In This Episode
DeRay, Kaya, and De’Ara cover the underreported news of the week—including Black women in elected office, public bathrooms, and a scandal involving D.C. police and whiskey. DeRay interviews Stanley Nelson & Traci Curry about their new Showtime documentary “Attica.”
DeRay Mclesson: Hey, this is DeRay and welcome to Pod Save the People. In this episode, it’s me, Kaya and De’Ara talking about all the news you don’t know from the past week. I’m still talking about the bathroom article that we talk about this week that like, it really just been on my mind. I was like fascinated by it, just like, truly fascinated. And then I sit down and talk to Stanley Nelson and Traci Currie, the directors of this incredible documentary on Attica. I cannot rave about a documentary more. Watch it. Listen to the interview. I mean, just 10 out of 10. And my advice for this week is about friendship and relationships and community. We have to be intentional about the relationships that we build. We need to be mindful, that we need to, like, actually plan to be with our friends. Plan a game night. Let’s plan to go to the movies as a big group. Like plan with your friends. That at the pandemic taught me anything, it’s that we should just be way more intentional about our relationships and that we should build communities, practice, especially as we get older. Here we go.
De’Ara Balenger: Family! Welcome, welcome to another episode of Pod Save the People I am De’Ara Ballenger. You can find me on Twitter and Instagram @derabalenger.
Kaya Henderson: I’m Kaya Henderson, @hendersonkaya on Twitter.
DeRay Mckesson: And this is DeRay. @deray Twitter.
De’Ara Balenger: Well, lots of political things happening. Lots of cultural things happening. But we can’t talk about everything. So I’ve somehow convinced DeRay that we’re going to talk about the political stuff. So [laughs] frozen face. So, you know, we had results from Virginia, from New Jersey, from Buffalo, which we actually, you know, we’ve been watching the race in Buffalo in great support of India Walton. So as we know, Terry McAuliffe did not take Virginia. We also came quite close to losing New Jersey’s governorship, but pulled that one through. So, you know, I’ll get into my news later because I think that’s how I’m trying to be hopeful about this whole thing, is essentially like, what are our learnings and what is happening that makes sense and that is truly progressive in the Democratic Party. I think with Terry McAuliffe, it seemed to be that folks just weren’t that excited about him, and I think generally folks weren’t that excited across the board about coming out in this election. I mean, the turnout was pretty low. There was an election in New York. You know, those turnouts were low as well. Also in Virginia, we saw that the Latino vote increasingly went for the Republican candidate, which is a whole separate conversation that would take a whole podcast to get into. But ultimately, I think the, you know, the Democratic establishment has some work to do. I don’t necessarily see India Walton’s loss as a sign of we should go with establishment candidates because obviously, as we see in Virginia, New Jersey, that’s not necessarily a road to winning either. So I don’t know. Interesting to hear what you all think. I mean, you know, at this point between, you know, what’s happening or not happening in Washington, what’s not happening or happening within the establishment Democratic Party, it just seems that we have a long way to go, and I don’t know who is taking leadership of the ship.
Kaya Henderson: I mean, who’s in charge? That’s a good question. That’s above my pay grade. But I will say that I think what we saw in Virginia was a combination of a couple of things. Number one, we have been talking about this phenomenon of the Republicans being able to aptly engage suburban— what CNN calls suburban women, and what the rest of us call white women—in these issues of education and parental rights. And Glenn Youngkin started in with very disciplined messaging around school about education. And I think that given the fact that parents have had a front row seat in terms of what is happening in their kids’ classrooms, this message, this education message resonated in ways that I think the Democratic Party underestimated, really. And when you see who Glenn Youngkin did the best with besides white men, was white women. And so I was even stunned to see lots of well—not lots of—to see lots of undecided minority voters in the Virginia election. I think part of that is also because, you know, as a country, we’re putting up—no disrespect to Terry McAuliffe—but retreads, right, people who’ve been there done that. We’re not energizing people with new ideas or new opportunities. And I’m disappointed in the Biden administration and how many people who have been in previous administrations they’re relying on. The sign of a healthy democracy is good exchange of ideas, new ideas, young people involved in politics. And I think that Glenn Youngkin mobilized a group of people that could have been mobilized otherwise. And you know, we got to get this messaging thing together. We got to deeply understand what people’s concerns are. The Democrats completely underplayed education issue and it was an issue they could have owned in Virginia.
DeRay Mckesson: I also think it’s a reminder too, I look at Build Back Better—right, that’s what it’s called? Build Back Better—is that some of the messaging around the, you know, we obviously have a lot of things we want the Biden administration to do, but the good things they are doing, a lot of people can’t explain them, you know? And it’s like we got to figure out a way to help people understand, like the infrastructure bill was a huge thing that just passed. A lot of money is going to cities, a lot of jobs will be created. And you know, I don’t know a lot of people that can talk about it. I was fascinated by New Jersey, the governor of New Jersey almost losing. Like that was not something that was on my wild card. And I don’t know if you saw, but the president of the New Jersey Senate seemingly lost. It looks like he’s not conceding as of today, but the guy that ran against him spent $2,000 on his campaign. The guy, like, was just, you know, he was a guy who just decided to run. And I was reading up on it, and you just have to remember how much of this stuff really is like, do you people know you? Are they connected to you? And one of the things they held against Sweeney, the New Jersey Senate president, was people in his district were like, you had the power to stop school closures, like you had the, like, you were the juice, and we didn’t feel the juice coming down in our district. And you like, that’s real, right? It’s going to be interesting to see what happens to you in this age of voters ages out, right? Like when sort of that 20, 30, 40-year olds become the main bloc of voters, and like, who is speaking to them, will be interesting. I will say I need like a primer on Build Back Better and what’s happening with the bill and the vote. Like, I feel like I need like a very simple website that has like a T-Chart that’s like in-out or something, you know, like because it is, every time I read, I’m like, this is, I’m not smart enough for this. So that’s how I feel about that. But you know, Buffalo surprised that, I’m not surprised because the media really beat her up until the end, India Walton, but yeah, we got a lot of work to do with these elections, and Lord knows the midterms might be another full-court press.
De’Ara Balenger: And the last thing I’ll say too, I think that Youngkin was able to do is he kept Trump away, right? So made a decision to keep him away to not have Trump come to Virginia, and I think for a lot of moderates, a lot of undecideds and a lot of, you know, kind of, you know, Mitt Romney, John McCain-type Republicans, I think there was an appeal to him. You know, I think they were, you know, generally disgusted with Trump, don’t want to be associated with Trump, but the more and more we see these Republican candidates, that kind of, you know, are kind of post-Trump, even though they have the same ideals, even though, you know, they espouse some of the same hate—I think that disassociation and the further we, the further we get away from the Trump presidency, I think the more successful some of these candidates are going to be, which is also another challenge for the Democratic Party.
Kaya Henderson: But what Youngkin did was he was Trump-ish without Trump, right?
De’Ara Balenger: There you go, Kaya. Yeah, yeah.
Kaya Henderson: There was a real nuance to that because he was continuing to talk to that base and to galvanize that base without the extremity of the Trump connection.
De’Ara Balenger: Exactly.
Kaya Henderson: So I think that’s what a lot of people seemingly want, and he struck that chord perfectly.
De’Ara Balenger: That’s the, I think that’s the scary part for the midterms.
DeRay Mckesson: Don’t go anywhere. More Pod Save the People is coming.
De’Ara Balenger: I’m not going to lie, I’m sure, like many of you, I was very, very, very bummed with the results in Virginia in particular, but I’m trying to be on a higher vibration, really. Because at this point I can’t take any more anything. And so I was trying to think, OK, let me reflect, let me look for some news that is going to kind of counteract what happened in Virginia. And so I found this article written by Dr. Nadia E. Brown, who’s a professor of government and she’s director actually of Women’s and Gender Studies program at Georgetown. So shout out to Dr. Brown. But she wrote an opinion piece about, you know, the many, many challenges that Black women face when they’re running for elected offices. And yet even with those challenges, the research says, her research says that they are the best candidates still to win. Which I thought, of course, they are, Black women. Fabulous. So, let’s get into this. So she set the stage, so she, you know, essentially letting us know where we are. So the Center for American, the Center for American Women in Politics and Higher Heights—which if you don’t know Higher Heights, get to know them. They do a lot of advocacy for Black women in particular running for office. So there’s less than 2% of Black women that serve in statewide positions in the United States. Of 310 statewide executive offices, there are six Black women who are currently serving, so we have: Tish James who’s attorney general in New York; Sheila Oliver, lieutenant governor of New Jersey, which will probably change; Sandra Kennedy, who is the corporation commissioner in Arizona; Sabina Matos, who’s the lieutenant governor of Rhode Island; Juliana Stratton, who’s the lieutenant governor of Illinois; Shirley Weber, finally, who’s the secretary of State for California. So all of these women are Democrats. And so Dr. Brown also goes into, you know, the six Black women that ran for governor in 2018. So she kind of sees this trajectory as increasing in terms of Black women running for statewide office. And in addition to those women that ran in 2018, we see that there’s a burgeoning 2022 election cycle where we’ll have Tish James, who I just mentioned, she’s running for governor in New York; Danielle Allen in Massachusetts; Deirdre DeJear in Iowa—shout out to you, sending you love; Deirdre Gilbert in Texas—same; Connie Johnson in Oklahoma—Lord; and Mia McLeod in South Carolina. Notice the other thing about these Black women. You know, they’re not afraid. They’re going to run in these states, these hard core, scary white supremacist states and there, and we’re going to support them. So anyway, professor—OK, so that’s kind of setting the stage. Her research really goes into all of the things that Black women have to overcome when they’re running. So, you know, deeply racialized and gender barriers, misogynoir is very real for black women candidates. These women experience sexual harassment on the campaign trail, difficulties in fundraising, which is real—you know, if you can’t raise money, you’re not going to win—little or no support from their political party, i.e. the Democratic establishment, media bias, which DeRay talks about with India Walton, lack of access to political networks, critiques on their appearances, as well as just a general racialized political hierarchy. So with all of that, though, Dr. Brown’s research still shows that Black women are the best suited to win. And why is that? And so my summation of her research is that Black women know how to organize. Always have, always will. Brilliant at it. And not only do they know how to organize, she found in her research that they also organize intersectionality, which is so important, and they’re able to unite across different communities who are marginalized, who are suffering from the same inequalities and inequities. And it’s shown when they get into office, they continue that kind of intersectional, unified approach to how they direct policy, to how they work with communities. So I just thought that was brilliant, one. And I think this is exciting, given that we just lost this Virginia’s race, we were very close to losing New Jersey, so I’m embarrassed to say that I did not know that there were two Black women who were running during the Democratic primary in Virginia: Jennifer McClellan and Jennifer Carroll Foy. I think part of this is like, I think this is part of the discussion, right, like even though Terry McAuliffe ended up winning the nomination, there were still these excellent Black women candidates. And as far as I can tell, Jennifer Carroll Foy did really, really well and raised a significant amount of money. I think still probably like, you know, a fourth of what Terry McAuliffe did, but still a significant amount. So all that to say y’all, you know, I think my lesson learned from Virginia, because I think we all need to do a bit of self-reflection in this party, is to make sure I’m paying extra special attention to these Black women who are running across the board. I think these statewide positions are really important, as we know, you know, Stacey Abrams would have been the first Black woman governor. Period. I think she opened up the door to give a lot of folks the courage and enthusiasm and spirit to run for these statewide elected positions. So I’m excited for 2022, actually. I’m also going to do more in terms of making sure I know who these women are and making sure I’m giving to their campaign and making sure that my network does as well. So all that to say yes, it was a loss in terms of we lost Virginia, Terry McAuliffe is not the governor there, but we had two women who ran successful primary campaigns there, which is progress. So I’m excited. I’m excited about 2022. That’s soon, right? 2022?
Kaya Henderson: Yeah, I mean, if your excitement is just about Black women in statewide offices, then maybe Virginia is a reason for you to celebrate because the lieutenant governor that was just elected alongside Glenn Youngkin is Winsome Sears, who is a, uh, a Republican. And I took note of her as I was watching all of the Virginia campaign commercials, which, you know, I have complained about incessantly. They just flooded our airwaves. But Lieutenant, now Lieutenant Governor Sears appeared in her campaign ads with an AK-47 talking about school choice and the right to bear arms and some other stuff.
DeRay Mckesson: She really did!
Kaya Henderson: And so I—
DeRay Mckesson: She really did, look in real—you’re like, OK?
Kaya Henderson: So I, you know, I’m all for a Black girl magic. Most of it. However, I’d like mine without an AK-47, please. I’m just saying,
DeRay Mckesson: I’ll just say that this is a reminder that organizations like Run for Something have been incredible at getting a host of people to feel like they have a pathway to run for office that wouldn’t have before, especially Black women. And you know, I think about somebody who, I did run for office and it was, not only was just like being a candidate just wild, but it’s like all the basics. You’re like the campaign filing report, there are all these things that are that are barriers for people that are way beyond, like, could you do the job? You know? I think that what we’ve seen in the past year or two is is a set of resources and places coming for people so that they actually like can meaningfully engage in the system. So I’m excited. I’m excited about statewide office, and I’m also excited about more Black and brown people, especially women, people in the queer community being on a host of boards. I want you to be like the town clerk. I want you to be on the school board. I want you to be on all the boards because the white supremacists are ramping up and they are getting even more organized in a way that the consequences we’ve seen to be dire.
Kaya Henderson: My news today is from the city that I live in, Washington, D.C. and this very peculiar case of what it has been, what is called the Jack Daniels Committee. The D.C. Fraternal Order of Police Lodge, which is a clubhouse for all of the police unions, local and federal, in Washington, made 500, more than $500,000 over the course of three years selling whiskey online illegally. What!? The police? Doing something illegal? No, couldn’t be. Well, it turns out friends, it was. In 2017, the lodge was facing significant financial hardship and were on the verge of shutting down when one particular member of the lodge had an amazing idea, which is let’s buy barrels of whiskey from Jack Daniels in Tennessee, put the Fraternal Order of Police logo on it and upsell it. And so they bought a barrel for $11,000, and within a few, they sold the bottles for 80 bucks each. The bottles roughly cost them about $46. They sold them for 80, and they collected $38,000 in just a couple of hours. And they were like, we got a, we got the hotcakes, let’s sell them. And so they went from buying one barrel to buying multiple barrels. Who was that brilliant police officer who came up with that idea? Well, it turns out he wasn’t a police officer. In fact, you have to be a D.C. police officer, one of the branches in order to join this lodge, but this man was actually a Walmart security guard from Tennessee. Who, how did he get into the lodge? Well, that’s a good question. Seems like he was a, the last time he was a full time police officer, he was a police officer in the community college division of something or another in Los Angeles. So he’d served as a full-time police officer on a community college campus for a couple of years. And then he’s been a volunteer police, volunteer policeman in small towns. But his job as a security guard at Walmart. It says that he was planning on moving to D.C. and so he apparently applied to join the lodge. And nobody can really tell who approved it because by all, you know, circumstances, he is not a candidate, but he had this great idea and went on to be named volunteer of the year and get all kinds of awards for this brilliant idea. There was one little woman—woman—in the lodge who raised her hand, she’s a paralegal, and said, isn’t this illegal? And the then president at the time said, no, it’s not illegal. And he, to this day maintains that he thinks that that’s the right answer. Apparently, it was not the right answer. You have to have a particular kind of license in order to sell liquor online. They didn’t have it. They have a license to sell liquor in their club, but not a license to sell liquor in individual bottles to people. They didn’t have licenses to sell in the states that they were selling to. Transporting liquor across state lines without a permit is also against the law. And so they were breaking multiple multiple laws, but they were doing brisk business and making a lot of money. Well, where did all of that money go? To the widows and children, right? No, of course not. It went to Michael Kruggel, who is the celebrated member—nonmember, member, depends on how you cut it—who came up with this idea. A lot of the money went to his personal expenses. In fact, he lodged expenses that literally said that he’d driven around the Earth 2.9 times in one year. And so he made a lot of money. The upper echelons of the lodge made a lot of money. They were even storing their Jack Daniels bottles in the Grand Lodge—really, that’s what you call your National FOP Union headquarters, the Grand Lodge? Does that sound familiar? There are other organizations that call their things Grand Lodges like the Klan, but we won’t go there. Anyway. They were storing stuff not just in D.C., but in Tennessee in the Grand Lodge, which is the national headquarters of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodges. And what has happened was, what happened was somebody was like, I don’t think this is right. People started to ask internally, should we be doing this? And the new president launched, the new president of the Lodge, launched an investigation. Scathing investigation. Hats off to them for at least doing an internal investigation. But it seems that while the report on the investigation comes back with all of this evidence of them breaking the law and nobody has been held accountable. The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute because they don’t see enough clear evidence. ABRA, which is the Alcohol and Beverage Regulatory Authority in D.C., is now investigating because they just got a tip. But Mr. Kruggel, who started this whole thing, is fine. The previous president is fine. Nobody has seen any consequences. And at the end of the day, the lodge netted only about $11,000, and they have about 1,400 bottles of Jack Daniels that are stuck in their lodge that they can’t sell. So, kind of fascinating in the annals of, of course, this couldn’t happen, but yes, it does, because we don’t police the police the way we need to. And I thought this was interesting and so I brought it to the pad.
DeRay Mckesson: The only thing I say, great narration. Let me just commend you on that narration, you really took us through the saga. That was a very, that was A-plus. 10 out of 10 storytelling. Is, now you and I both know if this was some Black people in the community . . .
Kaya Henderson: Ooh, child, you should say it.
DeRay Mckesson: They want a tore these people’s house apart. They would all be in jail. They would be, it would be racketeering. It would be distribution. It would be death.
Kaya Henderson: Conspiracy.
DeRay Mckesson: Oh! I mean, Rico statute. I mean, this would be—
Kaya Henderson: Abuse of power. Exactly.
DeRay Mckesson: It would be on. And it’s not white people, so they get a spread in The Washington Post that just lays out this narrative as if this was just like a day in the park. You’re like, OK. So that was like the first thing when you put this in the chat, I was like, If this is a Black people neighborhood, they would have tore these people up. So that was that. The second thing is, there really is—I mean, obviously, people, there’s no shock about how I feel about the police—but it is so interesting when you think just structurally about even as we work towards things like abolition and da da da, like who manages the consequence? Like who, not even who polices the police because I don’t like that language, but like who is the enforcement mechanism when the police do stuff!? I just don’t , we really do not have another sector of public life, you know, and Kaya and I both came from school systems when teachers do things that don’t make sense, there’s a whole structure. When superintendents do things that don’t make sense, Lord knows there’s a structure, right? Principals! Principals in Baltimore stole money from schools. They are in jail. Not that I’m saying jail is the answer, but there’s a consequence structure, and the police, you know, firefighters who burned down houses? There’s a consequence for arson. But the police, it’s so wild that like you know, and I don’t know where the drop off is. Maybe we aren’t telling stories well enough, like I don’t know what the what is. But I read this and it just it just blows my mind how it gets this far.
De’Ara Balenger: Yeah, it kind of it, this is wild. And it kind of reminds me, I don’t know if you all saw a couple of weeks ago, but there are a bunch of like retired NBA players that are all charged with fraud because they were, I guess, putting insurance claims into their insurance and then getting all the money from it, but not showing up for the appointments. All that to say, like a whole bunch of Black former NBA players are now being, I mean, the United States of America against them. So it’s just interesting to see that it’s just so, these instances are kind of so similar. But of course, with these former NBA players, the book will be thrown at them. It is it everything is in progress as we speak. And this yeah, it’s just, it’s just a story in The Post that we’re just waiting to see if something will be done.
DeRay Mckesson: And the best part about it is that like if there’s anybody who knows it’s illegal, it’s y’all! Like if there’s anybody who knows that this ain’t right, it’s you. You know, you can’t buy alcohol, like, literally there’s not, it’s like I’d be even more sympathetic if it was teachers doing it for a drive for school or somebody, being like I just didn’t know, I thought—but if anybody knows this ain’t right, it’s the police. So my news is called: where did all the public bathrooms go? And I brought this here really as a discussion topic because, you know, I read it and I was like, of all the things I have never asked questions about, it definitely is public bathrooms and where do they fit in, like in a larger conversation? And one of the things that I learned is that there’s a public toilet index—who knew?—that’s by the UK bathroom supply company QS Supplies and the online toilet finding place PeePlace. And what they highlight is that the U.S. has only eight toilets per 100,000 people overall, tied with Botswana. Iceland leads their ranking with about 56 per 100,000 residents. And I had never really thought about what the presence or absence of a restroom in public sort of does, and what it means to like a larger society. But what the article does a really good job of is sort of helping us tease out the class implications of this and what does it mean that there are people who don’t have an easy way or a quick way to get back home or don’t have a, can’t spend money to go into the building to use a bathroom. But we know that everybody has to use the bathroom. And you know, I also didn’t know the history of public bathrooms starting as far back as that late 1800s in New York Cit.y and it just really, I bring it here and like, I’ll probably follow up after Kaya and De’Ara, you talk, but I bring it here because I was just really interested in, in things like this that are seemingly small but it’s like the trashcan thing. It’s like if you put trash cans out, people put trash and trash cans. If you don’t put trash cans out, people put the trash somewhere else, but the trash will go somewhere. And it’s like if you want people to stop peeing on the side of buildings, you probably should, you know, put toilets somewhere. And I just hadn’t ever thought about public bathrooms as an equity issue until I read this. So I just wanted to bring it here.
De’Ara Balenger: This is now providing so much clarity and connection for me. I live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where you can’t walk a block without seeing urine in a water bottle. And you know, it always, I’m like, why, is it just because New York is disgusting? I love New York. I live there, but it is. Or is there a greater reason? So DeRay, I thank you for bringing this to the pod because I don’t think I would have put two and two together. But as I’m thinking about it, I feel like New York is also the hardest place to find a restroom. Like if you’re in any part of the city trying to find a restroom, you can’t. A restaurant won’t—and this is even before the pandemic—a restaurant won’t let you come in to use the restroom. There aren’t any public restrooms, and so it makes perfect sense for people who are doing all sorts of jobs or traversing the city that they have to do what they can to relieve themselves. And just thinking about, you know, my time, and name any country in Europe, there are public restrooms everywhere. And some of them, you know, you might have to put like a coin in them to go in, but there is availability and also just like a different culture around public restrooms as well, right? It’s not like, I think here too, that’s something to tackle is just like people may not want to use public restrooms here, yada yada yada, I don’t know, but I just, the juxtaposition of Europe and how there is access to restrooms, just anecdotally from my perspective. And then the fact that anecdotally, it has really been hard for me to find a restroom in New York to use, and with the bottles of pee on the street, this all just makes perfect, perfect sense.
DeRay Mckesson: I will say before Kaya goes, there are a couple of things, too, is that one of the things that the author has sort of highlighted is the transition away from the government having any responsibility for your bodily privacy, to what they call a consumer model of privacy that says, like the person like that, privacy is something you pay for and you buy. And I hadn’t thought, I would have never framed it like that. And I also didn’t know, and this is this is interesting for a lot of criminal justice stuff, is that in 1970, there were more than 50,000 coin-operated public restrooms, which I honestly have never seen in America at all. But there were a lot of feminist organizations and student organizations that thought that was actually unjust, because it was it was, you were having to pay to use a bathroom, and they thought that the end of the coin-operated would lead to the presence of public, like just free bathrooms. And it didn’t. And then it was this conversation about, you know, crime, right? So like the crime wave quote comes and then they closed more public bathrooms, the New York City subway bathrooms close and da da da, and then 911 comes and it becomes terrorism. But all these things compound, and what has stayed constant throughout all of this is that people got to pee and poop. That’s the constant, right? And I hadn’t thought about this. But Kaya, what you got?
Kaya Henderson: This was really fascinating to me. I enjoyed the history of public bathrooms because as you said, they are, this is just a harbinger for how people are really feeling about other people. One of the interesting tidbits to me was that during Jim Crow, they abolished public bathrooms because it was too expensive. If you put up a bathroom, you had to put up two bathrooms, one for white people and one for Black people. And so it just became too expensive to maintain separate but equal. And so their response was to just cut down on public bathrooms in general. De’Ara, I’m with you. I travel a lot and it’s so normal to be in a European city and be able to just use a clean bathroom. And what was interesting to me is the shift from public, truly public government-sponsored bathrooms, to the burden being shouldered by bars and restaurants. And you know, and if you’ve got high traffic, I mean, those folks are shouldering a, more than just their customers and that’s why they only want restrooms for their customers. But I think that this is, the class implications of this, that if you have money, you can get yourself to a bathroom or you can buy a sandwich in a restaurant and so you can use the bathroom. I can’t tell you how many places I’ve gone into and bought stuff that I didn’t need, just so that I could use the facilities. But that is a pure class separator, and it means that the hardworking hourly employee who you know is in Brooklyn but works in Manhattan can’t easily get home and go to the bathroom. And this seems like a justice issue. I mean, at the end of the day, the United States sucks because we don’t, like we don’t care about people in this, from health care to, I mean, across a bunch of dimensions, right? I love the United States, but when I look at how the rest of the world treats people on basic things like, you know, bathrooms, health care, it is, it’s astounding to see us continue down this path of, I got mine, you got to get yours. And so what I’m sad about is I don’t really feel like there is any big movement to do something differently. In fact, one of the things that it pointed out were places like Washington, D.C. and New York had actually passed public restroom ordinances and purchased new high tech fancy public toilets and they’re sitting in warehouses. They haven’t been installed. So what, why do we have a collective lack of will to provide people with basic sanitation when what happens when, I mean, we know what happens when basic sanitation is not taken care of, then disease and, you know, whatever pollution and all kinds of things. And so what makes us care enough to do right by people and let them go to the bathroom is the question that this left me with.
DeRay Mckesson: Hey, you’re listening to Pod Save the People. Stay tuned, there’s more to come.
DeRay Mckesson: And now my conversation with award-winning director Stanley Nelson. MacArthur Genius Fellow, he was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Obama. I have watched a lot of his documentaries. He’s been on the pod before. I met him around the Black Panther doc. And then Traci Nelson, also an incredible co-director on this, and just her attention to detail, her ability to tell stories, I mean, just solid. So, happy to talk to them today. I learned a lot. The film was truly one of the best things I’ve seen in a long time. Here we go.
DeRay Mckesson: Stanley and Tracy, thanks so much for joining us today on Pod Save the People.
Stanley Nelson: Thank you for having us.
Traci Curry: Thank you.
DeRay Mckesson: Now you are, you might be the only three-peat guest. I feel like we’ve had you on, Stanley, literally, like every time there’s a project that’s like, please come talk to us. And Traci, I thank you for coming. You know, I saw Attica a couple of nights ago, and it’s one of the few, I don’t really watch a lot documentaries in the criminal space because they all drive me a little nuts, like they all are, like, I just, they frustrate me. I’m like, this is sloppy, and this is da da da. This one, I’m like this should be required viewing for everybody. I called my father, I’m like dad, you got to watch it. I call my sister, I’m like, we got to talk about it. Can you start us off with how did you even get the footage? Like, what was it, I was shocked that that was all like real footage. So how did this start as a project?
Stanley Nelson: I had been thinking about doing Attica, I don’t know, for 20, 30 years, you know, one of the projects that was kind of on the back burner. Probably three or four years ago, I realized that, you know, one, I had come to the place in my career where I could do it and I thought I could do it justice. And two, that the people who who were alive, you know, we’re getting older and we really had to get get this project going. And so in some ways, that’s how it started. I knew that there was a certain amount of footage that existed. I had no idea that the amount of footage and archival stills and stuff existed as we found finally. And we thought that there were people that that should be alive and well that were in the yard, and others that who were at Attica in some capacity and could talk about it. And Traci, you know, just did an incredible job of finding people and getting them to talk. Just an amazing job.
DeRay Mckesson: And Traci, you how, how did you do that, you know, the way that the people who lived through it walk us through was just so incredible. Did you find 20 people and you can only put three people in? Did you, like what was that process? There were so many people there at Attica during those five days.
Traci Curry: Yeah. I mean, my intention was to get every single surviving person who was there that could talk about it, and that sort of was like the big goal that I started out with. I think diving into the research, it became apparent early on that there were all these various categories of people who came to it in different ways that we wanted to have tell the story. So there were the people who were prisoners, there were the families who lived in Attica, there were the guards that were hostages, there was the media, there were the observers. And so I kind of started out in my head with like, OK, I know that we need all of these categories of people. And obviously, the prisoners’ story is very much central to this and so one of the things that really helped was that when the prisoners had their settlement, the judge that oversaw it allowed them all to come into court and testify about what happened.
DeRay Mckesson: Whoa.
Traci Curry: So there’s a record of that, right? And so I just sort of methodically went through that and that was in 2000. And so figuring out, OK, who might still be around, who seemed to have a story to tell at that time? And then just kind of doing the, you know, boots on the ground, so to speak—as boots on the ground as could be in the middle of the pandemic—work of tracking those folks down and just kind of getting on the phone and talking to them. And, you know, this was a profound trauma in the lives of every single person that experienced it and so, you know, it wasn’t something people were necessarily initially jumping to talk about, and it took, you know, a few conversations before we even got on camera to kind of build that trust and to be very transparent with them about, you know, me and Stanley’s intention for these slices of their lives and this story. But what I found was that once we kind of got some of that initial sort of throat-clearing stuff out of the way, people really wanted to talk about what happened to them. And I think some of that is because no one ever received justice for anything that happened to them. In some ways, being able to talk about it and have the platform and the space maybe felt like something like justice or something close to it for them. And then the end result is pretty much what you see, what you see on the screen. I mean, they, all that, the rage, the fear, the sadness, the shame—all of those feelings were very much still there at the surface, even 50 years later. And so my job was to kind of like get out of the way and let them experience that however, you know, however, that manifested for them.
DeRay Mckesson: Who is the hardest get?
Traci Curry: Who was the hardest get?
DeRay Mckesson: Let me tell you who I was surprised by. I was surprised by Rockefeller’s person.
Traci Curry: Yes. So yeah, I really wanted to get his whole team that was involved, and most of them are just not around, and, you know, in the searching came across this guy who was his attorney. And yes, it took, I like to call it pleasant persistence, but really a lot of pestering and actually kind of circumnavigating to other attorneys who knew him, who kind of went to him and we’re like, hey, you need to represent, you know, Rockefeller in this and we’re doing it and you should do it, and we’ve talked to Traci and we know her. So, yeah, your instincts are totally right on that. He probably would be the most difficult person. As you can see, he’s not in the film very much. He very much as an attorney, very measured in the things that he would say. But I think the things that he did say that we put in the film are pretty revelatory.
DeRay Mckesson: I agree.
Stanley Nelson: He was really interesting because, you know, you see the whole interview, he’s trying to avoid implicating himself in answering Traci’s questions. But he actually, you know, said enough so that, so that we could get what we wanted and use him. And I think he’s really, you know, somebody different because he represents Rockefeller. And we knew going in that the people from Rockefeller, the Rockefeller administration, and the Nixon administration, you know, they were already pretty old. So if they’re like, 35, then they would have been 85 or 90-years old. So it was probably most of them would have passed away. So to get him was really great.
DeRay Mckesson: Honestly, I left watching the film being like, we need to strip Rockefeller’s name off of everything. We shouldn’t celebrate that man in any way in any world because what he did was so, so wild. I wanted to ask a couple of sort of questions that I had lingering. Bobby Seale is in the movie or in the documentary, but only for, he’s not in it much. And, you know, did you learn a backstory, or was there like, is there something about, you know, they were frustrated, I was frustrated as a viewer, you know?
Stanley Nelson: Yeah, I mean, I think that that that one of the reasons why we included that story is because it’s known. Why anybody knows anything about Attica—oh, wasn’t Bobby Seale there? And we didn’t want to be accused of kind of avoiding that. But Bobby Seale came and left and really didn’t stay very long, as the former prisoners, you know, really say beautifully. And you know, we heard conflicting stories about why, and we didn’t really kind of feel solid enough to say exactly what was going on with Bobby and exactly what was going on in Bobby’s mind. But that he did come and, you know, was there and then and then left without really doing much.
Traci Curry: Yeah, I think too, is that we, you know, in telling the story, wanted to kind of recreate the ebb and flow of how the negotiations proceeded. So there’s several moments that feels like, oh, they’re making some headway, and then something happens and they step back. And I think, you know, that’s kind of how it was. And there was this feeling of anticipation like, Bobby is a hero to these guys, that he’s going to come in and, you know, he’s going to be the one that really just sort of convinces them and he’s their hero and he’s going to get it right. And then it’s kind of like wah-wah, and that’s sort of how it, that’s how it was. And so I think we sort of wanted to kind of create that same feeling and like ebb and flow of that tension in the film as well.
DeRay Mckesson: You got me. Because I was like, OK, Bobby. Bobby coming! And I was like, Bobby, what happened? I’m like somebody call, somebody call Bobby. Why does Attica matter in terms of a story being told? There are a lot of stories that we could tell about criminal justice and prisons and jails and why does this one matter to you?
Stanley Nelson: I mean, I think it says so much about so many different things, you know? It says so much about criminal justice. And you know, we’re talking beforehand and you were saying you’re frustrated with most docs that have to do with criminal justice and so am I. And one of the things I’m really frustrated is, you know, they center on like one person. You know, so many times criminal justice doc, documentaries, center on one person and how that one person is wronged or, you know, by the prison system or should, you know? But Attica looks at in many ways, the whole prison system, and the prison system 50 years ago, which is only in so many ways gotten worse. But also, I mean, there’s so many subtexts in the film. It’s about the power of the government and not being concerned, and you know, Rockefeller’s political ambitions. And we see that over and over again now, the political ambitions of so many of our elected officials, you know, trumps—and no pun intended—but trumps good sense, right? And trumps what they know is right. And so there’s that piece of it that’s so resonant today. I think there’s just, you know, so much, race is kind of a piece that’s always there in the film and, you know, from the guard, from the people in the town, from, you know, all the way up to Nixon and Rockefeller. So race is also one of the subtexts of the film. So it’s about so many things that resonate today.
DeRay Mckesson: Traci, can you—two questions. One is I had no clue about the settlement until I saw the film. And my question was like, who kept this alive? I mean, that was a long, the settlement was way late. I mean, the settlement is like lately. And it’s like who was it, like was it like some students keeping it alive? Or was it like—who just kept this alive allowed to even get to 2000?
Traci Curry: Yes, so it’s funny. Stanley and I just left, we went to talk to Harvard law school, and one of the things that we talked about was this army of law students kind of descended after the 13th from, I think, Buffalo Law School to sort of represent the prisoners because they knew that there was going to be a physical and legal retribution against the prisoners, which there was. You know, there’s, Attica’s many things and we tell this sort of five days, but there is, like you said, this whole saga of the legal, the various losses that happened afterwards, and it pretty much was a team of lawyers who without pay worked for about years to get led by women named Liz Fink, who was the, she [unclear] a lot of the photos that you see during the retaking were evidence that she had gathered and her team had gathered that we were able to access, all of these lawsuits. And so eventually, I think it was kind of a thing where it was like the 12 million was not what they had initially asked for, but after 25, 30 years, I think they realized they they were not going to get much farther with it. And the families, interestingly enough, their settlement basically came after the families, the families of the hostages who were injured and died, organized to essentially shame the state of New York into giving them the settlement because after their loved ones were killed by the state, the corrections officials rushed in to get the widows to sign their workman’s comp checks, and unbeknownst to them, that meant they forfeited any legal rights to the—
DeRay Mckesson: stop. These people are the worst
Traci Curry: So they lost all—and this is something that the state and the correction’s department knew that like a grieving widow who just lost her husband and needs the money did not. And so after the prisoners won their settlement, the families organized and pretty much did a public relations campaign saying, ‘shame on you’ to the state of New York, and that’s how they got their settlement.
DeRay Mckesson: And this is for either of you: another person I was shocked that was in there was the National Guard guy. He was like, he came out of nowhere. I’m like, he must have been like 20-years old when this happened. I mean, I feel like he was pretty young. But was he, did you find him in a court case or did how did he come about?
Traci Curry: Yeah. Both of those National Guardsmen had testified on behalf of the prisoners. And one of the reasons that they were sort of free to do that is because the National Guard, they kind of, they came in as sort of the cleanup crew after the state troopers went in and did what they did. And so they were kind of in a space where they were able to really speak freely about the things that they said. And one of the things that was really interesting was that they told me they were shocked when it, when they realized it was the state troopers—who are essentially the people who pull you over and give you a speeding ticket—and have no kind of experience of doing any sort of riot control, versus the National Guardsmen. Because Kent State had just happened the year before, the National Guardsmen were very mindful about the kind of restraints that needed to be practiced in a situation like this, and they also had riot training. But instead, the National Guardsmen were called in to basically do medical relief to clean up all of the, you know, the damage after the state police had gone in and killed everyone. So they sort of, I think, felt a freedom to kind of talk openly about the horror of what they saw in the aftermath of the retaking.
Stanley Nelson: I mean, I think [unclear] that the National Guards were traumatized by the event, so you know, everybody, you know, the prisoners were traumatized, their families were traumatized, the observers who came in were traumatized, the National Guard was traumatized—and they were traumatized in a different way because they—as one guy says in the film—you know, we were part, unfortunately, we were part of what was going on because we couldn’t stop it, you know? And they couldn’t stop the torture that went on after the retaking of Attica, although they weren’t really part of it, they were, because they couldn’t stop it. And so, you know, they are, you know, you can see the guy’s eyes are red throughout the whole interview because, you know, he’s so traumatized by the events.
DeRay Mckesson: You know, one of the things that I thought you also did well is, it showed the wonderful humanity of the incarcerated. Like the demand was not get me out of jail. The demand was like, this ain’t right, right? Like you know, we shouldn’t be fighting over toilet paper. And you know, if people don’t see it in a film like yours, they wouldn’t believe it. Like they’d read it and be kike, that didn’t really happened. Like, No, no, no! This is like the demands were really nuanced and complex. So that was one. The second thing is that I’m truly shocked that you had any footage after the retake. I mean, like to see, like when they were like, oh, they made the people do X, X and X. And then you showed it! I’ like, who was videotaping this!? Like that, I mean, did they forget the cameras were rolling, did they not care? And was, and was this not a national crisis when it was happened. Was the aftermath, like, do people not know that the retaking was so wild? Or did they not come out till later? Like, how is this not a scandal then. I just, I’m curious.
Stanley Nelson: I mean, so much of the footage was not, did not come out at the time. And those were the black and white footage, is New York state surveillance tapes. And they had like the first iteration of home video. So they had a camera that would actually, you know, you can buy it off the shelf and you could videotape it. That was the first one. So they’re videotaping the whole thing, you know, from day one, you know, from the, they’re actually videotaping when the prisoners first take over the prison. They’re, they started videotaping. And one of the craziest things is that they leave the microphone open so that you hear them commenting on much of the footage where they’re saying, you know, this is the biggest Blackest, ugliest Negro gentleman I’ve ever seen. They’re talking about all those things. So a lot of that footage came from New York state surveillance. They actually, they actually chased all the news cameras out right before the retaking. So NBC, CBS, ABC are not there, but luckily they’re shooting this videotape, this black white videotape. And that’s I mean, that’s just stunning that that you not only see the retaking, but also the aftermath and the torture that goes on. And that’s, you know, just so visceral.
DeRay Mckesson: One of the things that you helped contextualize is that the town of Attica depended on Attica, in that the hostage families, you know, did not come out as winners in this process, many of them. Did that not tear up the town? It’s hard for me to imagine that that doesn’t spill over. And Traci, I’m curious in the lawsuit, do we know the officers’ name? Are they somewhere like, can we, do we know a list of the officers who participated in all of that chaos?
Traci Curry: Yes. So one of the interesting things that the families, the Attica families told me is that after this all happened, because remember Attica before this, no one would have ever heard of Attica prison, let alone Attica village. It’s this small town, you know, small population. And one of the things that they told me is that, they kind of—they meaning the people in the Attica village bore this as kind of a mark of shame. After it happened, some of them told me that when their kids would go play sports against other schools, some other teams, that they wouldn’t wear their varsity coats because of Attica was on it and sort of it was a shameful thing for some of them. I think it was more so the notoriety that all of this brought to their town, that they kind of feel that was, that changed everything for them. But I think the families also are very clear—obviously, the guards and the prisoners are going to have some different perspectives on that—but that they were ultimately harmed by the state and they feel that to this day. And you even hear in the film Deanne Quinn Miller, whose father actually was killed by some prisoners in the initial kind of outburst of violence at the beginning of the rebellion, she also blames the state because as you see in the film, the guards knew something was going to happen. And you hear the children of some of them saying, yeah, my dad will come home every day, like it’s tense at the prison. And they actually appeal to the corrections department and to the state to please intervene and do something, and they did nothing. So I think as much as the families of the guards have whatever feelings they have about the prisoners, all of them, whoever it was, whether it was the families or the prisoners ultimately understand and recognize that they were harmed by the state of New York and all of the—
Stanley Nelson: And one of the great lines that I love is when they go to the powers that be, the prison officials and say, you know, look, something’s going to happen. Prison officials say just go back to work but you know, it would be good idea if you left your wallets and your wedding rings and stuff at home. But we’re not going to do anything.
Traci Curry: So yes, the answer is yes, there are, we know the name.
DeRay Mckesson: On a list of the people.
Traci Curry: Of these people. There’s some great books that have been written about everything that happened in the aftermath. One of them was written by Malcolm Bell, who was the prosecutor whose job it was to go after the police for the crimes that were committed on the 13th. That’s a whole other story, but essentially he turned whistleblower when he revealed a cover up that prevented him from from—
DeRay Mckesson: Really!?
Traci Curry: Yeah, there are many layers to the Attica story, but yes, there are names that we—
DeRay Mckesson: We need Attica 2! Where’s the next documentary? Attica Part 2.
Traci Curry: Yeah, and there’s, you know, there’s no statute of limitations on murder in the state of New York, so those people aren’t necessarily jumping to make themselves known as you can imagine.
DeRay Mckesson: And Stanley, I have to imagine you’ve made, you told a lot of stories. And you know, there’s a finite number of minutes in a film. Same thing, Traci. What didn’t make it? Was there like a thing that you were like, oh, if we had seven more minutes we would have added this, but we couldn’t. Like, was there anything that got cut?
Stanley Nelson: I don’t think it was seven more minutes. I think if we had two more hours, you know? There’s a whole, there’s the whole aftermath of what happened in Attica, you know? But I think it would have would have had to kind of start out with with much more time because of the whole, the whole ebb and flow of the film would have had to have changed. We felt that, or I felt really that, you know, that the story ended, you know, as it was told, with the assault on Attica. You know, there was no going back. But there’s a whole other story as Traci said that about what happened after, and the cover up, and the commission that heard the evidence. And you know, it’s very complicated, but it also is really insightful into law and order and the power of the state. So I don’t think, you know, seven more minutes would have helped. You know, another two hours you know might have helped.
DeRay Mckesson: Got it.
Stanley Nelson: But I do think, but I don’t want to give the wrong impression because, you know, in making the film and knowing that we had just two hours, that’s the way we were headed. And I think that tells a really complete and devastating story about what happened at Attica.
DeRay Mckesson: So Traci, this is your first time on the pod. There are two questions we asked everybody. One is what’s a piece of advice that you’ve gotten over the years that stuck with you?
Traci Curry: It will probably have something to do with trusting myself and my instincts and trusting my gut. It has never led me astray so far. I don’t know who it was that told me that, but that probably is the most valuable advice that like that inner compass is never going to lead you wrong. And whenever I’ve not listened to it, bad things have happened so, that probably is the best advice that I’ve taken and followed to my benefit.
DeRay Mckesson: Stanley, what about you?
Stanley Nelson: Well, I mean, the best piece of advice in filmmaking is, you know, somebody told me a long time ago, you know, enjoy the journey. You know, that really the journey is the best thing. You know, they’re the people that you meet, you know, the situations you get in, you know, those are the things that really count. And that, you know, 10 years from now, you know, I might see a film that I’ve done and not remember whether, you know, one interview is in it or another is in it, what we cut, you know, in moment to moment. But I’ll remember the people that we meet and the times that we had along the way. So that was really good advice.
DeRay Mckesson: And then the last thing is, you know, what do you say to people who feel like they’ve done it all? They protested, emailed called, they watched the movie—they did all the things in the world still has not changed in the way that they wanted it to. What do you say to those people?
Stanley Nelson: I would say it’s a long struggle. You know, I mean, you know, it’s a long, long struggle. And part of the struggle is that, is the belief that things will change and that, you know, you have to also struggle with a bit of happiness and a bit of joy or else, you know, what are you struggling for? So I think that, you know, it’s a long struggle and you know, you just got to keep the faith that we’re on the right side.
Traci Curry: Yeah, I would say that, you know, I believe that nothing can exist in this world unless it first begins with a vision. And I think as frustrating as it can be to kind of look out and see and feel like things are moving backwards, I think there is a way in which it’s important to kind of hold on to that sort of vision of the kind of beautiful, just, equitable world that I think we’re all—those of us of good faith—are all hoping and striving to create, and to hold on to that space in your mind and in your heart and know that it is possible. And to know that like we are not just struggling for struggle sake, that we’re trying to actually get somewhere and that that is an achievable goal, maybe not in our lifetimes, but I think it’s important to just kind of in the midst of all the everything that we’re all so frustrated and saddened by, that we all kind of collectively hold on to that vision of the world that we’re trying to create.
DeRay Mckesson: Can one of you tell our listeners where they can watch it, how they watch it?
Stanley Nelson: The film is on Showtime, so I guess you go to the Showtime app and look for it. But it is on Showtime and please watch it. I think it’s a really special piece of work and a moving piece of work.
DeRay Mckesson: Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning in to Pod Save the People this week. Tell your friends to check it out. Make sure to read it wherever you get your podcasts, whether it’s 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 Brock Wilbur and mixed by Bill Lancz. Our executive producer is Jessica Cordova Kramer and myself. Special thanks to our weekly contributors: Kaya Henderson, De’Ara Balenger and Sam Sinyangwe.