In This Episode
DeRay, Myles, De’Ara and Kaya cover the underreported news of the week— including police footage censorship, Harvard urged to return Native and African remains, Black students increased enrollment in HBCU, and Lil Nas X and BET Network public confrontation. DeRay interviews former mayor of New York Bill De Blasio about his current moves, advice for the current administration, and more.
DeRay Mckesson: Hey, this is DeRay, and welcome to Pod Save the People. In this episode, it’s me, De’Ara, Kaya, and Myles talking about the news that you didn’t know in the past week, the news that didn’t become headlines necessarily, but news that you should know, or news that we should have covered a long time ago across the country, and we didn’t, with regard to race, justice, and equity. And then I sit down with former mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, to talk about his time as mayor in New York. I wanted to talk about Rikers, wanted to talk about what’s going on with the presidency. I interviewed him before he announced that he was running for Congress, so we don’t talk about that, but we talk about a lot of other really cool things. Here we go. My advice for this week is to do dessert with somebody. Do dessert. You know, people always are going off for drinks, people always run out for coffee, do dessert with somebody. Do dessert. I love going to dessert, dessert dates, like friend dates for dessert. It’s always fun because, like, nobody normally goes out for dessert. So go out for dessert.
De’Ara Balenger: Y’all, my news today is from NBC News. The headline is: Harvard Urged to Return Remains of Enslaved People and Thousands of Native Americans. Evidently, Harvard University Museum, its collections possess the human remains of nearly 7,000 Native Americans, and at least 19 enslaved people. And this is all according to a document that was leaked to the school newspaper. So the headline kind of made me stop in my tracks, and it really lends itself to this whole discussion that we continue to have around Black bodies, specifically how Black bodies are treated in this country when it comes to health, when it comes to wellness, and all of the many inequities that exist in those spaces. And so I think it’s just interesting that, you know, this is the first time we’ve heard of the human remains, particularly of enslaved Black folks, that have been kept, studied, prodded, displayed–it reminds me of Sarah Baartman, who’s also known as Hottentot Venus, who was a South African woman whose remains actually remained in a Paris museum, I think, until the 1970s. And this was a woman who was born in the early 1800s. Sarah Baartman was kind of taken around the United States, toured as if she were a spectacle. She had evidently had a large derriere. And I just think that that piece of it is really what is fascinating to me, right? Just like this obsession with Black bodies. Coincidentally, this weekend, I also saw another headline that made me think of just the body of it all, right? Sarah Baartman, and how she was ridiculed but studied and revered because of her body. And then I saw another headline that was: Florida Set Limits for Plastic Surgeons who perform BBLs to Three Surgeries a Day. So for y’all that don’t know, a BBL is a Brazilian butt lift. And it is the thing these days, obviously, culturally in this country to have a big derriere. But women have been dying getting this surgery. Actually, 19 women have died due to complications of the surgery in the last five years in Florida. And so evidently, the board of Surgeons there has decided that only three can happen per day. And it begs you to question, Well, how many BBLs were they doing in one day? And why is this surgery so popular? And what is it’s relation to Black identity politics. And who is getting these surgeries, right? I don’t know. It’s just, I think all the confluence of all of these things really kind of put me into a spiral. But back to the Harvard of it all, so there, the university representatives are saying, you know, “the collection of these particular human remains is a striking representation of structural and institutional racism at Harvard University.” And I think this committee and the process they’re trying to put in place to return these remains to their communities respectively is underway, but obviously will not be without complications, since these, you know, the remains of these human beings have been with Harvard for, I mean, what, close to, definitely over 100 years, maybe even 200 years old at this point. The university, of course, has apologized. “The university president apologized for Harvard’s role in collection practices that placed the academic enterprise above respect for the dead and human decency.” It’s also believed that, you know, collecting these human remains was also ultimately part of an ideology to prove that Black folks and indigenous folks, Native American folks, were inferior. So this draft report, it has 16 committee members, including faculty, administrators, folks that we know like Henry Louis Gates, Randall L. Kennedy. “And this committee is going to work tirelessly together to address highly sensitive and important topics within the Harvard community.” I think it’s also interesting that a number of folks that are on, the number of the scholars that are on this committee are Black folks, of course. Black folks have to help Harvard remedy themselves of what they’ve ultimately gotten themselves into. You know, the draft report also reads “that far too long, these remains have been separated from their individuality, their history, and their communities. To restore those connections, Harvard will require further provenance research and community consultation.” There’s going to be more DNA analysis forthcoming. Now, I you know, also what was interesting about this and actually I didn’t know, since 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act has required institutions that receive federal funding to return Native American cultural items to their owners, to the original owners’ descendants. So the Peabody Museum has a committee that processes returns to this act already, under the purview of this act, but the museum has yet to return the remains of nearly 7,000 Native Americans per the draft report. So evidently they’ve been in a process of returning the cultural items, but not necessarily these remains. So anyway, you guys can, you know, you can read more at NBC. You can read more directly from the Harvard Crimson and kind of, I’m going to keep my eye and see how this story, how this story develops, but I think it really does shed light on the obsession and the other-ization of bodies of color. So I just thought this was an interesting story. You know, Harvard is the kind of the bastion of academic prestige for some–I went to HBCU, so it’s my perspective is a little different. But, you know, I just wanted y’all to check this out, to know about this. It’s definitely fascinating and so interconnected with so many things that are happening in pop culture and honestly, health policy and politics today.
Myles Johnson: So this week my news is coming from Dazed Digital. It was an interesting story, it centers Lil Nas X basically publicly telling BET that they snubbed him and that he wasn’t able to be a part of the BETS awards because he got no nominations. Then BET kindly–the digital social media entity that is BEC–kindly responded, We love Lil Nas X. The statement said he was nominated for Best New Artist BET Award in 2020, and we proudly showcase his extraordinary talent and creativity on the show twice. He performed Old Town Road with Billy Ray Cyrus at BET Awards 2019. And his BET Awards 2021 performance was a highlight of our show. No one cheered louder that night than BET. So I was really interested about the discourse that happened because of Lil Nas X’s commentary. Not because I necessarily took a side because I do think BET likes Lil Nas X. I do think that BET has embraced Lil Nas X’s specific brand of spectacle. And I also think [unclear] BET has been almost thirsty for moments that show them as a current, LGBT-loving entity. I think that, you know, it’s–speaking of Pride–I think corporations know that it is good face forward, to at least face forward look like they love queer folks. I think that discourse that was happening around who Lil Nas X makes music for was fascinating. I never considered that Lil Nas X, until this conversation started happening, I never considered that Lil Nas X wasn’t making music for Black people. And then I thought to myself, What is making music for Black people? And there were these other conversations putting Saucy Santana and Lil Nas X and having them compete together and having them just basically be these two opposing entities. And one makes music for Black people Saucy Santana, and one makes music for white mainstream, Lil Nas X. And I just thought this was a story as old as time. Since the ’80s, since the ’70s, ’60s, ’50s, since music has been recorded, there has always been a Black person who is seen as for the people, and it’s always another Black person who is seen as like some type of sellout. And I would really think that we will be tired of this trope, specifically because it has to be ahistorical. Black music is American pop music. Every single music that people can come up with right now that it’s centered out of America, has a Black-American origin, techno, electronic, country music, of course hip hop, of course jazz, but as well as rock music–all of these music that have been raised now that we are in this era of genre, and this is this genre, and this is that genre–all this is invented and pretty new in the landscape of music. So fascinating that Lil Nas X would ever be accused of this in 2022, where there’s so many resources to see the history of music, the people who have come before him and done, and done music and the DNA of the music that we listen to. There’s so much history and book reading you can do to prove and see where music has come from and where we arrived at. So I just thought it was so interesting that we arrived at this conversation that Oh, no, Lil Nas X, because he has electronic pop and sometimes for a song, country based in his music, that somehow he’s not making music for Black people, when this is Black music, is a reclamation of Black music. And I think that if any generation should put this down, any time we should put this down, we should put this down now. It’s corny, it’s done, it’s overwrought, it’s ahistorical–all music really belongs to the Black American. And I think that Lil Nas X and Saucy Santana, having fun, being irreverent, being Queer artists, being Queer Black artists during Black Music Month/Pride month is historical. And I do think that just, I think we will be doing ourselves a disservice by separating certain artists because of the genres that they want to tiptoe in, or because of the people who are who are embracing them. I think it’s really important for us to remember that all the music that we enjoy has a Black-American root.
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Don’t go anywhere. More Pod Save the People is coming.
Kaya Henderson: My news today is about historically Black colleges and universities. There’s an article in the New York Times about how a new wave of students are attracted to historically Black colleges and universities as a result of their, quote unquote, “nurturing mission, increased funding, and growing visibility.” Now, this article is really interesting and timely and sort of shocking because it reports about kids who are turning down Yale and Duke, for example, in order to go to places like Spelman and Morehouse and Elizabeth City State University. This generation of young people who are graduating now has witnessed the election of our first Black president. They’ve witnessed political and social strife like Charlottesville and Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin, that have threatened the lives and the liberties of Black Americans. They’ve been exposed to lots of trauma around what it means to be Black in America, and that is showing up in applications and enrollment in historically Black colleges and universities. For those people who don’t know, historically Black colleges and universities were created to be places of Black excellence, to be safe spaces for Black students to be able to learn and grow and thrive, not just intellectually, but for character formation, for community formation, for all of these things. The first historically Black college or university was founded in 1837, which we now know as Cheney University. And more than 35 historically Black colleges and universities were created during reconstruction, right after the end of the Civil War. And so when you hear society tell Black people that we don’t value education, I think the creation of, you know, more than 35 HBCU’s during reconstruction, and the intention, one of the first things that we did when we got free was to build schools and universities–I think that history flies in the face of people who say that education is not our birthright. But, and, today we are seeing application numbers at historically Black colleges and universities booming in ways that they’ve never boomed before. From 2018 to 2021, applications rose 30% at historically Black colleges and universities, which is higher than predominantly white universities. This year alone, the common Black application, which is an application that you can fill out and apply to multiple HBCU at once, expects to have 40,000 applicants, which is quadruple the total in 2016. In fact, enrollment has soared at a number of HBCUs, even as college enrollment declines nationally. So what is different right now besides the context, the social context, and the political context in which we’re operating that makes America hostile for Black children and Black families? There has been increased federal funding of HBCUs, more than $2 billion in federal funding since 2017, plus an additional 2.7 billion this year in pandemic emergency relief alone. There’s been increased alumni and philanthropic giving over the last few years, more than a billion dollars from people like Reed Hastings from Netflix and Mackenzie Bezos, and other people. And there have been increased partnerships from predominantly white institutions. There’s a faculty and student exchange program with Harvard University. There are research partnerships with Princeton and some HBCUs. There’s interdisciplinary programing, research, and training between Georgetown and Southern U. And so there are partnerships that have made HBCUs far more attractive to young people. In fact, the level of clout, according to the United Negro College Fund, the level of clout and capital that HBCUs have right now is unprecedented and probably long overdue. One of the most important data points to recognize is that only 3% of colleges and universities in the United States are HBCU’s, but they produce 13% of all Black graduates in the United States, including most of the nation’s Black judges come from historically Black colleges and universities. Half of the nation’s Black doctors come from HBCUs. 40% of Black members of Congress come from HBCU, including our very own Vice President of the United States, Ms. Kamala Harris. Historically, integration led to the eroding of enrollment at HBCUs. HBCS where the places for Black people to go when they wanted a higher education, but as we saw increasing opportunities for integration, we saw that predominantly white institutions were offering financial incentives and better resources, and the perception that those were better institutions than historically Black colleges and universities, and, so, but HBCUs have always, according to the article, punched above their weight. As many of us, myself included, attended PWIs over HBCU, as many PWIs, while they were great at diversity through admissions, that simply wasn’t enough, and they were falling short in supporting Black students holistically. And so at a time where many Black parents are worried about their children’s mental health, at a time where many young Black people are fighting to feel comfortable and to be their whole selves, HBCUs have reasserted themselves as safe spaces for Black students, places where they can cultivate both their intellect and their spirits. There’s a young woman named Gabrielle Armstrong from North Carolina who puts it pretty succinctly. Gabrielle is a-highly competitive student who was planning on attending Duke, and ultimately chose Elizabeth City State over Duke. And she said, “I have the rest of my life to be treated like a minority, to fight to be seen as human. I might as well spend four years being seen as family.” I think that really sums up the way lots of people are thinking about and rethinking about the best places and spaces for African-American young people to go to college. Historically Black colleges and universities have been, compared to predominantly white institutions, underfunded, they’ve seen financial strain, there’s lower alumni giving, there are enrollment pressures. We’ve seen a number of them lose accreditation over time. In fact, when we look at endowments, which are the things that keep universities going over the long haul, the ten largest HBCU endowments make up about $2 billion. The top ten predominantly white institution endowments make up $200 billion. And so just like everything else in the United States, there’s a disparity between what’s happening in white college world versus what’s happening in Black college world. Howard, which is known as the Mecca or the Black Harvard, has seen an increase in undergraduate enrollment of 26% between 2019 and 2021. That is 26% over two years, which is huge. And at the same time, we’re also seeing Black scholars like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Nikole Hannah-Jones leaving or rejecting PWIs like NYU or the University of North Carolina, to go to places like Howard. In fact, Nikole Hannah-Jones says, “for too long, Black Americans have been taught that success is defined by gaining entry to, and succeeding in, historically white institutions. I have done that, and now I’m honored and grateful to join the legacy of Black Americans who have defined success by working to build up their own.” That’s the thing that makes historically Black colleges and universities very, very different. In fact, one of the article highlights a STEM program that was created at Howard University specifically for bright Black students who felt isolated in mostly white science settings. And so what we’re seeing is HBCUs becoming not just more competitive, but outpacing predominantly white institutions for some of our top Black talent. And that is a good news story, if you ask me. Honorée Fanonne Jeffers wrote a book, a bestselling-book recently, called The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois. And it’s about a young woman who goes to a historically Black college and unearths generations of her history, her family history. And Miss Jeffers sums up the whole thing for me. She says, “The entire African-American story is about seeking to maintain community. So it should not come as a surprise that the descendants of these people from so many centuries ago are still seeking community.” I’m excited that our nation’s best and brightest Black talent is no longer solely enticed by the attraction of predominantly white institutions, but is deeply, deeply–and this has been the case, but we’re seeing it in unprecedented numbers–they are interested and excited about finding themselves in a space that celebrates Black excellence, Black brilliance, Black culture, and is, and will nurture them to their greatness. This was a good news story for me. I brought it to the pod because I don’t know if people are paying attention to the revolution that is happening in our historically Black colleges and universities, but it is worth noting.
DeRay Mckesson: My news this week is about Live PD. So we talked about Live PD. LIve PD launched in 2016. It is a TV show that was on A&E, and thankfully it was announced that it was canceled. And they’re talks that it might be coming back. But live PD was a real nightmare because it, in some ways was like supposed to be the better version of Cops, if you’ve seen the show Cops. And it were supposed to be a live look at what happens in police departments. It was supposed to be unfiltered and it was supposed to show people the truth, but as you can imagine, it really just turned into police propaganda. And sometimes we say that people think that we’re being dramatic and people think that we are conspiracy theorists, but sometimes it’s just true. And in this case, it wasn’t, Live PD was not live. There was like a 10, 15, 20-minute delay in some cases. And what I didn’t know until reading this article by the Marshall Project is that Live PD allowed the police to censor the footage. Who knew? And this article came out in 2020 and I didn’t even know it. And I want to bring you here because I was fascinated by it. There are a set of incidents that the Marshall Project goes through and uncovers. One of them, the police hit a skateboarder with the car door of the police car, and the police department writes in, and the captain writes, and I quote, “The car versus skateboard takedown is way outside of our policy, and we will be opening up some scrutiny issues with the city and our insurance company if they were to see this. I get that it’s exciting to watch, but it’s a little too Wild West for how we do things in this department.” And it’s like, yeah, it is too Wild West, but that is actually what you did, and that footage would allow him to sue, it would allow him to get damages potentially. But like you censored it. This is not live. There is actual footage of this happening. There’s another scene that Live PD deleted where deputies went to serve a warrant–there was a victim of domestic violence, they go to our house and they force her out of the house. They don’t have a warrant to search her house. She won’t let them in. They handcuff her, drag out of the house, wait for a judge to sign the warrant, bring the dogs in, force their way into the house–there is a ten-year old kid in the house. All of that is just scrubbed. Like you don’t see any of her, like, violation of her rights, the policy violations– you see none of it. And then there’s another video that the Marshall Project saw, where the police in Louisiana are calling this Black man a boy, got him handcuffed on the ground. And again, Live PD was editing the footage so that you wouldn’t see the horrors of policing. And again, you think about, the police are comfortable doing all this stuff with cameras, with a film, like with the crew, not just somebody on the phone, like the whole crew. Think about what they’re doing when nobody’s watching. And to think that these are just the instances that we know. How many other things happened where Live PD was filming, where there was footage, and they hid it. And one of the reasons I wanted to bring this is that I think in so many ways, you know, when people see the cop as hero, when people see the cops doing all these incredible things and like saving communities, you know, I ask people, Tell me three times that happened that wasn’t fiction. Don’t tell me New York Undercover or like some TV show or, you know, Independence Day or some movie. Like tell me why you believe that the police are heroes with an example not rooted in fiction. And it’s hard. You know, most people can’t come up with three, three instances. Not because there aren’t good people in those roles at some point. I’m sure they’re good people somewhere, right? But because that’s actually just not what happens. In Uvalde is probably the best example of that in recent history, is that for all of the money we put into policing, there’s a whole–the town’s tiny in Uvalde–they got a whole school police force and yet still the police just wait as the kids get killed, right? And I say this because we will never get change in communities if people don’t see what’s happening, if there’s not, like, an honest way to think through this stuff, to see it. And I’m telling you, if people had seen some of the footage that they described in this article, I think people would have a very different understanding of the police. But when the narrative is only shaped to say that the police are good, that they only do good things and nothing really ever happens, then like you just don’t see the truth. And I think there’s a narrative that happened in Hollywood that essentially says anything is okay as long as it makes people safe, right? Break down a door, break-in, violate people’s rights in the name of safety–but you see that, like the thing that you think is keeping everybody safe, like the police actually aren’t really doing that. I think about in Baltimore, burglaries, the police solve less than 10% of burglaries. Like the police aren’t even out here solving crimes that you think they are. I say this to say that, you know, the solutions, as we know, are rooted in making sure the people have the resources so they don’t have to make decisions, they don’t feel like they have to make decisions like this that hurt people. And the second is the institution will never even be moderately okay in its currency as we work to something beyond policing, if there’s no accountability. And there can’t be accountability if we aren’t honest.
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Don’t go anywhere. More Pod Save the People is coming.
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: This week, we interview former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Now, I interviewed him before, when he was mayor, at Gracie Mansion. We talked about crime and arrests and a host of other things. And now we’re talking after he is out of office, and really interested to see what he had to say. You know, we recorded this before he announced that he was running for Congress, and I still learned so much about what he’s doing today, and like what he’s thinking about his role and his legacy. So here we go.
DeRay Mckesson: Mayor de Blasio! Thanks so much for joining us today on Pod Save the People.
Bill De Blasio: It’s my great pleasure. DeRay, I remember fondly DeRay, we met at Gracie Mansion a few years back.
DeRay Mckesson: We did, yeah. You were on the pod, you’re one of the few people who’s been on the podcast more than once. What is life after being a two-term mayor in the biggest city in the country? What’s up now, what happens that like day or night when it’s like your final moment in office, your security detail leaves? What happens that night?
Bill De Blasio: It’s pretty wild. It’s kind of mind-bending. I will give you the exact moment, because the outgoing mayor presides over the ball drop in Times Square for New Year’s Eve. So Chirlane and I were up on the platform, you literally pressed the button and the ball started slowly going down and the countdown and all that. And then Happy New Year! And your term’s over. So we’re walking back to the car, and it was maybe like 12 of our staff would come in with us to the event, you know–communications people, advance people, security–and they’re all giving us hugs and saying goodbye. And I’m like, Wait a minute, y’all are about to disappear, [laughs] just like a moment of recognition. And then you’re just mainly on your own at that point. And it’s really a shock to the system. It’s very liberating to kind of be out of the limelight and out of the madness, but it’s a real shock to the system.
DeRay Mckesson: So what are what are you doing now?
Bill De Blasio: Well, I am trying to use my voice to work on the issues I care about. My whole vision going into City Hall is to fight inequality, particularly income inequality, but all forms of inequality, and to fight for things like pre-K-for-all. I’m going to continue that fight in different ways, you know, using my voice in the media and writing, activism, a variety of things. Because one thing that is true when you’ve been mayor in New York City, some of that bully pulpit stays with you, for, you know, the rest of your life. And I intend to use it for the causes that brought me here.
DeRay Mckesson: Let’s go into some of the issues. I saw the op-ed you just published the other day that was advice about what Biden could do, and in some of the learnings that you had as mayor that he should take into account. What made you write that in this moment? And then what is some of that advice?
Bill De Blasio: DeRay, I was watching and I felt like every time I saw Biden, you know, speaking or giving a press conference or whatever it was, he went into the weeds very quickly. You know, he’s obviously super experienced, you know, government technician, you know, Senate operator and negotiator, many skills that are tremendously valuable, but I think they affect his language and his perspective on what comes first and, you know, what comes later in the work you do. And what I felt was he was really kind of had his horse and his cart out of alignment, because what people need, especially right now–I believe this in my heart–is they need a sense of direction. They need some hope. They need some belief that the country can heal and move forward. And I mean, heal in every sense, but particularly after, you know, COVID, the literal healing, mental health, physical health, like the literal healing that families need to go through and get back on their feet and feel whole again. And I, I don’t think that’s where his focus and his language is. And I say this with respect, because I emphasize in the piece in The Atlantic, I believe he’s actually an exceptionally good messenger, because he has a human quality and empathy that when he brings it out, is very powerful, and he can really connect with a very broad range of people. I mean, we can have a blunt conversation about the challenges the Democratic Party faces in holding together its demographic coalition, but let’s use Joe Biden as a good example. He can speak to African-Americans. He can speak to people across the spectrum of working people. He can speak to, you know, the folks who to many of them move from Obama to Trump, because he was part of that Obama ticket that was attractive to a lot of folks who then jumped ship. And I think his ability as a messenger is exceptional, but I don’t see a clear message. And what I tried to say is, I fell into that trap repeatedly, DeRay, repeatedly, where I think I was doing some of the right things substantively but I did not give people the ability to see what I was doing. I didn’t illustrate, I didn’t bring it out in the open. I used an example in the piece of at one point our public housing authority, which, you know, has 400,000 residents, it would be like a city unto itself, it was threatened with a federal takeover. I thought that was going to be extremely negative for the residents during the Trump administration especially. I fought that take over. We beat it. But I didn’t explain to people how we were going to turn that into a victory for them and for their lives and make their lives better. And so the difference between doing the work and explaining the work, the difference between winning some kind of victory versus giving people a bigger sense of hope and direction–that’s what I’m trying to say in the piece. I can’t tell you what Joe Biden’s core vision is at this moment. And if I can’t, I think that pretty much guarantees there are millions of other people who can’t. And you can’t lead people if you’re not giving them that kind of vision.
DeRay Mckesson: That, that makes total sense. What would you say, I’m interested, you know, you did run the city and you did it for a while, like, what are some of the things that people you think didn’t quite understand about the scope or the role of your role or the work that you all did, or like in hindsight, now that you’re not in it day-to-day anymore in the same way and that you’ve had time to reflect, outside of the advice to Biden, like what are some things that you think like people just didn’t understand that we, that more people should understand about the way decisions get made? And, you know, I’m interested because people ask us all the time, like, do the emails matter, should people show up to community meetings, or should people, do the calls matter? Or like, I don’t know. Like, what’s your advice to people or what are the lessons in that way?
Bill De Blasio: It’s so interesting. DeRay, I think, first of all, on the question of, you know, how the people’s voice matters, it matters more than people realize. It does not take many emails, letters, calls, or showing up at town hall meetings or protests to get on the radar on even someone running a city of 9 million people. It’s amazing how sensitive the mechanism is, if you will. That just a little bit gets attention and starts to make people think, from the mayor on down. And that’s the beauty of activism. That’s the power of it. And I don’t, I hope people don’t underestimate that. But then to the bigger thing of how things work. I mean, funny thing about being mayor of New York City is it’s kind of like you’re a city council member on steroids, because there’s a sense of intimacy. You know, this sense of everyone deserves the mayor’s attention, and every issue is something the mayor should address. There’s a famous Ed Koch quote that if a sparrow dies in Central Park, it was the mayor’s fault. There’s a sense because of the media dynamics and, you know, the hyper focus on the mayor, that like all roads lead to the mayor. And I’ll give you another example. I did a weekly call-in show and, you know, on WNYC, people could call in with whatever issue they wanted, and inevitably the host of the show would be talking about some very big substantive issue, and then the calls would begin and it was people saying they had a pothole on their street they needed fixed or, you know, someone was driving too fast, you know, near their home and they were worried about their kids’ safety, or whatever it was. There’s always this very local–I literally had a guy once said, I have a tree stump in front of my house, how can I get it removed? You know, this is what they want to talk to their mayor about. So I think part of what’s so interesting is the kind of the classic Tip O’Neill phrase, “all politics is local.” I think, in the context of New York City, it’s like crazy local, but the problem is there’s only one mayor covering the 9 million people. And so what I learned consistently the hard way was, you know, you just can’t attend to all the things that ideally people would like you to. You got to focus on the things that will have the biggest impact. But the hard lesson to learn was how to express that to people, how to make it real. And, you know, the things that I got right, I mean, pre-K-for-all is the thing I’m particularly proud of. It was revolutionary. We went much farther than people thought we could. And on that one, everyone understood what I was doing. I said originally I wanted to tax the wealthy to provide pre-K for every child. We ended up getting the money another way from our state legislature, but the most important thing was we provided the pre-K-for-every child, and that just changed families’ lives. And then we went and did the same thing with three-year olds. That’s about to be a fully universal right as well. That was 100% understood. But there are a lot of other things where I did not realize how important it was to crystallize what we were doing. Make it plain. Make it clear where we were going. And I think it is because of the point you raised, the inner workings of government, you know, you can put so many hours and days into just one issue. Like that thing I mentioned with the housing authority, negotiating with the federal government, we were in court, we had to come up with a whole plans from scratch of how we address some of the underlying issues–it took weeks and weeks and weeks of behind the scenes work. But the people don’t get to see that, so they don’t feel you during that time. And that is something, if you don’t account for that, with sort of extra communication, it becomes a tree falling in the woods.
DeRay Mckesson: That makes total sense. Now, I obviously want to talk to you about the police and jail. And the NYPD has been a constant source of tension for a lot of people, whether it’s the, one of the highest number of settlements against police department in the United States or the CTRB that has the power to recommend but not actually discipline, and we haven’t seen a moment in New York City history where the police commissioner has disciplined a whole lot of people–and wanted to know, now that you’re out and time to reflect, how do you think about the pushes around policing and police reform? And I will acknowledge we talked about this at Gracie Mansion, the last time I talked to you, that under your administration there was a historic decrease in arrests. That is true. So I don’t want to act like that did not happen. That did happen. That was big, and there are a lot of people who are better off because of that historic decrease in arrests that your administration led. And there’s a lot more work to be done, especially around accountability. So I wanted to know, what your thoughts about that right now?
Bill De Blasio: Well, it’s huge and crucially important. And let me let me try and break down a few pieces. I want to pick up on the arrest point, because I actually think this is a kind of the core of so much of it. In 2019, so the last year pre-pandemic, we had 180,000 fewer arrests than the last year of Michael Bloomberg, six years earlier. 180,000 fewer arrests, and crime was down a lot. So the reason I’m saying that, we’ve all had our world just painfully rocked and turned upside down by COVID, but, you know, 2019 was not a long time ago. I think we were proving once and for all that you could achieve profound public safety with many, many fewer arrests. We are also cutting incarceration in half. So it’s literally, at that point, half as many people in Rikers Island as when I took office. And the city was much safer. By every statistical measure, we were down to crime levels that we had not seen since the 1950s. So I don’t want to lose this point because this to me is sort of where you begin. Reducing arrests, reducing incarceration and instituting what we call “neighborhood policing”, which was a very intensive effort to create real communication, grassroots communication between police and community, cops in the same neighborhood, same beat, getting to know people, creating actual human bonds and mutual respect. And then later, we found another huge piece is community-based solutions to violence, the violence interrupters, that cure violence movement. Also known as crisis management systems. These pieces, we put a lot, a lot of resources into it. I think every dollar was incredibly well spent because this is community folks stopping violence before it happens. Intervening in beefs, helping young people away from gangs–it’s incredibly powerful stuff. But to your point about reform. Look, DeRay, I think we got part of the way there. Clearly, I think there has to be more. We started a few things toward the end that I think are promising, including local community leaders being directly involved in the selection of our precinct commander. That creates accountability. That creates a bond. We put, in effect, something–I hate to use the analogy on one level, but I think it helps illustrate–in the NFL, they put the Rooney Rule in effect, and we can all agree it was not honored in many ways, or at least I feel that strongly. I think Brian Flores is totally right. But the notion was actually a healthy concept, that for any senior role, had to be a guarantee that people of color are being considered seriously. We put that in place and I think that’s also an important step. I think the CTRB we strengthened that a lot–the Civilian Complaint Review Board. I agree with you, there’s other ways it can be strengthened. But I think a lot of this came down to the history of New York City around these issues, and the role of the police unions–which I’ve been very blunt about–is still challenging.
DeRay Mckesson: Can you explain that to people. What is the role? Like for people who don’t know, how would you describe the challenge in the policing to the 9unclear]?
Bill De Blasio: The simplest way is with a moment in history, and around 1966, then-Mayor John Lindsay tried to get a civilian complaint review board passed in New York City. And the police union, the PBA, Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, did a very vicious campaign to stop it and basically suggested if there was accountability, there would be chaos and there would be crime. And obviously, this is the mid-’60s, late ’60s–things were roiled. It’s very interesting DeRay, you know, Bobby Kennedy at the time was a strong proponent of what Lindsay was trying to do, and you had these powerful voices saying, Yeah, this kind of accountability is needed. And it was just blown away in public opinion by this really nasty advertising campaign equating accountability with chaos and disorder and crime. And it wasn’t until 1992, so, you know, a quarter century later, that we finally got a civilian complaint review board. I was in city hall that day working for Mayor David Dinkins when we got it, and it was a fight to the finish trying to get this thing done. And the reason I say that history is to say, unfortunately, that particular union has always played the role of creating a negative dynamic in the city. Not a hopeful one. Not not one about how do we build towards something better, but a kind of regressive, angry, negative worldview that is very, very pervasive in a lot of the public discourse and in the media. And I think that’s a more elemental thing that has to be addressed. I think that’s true in many parts of the country. And I think it’s starting to chip away, but, you know, this is one of the things that can’t be lost in this moment. Yes, we’re dealing with a horrible reality with public safety right no–it is because of COVID. It’s just, it is so essentially because of COVID that things came unglued, because the numbers don’t lie. If you look at where New York City was in 2019 and look at some other parts of the country, this massive change directly correlates to COVID and all the dislocation. And now, understandably, people are focused on public safety, but I hope that does not turn it into forgetting the fact that you cannot achieve public safety through policing alone if there is not real community buy-in. It won’t work. And I hope it doesn’t mean people forget about the value of accountability.
DeRay Mckesson: Do you support the CTRB having more authority, like the authority to actually discipline? And if so, or if not, like, what do you think, is there a path to that? Like with the council or in the city or given the conversations are happening right now in the country?
Bill De Blasio: I actually think the latest actions taken, which were in the spring of 2021–and it really hasn’t been focused on because of COVID and all the other crises happening–the latest actions taken York City, I think really are the way forward. We created something called the discipline matrix, and I would say for anyone, anywhere in the country who wants accountability and reform, this is a really powerful concept. It’s public, it’s visible, and says for every possible offense–God forbid an officer does the wrong thing–here is the penalty range. Here are the offenses that can end in termination. Here are the offenses that end in, you know, fines or other types of discipline. And it delineates publicly exactly what can happen. And then what we further did was had our police department agree that they would abide by that matrix in all decisions. And I think this is a very, very healthy model, because when there’s a charge against an officer that, you know, for example, emanating from our civilian complaint review board, they investigate a case, a complaint, and bring a charge, there’s a trial–and I always say I really believe in due process, I believe in it for anyone and everyone–there’s a trial. And then when there’s a decision the officer’s guilty, the police commissioner has to determine the discipline within that range. I think that’s healthy. I do think it’s right to still give power to the police commissioner to make an ultimate decision, but with real constraints and sort of guidelines, because that power of the commissioner has other ramifications for moving police departments forward. We need to make a host of reforms, not just–accountability is crucial–but we also have to police differently and police better, and police in a way that’s more responsive to communities. And there has to be that ability at the top to move that agenda. So I think that actually is the balance point. We gave the CTRB a lot more money, we gave them more lawyers, we gave them more authority. But I think that discipline matrix is actually the key for accountability.
DeRay Mckesson: What about Rikers? You know, Rikers is, close Rikers, that vote happened under your watch, the plan to close Rikers. And that was historic. And 18 people have died since then. So, you know, there’s a call for the federal government to intervene now, and everything that we were promised to stave off the violence seems to have not worked. And the DOJ has, at least publicly, for the first time, mentioned the idea of receivership. What do you think about that?
Bill De Blasio: Well, DeRay, the number one thing I would say about Rikers is it has to be closed as quickly as humanly possible. And I’m very worried that there’s gonna be backsliding. I really am. It was not easy to convince four communities in our city to accept either a new community-based jail or a larger jail. It was not easy to convince the city council. You know, it was a very, very difficult political task. But a lot of good people got together, and a lot of activists got together and made it happen. And what I fear is in this environment, there’s going to be a growing chorus saying, you know, Just leave it there and lock people up, you know, and forget the past and forget Kalief Browder and that tragedy and all the other tragedies. So the number one thing I’m concerned about is anything that slows down the timeline. If we move with all the tools we have, Rikers will be closed down in just a few years. That’s job one. It just shouldn’t exist. In terms of the short term, I’ll tell you, I am not a fan of a federal takeover. Because I don’t think the federal government knows how to run something like this. I mean, look what’s happened in federal jails, with all due respect. And we have federal facilities in New York City that are poorly run. I don’t think there’s a magic wand here the federal government has. I do think the problem right now, besides a decrepit facility–and I don’t blame any correctional officer who feels that it’s a very, very difficult place. It is. A lot of mistakes have been made for a long time. But, you know, this is another situation where unfortunately we’ve had a bad reality with the union representing the correctional officers because they’ve encouraged people not to come to work. And that’s only made it harder for all the ones, all the good, committed officers who do come to work. And that’s really been the root of some of the recent problems. COVID was horrible in Rikers, understandably. But you can’t turn around even the short term if officers don’t come out to do their job and do it with, you know, concern for everyone–their fellow officers, but also those who are incarcerated. And we were trying to make a series of reforms to get that back, and we made some progress but it’s it’s really, really thorny. And again, I’m saying, I want to be really clear, DeRay, I’m a deeply, deeply pro-union person. I believe fundamentally in the power of unions. I’m thrilled to see unionization growing in this country. But I also think unions are supposed to be social actors. They’re supposed to be thinking about, you know, the good of the larger community, not just their members. And we have a couple of cases here where unions, unfortunately, have really stood in the way of some of the reforms and changes we need, and that’s, it’s a hard thing to talk about and it’s a hard thing to make sense out because it kind of goes against the grain of what a lot of us would like to believe. But that’s what I experienced.
DeRay Mckesson: And so I wanted to double-click on a couple of things. One is that with receivership, with the DOJ intervention, the federal government would be appointing a receiver so they wouldn’t be directly running the, they wouldn’t be directly running Rikers because a receiver would have the ability and it would be a receiver model that we’ve done in a whole lot of other things, so I wanted to know your thoughts about that. And the only reason I’m pushing is that it seems like everything else we were promised hasn’t worked, right? So like the monitor, people keep dying/ you know, we got great people in like Vinny, he got fired by Adams, but, like, people are still dying, right? And, you know, I’m trying to think about what are the range of options that actually stop the chaos. And I haven’t, receivership seems to be the only thing on the table right now that is actually different than all the other things we were promised that literally just have not stopped the death at Rikers.
Bill De Blasio: I do appreciate the point. I mean, deeply. You know, having been, having been involved and thinking we can make a change–and look, I again will state, we cut the population in half. That was the most profound change and we obviously passed the plan to shut the place down. I’m very, very proud of those things, but–and they’re deeply meaningful–but I’m not going to tell you for a moment it ever felt like things were moving really where they needed to. It didn’t. And it was very frustrating. We poured resources in. And yeah, Vinny Shiraldi’s a really great example of someone who really came in with heart and soul trying to overcome the problems and found just stunning structural problems. So you could say, Well, with that deet, isn’t a receivership better than nothing? I understand the reasoning. And receivers do come with extraordinary powers. But here’s the, here’s the flip of it. Okay, who’s the receiver going to be? You know? Maybe there are some receivers, some individuals who would do a stunning job, but we don’t know who’s going to be and it might be someone who doesn’t do that great a job. And then there’s the accountability problem. There is no accountability with the receiver. You know, right now–and I can say it–
DeRay Mckesson: There could be though. There could be. There could be.
Bill De Blasio: Well, but let’s I mean, I want to talk about it. I really want to see what you think of this. I would say when I was mayor getting questions about what was going wrong there regularly, you know, in public, live, I have to take responsibility to do whatever I could figure out to do. Well, help me to understand where the parallel is for a receiver. They get a role, they are accountable to–they’re not accountable to the public, they’re not up for reelection. You know where’s the accountability where a receiver?
DeRay Mckesson: You know, there have been receiver models where there’s been like an oversight committee appointed, or even a tribunal model where they have a couple of receivers. But there have been models. Not a ton, because there haven’t been a ton of receiverships, where the receiver is accountable to a committee that is appointed. And you know, somebody gets to make up what that committee looks like, but it doesn’t have to be accountability-less.
Bill De Blasio: Fair. No, that’s fair. And I appreciate it. And look, you know, I do see that reasoning. And again, in a perfect world, the powers of a receiver could make a real difference. But I’m going to, I’m going to come from a bit of a jaded place that, you know, even with real accountability, and with powerful tools, it was incredibly hard to move things because it’s so stuck. It’s a place that just shouldn’t exist. I mean, the physical reality pervades everything. It’s so broken in every sense. The culture is broken, which is related to the place and the history. The union is profoundly troubled and negative in the equation. People are in pain. The officers I’ve spoken to have gone through horrible things. I felt real powerful empathy for them. But the incarcerated folks are going through horrible things. It’s just this vicious reality. So I guess I’d say to you, I would prefer–
DeRay Mckesson: Maybe you’re, maybe you’re open. Open to being convinced. How about, can we do that? Open to being committed.
Bill De Blasio: I think, friendly amendment: I’d say what I’d like most is for those elected to offer a plan, as we tried to do, and you know, and all levels of government, local, state, federal government–everyone put your plans on the table and implement those plans. I still think that’s the best. But if you said, Well, okay, no, there’s going to be a receiver. The one thing I’d say as well, if it’s the right receiver with real accountability and they use their tools, yes, I have to agree, that could be a scenario that could work.
DeRay Mckesson: I can take that. I do want to ask you, one thing that was so curious about with Rikers, is that when the astronomical number of people calling out sick happened, you sued COBA, which was incredible, and like people don’t do that. That was like a brave thing to do in a place where people are often afraid to do that. And then you, it seemed like you took the lawsuit back. Can you help us understand, like what happened in all of that?
Bill De Blasio: Yeah, absolutely. We did sue them. I believe that they were already starting to violate the state law, which required–
DeRay Mckesson: In terms of a sick-out?
Bill De Blasio: Yeah. A union, in New York State, a union is not allowed to organize or support or condone, you know, or provide messages, you know, instructions, anything like that, for people not to show up for work. And it was clearly happening. And we were–look, I, again, I’m pro-union, I didn’t want to punish them for punishment’s sake. And there’s real punishment. That’s the other thing I should say. When you use that law–it’s called the Taylor Law in New York State–when you implement that law, it comes with profound penalties on the union and the union leadership. Like big financial penalties. So I was not trying to harshly penalize. I was trying to get them to stop inciting people to not come to work. The minute we started a legal action, they backed down. And in my opinion, that was what we needed to get things back on track. And we did see some real improvement in folks coming to work, and it seemed to sustain for a period that way. We actually had a real uptick in–and I give Vinny Schraldi a lot of credit, I talked to them like literally daily, trying to crack the code on this–absenteeism went lower, lower, lower, more and more people showing up, shifts were being covered properly. That really started to help. And then, of course, our term came to an end. So just when I think we were getting to some more sustained progress, bang! Everything got reset. But I do think it’s important to say, because this gets back to your sort of inner workings, how did things really go down?–I didn’t want to penalize and I didn’t want to send a message to the employees that we were trying to hurt them. The union leadership was the problem, not the membership. The leadership. Once the leadership backed down, I thought we were getting things on track. But that was for a very brief time, unfortunately.
DeRay Mckesson: Boom. Where can people go to, like, stay in touch with what you’re doing? Like, is there is a, is it Twitter, is it Instagram or is there a website? Like, how do people stay tuned to what comes next with Mayor De Blasio?
Bill De Blasio: Yes, I think, twitter is a fabulous example. No, I’m going to be very active on Twitter for sure. I am going to have a lot to say @BilldeBlasio, and I’ll be writing a lot more, and speaking a lot more too these issues. I mean, for example, as I said, I am worried DeRay, that people will start to want to just stuff Rikers filled with folks accused of crimes and look away. That’s what I fear, that we’re going into a kind of a moment where that becomes the popular thing to do. I can’t tell you how many people, when we were fighting to shut it down and to pass all the things we needed to, I mean, a lot of people like No, no, you know, anyone who’s a criminal, they should be kept away from the rest. Like a penal island, you know, like, we should have our own Robben Island, you know? You know, in fact, you think about how broken it is, we cannot let people forget. And after Kalief Browder’s death, the energy built, rightfully. And I’m so worried about it, kind of boomeranging back the other way. So I’m going to, you know, if I see any backsliding anywhere, I’m going to be very outspoken on this. And I want to urge everyone who agrees with this, to tell all of your elected officials how important it is to keep this on track, to shut this down the first available moment. Because I guarantee you the second Rikers is closed, a lot of what we’re talking about here changes. New modern jails that are built for redemption–not punishment, redemption. Facilities that allow, you know, security to be kept both more effectively, more humanely, you know? And also not this culture of isolation. Because if something is happening sort of away from the rest of the community, that almost encourages a lack of accountability. But if you have community-based jails and you know, we don’t want anyone in jail, but if someone is in jail and their relatives can come visit them more easily, the lawyers can come visit them more easily, it creates more of an atmosphere of eyes-on and accountability for everyone. So the key is they get the hell off that place.
DeRay Mckesson: Boom. We consider your friend of the pod and can’t wait to have you, can’t wait to have you back.
Bill De Blasio: Well, thank you, DeRay. And thank you, I appreciate, really, you keeping the focus on issues that people need to talk about, and I appreciate that about you.
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning into Pod Save the People this week. Tell your friends to check it out. Make sure to rate it wherever you get your podcasts, whether it’s Apple Podcasts or somewhere else. And we will see you next week. Pod Save the People is a production of Crooked Media. It’s produced by A.J. Moultrie and mixed by Veronica Simonetti, and executive produced by me. Special thanks to our weekly contributors Kaya Henderson, De’Ara Balenger and Myles Johnson.