CJ Suitt is a young black poet living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. And he has a simple and frightening question, "Would I be shot if I called the police?"
CJ uses his poetry to combat stereotypes and to build bridges of understanding. But he admits, in the wake of yet another series of high profile killings of black men by the police, something has changed. CJ no longer feels safe walking at night.
This week on Stories with a Heartbeat, CJ Suitt shares his thoughts and poetry on the fear of police violence.
CJ is not afraid of being robbed or assaulted. He is afraid of being perceived as a threat.
"It's night time, I'm a black male, a dark skinned black male. I'm walking in the street. People don't see nothing but a shadow. And because there is no understanding. Or a willingness to understand. There is just a jump to a reaction," he said.
But CJ is not only afraid of being perceived as a threat. He is also afraid because there is no one he can call for help. CJ fears calling the police could actually mean more danger for people who look like him.
"I'm thinking in my head would I be able to dial 911 fast enough. Or who would I call, would it be good to call 911 if someone is already calling 911 on me? Would I be the person they would come after? Would I be shot if I call the police?" he asked.
In the past, CJ has turned to poetry in these moments. He always says, "You got to fight stigma with stanza." For CJ poetry is a survival mechanism and a way to dismantle stereotypes. CJ says racism, and the lack of comfort he feels from it, fuels his art. But something really does feels different now.
"That lack of comfort has turned into a fear now of being misunderstood. It's become very obvious that misunderstanding can turn fatal for folks who look like me in the world," he said.
CJ shares several excerpts of poems in this week's episode including the following lines from his poem "Tides."
Alton Sterling, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Philando Castille, a church in Charleston, a pool in Ohio, Mike Brown
Brown Is the only color I ever see anymore
On a hot block
melting into the sidewalk and they watched the puddle for 4 hours
Til the sun baked and the boys body bubbled
Justice system a fountain
Body like fondue
Surrounded by a circle of BlueBlood Bodies
The law a pointed whittled stick formed especially for this occasion
every word a soft white marshmallow lie
soaked in scorched syrup
Brown Boy all over their faces.
The color of shell casings.
And I ask who is really thuggin?
Despite his fears, CJ says he won’t stop walking at night.
"Even if something happened, I'm an artist I got the platform to talk about it, you know. And even if something happened where I wasn't here, you know, universe forbid, my art would tell the story... Folks who look like me spent too many centuries living in fear... I’m not going back inside… So yea I'm going to keep walking," he said.
This week's episode closes with a poem by CJ called "Moon Men." You can watch a video of his performance below. To read and hear more of CJ’s poetry check out his website.
Stories with a Heartbeat is a new podcast produced by North Carolina Public Radio and hosted by poet Will McInerney that uses poetry and storytelling to help us understand conflict. You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or your podcast platform of choice.