Social Justice Poetry

American Rattlesnake | A Social Justice Poem by Anna Kander

“A federal investigation found that deputies had used stun guns on prisoners already strapped into a ‘restraint chair.’ The family of one man who died after being forced into the restraint chair was awarded more than six million dollars… The family of another man killed in the restraint chair got $8.25 million… after the discovery of a surveillance video that showed fourteen guards beating, shocking, and suffocating the prisoner, and after THE SHERIFF’S OFFICE WAS ACCUSED OF DISCARDING EVIDENCE, INCLUDING THE CRUSHED LARYNX OF THE DECEASED.”

(Evidence against former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, pardoned by President Trump on August 25, 2017, as reported by Margaret Talbot in The New Yorker.)


the American rattlesnake is shedding its skin
revealing another layer

sticky with newness and sharp-edged with scales
the same, deathless serpent

brown-on-brown like a Western Diamondback

with each molt, the snake adds a segment to its rattle
sloughing skin into wads of dead keratin

dragging shed skins like history or taken scalps


from 1993–2016, in Maricopa County, Arizona
Sheriff Joe Arpaio reigned

proclaimed his jail a “concentration camp”
in his custody, a hundred men died

on surveillance video, Scott Norberg slurs, dehydrated
barely conscious, strapped to a “restraint chair”

as fourteen police officers
shock, beat, and suffocate him to death

the good ol’ sheriff excused them all
and now the president has pardoned the sheriff

when lawyers started to investigate Scott’s death
the sheriff seized Scott’s body

the evidence of abuse—Scott’s crushed larynx


a larynx, also called a voice box
resembles a rattle segment

pyramidal and hollow
without them, you can’t make a sound


picture them: larynxes
strung like rattles

pieces of victims
clattering after a car like tin cans

someone celebrating
a marriage of evil and convenience

mr. and mr. and mr. complicit:

Joe and Donny
Mitch and Ryan

maybe back to Adam
a circle of snakes

in business suits and fig leaves
paired with red power ties

red, like apples
and slithering on pinstripes

or slipping from breathless bodies
like leather restraints


imagine—me, the serpent

surviving years between meals
you can’t starve me out

horses and cattle know:
you will have to trample me

your voices like rattles

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