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Poetic Injustice: the arrest and imprisonment of Joffre Stewart

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One night last April a black man with a bushy beard, in baggy dark pants and an old army field coat, entered the glitzy Barnes & Noble bookstore in downtown Evanston, a shopping bag in his hand. Within minutes he was ushered from the store by a security guard and arrested for trespassing.

The matter might have ended there, another quickly forgotten incident in Evanston's continuing struggle against panhandling, except the man wasn't a panhandler. He was Joffre Stewart, a 69-year-old, pacifist-anarchist poet, immortalized by Allen Ginsberg and immediately recognizable to almost anyone even loosely connected with the local poetry scene. He was at the store to attend a modern-poetry reading, and in his bag were copies of his most recent poems. He wound up spending 11 days in jail.

The security guard, Frank Conklin, an off-duty Evanston cop, would not return phone calls; Barnes & Noble staff stand by his version of what happened, though they wish the matter would pass. "We're not pressing charges, and Officer Conklin tells us he's not pressing charges," says Maurice Castile, the store's assistant manager. "I wish this had never happened, and I'd do anything to get it remedied."

But no remedy is in sight. Stewart refuses to attend any court proceedings, arguing that it would be hypocritical for an anarchist to participate in what he calls the "criminal injustice system." He skipped one court appearance and is now a fugitive with a warrant out for his arrest.

The irony of his dilemma has not escaped local poets. "Barnes & Noble should be ashamed for arresting one poet for the high crime of attempting to attend a poetry reading," says Darlene Pearlstein, a Chicago poet who's known Stewart for years. "This was racial harassment. They probably took one look at Joffre and said, 'This is some homeless guy. We don't want him in our store.' I should add that while Joffre was being arrested downstairs, some of the most radical and revolutionary poetry was being read upstairs. It's too ironic for words."

His acquaintances describe Stewart as gentle, courteous, and devoted to his principles, no matter how eccentric they may seem. He's been a pacifist-anarchist since his army days in World War II. "I think people would get along much better without cops, courts, jails, and taxes," he says. "I would like to pull down all the flags all over the world and burn them. These ideas inform my poetry."

Gwendolyn Brooks once got upset with him for burning an American flag while reading a poem in her house. "Burning the flag was appropriate to the meaning of my poem," he says. "I do not think she was outraged by the symbolism of the burning flag so much as she was outraged at me for burning it in her house. It was not a large flag though, and I had a cup of water to douse it if things got out of hand."

Ginsberg was taken by Stewart when they met years ago at a gathering in San Francisco. In his poem "Howl" Ginsberg refers to Stewart as a man "with big pacifist eyes sexy in their dark skin passing / out incomprehensible leaflets." Stewart says, "Later I met Ginsberg again, and I said I did not think my leaflets were incomprehensible. He said that was a reference to his state of mind and that it had nothing to do with the leaflets themselves."

For the last several decades Stewart has distributed copies of his handwritten poems, narratives, and political tracts--he has no typewriter, no computer--at antiwar and civil rights rallies. He's never held a full-time job because "there is withholding taxes on payroll-type jobs, and I don't want to contribute to buying atomic bombs, abusing the people in Haiti, or all the other bad, life-threatening things taxes go to." His only income is his veteran's pension. He lives in a south-side CHA complex.

In 1980 he was diagnosed with colon cancer and had half his colon removed at the West Side VA hospital. He periodically returns to that hospital for checkups, but remains remarkably fit, crossing the city each day by bus, train, or foot to attend rallies and readings.

"The first time I saw Joffre was in 1968," says Paul Hoover, a poet and editor of the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry. "I was having a party. The door opened, and in walked Joffre. I don't know how he knew about my party. In those days you had parties and people came. I've been seeing him at events around town ever since."

Stewart's work can be pleasantly melodic or harsh and angry, often in the same poem. His denunciation of NAFTA, entitled "The Politics of the Pig Sty," begins with a pretty line--"barely one leaf flutters on the cottonwood"--and goes on to revile the treaty's backers as "pigs eat[ing] in the trough of protection." He has what he calls "an appropriate and balanced" antipathy toward Zionism. In his mind the FBI, the CIA, the "international banking community," and the "WASP business elite" are behind many of the century's greatest crimes, including the assassination of President Kennedy. "Pig Sty" makes a reference to "Kosher Zion investment bankers," and another poem, which criticizes Maya Angelou, makes a reference to the "Anglo-AmeriCan WASP-JewIsh Ruling ClAss."

Reading such lines, it's easy to conclude that Stewart is anti-Semitic, though he says he isn't. "I have nothing against Jews. I am anti-Zionist. I am against all states, including the state of Israel and the new Palestinian state that is just being created. I am an anarchist."

Of course Stewart's poetry and politics were not at issue when he entered the Barnes & Noble store on April 29 to hear Hoover, Amiri Baraka, and other poets read from the newly published Norton Anthology. Frank Conklin apparently mistook Stewart for a panhandler he'd previously tossed out of the store. According to the story Conklin told his employer, Stewart was distributing copies of his poem in the store, and when Conklin asked him to stop Stewart became "rowdy" and began using "abusive language."

Stewart says nothing like that happened. "I was never passing out anything. I was never rowdy. I never used abusive language. I was not trespassing. I was there to hear poetry. Conklin stopped me and told me I was trespassing. He told me I was someone he had trouble with at that store before. I said that cannot be so. I had never been in this store, nor had I ever met Conklin before. I said my purpose was to hear the poetry. I offered to show him my ID card so he could compare it to this alleged other person. But he did not do that. When he asked a clerk to call the police, I left because I did not want to be arrested. He followed me outside the store. I asked for his name and badge number. He told me his name, and I was writing it down when the police drove up and arrested me."

Stewart spent the night in Evanston's lockup, then was transferred to Cook County Jail. "In the Evanston jail, as I was being moved from downstairs to an upstairs cell, one of the cops squeezed my left nut, and it hurt for some time afterwards. In the county jail another officer pressed painfully down on my wrist and pulled me up by my lower jawbone to try to make me get on a gurney."

At the county jail the guards asked Stewart to sign an I-bond, which would release him without bail while obligating him to appear in court at a future date. He refused to sign. "Not believing in courts, I do not try to appear in them. Signing that I-bond would not make me free. It is the system that incarcerates us. Just being out of jail is not being free. One of four blacks in this country is supposed to be under some kind of court surveillance. They are not free. The system is working to unliberate people."

According to Stewart, after he refused to sign the I-bond he was carted on a gurney to a dormitory-like room in the jail, where he was kept with at least 20 other prisoners. "I would lie on the bed, and I would walk to urinate and get water, and then I would lie down. Other than that I would not walk and I did not eat. I was on a hunger strike, not unlike Randall Robinson, who was also on a hunger strike at that time to get the people of Haiti out of the jail they are in. By not bathing I stunk, and that made it uncomfortable for my fellow inmates."

On Monday, May 2, after four days in jail, Stewart was carried by wheelchair to a van and driven to the county courthouse in Skokie for a bond hearing. "I explained to the judge my noncollaboration with the arrest, and I contradicted Conklin's charges. A public defender, who was interested in getting me to sign the I-bond, told me I was talking too loud and that I should not say anything. The judge said that anything I said could be used against me."

The judge returned Stewart to jail and ordered him to undergo psychiatric examination. "The psychiatrist asked me if I believed people were after me, and I said no. Twice they tried to move me to the nut ward in the hospital, but whoever was in charge there refused me."

On May 9 Stewart was released. "A guard showed me an I-bond on which had been written the word "refused.' I was told I could leave if I wrote my initials next to "refused.' I did so with the understanding that I was merely noting my refusal to participate in their bond proceedings."

All in all, he was in jail for 11 days and lost at least 16 pounds. "The clothes I wore the day I was arrested, as well as $4.38 I had in my pockets and several letters and poems, were never returned to me. One of the guards gave me a dollar to catch a bus to get to my sister's home."

On June 13 a hearing was held, but Stewart did not attend. A warrant was issued for his arrest. Another hearing has been set for July 15, but he'll skip that one too. "I am not obligated to be in court, because I am not under the terms of that I-bond. I will go about my life as I normally would. I am not hiding. I will never voluntarily appear in court on this matter. If I am jailed, I will continue my hunger strike, and I will not walk. My conscience is clear."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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