The Secret of Sugar Water Book Review: Pain, Protest, and Pursuing Progress

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secret of sugar water book with wine and water jug

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The Secret of Sugar Water is a collection of poems by Feminista Jones. Jones’ poems explore feelings on protest, loss, bullies, and more. From relationships, both with other people and with God; to a mother’s perspective on losing a child to violence; to finding strength and drive from trauma in your family history. Jones uses her poetry to shine a light on many issues, including police violence, calling attention to specific deaths. Her poems are deeply affecting, taking you through a range of emotions in a short page count.

Jump to The Secret of Sugar Water Discussion Questions

I’m so grateful for this book club bringing another great book to our group! The Secret of Sugar Water is a collection of poetry, which we’ve never read as a group. And it was my gateway to the life and works of Feminista Jones, a modern activist and prolific writer: she blogs, she tweets, she ‘grams, she is an author of four books, and she is a public speaker and motivator. Jones sits on the boards of the Wayfinder Foundation, a grant-making organization that invests in women making a difference in their underserved communities, and The Hope Center which advances systemic changes to support college students’ basic needs.

Sugar Water’s poems are deeply personal and many touched on Jones’ observations and experiences with social issues and injustices. At times Jones references specific police encounters involving Black civilians that ended in their death, and in an effort to amplify her message and call attention to policies and practices that can help reduce police abuses and negligence, I’ve included information here about some of those cases. 

I definitely encourage you to check it our yourself, and continue reading for discussion questions and selected poem reviews…

Poem: Chains

This poem was my favorite. The narrator seemed to be divided from another person by death and an old painful past. The narrator wants to raise up this lost person’s story. And they believe they will finally truly know them once they themselves have both passed over in death.  

What family has escaped a traumatic history effected by slavery, genocide, war, or perhaps a more personal tragedy? No trauma is the same but they all haunt our pasts. And many of us feels a duty to tell the story of people we learn about: people who have suffered; people who have been wronged; people whose stories should be shared.  

But when you’re gone, who remembers your name, Who keeps your flame?

Who tells your story?

Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda

Poem: Ism

Ism is a recognition of the weight of slavery in your family history or your cultural history (or both). She feels a duty, a momentum from the efforts and trials of her ancestors to continue moving forward. To continue striving for equal rights, fair treatment.

Poem: In Protest (2016)

Jones memorializes and brings attention to the circumstances of the deaths of the Black people in this poem. Here are a few:

The Shooting of Yvette Smith, 2014

  • Circumstance of Death: Shot twice within seconds of being ordered to exit her home.
  • Police Protocol Breached?
    • There was an initial media release by the Sheriff’s department that wrongly claimed Smith was armed and failed to comply with orders to come to the front door.
    • Regarding protocol, this article states Officer Willis brought his personal AR-15 to the scene: I don’t know if this is outside of police protocol but it certainly seems like it is.
  • Punitive Measures Taken on Officer(s) Responsible for negligence, abuse, and/or breach of protocol if applicable:
    • In 2018, two years after he was found not guilty of murder, Officer Willis sued Bastrop County, alleging that he was improperly trained and he is unable to get a job in law enforcement.
    • This is an interesting case, because there is no legal mechanism preventing him from being re-hired by a different law enforcement agency. This issue of officers with a history of misconduct and officers that are fired and rehired is well-documented.
      • A recently published report from The Yale Law Journal called “The Wandering Officer” catalogues the effects of this issue by analyzing a dataset of 98,000 officers over a 30-year time period. An interview with the Washington Post summarizes the findings of this report:

We have four principal findings. First, during any given year, there are about 1,100 full-time law enforcement officers working in Florida who had been previously fired from other Florida agencies — that’s roughly 3 percent of all full-time law enforcement officers working in the state. Second, police officers who are fired tend to get rehired by another agency within three years. Third, officers who’ve been fired and land another job tend to move to smaller agencies with fewer resources and slightly larger communities of color. Finally, when a wandering officer gets hired by a new agency, they tend to get fired about twice as often as other officers and are more likely to receive “moral character violations,” both in general and for physical and sexual misconduct.

What happens when a police officer gets fired? Very often another police agency hires them. By Nikita Lalwani and Mitchell Johnston
  • Recommended change(s) to police policy to prevent future deaths:
    • Texas certifies their officers and therefore Willis could have been decertified, however, Willis was not decertified, only fired. Officer Willis argues in his suit against the County that he should be rehired and his case reminds us that there is currently no legal barrier preventing him from being rehired by a different law enforcement agency, only the notoriety of his case.
    • Forty-six states currently license police officers. However, several of those states are restricted on how they can decertify: officers must be criminally convicted of a felony or misdemeanor in order to be decertified. This is an extraordinarily high bar; the commission of the act should be what determines decertification, as it is for lawyers and other professions, as Professor Goldman recommends in the quote below.

“…it’s the commission of the act that should trigger a decertification. After a fair hearing, we should treat police like they do every profession.”

Professor Emeritus Roger Goldman, Policing the Police – Licensing and Decertification for Police Officers [PODCAST]

Has this change been implemented?:

The Death of Sandra Bland, 2015

  • Circumstance of Death: Found hanged in jail cell three days after her arrest related to a traffic stop for allegedly failing to indicate a change of lanes. Her death was ruled suicide.
  • Police Protocol Breached?
    • Before the trial, the officer that arrested Bland was placed on administrative leave for violating unspecified police procedures.
    • It is unclear why Officer Encinia took out his taser and threatened to use it on a nonviolent civilian. We have clear video footage showing that he did not fear that she was holding a weapon, he knew she was holding a cellphone because he asked her to get off the phone. Bland replies “I’m not on the phone. I have a right to record.”

“The video makes it abundantly clear there was nothing [Sandra] was doing in that car that put him at risk at all,”

Lambert, the family’s attorney, ‘Open up the case, period’: Sandra Bland’s family demands answers over new video of her arrest, Washington Post
  • The Bland family lawyer said they had not received the video from Bland’s phone until it was obtained by local news…4 years after Bland’s arrest and 3 years after Officer Encinia’s trial for perjury. But the Texas department of public safety stated the footage had been released as a part of the legal discovery process during litigation.

“It is troubling that a crucial piece of evidence was withheld from Sandra Bland’s family and legal team in their pursuit of justice,” Texas state Rep. Garnet Coleman, said in a statement after the WFAA investigation was published, adding that his committee will look into the matter. “The illegal withholding of evidence by one side from the other destroys our legal system’s ability to produce fair and just outcomes.”

Sandra Bland recorded her traffic stop. The video is finally public, years after her death. By P.R. Lockhart, Vox

When you put any type of numbers on a police officer to perform, we are going to go to the most vulnerable. We’re going to [the] LGBT community, we’re going to the black community, we’re going to go to those people that have no boat, that have no power.

Officer Adhyl Polanco, I-Team: More NYPD Officers Say There’s Proof of Quota-Driven Arrests, NBC New York
  • Change the laws and union provisions that dictate how police suspected of misconduct are questioned. By allowing officers suspected of misconduct to review all evidence against them and take days before being questioned, we are abusing the justice process and not allowing fair trial for all.
    • From the NAACP Pathways to Police Reform Toolkit, I learned that there are laws dictating how police can be questioned when they are suspected of a crime or misconduct. Officers cannot be questioned immediately and they must be given access to video footage and evidence before they are questioned—giving them time to formulate a story that matches the available evidence. What other citizen wanted for questioning in a possible crime would ever be given all of the evidence against them before they were questioned? The mechanism that allows this is called the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBR), and the laws have been enacted in 14 states. In other states, police unions may have enacted similar provisions.

LEOBR’s red tape harms the accuracy of investigations, too. The U.S. Department of Justice has repeatedly taken the view that cases in which an officer’s gun has been fired call for prompt interrogation, often on the spot and with officers interviewed separately. Preventing the coordinating of stories is just one reason. Memories are freshest in the immediate aftermath. Immediate interviews can alert investigators to physical evidence and witnesses that might be less available if sought a week later.

For Better Police Accountability, Repeal Law Enforcement’s Bill of Rights, By Walter Olson, CATO Institute

It’s strange that a law that thwarts transparency and accountability is called a “bill of rights.”

The Police Officers’ Bill of Rights Creates a Double Standard, Paul Butler, The New York Times
  • Has this change been implemented?:
    • About 20 states have acted to discourage practices that pressure law enforcement officers to write tickets or meet ticket quotas. The following states have made serious headway to against for-profit policing on-the-job incentives.  
      • In New Jersey, Assemblyman Harold Wirths, R-Hardyston, introduced a bill in May (A4058) that would prohibit law enforcement agencies from using the volume of an officer’s arrests or citations as a factor when evaluating that officer’s overall performance.
      • In Oklahoma, SB1264, sponsored by Sen. Nathan Dahm, R-Broken Arrow, would outlaw local governments and police departments from requiring officers to issue a certain number of citations within a specific period of time. Additionally, agencies would be prohibited from evaluating personnel based on the number of tickets written or arrests made. Violators would face removal from their position.
    • Quotas have been illegal in NY since 2010, but the recent documentary Crime + Punishment follows 12 NY officers as they suffer the retaliation from not conforming to the unofficial quota and try to hold the NYPD to account through a lawsuit.
    • In Maryland, the first state to adopt “Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights” (LEOBR), Senate Judicial Proceedings Chairman William C. Smith Jr. (D‐​Montgomery) has signaled that he wants to reconsider key elements of the law.

We believe quotas create unnecessary tension between the public and law enforcement. … [Q]uotas turn police officers into tax collection machines instead of professional law enforcement officers.

The Illinois Fraternal Order of Police Labor Council, Race and the Tragedy of Quota-Based Policing, Shaun Ossei-Owusu, Prospect

The Death of Shereese Francis, 2012

  • Circumstance of Death: Suffocated/went into cardiac arrest while being handcuffed on her mattress by four officers. She had been dead for 90 minutes prior to arriving at the hospital. No explanation was given for the delay in getting Shereese medical attention when she became unresponsive.    
  • Police Protocol Breached?
    • Shereese’s sister called 311 to request an ambulance that evening, so it is unclear why officers were sent to their home instead of medical personnel. Shereese’s sister and mother were confused when officers arrived instead of paramedics.
  • Punitive Measures Taken on Officer(s) Responsible for negligence, abuse, and/or breach of protocol if applicable:
  • Recommended change(s) to police policy to prevent future deaths:
    • Agencies like PROPS recommend that police are not the first responders when the call is regarding a psychiatric crisis. When the role of police is to use might to control and contain a situation, a possible solution is to use a different resource when 911 receives a call for a mental health crisis. This crisis response unit would not be focused on containing a threat, but would be focused on using compassion to de-escalate the situation.
    • Shereese’s sister and best friend have come together to develop the Shereese Francis Act, which would mandate the NYPD be banned from engaging with anyone with mental health issues without a qualified psychiatrist. That psychiatrist would have to have an extensive background of treatment for people with diagnoses including bipolar disorder, PTSD, and anxiety disorders.

We don’t want any more knees in the back. We’re sick of it. We’re sick of the knees in the back. There’s a death. The death has affected both of us, and at this point, this bill needs to be passed to not only protect mentally ill but to protect black and brown people period, and to stop police officers from using violence by law enforcement.

Sunshine Williams-Smith, Exclusive: Shereese Francis’ Family Speaks on 2012 Death of Queens Woman Some Compare to George Floyd, Stephanie Officer, Inside Edition
  • Whether or not a chokehold was used during Shereese’s arrest, many agencies and groups recommend banning chokeholds. In light of the fact that so many police departments recommend against using them or already have explicit policies against the use of chokeholds, banning chokeholds seems to be a logical next step. 
  • Has the change been implemented?:
    • Crisis response units have been organized in some cities and there is no clarity on when these units are dispatched.
    • In June 2020, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a historic bill into law repealing 50a — this bill bans chokeholds and now allows police misconduct records to be revealed to the public.

What’s Next for Police Reform?

Reform bills are being introduced all over the country, often focused on police oversight and regulating use of force, building public databases for police activities, and establishing independent agencies to investigate misconduct.

In the three weeks after Floyd’s death and the ensuing nationwide protests against police brutality, 16 state legislatures have discussed the issues roiling the country. As of Tuesday, legislatures had introduced, amended or passed 159 bills and resolutions related to policing. […] By June 16, [2020,] nine of these bills have become law, and seven more are waiting for governors’ signatures. In all, three state legislatures—Colorado, Iowa and New York—have passed policing bills.

Which States Are Taking on Police Reform After George Floyd?, Weihua Li and Humera Lodhi, The Marshall Project

Recommendations to Reform Law Enforcement

Here is a summary of the recommendations to reform law enforcement based on an analysis of the three cases above (the deaths of Yvette Smith, Sandra Bland, and Shereese Francis). These recommendations will improve public safety, help prevent future incidents, and restore trust between law enforcement and the public.

For more insight on recommended reforms, here are some great resources:

Sugar Water – In Summary

This brief collection of poems may fly by, but the sentiments will stay with you. If you were not aware of all the cases that Jones refers to in her poems (I was not), it is worth the effort to learn about them.

With Jones’ experience as an activist and cultural commentator, she must have so much knowledge of how to leverage social media for social change—and that’s exactly what her latest book is about! Reclaiming Our Space: How Black Feminists Are Changing the World from the Tweets to the Streets.


Wine Selection & Tasting Notes

Jam Jar Sweet Shiraz. Scent: blueberry, red currant, chocolate. Super sweet, close to the level of a moscato. Mixed berry jam with sugar sprinkles.


The Secret of Sugar Water Discussion Questions

  1. Did you have a favorite poem? What drew you to it?
  2. How did you feel about the collection as a whole?
  3. In the titular poem, what does “sugar water” represent? Who are the two opposing entities? What emotions do you feel when you read this poem?
  4. In several poems, Jones references the deaths of black people as the result of police encounters, including the shooting of Amadou Diallo, the shooting of Korryn Gaines, and the death of Sandra Bland. How many of these had you heard of before reading Sugar Water? Did Jones’ poems help you understand the scope of the problem and the reality of the danger police encounters present to the black community?
  5. Did Jones’ poems help communicate the unique pain and frustration of pushing for social change and getting no response? Particularly in Jones’ poem “Confusion.”
  6. In “Chains” Jones references a traumatic history and trying to reach across time. Do you feel she was speaking of her personal family history or more universally of shared trauma like our country’s experience with slavery? Whose story does she want to raise up?  

The poems, with page numbers:

  • The Secret of Sugar Water (p. 7), Blue (p. 10), Motherhood #1 (p. 10), Motherhood #2 (p. 10)
  • On Womanhood: Virtuous Women (p. 11), Untitled #1 (p. 11), Home Again (p. 12), Untitled #2 (p. 12), I Am Not My Hair (p. 12), Chains (p. 13), A Slice of Pie (p. 14), Dreamer (p. 15), Holla (p. 16), Ism (p. 17), 
  • In Protest (2016): Remember Me (p. 18), Haiku for the Forgotten (p. 20), Mother’s Lament (p. 22), I Believed in Freedom (p. 23),
  • What You Can’t Have (2004) (p. 26), Confusion (2004) (p. 27), God (2005) (p. 28),
  • What I Thought I Knew About Love: Whisper (p. 30), Labor (Haiku) (p. 30), Untitled #3 (p. 31)