High School Poetry Series: Gender, Identity, & Race — Johnny Ward

Poet and teacher Sarah Marcus with her high school students.
Poet and teacher Sarah Marcus with her high school students.

A note from Series Editor Sarah Marcus: Born from a powerful in-class discussion that we had about gender, race, and the role of masculinity in rape culture, “Be A Man/Be A Woman” poems are an analysis of gendered personal experience and a study of our intersectionality. This poetry series was inspired by a HuffPost essay I wrote called, “Why I Teach Feminism at an Urban High School.” The poets featured here are students from my 12th Grade Resistance Writing class whose work I found to be brave, fearless, and progressive. Please help me support their crucial and influential voices.


Johnny Ward is a senior in my Resistance Writing class. His life is music. He enjoys working out and good food. He follows sports and the news, and he constantly sends me relevant and funny BuzzFeed lists and videos. He says that our class has opened his eyes to what feminism actually meant.  “I thought it meant you were feminine, or a lesbian, or pro-women to the point that you were anti-men. Now, I know it means standing up for women’s rights and being conscious to the fact that lack of equality is a problem and that anyone can be a feminist.” His advice to young writers is to practice, have confidence, practice, and perform.

I especially love this poem for its insistent and aggressive repetition. Johnny maintains a sturdy rhythm that serves to highlight the contradictory messages we send young men. He writes about the struggle to come out of the cold and embrace connection. This poem commands our respect on many levels.

See Johnny read his poem here.

Be A Man

I’m young
I’m young but
I feel so old
If I may be so bold let me say
It’s more than just cold out here
It’s more than just cold out here
You need more than just a coat out here
You need coats out here

They coming for your throats out here
But be a man
Tell me what are tears?
I’m unfamiliar
I ain’t been able to cry since… eh, can’t remember

I’m seventeen, look at me
Still manhood’s a puzzle
I carry a whole household on my back with back trouble
and still going through black struggles
But anyway be a man
Showing emotion is weak
or it’s how you show it
If so, then please explain that to me
Like what do I do whenever I see
My friend going through it?
Walk up and just give her a hug then leave?
I wasn’t taught to console nor to be consoled
By God!
It took Jesus 16 years to even reach my soul
Pardon my rude mouth he forgave it already
I’m making the change
I prayed it already

Wish I could forgive but I hold grudges
Like that one time
One time said “your father was a joke n****, you the punch line!”

Life ain’t easy it’s full of opinions
“You ain’t a man until you first had sex”
“You ain’t a man until you gotcha first check”
“You ain’t a man till you known through respect”
“You ain’t a man till you build intellect”
“You ain’t a man till you made yo first band”
“Think you a man with that gun in yo hand?”
“You ain’t a man till yo words ain’t see through”
“You ain’t a man till we believe you”
“You ain’t a man till yo actions speak for you”
“You ain’t a man till these women adore you”
“You ain’t nothing till you love yourself”
“Aye you a man, man why you need help?!”

We what we want we just got to connect
We’ll be alright we just need to respect
We what we want we just got to connect
We’ll be alright we just need to respect.

Where Is the Million Hoodie March for Renisha McBride?

Credit: Timothy Krause www.flickr.com/photos/timothykrause
Credit: Timothy Krause

Where Is the Million Hoodie March for Renisha McBride?

by Zerlina Maxwell

It’s been two weeks since the unnecessary and untimely killing of Renisha McBrideOn November 2, the unarmed 19-year-old who was in search for help after a car accident in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn Heightswas shot in the face by Theodore Wafer, whose porch she had walked onto. The parallels between Trayvon Martin’s tragic killing and McBride’s are resonating in a national psyche rife with story after story of Black men and women gunned down as if their Black bodies have little or no value. And while we don’t know what will happen to Wafer as a result of the killing (George Zimmerman, the man who killed Martin, was acquitted) we know this pattern of violence must end.

Reports that have surfaced since the tragic killing note McBride was intoxicated at the time of the incident, implying that somehow she was responsible for her own death. McBride crashed into a parked car and walked a short distance to knock on Wafer’s door for help. Instead of, say,inviting her in to call 9-1-1 to report the car accident, he shot her in the face. Originally, Wafer claimed the shotgun fired accidentally, and he wasn’t arrested immediately after the shooting based on this version of events—reminiscent of the Zimmerman case.

Now that more evidence has surfaced, Wafer is claiming that he shot McBride in self-defense, even though the door to his home was locked and reports show that she was shot through this locked screen door and from a far enough distance that she didn’t pose an immediate threat. On Friday, Wafer was finally charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter and instructed to turn himself into the authorities. Wafer was arraigned, with his bail set at $250,000.

Beyond these facts, it appears McBride was killed in a manner more appropriate for a rabid animal trespassing on someone’s property than a human being with a full cadre of rights. Her life, like so many others in the Black community, was ended prematurely, for inexplicable reasons that defy logic about self-defense, guns, racial discrimination, and the criminalization of Black bodies.

This narrative is all too familiar. Zimmerman made similar claims after the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2011. Zimmerman claimed Martin posed a threat to his community, in part because Martin was wearing a hoodie. Zimmerman claimed that Martin—who was “armed” with Skittles and an iced tea—was a threat because he didn’t respond to being followed by a strange man, with the “yes, sir” head down humility expected by Black people being interrogated by those who believe they are somewhere they are not permitted to be. Martin’s death and the failure to immediately arrest Zimmerman caused the nation to take notice and Million Hoodie marches were organized across the country, garnering national attention. (Even Beyonce and Jay Z attended one in New York City after the verdict.)

So where is the Million Hoodie march for Renisha McBride?

While there are certainly activists organizing vigils across the country for McBride, they are noticeably smaller at this early stage in the case than the ones organized for Martin. Like Martin, McBride was gunned down inexplicably, and then labeled a threat by the shooter to justify the killing.

There is no question that Black men are under attack by a racist criminal justice system and a society that forever suspects them to be criminals. But when a young Black woman suffers the same fate as Trayvon Martin, the outrage appears to be concentrated among Black women, instead of a universal outrage with mass protests. That has got to change. Black women consistently show up for Black men, and yet the opposite is not true when Black women are the victims of injustice.

That Black bodies cannot simply exist and move about unmolested, without the threat of violence for little to no reason, links us back to the Jim Crow South, when Black bodies were labeled threatening and lynched in front of white communities. As Professor Jelani Cobb wrote in the New Yorker, “African-Americans are both the primary victims of violent crime in this country and the primary victims of the fear of that crime.” Both Renisha McBride and Trayvon Martin died as an apparent reaction to this discriminatory—and common—mindset.

There must be justice for Renisha McBride, for her family, and for her community. Black America is in a constant spin cycle of pain. The reasons given to justify the deaths of Black children are steeped in America’s checkered racial history and white supremacy.

The callousness with which Martin and McBride were killed should compel a national dialogue on race, inequality, profiling, and gun safety, but as long as white Americans refuse to acknowledge that Black people are not inherently a threat, and are capable of innocence deserving justice, the pain will continue. For a nation that claims to have a foundation of freedom and liberty, these killings are evidence of a nation lost and in denial, unable to find its way until all Americans can walk up to a home seeking help after an accident, and not receive a fatal shot to the face.

This article originally appeared in RH Reality Check and is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Sin’s Fatal Taint: the Felony Murder Rule and its Discontents

Sin’s Fatal Taint: the Felony Murder Rule and its Discontents

by Okla Elliott

We’ve all heard of outdated laws that remain on the books from earlier times — such as laws about how many pigs are allowed inside a house or those defining a pickle by means of a bounce test — many of which are good for a few laughs, given their perfect absurdity. There are untold numbers of such laws, and most of them are harmless enough, worthy of little more than a shrug of amazement at what people will make law. Unfortunately, not all outdated laws are so harmless. The felony murder rule dates back to sixteenth century Common Law in England, was adopted by America in the nineteenth century, and is all but entirely unknown, except of course to those who have been affected by it directly. The felony murder rule has at its heart a noble goal: to punish a murderer more severely if the murder is committed during a burglary, kidnapping, rape, or other such felonious offense. Why then did England repeal the rule entirely in 1957? Why would anyone want to see such a noble-spirited rule repealed? The reasons are numerous, but before we discuss what’s wrong with the rule, we should properly define it.

The felony murder rule, as defined by The Social Law Library of Massachusetts, states that “the defendant is guilty of first degree murder if the Commonwealth has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the deceased was unlawfully killed during the defendant’s commission or attempted commission of a felony.” Sounds okay so far. Now let’s take a look at the definition of first-degree murder: “Murder committed with deliberate premeditation and malice is murder in the first degree.” First-degree murder is the most heinous of crimes, requiring the most vicious mens rea (the “mental state” of the perpetrator at the time of the crime, used as the means to determine the degree of legal culpability). It requires a truly cruel person to extensively plan and execute the malicious demise of another. Aside from child molestation or brutal rape, most of us would agree that there is no worse crime imaginable, and we would agree also that the worst punishment should be reserved for the perpetrators of such crimes. It is for this reason that first-degree murder has such a specific and unambiguous definition. And it is for this reason, coupled with the ambiguities inherent in the felony murder rule, that the rule must be repealed or, minimally, amended to allow for consideration of mens rea.

The most striking illustration of how these ambiguities can lead to a first degree murder charge which jars rational sensibilities and flies in the face of common sense is the 1997 case of Lisl Auman in Colorado. Auman and three friends drove from Denver to Buffalo Creek to retrieve some of her belongings from a lodge she had shared with an ex-boyfriend. They took her things, and the friends, in what can only be described as childishness, stole some of her ex’s belongings. So, now we have the requisite felony: burglary. Auman and friends drove back to Denver in separate cars, Auman ending up with Matthaeus Jaehnig, whom she had met that day for the first time. Before they reached Denver several cops, alerted of the break-in, tried to pull them over. Auman urged Jaehnig to pull over, but he refused. A chase ensued. Jaehnig, at one point in the chase, produced a gun and fired at the police. When Jaehnig stopped the car in front of Auman’s new apartment in Denver, Auman ran to the police and gave herself up, wanting nothing to do with Jaehnig, and attempted to warn them of what sort of gun he had. Jaehnig ran and, before the events were over, had killed a cop and then himself. Now we have a death connected with the commission of a felony.

Auman was safely handcuffed in the back of a police car when Jaehnig shot and killed a police officer. The felony occurred miles away in a different city. She was later convicted of first-degree murder by strength of the felony murder rule. According to my count, she was guilty of, at most, breaking-and-entering and burglary, crimes I feel she should pay for (though perhaps not too harshly considering how romantic break-ups and domestic squabbles tend to go). Yet she was found guilty of one of the worst, if not the worst, crime imaginable and was sentenced to life in prison as though she had committed murder “with deliberate premeditation and malice,” when in fact she committed no murder at all. (Fortunately, in 2005, her sentence was overturned after much lobbying by the likes of Johnny Depp and Hunter S Thompson, but not every victim of this outdated law is so lucky.)

Judge Rudolph Gerber suggests, in his book Cruel and Usual: Our Criminal Injustice System, that the origins of the felony murder rule may date back to medieval times when “sinful tainting” was still a popular notion. A person was tainted with the crime, even if she didn’t commit the crime herself. This was doubly true of Auman’s case, since Jaehnig was vaguely connected with a neo-Nazi group and the cop he shot was black. Jaehnig—not Auman—was vaguely connected with a neo-Nazi group, and Jaehnig—not Auman—shot a police officer, yet during her trial Auman was accused of being a white supremacist and was, as I’ve stated, convicted of first degree murder. In effect, her few hours of acquaintanceship with Jaehnig so tainted her that she must now serve life in prison without parole in order to atone. (The suggestion of racism was not ultimately necessary to convict her of first-degree murder. I mention it here only to illustrate the psychology of “sinful tainting” still in our legal practices.)

There are of course less morally clear cases, such as Janet Danahey’s in Greensboro, NC. Danahey, as a valentine prank on an ex-boyfriend, set fire to a futon on the balcony of his apartment. The fire grew beyond her expectations and set the entire building ablaze. In her panic she fled to her parents’ house in the nearby city of Weddington without calling the fire department. Four people died, several others were injured when they leapt from second- and third-story windows, and the property damages for both the building owner and tenants were tremendous. Here we have an emotionally electrified case in which four innocents, all young adults striving to achieve careers or college degrees, died in a painful and horribly frightening way. Some (though not all) of their family members were, rightly, so angered that they demanded the harshest punishment possible against Danahey, who had done them irreparable emotional and psychological damage. The community was—again, rightly—outraged.

In court, District Attorney Stuart Albright chose to use the felony murder rule, and Danahey was charged and convicted with four counts of first degree murder and one count of arson (the felony necessary to invoke the powers of the felony murder rule); all of which earning her life in prison with no chance of parole. Without the felony murder rule, Danahey could have been convicted of four counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of arson which could have earned her anywhere between 30-120 years in prison with a chance for parole after 10-30 years, depending on the judge. It is therefore possible that Danahey would have remained imprisoned until her death.

“But what if she didn’t?” an angered voice from the back of the room yells. “She deserves the worst she can get for what she did.” And though I am sympathetic to this call of outrage, it strikes me that she doesn’t deserve the worst punishment possible. As mentioned earlier, the worst punishment should be reserved for the worst crime. Imagine now the case of a person who set the same fire in the same apartment building “with malice and deliberate premeditation” to kill those four people and harm the others, as opposed to a prank gone horribly awry. We would all make a moral distinction between the person who maliciously planned to kill people and the person who—stupidly and childishly, though not cruelly and bloodthirstily—played a prank that ended up killing people. The mens rea of these two persons would be radically different. The felony murder rule, however, with its brutal ambiguity, does not distinguish between these two cases. Both perpetrators would be convicted of four counts of first-degree murder and one count of arson. It doesn’t require a lawyer or professor of ethics to see that there is a clear moral difference, yet the only option in most states, when the felony murder rule is invoked, is a charge of first-degree murder.

Currently, almost every state has the felony murder rule still in place. Twelve of the thirty-eight states that have capital punishment allow for no charge other than first degree murder when the rule is invoked, and even in states such as Arizona, where a defendant can no longer be sentenced to death by strength of the rule, life sentences are the most common punishment doled out in felony murder cases.

I will now turn around an earlier question: Why wouldn’t anyone want the felony murder rule repealed? There are two groups of people who generally object to repealing the rule, DAs and the families of victims. The emotional anguish and urge for revenge on the latter’s part is understandable (though it’s that natural tendency to over-punish personal offenses that caused Hobbes, and the whole of the civilized world, to put faith in an objective, third-party judicial system). Many DAs, however, enjoy the existence of the felony murder rule, because it makes their jobs easier. In order to win a first-degree murder conviction (which, coincidentally, looks very good for their track records), they only have to prove intention to commit the felony and that a death occurred somehow connected—however loosely—with said felony, and the defendant is automatically found guilty of first-degree murder. I would like to think that the DAs who fight to keep the felony murder rule on the books are doing so out of a misguided sense of justice, though I have my doubts.

Our laws should adhere to a rational sense of moral rightness, whereby the degree of the crime and the mens rea of the perpetrator determine the degree of the punishment. The cases cited in this essay illustrate how the felony murder rule can lead to a conviction of first-degree murder when the defendant killed no one, and how it fails to make clear and obvious moral distinctions. The felony murder rule is therefore neither rational nor morally sound, and should for these reasons be repealed unequivocally. Our justice system should busy itself with discovering the guilt or innocence of a defendant and then—if she’s found guilty—punishing her for the crimes she’s committed, not the crimes of others; and her sentencing should be equal to her crime. If a DA wants to win a first-degree murder conviction, then she should be required to prove that the death was caused with “deliberate premeditation and malice,” which is the defining quality of first-degree murder. The felony murder rule is a throwback to an outdated and overly ambiguous law that has been repealed in its native country. If our justice system is meant to serve justice—as its name implies—it must rid itself of this fatally antiquated legacy.