Know Your Rights

Know Your Rights

By Elizabeth Harper

You have the right to be afraid.

You have the right to worry about your future
and the future of your children.

You have the right to work hard all of your life
and have nothing to show for it but
a bad back and debt and broken dreams.

You have the right to be strapped to a pee-stained mattress
in a hospital, nursing home, or other institution,
where no one wants to visit you while you’re dying.
Because in this country of can-do, positive attitude,
mind-over-matter, pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps,
we are in denial about aging and sickness and death.

You have the right to be shot down in the street like a rabid dog.

You have the right to get the best deal that you can,
sell yourself to the highest bidder, marry yourself off
to the least loathsome person you can find.

You have the right to pee on yourself
as you drink yourself to death.

You have the right to watch your children die of cancer
as you stand by helplessly.

You have the right to cry in your beer,
wine, vodka, whiskey, wine cooler,
artisanal craft cocktail, or whatever
suits your fancy.

You have the right to be silent, to cut out your own tongue.

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You have the right to tear your hair out,
bang your head against the wall,
scream at the top of your lungs,
climb a brick wall only to fall over and over again,
the glass ceiling shattering just a little bit
every time you get close.

You have the right to think that somehow it’s all your fault,
when really it couldn’t possibly be. That’s not even logical.
That doesn’t make sense.

You have the right to believe in an angry, jealous, and punishing God.
But why would you? How is that working out for you? How is that serving you?
Maybe you should choose your imaginary friends more carefully.

You have the right to have your feelings hurt and then tell everyone about it endlessly
and whine and stomp your feet like a toddler who can’t make a square peg fit in a round hole.

You have the right to vote, even though there’s no one you want to vote for.
Who are these people? They’re not very smart or very nice.
How are they supposed to represent your interests?
They can’t. They just can’t. Can’t even come close.

You have the right to do the best you can.
To get up every morning and drink coffee
and face the day not knowing
if it will be better or worse than yesterday.

You have the right to worry all the time
and never get anything done
because you are too afraid of making mistakes.

You have the right to fuck up your life so badly
over and over again that eventually
there are no good choices left.


It’s a free country, right? It’s a free country, right?
I can do whatever I want, be whatever I want,
say whatever I want, shoot whomever I want,
live wherever I want, die however I want.
It’s a free country, right? It’s a free country, right?


You have the right to pay taxes
for wars we can’t win
and schools and prisons so awful
they’re not fit for anyone’s children.
Well, it’s not so much a right, as it is
an obligation imposed on you by the government,
and if you don’t do your little math homework assignment correctly and
follow all the rules and turn it in on time and pay what you owe,
they will hassle you mercilessly until you pay up and
even garnish your wages or take your home.

You have the right to be homeless and hungry and sick and dirty.
To sit on the sidewalk with a handwritten sign describing
whatever misfortune led you to this point in your life.

You have the right to verbally abuse waitstaff and retail workers.
Wait, do you really have that right? If you have money then
you have the right to buy things with price tags.
People don’t have price tags. Slavery isn’t legal anymore.
Maybe you don’t actually have the right to abuse
people in the service industry.

You have the right to pursue happiness in any way you see fit and fail miserably.

You have the right to party hearty even if you have to fight for that right.

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You have the right to read any book you want
and to write any book you want
and everyone else has the right not to read,
but to play with their phones instead,
and never even consider reading the book you wrote.

You have the right to have as much and whatever kind of sex you want,
but you don’t have the right to force other people to do it with you.

You have the right to get all you can by any means legal and necessary
without regard to the needs and feelings of others,
but you don’t have the right, or the ability, to force people to like you.

You have the right to put others’ needs before your own,
to sacrifice selflessly, but you don’t have the right, or the ability,
to force people to be grateful to you or even
acknowledge your contribution to society.
Really hope that works out for you.

You have the right to be left alone and not bothered.
Seriously, leave me alone. Stop bothering me.
Stop trying to impose laws restricting my sex life and reproductive rights.
It’s none of your business.

You have the right to not be seen or understood.
No one is obligated to try to understand you.
But sometimes you wish you weren’t so angry and alone.

You have the right to not know
what to do to help anyone else
and either do nothing
or try to do something
not knowing whether it will make
the situation better or worse.

That’s freedom. That’s America.
That’s apple pie with ice cream on top, à la mode.
Ice cream, yeah, I want some ice cream.
I have the right to eat ice cream if I want
and that’s what I’m going to do just as soon as I can.
And maybe I should get a hot dog first,
with yellow mustard and bright green relish.
Yeah, that’s Chicago.
I’d like to buy the world a Chicago style hot dog
and then take them all out for ice cream.
I got that right.


The poem “Know Your Rights” was originally performed
at the Outer Space Studio in Wicker Park, Chicago as part of
Red Rover Series (curated by Jennifer Karmin and Laura Goldstein)
as part of 100 Thousand Poets for Change on September 24, 2016.
The theme was “Know Your Rights,” inspired by the Clash song.

It is available as a chapbook at Uncharted Books in Chicago.

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