Hen March Outlaws Cops (Video + Text)

No, no cops. Neighbors. Family. Helpers. Experts. Medics. Shamans. Scrappers. Friends-of-friends. Preachers. Healers. Mechanics. Witches. In-laws. Volunteers. Whatever. We’ll figure it out. But no cops.

A little context, for anyone interested: In my book, “Not a Lot of Reasons To Sing, But Enough,” there is a series of “tall tales” about the exile folk hero Hen March. I don’t know if I’d call them “poems,” but it doesn’t really matter; like stories and songs in our own world, they communicate a set of values about the society in which they are told.

For some real-world context, this is one of the many pieces in the book about abolition. This one is definitely the most straightforward; aside from the sci-fi conceit of “a folktale being told by a travelling poet on a prison colony moon where the prisoners have had their memories erased,” it’s a relatively blunt story about prevention vs. punishment, about how a world without police or prisons doesn’t have to be some perfect utopia; it can just be not this. Being able to imagine not this is important.

In a 2019 interview, Mariame Kaba said this about the prison industrial complex:

You’re allowed to say ‘not this.’ Your critique in and of itself is valid. You’re allowed to say ‘not this,’ and keep it moving. Why? Because we didn’t get into this problem yesterday. We got into it over time. This is a collective problem that lots of people’s hands are involved in. This is bipartisan to the nth degree. So why then is a problem that was formulated by a lot of people over a long period of time expected to be resolved by one person giving the solution to the problem or having to shut up? Because what they’re selling you is not just like ‘you don’t get it,’ it’s ‘you come up with solution or you say nothing’ and I absolutely reject that. I reject that on its face. I think that is a way to silence people with radical critiques.

So that’s a starting point. For this piece, I wanted to use the “tall tale” format as an entry point into these ideas. There’s a lot of freedom in that approach—it isn’t my voice telling people what to think; it’s a character being referenced by another character, and the different layers of voice, hopefully, create room for readers/listeners to engage with the content as a story, as opposed to a powerpoint presentation of talking points.

A sketch of a smiling, old woman holding a staff + the text "No, no cops. Neighbors. Family. Helpers. Experts. Medics. Shamans. Scrappers. Friends-of-friends. Preachers. Healers. Mechanics. Witches. In-laws. Volunteers. Whatever. We’ll figure it out. But no cops." from "not a lot of reasons to sing, but enough." words by KTM/Guante. Art by Casper Pham. ButtonPoetry.com

A big goal/project/impulse in the book is that kind of “entry point” work. This poem, as well as poems like Good Apples, Wireless It Might Scream, Why Do You Write Poems When Death Is All Around Us, and others all engage with abolitionist ideas, although that specific word is never used. That relates to another theme in the book: the idea of how individual poems, songs, or other creative efforts can contribute to a larger story, without having to be the whole story. My book is absolutely not the book you read if you’re already interested in abolition and want to learn more; my hope is that it can plant a seed, especially for people new to the concept, whether they’re Button Poetry fans, sci-fi fans, or just people who randomly saw the book in a bookstore and thought the cover looked cool.

All that being said, if you ARE already interested in abolition and want to learn more, I have some fantastic resources to share:

Also, I may grow this into a separate post later, but for now, here are a couple of other abolitionist (or abolitionist-adjacent) poems I’d recommend:

Finally, here’s the full text of the poem:

HEN MARCH OUTLAWS COPS

In those wild early days, Hen March found herself surrounded by cops. They weren’t really cops in any official sense, just a group of men who took it upon themselves to meander around town with weapons, asking random people random questions. You know, cops.

Hen March, newly elected leader/boss/mayor/whatever of Heart, had not yet appeared in every chamber of the city; her face was not yet an icon, a stenciled spark on every empty wall, so this group of cops did not recognize her. And being cops who did not recognize a person, they stopped her. What are you doing here?

Now, as large as Hen March looms in our history, she was also a very small woman. She looked up at the half-dozen men, their drawn blades resting jauntily on their shoulders, their eyes small, accusing, frightened (even if not of her, specifically).

What am I doing here? Hen March’s voice, which had always come from somewhere else, somewhere she did not completely remember, sliced through the dusk like lightning. What are YOU doing here?

Because I am the newly elected leader/boss/mayor/whatever of Heart. I led from the front in the war with the Violets. I defended the keep at Mushroom Mountain for ten days and eleven nights. I wrote the constitution. And I don’t recall there being anything in there about cops!

Seeing that her anger (and her résumé, which the normally humble Hen March tried very hard to only reference when she absolutely had to… or just wanted to) had frightened the men, Hen March smiled, and took a seat on a nearby bench. 

Of all the memories they took out of our heads before exiling us, they somehow forgot to take this one: that the only way to keep people from constantly murdering each other is to let armed bullies wander around and threaten to put them in cages, for years, decades at a time. The absurdity.

We don’t need that. And I know, when that’s the only definition of “safety” we have in our heads, living without it can be scary. What if someone does something bad? How will we protect ourselves? These are valid questions. 

And of course, there will be problems. People will steal things. Spouses will beat on each other. Tempers will flare, and someone will lunge at someone else with a knife. And yes, we need to be prepared to deal with all of these problems and issues and situations. 

But too many of us hear “deal with” and immediately think “punish.” 

We assume people are terrible and set up a whole system to slap them around for being terrible. Or we see the absolute worst examples of how terrible we can indeed be, the serial killers and cannibals, and assume that we have to order our entire society around them, put all of our wealth and resources into dealing with them, no matter how few of them there are or how ineffective those efforts end up being.

But what if “deal with” meant something else? What if it meant “heal the harm?” What if it meant “do everything we can to prevent the harm from happening in the first place?”

Our constitution states: “When a problem comes up, we figure it out, together.” My critics have told me that this is too vague. But what’s vague about it? When a problem comes up, we figure it out, together. 

Tell me: is it more wise, or more logical, to say “when a problem comes up, we will call on a gang of unaccountable, armed strangers, who are very likely also bullies and bigots with authoritarian personality complexes, to show up an hour or two later, push people around, and maybe throw someone in a cage for ten years and call that a problem solved?”

No, no cops. Neighbors. Family. Helpers. Experts. Medics. Shamans. Scrappers. Friends-of-friends. Preachers. Healers. Mechanics. Witches. In-laws. Volunteers. Whatever. We’ll figure it out. But no cops.

The men nod nervously and scatter. Whether they were moved by her words or by her reputation as the fiercest fighter the young moon had ever known—only the future can say.