Activists filled Pennsylvania Avenue on Oct. 14 to express, through poetry, a desire to reconsider the face of politics in the United States. With the White House looming behind them, participants read and repeated their collected “I Want a President…” adaptation for a full hour. “I want someone who has spent the night on the streets, in a shelter, at an occupation …” the crowd said in unison.
For weeks, organizers had been holding workshops and writing sessions to create modern iterations of the 1992 poem by Zoe Leonard, which was written as a critique of the Reagan Administration’s handling of the AIDS crisis and the overall lack of diversity in American government.
Readers called upon the public to consider what characteristics the people of the nation may want in a president, and many of their requests were non-traditional, relatable and rough around the edges. The reading included recitation of the original work alongside the modern modified version. Participants held signs with their personal requests, people stopped in the streets to listen and, for this hour, it seemed that most passersby could hear something from within themselves being projected into this hope for the future president of the United States:
“I want a Native American for president. I want a Muslim refugee for president and I want a queer for vice president and I want someone who walked hundreds of miles across a desert and swam across a river to be here, someone who grew up in a place where the tap water was poisoned and officials knew and ignored it. I want someone living with AIDS for president who will hold the system accountable for bringing the epidemic to an end, and I want a president who had a dangerous illegal abortion at 14, became a parent at 15, and orphan at 16, an inmate at 17 and recovered and rebounded at 18 and I want a candidate who doesn’t represent our apathy and fear and I want a president whose son was shot by police, who still sees that in their eyes every time they lay down to rest, who held them in their arms and knew they were dying.
“I want a president who has stood against war, for the earth, on line at the clinic, the unemployment office, in the rain for a bus to pick up their kid from daycare after a double shift and has lived on food stamps and a side hustle, through foreclosure and mental illness and addiction, who has been homeless and displaced and sexually harasses and beaten up for being trans, gay, a woman, an immigrant, black, brown, themselves. I want someone who has spent the night on the streets, in a shelter, at an occupation, in a camp, on a reservation, at a deportation center, nursing a loved on, in jail after being unlawfully detained and assigned an unprepared public defender.
“I want a president who survived rape and I want someone who has listened to bombs fall, who knows the difference between the sound of a mortar, artillery and drones, who has crawled out of rubble happy to breathe again. I want someone who has been in love and been hurt, but still has an active profile online, who respects and enjoys consensual sex, who has made mistakes, apologized, learned, and taught from them, who has walked away from abuse and never looked back. I want a Black woman for president and an Asian American Supreme Court Justice. I want Sandra Bland for president. I want someone with tattoos, who was told they weren’t pretty enough, and laughed, ‘pretty enough for who?’
“I want someone who has redefined their gender and sexual identity and spoken up for their rights and committed civil disobedience and identity and spoken up for their rights and committed civil disobedience and sees the flag as a work in progress. And I want to know why this isn’t possible. I want to know why we were taught somewhere down the line that a president is always a puppet: always a player and never a game-changer; always a boss and never a worker, always a liar, always a crook and never convicted.”