Justice In America Season 3: Derecka Purnell
Derecka Purnell joins Josie Duffy Rice as a guest cohost for season 3 of the podcast, starting February 26.
The third season of Justice in America launches February 26. You can find it on Apple Podcast, Stitcher, SoundCloud, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Hosted by Josie Duffy Rice, president of The Appeal, each episode of Justice in America focuses on a different topic in the criminal justice system. Through conversation, storytelling, media, and interviews, the show sheds light on how our system functions, and the ways in which it disproportionately harms poor people and people of color.
This season, the show features four guest co-hosts. Let’s meet one of the hosts, Derecka Purnell.
Abolitionist Socialist Feminism: Radicalizing the Next Revolution by Zillah R. Eisenstein
Our Enemies in Blue by Kristian Williams
From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells
Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 by W. E. Burghardt Du Bois
The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex by INCITE!
Derecka Purnell is a human rights lawyer, writer, and activist who works to sustain social movements. Since law school, Derecka has worked on police and prison violence across the country. As a Skadden Fellow, she helped design the Justice Project at Advancement Project’s National Office. She worked on police accountability issues, prosecutor races, and jail closure campaigns, providing community organizing training, political education and legal representation to organizers in St. Louis and Ferguson. Her advocacy efforts led to the dismissal of over 3,000 cases based on unconstitutional policing practices. She also served on the founding steering committee for Law for Black Lives, a growing network 5,000 law students, lawyers, and legal workers to support social movements.
Derecka recently received her JD from Harvard Law School, her BA from the University of Missouri- Kansas City, and studied public policy and economics at the University of California-Berkeley as a Public Policy and International Affairs Law Fellow. She helped build the leadership structure and political education program in the Belinda Hall student movement at Harvard Law. There, she worked alongside student activists, dining workers, and administrative staff to successfully fight against unfair labor practices. Their activism compelled Harvard Law School to remove the school’s shield that honored a slave owner; memorialize the enslaved persons whose labor benefited the Law school; and concede to striking workers’ demands.
Her writing has been published in The New York Times, The Guardian, Truthout, Boston Review, Huffington Post, Vox, and In These Times. She’s been featured on NPR, the Boston Globe, and MSNBC, and is the former Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy. She is a columnist at The Guardian.
Derecka is a proud St. Louis native. She currently serves as the Deputy Director of the Spirit of Justice Center at Union Theological Seminary.
Josie Duffy Rice: Hey everybody. I’m Josie Duffy Rice. Season three of Justice in America is just around the corner. We’re really excited and we’re doing things a little different this time. Clint Smith, our co-host for seasons one and two is not able to join us for this season. We’re gonna miss him, but I called on some really really great people to join me as co-hosts for season three. So, I invited each of my new co-hosts to talk to me a little but about who they are, what they do, what they like in our ten questions bonus. And today we’ll be talking to Derecka Purnell. Derecka is an organizer, a writer, she’s the Deputy Director of the Spirit of Justice Center and she’s currently writing her first book. So let’s talk to Derecka.
Hi everyone. This is Josie Duffy Rice with Justice and America. We’re here today with one of our amazing co-hosts this season, Derecka Purnell. She’s really incredible and someone I met, we didn’t go to law school together because she’s young and youthful, but we went to the same law school and met after. And I’m so, so, so excited that she’s joining us this season cause she’s just brilliant. So thank you Derecka for being here.
Derecka Purnell: Thank you for having me.
Josie: So let’s start with our bonus ten questions that we do for guest hosts.
Derecka: I’m so nervous. My heart is literally pounding (laughs) it feels like so much is at stake.
Josie: (Laughs) I promise not to gotcha question you.
Josie: So the first question is a really tough one. First, tell us where you live and where you’re from.
Derecka: I currently live in Washington DC and I am from St. Louis, Missouri.
Josie: And how long have you lived in Washington?
Derecka: I have lived in Washington since August 2017.
Josie: And what do you do? Let’s talk about your work. Like what are you working on these days, where your focus is?
Derecka: After law school I was very, very fortunate to work as a movement lawyer with the Advancement Project where I got to work on police and prison and jail issues in St. Louis, Ferguson and Puerto Rico. And I really, really loved that work. In the last year, I’ve mostly been doing research and writing, trying to help organizations in our campaigns I dunno, make their, shape their politics and really do political education and strategy to help some of their campaigns become more abolitionist. So sometimes that’s organizing, sometimes it’s litigation, sometimes it’s preparing people for testimony. It just, you know, it just sort of depends. Last year I made a bold proclamation that I was going to try to be a writer or let the writing sort of come out. And so I have been interestingly pivoting from doing more like litigation, legal work into writing, to learning, into study and to research and political education.
Josie: Nobody can see me right now but I’m grinning because I’m always happy when a lawyer becomes a writer and I can say that I have been friends with you on Facebook and when you said that you were writing more, I was like good. Cause you are an amazing writer too.
Derecka: Thank you so much. You are too. I appreciate that.
Josie: Thanks. I’m super glad that the world’s gonna be hearing more from you. What got you interested or involved in the criminal justice system? Was there a moment? A thing? What do you kind of identify as like the thing that made you decide that this is what you want to focus on?
Derecka: Sure. Can I say three?
Josie: Yeah, of course.
Derecka: Okay. The first thing was the Jena Six. When I was in high school I remember there was a fight in Louisiana over the — what was the name of the tree? — like the race tree or the white tree or the black tree in this school. And there was a fight between how these black students and these white students who apparently had been harassing them for years and one of the black kids hit one of the white kids with his shoe and a prosecutor charged him for using a deadly or violent weapon. And I was maybe a freshman or a sophomore in high school and was just so shocked that, in 2000 — what year was that? 2004? 2005? — like really early that black kids were being discriminated against and I was just like, wow. Like this is a racist aberration from where we’ve come from. So that’s when I started paying a little bit attention to the criminal justice system. I think the second thing that happened in 2006 was when Sean Bell was murdered in his car in New York City and Facebook had these things called Notes and it was the first note, it was like a Facebook Note. I was like, this is, there’s not enough room for a status. Like I need to write a Facebook Note and let the people know that the police in New York City again went rogue and just murdered this black man the night before his wedding, you know, his car was riddled with bullets and again, I was just so, so, so shocked that that could happen at that particular time. The third, okay, I know I said three but I mean four. The third thing that happened was when George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, I was in college and that was my first organizing experience around anything criminal justice related. So I saw that there were these rallies that were popping up all over the country and I’m saying, okay, like we’re going to do a rally to demand that George Zimmerman was arrested. I was so inspired by what the Dream Defenders were doing in Florida. The sit ins, the take over of the legislature. I said, wow. It felt like a momentous occasion for people to get involved and really challenge the violence we were experiencing from the state and from vigilantes. And so I created this invitation, ended up getting on the radio, next thing I know, hundreds of thousands of people, well not hundreds of thousands, hundreds or thousands of people were really excited. And there was a lot of buzz in Kansas City around this rally. And I was like, oh, I’ve never planned a rally before! I don’t know what to do and all these people are coming! I was so scared because it was at the point where I was going to meetings. I was pretty civically involved. And I’ll hear someone else stand up and say, hey, we’re marching on the Plaza this day, bring your tea, bring your hoodies. And I would be like, oh, they’re talking about like [having a rally. I] have to do it. And so I remember Charlene Carruthers at the time reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, we see that you’re planning a rally in Kansas City, can we promote it on like Color of Change’s website or whatever organization.’ And I called her and I said, hey, can you actually tell me how to like do these things? I’ve never done this before. And she like talked me through it and the rally ended up being very beautiful and I was really energetic about how we can use that momentum to stop racism and violence in Kansas City. So that was around 2012 and so after Trayvon Martin was murdered, I think I knew at that point that I wanted to be an education lawyer because I mean most of my research and activism interests had been around desegregation. I went to segregated schools for most of my life and that was really my area of interest. And then as I was completing an education fellowship, I’m on my way back to St. Louis to pick up my furniture to go to law school and Darren Wilson murders Michael Brown. And again, it was like, wow, here we are. Here’s this moment where his white police officer shoots down this black teenager, leaves his body on display for the community for over four hours in the August sun. And so I’m home. This uprising happens and I am just in a whirlwind because I’m on my way to law school to go try to help fix education and do that fight when I felt like, wow, you know, he was supposed to start college in a couple of weeks. What safety is there for black children to, you can’t educate racism away, right? Like that you can be on your way, you can have the right kind of parents, you can have the right sorts of language, you can have the trajectory, you can overcome the odds and a police officer can just murder you and leave your body in the street for four hours.
Derecka: And that really moved me and pushed me to think about policing in ways that I hadn’t thought about before. I had been harassed by police before. I’ve even been assaulted by police before that moment but I always saw it as these individual cops have a problem, you know, or they’re trying to prove themselves so they feel insecure. (Starts crying) But the Ferguson uprising really, really impacted me. Thank you.
Josie: No, of course. You’re definitely my people cause this is me when I-
Josie: Yeah. So it was just, it was definitely an eye opener. Hey, you know, I was a new mother, I was terrified of being tear gassed because I didn’t want it to get in my breast milk. So it was, between protesting and being afraid of trying to nurse, like trying to navigate all of that-
Josie: On your way to law school.
Derecka: On my way to law school. And so that moment I think more than anything like that drive to Cambridge from Ferguson really pushed me to think more deeply about police and prisons in the United States and why I’m so desperately and energetically committed to the issues of policing and police and violence. And yeah it’s even though I can’t believe that this year it will be six years that he was murdered and it still feels very, very fresh.
Josie: I don’t think I’ve talked to anybody who went to law school who was like there, who was on their way to, that to me is like thinking about the first semester of law school and how deeply disconnected it fell. I mean, I guess it might’ve been different for you guys cause you guys started organizing, but that feels like its own trauma in a weird way.
Derecka: Yeah. I mean I felt guilty. I felt guilty that this uprising was happening literally on the block where I was like picking out my furniture, on the block where I would, you know, my senior year of high school, I was homeless at the time. I was like living in my aunt’s basement trying to graduate and I would have to catch the bus from Ferguson to the city every day. So to be back in that place in 2014 feeling like I overcame something cause I was on my way to law school and to Harvard of all places and in that moment feeling really, really small that black people were under attack, but also feeling very empowered that people were rising up and to see the levels of uprisings throughout the country while I was starting law school, it was so inspirational. But I also felt like, wow, like should I be out there in the streets? Should I have left St. Louis at this particular moment? Like Derecka like you have to make a choice. And when I got to law school, I was very fortunate to meet lawyers, to meet other law students, to meet organizers who told me that I didn’t have to choose. You know, law school is going to be hard. It was going to be hard regardless. There was a moment and a movement happening right now and to not be true to yourself and figure out how to show up in that movement would just be a waste of this time and opportunity. And if anyone has room to be active, to organize, to use that voice, I probably was in a space where I was most protected. I wasn’t going to get kicked out of law school. What people warned me about was, you’re not going to be able to get a job because you’re too vocal. That is what I was up against. And I was like, well, I won’t be able to get a job if a police officer kills me because I won’t need a job. I won’t be alive.
Derecka: And so yeah, it was a very-
Josie: Oh, that’s interesting.
Derecka: A very, very, very overwhelming and very exciting moment to be starting law school. But I’m just very fortunate that I found my people in and out of law school and that’s what kept me grounded and that’s what continues to keep me grounded.
Josie: So all of that, I’m just thinking about a lot of things you said. I need to like get back on track cause now I’m focused on your answer but the memory of that is still so etched and I think who a whole generation of us who are doing this work now who kind of came out at the same time. And you already told us about sort of your memory or the moment that helped kind of put a personal connection to you in the system. What are the other things that have had a big influence on the way you view the criminal justice system? So books or people or who has been key in shaping your ideology?
Derecka: Sure. So when I was in college, I applied for a law school internship because I really wanted to work in the civil rights office in Kansas city, assistant director gave me a shot and I was there investigating employers in apartment buildings in Kansas City who were discriminating against people with records as well as sex offenders. That’s the language we were using at the time. And I was so fascinated that, you know, this whole area of law around disparate impact discrimination, was sort of like getting off of the ground with this particular population. And I decided to use that as my senior thesis. And while that was happening, Michelle Alexander dropped The New Jim Crow and I was like, oh basically she’s going to copy my argument. (Laughs.) But in addition to talking about mass incarceration, you know, I talked about voting rights and government aid received, I talked about Pell grants, you know, in that senior thesis. So The New Jim Crow had a huge impact on me and since then of course the works and writings of Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Angela Davis. There’s a book called Our Enemies in Blue by Kristian Williams, which I consider to be a Bible of policing. It has definitely impacted like how I see the role of police in the United States, like their histories, their origins. Robin Kelly’s Freedom Dreams is another one of my Bibles, it introduced me to the debates around black socialists and black communists. So all of Robin Kelly’s writing I like kind of take as gospel because it helps inform my internationalism. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation. That came out a few years ago and it’s been hugely inspiring. It connects social movements from like the last 15, 20 years to the Ferguson uprising and the subsequent uprisings. Alex Vitale’s book End of Policing, another criminal justice book that I often recommend as an introductory text to the role in history and function of police. People. There’s just so many people I’m thinking of inside. I mean, Mumia Abu-Jamal, I mean his writings, his theories, his identification as a prison abolitionist matters a lot to me. There are people who I, they haven’t written books, but I’m so inspired by their work. Like Amanda Alexander at Detroit Justice Center, Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism. There’s like so many books that I am very grateful to be standing in the tradition of. I didn’t say Paul Robeson, I didn’t say Claudia Jones.
Josie: This is so good.
Derecka: I’ve been inspired by so many different people with so many different voices who have been fortunate to like write studies, struggle, love, organize and yeah, I’m always constantly curious about their stories and how they can, if they have road maps for us to get free.
Josie: Is there like a specific issue or topic or focus within the like large, chaotic mess that is the criminal legal system that has particular importance to you that you focus on most that you think about more?
Derecka: Yes. Yes, absolutely. And it’s, if it isn’t obvious by some of the readings, it’s policing. It’s policing. It goes back to Sean Bell, it goes back to Darren Wilson murdering Michael Brown and other police officers and incidents I can’t even name because they’re literally too numerous because police kill about a thousand people a year and harass, assault thousands more.
Josie: And have been killing black people since-
Derecka: Since there have been police.
Derecka: Exactly. And so I think when I hear people talk about mass incarceration, reducing mass incarceration, even as it’s gaining traction or popularity along the political spectrum, it seems as if the critiques are, you know, mass incarceration there’s just too many people in jail. There are too many people in prison, too many nonviolent people. We need to cut the prison population and we need to cut the number of cages or close jails. I agree with all of that. What ends up happening is that police are somehow left out of the mass incarceration conversation. And I’m just like, okay so if we start cutting and eliminating all these people from the prison industrial complex, what’s going to be the role and function of police? Are we going to keep 1 million police officers? Are we going to keep 18,000 law enforcement agencies? Right? What’s going to be their purpose if we’re going to continue to cut and shrink the carceral state? And what happens is that people have either divorced police from the mass incarceration conversation. Police, we see them more often. You don’t have prisons and jails patrolling your neighborhood. You have police officers, you know them, they’re in your family. The issue of policing, it’s just sort of being, it’s become like a stepchild of the criminal justice movement and maybe because police have a lot of power, they have a lot of union power people think that we need them in the same way we don’t necessarily need the 3,400 jails and prisons across the United States. Right? So it’s, police are so interwoven into every single part of our lives that the project of abolition will require identifying all the ways that our personal lives are entangled with police, rebuilding institutions so we can rely on our community.
Josie: Right. That’s not a reason to keep them. It’s more of a reason to get rid of them.
Derecka: Exactly. I don’t know how I didn’t mention Rachel Herzing and the people who, I also just, I was just learning so much from, if Our Enemies in Blue is like one of my Bibles then she’s like one of the Holy Trinity.
Josie: What did she write?
Derecka: So Rachel Herzing is one of the founders of Critical Resistance.
Josie: Oh, interesting.
Derecka: One of my favorite pieces by her, it’s called “Steps Towards a Police-Free Future.” And she just basically breaks down like, look, you know, if you had an emergency today, who are the ten people you can call. If you have an emergency six months from now, what types of emergency necessitates what types of community and individuals to build, you know, support, who can be responsive to. So it’s, yeah, just that framework. I was like, oh wow. Like this is something that can actually come to life. And I’m so grateful for her, her theories and her research and her organizing to really inform a lot of the work that I do.
Josie: So where do you go for news about criminal justice in particular?
Derecka: I read a number of different outlets, so of course like The Appeal, I read The Marshall Project when they’re not getting on my nerves, Democracy Now! I generally just use as a news source because I don’t trust any of the major news networks. And so I try to listen to Democracy Now! Twitter. Twitter. Usually Twitter has a lot of breaking stories of people who are directly organizing, trying to raise awareness. So sometimes that’s like my movement networks or my friends in the field will like tell me, ‘hey, do you know about this horrible thing that’s going on in Mississippi prisons right now?’
Derecka: And so then I’ll go to like, you know, the Clarion-Ledger and I read local newspapers because I think they matter. And so it just sort of depends on, you know, the area.
Josie: Totally. What are you reading now?
Derecka: Right now I’m reading a few books. I’m reading Abolitionist Socialist Feminism. I am reading the Uninhabitable Earth, which is, I imagine how people feel when I say the word like prison and police abolition they feel like what? So overwhelmed by it. I feel the same way about climate change.
Josie: I totally agree. I was thinking that just the other day.
Derecka: I don’t know if I can give up these straws. I don’t know if that’s the problem. I don’t, I mean I’m from the Midwest, I don’t get this whole ocean thing. But this book does such a good job of breaking down what happens at one degree of warming versus two degrees of warming versus three versus four. And it is a very, very, very big deal. So this text is like so good. It’s so important. I am trying to reread Black Reconstruction cause I’m doing research for the book that I’m writing. So getting through Du Bois is always like an interesting task. But I am really enjoying it because there’s a lot of criminal justice stuff that’s in there, a lot of census data, it is a sociological text that I appreciate. I am also reading The Revolution Will Not Be Funded. I just started that because I agree with the title and it came highly recommended. So I’m excited to read the edition that just came out.
Josie: So what do you do for fun when you’re not putting everything you have into this work? What do you do for fun? What are your guilty pleasures? Yeah.
Derecka: Okay. So I don’t know if this is like a guilty pleasure, but I really enjoy making up random stories and lives about people who are like on the streets. So people watching. I love people watching.
Josie: You will like literally do like a whole, my mom does that, she’ll like make a whole backstory.
Derecka: Oh yes. I’m like, oh I know what kind of conversations he has with his little brother. Based on someone’s blazer. It’s like I do, I really, really enjoy that. I also really try to memorize all of Beyoncé’s choreography.
Derecka: Yes. I know most of like Beychella, so like if “Getting to the Money” comes on I like know that breakdowns through and through.
Josie: If you haven’t watched Beychella, that’s extremely impressive because that is a feat of physical, like a physical feet that it cannot be even compared.
Derecka: Other guilty pleasures. Love playing with my children.
Josie: How old are your kids?
Derecka: My kids are five and three. This is a very scary age.
Josie: Two boys.
Derecka: Two boys, yes, two boys. And we’ve been having a lot of interesting conversations around gender right now. My five year old, he is very curious about the world and religion and police. He has a really robust analysis and my three old is so just like physically ambitious. I’m always trying to keep up with him.
Josie: I have to tell you, I’m worried.
Derecka: How old?
Josie: He’s two and he’s like, he has his opinions.
Josie: Oh yeah, I know.
Derecka: The other thing I was going to say it’s travel. I really, really love traveling. That’s where most of my money goes to travel if not daycare. But yeah, it goes to traveling.
Josie: Okay. Last question. What is your favorite movie about the legal system?
Derecka: Okay. Baring my secret love and obsession for cop shows and cop movies, I don’t know if I have a favorite, I think all the ones I really enjoy are the ones where people get away from cops at the end or escape prison. It’s like Shawshank or The Town or like Set It Off. Like interestingly, you know, tragic obviously, but at the end they have like a bunch of money and they’re just like, ha ha ha I got over on like this prosecutor and it’s too good cop. You know, I, I really like movies where like the quote unquote “bad guy” gets away.
Josie: So if you’re listening and you have suggestions for movies like that, please tweet.
Josie: Justice_Podcast and we’ll collect a list of movies where people get away from the cops at the end for Derecka, for her future.
Derecka: Thank you. I need this.
Josie: Thanks for joining us for our bonus ten questions.
Derecka: Perfect. Thank you.
Josie: Please make sure to also check out our ten questions bonus for Zak Cheney Rice, Darnell Moore, me, Josie Duffy Rice and Donovan X. Ramsey. Our new season starts on February 26th so subscribe on Apple Podcasts, on Stitcher, on Google play or wherever you listen to podcasts. And find us on Facebook at Justice in America or on Twitter @Justice_Podcast. We’re looking forward to talking to you on February 26th.