The Death of Joy Gardner and the Power of Language

From Propa Propaganda by Benjamin Zephaniah

They put a leather belt around her
13 feet of tape and bound her
Handcuffs to secure her
And only God knows what else,
She’s illegal, so deport her
Said the Empire that brought her
She died,
Nobody killed her
And she never killed herself.
It is our job to make her
Return to Jamaica
Said the Alien Deporters
Who deports people like me,
It was said she had a warning
That the officers were calling
On that deadly July morning
As her young son watched TV.


I first read this poem by Benjamin Zephaniah when I took a course on literature of the African diaspora. Zephaniah is a British-Jamaican artist who has written a number of poems that explore what it means to be black and British in a culture that includes systematized racism.  Although his collection of poems Propa Propaganda was written about 20 years ago, I feel as though it’s content is still highly relevant today. The above section from “The Death of Joy Gardner” is one such example; the full text can be found here if you are interested.

Joy Gardner was an undocumented Jamaican living in London at the time of her death. Police came to her home and, in their attempt to restrain and arrest her, accidentally suffocated her when she resisted. She suffered severe brain damage and was placed on life support, but died a few days later from cardiac arrest. The police officers were acquitted from all charges.

I just want to stop here and point out the language I used in my above description of Joy Gardner. When you Google Joy Gardner, that is the first result that comes up in relation to her death. However, when I originally was trying to write a description of her death, bearing in mind Zephaniah’s poem, it went something like this:

Joy Gardner was a migrant Jamaican woman living in London when she was killed by police officers in a raid. They restrained her with handcuffs, leather straps and 13 feet of duct tape. She suffered severe brain damage from the attack and died four days later in the hospital while on life support. The police offers were charged with manslaughter but were acquitted on all counts.

While I’m personally more of the opinion detailed in description 2, it’s still interesting to me to see how many accounts there can be of a single experience. Think of your Facebook feed, and how two different friends can share different new articles about the same remark made by presidential candidate. You might only read 1 of the 2 articles, and now your opinion is unconsciously shaped in some way.

Of course when you want someone to see things a certain way, you’re going to adjust your language accordingly, as Zephaniah does in his poem. Clearly he wants us to see that Joy Gardner’s death was no doubt consequential of her alien-status in England at the time. However, I can’t help but think about the alternate account of this poem, as told by say, a police officer who was there or the person who makes laws concerning deportation of immigrants. Especially concerning a real event in history, I’m always curious to see what the other side has to say. While I don’t necessarily want to be swayed by the other side, I think it’s interesting to think about how we use language to do precisely that. No one wants to read a poem or listen to a speech that isn’t trying to get some point across. But, I think it’s important to at least consider the opposition.



2 Replies to “The Death of Joy Gardner and the Power of Language”

  1. Amanda,
    I agree with your point here about perspectives and biases, and I enjoyed the poem. This is inspiring me to tackle the relationship between author and speaker as another perspective-based concept in our writing.

  2. Amanda,
    I think that the way poetry is allowed to be biased, sometimes brutally so, is one of its strengths. I feel like poetry is one of the least pedantic forms of writing, and that it is (sorry) accessible to many writers across different educational backgrounds, income brackets, etc. I agree, I always want to see the poetry that comes out of conflict, because it can stir up emotions for poets to describe and come to grips with. I really value the multiplicity of voices in poetry, and I think that it is one of the few places we can look to find lots of voices.

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