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Nikki Giovanni on 1 Year Since Newtown: Where is the Political Leadership on Gun Control?

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Saturday marked one year since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School that killed six educators and 20 first-graders in Newtown, Connecticut. The anniversary came a day after two students were shot and wounded by another student at a school in Colorado. The gunman later died, reportedly from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. President Obama marked the anniversary by urging Americans to push for tighter gun control. To talk more about gun violence, we are joined by poet, activist and educator Nikki Giovanni. She briefly taught the student responsible for the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre that left 32 people dead. She is currently a distinguished professor of English at Virginia Tech. She is the author of 28 books, most recently, “Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Saturday marked one year since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School that killed six educators and 20 first-graders in Newtown, Connecticut, the anniversary coming a day after two students were shot and wounded by another student at a school in Colorado. The gunman later died, reportedly from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. President Obama marked the anniversary by urging Americans to push for tighter gun control.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And on this anniversary of a day we will never forget, that’s the example we should continue to follow, because we haven’t yet done enough to make our communities and our country safer. We have to do more to keep dangerous people from getting their hands on a gun so easily. We have to do more to heal troubled minds. We have to do everything we can to protect our children from harm and make them feel loved and valued and cared for. And as we do, we can’t lose sight of the fact that real change won’t come from Washington. It will come the way it’s always come: from you, from the American people.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama marking the one-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. Since Newtown, Congress has not passed any legislation on gun control, apart from the extension of a decades-long ban on plastic guns. A recent New York Times analysis found nearly two-thirds of gun laws passed by states since Newtown have loosened gun restrictions. Grandparents of some of the young victims talked about their grief.

To talk more about gun violence, we’re joined by Nikki Giovanni, but not just to talk about gun violence. Nikki Giovanni is a poet, an activist, a distinguished professor. She taught the student responsible for the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre that left 32 people dead. She taught him poetry. Nikki Giovanni is one of the nation’s most celebrated poets. Forty-five years ago, in 1968, she published her first collection of poetry, Black Feeling, Black Talk. She was soon dubbed the “Princess of Black Poetry.” She has since published more than 30 books, including a memoir, that was a finalist for the National Book Award, and a children’s picture book titled Rosa, about the civil rights legend, Rosa Parks. Her latest book is titled Chasing Utopia. She was the first recipient of the Rosa Parks Woman of Courage Award. She has also been awarded the Langston Hughes Medal for poetry. Nikki Giovanni is a university distinguished professor at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, joining us now in our New York studio.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

NIKKI GIOVANNI: Oh, good morning, Amy. How are you?

AMY GOODMAN: I know that you did not plan on becoming a spokesperson for gun control in this country. That was not your goal. But, of course, Virginia Tech is famous for what happened in 2007. And I came down to Virginia Tech and interviewed you in your office, and, you know, amazing to learn about your relationship with the student who was the killer there.

NIKKI GIOVANNI: Well, I didn’t, actually. That’s what I—you know, and I know, like, there are a couple of rules in New York: Don’t touch the microphone, and never correct an introduction. But Mr.—

AMY GOODMAN: Oh, you can do both—maybe not touch the microphone.

NIKKI GIOVANNI: No, I did not teach Mr. Cho. And I didn’t want that, like, to be—I didn’t teach him poetry, and I surely didn’t teach him to shoot. Mr. Cho had enrolled in my class and was a disruption, and I did request that he leave. And probably about—right now my dates are not good, but maybe four weeks into the term, I said to my department head, “Either this student has to leave my class, or I’m going to resign.” She didn’t believe me, but I was incredibly serious. And I teach the Tuesday-Thursday, and this was a Tuesday afternoon. But Mr. Cho—I mean, when you teach—I taught a student who was a wonderful young man named Kwame Alexander; he does literacy in Accra, Ghana. And so, I couldn’t teach Mr.—I wish I had been able to teach Mr. Cho poetry. Perhaps something could have been avoided. But I’m just a poet, and so I’m not a psychiatrist. I don’t understand people’s problems. It’s not what I’m hired to do.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you understand that something was so terribly wrong with him, that he was not reachable, that you needed him out of your class?

NIKKI GIOVANNI: I just knew that my class could not function with him in it. I’m not hired to tutor. I’m hired to respond to a class. And Mr. Cho was a constant disruption.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think needs to be done in this country around gun violence?

NIKKI GIOVANNI: I think we need leadership. I thought that was a pitiful statement the president made. Washington certainly does make changes, and usually they’re negative changes. Washington says take off your shoes before you can get on an airplane. Or Washington says we’re only going to have, you know, so much fluoride. Washington makes changes. So why is it, when it comes to gun control, all of a sudden it’s “We need the American people”? No, we need leadership. We need the president, and we need our senators, we need the people who care, to be as strong in their views as the NRA is strong about wanting every American on Earth to have a gun.

Obviously guns are a bad idea. They’re an idea of the 18th and 19th century. They’re just not a 20, 21st century thing. You know, they’re just not necessary. It’s just not the way we do that. And we need leadership. And I’m tired of watching the people that say they care bow down to the people that we know don’t. You know, I was just enchanted by the fact that the pope pushed back on Rush Limbaugh, that he said, “I’m not taking it. Rush Limbaugh is a fat, drug-addicted idiot who sends his brown maid out to buy his drugs. I’m not going to have him saying it.” I love the pope. I’m not Catholic—I’m Baptist—but good for the pope, you know. You get tired of the good guys always trying to find that, somehow or another, the crazy guys make sense.

AMY GOODMAN: Has the massacre at Virginia Tech, what, 2007, changed your university?

NIKKI GIOVANNI: It changed universities. It didn’t—you know, like 9/11, 9/11 didn’t change New York; it changed America. And I think that these things have to be looked at. That was something that really happened at Virginia Tech; it’s not something we did—as I say to mean what happened in here in lower Manhattan. It was not that New York did something. It’s not like all New Yorkers, you know, woke up and didn’t brush their teeth, and so somebody came and knocked their buildings down. It’s something that happened. It changed—it changed how we look at education. It changed how universities try to protect themselves. But, of course, the best protection against all of this, as you and I know, Amy, is education.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, that brings us to a comment by Terry Moretti, whose grandson Dylan Hockley was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.

TERRY MORETTI: To watch your child go through the loss of their child is just devastating. My daughter and son-in-law had established reading to the boys every night, so when I went down to visit, I always had the pleasant task of reading to them. And I was reading a particular book to Dylan the week before the tragedy. And I went down at Christmas time, and the book was still in the bedroom, and I asked my daughter if I could have it. And she said, of course, I could. And since the night I brought it home, I have read the book to Dylan every night, and I really believe that he hears me. And then I talk to him for a little while. And I will read this book every night until I see my precious Dylan again.

AMY GOODMAN: Terry Moretti, talking about her grandson, Dylan Hockley.

NIKKI GIOVANNI: That’s just incredibly sad. It’s just incredibly sad. And we—as I said, we need leadership that is strong and clear and consistent. This is a real problem. It’s not a problem that pops up every time somebody shoots somebody, though we’ve had shootings recently. When does it stop?

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about President Obama not standing up strongly enough on the issue of gun control. You also talk a great deal about inequality. Where is the leadership on inequality?

NIKKI GIOVANNI: Where’s the leadership, really, actually, on anything? I think America—I’m sincere. We’ve got the right wing that’s, I think, a little nutty, and we’ve got the left wing that’s a little without balls. So I think that right now we’re in a—not a good position, because poets and rap artists, as strong as we are in our views, are not leaders. We are artists.

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Nikki Giovanni on Poetry, Grief and Her New Book, “Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid”

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