Sasha Banks is no stranger to raising her voice in crowds. As a slam poet and a winner of the 2013 National Poetry Slam Golden Poem Award, she performs and teaches poetry across the country. But news of the August 9, 2014, shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, rendered her speechless.
“I got an alert on my phone that there was a boy who had been murdered. We knew that his body had lain in the street for four hours and we knew that there was an officer involved,” she recalls.
At the same time I was reading this article, a breaking news alert flashed across my phone about John Crawford, who had also been shot. It was too much. I didn’t really know what to do with that.”
She wasn’t the only one. At the time, Banks, 25, was watching a Livestream of the National Poetry Slam being broadcast from Oakland, CA. She was surprised to observe silence, in such a vocal community of artists, regarding Brown’s shooting by Officer Darren Wilson.
“I had a conversation with my friend and we [asked], ‘What do we do? [Schools] don’t teach you how to start an uprising. You can’t write a poem to resurrect a body,” she says.
The ensuing reports of peaceful protestors being tear gassed and arrested by law enforcement concerned her. Banks was unable to physically be in Ferguson but she conceived of another way to bring the national slam community to Ferguson.
#PoetsForFerguson was born, Banks says, to give marginalized “poets of color…a voice for 24 straight hours with no interruption.” Volunteer performers would participate in a fundraising poetry cypher for 10 minutes each via streaming video feed. The donations would go to the Missourians Organizing for Reform & Empowerment (M.O.R.E), a nonprofit organization that offers a legal support fund for Ferguson protestors.
“[We] are trying to raise money for protestors in Ferguson who are being arrested. And we know that’s a tactic for them to be distracted from protesting and calling out what’s around them, to mire them in legal debt,” Banks explains.
I put [the event] out there on Facebook and instantly had people [say], ‘If you do this thing, I may not be able to help you, but I will spread it to people who can,” she says. The Texas Wesleyan graduate received her first donation two days later.
Over three weeks, news of #PoetsForFerguson quickly gained traction on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. Banks and a small team of volunteers had their hands full signing up readers to broadcast from Newark, NJ to New Orleans, LA, from Atlanta, GA to Arlington, TX.
#PoetsForFerguson started at 6 PM EST on September 27 and livestreamed until 6 PM EST on September 28. The requests to perform poured in even after the event began. “There were so many people, so many last-minute people that kind of jumped in on a slot because we couldn’t find the person who was supposed to be in that slot!” she laughs. Nearly 200 poets nationwide participated.
Banks reserved a special slot, the last poet of the cypher, for organizer Jacqui Germain in Ferguson, MO. The penultimate reading went to The Lit Slam from Oakland, CA, who read from a memorial site for unarmed shooting victim Oscar Grant.
The national cypher successfully raised over $3,300 in support of the fight for justice for Michael Brown. “One thing that I was really shocked about was that people were still watching it, even days later! I’ve [been] very grateful about the support. I just wanted to raise some money.”
With local law enforcement in Ferguson still jailing protestors, the fundraising effort of #PoetsForFerguson has not ended. On October 4, a later fundraiser at the Fowler Arts Collective in Brooklyn, NY, featured guests from the Pratt Institute MFA program in Writing.
Banks also says she will collect funds to send to M.O.R.E via the event’s fundraising site until October 27 or until they reach $10,000.
Banks doesn’t know if she will organize an event like #PoetsForFerguson again, but she says, “I wanted to do something fun and include the people around me in it. [The idea] turned into this other thing, and I’m glad about it.”
If you missed the Livestream for #PoetsForFerguson, you can check out all 24 hours of the poetry reading on YouTube.