In This Episode
DeRay, Don, and Myles cover the underreported news of the week — imprisoned people’s right to write, the first openly gay Black woman appointed to CA Senate, and Tupac’s postmortem justice. DeRay interviews authors Roger A. Mitchell Jr. & Jay D. Aronson about his their new book Death in Custody: How America Ignores the Truth and What We Can Do about It.
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Hey, this is DeRay and welcome to Pod Save the People. In this episode it is me, Myles and Don talking about the news with regard to race, justice and equity that you didn’t hear or the perspective that you didn’t hear and a welcome to the beautiful month of October. I swear that this year has really just flown by. And then I sat down with authors Roger Mitchell Jr and Jay D. Aronson to talk about their newest book, Death in Custody: How America Ignores the Truth and What We Can Do About It. There’s a really interesting solution they propose, so listen up. I learned, you will too. Here we go. [music break]
Myles E. Johnson: Family. Family. Family. As you can hear this is not De’Ara, this is Myles E. Johnson. And you are listening to Pod Save the People. I am Myles E. Johnson. You can find me on Instagram and Twitter and the TikTok at @pharaohrapture.
Don Calloway: Yo, this your man Don Calloway at @DCalloway on Instagram, at @DCSTLagain, A-G-A-I-N on the app formerly known as Twitter.
DeRay Mckesson: And this is DeRay at @deray on Twitter.
Myles E. Johnson: So because they let me lead the way, I’m going to start with um the president of the world and move our way backwards. And we’re gonna talk about Beyoncé. I bought my tickets to the movie theater and or to the AMC. It was um only one seat left and it was a little recliner by myself. So it just so happens I can’t go with anybody. So sad. But I’m kind of glad because I need a moment to really just, just to commune, just me and her. I don’t want to be I don’t I just want to be by myself. But I think this is super interesting that she’s doing a pop of it like this. And the idea that it’s been almost it’s been like two years of Renaissance. I feel like she’s literally again showing us how to [?], how artists, to think bigger, how to blueprint something, how to make something last, specifically in an age where things don’t last anymore. I think the main ingredient is really good music, which is what a lot of people are going to miss. But I think these tactics that she’s doing are going to be employed a lot. Um. Have you all got your tickets? How are you feeling?
Don Calloway: What what is the thing? Um I saw like–
Myles E. Johnson: Oh!
Don Calloway: –the Renaissance tour shirt. [laughter]
DeRay Mckesson: Oh Don. Okay.
Myles E. Johnson: Oh, but I love it because this is like reverse sports. Because I, like, talked like you were just in it. I just assumed you were in it, and I was totally talking, what is [?], I wasn’t talking to the heterosexual male gaze. [laughing] So–
Don Calloway: No, you know what’s funny? You know what’s funny. I saw. I saw that obviously, the tour ended last night. Shout out to–
Myles E. Johnson: Right.
Don Calloway: –Kansas City. And then I saw that she released a an extended dramatic trailer. Um. And I made it through the first few minutes of it. Then I had to get my kids off to school this morning so I assume it’s a film of the concert?
Myles E. Johnson: Yeah so, it’s a documentary film concert, whatever else. So my assumption is she’s going to use elements that she’s used to tell the musical narrative that was in Renaissance, like she did Lemonade. But she’s also going to collapse that into the documentary in the performance. So it’s going to be a whole big thing. And I’m because Renaissance is all about being like, welcome to Beyoncé’s world and her imagination. So I’m guessing that they’re going to use that motif of your exploring her psychedelic cyber weird weird femme bot imagination, but also getting tidbits of what it took to build the show, you know, like collapsing all this stuff. [?]
Don Calloway: So it’s like it’s like an elevated version of the Homecoming film? But for Renaissance.
Myles E. Johnson: Exact okay if you want to put it in simple terms, sure.
Don Calloway: C’mon. [laughter] [banter]
Myles E. Johnson: And it’s in a movie theater, too, Don. [laughing]
Don Calloway: Okay. I respect it. I respect it.
DeRay Mckesson: It is um it’s–
Don Calloway: She is the she’s the preeminent artist of our lifetimes. And so in that respect, anything she does is an event. And I’m excited to see it. And I’m excited to see her continue to push the artistic and frankly, the commercial boundaries. And I think–
Myles E. Johnson: Absolutely.
Don Calloway: –it’s a just a wonderful counterweight to us hearing about Taylor Swift, who I don’t care much about.
Myles E. Johnson: You not about to get me [?] about Swifties. Because I’m very I’m I thought I can get away with saying some stuff about Nicki Minaj and Swifties on this podcast. They said, not you, girl. [laughter]
Don Calloway: Oh.
Myles E. Johnson: They ate me up so shout out to Taylor Swift.
DeRay Mckesson: I do love that her team time and time again, is just like doing it in their own way because we were like, where are the visuals? And she’s like, you are the visuals. Literally, you all will be in the documentary that comes out. You’re like, okay, uh it’s coming out on December 1st. But I don’t know if you saw last night AMC opened up theaters on November 30th at night. So it is premiering, most premieres actually are the night before they truly come out in the theater the night before. So the theatres can do like setup and stuff. So I’m interested to see what happens. It is also wild that, you know, I don’t know if you saw in The New York Times that the tour has done enough as much for the economy as the Beijing Olympics did.
Myles E. Johnson: Yeah.
DeRay Mckesson: Which is you’re like, come on, Beyonce, you got silver back in, every silver vendor in the world is thanking you, which is, oh, and did you hear this is an aside but Britney Spears, um you saw the click clack video with the knives.
Myles E. Johnson: Child, did I see it and every iteration of it.
DeRay Mckesson: So now I don’t know. You know, Britney saying the knives wasn’t real. I don’t know. You know, we love you, Britney, the click clack sound, that looked real. But anyway, she got the knives from like like a Hollywood set design prop store. And because of the click clack video, the store has sold more recently than it has ever sold. And they are back in business because of Britney Spears’ video. So they put out a statement being like, thank you for shouting us out. Um. And that is really all I have to say besides I don’t know in like the video where you’re like, Britney, what’s up?
Myles E. Johnson: Yeah. That is just uh reiterates my faith because, you know, God will use you even when you playing with knives. [laughter] God. [laughter] God bless. So the government shut down. Let me know what’s going on. Do I need to take my money out of the bank? Do I need to be protesting? [laughter] Where do I go? DeRay, you’re my go to person. I hear something happens with the government and I’m like, what do you need me to do? Besides yell, because I’m already going to do that.
DeRay Mckesson: We got Don here now he’s more government then me. So Don, do–
Myles E. Johnson: Okay.
DeRay Mckesson: And Myles, also you sounded like my grandma, do I need to take my money out of the bank is certainly something my grandma would say. [laugh]
Myles E. Johnson: You know.
DeRay Mckesson: You put it in a shoe box.
Myles E. Johnson: Okay. [?]
DeRay Mckesson: Don, what do we need to do?
Don Calloway: I am. Uh. I am just back from Alabama, and it was homecoming, so I was kind of checked out this weekend, but I had heard and and what I had heard in advance what came to be, which is that the government was not shut down, which is good. I think that ultimately Kevin McCarthy decided to attempt to be an adult and stand up to the right wing MAGA extremist wing of his party. And so I think we still have a 45 day window of spending. So we didn’t authorize a long term spending bill or even what we typically call in Congress a CR, a continuing resolution which allows government to stay open for the next 6 to 18 months. However, I think we got 45 days to work out a grown up deal and we’re not shutting down. I think fundamentally it would just have been too costly on Republicans to shut it down um and it would have broadly been blamed on them. Uh. It would have been too costly in light of going into another election year next year. So uh I don’t want to say props to Speaker McCarthy because he’s has a hand in letting it get this far down the road. But disaster is averted for 45 days and I expect that adults will take over between now and then.
DeRay Mckesson: You know what is what is wild is how the Republicans lie because the Democrats are who voted for the continuing resolution. And Kevin McCarthy got on the news this morning and was like the Dems are trying to shut down the government. You’re like what is going on? The Republicans did not vote for the continuing resolution. They are trying to kick him out of being the speaker. If not for the Democrats voting for the continuing resolution, we would be shut down. And my, the hero of this whole PR moment on the left was, I need to find her name. The woman who runs the White House Office of Management and Budget who was like–
Don Calloway: Oh yes. Shalanda. [banter]
DeRay Mckesson: Do you know her name? Yeah, Shalanda.
Don Calloway: Yes uh–
DeRay Mckesson: She she stood up there and she was like, this is performance. Those people weren’t paid, you know who not going to get paid? The janitor in my office, that’s real. And you’re like–
Don Calloway: Yes.
DeRay Mckesson: Yes, that’s real.
Don Calloway: [?].
DeRay Mckesson: You’re like, we need her to, she need to be doing more press conferences because she is speaking to people in their living rooms, in their houses, like I know people who don’t even do politics, who called me about Shalanda’s comment. I’m like, we need more her.
Myles E. Johnson: No [clears throat] her–
Don Calloway: Yeah.
Myles E. Johnson: Iconic.
Don Calloway: No she she’s amazing. And she is the type of person who um you know, we know about these kind of high profile appointments at the secretary level. And of course we know who’s running for office. But Shalanda Young is a career staffer, has always been an incredible and real sister, hyper intelligent. And to see her uh kind of rise through the ranks of DC and having this opportunity under a Democratic administration is amazing. And uh yes, I order a lot more Shalanda Young for the for the last quarter of this year. Uh. That’s my ask, ask of the Biden administration because she was amazing.
Myles E. Johnson: Well, speaking of lying um politicians, um y’all want to tell me about this door that somebody didn’t know? This red sign that somebody didn’t know was what it meant?
DeRay Mckesson: I’m a give you ten, ten on that transition Myles. That was a [laughter] that was a sneaky good transition. Jamaal Bowman, I think, did not lie. I am I’m I’m here on it that the sign was confusing now when I first saw it, I’m like, now why he done pull the fire alarm? That’s all we need. The Republicans are gonna talk about this all day, all night. We never gonna hear the end of it. And immediately afterwards they did. They’re calling for his arrest. They’re like, this is exactly what happened with the January 6th people blah like a mess. And he put out a statement saying he didn’t mean to push the thing, pull the thing. Now, first, when I looked at the picture, it looked like they were saying he pulled the fire alarm like when we were in high school and it’s like the thing you pull and and then I looked at it and the sign is confusing. I don’t know. You know, let me let me get this sign up real quick. This is from Myles, who is being a sign hater. [laugh] Uh. But the sign literally says, it says push until alarm sounds 3 seconds. Door will unlock in 30 seconds. Now, it’s one of those signs where I’ve been in buildings where when you press it, the alarm goes off, and then the moment the door closes, the alarm stops. Like it it makes that noise to be like somebody went out this door. I who knew that it would set off the whole thing? I don’t know. And he’s a congressman. I’m like, he got he tried to get out the building real quick to go do some work. That’s what I saw. So when I saw the sign, I was like, you know what I? He made a mistake. This is not the same thing as pulling the little ripcord version of a fire alarm.
Don Calloway: Yeah, this is a listen, I was fully in the condemn Jamaal Bowman camp up until we started preparing for this podcast. And I think that this is a really good example because the video is pretty damning, right? He walks up to it and he pulls the fire alarm. And by the way, he’s a high school principal who should know the chaos of what pulling a fire alarm in a crowded place does. Um. That said, I think this is a really good example of poor sign design and the linguistic confusion that results from that. Um. The classic case being, if you remember Uncle Steve Harvey reading the wrong Miss Universe recipient, and after the case you saw the card and you could very much see why he said it was Miss Portugal instead of Miss Venezuela or whoever it was supposed to be. Um. But it was a disastrous moment, much like Jamaal Bowman is having now. And I think Republicans can get somewhere and sit down because Matt Gaetz, who has their party in a chokehold right now, is literally a child molester. So I don’t really want to hear about who should be arrested or anything of that nature. There’s no reason, based upon Jamaal Bowman’s record of service, to assign malice to someplace where it’s clearly open for interpretation, if not confusion. And I speak about this as the father of a neurodivergent child, because we often think people are weird or we often criminalize people or we arrest folks when neurodivergence allows for poorly designed signs to be interpreted in multiple different ways. So perhaps it wasn’t that deep if you just look at the video. But I think it’s always that deep. And that’s why I come here to your podcast.
Myles E. Johnson: Well.
DeRay Mckesson: I wish y’all could see Myles’ face, I wish y’all could have seen Myles’ face. [laughter]
Myles E. Johnson: Because y’all, because y’all. Y’all know how I come specifically now on this podcast that doing a wrong thing is not what makes me think that you are wrong. Doing the wrong thing and then hiding behind it is where is where I’m kind of like iffy on it because I feel like you could take me to Mars, Pluto, and if I go, if I’m on Uranus and I see a big red sign, although I do not understand this [?] of spelling, I’m not going to go past that door, you know, and I think to your point around neuro divergency. And it’s also a literacy thing, too, that most signages communicate colors because there might be language barriers, mental like mental barriers, any of these other things. So that is just a hard stop for me to get on. And any time the stop of logic includes Steve Harvey in any way.
Don Calloway: Oh, whoa [laughter] oh, oh, oh. [banter] I think I think I’m with you. I think that in this instance, syntax matters and there’s whole subreddits on this, right?
Myles E. Johnson: Okay.
Don Calloway: About like, don’t open dead inside and all that and you know, go, go into Reddit and, and I think the syntax matters. Now why was Jamaal Bowman not staffed? Why was Jamaal Bowman, in the words of the great Carlos Miller, uh comedian from ’85 south, stop touching shit. When in doubt. [laughter] Stop touching shit. Right. And so silly mistake on his part. Criminal? No.
Myles E. Johnson: Yeah. I absolutely don’t think there was anything criminal with it. And if anything, again, me speaking me speaking out of bounds, I think that Democratic liberal people can use a little bit of all they really doing some all they willing to really break some rules to get their point across with that some little danger because you got the most gangsta, you know, S-word coming out about Trump. So like if you see what he’s doing, yeah, maybe you tugged a little alarm or something. I think it could only make anything that makes Democrats seem any any um unruly or even more dangerous or more [?] for their will, I think is actually healthy for them. So even if it was a mistake, I probably would have still been quiet about it, just so they could be [laugh] on their toes. Um. But speaking of speaking of law and and crime and and all this other stuff, um almost like a Black mess, so I’m born in ’91, right? And by the time that Tupac and Biggie passed away, they are almost like these hip hop arc angels to me, it’s really actually hard when I was sitting thinking about Tupac to really ground him as a human because he just doesn’t seem that way. Because by the time I was receiving the Earth in being six or seven, he was gone and he was spray painted on everything. So he almost operates in the same way that like other uh almost like biblical figures um operate to me and just it’s almost a joke right about Tupac and his murderers and and and did he actually get murdered or is he somewhere. It’s a running joke about his his um this hip hop myth. So it’s just kind of astonishing to me to be able to say that somebody has been convicted for his murder. Um. The person is now hold on. I don’t know, Keffe D. Please don’t come and beat me up.
DeRay Mckesson: Arrested, Arrested. Arrested. Not convicted.
Myles E. Johnson: Arrested oh excuse me. Arrested. Um. But listen, I’m just reporting the news. So whoever is Keffe D’s people, please don’t um come towards me. But um Duane Keffe D Davis, your whole government has been charged with one count of murder with deadly weapon in the killing of Tupac. Um. Megan, our girl megan with the with the suits in the in the glasses uh gave this gave us this information. And one of the reasons besides it just being timely news I wanted to bring to the podcast is do you think this will change anything like the state of hip hop how many people have who have died in similar ways? So I think about Nipsey Hussle um and countless other rappers who, if I’m being really honest, I just don’t remember their names. But there’s a slew of young men who recently have died in similar ways that Biggie and Tupac have died. Do you think that this type of accountability is going to change the culture of hip hop? Do you think that this is going to bring peace? Um. There’s a Jada Pinkett joke somewhere in here, because I know that she’s always being intertwined with Tupac and his legacy. So I think that there’s also this way that this conviction actually makes him more grounded, because I feel like there was a way that we were making fun of her and making fun and making fun of the murder and the situation and questioning it. And there’s the way that this kind of grounds it for people who are my age, you know, because even though I was born in ’91, I’m 32, I’m grown. So the fact that this is like, wait, this is something that really happened. This is something that really took place and this is something the pol– this is a police thing. This is something this the more I read about it, this is something that the police didn’t do right or didn’t care enough about. And now we’re just now getting getting this settled. And I don’t know, recontextualizing this as police negligence or maybe uninterest uninterest in um Black murders because well you were violent anyway, it happened. Really I don’t know. It just turned a light bulb in my head where I was when I thought about Tupac, besides the great music. I was really just thinking about the jokes and the myths and the hologram and the holograms and the and the Jada Pinkett love letters and the kind of like the myth around the person. And this grounds it for a new generation, I think. What do you all think? Where and can I ask you all a question too before you all do that? Do you remember where you were when Tupac passed away? And if so, can you tell me, like, where you were and what you were doing?
Don Calloway: As the senior statesman on the pod this week, it has been interesting to watch Tupac effectively be mythologized in his passing though and and remember, I mean, he died at 25 and that was you know 25 years ago at this point. So the mythology has oft overtaken who he actually was. And Tupac, I find to be a fascinating person because he was an artsy kid right and and and he did grow up in the hood and he did grow up with certain lack, uh but he was very much a child of the movement. Uh. He was very much [?] excuse me uh Afeni’s son um and Mutulu’s son. And he was um he was a movement character who deeply cared about his people. And I think that that gets minimized as we mythologize him. Um. Almost like you said, you were around when he was around. But he is often, you know, deified in a way that guys my age are like, yo, he was a short dude running around L.A., trying to act, trying to rap and trying to you know, he was just an artsy guy. Um. I think there is substantial police miscarriage of justice, as there are in many uh killings of Black rappers, uh frankly, in a particularized set of Black men, but particularly Black rappers. Police simply don’t care about this. Um. And I think that, you know, Tupac is a confusing character, you know, and this creates a whole nother layer. Who was Keffe D? Who was he working for? Did Suge Knight know? How much was he paid? To me, it just answers it opens more questions than it really does answer. But I think that there is something about the American system of justice where we appreciate some knowledge and closure and finite nature of saying, okay, this is the person who did this. So perhaps there’s some value there. If we get ongoing value that this will solve other rappers’ murders, probably not. Um. But I think that ultimately it just adds to the fascination of Tupac Shakur, who was just an incredibly complex and intellectual character outside of this mythology of him.
DeRay Mckesson: It is so wild when you think about him, Biggie, you think about so many people I think about and not in obviously the same way but King, Malcolm, like people die, the Black people die so young, you know, I look back I’m like.
Myles E. Johnson: Yeah.
DeRay Mckesson: Basquiat. Like they were, like we don’t even talk about any 40 year old. Like, it’s just not even a thing they like, nobody lived to 40, you know, it’s like 27, 25, 35, like. And yeah, just what a life had looked like if you had been able to live it the whole way. Like I’m just so I, you know, hearing you talk about that and Myles hearing you be like, I was like, like, yeah, you were a kid, you know? I was a kid. I’m 38 and I was really young. I don’t remember where I was when Tupac died as much as I remember where I was when Biggie died. Like, I remember the I remember getting ready for school and it being on the radio, like I remember that and people being stressed. Now, what I will say about Keffe that is really interesting is I don’t know if you saw the Vlad TV interviews that he did uh about this and he says and I quote, “he Orlando Anderson leaned over the window. We rolled down the window, popped him. Tupac. If they was rolling on my side, I would have popped him.” He also said, I’m not going into detail on that one. I ain’t no snitch. The street code is the shots came from the back of the white Cadillac. I say this only because he was on Vlad TV doing a full blown interviews about his involvement in the murder of Tupac Shakur. These are not new interviews. So this, like, clout is really something. And let me tell you, if I engage in a capital offense. You will not see me on a major news outlet talking about it and certainly not Vlad TV talking about it. And [laugh] I can imagine that during this trial, the Vlad TV interviews are going to be front and center in terms of the evidence because I, you know, Twitter Black Twitter wasn’t even surprised. They were like, mmm, he said he killed him.
Don Calloway: [?] We’re saying that. [laughing] Yeah.
DeRay Mckesson: What?
Don Calloway: And yeah, yeah. Now, here’s the thing. Uh. To answer your specific question, sibling Myles, uh you asked two questions, and I’m old enough to remember this quite vividly. You asked, do we remember where I was when he was shot? And do I remember where I was when he died? Yes, I do. He was shot on September 7th. That was a Friday. And then there was–
Myles E. Johnson: Whoa.
Don Calloway: –just not a there was a week uh and he passed on September 13th. And imagine Black America prior to Twitter or any type of real Internet presence at all. You know, you got some some negroes on college club, right? But there being no unifying methodology. Right. We’re waiting on Jet to come out the next week to tell us what really went down. And we’re waiting to hear something from BET. So, you know, he shot on Friday and you hear that he’s in a coma and then the next Friday you hear he’s passed away. But Tupac had already been so lionized. Remember the rape charges, the jail stints, the the multiple affiliations with different uh, different revolutionary groups and different uh labels. And so you don’t know what’s true. And that’s why, you know, even on September 13th, when you hear Tupac died, you really don’t believe it for some time. Right? And you don’t believe any of it. And and we really never saw autopsy photos of the body. And so uh there was that. That’s why even 25 years later, this kind of mythology of is he dead? Is he in Cuba? All of that stuff still very much persists. But to answer your question, yes, I very much remember where I was. And I remember that week of chaos and confusion in between him being shot and died.
Myles E. Johnson: Well, Don, before we move on, you know, I got to say, when I hear it, that’s a at best, that’s a book that you got or like at least a limited podcast series, because I think that even you using Tupac to center it. But that idea around communication and going to how Black people communicate and just using the seven days between Tupac being shot and him dying as a way to talk about how information and gossip and culture has changed. That is a bestseller. And I you know, all I need is a boat once it happens. [laughter]
Don Calloway: You know, I don’t want to stay on this all day, but and you remember, you’re coming off of the summer of 1995 and imagine hearing hit em up on the radio. F your B and the clique you claim. And you know, you’re seeing this video that you might see once a day on the box of, you know, Tupac standing next to a fake [?] Evans and a fake fat biggie.
Myles E. Johnson: Yeah.
Don Calloway: And it was just wild and you’re wondering during that week did Biggie do this because of the 1994 shooting and did he do this because of the beef at the ’95 source awards? So all of this is in context my brother so you have to understand.
Myles E. Johnson: I think I think every day, every day of the seven days should be like a different essay and a different theory. And you just use that theory to go in and explore. Um. But let’s move on child because I–
DeRay Mckesson: It’s a it’s a good book. It’s a good book, you did that, Don. [laughter] You did it. Boom. We didn’t even get all the way through yet and you did that. Myles. And, you know, Myles might be a lot of things, Myles is not a hater. [laughter] When Myles hear a good idea, [?] a good idea.
Myles E. Johnson: Because when I because when I because when I hate on you or when I say something slick, I want you to be nice and rich and comfortable so you can sit with it, you know? So I’m like, No, I want everybody to [?] money.
Don Calloway: Get paid young Myles. Get paid.
Myles E. Johnson: Yeah. [laugh]
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Don’t go anywhere. More Pod Save the People’s coming.
Don Calloway: So my news for the week is that California has a new senator designate. Her name is Laphonza Butler. Uh Laphonza Butler has had an extraordinarily dynamic career in public service. And she may not be a name you all know yet. But for those of us who have kind of been on the front lines of progressive fights for the last 25 years, I can assure you uh Californians and United States citizens that Laphonza Butler is a true progressive warrior. Let’s go over the resume really quickly. 20 years. Well, let’s go back before that. Jackson State and you all know I have a deep affinity for not only HBCUs, but public HBCUs where normal kids go. And so Jack– uh from Magnolia, Mississippi, born and raised, um Jackson State, SWAC my my my good siblings from the SWAC bachelor’s degree, 20 years as an organizer and uh leader in the California Organization of SEIU, Service Employees International Union, and SEIU. As you all know, is just a massive, massive labor organization um that serves uh service employees. We’re talking about waiters, we’re talking about um it’s a broad catchall for service employees, nationwide um casino workers all this are all SEIU. SEIU has dramatic sway when it comes to elections. And for them to have made Laphoza Butler a leader in their organization for 20 years, uh speaks of her commitment to um to to progressive and workers rights, moved from SEIU and was the president of Emily’s List did some time in the private sector uh in policy at Airbnb, uh moved to Emily’s List and was the president of Emily’s List for uh at least two years. I want to say, um and got to the head of Emily’s List at this interesting time in American history where African-Americans were being considered for heads of white organizations. And yes, it was after the murder of George Floyd, but she was capable, competent and certainly qualified, uh sat as the president of Emily’s List for two years, uh became a Maryland resident as a result, and was appointed by Governor Gavin Newsom last night to be uh Dianne Feinstein’s replacement, who passed away on Friday. Let’s be clear about something. We can take the cynical route here and say, well, Gavin’s running for president. Yes, but he still put a openly lesbian Black woman in the United States Senate who isn’t who was eminently qualified and eminently competent. I have known her through her work as the board chair of the Children’s Defense Fund uh or it’s run by president CEO Starsky Wilson, uh and you know he gives her an incredible vouch for all the work that she’s done there of uniting folks and defending children’s policy. Between that and SEIU, uh she is just a fantastic human of our generation, my generation [?] she’s 44 and I’m just really excited. Now, California, both of your senators are now appointed uh and the governor leaves it open as to whether or not a Senator designate Butler can be can uh can be a candidate in the election. She can if she wants to. Uh. Okay. I’m sure there are some people who are not happy because Barbara Lee, who represents the Bay Area, is a is is was not appointed senator and will now have to contest for the seat in the uh election next year. But it’s going to be exciting to see what Laphonza decides to do. But I know that California has at least a year and a half of a very, very solid senator in that sister Laphonza Butler.
DeRay Mckesson: I love that her name is Laphonza. Her wife name is Neneki, and the daughter name is Nylah. Come on.
Don Calloway: That’s a [?].
DeRay Mckesson: Come on senator.
Myles E. Johnson: Name your children what you want.
DeRay Mckesson: Name a baby miss Senator Laphonza Butler. She’s always going to be whole name. Senator Laphonza Butler. Come on. So that’s amazing. Like Don said, first Black lesbian in the Senate. And, uh you know, I think it actually will be important that she is in this role through the next election that that like, you know, tried and true. Emily’s List is a what the biggest funder of women in politics. She comes from labor like she for I watched some videos for everything I’ve seen, clear communicator, Lord knows we need more of those on the left because it’s a whole lot of and the cool thing for the Dems in the moment is that she doesn’t come from elected office. So there’s you can’t really be mad at her for any of the stuff before she sort of gets a clean slate. Where else everybody else running or everybody else like, you know, Schiff, um Katie Porter, Barbara Lee, they have been in office forever, so people will feel strongly about what they’ve done, what they’ve not done, what they’ve allowed to happen what they haven’t allowed to happen. Laphonza get to she gets to come in and and and like sort of be whoever she wants to be on day one because she and she ran Emily’s List, which is like there’s no more left. I mean, it’s like she her quote is abortion is a winning issue, right? She fought for them in a way. She didn’t just work in the unions. She helped lead the union you know, like. So I’m interested to see how she is able to use all of those experiences to do her best work in the senate.
Myles E. Johnson: Yeah, it’s definitely refreshing because I think. I was going to it’s been going on for so long that it’s just the culture. But of course, like just representation and like identities have been leading so many of like political, like discourse of like this person is of this identity and and not necessarily having, like, the history or the meat behind them. So it just feels refreshing to hear somebody who is of all these identities and still really, you know, just confident which I think often happens on the left. I think it’s only the right who will be like, okay, we just need somebody whose a good puppet. You know, and we’ll make everything else work. So that’s refreshing. And I wouldn’t be me if I um didn’t also say that I’m always stuck between a pragmatic and a and a little bit of a anarchist place. So I’m like, just remaining coolly optimistic about everything that has to do with electorial politics is what I’ll say um and not being super mystified by somebody just because they come from your same identity. I think it’s always important. That’s the only negative thing I have to say.
Don Calloway: Yeah, you know. And I don’t think that’s negative. I think that’s born of a lifetime of electoral politics having failed us. And people who share progressive identities or those identities most often affiliated with progressivism uh not using their full leverage once they enter these, you know, uh systematic institutional positions. Uh. All I will say is I’m excited to see her there because–
Myles E. Johnson: Absolutely.
Don Calloway: You know, her record, her track record does not suggest that she’s going to get in there and roll over or go along to get along. So, you know, listen.
Myles E. Johnson: Absolutely.
Don Calloway: I’m rooting for anybody named Laphonza with a P-H and a Z so let’s do that. [laughter]
Myles E. Johnson: Okay.
DeRay Mckesson: My news is about prison journalism. And what I was interested in is that I’d heard about the Son of Sam Laws but didn’t know much about them. There’s a prison journalism project there are a couple orgs in the space, uh like Pen America. There are other orgs that have worked really hard to make sure that people who are incarcerated can freely write, that creative art is a part of their what people believe to be the rehabilitation process. And let me just say on the front end that I fully know that the presence of like a writing program is not abolition. And we think about this as harm reduction, that while people are incarcerated, while we work to get them out, they should be able to write and paint and be whole people as well. So what I was interested in, there was one thing. The first thing I was interested in was a son, a Son of Sam Law. I like obviously had heard about it. I think we’ve all heard about it. The Son of Sam Law comes from David Berkowitz, who is known as the Son of Sam. He shot and killed six people in 1977, and then he sold his life rights. Then New York passed a law which is a Son of Sam law, and it required convicted people and the accused even to turn over money received from any contracts with publishers for writing about their crimes and magazine articles and books and movies. And this was a big deal because Simon & Schuster had brought had Simon Schuster was buying the life rights of for the Mafioso Henry Hill Junior in 1981, and they ran afoul of the law. So they sued. And the Supreme Court ruled that the Son of Sam Law was inconsistent with the First Amendment. Now, what the Supreme Court said was that you can’t say they can’t write about their crimes, even in the most minimal details. What the opinion said is, quote, “Had the Son of Sam law been in effect at the time and place of publication, it would have escrow payment for such works as The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which describes crimes committed by the civil rights leader before he became a public figure.” And like, I just didn’t know that history about the law at all. And I didn’t know that in 2001, New York revised the Son of Sam Law even more because the original language prohibited an accused or convicted person from publishing and mentioning their crimes and making money from the content, whereas now the new law says that the state can seize pretty much any funds that a convicted person receives over $10,000, with the exception of earned income. The law, as this article says, the law doesn’t say prisoners can’t earn money and they earn money as a journalist. So I was just really interested in the way that the state controls the way people tell their stories, both in ways that make sense to me. Like I you know, there’s a part of this that I it makes total sense to me and a part that I’m like, that doesn’t make sense. But the second thing is I am, especially with the advent of the Internet and social media, to see people incarcerated be able to tell their stories, to talk about life. And before this moment, everything was told as third party. Like somebody went into prisons and told your story and met you and interviewed you. And it is good that there are so many first person accounts. And this this, as this article is in or this essay is in Esquire, and he was convicted of murder. And he’s really upfront about like the family did not forgive me like that’s not a part of this process and I’m writing about it and this is why I’m writing about it. And I do encourage people to read um stories from people who are incarcerated.
Don Calloway: Yeah, this one’s tough, man, because I you and I do a lot of prison reform work in our actual day jobs, and um I’m fully on board with the humanization of the incarcerated populations um and, you know, open every cell in Attica, send them to Africa, and I’m all on board. But at the same time, imagine the incentive that is created for um economic um advantage, created by talking about some pretty heinous crimes. And, uh you know, and I think I understand the sentiment that the Son of Sam Law originally comes from. Uh. And it’s just you want to find a way to not incentivize people to capitalize off of such you know heinous and violent crimes. That said, you know, people have a right to earn. People have a right to earn from their own experiences, and people should have a right to discuss their experiences and if intellectual property that’s monetizable is generated from that, you know, that’s kind of a First Amendment thing. So I can very much see challenges. I wish I knew if it had happened or not, but I think there have been challenges to the Son of Sam Law, and I can see challenges happening there because people should have the right to earn. Um. But as a victim’s rights um community, I certainly understand um I’m less inclined to be on the side of victims in this case for the sake of just protecting their emotions. I’m far more concerned with being on the side of prisoners and not excuse me being on the side of society and not wanting to create an incentive to go out and create heinous to commit heinous crimes and then to go find a way to monetize them.
Myles E. Johnson: Um, thank you for, A, thank you for bringing this story, because it just brought back a lot of just like, geeky things that I remember researching. Um. One of them being the escorts and uh the edge of daybreak were two bands that were um founded you know, they got together in prison. And I think about how music is so instrumental in processing grief and emotions, just like writing is. And then um another documentary that I saw a couple of a few years ago child. Ooh I’m getting old. That’s a few years ago. Anyway, it’s called The Cell, it’s The Feminist on Cellblock Y. And it’s this feminist um who was convicted or excuse me this man who was convicted and he discovers Bell Hooks and starts a class based off of Bell Hooks’ books that he wrote. And this reminds me that, yeah, I totally understand all the money and all the other stuff, but there really is not a lot of healing that happens if one is not able to write what happened to them, able to process that. And the work of writing is not diary is not diary entries. The work of writing is not done until a public engages with it and tears it up and praises it and says, this is disgusting or this is beautiful. That is also the part of writing. That’s the also the part that kind of gets the stuff out. So when you’re talking about harm reduction, um limiting how much violence is happening in prisons, limiting people returning, if people are able to write who maybe are will get a chance to be back in society gets to um right as well. Writing can transform somebodys mind. And that and that whole process of doing something honest and private and intellectual in private and processing in private and sharing it with someone, you can’t that needs to happen and it needs to be a public place. So I get all the gook in the in the in the money and all that other stuff around it. But just as a human spirit thing. This is so necessary if we’re even taking halfway serious what we’re talking about. So music programs, being able to write, be able to share things with public. I think the the getting people back in society has to start way before a release happens, right? You have to start way before any type of abolition happens. We you have to get people’s minds back in society before their bodies do or you’re just going to be recreating a cycle. But thank you for telling me this information, it was really interesting, for us this information.
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Hey, you’re listening to Pod Save the People. Stay tuned. There’s more to come.
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: This week we welcome Roger Mitchell Jr and Jay D. Aronson on the pod to talk about their new book, Death in Custody: How America Ignores the Truth and What We Can Do About It. So currently, there’s no real way to know how many people die in custody each year. Jails do it a little differently. Prison sometimes report the places. You know, famously, Eric Adams, the mayor of New York, who oversees the jail in New York City, which is Rikers, he said that they would no longer tell the public when people died in custody. It’s a real problem. We don’t know. In their book, Death in Custody, Roger and Jay chronicled the efforts of activists and journalists to uncover the true scope of this, to try to figure out how many people actually are dying in custody. And they argue for a straightforward solution, adding a simple check box to the U.S. standard death certificate that would create an objective way of recording whether death occurred in custody. I learned a lot. Here we go.
DeRay Mckesson: Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Aronson, thanks so much for joining us today on Pod Save the People.
Jay D. Aronson: Thank you so much.
Roger A. Mitchell Jr.: It’s great to be here.
DeRay Mckesson: So this book um blew my mind. There were some things that I like sort of knew before, and then there were a lot of things I didn’t know. So I’m excited to talk to you. But before we start talking about the book and the content, can you tell us your journey to these issues? Like how did you did you always care about police killings and deaths in custody and the way that we sort of log how people die or did something happen that made you care about it? Talk to us about how you got here.
Roger A. Mitchell Jr.: Jay. You supposed to go first this time.
Jay D. Aronson: Oh, I have to go first this time. All right. So uh my interest in the issue of deaths in custody actually didn’t come from a long engagement with the criminal legal system or uh with anything you know that had happened in my life. I actually had been doing work on human rights documentation. And I have done all kinds of things. Identification of the missing after conflict and disaster, uh how we estimate or count how many people die in conflict. And then when I met Roger, I was actually working on the use of video evidence in human rights documentation, and I was working in in places like Ukraine or I was working with people who were who were documenting atrocities in Ukraine, in Syria, Mali and elsewhere. And I have, of course, had seen a lot of videos that were popping up around police brutality and police killings in the U.S. And I was trying to think about them in the same way that I thought about the issue of using video in human rights documentation abroad. And I wanted to have some context uh for these videos, like how often are these things happening? Do we know every time they happen? Do we not? And I was at a conference in Toronto, the International Association of Forensic Sciences, and was on a panel with a medical examiner. Roger, Dr. Mitchell and uh I just after we were in a session together, a big plenary session, and after we were just chitchatting, and I, I asked him, Hey, where do I go to get the data that will tell me how many people die in custody so I can make sense of these videos I’m seeing. And he gave me a like a weary smile and said, it’s actually a really long answer. I’m really hungry. Come have a beer with me and we’ll discuss it. Uh. And so we went and got more than one beer. And uh he basically, over the course of a two hour conversation, laid out the story that’s in our book and asked me the questions that animate the book. And at the end of the 2 hours, he said, Hey, man, we need to write a book about this. And I laughed, kind of to respond to his initial chuckle. And I said, That’s not how these things work. You don’t just write a book. It takes five or six years. Um. And but I went away from the conversation and the questions that he was asking me and the things that he was telling me, including things from his own personal life and family history, um stuck with me. I did some due diligence and kind of asked people like, who is this Roger Mitchell guy? Uh. And got got clean reports from everyone. And uh I decided that I couldn’t not write the book. Um. And so six years later, we have the book and we’re on your podcast. That’s how I got involved. Roger has a uh more interesting story maybe.
Roger A. Mitchell Jr.: So I’m a forensic pathologist. And, you know, part of being I started my career in the FBI as a forensic scientist. I was one of the first Black men in FBI laboratories uh in 1997, went to started med school in ’98 and um ’99, early ’99. Amadou Diallo got killed. And so for those of you that you know, your listeners that may not know who Amadou Diallo was he was a young guy in his twenties um in New York City. He was in the vestibule of his home. He was reaching for his wallet and he got shot by police uh at 41 times, hit 19. He had entrance wounds in the soles of his feet. So he was on his back when he got shot at least a couple of times. That changed my my life. You know, I was studying I left the FBI to study violence as a public health issue and thought being a medical examiner would be the best way to do so. And then and then when Amadou Diallo got killed, you know, I started having this conversation with myself that if violence is a public health issue, and that’s what I think and that’s what David Satcher, who was the surgeon general uh around that same time was thinking then maybe even death in custody is is is a public health issue. And and at the time we were calling it police brutality. Um. Soon after, in April of 20 of excuse me, April of 1999, a man by the name of Earl Faison got killed by law enforcement. Um. He’s highlighted in the book, and we tell his story in the book. And Earl Faison um was beat to death, uh but the medical examiner called him complications of asthma and called his manner of death undetermined. Um. Right then I knew that I wanted to be in this space of understanding police brutality. I wrote a position paper in around that same time that was published in 2000, which was one of the first position papers by the Student National Medical Association in the Journal of the Student National Medical Association that looked at providing um recommendations on how we can decrease police brutality and calling police brutality a public health issue. And I was a medical student, so shout out to the students that have an idea that nobody heard of that could actually start implementing that idea as a student. And now, you know, whatever, close to 25 years later, we’re still working on it. And the Sentinel book comes out. So my beginning started around that time I was in my twenties, and um so my advocacy has carried on to now. And um, you know, I’ve done some a lot of work since then um surrounding death in custody. And I work for um or I provide consultation for the Know Your Rights camp autopsy initiative that does second autopsies on individuals that die in custody. I do a lot of death in custody work. Um I’ve done a lot as a medical examiner in Houston, Harris County, in New Jersey, in Washington, D.C., when I was chief medical examiner for seven years. Um. And then now, um as uh in the Department of Pathology at Howard um and, you know, with this book. So I come to this place from a real organic, um very academic, but also practical space of actually doing the autopsies of individuals that die in our in our carceral system.
DeRay Mckesson: We are coming up on the ten years since Ferguson. Next year will be ten years, which is sort of wild. And one of the things that you all do really well is highlight the work that happened before August 2014. And and sort of reminding us that this work has a long arc both before and in the future, and there are things that I didn’t even know were had a legacy until, you know, like I think about we, I know we charge genocide because that is how a group of activists in Chicago identify when they did the John Burns stuff. I only recently learned that we charge genocide came from the report. I had never heard the report. We charged genocide was like this really cool name of this activist collective. And I was like, Oh, it came from somewhere. Um. So I say that to say I’m interested in how would you describe what you’ve learned over the long arc that you’ve studied and sort of what you think is possible or necessary in this moment? And you do talk about this in the book. So this is a like I’m what I love about the book is that it’s not only like we’re screwed, it’s sort of a like, hey, you know, it doesn’t have to be this way sort of thing. What what are the structural things that you think we can do? And the Faison story, which is a big chunk of that chapter, um blew my mind, had no clue that the federal government intervened like had no, I had never heard of that case before. Um. So you know, it’s a big question. But like, you know, thank you for the arc and structurely, can you help us make sense of like, what we need to think about or fix or change?
Jay D. Aronson: Yeah [?]
Roger A. Mitchell Jr.: Can I segue you Jay? Can I segue you real quck?
Jay D. Aronson: Yeah, absolutely go ahead, go ahead.
Roger A. Mitchell Jr.: Let me segue because, um look you know, Jay you know, is is really a good, really good friend of mine now, right after the six years we spent together working through this book and he’ll understate his his just kind of how fantastic he is because that’s just how he’s made. But it’s it’s his research surrounding history because he’s at his core a scientist historian. And it’s his research with with my prompts. But his research that has really allowed us to find this this work and who has been doing it in the past. And so I wanted to segue him because because it’s so important that the history of this work was critical to the book. Right. It was something that at the beginning of the book, we knew we needed to do. And that’s why we start with Ida B Wells, and that’s why we start with the lynching era, because we wanted to anchor this conversation in history. And take us take us to where um where where we are at the end of the book, where we make a series of recommendations. And I’ll talk about those recommendations in a moment. But Jay, talk, talk, talk about that, because I’m really excited that he asked that question.
Jay D. Aronson: This actually goes back to the first conversation that Roger and I had back in Toronto after we did our kind of introductions about who we were and where we had been and and the things that that we were interested in. He he told me, I want to know who the Ida B Wells is of death in custody are. And the question both struck me, and I wasn’t sure that it was the right question at first, um both because I didn’t know if lynching was the right starting point for the book. And because I wasn’t even sure that I could figure that out. But Roger really wanted to know, and he really pushed me during that initial conversation to recognize how important it is to understand not just the issue of death in custody, but the way that community, the way that the le– that that lawyers, the way that advocates, the way that families of people who had died in custody had tried to uncover the truth, and that Roger really saw himself as being part of that tradition, didn’t quite know what their tradition was, but knew that it was there and wanted someone to figure out who all the people were who came before him and who who set the stage or set the table for him to do the work that he’s doing. Um. And so that’s why the history is there. The history is there because Roger asked me, told me, compelled me to find it. And it took a lot of research. It took a lot of digging, because these are these aren’t stories told. You know, history is told by the victors. And in most cases, the people who are resisting death in custody and who are pushing back against the carceral system were not people with power. So I often had to I had to go to spaces that were very different from the places that I typically uh worked in in my more historical work. And so it took a long time to reconstruct. And starting with lynching and starting with Ida B. Wells was was absolutely the right choice in retrospect it was the only place we could have started. And then trying to figure out who had been addressing this issue over the past hundred years, um really it tells us that the legal system is not capable of addressing the problem on its own, which is typically how we try and solve the problem, and that activists and journalists and journalists play a massive role in the book. Activists, journalists, lawyers are the people who have made this problem visible to the public. And now we need to take another step. And this is where I’ll hand back to Roger. We need to look at this as a public health issue, and we need to provide data from the public health system that complements all of the work that journalists are going to do, that advocates are going to do that lawyers are going to do.
DeRay Mckesson: And Roger, actually you can you start us with like, what is an autopsy? Who does an autopsy? How do like, just walk us through the 101 of autopsies? I don’t want to assume that because maybe I don’t even know really what it is.
Roger A. Mitchell Jr.: So so an autopsy um is an examination of a of a body that has died from a particular cause and manner. It’s a full examination that starts with an external examination and then requires often an internal examination where each organ in the body system is um reviewed grossly by a pathologist and then um small surgical sections are taken of those organs in order to look under the microscope for evidence of disease or injury. Um. The purposes of an autopsy is to establish cause and manner of death. Cause is the is the injury or disease that’s responsible for the death and the manner is the circumstances by which that disease or injury has affected its cause. And so when we’re talking about the arc of death in custody, it starts in the pre-arrest period. I’m running after you. I’m law enforcement, I’m chasing after you in my vehicle. It’s the pre arrest phase through the arrest phase. Now I have you in my hands. I’m I’m struggling with you or I’m putting cuffs on you to transport and booking to jail incarceration and then even post incarceration. Right. Because we know that the criminal legal system has a lead lingering effect on the health and health of individuals. And so the death in custody is is across this entire continuum. And there’s a considerable amount of causes and manners that occur across that continuum. Right. There are five manners of death. It’s homicide, suicide, accident, natural and undetermined. And you can see those in throughout the the the phases, if you will, in the continuum of death in custody or in custody in general. The issue that we are finding throughout the book and the reason why we wrote it is because no one has a has a clear idea of how many people are dying in in connection with our criminal legal system. There is no database, no database. Can I say that again? There’s no database federally funded that would look at death in custody in total from the pre-arrest phase all the way through the incarceration phase that is double checked and checked for its accuracy that is put up against the public sources. That is you know, that checks the criminal legal sources or the public health sources. And so that’s what we’re calling for. We think it’s a public health issue. We you know both of DeRay, you know, people can’t see you can’t see me. Uh. Both of us are Black men. And and we have women in our in our community that are dying at a higher rate um during childbirth. That’s called maternal mortality. We know that to be true. It’s been all over the news that, you know, Black women are dying at a higher rate in and around pregnancy. The reason why we know that is because there’s a checkbox on the US standard death certificate. That checkbox tells us that the woman who died, whether or not she was pregnant during her at the time of her death, 40 days associated with her death or a year from um uh before her death. And so we believe that the best way to capture um individuals that are dying in custody is to put a checkbox on the U.S. standard death certificate that says death in custody, yes or no, and then has subsequent checkboxes that um identify the phase in which those individuals died. This is an objective way. We have the most robust, vital statistics system in in the world. Um. I was the mass fatality manager for Washington, D.C. Um. So, you know, we set up mobile morgue, we we we responded to every hospital. We moved COVID related deaths throughout the city and we certified those deaths. The Centers for Disease Control called for those of us that certified death to be able to do so in a way that they could track in real time those individuals that died uh died dur– from COVID. We all were watching dashboards um to see how many people died from COVID and how old they were and what part of the country they were in. And that’s how we knew that, you know, older Black men and women were dying at a higher rate than everybody else from COVID related illness. The Centers for Disease Control, the National Center for Vital Statistics or Health Statistics, has it in their power right now to change the U.S. standard death certificate and put a checkbox on that U.S. standard death certificate. And we would have a um a better way of tracking these deaths. Um. Obviously, there would be a lot of work that we need to do, right, um to do that data collection. Um. But they could do it today. And so in the book we call for that. We call for a fatality review committees um that would need to be established locally so that we can have a nonpolitical conversation about how we improve health care delivery and safety of individuals that are associated with our criminal legal system um in a multidisciplinary manner um in local jurisdictions to improve local policy surrounding the incarcerated or those that come in contact with law enforcement. So um the book really lays this thing out, and we put a a strong period on that uh by telling stories of individuals you’ve never heard of. Advocates and journalists and victims um and movements like we charge genocide, um all of those types of things. The October 21st Movement, we tell stories of the People’s Organization for Progress. And, um you know, Mike Masterson, we tell these these vivid stories um so that individuals that listen like you can say, you know what, I can do something. I can be part of this. I can be part of this movement towards improving the data that’s collected surrounding this major, major problem in this country.
DeRay Mckesson: Some people would say, and this is certainly what happens when we press people in Congress they’re like DeRay, there’s a Death in Custody Reporting Act. There is a–
Roger A. Mitchell Jr.: Sure.
DeRay Mckesson: We did a whole thing about this, they’re like it took us forever to pass this law. We’re going to make it better. There is a law it’s required, and we all know that the law, you know, has no but the police departments are not sending their data to the government. But can you explain like, what is what is wrong with the or like why is it not working? And then have you you know, I have heard about the checkbox idea before. Are people resistant to it? Do we just need to make it more popular? This, is are the police like fighting against it or is it a committee that decides it like, we don’t like black people? Like what’s the what?
Roger A. Mitchell Jr.: First of all, episode three of our podcast Official Ignorance is called The Miseducation of Capitol Hill. Both the Jay and I are are hip hip hop heads. And, you know, we played that off of Lauryn Hill’s um album, The Miseducation of Capitol Hill, and that’s all about the Deaths in Custody Reporting Act and the history of it and the information. Um. As far as the checkbox is concerned, there is resistance. I’ve been speaking to individuals at the Centers for Disease Control about the putting the checkbox on the U.S. standard death certificate. The response I’m getting from them is that we need to have local state buy in for the checkmarks before the feds will put it on the U.S. standard death certificate. Um. That’s absolutely not true, because we know that, again, with COVID and opioids, there was a federal mandate to track these deaths in a certain way so they can move on it. But that being said, okay, we’re working locally, right? So Washington, D.C., where I was the chief medical examiner for seven years, we put the checkbox on the local death certificate. So we have that. And I’m working with colleagues right now to publish the data that’s coming off of that checkbox. We hope to be publishing in the peer review literature within the next 4 to 6 months. Pennsylvania is working on some things uh towards a law for uh a local statewide checkbox, um and we’re hoping that the people in your podcast that have access to um state level senators or assemblymen or women can talk to us about us coming to talk to them about what types of legislation they could put on the local level to put the checkbox in their vital record um locally. We want to build if we need to build from the state up so that the feds will, uh will listen then we will do that. Um. But we also want to talk to the feds about going ahead and saying, let’s put it on uh right away. Um. It makes sense. There’s no other death in this death category in this country that they rely on the Justice Department to track. I mean, every other death that we think is important is tracked by the Centers for Disease Control. So why would we ask the Department of Justice to track these deaths? It’s it’s of it makes no sense other than we understand that law enforcement is involved. So the Centers for Disease Control should absolutely use data that comes off the Deaths in Custody Reporting Act. Right. So it doesn’t take that off the table. Yes, Department of Justice, but also public sources should be part of that review for death in custody. But the death certificate should be the central inform information surrounding deaths of this nature because everyone gets one. There’s not one person in the United States that’s a citizen that dies, that doesn’t get two documents, a birth certificate and a death certificate and this and we’ve worked hard in the public health infrastructure to make sure that that happens. We need to we need to be able to leverage it.
DeRay Mckesson: So Jay we’re going back to, help us understand the Death in–
Jay D. Aronson: Yeah.
DeRay Mckesson: –Custody Reporting Act.
Jay D. Aronson: The simple answer is that there are plenty of people in D.C. and elsewhere who don’t want the government to actually accurately record how many people die in custody each year. The long answer is, is more uh it is more infuriating, I think, because it involves the bureaucracy. Um. So this this bill was originally passed in uh in 2000. The Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2000, thanks in large measure to the incredible reporting of an absolute hero named Mike Masterson, who is a journalist originally from Arkansas, who spent time in Chicago at the Sun-Times and then uh in New Jersey at the Asbury Park Press. And he focused on deaths in custody uh because of some early discoveries he made um and the fact that police and and carceral officials didn’t always tell the truth and that that got him really interested in this issue. And it stuck with him for a long time. So it gets passed. In 20 uh 2014, Obama signs it into law. Um. One of the big problems was that the the data around arrests were arrest related deaths, or the ARD database um was quite bad because they relied on police to uh to do the reporting. And when you allow the police to police themselves, you don’t get law and order, you get something else. There was a big study about how to fix that problem. There were um there were ideas about about checking the the data that was reported by police against public sources, whether it’s reporting or there were several journalistic efforts to actually just build databases in the absence of good data. So you got The Washington Post fatal force and you get guardian the counted. And so the Obama administration, especially after they realized that Trump was coming into office, really put into high gear the effort to get a system that would get accurate, reasonably accurate reporting. Trump gets elected, and the first thing he says is, no, no, no. His his uh Department of Justice appointees come in and say, no, no, no, this is too much work for police and for for prisons. And so you have this combination of of bureaucratic mess and the reality that there will be no penalties enacted on states or on on law enforcement agencies or on carceral facilities for not uploading the data, for not providing the data. So you have a situation where the people who know when the data is bad aren’t allowed to touch it, and the people who are collecting the data, even though there’s a nominal penalty associated with not complying, know that there’s nothing that can be done when the data is not actually provided. So as we’ve moved forward, there are some states that actually do a good job of reporting uh because they are from states where the government actually cares about it. But there are many states, if not most states, that either provide incomplete records or no records at all. Um. Haven’t looked lately. But there was a period where Florida had no deaths in custody um over several years, and we all know that’s not true. It’s just that Florida wasn’t reporting and nobody in Florida cared. And so we’re in a situation now where the experts within the Department of Justice who are actually collecting um decent data through BJS, or especially around mortality and correctional institutions, because the people in that field found the data useful um as limited as the data was and as poor as the reporting was to the public, it was still useful within the community. So they tried to keep it going. Once they could no longer do that, there is no data. We could fix the problem. But that wouldn’t prevent carceral institutions like jails, prisons, detention facilities from hiding certain deaths. Um. And it wouldn’t solve the problem of our arrest related deaths because of the the challenges of of getting police to do that. There are lots of other fixes. But the argument that we’re making here is that we should care about these deaths as much as we care about all other deaths, and we should treat them exactly the same way that we treat all other deaths that we care about, that we feel that we need to measure as a society. And that’s using the death certificate, which, as Roger mentioned, and talks about all the time, is that every single citizen who dies in this country gets a death certificate. So we could get really good data. What we do with that data is super important. How we analyze it is really important and we make recommendations about that. Um. And we also still need investigative journalists, advocates and and lawyers making sure that coroners and medical examiners are are recording deaths in custody as deaths in custody because there are lots of ways to hide them. There’s lots of work that will need to be done to make sure that the system works. But we have a system that we know works for recording death in this country, and we need to start using it in the context of deaths in custody.
DeRay Mckesson: Yeah Roger, um there’s two questions we ask everybody. The first is um, what do you say to people whose hope is challenged in this moment, people who are like, I read the book, listened to the podcast, I was in the street, I voted, I testified, and it still feels as not great as it did when I started. What do you say to those people?
Roger A. Mitchell Jr.: Well, the work of the work of the struggle is the struggle you know, any any any period of time require the struggle of its people to move the continuum closer to justice. And so um I would give them the same thing that I would tell anyone, and that would be don’t grow weary in well doing um because we don’t do it by ourselves. And hopefully the people that are listening, that are working hard and struggling and passionate about the work towards justice, that they know that they’re not alone, that there’s other people that are that are that are working just as hard as them to come alongside them to help make change so that we can we can we can lead to the freedom, um health and safety of our people.
DeRay Mckesson: And then last thing is, what’s a piece of advice that you’ve gotten over the years that’s stuck with you?
Roger A. Mitchell Jr.: You know, I always go to back to my mom. My mom is um is is really a North star for me. And she always told me and I’ll tell your listeners, you’re you’re big and you’re not small, so don’t shrink in the midst of hard things.
Jay D. Aronson: It’s actually from Jewish teaching. I’m not a particularly observant Jew or I’m not a strong believer, um but but I feel deeply connected to Judaism. And there’s a um there’s a kind of teaching within a body of literature called [?], ethics of our fathers. And basically it says you are not obliged or obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it. So this is not a problem that I can solve or any individual can solve on our own, that that doesn’t give us the excuse to not try and solve it. That we’re obligated to do everything we can in our power to solve the problem. I’ve gotten lots of other great advice from lots of other people, but that’s that’s something that kind of sticks with me every time I hear it. It makes more sense. And so I’m going to go with that one. You know, in the old days I would trot out the the arc of justices or the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice or something, something along those lines. I don’t I don’t know if that one works for me anymore. What I would say is that the work that we all do, if we can just push the needle and move things forward a tiny, tiny bit, the collective, we can actually change the world. We don’t always do it quickly and we don’t always even live to see the work that we’re doing. But when you take a step back and look at the world that we live in, I know it’s easy to be doom and gloom, but I tell my students this. So I teach at Carnegie Mellon. If you came into my classroom or the classroom where I was teaching 75 years ago, 50 years ago, even 40 years ago, almost the entire class would be white men. If you come today and look at the diversity of the students who are there. It’s a different world. It’s not perfect. It’s not socio economically representative. But we have made tremendous progress in so many areas of our society. And it’s just not cool to be helpful right now. But if you actually think about the improvements that we’ve made just in the way that we treat people, again, recognizing that there’s still a lot of work to be done, we’ve done amazing things. And I just sometimes remind my students that three quarters of them wouldn’t even be allowed in the classroom 50, 60, 70, 80 years ago, they wouldn’t have even imagined themselves in the classroom. And so we need to constantly remind ourselves that that we can do great things when we work together and that uh we we have to we have to have some faith and trust that the work that we do now, even if we don’t see the benefits of it, will be beneficial in the future. I’m on X at @JayDAronson, just my full name. Uh. The book has a website, DeathinCustodyBook.com, and we have a podcast, Official Ignorance, that’s produced by the incredible Hip Hop Caucus that you can find on all of the platforms or at officialignorance.com. Uh. Rogers on Instagram. I’m nominally there uh and and we’re out and about in the world. We’re hopefully coming to your city. Um. If you want to bring us to your city, just get in touch we’re both easy to find. We will talk to a room of two. 200. 2,000. 20,000. We’ll do arena shows um if if, if we can uh find the audience. Um. Or just email us. Our emails are are easily accessible. Thank you so much. Thanks, DeRay. [music break]
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning in to Pod Save the People this week. Tell your friends to check it out and make sure you rate it wherever you get your podcasts. Whether its Apple Podcasts or somewhere else. And we’ll see you next week. Pod Save the People is a production of Crooked Media. It’s produced by AJ Moultrié and mixed by Evan Sutton. Executive produced by me and special thanks to our weekly contributors Kaya Henderson, De’Ara Balenger, and Myles E. Johnson. [music break]