In This Episode
DeRay, Clint, Brittany and Sam discuss how police are treated as a protected class, the lack of diversity within the Green Movement, states that celebrate Robert E. Lee, and free drug testing and counseling at festivals. The National Black Justice Coalition’s David Johns joins DeRay to talk about education, protecting LGBTQ youth, and his time in the Obama Administration.
- WAFB: BRPD officer fired for shooting at Raheem Howard wants dismissal overturned
- WAFB: Fired BRPD officer successfully appeals firing, but BRPD can appeal the new ruling
- Mother Jones: The Green Movement Has a Diversity Problem. And It’s Getting Worse.
- The Atlantic: Trump’s EPA Concludes Environmental Racism Is Real
- Slate: A Reminder That Two Southern States Still Celebrate Robert E. Lee’s Birthday on MLK Day
- Medium: Getting My Club Drugs Tested Transformed My Partying Habits
- National Black Justice Coalition
DeRay: Before we get started, head to Crooked.com/events to get your tickets to one of our upcoming live shows. We’ll be joined by district attorney Larry Krasner in Philly, representative Jennifer Williamson in Portland, Mayor London Breed in San Francisco, and Crooked Media’s Jon Lovett in LA. If you’re in New York or Seattle, don’t worry, we’re coming your way, too, and we’ll be announcing more guests soon. The ticket supply is limited, so head to Crooked.com/events because Brittany, Sam, Clint, and I, plus our special guests, want to see you there.
DeRay: Hey, this is DeRay, and welcome to Pod Save the People. On this episode, we’re joined by David Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition.
David Johns: It’s the nation’s only civil rights and public policy organization that is intentional and unapologetic in advocating for and celebrating the assets of black LGBTQ and same gender loving people.
DeRay: And it’s the news with me, Brittany, Clint, and Sam as usual. Now, the thing that’s been on my mind this week is that sometimes you’ve got to just step away from the Internet, that I’m not convinced we are designed to take in so much information so consistently and so steadily, and that recently I was on a trip and I just wasn’t online the way that I’m normally online, and it was just such a different way to go to the world, not being bombarded with the thoughts of other people all the time.
DeRay: A part of me thinks that while the Internet can definitely inspire us and social media can inspire us and make us aware of a host of ideas that we would have never been in proximity to, one of the ways that we’re actually able to access our gift is through a focus and then a deliberate ability to sit with our own ideas. That’s what I’ve had to remind myself in these past couple of weeks, is that I need space to sit with my own ideas. Let’s go.
Brittany: Hey, all, it’s the news. This is Brittany Packnett @MsPackyetti on all social media.
Sam: And this is Sam Singyangwe @Samswey on Twitter.
Clint: And this is Clint Smith @ClintSmithIII.
DeRay: Ay, ay, ay, and this is DeRay @DeRay, D-E-R-A-Y, on Twitter.
Brittany: You know, an appropriate response after Clint introduced himself this week could have been … because I think everybody in their right mind should be team Cardi B, Bardi Gang right now. Listen, I saw that video where she was like, “Look y’all, I’m scared about the shutdown and I know a lot of you all think it doesn’t matter, but it does, and here’s why, and yes, Obama shut down the government, but that was for healthcare, and for reasons that I will not repeat on this podcast, you should care about that healthcare plan.” And then Tomi Lahren came forward and she was like, “No, you really don’t want any of this.” And I just think that we should be getting a lot more straightforward, to the point, clearcut political commentary from everybody, including Cardi B.
Sam: I’m glad Cardi B used her platform to raise awareness about what’s happening. Just as a technical point, Obama didn’t shut down the government. That was Ted Cruz, but point taken.
Brittany: True story, true story. It happened during the Obama years.
DeRay: There’s been a lot of feedback about the way Cardi delivers her messages, that she also is really a big fan of the presidents and knows all the presidents, and when that came out, people were like, “Oh my god, who knew that Cardi B was smart?” Just because people don’t use the language that you use to describe the world they live in doesn’t make their perspective or their points any less valid. If you’re around people who say that people don’t matter because they don’t use the same language, that is dangerous and you got to check that, that part of our work as activists is to remember that people are always learning the languages, but people often have the experiences upfront.
Sam: I would go a step further and say that Cardi B herself is a wordsmith, right? The ways in which she uses words are intentional and create a conversation around what she’s talking about that frankly wouldn’t happen if she used sort of a more mundane set of words. So in many ways, as a political strategy, the way that she talks about these issues is far superior to what most politicians are doing.
DeRay: Or more technical, like not just mundane, but more technical? Like if she was talking about progressive taxes, ta da da da, she can say it in a different way. I think that’s what Ocasio-Cortez has done that’s really brilliant when she was like, “You only make $10, and you keep the $10, ’cause you only made $10.” You’re like, yes, way to explain tax policy in a way that anybody can understand, and they don’t have to watch CNN all day.
Clint: I think it’s also worth noting so much of the pushback around Cardi B is not only about how she said it, but also the very idea that a hip hop artist would be able to communicate around public policy effectively. This is something that we’ve seen specifically directed at black and brown folks who have a background participating in hip hop.
Brittany: If there’s no other lesson you walk away from this conversation with, it is the reminder that dominate culture teaches us the idea that there is only one right way to do something. Speaking of telling stories though, did anybody watch either one of the Fyre Festival documentaries? They are disturbing and fascinating. And disturbing again.
Clint: I haven’t seen them, but I’ve heard a lot.
Sam: Oh, yeah, you got to watch them. I watched the Hulu one, and I saw the preview for the Netflix one. But after you watch the Hulu one, you kind of don’t want to watch the Netflix one because you realize that the people who made the Netflix one are actually very complicit in the entire thing. They were the main promoters of the event, and the whole time they’re trying to cover up the fact that they were the ones in involved.
DeRay: It is sort of wild, too, that there are two documentaries. You think about all the things that there are documentaries about in the world that sort of matter a little bit more than the Fyre Fest, and it’s like the first documentary war I’ve ever seen, where Hulu dropped theirs before Netflix. You’re like, well, that’s an interesting thing. And our beloved Ja Rule is on Twitter, being like, “I had no clue.” It’s like, well, that’s awkward.
Sam: The Hulu one was fascinating, and it was a real lesson in the ways in which star power and influencers and all of this can be leveraged to produce something that actually doesn’t exist, right? They leveraged everybody. They had some of the biggest influencers in the game promoting this event, and ultimately there was no substance there. It’s a reminder that people can create something out of nothing, but if there’s no substance there, we have to be thoughtful about what we’re actually creating, and not lending that power and platform to fraudsters, like this man who is currently facing federal charges for engaging in not one, but multiple frauds, one of which was Fyre Fest.
Brittany: I came away from both documentaries feeling very, very upset about the fact that there are a number of Bahamian workers who were hired for this festival and still have not been paid. One woman said that because she contracted out for other people, that she actually went into her own savings and paid $50,000 that she had been saving for her retirement. These people have never seen a dime of their money.
Sam: Is there like a GoFundMe or something for the Bahamian workers who didn’t get paid?
Brittany: There is actually a GoFundMe for them. I retweeted it, so if folks want to find that, they can either search on GoFundMe or go to my Twitter timeline.
Brittany: In other news this week, obviously, we saw a really frightening and terrible display at the Lincoln Memorial. We saw Nathan Phillips, who himself is an indigenous elder, being taunted by a number of young men wearing MAGA hats from I do believe Covington, Kentucky. They all go to a Catholic school. There are lots of different stories around what happened, but I wanted to bring that up because, obviously, it’s been the talk of the town, and I am both incredibly disturbed, not just by the blatant racism on display, but the utter lack of respect for our elders. I just don’t know where that disappeared and when that happened.
Clint: It’s fascinating to watch as people attempt to absolve some of these young men of what they did by saying, “Oh, these are just kids, kids do dumb things, they make mistakes,” in a way that is not reflective of the same level of empathy that is ever extended toward somebody like Trayvon Martin or the same level of empathy that is extended toward so many of the black and brown young people who we’ve seen killed over the past several years. So it’s always worth noting who empathy is extended to and who it’s not.
Sam: And like you mentioned, Clint, it’s good that young people and young men in many cases can do stupid things, but there’s a particular context in which the stupid things that they choose to do are so obviously and intentionally racist. That context is one in which we’ve seen that it’s not just this group of kids, that in fact the school itself is almost entirely white. The faculty of the school, a documentary filmmaker on Twitter, Arlen Parsa, actually did an investigation into the faculty at the school, and every single teacher he found was white.
Sam: Then we saw that one of the young men’s mom put out a statement blaming black Muslims and fake news and all of this sort of racist talking points, so it’s pretty clear that there might have been an influence there. Then, of course, they were all wearing the MAGA hats. There was a whole system and a culture that translated that tendency into something that ended up being what it was and that being racist. So we have to call that out and not just focus on the individuals, but the broader culture and the system that produced those individuals and that continues to produce them year after year in more schools than just Covington.
DeRay: Remember that the school that the boys went to is in Kentucky, so why were they in D.C. in the first place? They were in D.C. because they were at the “March for Life Rally,” which was the anti-abortion rally, and then they chose to be in space and proximity around an indigenous people’s rally. They made the choice to go do that. The indigenous people’s rally was not by them. They went to be antagonistic.
DeRay: The student who is seen most clearly on the video has a PR firm already who released a statement saying that he remained motionless and calm, and he wrote, “I realized everyone had cameras and that perhaps a group of adults was trying to provoke a group of teenagers into a larger conflict.” You’re like, if that’s not the most revisionist history of what we literally just saw happen. Then he goes on to write, “I did smile at one point, because I wanted him to know that I was not going to become angry, intimidated, or be provoked into a larger confrontation. I’m a faithful Christian and practicing Catholic, and I always try to live up to the ideals my faith teaches me, to remain respectful of others and to take no action that would lead to conflict or violence.”
DeRay: The hypocrisy, it is the way white supremacy shows up, that forces you to think that you are the problem when it clearly does something wrong. The last thing that I’ll say is what we did see in the video, too, was resistance. We saw the elder just stand firm in his conviction about who he was and what he was called to do on that day and we’ve seen in the interview since, and I don’t want that to be lost in the midst of all the other stuff.
DeRay: Hey, you’re listening to Pod Save the People. Don’t go anywhere, there’s more to come.
Brittany: So, y’all, it is the winter, which means we’re all probably doing a whole lot of sitting around. Most desk chairs we’re familiar with try to lock the human body into a 90 degree angle, and let me tell you, me and my sciatic back cannot handle that. When it comes to healthy posture, however, there’s no such thing as the perfect position. We weren’t meant to stand all day or to sit all day, and we definitely were not made to sit at a 90 degree perfect right angle on a stiff chair behind a desk all day. Our bodies were designed to move, so while Fully’s Jarvis Standing Desk is the best reviewed desk in the world, it’s just the foundation to a healthier way to work.
DeRay: Fully’s Standing Desk and collection of active chairs are great because they give you the freedom to move, stretch, and be in healthier, more comfortable positions that work for your body’s unique and changing needs as they change throughout the day. And I can tell you, because I wouldn’t have written a book without it. The desk and chair were really the truth.
Brittany: Exactly, and Fully’s careful selection of active sitting chairs is what really separates them from any other furniture company. Their entire collection of chairs support healthier postures that align your spine, open up your hips, engage your core, and improve your circulation. You’ll feel the relief immediately, and your body and your back will thank you.
DeRay: It’s just a smarter, healthier way to work, a more balanced human way to work. To get your body moving in your workspace, go to Fully.com/people. That’s F-U- L-L-Y .com/people. Fully, desks, chairs, and things that keep you moving.
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Clint: So yesterday, when much of the country was taking the day off in commemoration of one of America’s civil rights heroes, if not the most well- known civil rights hero, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., there are two states that use the day as an opportunity to simultaneously celebrate Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and those two states are Alabama and Mississippi. And if you need a reminder, despite what your textbooks may have said, Robert E. Lee was not an honorable man or a reluctant hero who was simply fighting for the rights of his home state of Virginia, as he’s often described in our popular American memory and imagination. He is in fact a man who conducted slave hunts of free black Americans. He is a man who massacred black Union soldiers who tried to surrender during the war. In essence, he is a man who led a treasonous army to fight a war with the intention of maintaining and expanding the practice of human bondage against black people. There is no way to honor him without honoring a history that was committed to the project of chattel slavery and white supremacy. Just a full stop.
Clint: So I think that’s important to know just because I’m always struck by how few people are aware that that is something that happens, and also just quickly, I think it’s really important for us to remember the holistic legacy of Dr. King. It’s important to remember him beyond a single line in a single paragraph of one speech on one day. It is important to remember that he believed in guaranteed employment and universal basic income. Guaranteed income should not just be used to provide for the most basic needs of survival, but should actually reduce economic inequality. He believed in the fundamental redistribution of wealth. He is someone who understood that racism and capitalism were deeply intertwined. He said, “Negroes must not only have the right to go into any establishment open to the public, but they must also be absorbed into our economic system in such a manner that they can afford to exercise that right.” So he has this profound analysis of the relationship between racism and capitalism.
Clint: And he also understood the larger global context of inequality. He was deeply concerned with how imperialism and colonialism shaped the political and economic landscapes of the global South, insisting that people who lived in wealthy countries, like ours, have the resources and scientific knowledge available to eliminate poverty wherever it existed, and that we simply have made a choice not to, and that there was a moral obligation to institute what is essentially equivalent to a Marshall Plan in countries throughout Africa and Asia and South America and all of these other places that have suffered at the hands of Western imperialism. The summary is Robert E. Lee is trash and Dr. King is more than a single line in the I Have a Dream speech.
Sam: And Clint, it’s not just Robert E. Lee’s birthday that is being celebrated, but in five states, they actually celebrate Confederate History Month in April. So Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, and in Georgia they had celebrated it up until Dylann Roof killed black church goers in 2015. They decided to stop celebrating Confederate History Month. But in fives states, they still celebrate it, so this is something that is not just a day, but many states have dedicated an entire month to celebrating the Confederacy and all of the hate and racism that it stands for.
Brittany: And just as a reminder, this is what we mean when we say there are not two sides to oppression. You can’t both sides an issue like racism. It’s not that you either like Dr. King and want to celebrate him, or you like genocide, enslavement, family separation, raping black women, et cetera, et cetera, and you choose to celebrate Robert E. Lee. When MLK holiday was handed down as a federal mandate, there were Southern states that said, “Okay, well, some people aren’t going to want to celebrate Martin Luther King, so let’s give them another option, so that I can keep those folks happy and they can keep voting for me.” That kind of strategy is what provides a foundation for the idea that you can just have a different opinion about oppression, instead of understanding what the facts are.
DeRay: This is just a reminder that there are a host of states that have laws that prohibit the removal of the statues. So in Alabama in 2017, Georgia in the early 20th century, Mississippi 2004, North Carolina 2015, South Carolina 2000, Tennessee 2013, Virginia 1902. There are a host of places that have these laws that make it almost impossible to move a set of statues that celebrate a past and a legacy deeply rooted in racism and that play to the white fantasy, that when you think about what the Confederate statues do is that they say, not only is this something that we’re proud of, but this is something that means something positive. And that is really dangerous.
DeRay: You think about places like in Alabama, there’s a Memorial Preservation Act that just in 2019 seems to have been challenged successfully in the courts. In North Carolina, there’s a Cultural History Artifact Management and Patriotism Act. Then in Tennessee, it’s called the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act. In Tennessee, they require a two-thirds majority of the Tennessee Historical Commission to rename, remove, or relocate any public statue, monument, or memorial. That’s specifically because in Memphis they were trying to move some statutes. So we know the symbolism matters, and there are people using the structures of government to make sure that these symbols continue.
Sam: Speaking of white supremacy in the South, my news is focused on Baton Rouge, Louisiana. My news really starts in July of 2017 when a Baton Rouge police officer named Yuseff Hamadeh conducted a traffic stop in which he shot and killed Jordan Frazier. Now there was no video evidence of what happened, but based on the officer’s word, the police department ruled that the shooting was justified and actually gave the officer a Medal of Valor before the investigation was even closed.
Sam: Just three months after that shooting, the same officer conducted another traffic stop with another black man, this time named Raheem Howard, in which he claimed that Raheem had a gun, claimed that Raheem shot at him, and shot at Raheem. In this case, Raheem survived, but again, the officer shot at Raheem. Now, in this case, there was enough evidence that the investigators were able to uncover to determine that the police lied, that this officer lied about Raheem having a gun. Raheem never had a gun. And they fired the officer as a consequence.
Sam: But just this week, the Baton Rouge Fire and Police Municipal Civil Service Board decided that that firing should be reversed, and they voted that the officer should actually be reinstated back on the force because they alleged the officer’s rights were violated under the Louisiana Police Bill of Rights Law. Now, there are 14 states across the country that have Police Bill of Rights Laws. These are laws that give police special protections and privileges while they’re under investigation for misconduct. In Louisiana, the reason that the Board decided that the officer should be reinstated again, it’s pending appeal by the police department so maybe he won’t get reinstated, but the reason that they decided this was because they alleged that the officer didn’t have access to legal counsel while taking a lie detector test.
Sam: So because of that, despite this officer’s history of multiple shootings under similar circumstances, despite him being found to have lied about what happened, they are now saying that the officer should be back on the force. And if the police department isn’t successful in their appeal, then ultimately that’s what will be the decision.
Brittany: Sam, I think it’s important to note there seems to be a reliance on these stories kind of fading from the limelight where it comes to these officers. It seems as though there is this feeling that once the cameras go away, once the spotlight dims, once the chatter has died down, that these officers can reenter the very same space where they have already invoked so much damage and go right back on about their lives and resume normal activity.
Brittany: It seems as though the police chief has appealed this ruling, and so I’m hopeful that he will not actually ultimately be reseated in his position. This is why our engagement with our local police departments, city councils, and mayors matter so, so much. These rules are different in every place, and if you don’t know the rules in your own community, it’s going to be very, very difficult for you to continue to pay attention a couple of years down the road when your knowledge may help save everyday citizens from being subject to officer’s who should not be behind the badge anymore.
Clint: I’m glad you brought this up, Sam. It’s impossible for me to hear about any stories of police misconduct in my home state of Louisiana without also thinking about the Blue Lives Matter bill that Louisiana became the first state to pass a bill of its kind a few years ago I think now. Just as a quick reminder for folks, the Blue Lives Matter bill essentially makes any harm against police officer a hate crime, which is a complete misrepresentation of what a hate crime is or should be, which is an act that is specifically committed against someone of a different background or a different ethnicity or a different facet of one’s identity, with the specific intention of harming that person rather than a profession that someone has.
Clint: So the Blue Lives Matter bill is just another example of the ways in which police become a protected class in ways that are often unnecessary and often run counter to the goal of public safety because these sorts of things, all they do is continue to sow seeds of distrust within communities that already have very legitimate reasons to mistrust the police. This is a really concerning set of things that you brought up, and I’m hopeful that the appeal of this decision brings some sort of justice.
DeRay: One of the reasons why we are all a broken record around police contracts and laws and stuff like that is that these are the things that almost guarantee police officers won’t be held accountable. Louisiana has a law that literally says that any officer upon written request can have any record of a formal complaint made against the officer for any violation at the local level, at the state level, or like a crime, including domestic violent, it explicitly says that, it can have those expunged if the complaint was made anonymously and the charges weren’t substantiated within a year of filing the complaint.
DeRay: Now, one of the reasons that that’s wild is that we don’t even know, say for example, a male police officer’s wife submits these complaints of domestic violence, any other person, you’d at least know that the complaint was submitted or you’d know that somebody submitted complaints against officers for stealing or whatever. With private citizens, there’s at least a record that the complaint was filed. The police, because of their intimate knowledge of the system, they have created a law that says that you won’t even know a complaint was filed. That is wild. That’s just one of many things that we want to focus on, but there are a lot of places across the country you actually can’t file anonymous complaints against officers or the complaint itself can actually just get destroyed.
Brittany: I want to talk a little bit about environmental racism. When it comes to top tier, elite, NGOs, and foundations that are tackling environmental justice, we have actually come to find out that they are not nearly as diverse as they need to be. So an organization called Green 2.0 puts out a report every single year about just how diverse nonprofits, NGOs, and foundations that work on environmental issues actually are.
Brittany: When they measured the data from 2017 to 2018, they found that during that year the number of people of color in senior staff positions at foundations actually fell from 33% to just 4%, which of course means that white senior staff at the foundations rose from 67% to 96%. The NGOs did a little bit better. The number of senior staff of color actually rose from 14% to 21%, but racial diversity within full-time staff members and board members actually fell slightly.
Brittany: So, what this means is that these organizations are not even reflective of the diversity of the general population, let alone the demographics of the most affected by environmental injustice. We also know that because this data is voluntarily given to an organization called GuideStar and Green 2.0 actually goes and analyzes it, that there are some folks who are just not coughing up the data. There’s an organization called Oceana, which is a prominent ocean advocacy organization and, I didn’t know this, the Pew Charitable Trust, which is one of the country’s largest funders of environmental efforts, they actually both declined to release their numbers.
Brittany: The Pew Charitable Trust has since put out a statement saying that they care about diversity, equity, and inclusiveness, but here’s what I know and here’s what we talk about all the time. Diversity is just a first step. When it comes to undermining and upending systemic and institutional oppression, we can’t actually stop at diversity. We need to make sure that the groups of people working on these issues are diverse, that they feel included, and they’re experiencing equity in the work and the spaces where they are. But we can’t even get to issues of inclusiveness and equity if we don’t get to diversity first. You cannot be solving issues for people of color and communities of color if those communities are not thoroughly represented. But we need to be having a conversation about how at the top tier levels, people of color are simply not getting the seat at the table to do the work that they need to do for the communities they serve.
Clint: Brittany, I’m really glad you brought this up. I don’t think that we see enough data like this oftentimes. I think we rightfully focus a lot on the people who are impacted by environmental racism, and thankfully folks like Alexandria Ocasio- Cortez and others are linking the cause of environmental justice to a range of other social justice causes in public in a way that to be clear many other activists have been doing for decades, for generations truly. But it is honestly something to see the green new deal being presented as the thing that can sort of link the economic justice issues, racial justice issues, and environmental justice issues together. It’s important for us to think about who is leading these movements, who’s at the table for this work, because as we know representation in and of itself is not necessarily enough to ensure that the politics of any movement are enough, but it is important to recognize that it is an essential step in beginning to ensure that certain voices are represented.
Sam: Yeah, and I think looking at this report, it’s focused on the largest green organizations in the country, the most prominent, but it’s important to recognize that there are a lot of smaller, grassroots groups, and organizations that are doing the work of environmental justice, but not getting the same amount of funding or the same level of publicity or a platform to share the work that they’re doing. I think about groups that are, for example, fighting to remove toxic waste dumps in their own backyards, right? Folks who are organizing around making sure that folks in Florida, and particularly in communities of color in Florida, are protected from the hurricane.
Sam: A lot of that happens in a way that has less of a platform than some of the larger organizations, but part of this work has to be not only figuring out how do we diversify or make more equitable the existing infrastructure of the green movement and those folks who already have more resources within it, but also how to create a more equitable movement overall that can redistribute some of those funds and empower and uplift and give a broader platform to create space for more grassroots groups and local activists, particularly in communities of color, that have been doing this work for quite some time.
DeRay: You know, I’ve heard people say that why are we focusing on environmental justice, right? That there’s so many issues in criminal justice that that should be, like we’re getting off topic or off track, these aren’t our issues. I’m reminded that one of the reasons why black people disproportionately have not participated in things like public parks and swimming and things like that, is not because of a lack of interest, it’s because literally my grandmother was barred from swimming in public pools. She was barred from going to parks. Her access to public land was actually restricted as a part of a strategy, and we are a generation or two away from that. That’s a part of it, is remembering that some people’s ability or proclivity toward a certain thing is influenced by their exclusion in the past.
DeRay: The second is a reminder that the physical environment is where we live, work, play, go to school, and all that stuff, that there’s no way to separate the physical environment from the cultural environment. So yes, we want to end mass incarceration. If we free everybody from jail and then you die ’cause the air in your neighborhood is bad or nobody thought to make sure that your house wasn’t going to get swept away with the next natural disaster or that somebody didn’t build the school over a toxic dump, if those things happen, it’s not a win. Our goal is to win not just in one space, but to win in all of them. We know that race is still a predictor of land use, power plants, air quality, and that the environmental justice fight is about protection, regulation, enforcement, resources, and access.
DeRay: So my news is about harm reduction. We heard a lot about harm reduction. You know harm reduction even if you don’t use the term because I’m assuming that many people have heard of needle exchanges, and needle exchanges are harm reduction strategies. Harm reduction is essentially the strategy of when you know that people are likely going to still use, you want them to use drugs in a way that is going to be as safe as possible. So, the most popular harm reduction strategy, like I said, is needle exchanges, so if you are using heroin or something else, you can go a facility, exchange the needles that you had for clean needles, and that can prevent the spread of hepatitis, HIV, a whole host of things.
DeRay: The article that I had though was about a harm reduction strategy employed in the UK. It was a harm reduction tent at a concert by a nonprofit group called The Loop. What they did is that if you brought drugs to the concert, they would actually test your drugs there while you were there, give you the results so that you knew exactly what you were about to use. They found examples of people thinking that they were taking MDMA who were actually taking malaria tablets, and then people who thought they were taking Ecstasy actually had concrete pellets, like pellets of concrete, and that’s what they were told was Ecstasy.
DeRay: So I thought that was interesting. I never thought of harm reduction strategies at concerts. The other thing that I thought was really interesting is that in that tent they actually required you to sit down with a drug counselor for 15 minutes. So they would test it, they would give it back to you, but they did have a counseling component as a part of it.
DeRay: Some of the other harm reduction strategies being used in the United States are fentanyl testing strips. I think this is fascinating. There are some studies across the country and some sites where adults who are users have been given fentanyl testing strips, like 10 testing strips, and they can actually just put a small sample of the heroin or whatever drug might be laced with fentanyl in water, put the strip in, and it’ll say if it’s laced. That has been shown to change the behavior of people who use drugs so that they are using at least a little bit safer.
Brittany: I think that this is so important, DeRay, in part because this is one of the ways if we actually stopped making moral judgements about people, we can save lives, keep people protected, and keep people safe. We speak often about the challenge between moral purity when fighting for good and things like harm reduction, things that cause us to grapple with the reality of something versus the ideal of something. On the other end of the way that we often discuss that exists drug policy, these kind of zero-tolerance policies that often punish users and dealers, and create a space of moral judgment for all of those folks, irrespective of what the drugs are, how they’re being used, why they’re being used, et cetera, instead of actually looking at the fact that in reality when people go to social events, when they go to concerts, when they go to parties, when they go to raves, that drugs are being used and they are widely available. So why not actually make sure that things are safe for people.
Brittany: I think that this is illustrative in a lot of ways, because if we can actually divorce ourselves from some of the moral purity tests that we apply in different situations and on different issues, we can recognize that there can be a both/and, that we can actually remove harmful drugs from spaces and also ensure that people who are taking drugs are the safest that they possibly can be while they’re taking them.
Sam: I think this is a brilliant example of what happens when we don’t respond to everything with further criminalization and incarceration, but instead actually start to ask the tough questions. Reading through this article, how some of the counselors would help, thinking about your size, your body weight, they could actually say that your actual dosage of drugs that you’re taking is way too much. It’s going to result in all of these complications and problems, and instead what you should do to prevent that is start on this regimen instead and actually try to reduce your harm moving forward, taking out the types of chemicals and additional elements that often cause even further problems as a strategy to actually help people. We don’t think about a lot in the context of systems and structures, and policymakers often don’t think in those terms, but ultimately it’s about the data, it’s about are we saving lives or not.
Clint: Yeah, and this is pretty closely aligned with a lot of the research that’s been going on with safe injection sites. Instead of criminalizing the behavior or pathologizing the behavior, it’s recognizing that a certain set of behavioral patterns exist in a population. I’m always interested in us thinking about how we can build a better world and a safer world from the one that currently exists, rather than the one that we sort of imagine in our mind. I think harm reduction sites are an example of that sort of thinking.
DeRay: That’s the news. Don’t go anywhere. More Pod Save the People is coming.
Brittany: So, listen, DeRay, almost half of us make a New Year’s resolution every single year. We’ve all made them, and most of us have probably broken them. It happens to the best of us. I made a resolution to work out every day, and we are 20 some odd days into January, and I’ve worked out for about 10. I’m working on it. It’s really difficult to keep these resolutions up every single year. But there is one resolution that’s worth sticking to this year, and it’s keeping your home and family safe. That’s why we recommend SimpliSafe Home Security. SimpliSafe is 24/7 home security with no contracts and no catches.
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DeRay: And now my conversation with David Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition.
DeRay: David, thanks so much for joining today on Pod Save the People.
David Johns: Thank you for having me, good sir.
DeRay: I have so many questions about what you’re doing now, but I want to know what was it like to transition out of the Obama White House and decide what you were going to focus on next? How do you reflect on the things that you learned in the Obama administration, and how did that help set you up to think about what you were going to do next?
David Johns: For me, leading an initiative that President Obama established, the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African-Americans was an incredibly humbling experience. When I think about the transition out of that role, it is incredibly disappointing. I think about the feeling of being in my office the day of inauguration, almost being arrested because I forgot, I lost track of time trying to download files and save as much as I could knowing that the incoming administration had plans to delete as much as possible, including websites.
David Johns: I thought early on in the period of time between election day and inauguration about how to best use my time, talent, and my treasures, and I knew that I wanted to be selfish and retreating to my comfort space, which is academia, and pursue a PhD to think through some of the challenges that vexed me during my 10 years in D.C., both crafting federal policy and then implementing it as a part of the administration.
David Johns: But then also, while I was in the White House, the thing that I’m most proud of is having produced the summit series where students were centered. We produced one in particular for black LGBTQ youth, which was significant because I spent almost a decade on Capitol Hill, and in all that time whenever people lobby for black students, they talked as if they were all heterosexual, and then conversely whenever people talked about or lobbied for LGBTQ youth, they approached them as if they were all white. So knowing that as long as there have been black people, there have been black LGBTQ people, and that often, unless people were intentional and unapologetic in centering and celebrating those intersectional identities, we were ignored and our needs were neglected.
David Johns: So there was an opportunity to work with the National Black Justice Coalition, really to continue working with them because we produced a summit together, and my board chair, Sharon Lettman-Hicks, was in the role that I have now, so there was already a working relationship. But there was an opportunity to deepen the work, for me to marry a personal commitment, to claiming space without apologizing or shrinking or denying parts of myself, but also to make space for other people.
DeRay: What is the National Black Justice Coalition? How would you describe it to people who are like, “What does it do? Why do you think this is going to be the avenue to make the impact you want to make?”
David Johns: Yeah, a question I get often. The National Black Justice Coalition is the nation’s only civil rights and public policy organization that is intentional and unapologetic in advocating for and celebrating the assets of black LGBTQ and same gender loving people. We do the work of acknowledging those of us who are most neglected and ignored, reminding people, as I said previously, that as long as people have existed, LGBTQ people have existed, and that is true for black people as much as it is true for non-black people.
David Johns: Our work is primarily focused on three core things. The first is trying to ensure and advocate for health and wellness, particularly by addressing the disproportionate impact that HIV and AIDS continues to have in our community. The second area of our work is around cultural competence, so equipping people with the language, the context, resources with which they can do a better job of understanding and then holding space for black LGBTQ people. Then the third area is focusing on public policy, really advocating for legal protections and other policies and practices that address the core issues that affect black LGBTQ people, our families, and our community more generally.
DeRay: What are some of the policy issues that we should be focused on that you think haven’t gotten the public attention that they need?
David Johns: There are four that come to mind. The first is census. We have a census coming up, and the census is how the federal, local, municipal governments allocate resources by determining and really defining who people are and where they live, and accordingly what kind of resources and support they need. There has, one, been a continued effort to ensure that black LGBTQ people are counted. We know anyone who works in policy or data know that that which is counted is concern, and so we’re working to ensure that we are counted.
David Johns: The second area that we really focus on is around health and wellness, and so we’re doing everything we can as a part of coalitions around the country to protect the Affordable Care Act, and in particular to ensure that protections exist for individuals who are thriving with HIV and AIDS. The second thing that we are focusing on that is loosely connected to the Affordable Care Act but has much more to do with practices in our community is talking about mental health and dealing with the stigma that sometimes prevents us from asking for the kind of help that we need, especially us as black men.
David Johns: The third area that we’re focusing on is around criminal justice, with a concern about the bill that is being pushed in the Senate at present and the authorities that it would give to the Attorney General to undo and otherwise enforce laws that have a disparate impact upon black communities, poor communities, non- native communities, queer communities, and the like.
David Johns: Then the fourth area that we’re really focusing on is around equal protection. There are six states throughout the country where it is legal to discriminate against LGBTQ people with regard to public housing and employment. Those states are in the South where not only black people are disproportionately concentrated, but where black LGBTQ people are disproportionately concentrated. So if we think about what happened not too long ago with this administration attempting to introduce a definition of people that would be used by health and human services and other agencies that deny the existence of individuals of trans-experience, equal protection laws, things like the Equality Act and others would create uniform protections at a federal level to ensure that the rights that too many people take for granted, but that are denied so many of us that have intersectional and overlapping oppressed identities are still fighting for.
DeRay: In the places where it is technically illegal to discriminate, there are a lot of people that would say, “Well, it’s illegal to discriminate, but do you have proof that discrimination is actually happening?” What do you say to those people?
David Johns: My first question is why would one need proof and why are we in this place of attempting to defend any type of discrimination? We hosted an event during National Trans Day of Remembrance, a day designed to commemorate the fact that every year there are at least 30 instances of violence that end in murder of trans individuals, most of whom are black trans women.
David Johns: We’re having this event with Reverend Al Sharpton and the House of Justice in Harlem, New York. He said in front of a congregation of folks for whom I’m sure this was very challenging to think about creating faith space, social justice space for trans individuals that if you defend bias trans bigotry toward anyone, you can condone it toward everyone. So that would be my first thing, to really interrogate why it I that sometimes people have a visceral response to want to defend any kind of bias or bigotry that results in anyone else not being happy, healthy, or whole.
David Johns: The second thing is just at all kinds of data, whether we’re looking at incidents or reports of hate crime that we should acknowledge are often under reported, when we think about the many organizations, native organizations, indigenous organizations, that have been created in communities in the South, but organizations that exist to provide employment opportunities to individuals within our communities who are locked out of traditional jobs, in banks or industries where people are policing not only behavior, but appearance, when we look at the discipline data around the rates at which young people, students, our babies, are suspended and expelled from schools because of their appearance, what we know is that students who are black who have disabilities are most likely to be pushed out of school. Students who are black and LGBTQ, young people are most likely to be pushed out of their home, to be homeless, to experience suicidality.
David Johns: So if you think about quality of life as a ladder, almost any rung that would indicate one’s quality of life, black LGBTQ people, often beginning around birth and through the point of time in which they die which is also again younger in terms of life expectancy, we are at the lowest rungs. So the long answer is to say yes, I have data.
DeRay: If there are people who are like, “I’ve been thinking about access to healthcare, I don’t know much about the issue of HIV coverage or issues around the Affordable Care Act that pertain to the LGBTQ community explicitly,” what is the what there?
David Johns: I would say generally to think about the fact that there are millions of Americans and hundreds of thousands of black people in particular who have access to healthcare now that they have never had in the history of their lifetime. This means that they have access to the kinds of care, which include sometimes drugs, which include sometimes mental support, that’s one.
David Johns: The second thing is with regard to prevention which is critical to having conversations about ending HIV. I, as a black man who falls into the category that the CDC uses to talk about men who have sex with men, am disproportionately impacted by the AIDS/HIV epidemic. What that means is that unless things change, the chances of me becoming HIV positive in my lifetime are 50%. That’s what the CDC said years ago and nothing has changed since. So the ability to leverage the Affordable Care Act to purchase prescription medicine like PrEP, a pill that I take every single day, reduces the likelihood of me becoming HIV positive by more than 90%. That drug is like $2000 on the market. It is something that I would not be able to afford in spite of the fact that I have multiple Ivy League degrees. The reality is that I still had to leverage a whole lot of capital in order to access that drug.
David Johns: So, anyone who is concerned about their health should be mindful that the Affordable Care Act provides us with access to resources that were denied heretofore, and that private companies, and the Republican party in particular, would like to strip us from having access to now.
David Johns: The third thing is that this administration has been intentional since day one restricting individuals who are currently thriving with HIV from the ability to access life saving medicine and support. This president ended PACHA, a presidential advisory council to advise the administration and the federal government on its AIDS and HIV policies, a council that was bipartisan and existed in spite of political party transition before this current administration. They have also taken latitude that exists in terms of executive authority within HHS to try to restrict the ability for individuals with HIV to be able to access drugs that they need in order to live. So if you care about anybody’s humanity and/or your own health and well-being, ensuring that everyone has access to Affordable Care Act should be a primary concern of yours.
DeRay: What are some of the policy things? What can an everyday person do in the fight against HIV and AIDS? Are there positive things that people should be advocating for at the local level? Is it awareness? Is it PrEP? What can people do that listen who are like, “I believe, I just don’t know how to help.”
David Johns: Yeah, the answer is do all of the above. The first thing that people can do is learn the words that are affirming and that are not stigmatizing to use to have conversations, not only about HIV and AIDS, but about positive sexual health and wellness and affirmative consent, more generally. Having conversations about HIV in the same way that we should be having conversations about mental health or financial history, the things that make it awkward for us to maneuver through dates or developing relationships with people, but that are parts of who we are and how we show up in the world, and that we otherwise should be comfortable talking about. So that’s the first thing. You can visit our website, www.NBJC.org to download the Words Matter HIV toolkit and start talking to stop HIV.
David Johns: The second thing, you asked about policies, yes, there are so many policies. We are fighting federally now to address HIV criminalization laws, which really make it difficult for us to do the job of encouraging people to get tested because what it means is that in some states if you are HIV positive and you do not disclose your status to your partners, knowingly disclose your status to your partners, you can be convicted of a crime. There are lots of reasons why that’s problematic including advancements in medical, advancements in social, advancements in how we respond to HIV and AIDS.
David Johns: The third thing is that we should all be tested. We should all know our status. We should all do a better job of having conversations with our partners in particular about how it is that we are protecting our sexual health and how we’re protecting the sexual health of others. I’m not wagging my finger or pretending that this is easy, both these conversations or the strategies that are necessary in order for us to engage in them, but I do know that they are life- saving.
David Johns: The reality is that since the introduction of the HIV epidemic in the late ’80s, black people, people of color in particular, have died at a disproportionate rate, and that does not have to be the reality. It is possible to thrive with HIV. It is also possible to reduce the likelihood of being affected by HIV disproportionately.
DeRay: What made you go back to school?
David Johns: For me it was a very selfish pursuit. Having already completed a master’s degree in sociology and education policy, I spent a decade on Capitol Hill writing federal policy, domestic policy on everything from improving Head Start and school readiness in 2007 to the Workforce Investment Act, the Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act more recently. So I wanted a space to really think through how it is that I could conceive of policies that once we have an opportunity to really leverage our government to do that which it was founded to do, supporting its people and ensuring that we all prosper and are safe and supported, that once we have that opportunity we’re ready to go. So I’m working through that now and really very much connected to the work of NBJC.
David Johns: My dissertation focuses on supporting white teachers in practicing critical humility so that they can do a better job of supporting black students. I operate in the spirit of Asa Hilliard, a sociologist who said that there’s no secret to supporting black students who are all geniuses that we won’t acknowledge them as human, and second, support them with love. So I’m leveraging this PhD and ultimately the degree that I will receive from Columbia to think through how to conquertize that in ways that can affect both policy and practice.
DeRay: Why do you think about the classroom as like a site of change? Given all the work you’ve done work across so many sectors, why the classroom?
David Johns: I taught kindergarten and third grade, and I did that after wrestling for a long time with a fundamental belief that educators do God’s work, but really living in a society that didn’t tell me that as a first generation college graduate, a black boy from Inglewood, California, that I could be an educator, and that by being an educator, I could make meaningful and demonstrable change.
David Johns: So it was teaching kindergarten, sitting on a rug in the middle of almost 30 students being enrolled in the process of young people thinking about who they are in the world around them that I understood my purpose in life, and my ability to connect with, make space for, and really affirm the beliefs of young students, young black students, young indigenous students, young queer students, young disabled students, to be celebrated and invited in now as an adult who’s very credentialed, but who was very much them, where they are without the platform, and another adult showing up in the way that I desired for somebody for me to show up is the thing that gives me greatest joy. Part of my job now is to be invited in by white people to tell them how not to be as racist as they are.
DeRay: What do you say to the people who are like they tried everything, right? They voted, they marched, they went to the panel, they went to the talk, they did everything people told them to do, and the outcomes didn’t change? What do you say to those people?
David Johns: I want to say I see you and everything that you’ve done is important, and I want to invite you into a space where after we acknowledge that it sucks, to work at something and to not see the outcome that you hoped for, that we can still find evidence of change, right? One of the things that is most vexing for me in doing work with young people is telling them that the way to show up and to win and to be successful at life is to be a good person, to practice humility, to make space for other people, to use your words in ways that affirm and that give life, not in ways that harm and persecute, and to do that at a point in time in which there is a person in the Oval Office who does everything but those things.
David Johns: My work and my job is not to boil the ocean or to change the world such that at a certain point all of these things go away, but to touch as many people as I can, to challenge them and hopefully change them, so that they can make space for somebody else.
DeRay: What’s a piece of advice that you’ve gotten over the years that stuck with you?
David Johns: Freeman Hrabowski, who is one of the most amazing men ever, he’s the president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, says to me often, “Those who the gods seek to destroy, first they make angry.” He often offers it in the moments in which I’m having a visceral response to white supremacy, anti-blackness, or ageism. And it is a way of reminding me to leverage all of the skills that I have access to, including language and comportment, and also passion when I need to be unrelenting in reminding people that I’m also a black boy from Inglewood in spite of these credentials, tut to do so in the way that is most strategic and not often most emotional.
David Johns: Then the last thing is something that my mother always said, to be happy and to find your happy. For so many of us, again, who do social justice work and are forced into advocacy spaces, happiness is not something that we are afforded space to or intentional in thinking about, and being able to do that in spite of, again, all of the challenges that I know exist is what it allows me to get over.
DeRay: Mr. David Johns, thank you so much for joining us today on Pod Save the People, and I learned so much. We consider you a friend of the pod. I can’t wait to have you back.
David Johns: I’m looking forward to it. Thank you for making space for me, brother.
DeRay: Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning into Pod Save the People this week. Tell your friends to check it out. Make sure that you rate it wherever you get your podcast, whether it’s Apple Podcasts or somewhere else, and we’ll see you next week.