In This Episode
DERAY MCKESSON: Hey, this is DeRay. Welcome to Pod Save the People. In this episode, it’s me, Sam, Kaya, and De’Ara talking about the news that you don’t know from the past week. News that you don’t know, but you just you should know. Then I sit down with professor and historian Elizabeth Hinton to discuss her new book, America on Fire– The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s. I learned a ton. And this is the work I do, and I didn’t this stuff. You should learn it too.
Now, my advice for this week is actually just an “I love you.” My niece and nephew, Selah and Isaac, are faithful listeners of the pod. And I just want to say I love you. I love you, Selah. I love you Isaac. I love you, DeRay. TeRay is my sister. And to just tell you to tell the people you love you love them. Tell them you love them, in your most public way possible. We got to just tell the people we love them. Love you all. Here we go.
DE’ARA BALENGER: Family, welcome to another episode of Pod Save the People. I am De’Ara Balenger. You can find me on the Instagram and the Twitter @dearabalenger.
SAM SINYANGWE: And I’m Sam Sinyangwe. You can find me on Twitter @samswey.
KAYA HENDERSON: I’m Kaya Henderson. You can find me on Twitter @hendersonkaya.
DERAY MCKESSON: And this is DeRay. I’m on Twitter at @deray. I don’t know why like that. I don’t know why I forgot it today. OK. And this is DeRay I have to find everybody. Today is fine. Why am I losing it? And this is DeRay, @deray on Twitter.
DE’ARA BALENGER: Lots to talk about in the political space, obviously, as usual. But let’s take it to the sports space, tennis in particular, where our sister girl, Naomi Osaka basically told the French Open, no, not today. So we’ve seen a lot of this all over. But I think it’s been an interesting thing, because I think even Serena had an interesting perspective in terms of, I’m going to talk to the press, but I know the press don’t play tennis. So I don’t really care what they have to say about me. And that’s how I handle the situation. Where Naomi is not new to the game, obviously. She’s now so accomplished, and so impressive, and so excellent. But really saying, I’m not going to speak to the press because it doesn’t serve me, in my self care, and my mental health. And so I’m not going to do it.
So I think it’s just been an interesting discussion as we talk about, I think it is still like mental health Awareness Month, right? I think it is, or it was last month? I mean, it should be every month. Every month, we should be thinking about our mental health. But just raising it up on the pod, because I think it just is such an interesting perspective. Is it required of these folks that are in sports to speak to the press, to open themselves up to the press? Can that be a form of harm? And what is that going to look like moving forward, in terms of other folks that are going to take a stand against speaking to the press?
SAM SINYANGWE: I mean, it’s just been wild to see the press. And so many people, in particular, white people believe that they have a right to all the time in her day, right? The right to ask her whatever they want. To bother her whenever. To mess with her own self-care routine. Meanwhile, she’s playing the most amazing tennis of anybody in the world. And it’s like this is sports, right? This is a game. This is tennis. She’s excellent. Let her play the game. Why is it that all of these other random things are being added on to that, to cause her stress, when she’s clearly indicated that that’s not something that she currently has time for right now?
And clearly she’s spending her time on what she should be, which is the game. And focusing, and training in being the best in the world. And it’s a shame to see how that wasn’t good enough. How it had to be all of that, and more. And she had to endure all of this badgering by the press. It’s wild to see. And I think we’re just in a time now, I think, after the pandemic, and everything, where I think people are just tired of this. I don’t think it’s just Naomi Osaka. I think we’re seeing this in general around the press, and around how Black women in particular have been treated by the press, and by the broader society. And all of these expectations being placed that are unfair are burdensome, and stress people out for no reason.
So I’m hopeful that this can spark some more reflection. And that ultimately, that the sport can do the work that it needs to do to deserve Naomi Osaka’s presence.
DERAY MCKESSON: I will say too, one of the things that I thought was just incredible. You know when God just tees up the story for everybody to highlight the hypocrisy is that Federer withdrew from the French Open. And he essentially cited the need to rest. He did not have an injury. It was like he got hurt all of a sudden in the middle of one of the rounds. He didn’t fall. But he’s like, you know what? After looking at the year that he had. He had two knee surgeries, and a year of rehabilitation. He’s like, I don’t want to push myself too hard. He leaves, and everybody’s chill. She’s just like, I am not coming to the press things. And people are literally ready to take her out.
It was amazing, and heartening to see the number of Black athletes who stood behind her, from Lewis Hamilton. Then you see people like Will Smith, you see Serena. You see people just support her. She gets to choose what she does here. Like Sam said, she showed up fully on the court. It wasn’t like she half played. She was like, I’m there. I don’t know if I need to discuss it immediately after every single time.
The other thing that I thought was a great brand moment was Sweetgreen is one of her endorsers. And people ask Sweetgreen after she did this, are they going to drop her? Because the whole premise is that she is an athlete, and a star. And they said, she stands up for what she believes in. That’s back to our core values.
And it’s like I actually just love that, especially because this was such a basic thing. She’s like my mental health. She didn’t want to surprise you. She didn’t even make it a PR moment by just not coming to the press event that day. She gave you a heads up. That’s why I’m doing it. I’m OK with the consequence. And they were still like, not enough. We want more.
DE’ARA BALENGER: For me, this is all about redefining power dynamics. And so, yup, her mental health. And whether, or not the interviews with the press were putting her in the best situation to be able to play her best game. But first of all, I think that there is a big question around the role of the press these days given social media. Before, the only way that fans got to an athlete was through the articles, and stuff that came out from the standard press. But that’s not true anymore. People know Naomi because they follow her on Instagram, on Twitter, or she has her own thing. And so the role of the press in making, or breaking an athlete, I think, is in question. And I think that that is one problem, that this institution which was super relevant may not be as relevant as it was. And I think that that is a complete, and total challenge to the power dynamic.
The other redefinition of power for me was really about this fact that who needs who? Does the tournament need her, or does she need the tournament? Because she done showed y’all she don’t need this tournament, frankly. And if I had a dollar for all of the pieces that I’ve seen that are like the French Open is less interesting to watch, because this is the thing. Like she is the star. She’s the one who is bringing new people to the sport, engaging folks, long time fans in new, and exciting ways.
And I think these people made a big mistake. The people at Roland-Garros said, well, you don’t want to do it. We’re going to fine you. Because it’s the trope about owning Black bodies, and owning Black athletes, and owning control over how this stuff goes. And she was like, you $15,000. Cool, no problem. I’ll pay the fine. And I’ll work with you to help figure out how to make sure this doesn’t happen again for other people.
Oh, and boom. It backfired on them. And people are like, what do you doing, French Open people? What in the world, if we’re not protecting athletes, if we’re not ensuring that our stars can play, and want to play, then what are you doing?
And so I think that this is going to open a bunch of questions. I’m excited that she gets to call of the question in ways that Serena wasn’t able too. Or John McEnroe came out and said, look, Bjorn Borg, you all ran him out of tennis on this BS. We shouldn’t let this happen again. And so I think this is a really important moment in tennis and in athletics. And shout out to all, not just Naomi. Marshawn Lynch, I’m just here because I don’t want to get in trouble. This is a question, I think an open question around the press, and athletics. And what athletes must tolerate.
KAYA HENDERSON: Yeah, my news is from the New York Times. And it covers some new developments, actually, thee new development with National Black Theater in Harlem. So if you do not know the National Black Theater, please get familiar. I’m lucky enough to know it, and have been exposed to it. Sade Lythcott, who is the current CEO and is a dear sister friend of mine and just so incredibly talented. I don’t know if I know anyone who cares more deeply about community, artistic expression, and Black liberation than my girl Sade. So it’s so exciting to see what’s going to happen with National Black Theater. But essentially, it’s going to be rebuilt. It’s also going to include 21 stories of apartment, and retail space, et cetera, et cetera. So transforming into what will be even more so a pinnacle, in a sense, in a portal within Harlem, that is so deeply needed.
So I wanted to bring this to the pod, just because one, this has been a place that has been so restorative, and therapeutic, and inspiring to me. The last thing I saw at National Black Theater before COVID was actually the Peculiar Patriot, which is a one woman show, written, and directed by Lisa Jesse Petersen, who you should also get to know if you do not know her body of work, because it is incredible. And as far as Black theaters go, we do not have many of them, particularly those that were started, and founded by Black women. And so National Black Theater was actually founded by Sade’s mother, Dr. Barbara Ann Teer 50 years ago, in 1968. And Dr. Teer was very much central to the Black Arts Movement, and the Black Liberation Movement in Harlem. And National Black Theater has had folks come through it like Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Nina Simone, Nick Giovanni, Maya Angelou, just to name a few.
So really looking forward to what’s to come, and what will be an incredible, beautiful space. But also just wanted to highlight another important Black cultural institution for you all to get to know, support, lift up, et cetera. So check it out, National Black Theater you all.
DE’ARA BALENGER: What was super exciting to me about this is the redefinition of how the arts gets funded. And so this is, at least from my reading of the article, an attempt to change the paradigm, where in order to do your art, you are dependent upon philanthropic contributions. This is kind of a FUBU move. We gone buy some real estate, build a building, have some apartments, and some stores, and generate our own revenue, so that that finances the art. And I think that that is a really interesting, and groundbreaking approach. And I’m excited. And hope that the development actually provides enough revenue to support the work of the theater at it’s highest level. This is some Black empowerment stuff that I love.
KAYA HENDERSON: And I love the story too, because basically, Dr. Teer bought this whole block. She bought the block back in the day when people were like, why are you doing that? But as Sade said, she said that for Dr. Teer, she saw it as the next piece of this temple to Black liberation, which is ownership. Ownership would allow the real estate to subsidize the art to your point Kaya, which was a model that would disrupt the standard practice of nonprofit theater funding.
SAM SINYANGWE: So my news is about a new report that was just released by the AFL-CIO. Now the AFL-CIO has at least 13 affiliate unions that represent law enforcement. And this report is actually their public safety blueprint for change. And this is newsworthy because the AFL-CIO has so much power, and influence within the broader labor movement. And is this constellation of unions that includes police unions. And so organizers have been spending a lot of time trying to get the AFL-CIO to come out in favor of holding police unions accountable, addressing some of the issues that we’ve talked about frequently on the pod, the ways in which police unions use police union contracts, and their lobbying and political influence to push for policies that make it difficult to hold the police accountable. That allow officers who commit misconduct, who kill people to avoid any type of consequence for that.
And so this report is their effort after they convened a task force on racial equity to come out with a position, a statement, of where the AFL-CIO stands on this. What their path forward is going to be in the context of policing. And so what’s notable about this is they essentially endorse a model that is empowering police unions to hold their own members accountable, through a program that they call you leads. This is the first time that I’ve heard of this You Leads program. But essentially, this is calling for police unions to develop a set of internal standards to hold their own members accountable, and to enforce those standards. And that is how police accountability will happen, according to this blueprint.
Now, suffice to say, the existing system is one in which the police unions already write many of the rules, and the standards in the context of these police union contracts. And those standards are not written in a way that even permits officers to be held accountable. And that destroys records of misconduct, and does a host of other really problematic things. So I wanted to bring this to the pod because I know politically, these types of statements matter. The AFL-CIO has a lot of political influence. Most recently, they were involved in lobbying heavily for legislation that would have enabled police to unionize, in every state, including states that they currently don’t have police unions in, like North Carolina. This is sort of one of their position statement.
One of the other things that’s interesting about this blueprint is while they don’t call for cutting police funding, or changing, or reducing the number of officers on the police force. They do call for alternatives to the police, like mental health providers responding to certain calls, alternatives to issues like domestic disturbances, and other issues. So it’s a mixed bag what they’ve come out with. But on the thing that really matters a lot, that they have a lot of influence in the context of the police union conversation, they have solidly gone with continuing to empower the police unions to police themselves, which is sad to see.
DERAY MCKESSON: If you were the first coverage that CNN reported, like groundbreaking report on police unions coming out. And I was like, let’s see what the AFL-CIO is going to do. The three things that stand out to me about this. The first is that people had believed that the AFL-CIO was going to distance themselves from police unions. None of that happened, literally. This report is no distancing. If anything, this is a very firm embrace. And it’s an embrace saying, hey, I hope you just do all this stuff that we know is not going to change anything anyway. You’re like, well, that’s interesting.
The second thing is like the one thing they could do would be to say that the police unions have a protection in the discipline process, that is unheard of in any of the other unions. They don’t call that out. They do the same old things like you hire better. You should train differently. We’ve been there. You should have more community conversations. Been there, done that.
And the third thing is I think people forget that the AFL-CIO is big in a lot of places. I mean, almost every place where there’s unions. So they represent a whole host of public sector workers. So In places like Virginia, the police are going to get the power to unionize, or they got the body unionized in May of this year, almost exclusively because they’re AFL-CIO members, because the AFL-CIO led the conversation around public bargaining. They are their members. And it is hard for us to disentangle them politically from being captured under the AFL-CIO.
So the AFL-CIO gets no brownie points for this. Is a sham proposal, and won’t do anything. If anything, it might even allow people to think more favorably about police unions. Though, I don’t think that’s going to happen. When we poll consistently, even people don’t really understand police unions don’t think they’re a good thing. Don’t go anywhere. More Pod Save the People is coming.
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KAYA HENDERSON: My news this week comes from ESPN. And it is about the NFL halting Reece Norming in the review of Black claims in the $1 billion concussion settlement. So if you’ve been following football for the last how many ever years, you know that there’s been a lot of conversation about, and frankly, scientific evidence, that playing football causes significant brain injury over time. There are lots of football players who have suffered from concussions, and then a whole bunch of other brain related injuries.
And the NFL a couple of years ago, I think in 2013, created a settlement fund of $1 billion for players who could demonstrate that they had suffered brain injuries, as a result of their football playing. We’ll see the problem is that the way to demonstrate that you have suffered injuries is to show that your cognitive functioning is less now, than it was before. But part of the whole dealio is that in the ’90s, medicine created some standards around cognition, which effectively assumed that Black players started out with lower cognitive functioning than other players.
And so it’s then harder to show the deficit, and be eligible to take part in the billion settlement. So a number of Black players filed a civil rights lawsuit over the practice. And just this past week, the NFL has agreed to halt this race norming. It was interesting to me because a few weeks ago, I brought to the pod this idea of race in algorithms around maternity choices. And we’re going to hear a little bit more about that in a few minutes. In fact, what the NFL says about this particular thing is that these norms were supposed to prevent racial bias in medicine. But in fact, you know how it goes, right? It had the opposite effect. But again, it just goes to show how race plays out in these algorithms, and decision making processes in medicine.
The other thing that was really interesting to me about this is the fact that how this came to be was because a bunch of NFL wives were like, we’re not having this. Black NFL wives. There’s a quote in the article which says, if it wasn’t for the wives, who were infuriated by all of the red tape involved, it would never have come to be. And so shout out to the wives who are holding it down for their husbands, who became advocates, and who dropped 50,000 signed petitions on the court to, not just let this issue go quietly into the night. But to allow these players they are due from the NFL.
DERAY MCKESSON: I loved that it was the wives who were like, y’all, this don’t make sense. The only thing I say here, because I know that Sam and De’Ara are going to say brilliant things. So I’ll leave the brilliance to them. I will just say I’m reminded that these systems require so many separate parties to do the harm. It’s not enough for the front office to make the thing. Somebody has to process the papers.
So many layers of people, within the NFL, have to see this, and participate in this over time for it to be a thing. Yet still, it persists. I mean, it’s like what I always go back to with the police. The police alone can’t do this. They can’t do it alone. It takes a whole system of people to allow, and enable it. And that’s what I think about this. There is no way you are coding the Black people cognitively less, and nobody knows about. That’s not true. Like that is not true. And it is wild that it took the wives to be the people to expose this.
DE’ARA BALENGER: And I think the only thing that I’ll add is that the humanizing of these stories too. I mean, having early onset dementia. Having long term cognitive issues. Like these are things that are, I’m sure, impacting these men’s lives, and their interaction with their families. And partly, I’m sure, why their wives became advocates is because it’s probably, for some of them, a full time job caring for their husbands, and their health issues. I think that’s what gets lost in a lot of this is that these guys, they’re all jacked up, and need a lot of long term care earlier in their lives than they would have expected, but for football.
So I think that’s the sad part to all this is by actually so many of these families having to live with these injuries.
SAM SINYANGWE: The only thing I’ll add is this is scientific racism. This is all the way back in the 1920s type stuff that you read in the history books. This is like comparing people’s skulls. And this is like that kind of dark history, is like here. And it’s still happening in all of these ways that it takes people to discover, like to point out, to call out to DeRay’s point, a lot of people were in on this. This was the way things were done. This was the methodology. A lot of people agreed on that methodology, used that methodology. And it is racist.
It is like baking in these aspects that resulted in folks being denied the level of care that they need. And not only in sports. I mean, we could talk about this with the next news. But in a range of life, or death decisions, this is how the decisions are getting made, using these methodologies that are just so fundamentally, and obviously apparently racist. Like when we talk about risk assessments, and the algorithms there, they do some work to make it look nonracist. They’re talking about do you know somebody who went to jail? Do you live in a zip code in which there aren’t any grocery stores? They’re trying to go a little bit more indirect. But I mean, even the explicitly racist measures are still being used.
So I think it’s wild. This is sports. We talk about it in health care. Policing, this happens as well. And so risk assessments. And there are so many different spaces, some more harmful to people’s life, and death decisions, and lives than others. But just the scope, and scale of this, and the number of people who are in on it is mind boggling.
DE’ARA BALENGER: I’ll just say one more thing. And that is that the good news is they are not just looking at this prospectively, but they’re going to go back and look at it retrospectively. So all of these fellas who had put in claims, and were denied, they can at least be reviewed. And maybe, they stand a chance of getting some of the money that is likely owed to them.
DERAY MCKESSON: My news is about race correction in medicine. So Kaya brought this a while, a couple of weeks ago, because she was put on to it by a TV show, which apparently is great, that I’ve not seen yet. So let me just say what the news is. The news is that Black women have complained for a long time that even when they want to have a vaginal birth, they are directed to have a C-section over, and over. And people repeatedly said like they don’t know. Like why can’t they have vaginal birthday? They want to have vaginal birth, can’t do it.
What people discovered is that there’s actually a formula that essentially says Black women and Hispanic women should not have them. They are not recommended to have them, as often as white women are. That’s the way that the numbers work out.
KAYA HENDERSON: After a c-section. So if you’ve had a C-section, then your next birth would need to be a c-section. Whereas otherwise, for other women, they can actually have a vaginal birth after a C-section.
DERAY MCKESSON: Boom. And what the news reports today is that they are working on a formula to get rid of having race be the factor. So in the article, they talk through that there were some doctors who didn’t know how to get around it. So they would just put no anyway. They would just not use race and just essentially say that people are white in the coding. But there’s a new formula that’s been developed that will not use race as one of the factors.
What I also did know is that I did not realize that when these formulas were put in place, they weren’t necessarily put in place in the effort to be predictive. But this is what happens. You give people a guide, and they start using it, which makes sense. You make this thing, people are using it. And then it’s like everybody uses it. And you’re like, oh, that’s not a good thing.
But the take away from this, for me, was really that we can undo all the harm. We can do it. That this formula has been around forever. It’s been the way it’s been done for a long time. And still, we can get committees of people together, and try something new. And I say this because when we address systemic racism, people so often are like, well, it’s systemic. It’s here. But not for a long time, baked into the fabric. And they say that as if we can’t do something else. And this is just a good example of now. There’s a whole lot of other race correction formulas we need to undo. So we talked about kidney stones on here. We talked about a whole host of other things. But this was just like a good proof point it is possible to undo the racism, that is possible.
DE’ARA BALENGER: While it is possible, I think the article goes out of the way to make the point that it’s not just a matter of changing the formula, because this is socialized into how people do their work. And so even when you Google the formula right now, the old piece comes back up, and not the new piece. So there’s going to require a lot of training, and unlearning for people in order to take this new tool, and use it effectively.
And so, I think, kudos to these folks who have taken the first step of developing a new calculator. However, it’s going to take a lot of additional work in order to get this into the day to day practice of medicine.
KAYA HENDERSON: I’m really into Michelle Morse, who in 2021 was named the first chief medical officer for New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. So big up to sister Michelle. Looks like she’s doing big things. Look like she started her career partners in health in Haiti. I don’t know, I’m becoming obsessed with her as I’m reading about it. So I think everyone said all the smart things to say. But I just wanted to raise her up, and to get a little bit more familiar with her.
SAM SINYANGWE: So the only thing that I’ll add is the how do we not only remove race as a factor being used in this. But how do we actually make sure that the tool works accurately, and that it’s not substituting race for another variable, that is essentially race, but a proxy? And it sounds like that work is still underway. And that there have been analysis that affirm that the tool performs with the same level of accuracy, without race being an explicit variable. And that they actually added a new variable, which is whether, or not the patient has been treated for chronic hypertension, as they removed the race variable.
So it has yet to be independently evaluated. So the work is ongoing. And this is familiar with the space, in general, where I think, especially in this context of algorithms, and risk assessments in criminal justice, there is this acknowledgment that the existing structures produces biased outcomes. And then how do we create a system that is not acting in racist ways? It’s not discriminate against Black people, compared to white people. And that is where so much of the work necessarily has to happen. And is difficult because oftentimes, what happens is they end up substituting an explicitly race variable with a proxy for race, that ends up resulting in very similar outcomes.
So I’m always interested in understanding what are the variables I end up choosing, how do they change these variables? And how does that affect the actual outcomes in the end? Because I think we’ve seen a lot of folks say that they have nonracist algorithms. And then you end up looking at the results. And the results look racist every time
DERAY MCKESSON: Sam, I’m actually interested in that. Do you have an example of a place where they moved race out, and then what they put in was a proxy that was just as bad as the last thing?
SAM SINYANGWE: So I think there are a couple of ways in which, when you remove either race, or sometimes there are other indicators as well. So remember, when we talked on the pod around the bandbox. So when there is the question around whether, or not you’ve had a previous criminal record. And the idea was, OK, like that’s often a proxy for race. People are going to use that question to deny people, especially Black people, the ability to be hired. And so they removed the box. And then the actual disparities got worse, because they removed the box. So I think that’s where, in looking at the outcomes, I will make sure that the outcomes are changing in the right direction, even if the intentions are good with removing the question. It doesn’t always deliver the results.
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DERAY MCKESSON: Today, I’m talking to Dr. Elizabeth Hinton, historian and the author of several books, including the new one, America on Fire– The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion since the 1960s. We discuss racial hierarchies, inequality, white terrorism, and just a startling amount of buried history, that is thankfully coming to light. Let’s go. Professor Hinton, thank you so much for joining us today on Pod Save the People.
ELIZABETH HINTON: Thanks so much for having me, DeRay.
DERAY MCKESSON: So I didn’t even know, this book was coming out, then I saw it. And I was like, whoa, this is a book I wish I had read in 2014. But it is here now, America on Fire– The Untold History of Police Violence. I have a ton of questions to ask. But I met you forever ago, it feels like, on a panel or something. We definitely met at an event.
ELIZABETH HINTON: Yes.
DERAY MCKESSON: I was intrigued by your research then. And now it’s like, wow, this book. So can you talk to us. Start us off with what was the pathway to being in the Academy? What did you study, before you studied this? And then how did you get this history of police violence?
ELIZABETH HINTON: For most of my childhood, and even into my teenage years, I really wanted to be a criminal defense attorney in part because I came of age as mass incarceration was really kicking off, and the crack epidemic, and seeing how that played out within my family. But also seeing how the justice system, and recognizing how the justice system as a young child was racist. And really messed up when it came to people of color and Black people. And so that made me want to defend people, and prevent people from going to prison under these crazy long sentences. Many people who needed drug treatment, and people who needed to get locked up, like my cousin.
So in some ways, my interests, and this work, my book is me doing some of that work on my own terms. As an undergraduate, I went to NYU and took classes with Robin DG Kelley, who is just one of the most inspiring, and powerful thinkers alive. And he made me want to write like him, and he made me want to be a historian. And to think about the ways in which the past can be a guide for us, as we envision a more equitable, and just present, and future.
So for a long time, especially in graduate school, I really struggled with what it meant to be in the Academy, and be a professor, and be doing this research. And be, in many ways, by the nature of the job, disconnected to a certain degree from many of the struggles on the ground. And I realized that this research, and that intellectuals have really important roles to play in social movements. And so this is my skill set. I love going in archives, whether they’re organizational archives, or they’re federal archives, or the archives I used for America on Fire, which was based largely on newspaper accounts, and doing oral histories. And that’s really exciting to me. And it’s a skill that I have, and hopefully, a contribution that I can make in the struggle for our liberation.
DERAY MCKESSON: Now with this book, I have a million questions. But can you just frame what your goal was when you set out to write this book, The History of Police Violence? And then I’ll ask my questions.
ELIZABETH HINTON: There are a number of goals. I mean, I think one of them, and I have been doing the research. I finished up my first book because I kept on seeing, over the course of my research for the first book, which is The History of Federal Crime Control Policy from the Kennedy Administration to the Reagan Administration, that there was continued community rebellion into the 70s at a time when many people thought that this form of protest had ended.
And so this troubled me, as the events of 2020 unfolded in particular, it became really clear that this is a history that we needed. I think many of us forget that the police violence that the nation has been witness to since Ferguson in 2014 and through Obama’s second term and beyond has a much, much longer history. That this has been going on. That these struggles for justice, and an end to police violence. And so civic inclusion has been centuries decades long struggle, that we haven’t really recognized. And the response to that, in the form of continued police occupations, and police violence also has a much longer history.
So it’s not as if, you know, this began when everybody has cameras in their pockets on their cell phones. And so I wanted to kind of highlight this longer history of struggle and protest against many of the same dynamics that those in the street and during the summer of 2020 and today are protesting against.
I also wanted to push back on the language that we use and the repressive responses to what I hope all of us will begin to really reckon with as a form of political violence, and that is the rebellion.
From Harlem in 64 which is kind of the first incident of mass collective violence in response to a police killing, the New York Police Department killed a 15-year-old Black high school student and this kind of led to the first major eruption, one of hundreds through every summer of Johnson’s presidency.
Johnson said, even though the Harlem rebellion was rooted in the same socioeconomic demands of the Civil Rights movement for an end to police violence and for jobs and for decent housing and for expanded educational opportunities, Johnson said, this protest, this violence has nothing to do with civil rights. It’s crime. It’s criminal. It’s linked to juvenile delinquency.
And in responding to the political violence as such and calling these incidents riots, it continues to perpetuate the cycle of police violence and rebellion because instead of investing in the resources that people need, the resource that gets propped up time and time again are policing and surveillance and incarceration.
And so much of this story leads us to the mass incarceration society that the United States is today and the continued killings and violence inflicted by police forces against communities of color throughout the United States.
DERAY MCKESSON: One of the things that you do in a way that comes off effortlessly in the book that I’m sure took forever was you find so many stories, like one of the things as an activist that is hard is that people are always like this isolated incident. They’re like you know what? My community is not Ferguson and this is not Baltimore and this is not legal. Right?
And one of the things that you do that was shocking to me and this is like the work I do every day is that you weave together this historical tale that is true that reminds us that this has been happening for a long time. How did you find these stories?
I think about Peoria. I think about, you talk about Cairo. You talk about like the housing project. There’s like all these communities that I just remember now from reading the book. How did you find those stories? And maybe it wasn’t even hard to find. Somebody just had to go looking. I don’t know.
ELIZABETH HINTON: So it was actually luck and happenstance. So I mentioned that over the course of researching my first book, I came across some of these stories in the national press. And then I was at a barbecue at a friend’s house and was introduced to this political scientist at the University of Michigan named Christian Davenport who’s amazing. Everybody should look up his work.
He runs the radical information project at UVAM. And he happened to have in his possession the archives of the Lemberg Center for the Study of Violence, which was formed after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
And basically, sought to collect local newspaper clippings of every incident of all kinds of violence that were rocking American cities, big and small and tiny, throughout the United States. And not just Black rebellions but also anti-war protests and labor disputes and student movements.
And this archive, unfortunately, parts of it were housed at Brandeis where the Lemberg Center did its work at Brandeis University. But the newspaper clipping portion of it had essentially been passed around among a group of political science professors and Christian Davenport happened to have it.
I met him and he said, hey, would you want to– he was getting ready to do a retrospective on the Detroit Rebellion of ’67. It was coming up to the 50 year anniversary. We started talking about these at the time when I was calling like small scale or mini rebellion and he said, I have this archive, come take a look.
So when I got to his office at the University of Michigan, it was just a treasure trove of dusty newspaper articles that nobody had put together before because they’re not– like these things weren’t covered in the New York Times. They were covered by the local press.
And so I was able to not only really grapple with the extent of this political violence in a way that I think none of us saw before. I mean, one of the big surprises is and this is even a kind of misguided assumption that I went into my first book with, which is that the urban violence, urban rebellions peak with the 430 some that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King.
But what this archive shows is that actually, the peak of urban rebellion came after the official launch of the war on crime with the Safe Streets Act of 1968, which basically invested in local police departments and not just in big cities, but in rural towns and mid-sized cities across the United States, expanded police forces, and equipped officers with military grade surplus weapons from Vietnam and interventions in Latin America and the Caribbean.
So like helicopters that are a ubiquitous part of policing today and armored tanks and M4 carbine rifles and all these things. And residents responded to this new policing encroaching in their communities by fighting back. And that’s what this archive really showed.
One of the really exciting things in the book for me is at the end of the book, a 25-page timeline of Black rebellion that I was able to put together with Christian Palp. And this gave me an opportunity to really lay out the data, so people can see just how frequently and how vast these protests were.
And I bet that for many, if not most readers, they’re going to be able to find their hometown there or they’re going to be able to find a city that they lived there. And like you said, DeRay, you can’t distance yourself from this.
This form of protest and this police violence and the oppression that led to it is woven deeply within the fabric of American society and we still have not addressed the root causes that lead to these conditions and that lead to the forms of political violence that people feel like they must take when they have no other option.
DERAY MCKESSON: Now one other things that I want to ask you too is what did you learn about organizing in this moment? Then like throughout all of these stories, the book highlights the rebellion and that means that people pushed. What did you learn about those people?
ELIZABETH HINTON: That’s a really great question. I mean, I think for one, the book really made me grapple with the relationship between nonviolent direct action protest and violent rebellion and how both have been so integral to the Black freedom struggle historically.
In so many of and nearly all of the cities where rebellions occurred, the throwing of rocks at police, the burning, the looting in some cases did not just pop up out of nowhere. It came after decades of nonviolent direct action but also lawsuits and petitioning local elected officials and going down to city hall that had not worked to fundamentally change conditions.
And it also raised questions for me about new questions and difficult questions about what some of the shortcomings of the Civil Rights movement are. And it’s unfortunate that historically, it has taken these forms of violent protests for policymakers and for communities to begin to recognize and attempt to reckon with the larger socioeconomic conditions that lead to them in the first place.
So I think the movement for Black Lives and attention to issues of police brutality, the wreckage of mass incarceration in this country and racial inequality in general, that conversation has been revived and renewed, I think, from Ferguson onward.
But it really took what we saw last summer with a renewed spate of violent protests for people to begin to listen in new ways. For systemic racism for instance to become a buzzword. For some people to begin to think about how we might finally address the root causes of socioeconomic and racial inequality and begin to think about how we might dismantle the racial hierarchies that have structured the United States historically.
So one of the big things is just wrestling with the diverse and rich forms of protests that have been so integral to the Black freedom struggle, and that’s not always the non-violent marches. And those nonviolent marches too and the peace vigils can quickly turn violent when they are responded to with tear gas and with police beating people with batons and with force instead of actual meaningful concrete change.
DERAY MCKESSON: One of the things that it reminded me of– and I think about obviously I was in the street in Ferguson and we wish you frontier days, is that the retelling of this story has always been this really odd idea that like national groups came and told people to come outside their houses and did it. And that’s just not what happened. Right?
People came outside because their neighborhood was on fire right and like the police were terrorizing them. When I read your book, it was a reminder that this is always what happens, is like the police do something heinous and people are like, I’m tired of it. And it’s not like the NAACP and every community being like, hello, be tired today. It’s like people are like we’re not doing this.
ELIZABETH HINTON: That’s the other narrative that the white establishment in particular likes to tell and told about the rebellions of the late 60s and early 70s that like, well, these are outside agitators. This isn’t what the community wants. These are, especially in the late 60s, these are communist infiltrators. This isn’t actually, these demands for basic human rights and basic needs are not coming from the people in the community themselves.
I mean, Lyndon Johnson was convinced that somehow Stokely Carmichael was behind the Detroit rebellion of ’67. And we see that playing out again and again in terms of, as you say, how people retell, falsely retell what happened in Ferguson and other cities.
DERAY MCKESSON: Now this is to be a hard question only because this is your book. But there were so many stories, I believe. I’m not like the Black Sniper. I’m like, I know nothing about the Black Sniper. I’m like OK Black Sniper, here we go. The boogeyman of the Black Sniper of the stories that you put in the book that you were like, this even surprised to me and you walked into this thinking it was going to be wow.
ELIZABETH HINTON: Wow, that’s a great question and like you said, such a difficult one because I mean there are so many stories too in the archives. I mean, thousands of other stories. There are 2,000 rebellions between May ’68 and 1972 when I only got to include a half a percentage point of them in the book.
DERAY MCKESSON: 2,000, professor Hinton?
ELIZABETH HINTON: Yes. Yes. Yes. 2,000.
DERAY MCKESSON: We’ve been tired for a long time.
ELIZABETH HINTON: Right. And in total like 2,400 between ’64 and ’72. So these rebellions were not just whites in Harlem and Newark and DC, and they were everywhere. So it was really hard to choose. And in the book, I wanted to amplify not the familiar whites in Newark stories but the stories of the smaller towns.
And so I think the one that haunted me the most was what happened in Cairo, Illinois, which was actually the most kind of protracted rebellion in US history that lasted essentially from ’69 to ’72. And this is a town in the southernmost tip of Illinois.
And basically, white vigilantes and the police department were completely intertwined and in cahoots and terrorized the Black community of Cairo which were just under a majority of the residents there, and most of whom lived in a segregated housing project in the city.
The story of Cairo and the ways in which Black residents organized and built community cooperatives on their own and boycotted white stores because they said, these white vigilantes are shooting into our housing project every night and we’re not going to keep patronizing their stores. They can buy bullets to shoot at us.
Vigilantes like sicking German shepherds on young Black children as they went to school. This is happening in the ’70s. And to me this story felt like what one would expect in the 1950s in the deep Jim Crow South. And this is a struggle that happened in a border area, in a rural area into the 1970s.
And is an example of the ways in which– it almost foreshadows in the sense that Cairo is a small town but it shows what the ultimate impact of racism can be, which is that instead of actually giving Black people in Cairo equal rights, the white establishment clung to their supremacy, denied them those rights, and in the process, completely destroyed the economic vitality of an already struggling town.
They chose to hang on to their whiteness and they chose to terrorize Black residents and deny them fundamental rights, political access, and any sort of economic gains in order to hang on to their supremacy. And I think in some ways, this haunting story is a warning to us all.
But it was deeply difficult to write about. And as I said, just haunting to learn about, just the extent to which white terrorism would go and the harm that other people would inflict on their fellow citizens and residents and surprising not surprising.
DERAY MCKESSON: That story stuck out to me too. And I think about– there obviously a chapter called The Snipers which is obvious to you me because we read the book but not obvious to our listeners. There’s a whole chapter called The Snipers.
But the image of the Black Sniper and the way you help us understand the threat of the police being killed as being the dominating factor in the numbers, all I could think about when reading this about how people played up that is that we don’t have a great historical numbers of how many people the police killed.
So yeah, the police could say anything about the number of police killed and it always seems wild. Well, I’m sure, I mean, we know how many people the police killed today roughly. But I’m sure it was while back then and those numbers were just like all people saw was the rebellion.
There was not even a real way to quantify because the government certainly wasn’t collecting that information. But it reminded me of just like the incredible power of the police to fearmonger and how that fear actually leads to public policy.
ELIZABETH HINTON: Yes, exactly. And unfortunately and I think some historians are beginning to think about how we might recover this information. But we’ll never know. Well, we’ll never know the extent of police violence and police killings today because still things are underreported and things get classified as differently than they actually occur by law enforcement authorities. But it’s going to be really, really hard for us to get a full sense of just how pervasive police killings were during this period.
The image of the Black Sniper again, similar to the outside agitator idea is just kind of this myth rooted in Vietnam era context that instills fear that somehow police going into these communities are going to be shot at by people who intend to kill them. And there were shootings during the rebellion, but very few police officers were killed during these shootings.
If anything, the gunshots that did go off were meant to assert people’s dignity and self-defense and intimidate people not to actually kill them. But yet the Sniper, and I write about this in the book, but it was a figure that the media itself helped to create and helped to perpetuate even though many accounts of sniping were fabricated, ends up becoming a really important, as you say, DeRay, element of these policy arguments for more police, more penetration, and more gun control in targeted Black urban communities.
These questions about the Second Amendment have never really extended to Black people. So Black people in the United States don’t enjoy the same kind of Second Amendment privileges and rights as other people do. The response to this image of the sniper I think is also a part of that long history.
DERAY MCKESSON: What did you learn about the commission? So there’s a whole chapter on commissions and it seems like they sort of pop up, they say some things, things aren’t really implemented. They pop up again, they say some things, things are really implemented. That is what I got. Did you get something different?
ELIZABETH HINTON: No. I mean, what I learned about the commissions is we certainly don’t need another commission. In many ways, so of course, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders of the Kerner Commission which Johnson formed during the ’67 Detroit rebellion released this mass market best selling paper back in ’68 basically calling out white racism and saying that if the United States wants to prevent rebellions riots, of course is what the Kerner Commission used, from happen in the future, what’s needed is essentially like a Marshall Plan for American cities, what’s needed is a massive infusion of resources into Black communities.
And of course, that doesn’t happen. The only recommendations of the Kerner Commission that get taken up are the elements of the report that call for more heavy-handed policing to accompany this massive infusion of resources.
And we see this at the local level playing out again and again. It just becomes this like ceremony, like a rebellion happens and then the mostly white liberal commission run by the state or the city comes to investigate and they discover all of this socioeconomic root causes of the political violence and they recommend more police community relations and better training for officers and their recommendations never get implemented.
And I think one of the things that’s just so infuriating to me is that to read all of these commission reports at the state and local level back to back against each other and to say, wow, back then 50 years ago, there was a different proposal for a different approach in place that could have been embraced. But ultimately time and time again, the response is more policing, more surveillance, more incarceration instead of more jobs, decent housing, better schools.
And these are the things that the commission has called for. So the commissions underscored that we know what we need to do. It’s just that it hasn’t been done and it has been a consistent resistance to actually making the structural transformation it’s going to take to address the pervasive inequality in the United States and systemic racism.
DERAY MCKESSON: So in some ways, it’s not even like the commission is bad as much as like why have a commission if you’re not going to do what they say anyway. Right?
ELIZABETH HINTON: Yeah. Well, I mean the commissions, so not to entirely romanticize the commissions, I mean, the commissions I argue and the Kerner Commission was guilty of this too, I mean, part of the problem is that many of the reports the commissions put forward are really like pathological view of Black people, where they say OK, they recognize, much in the same way as Daniel Patrick Moynihan in his 1965 report on the Negro family, there are all these socioeconomic elements involved in explaining how we get conditions of poverty inequality in segregated Black communities.
But in the language of the commissions, the Black youths who participated in the rebellion suffered from a kind of alienation where they take, and this is again the commission’s idea and language, but any encounters with police officers or white institutions that they experience as discriminatory as somehow like overblown into a racist moment and then rebel.
I mean, I think it’s a much bigger problem in US history where I think white people think that like racism is in Black people’s own imagination and that it doesn’t really exist or that it’s somehow Black people are too sensitive, one might say, are overblown. These pathological ideas about Black people are very much kind of within the realm of the commission recommendations.
But these commissions are still offering a path forward beyond the police that consistently was never taken up. So in a lot of ways, they’re a missed opportunity and one wonders if some of the kind of larger structural transformations that they suggested had been taken up, where we then might have been going into the 80s or where we might be today in terms of inequality and systemic racism?
DERAY MCKESSON: Well, we can see you in front of the pie. Everybody, you must read this book. It help provide a context for the current situation. Get it today and we will see you back with your next book.
ELIZABETH HINTON: Thank you so much, DeRay. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.
DERAY MCKESSON Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning in the Pod Save The People this week. Tell your friends to check it out. Make sure to rate it wherever you get your podcasts with this 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, executive producers Jessica Cordova Kramer and myself. Special thanks to our weekly contributors Kaya Henderson, De’Ara Balenger, and Sam Sinyangwe.