatally shot by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer in 2014.
“I wrote the poem out of a sense of deep sadness and depression and despair,” Petrus said. “And it's so funny because most of my poems are actually very emo and kind of heavy. And that poem is actually kind of silly and joyful, even though it's talking about taking the police department which brings a lot of pain.”
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In the poem, Petrus paints a picture of a world where police officers are replaced with caring elders. She calls for police salaries to be given to grandmothers, who she imagines would drive vintage corvettes or Cadillacs instead of police cars. Rather than precincts, there would be “love temples” where people could meditate and are given food.
Since writing the poem five years ago, Petrus said she reposts the poem after a Black person is killed by police. It often gets shared on social media. After George Floyd’s death, the poem has particularly resonated in her community, which is now steeped in discussions about radically changing the way Minneapolis funds public safety — what many call “defunding the police” — or abolishing the police altogether.
Petrus said she knows what it’s like to be targeted by police because she’s a Black person. During the unrest in her south Minneapolis community, her wife was stopped by police as they were driving to a room they were renting in the suburbs.
“The first thing our daughter says is: ‘We're nice people,’" Petrus said as she recalled the interaction. “Having our child feel like she needs to vouch for us and how little Black kids already know that their parents are vulnerable when police are around to me is just so heartbreaking.”
Floyd’s experiences and death “has to do with these deep seated issues in our society and community around white supremacy and racism and classism and gentrification,” Petrus said. And so it’s important to put that on display at 38th and Chicago, she said.
“Sort of like, you know, Auschwitz or certain plantations in the South. These are spaces of atrocious violence that we can't sort of romanticize or ignore. We have to memorialize this,” Petrus said. “It's beautiful to see an ecology of care that is happening there.”
It’s the kind of care she envisions in a police department staffed by grandmothers.
“With my poem, it's like, ‘Oh, yeah, like all of these nice sort of chill and funky elders are kicking it and just checking out and making sure everybody's got what they need,’” she said. “And not checking to make sure nobody's doing anything bad. It's just more so like, ‘Oh, yo. Did you need food? Did you need someone to talk to you? Did you need someone to listen to you? Did you need someone to help you get resources?’ And not like a social worker and not like a police officer, but somebody who actually seemed like, curious about your soul's well being.”
Maya Edmonds and Freya Hauer are students at South High School in Minneapolis. Their class, "voices" teaches the fundamentals of journalism and worked with MPR News on a project about George Floyd’s Square.