Bernie Sanders, Verbal Trespassing, and the Accidental Poet

Many elements of the 104-second YouTube video, “Bernie Sanders’s Staff Kicks Out Palestinian Activists @ Boston Rally,” interest me—the quality of each speaker’s voice, the progression of language used to refer to the setting itself (state property, rented property, private property), the variety of ways that the intervening staff member identifies herself (at one point claiming, “I work for the lawn”).

“I’m verbally trespassing you,” however—this sentence fascinates me most. It’s spoken about 50 seconds into the video by a policeman in a reflective yellow jacket, shortly after one of the protestors asserts his right to be video-taping the confrontation.

“I’m verbally trespassing you,” the policeman says. “If you come back, you will be arrested, okay?”

At this point, the protesters are ushered off the lawn. It took a couple of viewings and a search engine query for me to realize that the policeman, in so uttering those four words, had intended for them to represent a verbal warning of trespassing.

But that’s not what he said; what he said was, “I’m verbally trespassing you.”

As a student of the English language, I feel compelled to examine how the four words of that statement came together on the arena lawn in Boston this October to masterfully capture, in a moment of accidental poetry, the precise nature of our country’s current ideological backwardness.

First, linguistically: the construction of the sentence implies the speaker’s guilt. If we remove the adverb and direct object, we’re left with the statement, “I’m trespassing.” It reads more like a confession than an accusation or formal charge.

Second: what’s the deal with that “you?” I’m trespassing you. What is our spontaneous poet suggesting with this unusual arrangement? Trespassing, after all, is not a verb that typically requires a direct object—in English, for example, it’s usually enough to say “I’m farting,” not “I’m farting you.”

In cases where trespass is used with an object, such as in the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to forgive those who’ve trespassed against us, not those who’ve trespassed us.

Either way you look at it—an addition of the direct object you, or an omission of the word againstone must assume the choice deliberate. I posit that the author’s doing at least three specific things by ordering the words this way:

1 Suggesting, by the addition of a direct object, that the kind of trespassing he’s guilty of has direction, is in fact pointed at those activists on the lawn.

2 Alluding to the Lord’s Prayer, thus linking the Biblical concept of sin—and all its rich emotional valences of guilt—with the act of booting the protestors off the lawn.

3 Employing a syntactical structure that one might expect to hear from a police officer, one arguably more congruous with the speaker’s intended message: Im warning you, Im charging you, Im arresting you.

What artistry, what paradox: to deliver a charge in the form of a confession! To structure that confession such that it evokes not only the Bible, but also the conventional language of crime and punishment that the text is so busy calling into question!

Finally: the introduction of a new concept, verbal trespassing. Clearly, this phrase plays off the concept of traditional trespassing, in which the guilty party physically breaches the boundaries of someone’s private property without permission or against the landowner’s will.

What, then, is “verbal trespassing?” And who on that lawn in Boston was guilty of it? These questions, to my mind, are at the heart of this piece of brief literature.

If my analysis of the text thus far is accurate, it would seem that the poem is structured to imply that the speaker, in fact, is guilty of verbally trespassing those to whom he speaks—guilty of a figurative breach into the activists’ “verbal property” without their permission. The poet seems to be suggesting, here, that the Boston policemen had made a wrongful intrusion into the protestors’ sacrosanct sphere of language, a bounded space within which they have the right to speak words of their choosing.

In this case: “Will ya #feelthebern 4 Palestine?” Those were the words the activists chose to write across their poster, the language they decided to house within their verbal property.

The irony is that the activists themselves were accused with trespassing and threatened with arrest that evening. According to a recent report released by Palestine Legal, this kind of intervention has become increasingly common. Last year, the organization responded to 152 incidents of censorship, punishment, or other burdening of advocacy for Palestinian rights.

Taken within this context of suppression and forced silence—along with the most recent violence in Palestine, many of those killed themselves unarmed protestors—the Policeman’s Poem becomes all the more timely. With haiku-esque brevity and concision, those four words—Im verbally trespassing youcapture so much that is backwards in our cultural moment: the guilty are charging the innocent, those trespassed against are accused of trespassing, those who have brutally occupied a people’s land for 67 years (dotting its landscape with hundreds of illegal settlements , razing its civilian population with mortar fire and white phosphorus) perceived as victims to the tune of $3 billion of U.S. aid every year.

But come on, Baniewicz, you’re thinking. That police officer misspoke. Is it fair to regard his words as literature?

Probably not. Given the situation, it’s fair to assume that the policeman had not intended to compose a work of art with his words, and had, under duress, committed a verbal act more closely resembling malapropism than poetry.

However, it bears mentioning that what the officer said that day on the lawn is at the very least literary, if not literature outright. Perhaps the pressure of the moment—the amplified voice of Bernie Sanders, the massive crowd’s cheers, the video camera trained on his face—forced the truth to move through Officer 225 at a higher velocity than usual, a poetic velocity, stretching his words out of their normal configurations and “lifting” them, as author Steve Almond writes, “into beauty.”

More articles by:

Christine Baniewicz is a writer living in New Orleans.

Weekend Edition
March 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Michael Uhl
The Tip of the Iceberg: My Lai Fifty Years On
Bruce E. Levine
School Shootings: Who to Listen to Instead of Mainstream Shrinks
Mel Goodman
Caveat Emptor: MSNBC and CNN Use CIA Apologists for False Commentary
Paul Street
The Obama Presidency Gets Some Early High Historiography
Kathy Deacon
Me, My Parents and Red Scares Long Gone
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Rexless Abandon
Andrew Levine
Good Enemies Are Hard To Find: Therefore Worry
Jim Kavanagh
What to Expect From a Trump / Kim Summit
Ron Jacobs
Trump and His Tariffs
Joshua Frank
Drenched in Crude: It’s an Oil Free For All, But That’s Not a New Thing
Gary Leupp
What If There Was No Collusion?
Matthew Stevenson
Why Vietnam Still Matters: Bernard Fall Dies on the Street Without Joy
Robert Fantina
Bad to Worse: Tillerson, Pompeo and Haspel
Brian Cloughley
Be Prepared, Iran, Because They Want to Destroy You
Richard Moser
What is Organizing?
Scott McLarty
Working Americans Need Independent Politics
Rohullah Naderi
American Gun Violence From an Afghan Perspective
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
Why Trump’s Tariff Travesty Will Not Re-Industrialize the US
Ted Rall
Democrats Should Run on Impeachment
Robert Fisk
Will We Ever See Al Jazeera’s Investigation Into the Israel Lobby?
Kristine Mattis
Superunknown: Scientific Integrity Within the Academic and Media Industrial Complexes
John W. Whitehead
Say No to “Hardening” the Schools with Zero Tolerance Policies and Gun-Toting Cops
Edward Hunt
UN: US Attack On Syrian Civilians Violated International Law
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Iraq Outside History
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: The Long Hard Road
Victor Grossman
Germany: New Faces, Old Policies
Medea Benjamin - Nicolas J. S. Davies
The Iraq Death Toll 15 Years After the US Invasion
Binoy Kampmark
Amazon’s Initiative: Digital Assistants, Home Surveillance and Data
Chuck Collins
Business Leaders Agree: Inequality Hurts The Bottom Line
Jill Richardson
What We Talk About When We Talk About “Free Trade”
Eric Lerner – Jay Arena
A Spark to a Wider Fire: Movement Against Immigrant Detention in New Jersey
Negin Owliaei
Teachers Deserve a Raise: Here’s How to Fund It
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
What to Do at the End of the World? Interview with Climate Crisis Activist, Kevin Hester
Kevin Proescholdt
Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke Attacks America’s Wilderness
Franklin Lamb
Syrian War Crimes Tribunals Around the Corner
Beth Porter
Clean Energy is Calling. Will Your Phone Company Answer?
George Ochenski
Zinke on the Hot Seat Again and Again
Lance Olsen
Somebody’s Going to Extremes
Robert Koehler
Breaking the Ice
Pepe Escobar
The Myth of a Neo-Imperial China
Graham Peebles
Time for Political Change and Unity in Ethiopia
Terry Simons
10 American Myths “Refutiated”*
Thomas Knapp
Some Questions from the Edge of Immortality
Louis Proyect
The 2018 Socially Relevant Film Festival
David Yearsley
Keaton’s “The General” and the Pernicious Myths of the Heroic South