George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police set off a firestorm of protest around the country and world. But it certainly wasn’t the first instance of police brutality met with outcry.
Amaud Jamaul Johnson is a poet and professor at UW-Madison and director of the MFA program in creative writing. He has been reflecting on the racial justice uprising of his youth, sparked by the acquittal of police in the brutal beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles.
Johnson grew up in Compton, California and is the author of three poetry collections — “Red Summer," “Darktown Follies” and most recently “Imperial Liquor,” which was published in 2020. He says for him, writing poetry is about engaging with the questions he finds in life.
“In many ways a poem feels like one half of an imagined conversation. Like there are people I want to talk to, parties I’d like to attend, you know, secrets I’d like to share, and I don’t necessarily have those people around me. So the poem seems like the opportunity to engage something that I wouldn’t normally be able to address,” he says.
Because Johnson moved from Compton in 1992, conversations about his childhood home had to take place in poems, he says. Johnson describes memories of his cherished neighborhood turned upside-down because of police brutality, the drug epidemic and poverty.
“The lasting memory of being at home is like watching my neighborhood on fire and remembering canned food drives from our church just because all the grocery stores were gone,” he says. "It was difficult to get gas."
Johnson points to the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in the beginning of January and notes that the last time the Insurrection Act was actually used was in south Los Angeles during the Rodney King uprisings. “We had armored cars on every street corner in my neighborhood, and I would actually have to show my ID that I lived at my house,” he says.
Johnson’s poem “LA Police Chief Daryl Gates Dead At 83” describes the pain and racism felt by the Black community from 1978 to 1992 when Daryl Gates was the head of the Los Angeles Police Department.
He says it was Gates who was most responsible for instituting “paramilitary” style tactics by police officers to deal with the drug epidemic hitting Compton. Johnson says police had battering rams attached to squad cars that would be used to enter homes thought to house those accused of crimes.
“The police department would simply tear down people’s homes to pull out drug offenders, so there was a kind of energy in our community growing up where you never knew. Someone could just plow down your house if you were a suspected drug dealer,” he says.
Johnson’s poetry also attempts to redefine how people see Compton — not as a violent and evil place but as somewhere filled with heartbreak and grief. In his poem, “Smokey,” from his newest collection “Imperial Liquor,” he contrasts the fact that the hardened men in Compton when he was growing up would listen to mostly love songs.
“There’s a way that, sometimes the anxieties that I felt about the community were also connected to this like, beautiful music,” he says. “Imagine, like, someone doing a drive by shooting while also playing a love song.”
Johnson says rather than dismissing or demonizing those men, he really thought about all the love that was dying or transforming in them, and how they were holding on to something, a dream, they couldn't possess.
"It's just like another narrative of failure, a kind of collapse of romance," he says.
Johnson says when it comes to the fight against police brutality today, he sees many connections to Rodney King and the LA riots. The feeling of despair and anger that even when the murder of George Floyd or the beating of Rodney King is documented on camera, that no one is going to be held accountable, he says.
“From Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, to Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, we have video and the video is shocking but the video is just a glimpse, you know, into something that has shaped all the frustration and heartbreak in the Black community, you know, for hundreds of years,” Johnson says.