The voices blared from loud speakers as hundreds listened raptly at the Cadillac Palace last night. It was the team finals of the 2014 Louder Than A Bomb Youth Poetry Festival and I was a judge. Young men incarcerated at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC) were reading from the zine “The PIC Is” created by my organization.
“The prison industrial complex tears families apart,” one voice shared. “The prison industrial complex is where you spend your ‘best years’ just trying to survive,” said another.
Some young men tripped over their words; it didn’t matter. The audience was attentive, sporadically interjecting with appreciative sounds and fingersnaps. The stage was empty except for the DJ tucked in a corner and four microphone stands. I heard the experience described as “haunting.”
Louder than A Bomb stage as JTDC youth audio played (photo by Nick Weaver, 3/15/14)
The disembodied voices cascaded over the crowd, emphasizing that the young people who were speaking the words were absent. I swallowed past the lump in my throat and surreptitiously dabbed by eyes. I was trying to contain my rage.
Perhaps the stark contrast between the empty stage and the voices that we were listening to was haunting. But it was also a reminder that the mostly black & brown young people who had graced the stage for most of the night prior to the JTDC performance could easily have been on the other side of the wall. The membrane that divides those performing on stage and the ones speaking through the loud speakers while caged behind bars is porous. The capriciousness and unfairness of the injustice system are a cruel reality. So I was furious.
Before and after the JTDC spoken word piece, young people took to the stage to share stories and experiences of racial & gender discrimination, adultism, addiction, family strife, suicide, gun violence, capitalist greed, and political corruption. Such large scale gatherings organized to simply listen to the truths and lived experiences of black and brown youth in Chicago are rare. I tried to take in the moment. I listened as young people of color buried the pernicious lie that they are disposable and challenged the world to “see” and “hear” them. ‘We are not who you say we are.’ ‘To those who fear and malign us, we are not violent and depraved predators and to those who say they care for us, we are not child soldiers.’ ‘We are human and we matter.’ These were, to my mind, some of the overarching statements of the night. And last night, the voices of the young people on both sides of the wall were indeed ‘louder than a bomb.’
Note: You can support the Free Write Jail Arts Program that works with incarcerated youth at the JTDC here and Louder Than A Bomb here.