Justice in America Episode 21: Police Accountability
Josie Duffy and co-host Darnell Moore discuss police accountability and explain why it’s so hard for the criminal justice system to hold police accountable.
As civilians, how do we hold the police responsible for wrongdoing? On the first episode of Season 3, Josie Duffy and co-host Darnell Moore discuss different avenues of police accountability and explain why it’s so hard for the criminal justice system to hold police accountable. They are joined by Alicia Garza, an activist, writer, and organizer, who currently serves as principal at Black Futures Lab. Alicia is a co-founder of Black Lives Matter and has been a leader in the fight against police brutality and discriminatory policing, particularly in black communities.
Alicia Garza’s Book recommendation: Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi.
You can find Darnell’s book, No Ashes in the Fire, here.
To learn more about Black Futures Lab, click here.
Make sure to check out the Plain View Project to see more of the discriminatory posts published by law enforcement that we mentioned on the show.
More on the story of Laquan McDonald can be found here. Jamie Kalven was the first journalist to bring attention to McDonald’s autopsy report, and Brandon Smith, was the journalist who fought diligently for the footage to be released. Check out Kalven’s twitter account and Smith’s website.
Here is the DOJ report on Ferguson, Missouri, from 2015.
Justice in America is available on Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud, Sticher, GooglePlay Music, Spotify, and LibSyn RSS. You can also check us out on Facebook and Twitter.
Our email is firstname.lastname@example.org
Alicia Garza: Anytime you try to have a conversation about police accountability, anytime you try to have a conversation about what needs to change with policing, you automatically run into the culture conversation. And the culture conversation is actually part of what allows policing to be wholly unaccountable because we have been indoctrinated with a lot of messages that police essentially should be able to function above the law because they are making the greatest sacrifices. And that is something that I think is a huge impediment and barrier to any possibility of changing how policing functions in this country.
Josie Duffy Rice: Hi, I’m Josie Duffy Rice.
Darnell Moore: And I am Darnell Moore.
Josie: And this is Justice in America. Each show we discuss a topic in the American criminal justice system and we try to explain what it is and how it works. Thank you everyone for joining us for the first episode of our third season.
Darnell: You can find us on Twitter @Justice_Podcast. We’re also on Facebook, like our Facebook page, Justice in America, and subscribe and rate us on Apple Podcast. We’d love to hear from you.
Josie: So if you’re just joining us for the first time, I’m Josie Duffy Rice. I’m president of The Appeal, a news outlet that produces original journalism about the criminal justice system. You can find us at theappeal.org. If you are a long time listener, you may have noticed that Darnell, our co-host today is not Clint Smith who co-hosted Justice in America for the past two seasons. Clint, so sadly will not be joining us this season. He is writing like nineteen books. He has a million hours in his day, but not infinite. But we are really, really excited to have some incredible voices joining me as co-hosts throughout the season. So you’ve met Darnell Moore, an unbelievable author, of No Ashes in the Fire a critically acclaimed memoir of growing up black and queer in New Jersey. Who’s done incredible work in the criminal justice space. We’re going to have three other guests co-hosts, join us throughout the season. To introduce you to each of them we recorded some fun, pretty short episodes where I asked them ten questions about themselves and their work. There’s one for each of the four guests hosts, and even one for me, so please make sure to check them out either on Apple Podcast or wherever you listen to podcasts or on theappeal.org. And we want to thank all our listeners who wrote in with topic ideas. We really appreciate your input and we considered your ideas when planning this season and future episodes. We got so much great feedback, so thank you so much.
Darnell: We’ve opened the show with a clip from our guest, Alicia Garza. Alicia is an American civil rights activist, editorial writer from Oakland, California. She also happens to be a good friend and sister of mine. She organizes around issues of health, student services and rights, domestic workers’ rights and in police brutality, anti-racism, violence against trans and gender-nonconforming people of color, and she’s just an all-around dope sis from the Bay.
2:55 Josie: Alicia really is just so incredible. We’re so excited to have her on today and she’s going to be talking to us about our topic of the day, which is police accountability. In particular, why it’s so difficult to hold police accountable. But first, we’re going to do our word of the day and today’s word is restitution. I want to shout out Sara at the Justice Collaborative for the idea because this is a really great one.
Darnell: When we think of punishment in criminal cases, we generally imagine a prison sentence or being put on probation, but often people convicted of crimes will also be required to pay the victim money, which is referred to as restitution. Basically, the implication is that this is how to make whole the people who have been harmed.
Josie: And restitution is not on its face an unreasonable concept, right? If someone steals $1,000 from you and is prosecuted, it makes sense that part of their punishment would be giving you your $1,000 back, right? But restitution isn’t just used in cases where there is sort of an immediate monetary loss. It’s used in other cases where the courts are sort of deciding exactly how much money a victim is owed. And the main problem with this is that our criminal justice system really only sees the idea of restitution in monetary terms. It really fails to take into account what a person victimized by a crime may actually need in order to quote “be made whole.”
Darnell: Evidence shows that while some people want money, others want an apology or therapy or the ability to talk to the person who harmed them. Sometimes, for many, accountability doesn’t look like punishment. It looks like justice coming to us in other ways, so some just want the ability to be heard either by the person who harmed them are their loved ones. Restitution looks different for different people, but the system really only has one approach to so-called restitution.
Josie: Exactly. This underscores something we’ve talked about a lot on here. The criminal justice system is phenomenal at punishing people, right?
Josie: They’re great. A-plus on over-punishment. But it’s not great at actually addressing harm.
Darnell: Right. Again, paying money to a harmed party is not the problem, at least generally. Right?
Darnell: The issue is with the term restitution and how narrowly it is defined. Police and prosecutors use it, so implied that money solves more than it does and we know that money just does not solve a lot of things. Ultimately, they use a narrow definition because their ultimate goal is not actually restitution. It’s punishment. It’s more important for our system to inflict punishment than address harm than actually create space for transformative justice.
Josie: Right. I really like what you said about how for some people, accountability doesn’t look like punishment. This narrow definition is really indicative of a much bigger concern about the ways in which our system limits our imagination, right? It just projects definitions onto both the offender and the harmed party instead of responding to the actual needs that exist. For some monetary payments may be welcome, for others monetary payments may be good, but not enough and for others monetary payments may feel like their experience has been cheapened.
Darnell: For sure. Restitution isn’t always just one thing, or at least we shouldn’t think about it that way. It isn’t the same thing for all people. The idea that money alone makes victims whole is not reflective of the many ways in which people navigate harm. I mean, and I think we also need to sort of expand our imagination, you know?
Darnell: To respond to the real ways that people need justice to be enacted.
Josie: Completely. Completely agree. At the end of last season, we had two episodes where we talked about prison abolition, restorative justice and transformative justice.
Here’s a clip from Mariame Kaba in which she talks about harm and restitution.
Mariame Kaba: people who are practitioners of restorative justice see restorative justice as a philosophy and ideology, a framework that is much broader than the criminal punishment system. It is about values around how we treat each other in the world. And it’s about an acknowledgment that because we’re human beings, we hurt each other. We cause harm. And what restorative justice proposes is to ask a series of questions. Mostly the three that are kind of advanced by Howard Zehr, who is the person who about 40 years ago popularized the concept of restorative justice in the United States. He talks about since we want to address the violation in the relationships that were broken as a result of violence and harm, that you want to ask a question about who was hurt, that that is important to ask, that you want to ask then what are the obligations? What are the needs that emerge from that hurt? And then you want to ask the question of whose job is it to actually address the harm? And so because of that, those questions of what happened, which in the current adversarial system are incidental really, you know, it’s who did this thing, what rules were broken? How are we going to actually punish the people who broke the rules? And then whose role is it to do that? It’s the state’s. In restorative justice it’s: what happened? Talk about what happened, share what happened, discuss in a, you know, kind of relational sense what happened. And then it’s what are your needs? Would do you need as a result of this? Because harms engender needs that must be met, right? So it asks you to really think that through. And then it says, you know, how do we repair this harm and who needs to be at the table for that to happen.
Darnell: Just something to think about the next time you hear the term restitution. Okay. Now we’re on to our topic of the day, which is policing.
8:53 Josie: Today we’re talking about law enforcement and police oversight. We haven’t actually focused many of our episodes here on Justice in America on policing specifically, although we always talk about the police cause they are a major part of every element of the criminal justice system. But there are a few reasons that we haven’t sort of centered anything around policing thus far. And one of those is that rightfully there’s a fair amount of focus on policing, especially the past few years. And we kind of thought our value is generally in paying attention to other issues. But the other reason really has to do with the sheer number of things that there are to talk about when it comes to policing, right? There’s just no way to cover all of policing in one episode.
Darnell: No way at all. But today we’re focusing on one aspect of law enforcement specifically. How is law enforcement held accountable? What systems, policies and people are responsible for that and what can the people do? When you hear that question, you may think about some of the stories that have made headlines, especially over the last several years. Like holding police accountable for killing unarmed kids like Laquan McDonald who was shot in the back seventeen times; or twelve-year-old Tamir Rice who was killed playing in a park; Atatiana Jefferson who was shot in her home as she played video games with her nephew; or Philando Castille who was killed as his girlfriend’s four-year-old daughter sat in the back seat; or Eric Garner who was killed after yelling “I can’t breathe”; or Mike Brown whose body had been left on the street for hours.
Josie: Yeah, I mean all of these, just hearing them said all in a row, right? And this is just the tip of the iceberg and it is of course the case that police accountability means in part the need to hold individual officers responsible when they do something like murder a civilian for no reason. We’re going to talk about why that’s so difficult today, but when we say police accountability, we mean something even broader than that. You may have heard the Latin phrase — back when I thought I was going to get a tattoo one day I wanted to get this tattoo — the Latin phrase Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? And loosely translated it means who is watching the watcher? In other words, how do we hold accountable the people who are supposed to be holding us accountable? And I think that’s kind of the big question when it comes to police in America today.
Darnell: So, a little background before we get into these questions. First, the basics about how law enforcement is structured in America. There are many different kinds of police working in many different jurisdictions. The best way to imagine a spectrum of policing is to think of policing across two axis.
Josie: So the first axis deals with what the police do. In other words, are they just like general law enforcement, you know, your everyday patrol officer or are they specialist police where they might be part of a special jurisdiction? These officers may have a particular skill, like they might be officers in the state bureau of investigation or they may cover a specific jurisdiction, like they may only be officers in parks or public schools or tribal land or college campuses, etcetera.
Darnell: So that’s one axis. The what they do axis. The other axis determines where they do it. Again, there are three main levels here. The federal level, the state level and the local level. Federal law enforcement is kind of tricky. The Constitution gives the federal government power to make law of course, but does not explicitly grant the feds much power to enforce the law. There are federal law enforcement agencies including the FBI, the DEA, ICE and others. So it’s not like the federal government has no enforcement power, but it’s also not like the feds are like regular cops. They aren’t patrolling neighborhoods or doing house calls.
Josie: Right. Especially if you’re just Joe Schmo who has nothing to do with the DEA or ICE or ATF. Certainly for some people, especially people who have complicated immigration status — right? — ICE is easily the scariest and most powerful law enforcement agency out there perhaps. But as a general rule, the federal law enforcement functions differently. It tends to be specialized, not general, and it’s limited by the department or agency. ICE, for example, deals only with immigration issues like we said, the DEA deals only with drug crimes, ATF agents deal primarily with crimes related to firearms. Plus, federal law enforcement only has the power to enforce federal laws. No state laws at all can be enforced by federal law enforcement.
Darnell: State police often exist to enforce the law where local law enforcement can’t. The best and primary example of state police would be the highway patrol, which enforces traffic laws on the interstate. In some states, the state police only have the power to enforce traffic laws. In other states, they have more power and are more like what we imagine when we think about cops. But the bottom line is the state police exist to fill in the places local police don’t cover or supplement the work local police are doing.
Josie: Right. So that’s federal law enforcement and state law enforcement. And then lastly, and most importantly, there’s local law enforcement. So that’s your local municipal police department or county sheriff. There are some differences between police and sheriffs. Police exist again in municipalities, which tend to be smaller. County sheriffs tend to cover obviously the whole county, which tends to be a much bigger area. Sheriffs are also elected where police chiefs are appointed. But for now the main thing to know is that local policing is the most ubiquitous and the most powerful level of policing that exists.
Darnell: So here’s a question. How many different police departments/law enforcement agencies do you think there are in America total? Federal, state, local, specialist, general, all of it. How many? The answer is almost 18,000. 18,000 different law enforcement bodies and no two operate exactly the same. And here’s something wild. All federal, state law enforcement combined with all the specialized apartments account for only about 2,500 of that 18,000. The other 15,400 are local police and sheriff departments. There are three times as many local police in America than there are federal and state law enforcement agents combined.
Josie: Right. So again, we just want to emphasize that local police are the ones with the power here, right? The power and numbers. The power and actual power, they have the most power in terms of enforcing the law, and they’re the ones that you see on your street corner that are responsible for so much of the harm we see that comes out of policing, right?
15:35 Josie: So we hope you have a clear map in your head. Now, let’s get into the real stuff. The perception of the police is so dictated I think, for most people, by their own experience with the police or the experience they saw their loved ones have with the police. For a lot of people, the police represent public safety, they represent protection. But that’s not true for a significant portion of this country.
Darnell: Not at all. I mean, I grew up in Camden, New Jersey in the eighties and it was a period, not just in the eighties, but in a city where a lot of the residents, a majority of whom are black and Latinx, were policed by a law enforcement body that did not represent or didn’t look like the community. So there had been long standing issues between community members and police. One, many of them didn’t live in a neighborhood, so there was no trust. And secondly, there was a long history of law enforcement abuse. We had, like many cities, particularly post-industrial, predominantly black cities across the country, we had, people rioted because of police violence, some of which deadened, some of the citizens there. So you have to imagine that growing up in that city we didn’t have a trusting relationship with police. And then being black in America.
Darnell: Being black in the world. Like, you know, your relationship to law enforcement of any type is tinged because of the racism that was inherent in the practices.
Josie: So I thought your point about police not looking like the community is a really important one. A study a couple of years ago found that 95 percent of sheriffs in America are male and 99 percent of sheriffs in America are white.
Josie: It’s a remarkably, remarkably high number. And it really speaks to the point that you made about kind of the disconnect between communities and the people policing them. So in theory, how do we keep police accountable? Right? And we’ll talk a little bit about theory and practice today, but this is sort of the first question. What would be the first way we’d expect police officers to be held accountable?
Darnell: Well, in theory, a police department or sheriff’s office should be first to hold the officers accountable. I mean, to some extent that’s what a workplace is supposed to do. No?
Josie: Right. Like if I plagiarize a story or we make up facts or are we harass a colleague or someone we’re interviewing, we get fired. I mean, that seems like how it should be. Right?
Darnell: But we know this often doesn’t happen. And then 13 years between the time Jason Van Dyke became a cop and the moment that he shot Laquan McDonald, an unarmed black kid in the back 17 times, he had already had 25 complaints filed against him by both civilians and other officers. Most of them were excessive force.
Josie: Right. I mean that’s an enormous number of complaints: 25. And yet he was never disciplined. He was never punished. He kept his job after he shot Laquan McDonald. Right? As city officials, supposedly in the midst of a quote unquote “investigation” — that didn’t actually seem to be happening — refused to impart any sanctions. They avoided releasing the footage of Laquan MacDonald’s death. I mean they basically protected him.
Darnell: Wow. It’s so interesting that so often when you hear these types of cases, like my response is always one of just like exasperations.
Josie: Right. Right.
Darnell: Because it’s the same story over and over again.
Josie: It really also makes you think about what we don’t know. Right? A very, very dedicated journalist managed to get his hands on the Laquan McDonald footage. But it’s very possible we would have never heard about it otherwise. And there are a million things right now that we’re not hearing about, that we don’t know are happening because they’re being protected by the people who are supposed to keep them accountable.
19:16 Darnell: Indeed, recently, an online database called The Plain View Project made public 5,000 sexist, racist and Islamophobic Facebook posts written by cops. Here’s a clip from CBS News highlighting that story.
Reporter: The people at this rally outside the Philadelphia Police headquarters weren’t surprised by what they read in the racist social media rants.
Man #2: We live here in this city-
Reporter: But Solomon Jones, one of the protest organizers says the brazen public display took it to a different level.
Solomon Jones: It’s a turning point because they felt the license to engage in hate in a public way. And what that says to me is that there is a culture that allows that to happen.
Reporter: The Facebook posts in question contained discriminatory opinions. “If our country was all caucasian the homicide rate would drop 70%.” “Perhaps we should be very suspicious of all Muslims in this country” said another. Or encourage violence “It’s a good day for a chokehold.” They were collected by The Plain View Project, a group of lawyers and activists who over two years painstakingly reviewed the Facebook pages of 3,500 current and former police officers in eight departments: Dallas and Denison, Texas, Lake County, Florida, St. Louis, Twin Falls, Idaho, Phoenix, York, Pennsylvania and Philadelphia.
Darnell: If you go to the database at playviewproject.org you can see which officers still have jobs. Spoiler alert, it’s a lot.
Josie: Yeah, it’s a ton of them.
Darnell: While some of those officers were fired, most of them were not. Many were not even reassigned.
Josie: And this isn’t uncommon, right? Misconduct often goes unaddressed or at most results in paid leave or desk duty, and recent studies show that when bad behavior goes unpunished, other officers are more likely to commit misconduct in the future. In other words, one bad apple actually does spoil the bunch.
Darnell: But, even if the police or the sheriff won’t hold their officers accountable, there are other possible ways to ensure consequences from misconduct. For example, if the local prosecutor has probable cause to believe the officer’s guilty of a crime, they could bring criminal charges. But traditionally local prosecutors have often been less than willing or even in some cases sabotaged their own case to ensure the officer doesn’t have to actually face consequences.
Josie: Right. And it’s not just charging the officer even, right? You see prosecutors all the time who know that a certain police officer has lied on the stand before. They know a police officer has been accused of coercing confessions out of people or violating someone’s due process rights and they’ll still present them as like a trustworthy witness to the jury. It’s pretty remarkable how willing a lot of prosecutors, not all, but a lot of prosecutors are to let police officers get away with stuff that they would never actually let anyone charged with a crime get away with. And in some ways the calculus makes sense, like in a really kind of dark and cynical way. Prosecutors need the police, they need them on their side, they arrest people, they investigate cases for the prosecutor’s office, they testify on the stand. If you prosecute a police officer for murder or for police brutality, you are jeopardizing a really important relationship. And you can see how there’s this incentive, right? To avoid holding police accountable.
Darnell: So what other ways could police be held accountable? Well, laws can be enacted and ratified that could be used to hold them accountable. Like the state legislature could pass a law that raises the standard of acceptable officer conduct. In August 2019, California did this very thing: passed a law that says law enforcement can use deadly force only when necessary. In most states, though, the standard is much lower. Deadly force is justified as long as the officer feared for his life. And we know that that fear, this justification of fear can be used in a lot of different ways to excuse police officers. This low standard is part of the reason so many officers have been acquitted. All it takes is you saying you were scared for your life for the death of an unarmed innocent person to be acceptable.
Josie: And there was no interrogation from the system about why someone feared for their life. If seeing a black male consumes you with so much fear that you feel justified in murdering him, that’s racism.
Josie: And we don’t talk about the mere fact that even being so fearful, I always think about that video of Walter Scott running away from a police officer in South Carolina and getting shot in the back. If you’re scared of a man running away from you just because he’s black, that’s a problem. So quickly, two other potential forms of accountability that are worth mentioning and also why they often fail to actually hold police accountable. First, in theory, a civilian can file a Section 1983 claim and this is a super complex area of law, but the gist is this, if you file a Section 1983 claim, it means that you’re filing a federal claim against an individual, state or local actor who you’re accusing of violating your civil rights. These claims usually arise when a person acting quote “under color of” state or local law has deprived a civilian of their rights, their rights that they have under the US Constitution or under federal law. It’s a civil claim, it’s not a criminal one. So if you’re subject to police brutality that rises to the very high standard that’s required to even win one of these claims, you may receive monetary damages, but there are not going to be any criminal consequences for the officer.
Darnell: Unfortunately though these claims are significantly limited because of another legal principle, qualified immunity. Qualified immunity protects government employees from being sued or held responsible even if they violated a person’s civil rights. And while it is supposedly only in cases where the government employee made a reasonable but mistaken judgment, it has repeatedly protected police officers in very extreme cases.
Josie: Yeah. Cases that you wouldn’t think are reasonable. Qualified immunity has just really made it difficult to hold people responsible and to hold police officers responsible for violence. I think it’s also worth mentioning that like because of qualified immunity, when someone wins a major settlement, who ends up paying for that settlement? The local government, right? Like the local city, the local county. And so that’s really us. That’s taxpayers, right? Like the local police officer beat someone, torture someone, kill someone, and it’s not just that they’ve inflicted this brutality. It’s not like the rest of us are paying out the millions of dollars to the victim of this crime and they’re not even getting fired. They don’t even lose their job for that. If I cost my job a couple million dollars a year, I promise you I would be fired.
Darnell: Totally and you’d be paying that money back.
Josie: Right. Exactly.
Darnell: You would be paying the money back.
Josie: Exactly, exactly, and that’s just not the case here.
Darnell: There’s another accountability tool we want to mention: consent decrees. These are agreements between an entire police department and the Department of Justice that allows the DoJ to thoroughly investigate and assess issues in the department.
Josie: Yeah. You know, the consent decrees are particularly notable because they address the whole department and issues that are happening across an entire police department. For example, after Mike Brown was killed, DoJ entered into a consent decree with Ferguson and that’s at least going a little bit further than just holding the quote unquote “one bad apple” — as they always say — officer accountable. That might be important too, but we’re not going to change anything unless we actually look deeper than that. They can’t do everything. But under Obama’s administration, they did have an impact in places like Ferguson and at the very least, they allow sort of the harmful practices of these departments to come to light publicly.
Darnell: But the use of consent decrees is dependent on who runs the justice department. Obama’s DoJ entered into consent decrees with a number of police departments and even one prosecutor’s office. But Trump’s DoJ immediately scaled them back. Jeff Sessions felt that they were “bad for morale.” Those were his words. And of course all of this should really underscore just how difficult it is to hold police accountable through the more traditional channels. A main reason for that is a culture of policing.
Josie: This is a really important point when we talk about holding the police accountable, right? Like we want the right system or the right policy. And I get that, and I think that’s important. But the reality is that like we live in a country that is deeply, deeply reverent of law enforcement and law enforcement holds a lot of sway over elected officials. They like have a lot of power. It’s really hard to keep the powerful in check.
Darnell: Oh, it’s not only a, it’s a, it’s a culture like that’s a militarized culture. It’s a culture that favors not only a culture policing, but very sort of militarist, masculinist approaches to managing. That’s the way we do our business. It’s in so many ways and it’s, you know, we are a culture that only ever thinks about managing conflict through means of like, I mean dare say, not just war, but by adding additional conflict to the fire. Right? So it’s embedded in our culture all around.
Josie: Right. And I think it’s also worth mentioning, part of the reason policing is so harmful in America is, well there’s a historical reason, right? But there’s also this other thing which is we ask police to do a lot. We ask them to deal with mental health issues. We ask them to solve disputes that they do not have the training or skills to actually address. And we kind of set everybody up I think for failure in some ways.
Darnell: And not only are police doing things that are not necessarily their jobs, I also think that we rely on police to do what so many of us could otherwise be doing ourselves in our communities.
Darnell: I think the point though that we are trying to manage the everyday affairs of human relations and the conflict that comes along with that by means of punishment, you know, I often say like I had to call the police as a young person to get them to come over my house when my father was abusing my mom and what I often say in that example is it wasn’t necessarily that I’d needed him to be in jail. I wanted the abuse to stop.
Darnell: Now I probably, if I had another option, say a safe number that I could have called that could have rallied people in the community to come together, that every time I call this number, you know they’re coming over to make sure that my mother is safe, to get my father out of the house, to provide him whatever supports he needed to work on his issues. That would have been a better solution. Right? Inevitably what I wanted was safety for my mom. I didn’t necessarily need the jail cells to be bolstered up by another black man being in them. And often, I should say too, when we called the police, it was many times where their presence added another layer of heightened aggression, antagonism. The energy that came along with them trying to bring safety was never really, it didn’t make us feel safe at all.
Josie: Right. I think that’s such an important point and I also think it’s worth pointing out that like in this kind of era where police feel targeted and criticized, the approach that in general law enforcement has taken, has been a really antagonistic one, I think, to your point. I think about how rather than making it easier to hold the police accountable over the past five years, six years, seven years, we’ve made it harder to criticize the police, right? Like they’ve passed laws in states, Blue Lives Matter laws that are functionally hate crime laws. Hate crime laws have traditionally been four characteristics that people have, immutable characteristics that people have, things they can’t change, their race, their gender, things that have been traditionally discriminated against for. And it’s remarkable to me and terrifying that in states across the country, the government is basically saying you are in extra trouble if whatever you do involves law enforcement. It’s terrifying and it’s really just a sign that we do not live in a world that wants to hold police accountable. We just don’t.
Darnell: To discuss this some more, we’ll be joined by Alicia Garza, an American civil rights activist, an editorial writer from Oakland, California and Alicia will be with us in just a moment. Stay tuned.
31:50 Josie: Alicia, thank you so much for joining us on Justice in America. We’re so happy to have you.
Alicia Garza: Thanks for having me.
Darnell: So Alicia, there is so much to be said about you and who you are, your work, it encompasses so much. But in your own words, describe yourself. Tell us who you are.
Alicia Garza: Okay. Big profound question. I wear a lot of hats, but all of those hats are built for the work that I’m mostly passionate about, which is making black communities powerful in every aspect of our lives. So I have done that previously through my work with the Black Lives Matter global network. I work with the National Domestic Workers Alliance as the strategy and partnerships director and a lot of what I work on there is figuring out how to build powerful movements that benefit black communities. And I started an organization in 2018 called the Black Futures Lab and the Black to the Future Action Fund. And our work is focused on making black people powerful in politics.
Darnell: Dope. And give us some context. Talk about where you’re from, who your people are, who do you name as your people, a sort of sense of your larger world and how it impacts you and shapes your work in the world.
Alicia Garza: I’m born and raised in the Bay Area and that matters to me. I’m a Bay Area girl through and through.
Darnell: You totally are.
Alicia Garza: I rep the Bay super hard and I am somebody who tries to get a deep belly laugh in at least once a week. It is my self care. And my people honestly are incredibly cosmopolitan. So again, being born and raised here in the Bay, I’ve had the pleasure and the blessing of having been mentored and nurtured and knocked upside the head by some of our greats. And we also have the benefit here of being a site of very powerful social movements. And so that very much shapes me and very much I consider movement people to be my people. And by movement people, I mean feminist writers and poets and activists like Linda Burnham. I mean people like Angela Davis who lives here in Oakland and once a member of the Black Panther Party for self defense and now as a leading kind of thinker theoretician and organizer around abolition. My people are the people who are trying to make this world a better place and trying to figure out what their lane is and how to get in it and do it really well. And my people are folk who believe that we have to work hard, but we also have to play hard because nobody wants to join your movement if it’s hella boring and stuffy all the time. So that’s me.
Josie: I love that. Alicia, so we’ve been talking today about policing and really what it means to keep the police accountable. This I think is one of the many ways that you’ve been an activist and one of many issues that you’ve worked on and you are one of the black women who started the Black Lives Matter movement, really credited with naming it, with inspiring it in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death and the acquittal of George Zimmerman in 2013. And I thought George Zimmerman was actually an interesting place for us to talk substantively about the police because he wasn’t a police officer, right? He was like just another civilian, but he so believed and so embodied this culture of policing, which I think when we talk about the police, we talk a lot about policy. We talk a lot about like body cameras and this and that and like what we can do, but I don’t think that very often traditional media at least gets to the core of this, which is the culture of policing is so pervasive in America and has caused so much harm in black communities in particular. Can you talk a little bit about the culture of policing and how you see it? What you think it means for the larger movement towards accountability and how it’s affected your work?
Alicia Garza: Yeah. It’s interesting that you say that policing is not just about policy, it’s also very much about culture. And I think just to draw that out a little bit, when we talk about the culture of policing, I think we have to be able to talk about the culture of punishment and surveillance and control. One, America has done a very good job of infusing the culture of policing into our everyday lives through popular culture. So one of the shows I grew up on that I think I may have seen every single episode of is Law and Order SVU. And it’s really fascinating, right? Because the show has a very similar structure. There is a bad guy that’s committing crimes and then there’s these two detectives that sometimes skirt the law in order to uphold the law. And in the end they always win. Right? And so it’s really interesting that for me, when I think about the culture of policing, I think about the culture of punishment, the culture of how we define what is criminal or what is a crime? I think about the ways in which policing happens, which is now kind of in the hands of everyday citizens. And that’s largely about surveillance. So I have a Ring camera on my home, a Ring doorbell or whatever. And it’s really fascinating because as part of that you get subscribed automatically to what they call a community, right? Of people who are looking out for each other. But a lot of what that community does is it surveils people in their own community. I get notifications about packages being stolen or a suspicious person who tends to almost always be black in neighborhoods that are historically black but are rapidly gentrifying. And so when we think about who is suspicious, there’s a culture there that has actually been placed into the hands of civilians, which is very much about learning to see poor people and black and brown people as potential criminals. Right? And when I think about the culture of policing, I also think very much about the insularity of it all. So with Black Lives Matter, one of the major things that would happen and still happens today is that the familiar retorts are either like ‘all lives matter’ or ‘blue lives matter.’ And you know, I was talking just recently with a student journalist who asked me, ‘what do you say to people who say that blue lives matter?’ And I said, well there aren’t blue people, right? So policing as a profession that people choose to do, whereas race, it’s not a profession and it’s not of our choosing, it is automatically assigned to you for the purposes of categorizing you. And in those categories lie power and privilege. So there is very much though a culture in this country when we talk about policing that leaves policing and police untouchable. There are a few professions in this country that are deemed as not being able to be scrutinized. People who have served in the military, people who are members of law enforcement, people who are firefighters. Like there are particular professions in this country that we uphold in such a way where it becomes blasphemous to scrutinize their behaviors, critique their behaviors or push for changed behavior. So I think for me what makes my work hard is that, you know, anytime you try to have a conversation about police accountability, anytime you try to have a conversation about what needs to change with policing, you automatically run into the culture conversation. And the culture conversation is actually part of what allows policing to be wholly accountable because we have been indoctrinated with a lot of messages that police essentially should be able to function above the law because they are making the greatest sacrifices. And that is something that I think is a huge impediment and barrier to any possibility of changing how policing functions in this country.
Darnell: So let’s talk a bit about police oversight. And even though it sort of exists as an idea, I’m not sure that we’ve seen police oversight work in such a way that it actually has made any type of change. Right? First question is a bit about, I want to hear your sort of thoughts on what might police oversight look like and is it a possibility? But then I’m also thinking about, you brought up Angela Davis, you talked about abolition and I want to attach to that how does abolition, if anything, fit into a framework of police oversight or not?
Alicia Garza: So let’s, I mean starting with the question about police oversight, I think you’re right, there are examples of police oversight that is quote unquote “affective,” but I would say by and large it never can go far enough for a lot of reasons. So, okay, so let me just break down some of these models, right? There are models of like civilian oversight boards, some that have teeth, some that don’t. By teeth we mean boards that are able to actually recommend discipline for officers who act out of line in the line of duty. And then there are oversight boards that don’t have teeth, right? They make recommendations, but there’s no there there in terms of anybody being forced or mandated to actually follow those recommendations. I think there are several jurisdictions around the country that are testing different models of police oversight. However, when we have this conversation about abolition, part of, I think what an abolitionist framework would say is that all policing is harmful, right? And so essentially police oversight is overseeing the harm that policing is doing in communities, but that’s not eradicating the harm that policing is doing in communities. And I tend to agree with that. I think when we look at the origins of policing, policing is largely geared around, not safety per se. Policing is largely geared around protecting property and people and because we have societal conditions on who is deserving of protection and who is not, and societal provisions around the role or the importance of property in relationship to people, inherently baked into policing are the wrong priorities. If what we care about is actually solving problems, policing is not set up to do that. Policing is essentially set up to quote unquote “prevent” problems from happening or to punish people when problems occur. But it is not at all geared toward changing any of the material, societal, economic, or political mechanisms that create these problems in the first place. And so when we talk about abolition, I think that abolition as a framework and as a series of practices is really important because what it is calling on us to do is not just to imagine a world without policing, I think that that ends up being a very flat way of understanding what abolition is. I think abolition is actually calling us to figure out how to solve problems in ways that don’t create further harm. And I can say, as somebody who thinks abolition is a good idea, I have a really hard time practicing it. So in a lot of ways I think it points to how important it is because it forces us to say, okay, well we know all the things that we’re fighting against, but if we were going to change it, what would it look like? In this instance when we’re talking about police accountability, I’m actually not interested in monitoring how police do their jobs in communities. Like I don’t think that’s a good use of time or resources. It’s a first step, but it certainly is an intermediate step and it’s not a long term step. I’m more interested in figuring out how do we make it so that the things that police are charged with — you know, moving homeless people from corner to corner — I’m more interested in figuring out how do we make sure that everybody has a home to go to.
Josie: Right, right.
Alicia Garza: I’m less interested in police monitoring activities in schools. I’m much more interested in figuring out how do we make sure that all families have the things that they need so that the problems that police are checking for actually get dealt with.
Alicia Garza: And so at its best, I think the abolition frameworks are calling on us to be the architects of the world that we want to live in. And it’s challenging us also to undermine and dismantle all of the ways that we’ve been taught to think about the role of punishment in creating safety. Also, the way that we’ve been taught that to be safe as actually not in our own hands and it’s not in our own wheel houses. For me, if I’m compelled to call the police for a problem, I have to think about that. I have to think to myself, well, why don’t I have the tools to deal with this problem? If it’s my neighbor and their music is too loud, why am I calling the police rather than having a relationship with my neighbor where I can call them or knock on their door and say, ‘hey, can you turn the music down I have to go to work tomorrow?’ If I see somebody breaking into a car on my street, why do I call the police for that? Right? Yeah, okay. I have a broken window, but there’s some other problems that need to be attended to. What do we need to do to have those tools to deal with those problems? That’s the thing that I’m the most interested in.
46:21 Josie: It’s interesting. I went to go hear Mariame Kaba speaking April and she asked a question to a room full of people like, ‘okay, what happens if you hear your neighbor beating his spouse?’ And it was so hard for people in the room, myself included, to imagine not calling the authorities in that moment and really getting deep down into the question of what does it mean to have a relationship with your neighbors? What does it mean to be able to like intervene in moments of violence or pain without involving police or law enforcement and what are our fears? When there is a relationship and kind of a tapestry of a community that’s strong enough, people hold each other accountable in ways that are really important.
Alicia Garza: Yeah. I mean, interestingly I have actually had to deal with that situation and did not call the police because I was worried about the harm that the police would inflict. This was a young couple with a young child that had some issues and things were not going well with them and they were arguing and it was getting escalated and actually we were able to de escalate. But part of what that was about, as you said, was that those were my neighbors for like 13 years. Right? And so we knew each other, we knew each other in, you know, not intimate ways, but in such a way where it mattered that we needed to share space.
Alicia Garza: And so they were hyper aware of that. But the other thing that I think is just really fascinating is that in a lot of communities, and the community I lived in at this time when I was dealing with this incident, it doesn’t matter if you call police because they don’t come. So. (Chuckles.) It’s like in communities across America, people have already been forced to figure out what to do without police services because they don’t receive police services. Policing is not equitable in it’s distribution. And so there’s a lot to tap into there as well about what happens and we’re, we’re moving into these moments. What happens when we’re forced to depend on each other to survive, right? Where it’s not like a hippy dippy convenient thing where we depend on each other when we want and we don’t when we don’t want to, but it’s like actually as a matter of survival, nobody’s coming for us. Nobody’s coming to save us. So then what do we do to save ourselves?
Josie: Right. You know, I think you brought up something interesting just about how hard it can be to avoid the culture of punishment, the culture of law enforcement and how abolition kind of is like a daily practice that we all sometimes fail in terms of our own instincts. On that point, I just wonder about the traditional way that even a lot of people who believe in more police accountability think about police accountability, right? Which is, have we punished the police officer in question? So, you know, a police officer kills a black on armed person or armed person in the case of like Philando Castile or some other stories and, and there’s completely legitimate outrage about it. And then the question becomes, are we going to use this screwed up system to punish this person in this screwed up system? Which I obviously understand the instinct and also regularly I’m invested in that also happening, ,to your point. I wonder what you think about the way that even many progressive people think about accountability as is this person going to get prosecuted? Are they going to go to prison? Are they going to serve time? How that as a way of keeping the police accountable is both what are the merits of that, if there are any, and also how is it harmful.
Alicia Garza: This is actually how I met Darnell is through these conversations about what is accountability and what is justice. And the context here is just that after we created the Black Lives Matter hashtag and the social media platforms, Renisha McBride, who was a young woman who was killed in Dearborn, Michigan, again by not police, but a private citizen who for all intents of purposes saw this young girl on his porch in the middle of the night asking for help as a threat so he shot her through his door in the face and killed her. The prosecutor in that case initially refused to press charges and it was people like Dream Hampton, who were like, ‘you’re not going to sweep this under the rug or allow for this young black woman’s death to not be acknowledged.’ Right?
Alicia Garza: Ted Wafer was subsequently sentenced. He’s never going to get out of prison basically. And lots of people were cheering and saying, ‘hey, justice has been served.’ And we actually pulled together a whole national conversation to actually have the discussion about what was justice? And it is really tricky. I think that we hold on to punishment in ways that are not healthy for us. And when I think about social movements that have struggled, even though they’ve had very beautiful components and pieces to them, one of the major things beyond corruption that derails successful social movements is the use of punishment and retribution. And when power changes hands, there is a question on the table about how is power being transformed rather than how are we not just replacing one group of people with another group of people, but keeping the same harmful dynamics in place? Now with that being said, of course when bad things happen, we do, we want some recourse for bad things happening, but it doesn’t equal justice. It equals something bad happened to me, so something bad has to happen to you. And that’s where we are. That is a part of that culture of policing that we were talking about earlier. It is inherent in our criminal system that the way that we address harm is to make sure that we set up conditions to where harm is equal as opposed to dealing with the harm itself. Allowing for there to be a process by which people can acknowledge the harm that’s been done and get what they need to move through the trauma of what harm does to us and our families and the people we love. With that being said, is it justice that a man who made a really bad decision in a split second, is it justice that he is going to spend the rest of his life in prison? I don’t know that I would call that justice. I would say that it is, it’s another kind of harm. Is it justice that Renisha McBrides family will never see her again? No. And I think from working with families who have lost people to state violence, nobody is going back and forth with these families about, you know, don’t push for jail time for somebody who killed your child. Like, nobody’s doing that and they shouldn’t, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t have to have those conversations as a movement. And so I have this question on my mind and my heart like when we win — I think about this a lot as a movement builder — when we win, and so winning for me is like disrupting the state apparatus so that it can’t function the way that it functions, we are taking power, right? And we are now in a position to determine how we move forward, which means we also have to be thinking about how is it that we are dealing with the people who we have identified as problems? When we start to win and when we take over what becomes different about who we are than what is happening right now? If it’s just that there’s different people in power, I’m not totally interested in that. I do think it requires us to rethink and reimagine what accountability looks like. And Mariame Kaba talks about this a lot. Accountability is also not punishment. It is a way to address harms that have been done, but it is also a, it’s not a one directional process. Harm is collaborative. I think part of what I keep trying to drill down on, and I don’t have the answers for this, so this is not a critique of like our movement it’s more just reflections on my own self about, yeah, like when I feel harmed, when I am harmed either by somebody’s policies, their practices or you know, whatever is happening, how am I engaging in such a way where we’re not just replicating the same harm back and forth over and over again? At what point does that cycle get interrupted and what needs to happen for it to be interrupted? In the case of Ted Wafer and Renisha McBride, what needed to happen there to really interrupt that pattern of harm and abuse that they were actually symptomatic of, but not the totality of. What needs to happen, right? In this dynamic between George Zimmerman, who continues to be a perennial fucking idiot and the Martin family, right?
Josie: He really does. Right.
Alicia Garza: What needs to happen in order for there to be an intervention that sets it on a different course? And those are the big questions that I think we need to be grappling with when we’re talking about accountability of any sort, whether it be with the police or politicians. And when we talk about abolition and what abolition looks like in real time, what are the interventions that we’re making that interrupt the patterns that are killing our people?
Darnell: This is so good. You’re almost sorta like, you keep hinting at the questions that we have yet to ask you like you’re all up in our heads. Um, but as you’re talking, I’m thinking about what some folk have called, like the crisis of imagination. On some occasions I remember having conversations with people and said, you know, in so many ways, so many of us are trying, especially black people, right? Like vulnerable folk within the context of the US and the globe we’re spending our time trying to live so that you don’t really have time to dream, you know? And I just want to talk a little bit about the importance of expanding our imaginations so that we can dream up new ways of being, new ways of relating. Ruthie Wilson Gilmore talks about abolition not only as an absence of the things that harm us, but it really is about imagining and building of the things that we need in place of the things that harm us. So talk a little bit about the usefulness of imagination. What we need in this moment to dream up new ways of being in a relationship with one another, new ways of thinking about justice beyond what we have and how critical that is, not only for the work, but also as critical to your own work?
Alicia Garza: Oh man. Okay. Yeah. Woo. Big questions. So the crisis of imagination and what are the interventions and practices that we need to make around that? I mean, for me personally, I spend a lot of time thinking about the crisis of imagination as it relates to politics and political systems. I spend a lot of time trying to get in the way of the weird symbolic and really denigrating ways that black people are and are not engaged in the decisions that impact our lives. And I think where the imagination comes in is like every time I have to remind a candidate that a plate of soul food is not an engagement strategy, then I also have to say what is an engagement strategy?
Darnell: I mean who’s making that soul food though?
Alicia Garza: And wasting the soul food too, which is killing me. Anyways. Every time I have to have a conversation with a political party about how much they are or are not investing in engagement of black communities, I also have to be able to say what they have to be able to do. And so I feel like my imagination is always being tested because I know how frustrating it is to always run into nos with no path or pattern, right? And I think that our people really do deserve, our people deserve a regular practice of freedom dreaming that helps us get through the bullshit in our day, but also orders our steps towards what we actually care about. And how I personally do it, I can say — I’m just going to, I’m just going to say this and people are going to be mad, but I don’t care — there’s a lot I love about growing up in the Bay and part of it is this rich political history and rich political practice. And there’s been a point for me where I’ve started to say I’m not sure choirs are helpful, right? For imagination. There have been many times in my own political trajectory where I have felt like I’m being taught what to think but not how to think. And so as a result, it has allowed me to be comfortable playing small because there was a cheering section. And so for me, the way that I cultivate imagination and counter the crisis of imagination is like really listening to and listening for like what am I doing, talking about, projecting, engaging around that is playing small and what am I talking about, communicating, engaging around that is inviting more people to be with me? Even people who aren’t saying the same things I’m saying or don’t say them the way that I say them. How am I inviting more and more people to be a part of the community that I’m trying to build and how do I get more invitations to the communities that other people are trying to build? That’s my job. That’s how I see my job. My job is not to find like a small group of people who all think and feel the same about a thing. That’s not change to me. And somewhere along the way, I think part of what has helped me continue to cultivate that is just reminding myself and being aware of everything that becomes possible when you can touch more people. Being able to touch more people means that you get a wider view of what’s actually happening in the world. Being able to touch more people means that you get new and layered and nuanced perspectives about how to solve a problem and who needs to be considered in the addressing of those issues. Reaching and touching more and more people means that actually when it’s time to move, that you actually have a group of people who will roll with you from likely and unlikely corners, which is actually a strategic thing because it helps us get stuff done.
Alicia Garza: So, that for me has become kind of the centerpiece of how I’m engaging in political work right now, which also means that I have to sit with myself in the process of the change from like being super comfortable with a small group of people who all say and do the same thing to being really uncomfortable and sometimes lonely and isolated in a wider ocean where there’s lots of different fish, there’s lots of things happening in the, in the ecosystem. But I can say that that discomfort is how I know I’m in the right place. I don’t think imagination happens when you’re like in your tightest groove. Like imagination happens when you really got to figure some stuff out and you feel like, okay, I need to find the ground under my feet, I need to figure out like who’s on my side, who’s got my back, right? Like imagination comes from there for me personally. So that’s my practice around how to cultivate it.
Darnell: I love it. And certainly your imagination has been quite expansive because you’ve been at the helm of a lot of projects and we want to end by having you just say a bit about the project you’re working on, ones that we should be listening out for and how people can get involved.
Alicia Garza: Oh yes. Well, I am involved in many projects right now, but one that I’m super excited about is the Black Futures Lab and the Black to the Future Action Fund. In 2018, we conducted the largest survey of Black America in 154 years. And we got a lot of information about what black people experience in the economy, in our society and our democracy and most importantly, what black people envisioned for our futures. We spent 2019 going back into the communities that we collected data from, releasing the results of the survey and dreaming with folk about what was possible, not just with this data, but in particular with these freedom dreams that black folks were offering us. And so in 2020 we have taken that data and translated it into a black political agenda and are launching a program that we’re calling Black to the Ballot. We know that 2020 is a turnout election and we know that black folks relationships to electoral organizing is very complicated.
Alicia Garza: And so we really seek to be a home for black folk who are trying to find their way through a very complicated political terrain, but offering also, what is it that we’re fighting for? So when people are telling you and people are going to be telling you all year how important it is for you to vote, how important it is for you to get in lock step with everybody else, the thing that’s actually gonna motivate black voters in 2020 is pushing for an agenda that addresses our needs. And so as we do that work to build that agenda, the agenda for a black future, we are also working to expand the black electorate in five states — California, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia and Alabama — by really tapping into black communities that are incredibly active but not electorally. So what does it look like when we build the capacity of black trans folks to actually be able to participate in the electoral process? What does it look like when we really invest in black rural communities or black immigrant communities to participate in the electoral process that they’ve been locked out of or left behind from? We are very excited to register, mobilize and activate 10,000 new black voters in advance of 2020 as our little contribution to making the change happen that we need to see in this country. Not just in the White House but in state houses and decision making places all over the country. So that’s what I’m super passionate about. And if you want to know more about not only what we’re up to but how you can get involved, you can visit us at blackfutureslab.org.
Darnell: Thank you.
Josie: We are both inspired by you daily and really are so honored that you joined us. I wrote down like thirty things you said and I’ll be thinking about them for at least the next ten years. So.
Darnell: Yeah she really has a whole page.
Josie: I really have a whole page. So we’re so grateful for you joining us and thank you so much.
Alicia Garza: Well, thank you for having me.
66:36 Josie: Thank you so much again to our guest Alicia Garza, just an incredible woman, an incredible conversation. We’re so thankful that you joined us. For show notes and to find other resources to read on this issue, please visit TheAppeal.org.
And on that note we’re introducing a new element to our podcast this season. We received a number of emails from listeners asking for book recommendations. Mainly who our guests are reading or have read to help inform their perspective. So this season we’re offering a bonus episode with our guests talking about books that have influenced them. So make sure to check out our first bonus for Alicia Garza! You can find it wherever you listen to podcasts or on The Appeal.org.
Darnell: And thanks to all of you for listening to Justice in America. I’m Darnell Moore.
Josie: I’m Josie Duffy Rice.
Darnell: You can find us on Twitter @Justice_Podcast, like our Facebook page at Justice in America and subscribe and rate us on Apple Podcast.
Josie: Justice in America is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. The Production Assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Research Assistant Nawal Arjini. The location recording by Phoebe Gunter. Studio recordings at Real Voice LA. The engineer was Mike DeLay. And at Skyline Studios the engineer was Joe DiStefano. Thank you so much everyone for listening and we’ll catch you next time.