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.”

Christine Baniewicz is a writer living in New Orleans.

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