UNDISTRACTED: October 20th, 2022

“Every Hashtag is a Human Being”: Honoring the Five-Year Anniversary of #MeToo

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Hey y’all, it’s Brittany. We have finally arrived at the final episode of the season. I know, I know. I’m gonna be sad to leave y’all for a while, too. I mean, at least I hope that’s what you all are thinking. This season, really this whole year, has been a ride, child. In some ways this year felt like 2022 volume three since we entered and will end this year still in a pandemic.

Here on the show, we opened the season with voices like Dr. Uché Blackstock on how to fight pandemic fatigue. And we talked sports and racism with Jemele Hill and Cari Champion.  Student loan forgiveness with Senator Elizabeth Warren, something that we actually saw some traction on this year, y’all. And we talked to the hopeful next governor of Texas, Beto O’Rourke on exactly what the F is going on down in Texas.

We spoke to Maria Teresa Kumar on the voting rights fight of our lifetime. Michelle Colón  gave us insight on the last days of Roe v. Wade to Mississippi. Willow Eagleton walked us through what it’s like to be a trans girl in 2022 and George M. Johnson shared just what it’s like to have the second most banned book in America.

And of course this season I got real, real personal when the love of my life and I talked about the love of our lives, the harrowing birth of our sweet, sweet Baby M. 

Reginald Cunningham: Yeah, you have been amazing in this whole journey, like I just wanna make sure and honor that. I have watched you do the hardest thing that you have ever done and just shine at it.

Brittany: This year has been one of the hardest of my entire life. It changed me in ways that I am still discovering and it is such an immense privilege to be discovering it with all of you. We are UNDISTRACTED.

On the show today, we’ll be honoring the five year anniversary of the MeToo hashtag with playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle, organizer Monica Ramirez, and the movement’s very own founder Tarana Burke. 

Tarana Burke: We’re going beyond the hashtag to look at what happens after you say MeToo. What do we owe the people who said MeToo? What do we owe the communities where these, where sexual violence is happening?

Brittany: That’s coming up, but first it’s the news. 

And we are gonna start in the world of beauty. So if you saw the words Ulta Boycott trending this week, here is why. Last Thursday, the chain cosmetic supply store, Ulta released an episode of its biweekly podcast called The Beauty Of. This particular episode featured an interview with actress, comedian, and overall TikTok legend Dylan Mulvaney, who also happens to be a trans woman; and Dylan joined a conversation with David Lopez, a gender fluid, Latinx celebrity hair stylist.

Now, both of them came together to talk about self-expression, identities, and obviously getting glam, right. 

Ulta Podcast: You know, I think somebody asking you describe your signature look question, might say to you like, No, but actually, like which one? And I would never ask you that because that’s the beautiful thing about your expression, is it changes.

Brittany: Now Ulta put a clip of the video up on Twitter, like all of us who host podcasts do. And yeah, the trolls were a blaze in the comment section. Sadly, unsurprisingly, many users complain that for a trans woman to talk about girlhood was. Quote, misogynist and they took offense at Dylan’s desire to someday become a mother and said the whole thing was woman facing, which they say is like blackface, where someone pretends to be a woman but isn’t.

Ugh, I can’t even keep up with the bullshit. But in the following days, there were calls to just straight up boycotts the company. Now Ulta has come forward in defense of this iconic episode, and the folks who started in it saying that they believe that quote, beauty is for everyone. I mean, isn’t that the point?

Obviously we love that. I’m gonna have to go fill up my shopping cart. I love Ulta. I love Sephora. Listen, I love anything that makes me feel good, and everybody should have that feeling. But y’all, this whole episode taps into a backlash that we’re seeing against trans people that is very real. And that goes far beyond Twitter.

That cultural backlash means real, physical, psychological, economic, and emotional consequences for trans and non-binary people. So I wanna take just a second to remind everybody that we control this discourse and that womanhood, like every other kind of identity, is not a zero sum game. My cis sisters, I’m here to tell you that holding trans woman back actually does not make us anymore free.

And just because someone else identifies as a woman that does not erase your rights, when another marginalized group wins, we actually all win. And our trans friends need our love more than ever right now, and they always deserve it. So to my sisters, trans and sis; to my siblings; to all my people across the spectrum, we love you and we won’t let anybody convince us that you’re not worth that.

So next up, I wanna call attention to an issue that has been, shall we say brewing, for the past couple of weeks. Three members of the Los Angeles City Council face calls to resign from President Biden after a recording service of a now not-so-secret meeting that they had about redistricting. 

So in the recording, city council president Nury Martinez along with council members, Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo, all Democrats mind you, are heard talking about how to divvy up the city politically. And here’s a quick rundown of what was said and trigger warning, it is not pretty. Martinez is heard to have described white Councilman Mike Bonin’s son who is Black as quote looking like a monkey.

And then she goes on to describe Indigenous immigrants from Oaxaca as so ugly. And then when speaking about another LA County District Attorney, Martinez was heard as saying, F that guy, he’s with the Blacks. Glaring racist comments aside, this recording revealed who schemy and premeditated behind the scenes political redistricting can be, and yes, it is often wildly racist, whether they use slurs or not.

This exposes a blatantly intentional effort to marginalized Black voters. It’s not just offensive, it’s immoral, and it needs to be illegal. Now, as of the moment, we are recording, some but not all of the council members have resigned. And it’s unclear if President Biden’s urging will make a difference.

But I wanna take this moment as an opportunity to clear something up. Just like the last story, say it with me y’all. There is no progress without—yeah, y’all know the words. It’s like the basis of this whole podcast—intersectionality. Nury Martinez was the first Latina to be appointed president of the city council.

Something that the folks in the UNDISTRACTED world would celebrate, and that would’ve been even more of a victory if she had stood in solidarity with her Black neighbors. Anti-Blackness is global and it roots so many other isms. We get absolutely nowhere in dismantling systemic oppression if we’re not uprooting anti-Blackness and championing all marginalized voices. Period.

Representation is nothing without justice. I wanna close our news rundown by following up on the Iran protests, which are emerging as a truly historic event led by young people. It started roughly a month ago when Mahsa Amini, who had been detained by Iran’s morality police, died in custody. Now, y’all remember since then, protests against the repressive regime have grown across the country.

Young women have been posting videos of themselves removing their headscarves. They’ve demonstrated inside of schoolyards, they’ve even cut their hair on camera chanting “Women. Life. Freedom.” As we said, the last time we talked about this, this is not about being pro or anti-hijab, it’s about being pro agency and bodily autonomy. 

And these young folks’ displace of rage and solidarity are so hopeful, but the consequences have been absolutely devastating. The Iranian government has made mass arrests, cut the country’s Internet, and instituted deadly violence. In fact, the nonprofit Iran Human Rights just revealed that of the at least 215 people killed since protests began, 27 of them were children. 

For context, these kids are protesting a regime that has made its best efforts to indoctrinate them with absolute loyalty for essentially their entire lives. In a music video published by the Iranian media earlier this year, thousands of boys and girls are seen singing a song called Salute Commander.

The lyrics literally say, I’m a child, but the life of my family and I all belong to you.

Brittany: Now the Iranian government is detaining what they call defiant children in mental health facilities, aka glorified detention centers in an effort to reform them. This regime has already proved that it does not care about women and the same clearly goes for children. It’s our job to make sure this story does not go away and to reach out in solidarity across the globe. 

So, for more information on organizations, you can support in solidarity with Iran, please see our show notes this week. And lastly, I wanna wrap up our final news rundown of the season with a small request. Just like that last story, it’s really easy for the things that are most important to go under reported.

And y’all know that here on UNDISTRACTED, we are committed to taking those stories. Those stories that sometimes fly under the radar or simply don’t get the attention they deserve are talked about. So over the next few months while we are on hiatus, getting a great season three together for you, more and more un trending news stories will surface.

And without enough eyes and ears on them, they might not receive appropriate action and recognition. So please, please, please pay attention to bipoc and LGBTQ news. Pay attention to grassroots political candidates and to the protests happening around the globe. Talk about them at dinner parties, elevate them on your socials, and keep the mission of our show alive while we take a little production breather and plan for season three.

Coming up, I’ll be talking to three phenomenal women, including MeToo founder Tarana Burke, about the fight to address sexual violence and what the world owes us when we say #MeToo, right after this short break.

And we are back, and most people think of MeToo as an explosive viral moment in 2017 that coincided with the rape allegations against Harvey Weinstein and really the domino effect of sexual violence accusations across all industries. We’re gonna talk about that moment and everything it did for the world in just a sec.

But first I wanna take us back, like back to 2006 when the movement was actually founded. That’s when survivor and activist Tarana Burke decided that we needed a space for those who had experienced sexual violence to connect with others who could relate. Tarana has been doing this work for literal decades, recognizing the magnitude of this crisis before so many cultural institutions did the same.

Then fast forward to 2017 when the hashtag went viral and millions upon millions of people, mostly women, showed up online to say, Yes, this happened to me. Two. And over the past five years, we’ve seen an increase in sex crime reporting by about 13% nationwide and hundreds of toxic executives have been ousted.

Though we obviously know plenty of others remain, but just like violence occurred long before 2017, it continues to persist long after. We still struggle to believe women and survivors, especially those who are far removed from the public. Addressing sexual violence means more than calling out just bad men.

It’s an entire cultural reframe, one that Tarana Burke is more committed to now than ever, and we are so honored to bring Mary Kathryn Nagle, brilliant attorney playwright and champion of Native Rights and legendary organizer and attorney Monica Ramirez, who’s advocating on behalf of farm workers and migrant women onto the show today in conversation with me and Tarana.

Tarana, Monica, Mary Kathryn, it is really powerful to be with you all on today, especially giving the conversation that we’re having. Thanks for joining me. 

Mary Kathryn Nagle:  Thanks for having us. 

Brittany: So I kind of wanna start with a speed round. Take us back to the early days after the #MeToo hashtag started going viral, which is of course much later than MeToo began.

What do you all remember about that time and what has changed in your life since then? Tarana, I wanna start with you as the person who literally launched the MeToo movement in 2006. 

Tarana: Well, I can get people to listen to when I talk about sexual violence. That’s probably the number one way my life has changed.

I think that before this, it was really, really difficult to get sexual violence on people’s agenda. To get it on the radar, to get people to think about it as a social justice. You know. I’ve been known to do work around racial justice for a long time and was, you know, moved in those circles. And every time you bring up sexual violence in relation to racial violence, when you bring it up in relation to any kind of violence, it was silenced, pushed to aside, and not thought of in the same way.

And now we have been having a sustained dialogue about sexual violence. In the same breath as these other issues for five years. And that is a huge change. A huge humongous change. 

Brittany: Yeah. Monica, how about you?

Monica: Well, I remember thinking when everything was breaking open, like first of all, I knew that it was not gonna be the same again.

You know, me and the farm worker movement and lots of folks around the country, we’ve been trying for so long to get people to pay attention and to get people to treat it like a serious issue that people needed to fund and support. But the other thing that happened that I thought was really odd was that people around me started talking about like what to do and like, where should we go now with MeToo?

And I kept thinking, Was anyone asking Tarana, like, you know, like, who are we to be deciding where to go now? And, and I feel like one of the things that has changed in Toronto, you might disagree with them, but I feel like one of the things that has changed is that we held so strong about pushing back to say to folks, No, like it, Tarana created a movement and we are honored to be part of it.

And she helped us all understand the way forward and in a really important way. I think that we all sort of stood by each other to say, We’re gonna make sure that people are gonna respect our leadership. No one else gets to decide for us the way the work should be moving. And I feel like that was an important show of not only of solidarity, but also of power.

Brittany: I am coming with the same question to you, Mary Kathryn, what do you remember about five years ago and what’s the kind of major change in your life in the last five years? 

Mary Kathryn: Well, I think for, you know, as a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and as an attorney that works with organizations like the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center and Illuminative, you know, we have been working to address just the rampant sexual assault native women and children experience throughout Indian country in the States. 

And one of the huge issues we’ve always been focused on is invisibility, is just that survivors have no visibility to share their stories. They aren’t believed. But I think one huge shift I have seen is that following the hashtag #MeToo movement is it is much harder for especially men in positions of power to completely silence survivors and more people are responding to survivors stories saying, Let’s listen to her or them.

Let’s hear what they have to say. Let’s believe them. And that just didn’t happen five years ago. If you were someone who was victimized, especially by someone who had any kind of fame or celebrity, you were you demonized or further victimized, right. If you tried to tell your story. And you know, I think it’s been really empowering, especially for some of our youth, to know that it’s okay to speak your truth. 

Brittany: When the hashtag first started to take off, I think a lot of people in the media, especially a lot of power brokers in media, had trouble wrapping their minds around the fact that so many people have had this experience.

Right. They just were, I think overwhelmed by the onslaught of folks raising their hands and saying, Yes, MeToo. And I think that their response in a lot of ways was to be fascinated by the individual stories, right? So they would pick up the stories of people who already had a degree of privilege, celebrities, politicians, white women, et cetera.

They started getting a disproportionate amount of the attention. Monica, you work extensively with migrant women and farm workers and undocumented folk. Are you seeing the effects of the movement in spaces where there is historically less attention given to these issues? 

Monica: Yeah. Brittany, thanks. I mean, I come from the farm worker community.

You know, I am a good community and I think that initially there wasn’t much of a conversation when things were breaking through about farm worker, women and domestic workers and others, and we made it so that the conversation was more inclusive and I think, you know, there was this period of time where there’s a lot of tension on people from different backgrounds who were experiencing sexual violence. 

And then it sort of faded away. And I think our job is to just continue to bring it to the surface. Bring to the surface. Because we also have to make sure that we’re not only talking about the problem of sexual violence against farm worker women and others who are not as visible, but we have to make sure that the solutions are centered on them.

And also the change that’s being driven, that we’re showing the way. People from community who are thought of as quote unquote, powerless. Our communities have been the biggest drivers of change historically, not just on this issue. And so it is our work to make sure that people understand it and that whenever there is a win that it isn’t only the privilege to our making those wins possible.

Brittany: Yeah. Yeah. You know, Mary Kathryn, you spoke to this a little bit, but when we talk about these issues of invisibility, disproportionately hitting certain groups of people, we’re absolutely talking about Native women. Sexual and gender-based violence against native women is happening at far higher rates than in the larger population.

We know that according to the Center for Health Progress, Native women are at least two and a half times more likely than non-Native women to experience sexual assault and rape. So, you talked a little bit about how it’s different. I’m curious what your work is now to continue to fight against that invisibility.

Mary Kathryn: I really appreciate that question and it’s so important and I think that, you know, if you look at before hashtag MeToo, if there was ever. A film or a show that tried to touch on this issue, Native women really only entered into it as the victims. They weren’t characters that got developed. They weren’t people that you  grew to know and love.

They just showed up at the point that they were to be killed or raped or both. And were seeing a shift. And that part of that is getting Native content creators into creative positions where they have authority to write these stories. And I think it’s just, that’s why it’s so important, right? I think too, you know, seeing how the hashtag MeToo movement changed the conversation even outside of Hollywood, right?

We’re talking about in politics, the United States Congress, things happening where all of a sudden individuals who are in positions of power who had no accountability, were being held accountable for their sexual assault actions. And I think when I think about Native women and visibility, I think about the shift, we still have a ways to go.

You know, today Native women are more likely to be murdered than any other population in the United States, and on some reservations, our women are murdered at 10 times the national homicide rate. And yet when we go missing or are murdered, the FBI who has jurisdiction refuses to investigate. And you know, I just think about the Harvey Weinstein film that was made several years ago where the FBI was shown in Wind River as these amazing heroes that come in and investigate this film where the Native women were just victimized.

That was the only, their only role in the film, and the FBI was shown as these heroes when on the ground. In real life, the FBI does not investigate the murders and homicides of Native women. I know as an attorney who represents those families, we’ve been writing letters and making phone calls to the FBI for years.

They’re not investigating a single one of the cases I work on, even though they could investigate each one of them. We’re still living, like as you said, the most vulnerable of vulnerable are different communities of color who experience disproportionate rates of victimization when they’re victimized. In many ways, they’re still left and visible and our institutions of power that should be doing something about these crises are still not, not arriving on the scene and doing what they need to do.

Brittany: Absolutely. You know, Tarana, when we met for the first time, you didn’t know me for a can of paint, but you were getting an award and I went and found you and I just thanked you for starting this movement and for speaking up for so many of us who hadn’t yet spoken our truth. And I was very specifically talking about myself because up until that point I had not said out loud in public that I am a survivor of sexual assault.

Fast forward to last year on our last season close, we were talking about your book, and so it’s been another year since then. You’re doing a campaign this month in October called Beyond the Hashtag. Where is that taking us? 

Tarana: As somebody who, you know, started this work, of course beforehand, I absolutely am grateful for the hashtag I want that to be said, right?

We would not be here if not for that moment, for that viral moment, but what we mean by beyond the hashtag is that it also has been taken and co-opted in so many different ways. Over the last five years, people have taken the hashtag and turned it into a verb. People have stopped at the hashtag also, right?

And what we wanna do is take people beyond the hashtag, because I also think that people don’t realize that every single hashtag is a human. They are real people with real lives and real stories, and so we have to move beyond just looking at them on the screen and thinking of them as a statement or a hashtag, and think about the material lives of survivors.

We’re going beyond the hashtag to look at what happens after you say, MeToo. What do we owe the people who said MeToo? What do we owe the communities where these, where sexual violence is happening and that’s the work of MeToo International. There is so much that needs to happen on the ground. There’s so much that needs to happen beyond just in Hollywood. Beyond just in, you know, the halls of Washington or in the government. We, you know, we are releasing our framework this week and it’s, as I describe it, in the beginning, it’s like all the words that I could, that we could collectively gather to describe. What we are as a movement, which is we are a movement about healing and action.

But also when you have 12 million people, and I know you have heard me say this and I will continue to say it over and over again. When you have 12 million souls that cry out in a 24-hour time period and say that this horrific thing happened to me too, what do we owe them? We have to owe them something. 

There has to be a response, and I don’t think there has been an adequate enough response in the last five years to the people, to the survivors. These are citizens. These are non-citizens. These are human beings. These are people who vote. These are people who stand up for all kinds of other things in this country.

When do we stand up for them, right? That’s really what beyond the hashtag is. You would think that there would be massive studies. You would think that there would be massive resources being poured into this as an issue, and there is not. And so what happens when people don’t do what they’re supposed to do?

We organize, that’s what we’re trained to do as a response. And so as an organization, this year-long campaign is not just about celebrating this day, you know, we’re gonna commemorate that day. We’re gonna talk about that day, but we’re gonna spend the next year really digging into what the response is to the people who said MeToo.

Brittany: I mean, when you talk about what we owe survivors embedded in that is the acknowledgement that saying MeToo can be and has been very costly for people. 

Tarana: Oh, absolutely. 

Brittany: It has not come without blowback. Talk something about that. 

Tarana: Absolutely. I don’t think that people truly understand the cost of just saying MeToo.

And there’s several, there’s layers to that cost. You know, it was one of my first fears when I started seeing people say, MeToo. It’s like, there’s no container to hold these people. I know what it’s, what disclosure, you know, and it sounds real clinical, but what’s saying MeToo is really, is disclosure, what we call in the field disclosure.

And typically when a person discloses, if you are in clinical work, we wrap around a person who discloses, right? There are systems in place to help a person who discloses, whether it’s therapeutic things in place, or there are a set of friends in place, whether there’s a peer to peer situation in place, none of that exists.

When you disclose on the, and so there is a mental and emotional cost that happens. There is a cost that is related to, like I said, social status and all the rest of that, that somebody has to pay, and it always lands in the lap of a survivor, and it’s not our debt to pay. Not particularly. It is definitely not our debt to pay a loan, but we have been left to pay it a loan over and over again.

This studies have come out as say it costs on average $122,000 a year and over the course of your lifetime for people who survive sexual violence. That’s if you can afford it. Native women have the highest rate of sexual violence in this country, followed by Black women who have the second highest rate of sexual violence in this country. 

Then you think about a third thing, Native women, Black women, and other women of color, and I’m just using women for this moment who have the lowest economic status in this country. You think they can afford an additional $122,000 over the course of their lifetime, so they’re not the one spending that $122,000 for healing resources or what have.

Over the course of their lifetime, which means that they are finding other ways to survive. But then we are the ones who blame those Black and native and Latinx and other women of color when they go to drugs or alcohol and other things, right? This is all inextricably linked. These things are all deeply linked together.

But we look at them separately, and this is all about survival. If we don’t take survival seriously and look at it as a social justice issue, we don’t take sexual violence seriously and look at it as a social justice issue that is linked to mass incarceration, that is linked to gun violence, that is linked to economic injustice, that is linked to all sorts of injustices that we are fighting, then we are making a big mistake.

Monica: I just wanna take a moment to honor Tarana, because in all the years that I’ve done this work, and I am a survivor too, and I come from a family of folks who are survivors, and in all the years that I’ve done this work, there has never been as much of an emphasis on healing as Tarana has placed on it.

You know, for many, many years, the emphasis was on punitive measure. Right. What were the, what was going to be the cost to the perpetrator? Right? And that was the only kind of justice that people could really focus on. And, you know, I remember early in my legal career when I was representing a farm worker woman who had been sexually assaulted at work.

And I remember, you know, talking about the situation in an event and someone came to me afterwards because she was an immigrant woman, migrant woman. And they said to me, shouldn’t she have to give something up? This idea that this undocumented woman should have had to experience this violence because she had the luxury and privilege of being in this country, and that should have been what she had to give up.

And I remember being so struck by that. Like it felt like I had been slapped. Right? And it’s because this dehumanization has happened over and over and over again. And for so long, you know, as survivors, we were taught that we had to just put up with it. Toronto has called us all over and over again to place the humanity of survivors at the forefront.

And I think, you know, thinking back to your first question about what has shifted in the past five years, I think that has been one of the greatest shifts and one of the most important shifts because now there are more tools to talk about what it is that we need to try to find healing. When we all know that it’s a lifelong journey.

Brittany: That’s right. When we talk about those healing spaces and people wrapping their arms around me, this is what that looks like, right? Honoring one another’s labor, honoring one another’s struggle, honoring one another’s survivorship, honoring one another’s thriving. Tarana, I know that your next book is about grace and this an interesting shift, I think, for a lot of people because to Monica’s point, this conversation has gone so quickly from hashtag #MeToo to punishment, punishment, punishment. And here you are talking about grace. Why this book right now? What is, what does grace mean in the context of MeToo? 

Tarana: I’m so nervous about the book, by the way, Right?

Because I think it’s gonna be a big shift for a lot of people and we are not accustomed to talking about things like grace or like hope. But I do think that when I look around and at the work we’re doing, and I think about movement work and, and especially in this, in this conversation, when do we get grace?

The book is not about Christianity, but I think about, you know, obviously when you think about grace, you think about it in the Christian context for a lot of people and how like the right wing has really taken over the conversation about Christianity and tried to own Christianity in that way. And I’m like, if y’all really Christian and think about grace, when do you extend grace?

To folks like me who look like me, right? You don’t really understand grace. Where’s the space? Where’s the space for grace for my rage? When you see me, when somebody, something happens like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, you see me raging in the streets and you see where’s the grace for that, you know?

So, who actually gets to have grace in this moment? Those are some of the things I’m looking at, but also I’m thinking about the way we work. I’ve been in this work a long, long, long time, right? I’ll be 50 next year. I started doing this work as a teenager and one of the things I really believe in, I believe in liberation politics.

But I believe that we are not going to be successful in anything we do if it’s not accompanied by a politic of grace, because whatever this thing is that we are fighting for and working towards when we get there and we look around and think about how we fought to get there. If we don’t do that with a politic of grace, what are we fighting for?

Those, some of the things that I’m talking about: who deserves grace, who gets to have grace, but also how do we incorporate a politic of grace in our liberation work? My vision for how we work to end sexual violence might be wildly different from yours. But as long as yours is detrimental. The book is called Revolutionary Grace because it’s more than just what we’ve been taught about grace.

You know, cuz again, there’s some folks who I am not extending grace to, right? Like the folks who are trying to kill my people. I don’t think you deserve grace, and I’m okay with saying that. I’m okay with saying that if you trying to kill my folks, I don’t think you deserve grace.

And I think we are asked to extend grace all too often. Those of us who are pressed and pushed to the margins. I think we are asked to extend grace all too often. We, when we are never extended grace, so you know, it may kick up some dust. I don’t know. We’ll see. I gotta get some more writing now.

Brittany: I mean, when we talk about living in a world where sexual violence is fully a thing of the past, it requires restorative justice, right? It requires space for growth cuz there’s a whole lot that people need to learn and understand differently than what we may have been taught or what we moved through before. You know, Mary Kathryn, you work as an attorney, right, so in one way, you’re connected to a very traditional pathway of what accountability looks like for those who have harmed someone.

And yet, as you’ve already shared your citizenship of the Cherokee Nation and you do this work committed to and with fellow Indigenous people, I’m curious if there is wisdom from your own cultural background that you feel like we could be turning to as we have these conversations about accountability and justice?

Mary Kathryn: Absolutely. Different tribal nations have different traditional practices, but, you know, before sort of the western model was kind of shoved onto us a lot of different tribal nations, what it’s now being called restorative justice. Right. You know, as a lawyer, when you look at the law, you know, the United States and the Western model is very much, if someone sexually assaults someone, it is the state versus that perpetrator in the terms of the V that goes into court, right? 

It’s the United States versus Jones, or Oklahoma versus Jones. But traditionally for our tribes, it wasn’t seen as the sovereign versus the perpetrator. It was the victim and the victim’s Klan, their family, that everyone’s affected by a trauma and a violation like versus that individual and their family, How is that family going to atone for the trauma caused by this person’s bad deed? And so it wasn’t. Oh, we’ve got to make this person write vis a vis the state or the sovereign. It was, we’ve gotta make this person write vis a vis the victim and the victim’s family.

And the justice that was in it that was traditionally enacted sometimes would be by leaders of a, you know, clan, mothers or different leaders of a particular clan that would say, okay, the perpetrator is going to go hunt for this family, or perform this role or this function, or, you know, it wasn’t necessarily, Oh, let’s go incarcerate them and that will solve the problem.

And you know, I’m where I’m not a hundred percent opposed to any system of incarceration, you know, work very hard to restore tribal criminal jurisdiction over and non Indians who come onto our lands and rape our women. And sometimes I do think people need to be put in jail, but I think that’s a piece of a much larger solution that we’re often overlooking. 

It is true that, you know, Native women are more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than anyone else in the United States. The Department of Justice has reported that the vast majority of those crimes are being committed by non-Indians. But I know in our own communities ] when people in our own communities commit them, we’re looking at intergenerational trauma, right?

We’re looking at people who were, whose parents or themselves were taken away to a boarding school where they were sexually abused or other traumas and we do know if we wanna stop this cycle of violence, we can’t just throw people in jail, right? We’ve got to talk about other forms of healing and that’s where, think restorative justice and these other things, lessons to be learned from tribal nations that had those systems in place.

Brittany: Yeah. Monica, a similar question because I think when Tarana has said, a lot of people have stopped at the hashtag, what I’ve seen a lot of people do beyond the hashtag is one thing, right? And it’s just to cancel toxic people, often men, but you just, I’m canceling you. It’s I’ve unfollowed you, I’ve blocked you, and that’s it, right?

How do we get to this place of restorative justice so that we can create not just lasting accountability, but a truly changed society. Right? Cuz fear-based punitive measures don’t get us there. 

Monica: Well, I mean, I think that we would all agree that survivors have to be in the lead, and survivors need to say what is needed and how do we get there?

And how do we show grace? How do we demonstrate love? How do we love and lead differently like survivors have? And we just have to continue to make space to allow survivors to be able to tell us, right? For us as survivors to speak and for other survivors. And, I think that, you know, this notion that there’s one solution, like we have to do some unlearning there.

There is not one solution, and justice looks different for everyone, and healing looks different for everyone. And so this, like cookie cutter, one size fits all solution, it isn’t there. It doesn’t exist. And so we have to continue to gather, to learn, to educate, to make space, to lift up. And so we have got to be fiercely committed to doing the work of non-violence and of justice, even amongst each other. We’ve gotta be fiercely committed to that and I think that is how we will find a new way forward. 

Brittany: Absolutely. I mean, you talk about us learning and growing, our understanding of all of the possibilities for the solutions because publicly we’ve got a pretty tried, true, narrow approach to ending sexual violence, if that’s even the public commitment, which I think is, is arguable right Tarana? 

I know that you dream of a world where we truly take this seriously as an issue, as a social justice issue. You know, in the same way that we have a moonshot approach to ending cancer, and that people every single year commit their time, their talent, their treasure, to making that possible, having that same level of commitment to ending sexual violence.

Are we getting closer to that?

Tarana: I wanna say yes. I never thought I would see a day where we would take to the streets to march against, you know, sexual violence around the issue of sexual violence. I think the last five years we took a leap ahead in this work that would’ve taken us probably 20 years.

And I think I can say that pretty confidently. It’s we still have a tremendous amount of work to do, but I think the work that has happened in the last five years, the progress that has happened in the last five years without this viral moment that really sort of propelled things forward would’ve taken a tremendous amount of work and a longer period of time.

So yes, I do think that we are moving closer, closer than I thought that I would see in my lifetime. I always say my assignment is to do everything I can with what I’ve been given while I’m here so that I can tell the soul for whoever’s coming next. I think that there is some brilliant young person right now who is watching us and who is plotting and planning on how to do whatever they see us doing much better in saying, Ooh, I wish they would do this, and I can’t wait for that young person to get their moment to come in, right? 

We have to start now talking to young people at school age about consent, about bodily autonomy so that they’re second nature, so that those things, those ideas are second nature to young people coming up. I always use the analogy around cigarettes. You know, kids nowadays, even though there’s still cigarettes, people still smoke and they use the electronic cigarettes.

They have no idea what it was like 25, 30 years ago that people could smoke in airports and, you know, walk down the street smoking cigarettes in restaurants, right? Cause there’s been, there was so much work, there were multiple interventions that happened. There were cultural and legal and medical and community interventions that happen that shifted the norm away from what we all grew up with.

And so what we have to do is shift the norm so that young people looking at me like, Oh my God. What are you talking about? Date rape? Who does that? You know, like, Oh my god, Consent. Of course we ask for consent. You don’t touch people without asking. Like, it’s just like a no brainer. So we just, we wanna shift culture in a way that young people are thinking about it so differently that the next generation after that are just like, this is not even done.

Yeah. And I think that’s how we get closer and closer. 

Brittany: And that feels like the perfect note to end on. Monica, Mary Kathryn, Tarana, thank you so much for all you do for us and for the world. Thank you for closing out season two with us. 

Tarana: Thank you. 

Mary Kathryn: Thank you, Brittany. 

Monica: Thank you.

Brittany: Mary Kathryn Nagle is a playwright and partner at Pipestem Law, a firm specializing in the tribal sovereignty of Native Nations. Monica Ramirez is an organizer, activist, attorney and founder of Justice for Migrant Women. Tarana Burke is an author, activist, 2017 Time person of the year, and founder of the MeToo movement.

Y’all, movements like MeToo are built by everybody who dares to imagine and to fight to raise their hands and reclaim their stories. But it’s not just about them. It’s about every one of us. And we don’t get to this moment five years later, and we certainly don’t get to a world free of sexual and gender-based violence without each and every person playing whatever role they choose.

But we all have to choose, like, what can I do to help at my job in my life, on my street, on my block with the people I know, that I pray with, that I see every day at daycare. If the whole world’s a stage, then the play cannot go on without you saying the lines and playing the role that you were born in. We all lose the plot with each actor who bows out.

So now is the time to think seriously about what next right thing we can each do to inch toward liberation and then go do it with sincerity and urgency and commitment. So much has happened in those five years. So much has happened in this year, and as much as things have changed, let me tell you exactly the same. 

My deep, deep gratitude for this UNDISTRACTED community of ours. For y’all’s grace and your curiosity and candor for the power of your word of mouth advertising and your very thoughtful reviews and tweets and DMs and comments. We read all of them for our incredible team of producers and researchers, engineers, and correspondence, especially as they helped steer the ship while I was at home learning to breastfeed among other things. 

And for this seriously dope collective that is the women and femmes who make up The Meteor, our amazing partners at Pineapple Street and our committed and brave advertisers. Y’all make it a whole lot easier to stand UNDISTRACTED. So we’ll be back shortly and I’ll talk to y’all real soon.

In the meantime, Let’s go get free.

That’s it for today and for this season, but never for tomorrow and definitely not for next season. UNDISTRACTED is a production of The Meteor and Pineapple Street Studios. 


Our lead producer is Rachel Ward.

Our associate producer is Marialexa Kavenaugh.

Thanks also to Treasure Brooks, Hannis Brown, Raj Makhija, and Davy Sumner.

Our executive producers at The Meteor are Cindi Leive and myself, and our executive producers at Pineapple are Jenna Weiss-Berman and Max Linsky. 

You can follow me at @MsPackyetti on all social media including TikTok now. And you can follow our fantastic team @TheMeteor. There’ll be plenty of content to hold you over until the next season starts. 

Subscribe to UNDISTRACTED, catch up on those episodes you missed, rate and review us, and share these with your friends. You can find us on Apple podcasts and most places you check out your favorite podcasts.

Thanks for listening, thanks for being, and as always thanks for doing. Y’all know what it is. I’m Brittany Packnett Cunningham. Once again, let’s go get free.


UNDISTRACTED: October 13th, 2022

The End of the World as We Know It? Dr. Dr. Johnson Elizabeth Johnson Rates our Climate Future

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham:  Hey y’all, it’s Brittany. So we took Baby M on his very first round-trip plane ride this week. I had to speak back home in St. Louis, so we just made a family trip out of it. We had no cry, no poop explosion, no adult explosions either. Please clap for us. No, like seriously stop what you’re doing and clap for us.

This is a major, major development. The trip was fun and there were grandparents and aunties and cousins everywhere. Masked and tested and outdoors of course. But despite what an already perfect traveler, my little guy is, the journey itself was not without some extreme expense and some airline annoyance.

Getting fresh and frozen breast milk to a destination 800 miles away for 10 days was a task. Hundreds of dollars and buying a cooler that would ship frozen milk to my mom’s overnight. And then there was being patted down in public with my baby strapped to my chest, all because my baby carrier had a small piece of metal on it that was plainly visible.

And then there were the airline attendants, bless their hearts, who don’t even know their own rules. And I know they work hard and parents lugging children, car seats, strollers, baby bags, bottles, and milk, we shouldn’t have to be better experts on your airlines policies than you are. And thank God for the parent blogs who prepped us, y’all are the real MVPs. 

In the end, of course, these are champagne problems, truly. But the whole trip was also a sad reminder of how much society just despises children. I thought I knew and then I had a child of my own, a Black one at that. And it is clear, y’all would much rather kids be seen and not heard like they aren’t people too.

And policies from private airlines to public governments are just not set up to consider their humanity. So for me, Baby M is reason 50 11 to keep on working, to design a world where we can all thrive. We are UNDISTRACTED.

On the show today, I’ll be talking to marine biologist Dr. Dr. Johnson Johnson about climate futurism and finding our place in the movement to save our planet. 

Dr. Dr. Johnson Elizabeth Johnson: I think a lot of inaction on climate comes from maybe a fear that the future doesn’t have a place for you. Right? Like if you can’t picture the future and you don’t see where a person with your job or your skills or the place that you live is being cared for and you still have a place to belong, then why would you want that future?

Brittany: That’s coming up, but first it’s the news.

First of all, have y’all been following this Herschel Walker mess? I think we have to talk about this for a second. It’s not actually untrending, but we need to discuss this. Here’s a quick refresher. Herschel Walker is the Republican senate nominee in Georgia, right now. He’s running against Reverend Raphael Warnock, who currently holds a seat, and if all goes according to GOP plans, Walker could tip the scales in the wrong direction on a now evenly divided Senate. 

Mr. Walker is a former football star and serious conservative who is among other things loudly, anti-choice even in cases of rape and incest. 

Herschel Walker: I’m Herschel Walker. Most of you know me as a football player, but I’m also a father, a man of faith, and a very good judge of character.I’ve known Donald Trump for 37 years. I’m talking about a deep personal friendship. 

Brittany: However, Mr. Walker is also full of bullshit. For starters, he said he worked in law enforcement. He did not. He said his company would donate a portion of its earnings to charity, and there’s little to no evidence of that actually being true.

And the real cherry on top, as we found out last week, is that his former girlfriend says that he adamantly encouraged her to seek more than one abortion. To be clear, we’re pro-choice and pro-abortion around these places, but it shouldn’t be forced on anyone, that’s the whole choice part of this thing. And it’s a choice Herschel Walker doesn’t actually want people to be able to make. 

Now, in the wake of all of this, a number of Republicans, including Governor Brian Kemp of Georgia, are choosing to distance themselves from him. But here’s actually the point I wanna make. We can’t let them distance themselves from a party they helped build, because Herschel Walker is the GOP right now, he is not an exception or an error or some contradiction to the old school good Christian party this version of the GOP likes to think of itself as. 

Instead he embodies what has always been true about the Grand ole party. We’re talking about a party that has always been systemically and systematically oppressive in every way, and then pampantly lies about it in their quest for power. 

Folks like Donald Trump and Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Herschel Walker, they are not deviations from the Republican norm. They are the Republican norm. And we can’t let anybody act like they don’t know what we’re dealing with anymore. We cannot afford that. Got it. Good. And by the way, Senator Warnock and would-be Senator Walker are debating tomorrow, Friday night and personally I can’t wait to hear that. 

Next, I wanna turn our attention to women’s sports. Last Monday, something called the Yates Report was released to the public. The Yates report was an investigation commissioned by the U.S. Soccer Federation. The report is over 300 pages long, and it documents rampant sexual abuse endured by players, as well as verbal and emotional assault on the part of coaches.

This is not localized to one city, one team, or even one coach. The report charges that similar incidents occurred in Chicago, Portland, and Dallas, just to name a few. At least half of the Women’s National Soccer League had to break ties with coaches on account of what the report called quote: Verbal and emotional abuse, sexually charged remarks, and coercive sexual conduct.

Here’s Becky Sauerbrunn, a player for the Portland Thorns. 

Becky Sauerbrunn: We are horrified and heartbroken. And frustrated and exhausted and really, really angry. 

Brittany: The Yates report also suggests that the league and many team staffers were not oblivious to the abuse. It says that players’ complaints have been minimized on an institutional level.

Now this is obviously awful and I wanna point out that the reason this mistreatment can flourish is because so few of us are paying regular attention to women’s sports in the first place, certainly not mass media. And when something isn’t given attention, the power structures surrounding it are often allowed to operate in the dark, which means they’re often not held accountable.

So in addition to spreading the words about the Yates report, one thing you can do is find and follow your local sports team. Shout out to the Washington Spirit, by the way, our local soccer team. Ahow up at matches once in a while and treat these amazing players like the superstars they are. That gives them more clout with their leagues, and it also means that we know them for their talents and not just what they’ve been through.

Let’s close by reminding each other that Monday, October 10th was Indigenous People’s Day. It’s not yet a federal holiday, though it should be, but it is a day to honor the culture, resilience, and history of our native siblings and friends, while also making sure that we take steps to correct the centuries of injustice the U.S. government has enforced.

And while we’re on the subject, I wanna call attention to an upcoming Supreme Court case that has massive implications for native children and their families. It all has to do with the Indigenous Child Welfare Act, which passed in 1978 as an effort to protect native children and keep them connected to their families and culture.

Before that, native children were disproportionately put through the child welfare system or pushed into one of those awful residential schools, and this law was an attempt to do better. But the Indigenous Child Welfare Act is now under threat on November 9th. First arguments will be heard in a case called Haaland vs Brackeen.

The plaintiffs are arguing that the law discriminates against non-native adoptive parents, particularly white parents. This logic completely neglects the entire reason the act was created in the first place, which was to keep native children in native households as they have been historically displaced from their cultures and born the brunt of our broken welfare systems.

Experts say that if the court rules in favor of the plaintiffs, it is very likely that other matters pertaining to native rights and sovereignty will also be called into. We’ll be listening to those arguments in early November and following next spring when the ruling comes out. These cases don’t always get the attention that say, abortion rights or gun reform get, but they should.

So let’s be the ones who pay attention. Coming up, I’ll be talking to Dr. Dr. Johnson Elizabeth Johnson about everything from hurricanes to wildfires right after this strip break.

And we are back. Last month, Congressional Democrats released their findings in an investigation into fossil fuel companies. What they found in the words of Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, is that big oil is gaslighting the public. A review of internal documents shows that oil companies use a variety of tactics to promote their so-called climate solutions while continuing to do business as usual and a whole lot of climate harm.

The week after the findings were released, Hurricane Ian swept over the Caribbean and the southeastern U.S. causing at least a hundred deaths and two and a half million evacuation. Now climate change and the destruction that hurricane left behind, those two are directly linked. The carbon that fossil fuel producers dig up out of the ground ends up in our atmosphere, which warms our oceans and gives hurricanes like Ian the edge they need to become even more lethal. 

So what can we do about all of this? And is there hope anywhere in this hurricane drenched mess? I knew exactly who I wanted to ask. Y’all know her, marine biologist Dr. Dr. Johnson Johnson. 

Dr. Johnson Johnson, friend, how are you? 

Dr. Johnson: I’m good. How’s it going over there? 

Brittany: It’s going great with me personally, but, I feel like with the planet it could be going better.

Dr. Johnson: That’s how I feel every day. Yes.

Brittany: We spoke to you about 18 months ago. I kind of wanna get a report card of how we’ve been doing on climate since then. If you had to give all of us, the world, the globe, a grade. If you had to give humans a grade as a species. Are we doing any better or worse on tackling climate after this year and a half? She says, anxiously. 

Dr. Johnson: Oof. Well, let’s see. I need to create some quick, you know, KPIs in my head here. Key performance indicators, we’re tackling climate crisis. Well, one of the big ones is for me, always policy, right? Cuz we put a lot of pressure on individuals, but it’s really governments and corporations that are often shaping what’s possible for us as individuals. 

So in the U.S. we just passed climate policy for the first time at the federal level. So the Inflation Reduction Act, oddly, is mostly climate policy. It’s full of incentives for individuals and corporations to reduce their emissions and to get tax credits, we’re talking like hundreds of billions of dollars.

So this is enormous news, but it was very much watered down from what was initially introduced as part of the Build Back Better Act. Yeah, and the saddest part for a lot of us who are not just focused on climate, but climate justice is that there are a lot of elements in there that continue to stomp on the same communities who always get screwed.

Like communities in the Gulf that are fighting oil and gas expansion. Communities in Alaska and this new sort of dirty side deal that Manchin’s been working out with Schumer that The Inflation Reduction Act pass is gonna push through the creation of a new pipeline and weaken National Environmental Protection Act standards for permitting and how communities get to lay into that process.

Right. So it’s like a huge victory that it’s hard to feel good about, but I’m trying to hold onto just like all the possibility that’s unleashed in that bill in terms of electrifying homes and changing transportation. It’s a huge deal, but not the wind. We should have had or could have had. 

Brittany: So, Okay. So if that’s like the AP government side of climate, I feel like we’re getting like a C, C minus.

Dr. Johnson: I guess a C.

Brittany: You’re passing barely . So we’re gonna go with the C on this particular KPI. If we drill down, sorry, that’s probably the wrong word. If we dive down. 

Dr. Johnson: Geothermal drilling. We like geothermal energy. 

Brittany: There we go. If we geothermal drill down to some other subjects and KPIs, how are we doing on accepting the science of climate change? 

Dr. Johnson: Polling from Yale Center for Climate Communication with, they’ve been doing with George Mason for over a decade. I think it’s only like 9 or 11% of Americans that are like strict, strict climate deniers.

But then there’s some who are like, I don’t know, maybe, you know, we could give like a B minus to Americans on accepting the signs of climate change. I would say I’m feeling generous this morning. 

Brittany: Yeah, yeah. Cuz it’s not great. And I mean, if we discuss the risks to our climate in future terms, a lot of people think this is far in the future and that there will be some moment where all of the climate change suddenly hits.

Right. Like a disaster movie. It feels like we’re in the movie now. Oh, we’re here, like the title sequence is done. We’ve met all of the main characters. The plot is thickening, right? I mean, and here’s the plot, right? Fifteen percent of Pakistan’s population was displaced by flooding in August. That’s like if everyone in Florida and Texas is suddenly without a home.

Meanwhile, the European Parliament just released a report saying that the drought Europe is experiencing, which is believed to be the worst in 500 years, will become an annual event by the year 2050. So we are in this right now. The future is happening. Is it not? 

Dr. Johnson: This is what scientists have been warning us about, right, that this is what would be the result of the actions of, you know, fossil fuel corporations and governments who are not passing policies that this was what would be the result.

Brittany: Let’s move on to our math score. Just like keeping a bug with me. How many years do we really have? 

Dr. Johnson: So I think this question, it’s a bit defeatist, I guess, because it implies that there’s like an end, right? And after that we just get to give up.

Brittany: That’s fair. 

Dr. Johnson: Whereas the reality is like things just get worse and worse and worse. Unless we start doing more and more to implement climate solutions, right? And we have the solutions we need, we can go to renewable energy, we can change our transportation system. We know how to do green buildings and solar panels and wind turbines and regenerative farming and restoring ecosystems that absorb all this carbon.

Like that’s, there’s no secrets. We just have to do it. And so the more we do, and the faster we do it, the better off we’ll be. And the opposite is also true, and there’s no point at which we get to just give up because it can always get worse and we can always make it a little better. So it’s on both sides of the equation.

It’s on the side where we need to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions and absorb more of them out of the atmosphere through things like photosynthesis. And on the other side, we need to think about how we’re adapting to the changes that are already underway. Right? How are we thinking? Moving coastal communities out of harm’s way.

How are we thinking about helping farmers adapt as weather patterns are changing? Right? How do we think about heat waves in cities and making sure people have a cool place to go so they’re safe? How are we painting rooftops white so buildings don’t get so hot in the summer, right? There’s like all these things we can do to adapt to the changes that we’re already seeing.

And we just have to do all of those things. 

Brittany: I mean, that’s a really helpful pushback, especially in this understanding that there’s not going to be a point at which we get to give up. But back to policy for a second. Right? We know that the Senate just voted to ratify the Kigali amendment. 

Dr. Johnson: That’s huge.

Brittany: Yeah. It means that the U.S. will join more than a hundred other countries in reducing production of hydrofluorocarbons or HFCs. I had to read that one because I don’t wanna get it wrong, but from what I understand it’s almost going to have an instantaneous effect on slowing down the actual warming of the globe.

How much does this put us back in the right direction? And if this is such a big thing, like why didn’t we do it earlier? 

Dr. Johnson: Oh Lord, the number of good, easy things we should have done earlier is a very large number. And so the thing with hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) is they’re used in cooling systems and that kind of thing, but there are alternative chemicals we can use to do that, that do not lead to warming the planet. 

And so by some estimates passing this, ratifying this amendment, would, it’s an amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which banned CFCs. And we were all worried about, like our hair spray and stuff like that ruining the ozone layer. This is part of that same Montreal protocol that set that in motion, which was one of the the first big examples of countries all around the world coming together to do something to protect the atmosphere. 

And so this grows out of that effort. And now with the regulation of HFCs, we might be able to reduce additional warming by half a degree. So, you know, there’s not really a downside economically to doing this. 

The math is really easy on the cost benefit that it’s like kind of a no brainer. So that’s, I think, why we’re able to get it through Congress and it’s not as politicized. I guess. That one just kind of slipped through and people kept rational on that vote. 

Brittany: Okay, so we’re getting a C on government; a B, a very generous B minus in science. What’s our math score? 

Dr. Johnson: I mean, what are we adding up? 

Brittany: Not how many years we have left. We’re adding up how many years we’ve wasted. 

Dr. Johnson: Oh. 

Brittany: And how many years we’ve gained back?

Dr. Johnson: F. F.  We’ve wasted every year since like the seventies when Exxon’s own scientist told us this would happen.

But I think it’s really important to say that when we think about things at a global level or at a national level, right? We see these wins like the Aldi amendment, like the Inflation Reduction Act, but there are few and far between, but at the local level, we’re seeing really interesting stuff.

Everything from farmers sharing best practices for switching to regenerative organic farming where they’re healing the soil, so we can absorb more carbon and produce better food, right? We’re seeing cities like Chicago say that every new unit of housing built has to have a hookup to make everything electric, so that in the future we can have all heating and cooking electric. The price of electric is plummeting, the price of solar and wind is often less than oil and gas in a lot of places. And the new energy that was built in the last year, 85% of it was from clean sources. So there’s tons of good stuff happening. So I definitely don’t want people to leave this episode thinking like it’s just a matter of how horrible it is, and we’re getting all these bad grades. 

We’re getting all these bad grades because the work to do is so enormous. This is not like a pop quiz. This is like 8,000 PhD dissertations. 

Brittany: Right. So it sounds like collectively we’ve got that F, but maybe in community we’ve got a C plus.

Dr. Johnson: We’re moving in the right direction.

Brittany: Well, we’re in the good part of the curve. Yeah, yeah, yeah. You know, I, we actually bought an all-electric house. So we purchased a new home from a sustainable builder. And there was like a little bit of a learning curve for us, but it’s actually a very intuitive, smart home. And now we’re just trying to save up the money to get the solar panels, but we’re working on it.

Dr. Johnson: And as you work on that, there will now be more tax credits for you, so it will be cheaper for you now that we have the Inflation Reduction Act.

Brittany: Praise God for that because babies are wonderful and very expensive. Okay. I know that the static grades are hard, but I do think that they help crystallize for people what work is left to be done.

So I’m gonna ask you for one more grade. We’ve talked about science, we’ve talked about government, we’ve talked about math. The last subject is geography. Because we know that there’s literally no place on earth that won’t be affected by climate change that isn’t affected by climate change.

But which ecosystems and communities are most and least likely to feel these effects?

Dr. Johnson: I mean, the sad and unsurprising answers, the communities that always get screwed are the ones that are gonna get screwed. We’re thinking about things like sea level rise and hurricanes and just who has the resources to move or adapt.

The people who have, you know, their vacation beach houses can just go back to their regular home. But that’s not most people. And as we’ve seen over and over again, government isn’t really great at stepping in and making sure that those folks are okay in the recovery.

Brittany: Oh, so, okay, So I’m gonna give us an F on geography because inequality always gets an F as long as it exists.

Dr. Johnson: I can’t argue with that. 

Brittany: Okay. So the big takeaway from this report card is that we are strictly needs improvement. needs urgent improvement. 

Dr. Johnson: What is it called when you get like put on like an improvement plan? 

Brittany: Yeah, a performance improvement plan. We’re on a PIP.

Dr. Johnson: But I think it’s the scenario where like if today is the end of the semester, abysmal report card. But like it’s not necessarily the end of the semester today. This is like our midterm exams, let’s just say, and like we really gotta like pull it through in the home stretch.

Brittany: But you’re really the perfect person to talk about what the improvement looks like. Right? You’re in the process of writing a book called What If We Get It Right? Visions of Climate Futurism. What does that mean? Climate Futurism? 

Dr. Johnson: I just feel a lot of what we’ve been missing as a society is some sort of understanding of what the good versions of the future could look like because so much of our media is apocalyptic, right? This like uninhabitable Earth day after tomorrow, fire and brimstone like climate apocalypse.

And I feel like we all know what that looks like, but we don’t really know what it looks like if we charge ahead with all these solutions we have, right? If we have a hundred percent renewable energy, if we have protected and restored ecosystems that are helping to heal nature. If we have good food that’s taking care of farmers and communities. If we have public transit options that actually work for people, if we have eliminated cars that run on fossil fuels. 

If we have thought about how we are just charging ahead with all of these different solutions, then what do we get? What does that world look like and what is our place in it individually, right? 

I think a lot of inaction on climate comes from maybe a fear that the future doesn’t have a place for you in it, right? Like if you can’t picture the future and you don’t see where a person with your job or your skills, or the place that you live is being cared for and you still have a place to belong, then why would you want that future?

And so what this book is trying to show is that there’s a place for all of us in this future that we’re creating. And let me pull back the curtain a bit. Let me talk to some experts, interview them, have some artists help us to actually see what the future looks like if we get it right, if we actually implement climate solutions. I know implementation is like not sexy to everyone, but like it is to me.

Brittany: It’s what matters so much because to a point you made earlier, it is in the implementation that policy either succeeds or fails. 

Dr. Johnson: The future is not yet written. So if we’re gonna write that future, there’s a lot of different versions of what we could have, and I wanna make sure we have the best possible one.

I wanna do my part to make sure that we have a good future. And so that’s what the book is about. This what if we get it right.

Brittany: That action is going to require disruption, right? 

Dr. Johnson: A lot of things gotta change. 

Brittany: For folks out there trying to understand the possibilities of our climate future, what would some of those disruptions look like?

Like what are we saying goodbye to and what are we introducing? 

Dr. Johnson: We just say goodbye to fossil fuels. We need to say goodbye to the type of agriculture we’re doing that’s like producing food that’s not good for us, but also really hurting the planet with pesticides and fertilizer. There are like five major components to greenhouse gas emissions.

So one is electricity, one is transportation, one is buildings, another is agriculture, and then there’s like manufacturing and stuff like that, and we need to transform. All of those sectors need to completely electrify everything. We basically know how to do all of that, and so the things we need to say goodbye to are like how we get electricity, not whether we have electricity.

We can still heat and cool our homes. We just need to do it more efficiently and do it using renewable energy. And we can still eat delicious food, we just need to grow it in a way that makes more sense for the climate and for ecosystems. But one of the things we need to say goodbye to is some specific places where it just doesn’t make sense to keep rebuilding over and over again in a place that’s prone to wildfires or floods or hurricanes in that same way that every disaster tears apart communities.

It’s also a chance to think about how and where we wanna rebuild and to be really thoughtful about making sure we’re taking care of each other in that process. 

Brittany: Yeah, that is incredibly difficult when we talk about entire industries going away, things shifting so much because we’re also talking about people’s jobs, their livelihoods, their families, et cetera.

Dr. Johnson: Yeah. And in that way, for example, like offshore wind energy uses a lot of the same skills as offshore oil and gas, right? Those jobs can be transferable. There’s a lot of that stuff that can shift, right? Farmers can shift their practices. People in oil and gas sectors have specific skills that can be applied to new technologies.

So there’s some stuff that means people will have to switch jobs or get training to do new things, but a lot of it is like a bit of a reshuffle. And the big challenge of that is geography, right? How do we make sure there are enough good jobs in the same places so that people can have this or, and this is why Universal Healthcare was included in the Green New Deal proposal, people are gonna have to move around. 

And if their healthcare is tied to their job, that actually makes it hard for you to go to a new place and do a new thing or participate in a new green industry and all of that. And that was one of the weirdest things to me that was cut out of the bill before it was passed, as the Inflation Reduction Act is like they cut most of the money for job training and like wouldn’t every member of Congress want people in their communities to be able to get skills for all these new industries that are emerging? 

So just do not understand why you would vote against your constituents best interests. But you know, there we have it. 

Brittany: I really appreciate your framing of climate futurism because it puts us in a place of possibility, right? And radical hope. Let’s go there. You’re on the board of directors for the outdoor gear company, Patagonia, which just turned its entire future over to climate. What were those discussions like around the board room table?

Dr. Johnson: So Patagonia is a privately owned company. It’s a family business, right? The two parents and the two children owned all the shares, and so they could make the decision to give it all away. Not to sell the company, but to make sure that all the profits and perpetuity went to environment and climate. And so that’s what they did.

And so the simple way to describe that is now Earth is now the only shareholder, Patagonia. And that is a very radical act in this age when people are trying to just make more and more money and hoard it for themselves and do a little high profile philanthropy, maybe, you have this new model for running a business that is still being run, still making dope jackets and whatever, but all of those profits are being given away. And there’s been, you know, some discomfort on the part of people who do not wanna be held to a bar like that.

But mostly the public response has been overwhelmingly positive. People are like, finally, you know, someone doing the right thing. Like, we have removed a billionaire from the Forbes list this month because he just gave it all away, right? And so seeing the number of companies who have reached out to say, How did you do this?

Like technically your legal structure, tell us so we can like look at your model and see what we can do. The number of other wealthy people who are like, Can we collaborate? Like what’s your plan for what you’re gonna fund? Maybe we could co-fund something, is just the incoming of people who wanna be a part of this, who wanna follow this model has been incredibly inspiring.

Brittany: And I mean, it sets a  model of what’s possible, right?  I think that’s a really powerful, and to your point, radical example. Before I let you go, I have to ask you about what we can actually do, right? Because the reality of climate change can feel so overwhelming, right? We heard some of the static grades I was forcing you to give in the very beginning and they’re not necessarily encouraging and so much of what would help at the government level, at the industry wide level is not moving nearly as quickly as we wanted it to, right? 

I know the idea even of shrinking your carbon footprint was first promoted by the fossil fuel industry to kind of kick some of this irresponsibility back to the individual and take it off of themselves. 

Dr. Johnson: It was a PR campaign.

Brittany: Yeah. So they could keep drilling and yet I actually do wanna make sure that I, my family, that we are doing something. So give us our homework. What can we as individuals, the folks listening, the folks in our community actually. 

Dr. Johnson: A lot is the answer. There’s a lot you can do, and I think part of it is just choosing what you can do first, right? There’s the things that we do as a household and as individuals.

There’s things that we do in terms of politics. There’s things that we do in terms of our jobs, right? There’s all these different spheres of influence that we have, and then there’s how we’re participating in the cultural shift that’s needed. So, Brittany, it’s great that you are thinking about how to reduce the impact of your home, and it’s even better that you’re talking about that. 

And we’ll share with people how that’s going and how they can do it too, right? And then thinking about what we as individuals have to bring to the table. So the way I like to frame this is to think of a Venn diagram. With three circles.

And the first one is, what are you good at? So what are your skills, resources, networks, like what are your superpowers that you can bring to the table? And then the second circle is what is the work that needs doing? So which of the many climate solutions that exist do you wanna participate in?

Whether that’s thinking about our food system or changing like the stories we tell in Hollywood, or getting people elected or pushing for better transit options. What, there’s like an infinite list, right? So pick something or some first thing to work on, and then think about what brings your joy. Is it working community?

Is it the creative process? Is it like checklists? Like everyone has their thing, right? Is it being outside? Is it like, are there certain people you wanna be teaming up with? And where those three circles overlap, what are you good at? What is the work that needs doing? And what brings you joy? That being at the heart of that Venn diagram is where you wanna be.

So for me, that meant starting a nerdy ocean policy think tank that’s really obsessed with design because I really worried about the future of coastal cities as a marine biologist, As a Brooklyn native, I’m a policy nerd as well as a marine biologist, and I’m thinking about how I can be a part of solutions for coastal cities and for me, the answer was a policy think tank that I co-founded with two people I adore working with.

So obviously, that is a very unique Venn diagram, but they will be for everyone. For my mom, it was raising chickens and teaching people about regenerative agriculture and making pamphlets, you know, like whatever is your thing is your thing and, and that can be a part of implementing climate solutions. Implementation. So hot right now. 

Brittany: Implementation. There it is. Something that all of our hands can do. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, thank you as always for being your brilliant badass self and thanks for sharing some of that with us.

Dr. Johnson: My pleasure.

Brittany: Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist and a policy expert. She co-founded the Urban Ocean Lab, and as you heard, she was also the first recipient of the Rare National Geographic Solution Search contest in 2012 for a fish trap she invented. Through all of this, she has been a crucial advocate for intersectional feminism in STEM.

Her book, What if we Get It Right? Visions of Climate Futurism, will be out in 2023. I kept asking Ayana for a grade, I can’t help it. Once a teacher, always a teacher. And she was right to push back on such a narrow, binary form of analysis, but what she really helped make clear, we already know a lot of the answers to the questions on this test.

We know what to do about climate. We have a bunch of answers. We can ace this exam or at least improve our grades and our planet. And I don’t know about you all, but I’m very clear. This is a test we can absolutely not afford to fail. Our lives are on the line.

That’s it for today, but never for tomorrow.


UNDISTRACTED is a production of The Meteor and Pineapple Street Studios. 

Our lead producer is Rachel Ward.

Our associate producer is Marialexa Kavenaugh.

Thanks also to Treasure Brooks, Hannis Brown, Raj Makhija, and Davy Sumner.

Our executive producers at The Meteor are Cindi Leive and myself, and our executive producers at Pineapple are Jenna Weiss-Berman and Max Linsky. 

You can follow me at @MsPackyetti on all social media, which also now includes TikTok where I’m @MsPackyetti, too. And you can follow our team @TheMeteor.

Subscribe to UNDISTRACTED and rate and review us on Apple podcasts or most places you check out your favorite podcasts. 

Thanks for listening, thanks for being, thanks for doing.

I’m Brittany Packnett Cunningham. Let’s go get free.


UNDISTRACTED: October 6th, 2022

“You Can’t Win if You Don’t Start”: Rep Congresswoman Bush on Running for Office—and Making a Difference

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Hey y’all. It’s Brittany. So here’s a question for you. Is it better to fix a social problem from inside the system or to push it all from the outside? Now, this of course, is the eternal question of social change, and it’s often presented as an inquiry with a binary answer, but y’all know we hate binaries and this ain’t true.

Like we live in the both-and, not that sad little either-or you may be surprised to learn that there’s actually a great deal of scholarship that suggests that either-or thinking in general is really a central element of white dominant culture. If you study Jones and Okun’s famous work Dismantling Racism, which is a text that I impart taught from at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, you come to learn that either-or thinking is something that helps preserve the status quo because it leaves absolutely no room for nuance.

Complex things are oversimplified, so poverty then must be a result of poor personal choices, for example, because either you work hard and earn. Or you’re lazy and you don’t beryle me this, Oh, wise one. What social movement has ever won anything based on an either-or philosophy for Martin Luther King Jr. and the entirety of the Civil Rights movement?

It wasn’t ‘either’ meet with the White House ‘or’ March in the Streets to get the 1965 Voting Rights Act passed. Both were necessary to get the job done, protest and politics. That’s what we’re gonna need, and we’re gonna need players on the inside and the outside and everywhere in between in order to win. 

And sometimes those will be the exact same people. Trust me, the folks who get all sides of the game are some of our most valuable players, and we are UNDISTRACTED. 

Brittany: On the show today, we welcome back Congresswoman Congresswoman Bush. She’s been in Washington for almost two years now, and we ask her what she’s learned about how to fix the system.

Congresswoman Cori Bush: We don’t want people to have to go through trauma, but for those of us that have, you can still be somebody that contributes to society in such a way to where transformative change happens on the municipal level, on the state level, on the federal level.

Brittany: That’s coming up. But first, it’s the news. 

And our first story up is the Supreme Court SCOTUS. You remember them? Those black-robed vigilantes responsible for the legal terror streak that we all experienced this summer from the overturning of Roe to the legalization of concealed carry in New York. Well, they’re back. On Monday, the Supreme Court began its new term. 

First of all, welcome Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. The Black girl Justice is here, y’all, and it was her first day on the bench and it was absolutely joyous to see, especially while she was reading Alabama the riot act because they’re definitely trying to gerrymander us to hill. Anyway, here’s what’s important to know.

This new term of SCOTUS is likely to be as consequential as the last one, and that’s saying a lot. Number one, the court will rule on affirmative action. In cases from both Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, the Supreme Court could effectively end the consideration of race and college admissions processes.

There have been past cases involving Michigan and Texas where the courts ultimately ruled to protect affirmative action, but we now have a much more conservative court, so we are definitely weary. I’m nervous, y’all. Number two, water safety. SCOTUS is being asked to discard a previous ruling that regulated properties in an effort to combat water contamination.

The case they’re hearing involves a couple from Idaho who won a high court bid to build property on a lake without a permit under the Clean Water Act. The outcome of their case could impact water safety everywhere and not just on their little plot of land. And as we’ve seen in recent weeks from the Dakota Access Pipeline to Flint to Jackson, Mississippi, water safety continues to be a critical issue for vulnerable Americans across the country.

And here is the big one, the case that affects all our other rights. This term, SCOTUS will be hearing a major case from North Carolina Republicans that would change the way elections are conducted. If the court rules in their favor, it would mean handing more election oversight. To state legislatures and allowing state courts to order actual changes to federal elections.

This is honestly like an existential threat to all of our voting rights, and you’re gonna be hearing about it a lot this year, especially on this podcast. So you can find out more about it along with the court’s upcoming cases on the LGBTQ community, the immigrant community, and Native American adoption access in our show notes.

For our next story, we are headed to New York. Over the past six months, Texas lawmakers had decided to pull a very interesting stunt by sending thousands of asylum seekers to New York. It’s a very painful stunt, a very hurtful stunt, and the idea, of course, is to show the Northeastern liberal states what it’s like to experience an influx of migrants with nowhere to go.

The reason this shuttling managed to take place is that Texas officials found a loophole in New York law, which states that anyone without a place to stay must be granted one. As of now, around 14,600 asylum seekers have been brought to New York City’s shelter system. Of that number, about 11,000 people still remain in need of almost everything. Now, y’all, it takes a lot for me to agree with Mayor Eric Adams about literally anything, but he very aptly called the situation a humanitarian crisis, cuz it is. In efforts to address it, they’ve constructed enormous tents with temporary sleeping arrangements in empty parking lots.

Some of those tents, like the one in the Bronx, are very much not user friendly, especially as we approach the winter months. 

Crystal Hudson: It’s tough. We need both immediate solutions and long term solutions. We need, you know, more housing, permanent housing, deeply affordable housing. And also we need, you know, immediate places to house people now that keep arriving on these buses.

Brittany: That was Brooklyn City Council member Crystal Hudson. The situation is alarming on a lot of levels, but here’s two in particular. First, this situation has been largely invisible compared to other humanitarian crises like the response to Hurricane Sandy, which involved a huge awareness campaign and response.

Barely anyone has been talking about the asylum seekers, and we haven’t seen any corporate philanthropy directed that way. Second, by making asylum seekers everyone else’s problem, Texas lawmakers are reducing the real lives of real people who are already traumatized to a political gimmick and they’re doing nothing to help.

So for ways you can help asylum seekers in New York right now, see our show notes. Finally, I hope all of our Southeastern listeners are staying dry. Like, are y’all okay? It’s been wild down there. 

Lester Holt: Early estimates suggest the damage from Ian could cost as much as $47 billion. That would make it the costliest storm in Florida since Hurricane Andrew 30 years ago. Entire families are displaced. 

Brittany: We’ve all been watching the way Hurricane Ian has ravaged parts of Florida and South Carolina. Not to mention the current death toll is up to at least a hundred people. And here’s the point that you usually don’t hear on the news. Like most climate crises, Hurricane Ian’s impact only deepens the financial and racial inequity that already exists.

Actually, as NBC reports, climate change is now becoming a leading cause of inequality, not just a complication. For starters, disaster aid often favors white people. Black communities tend to receive less FEMA aid than white communities and in places that receive more FEMA aid, the inequity gap only seems to grow with each crisis.

NBC also explains that Black families tend to see their homes lose significantly more property value in the wake of a disaster than white families do. This can then leave homeowners at the risk of foreclosure, which then makes borrowing money in the future more difficult, which then makes putting your children through school harder since home equity is a common way to finance college and on and on and on we go. 

It’s a terrible domino effect and it makes these flood pictures even more tragic to look at. We’re going to be getting into all of this and more on the pod next week, but for now, stay dry and y’all support your neighbors. 

Coming up, I’ll be talking to pastor, nurse, organizer, Congresswoman Congresswoman Bush right after this short break.

And we are back. We talk a lot about the wisdom of lived experience here on UNDISTRACTED. It’s a cornerstone of intersectionality. Our identities and experiences give us critical insights into how power works and how to do it better. My guest today, she has lived. Congresswoman Bush is a congresswoman from Missouri.

She’s also a nurse and a pastor, a mother, a survivor of sexual assault. All that life has given her the tools she needs to be a champion for her district. My home district. And to be a powerful voice for change. It especially mattered when she used her protest background to sleep on the steps of the U.S. capitol building, a direct action that helped extend the federal eviction moratorium during Covid. I wanted to sit down with her before her new book, The Forerunner: A Story of Pain and Perseverance in America, hits the shelves to talk about what it’s been like to drive change from the inside and why more people like her should think about joining her.

Congresswoman, it’s so good to see you.

Congresswoman Bush: You too, Brittany.

Brittany: Thanks for coming back and hanging out with us at UNDISTRACTED. I’m really excited because you are coming up on two years in Congress. You have a memoir coming out that really gets into so much of what you have faced and really triumphed over in your life to get to this point, right?

Congresswoman Bush: Yes. 

Brittany: One of the things you said was: If telling my story helps others in positions of power better understand how their decision-making affects regular everyday people, people like me. Then my own self exposure is worth it. 

Congresswoman Bush: Yes. 

Brittany: I’m curious because you’ve been so transparent from day one, what is that self exposure? What are some of those things that you really feel like power brokers, decision-makers need to understand and hear through your story?

Congresswoman Bush: Yeah, so first of all that you know, you can’t just throw us away. We aren’t people that you can talk about to help further your career or to help you look like you’re providing for your community or you’re listening to the people.

But then we also can’t be those that help lead. We can’t be, we can’t speak for ourselves. No. We are just as valuable. We are just as worthy. 

Brittany: That’s right. 

Congresswoman Bush: Anyone can advocate for someone and not have gone what they went through. But there is a difference when you’re coming from a place of lived experience.

Brittany: That’s right. 

Congresswoman Bush: And I think that that should be acknowledged. And so I wanted people to see like, hey, if this is not a progressive talking point, this is not something to be just divisive or get me on tv. 

Brittany: Right.

Congresswoman Bush: No, this is my life and this is what I know. So many are still going through around this country that we haven’t fixed yet.

This is policy violence. And so it should be policy that helps to correct. 

Brittany: Yeah. For those who don’t know as much of your story and who are gonna pick up this book and maybe read some things that they didn’t know about you, what are some of those pieces of lived experience that are gonna come through this memoir and that you hope decision makers are listening to?

Congresswoman Bush: I’m a big proponent for Medicare for all since 2015 when I made my first run US Senate, and then again, 2018 US House, and then 2020 US House. That was something that kept being like thrown at me was that, Oh, you’re just using this progressive talking point, you know, because Bernie Sanders said it. And for me it was like, no, you know, I know what it’s like to live without health insurance and need healthcare services, but also I know what it’s like for that to attack my credit, you know?

And what that does to Black women who are already, there’s already this racial wealth gap. There’s this gender wealth gap that we face, you know? And then on top of all of that, you know, when you add jacking up our credit because we went to the hospital because we had a toothache, I wanted to highlight that and so just thinking about so many of my patients working as a nurse, you know, I’ve had patients die because they were rationing their insulin and why are people dying when this is the United States of America? 

All they needed was insulin. So like that’s one of those things that people will see in the book is this is why I fight so hard for these things. A lot of what I speak about or stand up for is through my own lived experience. 

Brittany: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, part of what you’re saying, right, is that the people in power are often not aware of the ripple effects of these decisions because they don’t have to actually live them, right?

Congresswoman Bush: Exactly. 

Brittany: I’m curious now that you’ve spent two years in one of the most powerful buildings in the world, do you think that your colleagues are better wrapping their arms around just how much their decisions impact everyday people, or is there still a massive learning curve?

Congresswoman Bush: There is still a massive learning curve. There really is, and it’s gonna take us continuing to push, push, push, push, push, push, push. You know, they’re already sick of us, you know, especially when we talk about quote unquote squat.

You know, they’re sick of hearing about, you know, our issues, but I know that if Rashida Tlaib gets a microphone, you’re going to hear about water. I know that if Ayanna Presley gets the microphone, she’s going to talk about college debt or Black maternal health. She’s going to talk about the Green New Deal and these are things that we just keep, keep, keep driving, but people are still like incremental change.

Brittany: Yeah. 

Congresswoman Bush: What? I don’t give a freak what it looks like. I don’t care what people call it, because it was policy violence that started it, that caused it. So you need to fix it. 

Brittany: Yeah. So Congresswoman, you just won a very important primary. You can’t say it, so I’m gonna say it, you beat the breaks off of your opponent who shall remain nameless. I’m just, I mean. Woo wee, right? I mean, it was a very decisive victory.

Congresswoman Bush: Yes. 

Brittany: There was a Democrat who’s far less progressive who challenged you, but you continued to persevere as you always have. I’m curious what such a clear victory tells you about what the folks in the first district of Missouri, my home district, want to see from their politicians.

What are you hearing that they want you to convey to your colleagues and to the White House? 

Congresswoman Bush: One thing that I heard that night when the numbers came out was that this was a mandate, you know. You have a mandate to continue to govern the way that you’ve done over the last, you know, year and a half.

So that meant so much because at first it was like the little engine that could, it was like, okay, just trying to get, you know, trying to, you know, make it work. You know, I hope people understand why I’m doing this. And now it’s like I don’t have to feel like I’m trying to get people to understand why I’m doing it now.

It is, we see you, we know what you’re trying to do, and we want you to keep doing it. We want you to keep standing up the way that you stood up. So now you know, I’m walking into Congress this next session, you know, with my shoulders back a different way than I had the last time. 

Brittany: Okay? 

Congresswoman Bush: And then people that folks said, Oh, they won’t support her again because it was like, Oh, buyer’s remorse.

People didn’t know what they were voting for. They said, Oh, you won’t have the Jewish community vote for you. Well, that was wrong. You won’t have police officers vote for you. That was wrong. You won’t have business leaders. That was totally wrong. 

Brittany: What do you feel like, I mean, you talked about this squad earlier because really when you were first elected, you came in with a class of legislators that has continued to grow and you all have been intentionally challenging all the status quos, including the status quo in the Democratic Party. I’m curious what you feel like you’ve achieved in terms of changing the larger Democratic Party’s agenda and what’s still left on your all’s agenda.

Congresswoman Bush: Going back to when we were on the steps of the capitol during that protest, I had some of my colleagues that didn’t actually show up and that weren’t publicly supportive. Some folks came to me and said, like that was so amazing what you did. Like, I’m with you. Keep doing that. I also heard, Now I get it. I didn’t understand it, but I listened to what you said, you know, in an interview and now I get it. And for instance, when I was living in the car with my two babies and my partner, people would just say, Just go to the food pantry.

You don’t even have to spend money on food. You know, like, that’ll help you to save some money so you can get you a place like, you know, just go to a food pantry. If you’re living in your car or you’re living on the street, where are you keeping the milk? Or when I talked about getting this eviction notice on your door and like, Hey, once you get that notice, then that means you have accrued lawyer’s fees.

Which means if I owe $1,500 in back rent and late fees, now I probably owe $3,500 because they added on lawyer fees. 

Brittany: Right? 

Congresswoman Bush: And so now I really can’t pay it, you know? And people were like, Huh? So when we speak up and speak out, it helps people to see the things that they don’t know are barriers to help them be able to legislate better.

Brittany: Yeah. I mean we talk about helping them to legislate better and then we have bills like police funding bills that we know you continuously voted to try to make sure would never actually come up to the floor. We continue to see our community deal with so much police violence. Your constituents, our friends and family in St. Louis are continuing to deal with that. And then congress, Democrats in Congress drop $60 million in the laps of the police, like. When you think about all of the work that is left to do, how do you want to see the Institution of Congress change? 

Congresswoman Bush: One thing is the institution of Congress has to listen to more folks than the ones that they think are valuable.

They have to respect all the voices, especially when you know that there are people who are coming with a different perspective because they walked hrough it. You know, that’s the part that I have talked about quite a bit lately is, you know, now that we’re about to move into this next session, do this thing differently.

You know, we’re gonna have new chairs of committees, so like, let’s do congress differently this time. Let’s make sure that those that are coming from a lived experience that should be brought and seated at the table with a voice as equal as the others. And so that’s something that I think that Congress needs to pay attention to.

There are folks that are dealing with stuff that you aren’t. You know, there’s a lot of folk in Congress who are wealthy. We can’t do the same things that some of them do. And nobody cares about that. Like, do you know, I spent the last year and a half looking for a second job. 

Brittany: Whoa. 

Congresswoman Bush: Because I need to make more money to be able to take care of all the bills that I have because I have to live in two places.

But other folks that don’t have that problem don’t care about that. So us continuing to push to say, Hey, there are people that are part of this Congress that don’t have the same experience as you, and you need to value that.

Brittany: When we talk about the institution changing, to your point, the institution itself creates a barrier for people with more lived experience from entering it. Right? Because if you didn’t go to law school, if you’re not so called independently wealthy and can afford to live in two places and travel back and forth between the two of them, if you don’t have the pedigree that gives you the connections to help you fundraise in a particular way.

Congresswoman Bush: Right.

Brittany: Then it’s very, very hard to gain entry into a so-called Democratic institution. And yet I think we have all witnessed the power of what it means to have people like yourself with lived experience, who are willing to be honest and transparent about it in those seats of power. I’m thinking specifically about issues of gender violence and abortion.

Congresswoman Bush: Yes.

Brittany: You gave incredible testimony last year alongside several other members of Congress about your own abortion and the circumstances surrounding it. 

Congresswoman Bush: Before the procedure, I remember going in for counseling and being told that if I move forward with this pregnancy, my baby would be jacked up because the fetus was already malnourished and underweight.

Being told that if I had this baby, I would wind up on food stamps and welfare. I was being talked to like trash. And it worsened my shame afterwards while in the changing area, I heard some girls, all white, talking about how they were told how bright their futures were, how loved their babies would be if they adopted, and that their options and their opportunities were limitless.

Brittany:We need people like you in position to tell those stories and to also be the people who cast the votes. 

Congresswoman Bush: That’s right. 

Brittany: Why do you think it. It was so important for you to tell that story because you didn’t have to, right? You did not have to reveal that if you had chosen not to. 

Congresswoman Bush: Yeah. So when SBA, when that Texas bill passed, I had to think about what do I have in my toolbox, you know, that I could use to help do something at this time?

Because I knew also that if Texas did, then Missouri was coming right behind them. 

Brittany: And here we are. 

Congresswoman Bush: And here we are with abortion ban in Missouri and I felt like this is what I have to give. And because I’ve been vulnerable about different situations in my life, I felt like, Okay, I can do this. But what I realized was, and I talk about this in the book, is that I had not told that story.

I hadn’t even thought about that since it happened. And it wasn’t until I started, I was in an interview walking through what happened, and it was in that interview. I’m like, Oh my God. that was coercion and rape. And the reason why I spoke about it and put it in the book is because there are so many people like me.

And there are so many that, we are cast aside. You know, we are cast aside, you’re stigmatized if you have an abortion. So we keep it to ourselves and it’s okay to keep your stuff to yourself. Like you don’t have to tell people your stuff. But, for me, it’s like I’m in a position of power. I gotta use it as best I can because otherwise, why am I here?

Otherwise, why not the person that was here before me, like what makes us different? You know, this is something that is different. 

Brittany: I will tell you. You know, when I first met Tarana  Burke, founder of the Me Too movement, I hugged her and I thanked her for making space for so many of us who were not ready to tell our stories. And I owe you the same debt of gratitude because I have talked since about being a survivor of sexual assault. But like you, it took me a very long time to realize that’s what happened to me. I did not understand that I had been coerced. I did not understand that I had said no and I didn’t have to keep saying no a million times for that no to be enough, right?

And so being able to watch someone like you who comes from where I come from and who has dealt with some of what I have dealt with, be so willing to give of yourself in that way. It does a lot for so many of us. This, I hope you know that it does a lot for so many of us. 

Congresswoman Bush: Thank you. 

Brittany: And it is violence of so many different kinds, right? We’re talking about physical violence, sexual violence, gender violence, and policy violence. When you think about the work that you want to do since that testimony, what are the policies that you want to see come to fruition to end this thing we call sexual violence, especially as we come up on the fifth anniversary of what many people recognize to be the Me Too movement?

Congresswoman Bush: Yeah. There’s so, so many pieces to it. I think that now conversations are opening up to where people are learning. Believe women, the push is there, the advocacy is there, but being able to get stuff across in Congress. To be able to do that because it is so prevalent, whether celebrities or politicians. So for people to wanna stand up and be a part of tearing down those structures is going to take a lot.

But what it’s going to take is the push from the community. And so for us, for me, one thing I wanna tackle, and I know there has been work already in this area, is rape kits. Like that was one of my issues. My rape kits sat on the shelf for over four months. But also something that stuck with me when I went to court for the fourth time just to get an order of protection I even hired the best St. Louis process server. I hired that person, paid that person. 

Four months, he couldn’t get it. So much so to work he said, I’m giving you your money back cuz this has never happened before. So that is another thing that I wanna fix, is I was left unprotected just because of the way that the system is set up.

Also, adding more crime victim support. You know, I jumped through so many hoops to get crime victim support because I couldn’t work for four months. I almost lost my home, almost lost my car. So those are some of the things, policy wise that will be working on. 

Brittany: Well, we’re grateful for that work. We’re grateful for you. Before I let you go, we are in this season, election season. Right? A reminder to people that they do not, depending on where you live, you do not have to wait till November 8th to cast your ballot, make your voice heard this entire election season. But we’re in this season where we’re telling people, Vote, vote, vote, vote, vote.

And midterms matter so much. Right? You are, of course, a personal witness to this, and yet, for as much as we’re saying vote, some people need to hear. Run, run, run. Some people who have never considered it before, some people who feel like they don’t belong. Some people who’ve been told time and again that is not their place.

What do you have to say to our folks who are listening right now who maybe have never thought of it, but are precisely the kind of voice we need to hear in positions like yours? 

Congresswoman Bush: You know, we don’t want people to have to go through trauma. But for those of us that absolutely have, you can still be somebody that contributes to society in such a way to where transformative change happens on the municipal level, on the state level, on the federal level. You can be somebody that speaks in a way that those that have felt left out and pushed aside for so long feels seen and feel heard, you know, feel finally represented. 

And I’ll never forget, Elizabeth Warren said this to me one day. It was the day after we won the eviction moratorium. I was standing outside doing an interview and as soon as the interview finished, I just saw this flash of someone running towards me.

And I looked up and it was Senator Elizabeth Warren, and she put her hands on my shoulders and she said, I’ve always wondered this ever since I’ve been in this seat. She said, Does it matter that I’m in the seat? She said she just really didn’t have the answer year after year. She said When we won the eviction moratorium, she got her answer and she said, Cori, It matters that you are in the seat.

It matters who’s in the seat. So Brittany, like you said, we are saying vote, vote, vote. Yes. We need you to vote because it matters who’s in the seat. We have insurrectionists that are trying to take these seats. We have people who have hatred and venom for Black folk, hatred and venom for Palestinians and LGBTQIA, for trans kids. We have people who have venom in their veins. We have people who are fighting against children having free lunches. And if you don’t vote, then we get people who will do those things. But if you don’t run, then those people get in even easier because nobody was challenging them that had a heart to really stay with it and push forward for the mission.

So if you feel it, if you feel compelled, if you feel that tug, even if you don’t understand how I’m gonna do it and all of that, you can’t win if you don’t start. 

Brittany: And that’s it. You can’t win if you don’t start. And I do believe that we will win. So let’s get started. Cori Bush, it is always an absolute honor to talk to you.

Congresswoman Bush: You too, Brittany. 

Brittany: Thank you for being the congresswoman of our hearts. 

Congresswoman Bush: Thank you. All right. Have a great one.

Brittany: Y’all, Congresswoman Bush is so brilliant and she laid it all out here, but I can’t stop thinking about what she said. She had to spend time looking for a second job as a member of Congress, and I know what you may be thinking members of Congress make a good salary. One plenty of people wish they were making and that is true, but like everything is complicated.

Maintaining living expenses in two major cities is not cheap, especially for a mother with two children. The average rent in St. Louis is nearly two grand a month, and the average cost of living for a family of four in DC will, that’s 6K a month. Then consider this, Cori, who has been transparent and upfront about dealing with the financial hardships that many of our fellow Americans share.

She’s only been making that good salary since 2020, for two years. Many of us know what it’s like to climb out of medical, housing or legal debt, and two years of a salary split between two cities can only make 

a dent in that debt. A lot of members of Congress might not be able to relate, but I definitely can, and I bet you can too.

When you then take into account that it costs Cori Bush’s campaign over $3 million across three congressional races to finally win in a country where Black women candidates are funded the least, it all starts adding up. And the math ain’t mathing because for many members of Congress, that’s not much of an issue.

They come from generational wealth and way too many of them make questionable money on lucrative stock deals, which is a whole nother episode. But meanwhile, the exact kind of people we need in Congress, people like Cori, they can’t even afford to be. They can’t afford to run and they can barely afford to win.

So how in the hell is that true representation? Something has gotta change. The barriers have gotta get removed, and in the meantime, support the candidates who are figuring out how to make it happen anyway, so this thing called democracy can actually reflect us all. 

That’s it for today, y’all, but never for tomorrow. UNDISTRACTED is a production of The Meteor and Pineapple Street Studios. 


Our lead producer is Rachel Ward.

Our associate producer is Marialexa Kavenaugh.

Thanks also to Treasure Brooks, Hannis Brown, Raj Makhija, and Davy Sumner.

Our executive producers at The Meteor are Cindi Leive and myself, and our executive producers at Pineapple are Jenna Weiss-Berman and Max Linsky. 

You can follow me at @MsPackyetti on all social media and our incredible team @TheMeteor.

Subscribe to UNDISTRACTED and rate and review us y’all on Apple podcasts or most places you check out your favorite podcasts.

Thanks for listening, thanks for being, and thanks for doing.

I’m Brittany Packnett Cunningham. Let’s go get free.


UNDISTRACTED: September 29, 2022

Derecka Purnell on Living (and Loving) Outside the Police State

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Hey all, it’s Brittany. So we’ve been talking a lot about abolition lately on the show, about police violence, and what it will take to get rid of it. Of course, there are so many things for us to tackle and trust me, we will; but this one, this one is personal for me. A few weeks ago I shared with all of you a bit about my own journey because as someone who always understood police violence to be a systemic issue, it has still taken me time to let go of fantasies of reform that are just not changing the game.

Despite some well-intentioned efforts, people are still at the hands of the state and Black and brown and indigenous and poor and disabled people are still dying disproportionately. And it would be easy, comfortable for me to just sit on this mic every week and act like I was born, woke, and like I just emerged as a public figure with a perfectly enlightened philosophy and politic.

But that would be a lie, a bold face lie. And that lie doesn’t serve anybody or anything, but my own ego. Now I’ve come a mighty long way. On everything from queer and trans identity to disability and just like on those issues, I’m still in my own continued evolution on police violence. I always say I’m learning in public and learning in public means letting all my own shit hang out and inviting you into the very same work I’m doing. 

So, this ain’t no do as I say, not as I do kind of show. Justice don’t work that way. So, we’re gonna wrestle with the hard stuff and struggle with the possibilities, and we’re going to do it together. We are UNDISTRACTED.

On the show today, my friend Derecka Purnell debunks some of the myths about abolishing the police and breaks down why the reforms just don’t work. 

Derecka: We’ve had so many reforms, at least since 2014. We got more funding, more consent decres, more body cameras, more police convictions, more diversity, more Black cops, more gay cops, more women cops and guess what.

Police are on track to kill more people this year than they did in that year. 

Brittany: That’s coming up first. It’s the news.

So first off, I want to talk about the situation in Iran right now. This is a place where I had to do a lot of my own learning. People in Iran are waging the largest protests against the government in over a decade, stemming from the death of a young woman in custody of the quote, morality police Mahsa Amani was supposedly improperly dressed as she was exiting a teran subway this month.

Now in Iran, that can mean something as small as having a strand of hair untucked from your hija. Amani was detained by the police and sent for quote, reeducation about how to dress appropriately. Three days later, she was dead. Her death has not only sparked one of the biggest uprisings in Iranian history, but also one of the most diverse. 

Rich, poor men, women, Turks and Kurds have taken to the streets and one of the most potent symbols of protest has become women cutting their hair or removing their hijabs, even burning them as crowds around them cheer.

These protests are about more than a piece of clothing, they’re about agency. And if you’re amplifying the voices of Iranians, keep that in mind whether or not to wear a hijab is a personal choice, and the west is far from innocent when it comes to policing what people, especially women, can and cannot wear.

So, let’s mind ourselves here. In 2016, French police confronted a Muslim woman on the beach for wearing a bikini. The modest swimwear has been banned after terrorist attacks in Paris. In 2021, a teacher in New Jersey allegedly yanked a hijab off of a second grader’s head. And more broadly, if we’re talking about policing people’s bodies, especially women, well, you know, our country is having a field day with that right now in general, correct?

The protests in Iran are not anti-hijab, they are about the freedom to exist as one pleases and the freedom to choose what, if any, form of religious expression one wants, and that’s a cause that people of any faith or no faith at all can get behind.

Let’s travel to a different part of the world where the rights of women and marginalized people are being challenged in a different way. This one’s a complicated one because in other circumstances we’d be celebrating Italy’s election of its first female prime minister. Like the U.S., no Italian woman has smashed the highest glass ceiling of them all. Until Sunday.

Italy has elected Georgia Maloney to office. But as you may have heard, Maloney’s win is no cause for celebration. For one, she is the leader of the Brothers of Italy party, which has its roots in fascism. Can’t make this up, people. She opposes migrants and the European Union, she has openly announced what she refers to as the quote LGBT lobby.

She is the most right-wing Prime Minister Italy has had since World War II, when Mussolini had the job. Yeah, that guy. Maloney’s victory also coincides with an uptick in open white nationalism in Europe. Earlier this month, a hard-right group founded by neo-Nazis helped topple Sweden’s social Democratic Prime Minister in Spain.

The far right nationalist party Vox has rocketed to prominence in less than five years. Even the social welfare utopia that is Denmark is moving to the right. They now have one of these strictest refugee policies in the world. This is a reminder that not all symbolic victories are a good thing.

Maloney’s win might be a win for this superficial girl boss brand of feminism, but is no win for women. And y’all, this is happening all over the world because let’s remember, whenever marginalized people make progress, there is a guaranteed backlash. 

And while we’re on the subject of regressive politics, Arizona has resurrected a law that dates back to 1860. That bans all abortions with no exceptions for rape or incest. There previously been an injunction stopping the ban, but that was lifted last week by a woman judge. By the way, this was a very big week for backwards ass progressive ladies in power. Additionally, Arizona’s modern ban on abortion after 15 weeks went into effect last week. So this pile of bans has made practicing abortion care legally nearly impossible for Arizona providers. 

NEWS: All people deserve good, high quality care and should not fear that speaking about abortion with their healthcare providers will lend either them or their physician in jail. 

Brittany: One of the most infuriating aspects of this whole wack situation was that this musty asshole ban was enacted by the state’s territorial legislature back in the 19th century, like before Arizona was even a state .Arizona Governor Doug Ducey has said that the 15-week ban would take precedence over the near total ban, but it’s not clear that that’s actually the case.

But y’all, the point isn’t, oh, let’s have a 15-week band instead of a total band. The point is that all of these bands, the old ones, the new ones, they’re all shitty. They all stem from a time when the state controlled people’s bodies and they’re trying to do it again. We should be done with that time completely.

No bands ever. Got it?

Coming up, I’ll be talking to abolitionist author, human rights lawyer, and organizer Derecka Purnell about the practical steps we can take in our lives to end the violence of policing and prisons, right after this short break.

Brittany: And we are back. So last week, the House of Representatives, the one with the Democratic majority, voted to approve nearly $2 billion for steps, they say, will address crime while still quote, respecting civil rights. Now, the bill isn’t likely to get a vote in the Senate before the midterm elections, but it allows Democrats to say we’re doing something about crime, and this bill would fund training for a deescalation and domestic violence response, but it would also give some police departments cash to recruit and retain new cops.

It is an excellent example of what we talked about with Andrea Ritchie just a few weeks back. A reformist reform, reforms that presume the continued existence of cops, reforms that allow police to keep the power they have and to use violence against citizens. Reforms that invest more into systems that we know are consistently hurting people, but we can see the funding for what is.

Because we are looking at the world through an abolitionist lens. One of the people who helped me develop that muscle is my guest today, Derecka Purnell, is my friend from the lou, a lawyer and the author of the incredible Becoming Abolitionists.

We’ve been having a couple of conversations on the podcast as of late about abolition, but we really wanted to keep this thing going because it reflects my own journey.

In learning, in the evolution of my own politic, and I know it reflects the journey of a lot of our community, as well. And so that’s why I wanted to talk to you because you are so good and transparent about your own journey. You’re so good at helping to bring people along. So, I actually wanna start with, with an anecdote.

Our other executive producer, Cindi Leive, recently saw you speak and you told a great story about your child and what they see.

Derecka: Oh yeah. 

Brittany: On TV. It had to do with “Stranger Things”. Do you, do you wanna share that one with us? 

Derecka: Oh yeah, of course, of course. So, my eight-year-old Juice, we love “Stranger Things” cuz it’s such a good TV show.

It’s like it’s really precious. And one day he asks, you know, why did they make Hopper a police officer? Hopper is like the beloved local police chief in this small town Indiana. I struggle with like trying to answer this question because I know that there’s this broader Hollywood trope of white, masculine, small town heroes who fight any sort of outside force that threatens them, whether it’s an alien species or Russia, or a federal government. 

Hopper, is one of these tropes. And so, you know, I told him, I said, Well, I think that they wanted to tell a story where he could be the hero and Juice goes Well, isn’t the mom the hero?

And if you watch “Stranger Things”, you know that Joyce Byers is committed to finding her child, right? She’s a poor white woman who works at a convenience store part-time, has to buy things on credit. It’s interesting how they tell the story of class because Will, her son, he has to ride the longest way.

Away from his other friends who live in the more middle class suburban neighborhoods. And reflecting, you know about this storyline is that Hopper is, would have been much more likely to have arrested Joyce Byers than befriend her and trying to find her son, right? She probably would’ve been contacted by Child Protective Services, you know, she could have lost custody of her other child.

What actually happens in real life when exploited people lose their children or children go missing, it’s a very different set of affairs. She probably would’ve been committed to an institution, right? So in fact, Hopper becomes a hero. He adopts 11, you know, he becomes like this great father. You miss him.

You wonder if he’s gonna die. And so I told Juice, so I was like, Yeah, you know, it’s unfortunate. And we still have to abolish Hopper.

Brittany: Right. I mean, this is a really important moment. Right? This is an important conversation because we’ve grown up in a culture that teaches us that the police are heroes, unequivocally and unquestionably.

Derecka: Exactly. 

Brittany: How hard can it be to unlearn that? 

Derecka: It’s so hard to unlearn that, especially if you have experienced police as sources of protection. You know, so there’s also, you know, lots of class differences in how people would experience police. And so, for example, growing up, police were a source of friendship from my mom.

She had a couple of friends who were cops and the reason they were cops, because it was the job that was always hiring. And so that’s where they could go after high school if they didn’t know where to go and get like a well-paying job, okay? But cops also, you know, took us from my family. They put us in foster care.

You know, they were violent, physically violent towards me and towards people in my family. And so there are all these different relationships that you experience with policing. But again, for my kid who’s eight, you know, he’s sort of a canvas and he’s taking on different worldviews based on what I share with him.

And then what he’s also absorbing at school was he absorbing through television. But as an adult, it’s also very difficult. Another analogy. I think a lot about gender. So my kids go to school and every morning they hear, Good morning, boys and girls. Good morning, boys and girls. Good morning, boys and girls.

So, if you hear boys and girls every day from pre-K to 12th grade, and then you meet people who are not binary, right? Or people who don’t have any subscription to gender, you’re gonna be like, Oh, wait, no, there’s boys and girls. I’ve been hearing boys and girls. There’s two genders. And so then that level of social conditioning can actually lead to forms of violence, emotional violence, physical violence against people who identify as non-binary, or both genders, or two genders or multiple gender.

And so that it can be really hard to unlearn because our institutions condition us for so long, but we have to be committed to trying, cuz if we hold onto these ideas, we’re gonna suffer and ultimately other people are gonna suffer. 

Brittany: We’re going to suffer and ultimately other people are going to suffer.

I think that the guarantee of that outcome is what’s lost on some folks. You talk about how our social conditioning has been right, and you and I are both subject to that social conditioning. Absolutely. I’m curious how you felt about police. Before you really clarified for yourself that you were an abolitionist.

Derecka: I had known them to be overall kind of bad, right? I know I knew that people were afraid when they came around. I knew that people in my neighborhood constantly ran from the police. Constantly ran from the police, and you never tell where someone’s running when they’re running from the police because we know what happens, you know, to people who get caught, you know, they disappear.

They go to the workhouse in St. Louis or they get killed. And so I had always known that the police are not on our side as an institution, despite the one or two friends that my mom had. And then as I continued to age, you know, I would learn about Rodney King. I knew that the police were responsible for beating this Black man into oblivion.

I had known about different instances of racial violence, but I hadn’t known that police killed about three people a day. And at that point, no one kept track of it. There wasn’t any requirement to keep track of. And then by the time I got to college, I was really challenged politically by students who were organizing in metro around border policing, especially in Arizona with SB 1020, the DU illegal bill.

And so that was like, Oh wow, police are not only disantagonistic to poor people and to Black people, but also antagonistic to people who speak Spanish, brown people, people who perceive as immigrants. And so that really helped me understand policing structurally. As an institution that was created to protect borders and private property and white supremacy. 

And so continually being around organizers, activists who are more critical, more curious, more informed than I was, helped to really shape my analysis. Where it’s like, well, the problem just isn’t racial profiling, right? Like the police were created to do this.

It’s not a feature of policing, it’s constitutive of policing. 

Brittany: Yeah. You know, my own story does not include as much personal violence in engaging with the police until I decided to start protesting the police. Right? I very much grew up believing the trope of there are bad cops and there are good cops.

Derecka: Yes. 

Brittany: Right? 

Derecka: Yes. 

Brittany: And I remember distinctly on West Florissant Avenue with you during the Ferguson uprising watching the police on mass engage in the kind of war tactics that were not supposed to exist on residential streets, right? Against elderly people, against pregnant people, against children, against people who are armed with absolutely nothing, but like cell phones and signs.

Right? And this is when the gears start to turn for me, and I still am getting to the point where I recognize that it’s systemic. But I still believe that the system can be fixed. Which honestly runs antithetical to most of my beliefs in other spaces. There are so many other systems that I can much more easily look at and was working on that I knew needed to be uprooted completely and replaced with something different entirely. 

But policing was so hard for me to get there because to your point, culturally, socially, it had been ingrained over at this point, almost 30 years of life. I know it’s not linear, but if there are some kind of phases that you recognize in people as they, as they make that journey, what would those phases be?

Derecka: I love when Dylan Rodriguez says that there’s no such thing as an individual abolitionist. It doesn’t matter that I espouse abolition is politics if I’m doing that alone. Right. It does very, very, very little, very little in the world. You know, what’s much more important and much more exciting is that we take on these politics, like any set of radical politics that we struggle through them with other people.

And so that to me, like, it’s not like you show up, you like I’m an abolitionist and you get a handbook. Hopefully, it’s gonna be a lifelong process, right? That the kind of feminist that I was three years ago is not the kind of feminist I am today. Right? And hopefully it’s not gonna be the kind of feminist I am in 50 years, right?

Like, I hope that’s true for all of the spaces that we occupy, and I think the best way to think about these stages or phases is not like, okay, I’m a reformer. And now I’m abolitionist adjacent. And now I’m abolitionist. But actually, okay, who are you struggling with like who are you reading with?

Who are you asking questions with? Who’s pushing you? Who’s who? Like who are you pushing? Like, to me that is the work of developing sets of politics and deciding the kind of human you wanna be in the world. And that’s more important than thinking of like a ladder. To like get to some place where you’re like, Okay, I’m an abolitionist now.

Well, that has no meaning if it’s not with other people. And it has very little meaning if it doesn’t show up in the world in a tangible way. Right? Because people since 2020 have, you know, I’m an abolitionist. I’m an abolitionist, I’m an abolitionist all online, and then don’t have any critiques of capitalism, right?

Don’t have any critiques phobia don’t have any critiques of all of these other systems that not only inform policing and prisons in state, but reify it. And so it’s how we learn it and struggling around different ideas about ourselves, about our relationships, about the world, and how are we doing it with other people.

And that is why I try to encourage people to do, and that’s why I try to do to the best of my ability. 

Brittany: Well, you do it so well. You’ve done it with me personally, both from afar and up close. And I am grateful. I also recognize. That there are different places where people struggle with this question. 

Right. And sometimes to your point, they continue to struggle with it because they’re doing it in isolation. And I think that for people who have experienced sexual violence, intimate partner  violence, domestic violence, which I have the argument for abolishing. The sound of the word can just be terrifying in and of itself.

I think it can be difficult for some folks to imagine doing away with the police when you’ve been witnessed to senseless tragedy in your community, or you’ve experienced it in your own personal life. 

Derecka: Yeah. 

Brittany: How do you have this conversation with folks who have dealt with the unimaginable and have had to turn to the police as what they see as a resource?

Derecka: Yeah. Well, it depends on the context, so lots of different ways. Right? So the first thing I’ll say is that don’t assume that people who are fighting for abolitionist presence and futures are not also survivors of harm. 

Brittany: That’s right. 

Derecka: Because there’s this unfortunate dichotomy that’s like, you know, you are an abolitionist.

What about survivors? Oh, I survived all kinds of like interpersonal violence, structural violence, communal violence. I talk about a lot of that in chapter five and chapter six. Because a lot of the Black feminists who have been fighting for abolition, literally for decades before those of George Floyd uprising, before Trayvon Martin was killed, before Rodney King had been struggling around abolition have been survivors of intimate partner violence, police violence, communal violence, violence from their bosses, violence from their neighbors, from strangers. 

Like these are the people whose experience have informed their abolitionists organizing work. And what they have concluded is that police and prisons are additional sources of violence.

Right? So, what about all of the victims of police violence who’s been sexually assaulted? Because after police brutality, sexual misconduct is the second most reported complaint against police. You know, what about prison? What about sexual violence that happens in prison? Are those people not survivors, too?

And so it’s so unfortunate when people separate the abolitionists from the survivors, except if there’s not like an important, significant overlap between those two categories. So, that’s like the first sets of like ideas. The other thing that I’ll say for people who hear abolish and they’re just like, I feel afraid.

Like what are we gonna do? What’s gonna happen? And Mariame Kaba really has pushed me to like to distill this language, which is look, we’re responsible for doing something right now. Like this generation is not going to lead us to 18,000 law enforcement agencies being abolished, one million cops being fired, 2,300 jails and prisons closing.

That’s not gonna happen in my lifetime. That’s probably not gonna happen in my baby’s lifetime. That’s just not gonna be the case. What this generation, this is now pulling from for known, what this generation is responsible for is figuring out what’s our way to stop caral violence in our present lives right now.

Right? How do we make sure that the people who are fighting for the total abolition beyond us have a head start and that they’re not behind? That’s why I think defund the police is important. That’s why I think jail closure campaigns are important. That’s why I think these narrow reform reforms, they either freeze or stop the caral state from growing.

Has shift resources from prisons, police, prosecutors, and so life affirming institutions, people who decide to invest in street violence, interrupter programs. This is what our generation is tasked with doing right now. Right? We don’t have to be responsible for the whole thing. We have to be responsible for what’s right now.

And that takes will, and that takes courage and that takes experimentation. So that’s like another way I think through like what do we have to do right now? And that’s something that all of us can ask. 

Brittany: There are multiple precedents for abolition in this country. Of course, the most recognized being, the abolition of enslavement, and it’s always fascinating to me that that conversation so closely trails along with the creation of U.S. police forces, right? When we understand the connection to quote unquote slave catching and those kinds of forces that served as the bedrock of what we know policing to be now. And the understanding and the treatment of Black people as property, Right.

Indigenous land to be stolen. And so I think even despite my own conditioning, I grew up like a lot of other Black people, as you’ve written, who know to trust the police to be exactly who they’ve always been. We trust the police to be corrupt. We trust the police to be racist. We trust the police to be violence because that has been sadly and tragically predictable. 

To your point about what we are responsible to do right now, how do we begin to break that cycle knowing, to your point, that 18,000 police departments won’t be closed by the time I take my last breath, but there is action to take now. How do we interrupt that? 

Derecka: Yes, yes. So yes. So that quote  that you just read, I wrote that in response to this large narrative that we need to rebuild trust between Black people and the police. As if there was ever a point in history or Black people, like as an entire race, have trusted the police. It’s so ahistorical and it’s just so wrong, and it’s just so, so frustrating because as you said, police are among the remaining institutions coming out of slavery.

So, even when we say enslavement was abolished, not all parts of it. 

Brittany: That’s right. 

Derecka: Like not all parts of it. And oftentimes when we say that people invoke, you know, they, the constitution, the exception to permit slavery in prisons. But police are still here. Police are still here and we know that they came, like you said, outta slave patrols.

We think about cuffs, handcuffs, shackling. We think about the development of our gun laws and what empowered slave patrols to literally do raids into slave captains to look for weapons. And we think about the history. In the current practice of no knock warrants that lead to raids into our communities.

And so what happened to people like Aiyana Stanley Jones and Breonna Taylor? The history of kicking down doors looking for a dangerous person, that has a long history. That starts when Black people decided to arm themselves and start practicing revolts against white supremacist institutions and their.

And so we have to understand that police are a part of that institution that has yet to be abolished. The second part of what you said about. What is it that we should do? I think one, find your people. I would highly encourage people to ask Who’s doing that in your neighborhood, in your school, in your city?

There’s so many campaigns happening all across the country to, like I said, close jails, to shift resources away from police departments, away from other institutions and into schools, into education. You know, there’s so many ways to think about like your particular relationship to the carco system, even inside of our families.

So having important conversations about violence in our families, because we also do have to become better people, and I believe that’s possible. And I highly encourage everyone to read Rachel Hersing because she has different pieces of literature out that’s like Here’s some steps you can take that can help us build a police-free future.

This is how you can start small. This is how you can make sure that you build a small network, you know, for protection, for prevention, and for accountability. Then this is how you can move out of that and start doing stuff in your local community. It takes abolition from being this huge, abstract, overwhelming idea to practical things that all of us can do right now.


Brittany: So I wanna do something a little different than we normally do. I wanna do kind of like a rapid round here Okay. Of some of the myths and questions that we hear about abolition. Right. And just hear what you would offer, what seeds you would plant if, if you heard these things. And I’m sure that there are things that you have heard before or read before, responded to before.

So here’s one. Abolition might be a great goal, but we will lose political races if we talk about it. The old defund, the police cost us seats conversation.

Derecka: Yeah, I mean, I don’t know. Maybe funding the police is costing you seats because we have to ask a question about, well, what’s our political strategy right now to make sure that people are safe?

Sorry, I get so frustrated with this question. One of the reasons is that, because here’s the thing, when election season comes around, it’s like, go vote. Your ancestors fall undo you to vote. You know, vote for the people and ideas that represent you, and then you say, Okay, these people and these ideas don’t represent me.

And it’s like you’re costing us seats. And so politicians are not genuine when they say, you know, go vote, go do this thing. Actually, what you want us is just to have complete deference to what you do. That’s not democratic. That’s not democratic at all. So I’ve been much more excited about the races where people who are explicit about abolition, people are explicit about socialism, internationalism, They’ve also have been winning seats.

There was a huge win in Florida, huge win in California in LA, I just met this sister Eunisses who won, she ran as an abolitionist defund candidate, you know, and like now she’s on the city council. And so I think there are also lots of examples where people are running on progressive slates and winning.

And so if the larger Democratic party is unwilling to shift and to change, then they should lose those seats. Right? And we should think about who can much better represent people with who are fighting for the future that we want instead of the status quo. 

Brittany: Yeah. Sometimes it’s about voting and sometimes it’s about running. 

Derecka: Yes, yes. 

Brittany: Okay. So here’s another one. Abolition might be a great goal, but it’ll never happen. So let’s just focus on the smaller things that we can actually accomplish right now.

Derecka: Yeah. I think that’s interesting too. I think that, I don’t know if it’ll never happen. It’s not up to me to decide whether this thing will actually happen or not.

What it is up to me is to do the right thing, right? And so there are lots of people who said all of our progressive struggles would never happen, that women would never be able to vote. You know how many people, how many women in particular who fought for that, right? Never lived to see it. Or people would, you know, Black people would never be free.

You know, how many people like fought, died? Not knowing whether that would be the case. But if we don’t do things because we’ve already made an arrogant decision that it would never happen, knowing what people have endured to make the impossible possible. I think that’s also in his ahistorical position, and I think it pushes us to not have the will curse I was talking about earlier, to do what is right, right now.

So let’s say that our North Star is abolition. Well, how do we get us closer to that goal? Because here’s the thing, reforming the police, we’ve had so many reforms at least since 2014. We got more funding, more consent, decre, more body cameras, more police convictions, more diversity, more Black cops, more gay cops, more women, cops.

And guess what? Police are on track to kill more people this year than they did in that. More people. So, all these reforms and more people are gonna die of Han Police. Right. And so if, if you decide that that’s a worthwhile project to continue to fight, to reform the police, knowing that more people are dying with the record number of reforms that’s been in circulation.

Then you’re signing up to kill people and I can’t risk that.

Brittany: Here’s one more. Creating new systems that would respond to emergencies and crime in a more caring and compassionate fashion. It’s just too huge, like it’s gonna take us a hundred years, and who am I supposed to call if something happens to me?

Derecka: Again, it just depends on the context. S,o one thing I’ll say is that for the violence that happens where police are called less than 4% of calls for police or for quote violent harms, and that’s just a cause. That doesn’t mean that anything is actually happened. Ninety-six percent of those other calls are for so many other things that people just call because they just dunno what to do, right? 

They, they’re just literally calling 911 because it’s what they think, conditioned to do. And what I can say about abolition is that even though we’ve been talking about prison industrial complex abolition, at least the tradition of abolition that I’m interested in, is not completely concerned with just abolishing police and prisons.

That is absolutely a goal. We’re also committed to abolishing the reasons why people can call the police, why people need prisons because the police can’t stop people from being poor. If someone is stealing because they’re hungry or stealing because they need something, the police can’t stop that.

And so police arrest that person, they’re gonna put them in jail, the person’s gonna get a record, and they’re gonna be in a worse position than when they get out. Right? And so police perpetuate the economic exploitative inequality that we have in our society. They can’t eliminate it.

So, that is actually leading us to further despair, more expectation, more violence. It doesn’t get to the root causes of why people are stealing or harming each other in the first place. And the last thing I’ll say about this is, the overwhelming majority of who police put in jails and prison are not just bad people.

They’re poor people. Literally. Like they’re people. They’re disabled people. They’re people who have incomes are less than $10,000 a year. $10,000. Right? These are the people who make up the 10 million arrests that happen. And so we have to be honest saying that, you know, police lock up bad guys.

No, no, no, no, no, no, no. No, because Trump is in Florida. Hello? Like, no, the police just do not lock up bad guys. The police lock up disabled people, Black people, poor people, immigrants, and we have to name that as often as we can. 

Brittany: We’ve talked a lot about how awful a lot of things are , but I wanna wrap the conversation by envisioning what this looks like, right?

I mean, Mariame Kaba says all the time, the abolitionist is creative, right? It calls on us to go and create and design and build the better. What are some of your favorite things that are in creation in this moment?

Derecka: Oh my gosh, I have so many. My favorite right now is what the Dream Defenders are doing in Florida.

So, I have had a movement crush on Dream Defenders since 2012 because it’s just kind of incredible to have, you know, organization who’s obviously not perfect, but who are constantly trying to ask questions about what kinds of people, activists, organizers, they want to be in a place like Florida. Right under DeSantis, right?

They do policy work in Florida trying to figure out how to cut mass incarceration in the state. They also have something called a Healing and Justice Center. It’s a healing space. You know, if people are victims of harm, if they wanna come there and try to figure out how to get resources like they can come there and do that.

They also have a mobile response unit. And so if you or someone’s in a crisis, you literally can call Dream Defenders and a medical doctor. A deescalator and a, like a crisis counselor will show up to try to deescalate the situation and offer resources. They have a, like a fly van, they have nice uniforms.

They like drive around Liberty City in Florida to try to figure out how to be an actual resource in that community. They have a community health clinic. You know, a lot of this sounds like Black Panthers, right? They have a free community health clinic for people who need to be able to go to the doctors or take their kids to get a checkup.

Like you can go to a Dream Defender’s office and get that done. And so I love when I know, hear about experience stories like that because it’s exactly what’s happening. People are in community, deeply rooted, you know, door knocking, being in conversation, engaging in a long term conversation and commitment to being responsible to what that community says that it needs.

So, I highly encourage people to check out the work that they’re doing. 

Brittany: I love that that is the perfect way to end because it is both a reminder of what is possible and it’s a reminder that we can go and make it ourselves. Yes, we don’t have to wait on anybody or ask for permission to do. You’re so freaking smart, and I just love every time I get to talk to you or you read me what you’ve written. And I’m so grateful that you’ve continued to share that brilliance with the world and that you shared it with us here at UNDISTRACTED. Thank you.

Derecka: Oh yeah, of course. Brittany, I’ve been watching you since I was like 14 years-old, and so it’s so great to literally be able to do this as both adults and so thank you so much for having me.

Brittany: Derecka Purnell is a columnist at The Guardian and a scholar in residence at Columbia Law School. She’s the author of Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and The Pursuit of Freedom. Justice is forever work, and not just because it’s gonna take many generations to get to the world we deserve, but because each of us, each of us, is a forever work in progress.

Derecka doesn’t wanna be the same kind of feminist or abolitionist in three days, three months, or three years, and neither do I, neither do you. So take some time this week, figure out who your teachers are, who helps you ask better questions, Who helps you answer them? With whom can you have those principled loving arguments that make everyone in them better?

Who holds you accountable, not just for where you went wrong, but for how you grow. And who do you hold accountable in the same way? Because those folks, my friends, those folks are the ones who make up your community and it is not and never will be freedom without them.

So, that’s it for today, but never, ever for tomorrow. UNDISTRACTED is a production of The Meteor and Pineapple Street Studios. 

Our lead producer is Rachel Ward.

Our associate producer is Marialexa Kavenaugh.

Thanks also to Treasure Brooks, Hannis Brown, Raj Makhija, and Davy Sumner.

Our executive producers at The Meteor are Cindi Leive and myself, and our executive producers at Pineapple are Jenna Weiss-Berman and Max Linsky. 

You can follow me at @MsPackyetti on all social media and our team @TheMeteor.

Subscribe to UNDISTRACTED and rate us on Apple podcasts or most places you find your favorite podcasts.

Thanks for listening, thanks for being, and always thanks for doing.

I’m Brittany Packnett Cunningham. Let’s go get free.


UNDISTRACTED: September 22, 2022

The Queen Died. Now What? Three Brilliant Women on Colonialism and the Future

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Hey, y’all it’s Brittany. So, I gotta come clean about something. I love “The Crown”. Not the institution no, no, no, no, no. The Netflix show. Y’all know the one with Claire Foy and, um, the, um, the British Meryl Streep y’all know who I’m talking about. Olivia Colman. Yeah, that’s the one. I know, uh, there is a lot to be said about the history of colonization and racism under the British empire.

But I don’t know, there’s something about the Netflix treatment that makes the cognitive dissonance just palatable enough. Sure, the show has done a bit to hint at the fault of the empire in the subjugation of people of color across the entire globe. But let’s be honest, we’re here for the chaos and the costuming and Gillian Anderson’s slow British drool as she plays Margaret Thatcher.

Now, if you are honest with me, you too, my friend, have found yourself distracted by the high drama of the Monarch. Don’t lie to me. whether it was the Netflix series or a Diana documentary or a Royal wedding. You too have found yourself at least momentarily caught up in the fever. It’s by design. 

So, a guy named Clive Irving who’s the former managing editor of the UK Sunday Times, he says that the Monarch uses quote, pageant as an intoxicant. Yeah. The pump, the circumstance, the intrigue, all of it. Not only distracts from some harsher truths, it renders those truths impolite. One shouldn’t interrupt the beauty to make people uncomfortable. Right? And as such when former and current subjects of the British Commonwealth spoke some of their harsh truths when Queen Elizabeth II passed away last week, many of them got told to pipe down.

They said it wasn’t the moment. Told that a country was in mourning and now just isn’t the time to mention all these unpleasantries. But isn’t the colonizing of millions of people across the global south far more unpleasant? I mean, and if you really wanna get unpleasant, here’s a cold, hard fact, Great Britain ain’t the only one. 

While we’re talking about where the Crown Jewels are from, and we must, we need to be asking who exactly built Wall Street and why Latin America speaks Spanish in the first place. Look, decorum and the absolute adherence to it is a vestige of white supremacy culture. And we get told to hold our truths until a more appropriate time. And then that time never comes, but it’s gonna come today. Because we are UNDISTRACTED.

On the show today, I’ll be talking about the Queen’s colonial legacy with writer Shannon Melero, historian Caroline Elkins, and cultural critic Luvvie Ajayi.

Luvvie Ajayi: History is of no fault of one person, but I also won’t be sitting there being like I am weeping. And I’ve seen videos and pictures of Nigerians and other people who are like weeping at Buckingham Palace. And I’m like, but weep for the women who we will never know their names.

Brittany: That’s coming up. But first it’s the news.

Yeah, our first item is about The Women’s March. Now, if you know about the first Women’s March in 2017, you probably know it was more than 4 million people across the globe. But you might have also heard stories about the divisions within it or rumors about some of the positions its founders supported, but data from a disinformation expert at American University, reported in The New York Times, shows that those rumors were intentionally driven by Russian social media accounts who targeted the Women’s March for a period of years to slow down the movement and create fissures on the left.

The trolls found their most successful attacks where those targeting Linda Sarsour. 

Linda Sarsour: My name is Linda Sarsour and I am one of the national co-chairs for the Women’s March on Washington.

Brittany: Sarsour has made a name for herself as a prominent voice for the rights of Muslims in the wake of 911. She’s also a staunch supporter of Palestinian liberation, making her a target for criticism from the right, which Russian trolls easily took advantage of, banning the flames of division. Over the course of a year and a half, 152 different Russian accounts posted material about Sarsour claiming that she supported ISIS, that she hated Jewish people, and that she supported implementing Sharia law in the U.S.

Let me say this, I know Linda and none of that is true. The trolling upended Linda’s life and destabilized the Women’s March, an organization whose original mission was to present a unified front for the most vulnerable. This reporting is a good reminder that disinformation spreads like wildfire, and we’ve got to check out our sources meticulously before we condemn or endorse something on mass.

May we all be much more careful in the future.

Next, nurses are fed up and they’re not gonna take any of it y’all. Around 15,000 nurses in Minnesota walked off the job last week to protest the compromised patient care and burnout they say is caused by extreme understaffing in hospitals. The nurses union has been trying to negotiate an agreement with hospitals in the state for months to fix this issue. 

This is one of the largest nurses strikes in American history and it comes after more than two years of a pandemic in which nurses bore the brunt of our COVID negligence. Here’s the thing, one company that owns four hospitals where nurses went on strike said that they had been planning for the action for months.

Which begs the question of why, if hospitals have the resources to manage a strike, they can’t provide more resources to nurses to provide care? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment and healthcare across the U.S. remains below pre-pandemic levels. And I can say this personally, without nurses our healthcare system would crumble. To the nurses in Minnesota, we thank you. And you’ve got our solidarity. 

Now I wanna close by shedding some light on one of the oldest forms of voter suppression there is, and one woman who’s been trying her hardest to mitigate it.  Up until as recently as 1965, several states in the south had a rule that in order to vote, you had to be able to read.

These were called literacy tests and you literally had to take an exam before entering the poll booth. In many ways, this was really ployed to keep Black people from voting because you know, for so long, it was illegal to teach us how to read and write and our schools were historically underfunded. And while the Voting Rights Act eventually removed those exams, some states still try to make it harder for people with reading difficulties to vote.

Olivia Coley-Pearson: A lot of people intimidated by voting who can read and write. Most of the people who have a problem with reading and writing and understanding they’re not going to go vote.

Brittany: That was Olivia Coley-Pearson speaking with ProPublica. Coley-Pearson is from Coffee County, Georgia, where a third of the voters struggle with a basic reading level. And she’s been criminally charged twice for helping voters who quote legally didn’t qualify for help with their ballots. Since Georgia only identifies being disabled or being unable to read English as reasons for assistance. Yeah. While Coley-Preston has never been formally convicted, the state’s efforts to stop her serve as a warning going into these midterm elections. There is very little conservatives won’t stoop to in order to stop Black and Latinae voters from reaching the polls, including cracking down on volunteers like Olivia, who helps voters understand their ballots. 

Poll workers are deeply essential, y’all and we will need them in full force this November and every November. And if you can’t be a poll worker, but wanna volunteer your time visit whenweallvote.org.

Coming up, I’ll be talking to three brilliant women about what a world without colonialism could look like. Right after this short break.

And we are back. On Monday, as news networks went wall to wall with coverage of Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral, Puerto Rico was in the dark. Like the complete dark. A category 1 hurricane washed away bridges, contaminated drinking water, flooded roads, and caused a still unknown loss of life and damage to people’s homes and livelihoods.

And it did not have to be that way. Puerto Rico is one of the many places in the world where colonial powers, first the Spanish, then us here in the U.S., swept in to exploit the land and her people. What they left behind is a people struggling to take an equal place in the world. Not because they lack the might, but because they lack the opportunity.

That’s the legacy of colonialism and perhaps no empire left a bigger footprint or a darker shadow than the British empire. So, this week as the Queen is buried, we’re talking about how her colonial legacy lives on. My guests today are Luvvie Ajayi who was born in Nigeria and today writes about tackling fear and living boldly. Caroline Elkins is a historian of the British empire and was part of the first ever lawsuit against the United Kingdom by its victims of colonization. And writer Shannon Melero is my colleague here at “The Meteor”. 

So, we really wanted to have a conversation about colonialism. I think obviously much of the world has been reckoning with the legacy of the British empire, but we wanna take stock of the entire world because colonialism, uh, is not necessarily unique to the U.K. And each of you bring a different perspective to this. Caroline, you are a historian; Luvvie, you are a writer and you are part of the Nigerian diaspora. Shannon, you write about Puerto Rican identity and the American legacy of colonialism. But I wanna start at the person who’s at the center of the story right now, right?

QE II, Queen Elizabeth II, who, as we are speaking, is being laid to rest. And the reaction to her death on social media revealed she is, shall we say, a complicated figure for people? Did you all watch any of, any of the funeral, any of the kind of the pomp and circumstance that has been surrounding this for the last week?

Caroline, you’re shaking your head, yes. Luvvie, you’re shaking your head, no. Caroline, did you look at any of it? 

Caroline Elkins: I did. You know, I did it as, as it was an active research ladies, you know, I had, I was watching this with an eye to quite frankly, symbolism and empire. You couldn’t, but help notice the degree to which empire and commonwealth the service was wrapped around it.

It was carefully curated. And on top of which the, the Crown, the scepter, the, the, the whole thing on top of the coffin, it was like the weight of empire was on, on top of, you know, the root of empire was literally riding on her coffin, um, both in and out of Westminster Abbey. And so, you know, I don’t wanna be glib about it, but I couldn’t help, but be struck by the fact of how the weight of colonialism was hanging there and then quite literally a topper coffin. 

Brittany: Those are powerful images. And I want, I wanna come back to that in a second. Shannon, did you watch it all? Cuz I understand that the Queen has kind of a unique place in your family. 

Shannon Melero: Yes, my mom and I actually were in London not too long ago and we hit all the Queen’s hotspots. We like to say we were in all her houses. Because we did go to Windsor and we checked out Buckingham Palace. So, my mother and I are Queen fans. So, I did not watch the funeral, um, only because I hate funerals, but I think for me, the whole period has been really a chance to reflect on not just empire and where it’s put so many of us, but how we interact with it now. Because although technically it’s still not the British Empire as it was so many years ago when she first came into power, the effects are still there. There are still countries that have her face on the money. So it’s definitely been, um, confronting a lot of opposing ideas that exist inside my brain.

Brittany: Luvvie, you are Nigerian, you were like fervently, shaking your head, nah I didn’t watch that funeral. I imagine the Queen means something, uh, different in your family. 

Luvvie: The monarchy is something that I, as a, somebody who’s Nigerian born and bred, just finds to be overly celebratory of its space in history. You know, like, Nigeria’s gonna turn 62 years old October 1st. My mom is 66. She’s gonna be 67. so this country is younger than her. This country is younger than my mother. And you know, the person who is the beacon, yes, she’s not to be blamed for colonialism, but she’s the actual symbol, the actual figurehead of this thing. And you know, a lot of people, I watch the crown, like everybody else on, on Netflix and understand, 

Brittany: Listen, cuz that’s my show.

Luvvie: That’s my show. 

Brittany: And the cognitive dissonance is real. 

Luvvie: And they told the whole Crown’s business. And that’s one thing I really appreciated about it is it didn’t, it shed light on how much it’s a gilded cage. Ultimately, I think about what would’ve happened if this Queen was a radical woman. What could have actually happened and shifted in history?

You know, we watched the moments when she, you know, the person who played her went and did tours in Africa to discourage people from even seeking independence. So when this person is gone, I was like, I make no qualms of the fact that I don’t plan on celebrating or mourning my oppressor. And if people are like, well, she, it was not her fault.

No, it was not her fault. You know, history is of no fault of one person, but I also won’t be sitting there being like, I am weeping and I’ve seen videos and pictures of Nigerians and other people who are like weeping at Buckingham Palace. And I’m like, but weep for the women who we will never know their names. Even people, they died, like people lost family members in droves in the Biafran war, which happened right after Nigeria’s independence.

That was the aftermath of colonialism. Like people literally are like, yes, I remember, you know, I remember my father dying because of all the things that England has done and the monarchy’s at the, at the helm of it. So, I’m not celebrating her death, but I’m also not grieving it. 

Brittany: Caroline, Luvvie is really pointing to, Luvvie and Shannon are pointing to, I think the great range of responses here, and a lot of the conversation has centered around exactly what the Queen’s role was in the British empire. Some people are like, she was just a tiny little 96-year-old woman, this is not her fault. Other folks are saying, you know, a lot of decolonization happened under her reign and then other people are saying, but she had no power. Okay. Well, did she have power to decolonize? Did she not have the power?

Like what is really the truth? Help us break down the Queen’s role in the British empire. Uh, you know, what is your response to folks who say she did not personally direct the atrocities or the exploitation.

Caroline: Yeah, these are great questions. I just wanna pick up on some points that Luvvie was making, because I think she put her finger right on it, which is this Queen had enormous amounts of soft power. Right? 

She was not prime minister, let’s make that clear the way in which the monarchy works, she was a constitutional monarchy. But remember when she ascended to the throne in 1952, she took over as the, uh, the, the largest empire that the history has ever known. A quarter of the world’s gonna mass 700 million people.

They had just lost India, so it was slightly smaller. But nonetheless, during the first 30 years of her reign, there was never a year when there was not a bloody end of empire were being fought. She, they were not giving up empire easily. Now questions, how much did she know? And what did knowing mean? Right?

And when we think about this, there’s no smoking gun. There’s no document that says the Queen gave the order for torture and detention camps in Kenya or crackdowns in Nigeria. But the degree to which she was known for being so well versed in foreign policy, the degree to which she was impeccably prepared, the degree to which 15 prime ministers said or experienced the degree to which she gave wise counsel to suggest she was in the dark is absolutely implausible, just implausible. 

And, you know, I, I sort of go back to Luvvie’s point about, you know, she inherited the monarchy. She was there to gate-keep history. She was preserving how the world remembered the past because that past was really sort of a source of her power in the present and future, and make no mistake she worked assiduously to ensure that the Commonwealth, which really is just a collection of nations without any power. Right?

But that she was obsessive about her role as the head of the Commonwealth, which by the way, is not inheritable. She ensured that Charles would become the, the head of the Commonwealth after her. The degree to which she, through everything she did wrapping herself in empire and then Commonwealth.

The other thing that she did is she beckoned people to revere her. And in that reverence obscured all this other underbelly of empire. So, you know, I think it’s a complicated history, but it’s certainly not one in which she was not playing an intentional role in how the pass is remembered and how her power was projected.

Luvvie: Can I double plus this, please? You just drop bars, like on top of bars, because here’s the thing that’s happening that people are doing after her death. They are white womaning her. They are removing the pieces of her legacy and her history and her doings that speak to oftentimes the decision that at best was apathy and that worse was cruelty.

Right? So they’ve turned her into the cause people are losing their great grandmother. She was a great grandmother to few, but she was a torturer and a figure of cruelty to billions. The only people who have the privilege of being humanized in that way, even though their legacies of cruelty are white women, white people, and this aftermath has been fascinating to me.

Brittany: I’m thinking back to all of those scenes in the crown, right? Where she’s going on these so-called goodwill tours, these tours of the Commonwealth and doing what you’re saying, Caroline, beckoning people to revere her. Right? And that soft power is not without consequence, right? In some very hard and tangible and deeply challenging ways.

Caroline, you’re not just a historian you’ve also participated in legal action brought by Kenya victims of British torture for them to win the right to sue their colonizers. What’s the history that prompted that particular action? Like how did you get involved? I’m curious, what sort of, what sort of ripple effect that suit had across the Commonwealth.

Caroline: The suit was found in 2009 by survivors of detention camps in Kenya. And as, as a one way of suppressing the Mau Mau emergency, the British government set up a mass system of detention without trial, where they executed systematized torture and murder, and they detained about a million and a half people.

And to your point, Luvvie, in each one of those detention camps, a picture of her Majesty hung. I spent about over 10 years putting this story back together again because getting back to how much the Queen knew, her ministers lied all the time to parliament, to all kinds of inquiries. And when they finished up empire, they burned most of the documents. They got rid of them.

And so I sort of put the story back together again, which then becomes the basis for the first time the British government has been sued by a former colonized population in the high court of London. It ends up fast forward, you know, four years later, the British government settles this case recognizes for the very first time, the history of the British empire that torture had been, uh, used in her Majesty’s name and settle for about 20 million pounds Sterling. 

And what’s very interesting about this case is when the claimants were in London, I was there with them at various points. Do you know the one person they wanted to see? The Queen. It was to the Queen that they were appealing for justice.

I mean, I couldn’t make sense of it all. And some of this funeral is helping me with this and they had to sort of internalize this reverence. It was to the Queen who they were going to go for a sort of mercy for justice, the same Queen that hung in their detection camps. And I think it’s only really recently that we are beginning to understand the full extent of the ways in which the violence and the torture were systematized during Queen Elizabeth’s rule and really systematized in a way, as I said before, that it’s very hard to believe she was completely in the dark about this. Quite something, actually when you think about it. 

Brittany: It really is. And I wanna turn now to some of that lived experience because Luvvie, you spoke about your mother living through this. Her generation seeing what it was to once be part of the British empire and then to achieve independence as Nigeria did in 1960. How does your family talk about that time before independence? 

Luvvie: You what funny, they don’t. It’s really fascinating. I realize that I’ve never had a conversation with my mother about what her life was like before Nigeria got independence. Cuz, again Nigeria 62, that means she was five. My grandmother who lived through it is no longer alive, but being born and raised in Nigeria, which still has all these fingerprints, like when I came to the U.S. at nine, how I spoke, I still use British phrases. So for example, instead of saying cookie, I said, biscuit. In Nigeria, attorneys still wear those white wigs and they still call themselves barristers. There’s so many ways in which Nigerians operate and that Commonwealth fingerprint is still in everything. All these countries that were colonized by England, we still have so many specific things in common that is very British.

Brittany: Now Shannon, we are talking about Britain, shining the light across the pond, as it were. But you are from Puerto Rico, uh, which is a quote unincorporated territory of the United States. Big air quotes on that. I think that the United States’ relationship with Puerto Rico and its other territories can sometimes evade scrutiny, the scrutiny it deserves quite frankly, because we don’t call them colonies.We call them unincorporated territories, but you definitely see a parallel here. Right, Shannon? 

Shannon: I absolutely see parallels, um, you know, one of the first and biggest things that came up in the media aftermath of the Queen dying and everyone, you know, taking to Twitter with their brand new degrees in, uh, Imperial history was a lot of talk about how, you know, almost a celebration of how this, um, leader of an Imperialist nation was gone and, and, you know, maybe somehow that was going to change things and it was just this air of excitement. 

And I see that and everyone’s entitled to feel how they feel about it. But what I think to myself and what I told my husband is, you know, are we gonna have this same energy when the next, uh, former U.S. president dies? You know, I don’t know who is the oldest right now, but one of them is gonna drop any day now and are all of the Americans who are suddenly so interested in history, are they going to remember that right now at this very moment in time, you know, Puerto Rico is sitting there to the south and is being treated like a colony?

And it’s especially, you know, today at the forefront of my mind because of the impact of hurricane Fiona, which has completely, you know, wiped out the power grid in Puerto Rico. And you know, it’s being framed as, oh, you know, those poor people, they just can’t get it together because they just can’t figure out how infrastructure works.

And it’s like, no, no, no, no, no, no. We can figure out how infrastructure works. We can figure out how our power grid works, but we cannot undo is hundreds of years of what, let’s be honest, is colonial rule and damage and tax breaks and misappropriation of funds and corrupt government. And it’s all coming from the U.S. The U.S.’s main export to Puerto Rico is corruption and just an utter mishandling of resources.

So, you know, the Queen’s death has brought up a lot more than just, how do I feel about British imperialism? 

Brittany: Yeah. I mean, hurricane Fiona essentially has the entire island effectively without power right now. And it will be that way for days, which is not just about the hurricane. It is about the grid, it is about the infrastructure, it is about the lack of investment. And I’m wondering, Shannon, what it was like for you immediately following the Queen’s death, kind of watching this on social media. It was fascinating to almost see people treat it like a sport, right? Like there were teams, right? Like there was the Irish Twitter memes and the Nigerian Twitter memes, and oh, Black Twitter is a mess right now.

Right? But these jokes were coming from people living in the United States, which of course is currently keeping multiple populations of people in literal second-class citizenship. I’m curious what that sight was like for you.

Shannon:  As far as all the reactions on Twitter, you know, I’m not gonna lie. I love a good joke, and Irish Twitter was absolutely popping when it came to the jokes and I did feel bad for laughing at them, but a good joke is a good joke. Other than that, I, you know, I largely did have to sort of unplug the whole thing because, and it’s nothing to do with, you know, an emotional state over the Queen’s death, but it really came down to what I cannot stand is people in glass houses, throwing stones.

And right now, you know, those of us living in mainland USA, we live in just the biggest glass house, possibly in the, on the globe, you know? We have benefited and we have thrived as a country off of some massive, massive atrocities. And no matter how we wanna spin it, no matter how we wanna frame it, no matter how much we wanna 4th of July fireworks it, you know, we are just as bad as the U.K. 

And frankly, the only difference is the U.K. had a head start. They’ve been doing it a lot longer than we have, but to make it out to be that we have some sort of moral high ground to stand on. So it’s almost foolish to me to take that stance because you know, what are we as individuals doing right now to dismantle the oppression that we as Americans are putting out into the world? We’re  just tweeting.

Brittany: Especially given that some of the former leaders of this country, their faces are on the money too. Right? 

Caroline, I wanna stay with Puerto Rico for a second because these similarities that Shannon is drawing are critically important. What are, what are some of those threads that we need to continue to pull at? And what are some of the functional differences between what the U.S. does and what the British empire did? 

Caroline: Yeah, I mean, I think the, these are great questions and listening to you, Shannon, I was, so I was so struck by, you know, it’s kind of in my own head taking a step back and thinking about how do we get these kinds of structural inequities today and how do we get them in, in countries that profess themselves to be liberal democracies, right? 

This is sort of the spread of liberalism, this idea that everybody can benefit from rule of law and free markets and all of that. Well, you know, I think in so far as we can see a common thread between say, you know, let’s sort of make a leap here between what happened in Luvvie your, you know, in Nigeria and also Shannon what’s going on in, in Puerto Rico.

Well, this sort of sense of this broader civilizing mission, broadly defined, right? The British were really explicit about it. This is what they were up to and it kind of a smoke screen to their empire. Right? They were out there exploiting, but it was all about developmentalism so that, whether it was Blacks in Nigeria or brown people in India, that one day you’re gonna be just like us, but not yet, just not yet.

And the same sort of concept applies to even somewhere like Puerto Rico in the United States, that one day with the tutelage of the Americans coming in, and you’re part of this Commonwealth, you’re gonna have the benefits of all the things that democracy will give to you, but just not yet, but guess what happens.

Not yet never comes. And so you have to grab the not yet, if you are Black and brown people in these populations. Right? And I have to say this sort of concept of not yet, it’s in every major document that’s ever been out there after World War I, the Treaty of Versailles, the creation of the League of Mandates, uh, Nation Mandates, the United Nations, the creation of non-self governing territories.

I mean, literally that phrase, not yet developed, not yet ready to stand on their own, this kind of you know, making mass swaths of the population like their children. And getting back to the Queen, the matriarch, and she was self crafted this way. The matriarch of empire and Commonwealth just died. The mother just died.

And now Charles is taking on the role as being the patriarch. And just like, Shannon, if we wanna get back to the U.S. a classic sort of uncle Joe Biden now, I mean, it’s partly cuz he’s kind of dopey sometimes and he says stupid things. But the, the, this sort of familial language, right? Don’t forget the power of language, the power of the way in which these societies are being cast.

And this idea that not yet doesn’t come and look Frantz Fanon was right, who said the only way for formerly colonized populations to be truly free is to shed the shackles of liberalism because it’s not really equal. 

Brittany: Whew. I mean, listen, anytime we get a Fanon quote in here.

Shannon: If I could also jump on what Caroline said about, you know, this idea of not yet. I, sorry. I get so worked up trying to not curse. 

Brittany: Say what you gotta say. It’s alright. We’re an adult podcast. 

Shannon: Oh, perfect. This idea of not yet fascinates me because there have been moments in history where we had a chance to like, take the shackles off my feet so I could dance and we didn’t take it.

But where are those opportunities coming from? They’re coming from the United States Congress. They are deciding what freedom can look like, like right now with the Puerto Rican Status Act that is stuck because it is a hot ass mess. The oppressor is deciding what freedom could look like for the rest of us.

And it frustrates me to no end that right now, they’re saying, well, we are gonna think of what these three options could look like for y’all and then we’ll let y’all decide. But from these three limited options that we over here, who do not live there, who do not help, who do not even keep up with the damn news stories have crafted for you to choose from.

And, and it’s this idea that like, we’re giving you this chance. Don’t mess it up. We are facing so much not yet. And this is why I fear, you know, I fear that statehood. Deep. I deeply, deeply fear that statehood vote because the greatest tool that the U.S. has over the island of Puerto Rico is to say, you cannot make it without us. And that is false. 

Brittany: You know, I wanna keep pulling at that thread because when we talk about the global history of colonization and oppression there are many empires. We had Julissa Arce on the podcast last week. Right? And she was talking about the fact that she speaks Spanish as a Mexican-born woman.

That in of itself is a vestige of colonialism, right? I’m currently in Maryland sitting on Indigenous land. I have the blood running through me of enslaved African people who built this country. Right? And Shannon, I know that there’s not one answer to this that, um, is agreed upon by everyone who lives in Puerto Rico, who once lived in Puerto Rico. But in your mind, what does liberation look like? 

Shannon: Oh, that’s so hard. It is hard for me to say because anyone who lives there right now will hear this and say, well, she’s not really Puerto Rican. And they could say that I was born in New York. My mother and father were born in New York. My grandmother was born in Patillas and my grandfather’s family is also from Patillas.

We are in Patillas alone, not the whole island, but in specifically Patillas, we are there going back to the early 1800s as tobacco and sugar cane farmers. So sure people could say, I’m not from there, but you, you can’t take out what’s in here. You can’t take any of this out. And I run on that soil.

So in my opinion, liberation looks like independence. We have been a prize of Spain and a prize of the United States for far too long. Well, how has that benefited us? How has that benefited the people that live there? So for me, it does look like independence. It does look like becoming an independent nation, a nation that serves itself.

It’s time for Puerto Rico for Puerto Ricans. I feel like that sounds horrible to say it out loud, but if tomorrow, the island voted for independence and I got a call from Joe Biden saying, you know what, you can’t go back because you’re technically not a citizen anymore, then I’ll pay that price.

If I gotta stay my ass here because I wasn’t born over there and now independence is happening. Okay, take it. 

Brittany: Similarly, when you look across what is left of the so-called Commonwealth, what do you want the fate of that empire to be? What, what do you believe it should look like from now on? 

Luvvie: I mean, I feel like people being able to draw their own line. So Nigeria was in a deep civil war afterwards because again, like colonialism doesn’t care about who actually lives there. It just draws random arbitrary lines and whether or not people got along before then it just like not y’all together. So funny enough I did my ancestry just because, I mean, I already know my family background, but I said, I just wanna test this out real quick and see what happened. So, I did my ancestry about probably three years ago and it’s interesting it came back and said I am 60% Benin, 40% Nigerian. 

And I laughed because it ultimately was just saying you’re a hundred percent Yoruba because the arbitrary line drawn to split up Benin and Nigeria, Yoruba people ended up here, Yoruba people ended up on the other side.  And ultimately my family is just a hundred percent Yoruba and it just affirmed to me just how much colonialism has split us apart in ways that made no sense. In ways that did not honor the land, did not honor the languages, did not honor the people. It just built these systems and these boxes and said, now you are here now you’re here. So that’s my reflection is that I don’t know what freedom looks like from the point where you understand that your people are elsewhere also. 

But I think it also looks like us knowing that our people aren’t just in the borders that have been created for us, our passports are these books that have told us that we are separate, but truly there are no borders to our cultures, to our languages.

Like you will even, you know, descendants of enslaved Africans who are here, you go to Ghana, you see somebody who lives just like your cousin and your auntie. All the things that they have tried to do to separate should not keep us apart. All of our fights are the same. So our fights are the same in Mississippi, right? As they are in Acra, as they are in Johannesburg, in Cape town. And I think freedom looks like us all understanding that and moving with that in mind and knowing that all of us belong to each other. No matter how much they have tried to separate us. 

Brittany: Yeah. I mean, Caroline, we’re talking about what we hope it looks like. And then there’s a question of what it will look like. Right? With the Queen’s passing, I think we’re all recalling the fact that the British empire changed significantly during her lifetime, it got much smaller, right? And of course the Irish, Kenyans, lots of people will tell you it did not get smaller without a fight.

But now that she has passed on, what do we think the fate of the empire is? What do you think the United Kingdom will look like as it moves forward? 

Caroline: Yeah, look, I think that King Charles III, there’s a lot that’s hanging in the balance for him. Right? Let’s put aside whether or not people are going to have affection for him in the same way. And, and the like, but we discussed earlier, how much did the Queen know? What did knowing mean? There is no question that King Charles is aware that serious crimes happened on the Queen’s imperial watch. That’s one. 

Two, coming from formally colonized populations, the ground swell of demands coming from whether it’s Jamaica, whether it’s Canada and the Indigenous populations there with children, torn from their parents and put into these residential homes where horrible things happened. Back to Luvvie’s point, about these arbitrary boundaries that cause vast amounts of violence, whether it was Nigeria, whether it was,  India, Pakistan at partition, et cetera, et cetera. 

One thing that’s working on that case, that Mau Mau case taught me is the power of history, the power of the truth and courage that it takes to bring truth to. In the form of, of the British government, in the form of the legacy, of the monarchy and what I would encourage so many populations around the world is to say, look, we’ve known from histories from your parents and your grandparents, but at the end of the day, those in power will say, show me the document.

Show me the history book. Show me. I don’t wanna hear about oral history cuz you know, people make things up. It is so documented. Now the degree, the roots of structural inequal. The degree to which violence was inflicted in the British empire. And what’s important to point out is that you were mentioning before all, all empires are violent, but the British had a particular pernicious way of making everybody believe they were exceptional.

That there was this myth of British Imperial benevolence and it is obscuring the real nature of the past. And it’s also making it very difficult for people to realize and actualize their own futures. So my view on this is King Charles III either has to step up and recognize this rupture to frankly, have the courage that his mother didn’t have.

And at the same time, the people who formally colonize people must demand that he’d do this. And if he does not do this, then they have to find other ways to separate themselves outta the Commonwealth. And there’s different ways of doing that. But I think that they need to move forward in ways that are without sort of these former Imperial structures.

And it’s hugely, it’s not just symbolic. It means something about going it alone to be truly independent today. 

Brittany: Iwould also say that British citizens need to make that demand as well. Right? Of, of their government. 

Caroline: The only thing they got left, they’re this tiny craggy little island in the North Sea. With their economies in the crapper. Brexit hasn’t worked out, their government’s in shambles. The only thing they have left is a glorified path. So make no mistake, I think it’s also a moment where some people are gonna hold onto this past tighter than ever before.

Brittany: Ooh, that could be a podcast episode in and of itself.

Caroline: Just right there. 

Brittany: I’ve got one last question that I really wanna ask each of you, but as I do that, I wanna really set the context of what colonialism, neocolonialism, residual colonialism looks like today. Right? According to the United Nations, there are still 16 non self-governing territories. That’s 2 million people who are still under United Kingdom, United States, and French control.

There’s of course, neocolonialism where these economic relationships create a kind of dependency where nations are technically free, but they are hamstrung by continuous generational debt. So we talked a little bit about what liberation looks like for Puerto Rico, for Africa. But broadly,what is the opposite look like? What is a world completely free of colonial domination look like, Caroline?

Caroline: You know, as a historian, I have to say it’s a thought game, right? Cause I have a hard time imagining the world without empires. Right? We’re actually in a weird period of time, right? Putin right now is sort of exercising his whole, you know, fantasy around empire.

But look, I think if I were to imagine a kind of utopia without this, it’s where people are all starting on the same, starting. That the hundred meter dash doesn’t begin with all the white folks in power beginning on the 80 meter mark. It doesn’t begin with basically an extraction of wealth to the extent that young people can’t be educated, that elderly can’t be taken care of, and that people are actually able to actualize their own possibility.

And as one knows that everybody on this, in this conversation knows it’s not because the world is lacking in talent. right? It’s because there’s lack of opportunity. And what I would imagine in the kind of world we’re talking about is that there is real opportunity that transcends the color of your skin, where you come from in this world.

And that to me is what a world looks like without colonization. 

Brittany: Shannon, how about you? 

Shannon: For me? It would look extremely different because without colonization, I don’t speak Spanish, I don’t speak English. I am a Taino without colonization. I keep thinking about this. Luvvie, whenever I hear you speak, further back in my family tree, we originated in Nigeria as Yoruba people.

So I think about that and I, and it occurs to me that portion of that family tree wouldn’t have come into the Taino portion of the family tree without colonization either. So it’s so hard to imagine because my people in my original culture was erased by what many Americans don’t wanna recognize as a genocide carried out by Columbus and other explorers when he just wiped out the Taino population by the millions.

So that changed everything before I can even pinpoint a family member. So it, I think for me, it’s just so difficult to fathom what it would have been like have things gone differently, going all the way back to the 1400s. 

Brittany: Luvvie, close us out. What does a world free of colonial domination look like? 

Luvvie: A world free of colonial domination would be a bunch of people’s culture still, right? People still speak in all these languages. So many languages wouldn’t be extinct. We would have a more borderless travel. The fact that our passports, the physical thing that we hold, literally determine how far we can go on this earth. That frankly belongs to none of us. That’s what a world without colonialism would look like.

You know, the fact that the U.S. passport can get you to 180 countries without a visa, but like another country’s passport can get you to 20, you know, is a, is, is because of colonialism. So I think it looked like a more borderless world where we can all travel and meet and see each other and eat our foods and speak our languages, our rightful languages, you know, Nigeria’s official language is English, a country that has over 200 languages our official language is English.

And now like we’re even seeing people who are born and raised in Nigeria, not even speaking their own language. They, they don’t. I have cousins who don’t speak Yoruba, which is wild to me. So yeah, a world without colonialism would look like us being freer to actually just physically move and go around this world and know more about everybody else.

Brittany: I love it. Well, here’s to getting to the world that you all described. Thank you so much, Shannon, Luvvie, Caroline, for everything that you do, for all that you’ve taught us in this conversation. It was incredibly rich and I know folks are gonna learn so much. Thank you.

Luvvie Ajayi is a bestselling author of books like I’m Judging You and Professional Troublemaker. Caroline Elkins is professor of history and African and African American studies at Harvard University and the author of Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire. Shannon Melero writes “The Meteor’s” newsletter, which you can find at wearethemeteor.com/newsletters.

What strikes me most is how nearly impossible it is to imagine the world we have without colonialism. And that is of course the point as I always say, oppression strips us of our imaginations because empire and its many, many tentacles find their way into everything, not just our economies or constitutions, but our food, our medicine, our languages, our clothing, it is in a word ubiquitous. 

And that makes it challenging to part from, but to quote my friend Glennon Doyle, we can do hard things. And frankly, we have to, we have an obligation to strive for freedom even, and especially, when it feels as challenging as pulling tiny individual threads from the totality of the garment of human existence, because being colonized is not our destiny, because our children deserve agency, because we should get the chance to design the world we want.

And not simply accept the one that we were given. And that, my friends is always the point.

So, that’s it for today, but never, ever for tomorrow. UNDISTRACTED is a production of The Meteor and Pineapple Street Studios. 


Our lead producer is Rachel Ward.

Our associate producer is Marialexa Kavenaugh.

Thanks also to Treasure Brooks, Hannis Brown, Raj Makhija, and Davy Sumner.

Our executive producers at The Meteor are Cindi Leive and myself, and our executive producers at Pineapple are Jenna Weiss-Berman and Max Linsky. 

You can follow me at @MsPackyetti on all social media and our team @TheMeteor.

Subscribe to UNDISTRACTED and rate us on Apple podcasts or most places you find your favorite podcasts.

Thanks for listening, thanks for being, and always thanks for doing.

I’m Brittany Packnett Cunningham. Let’s go get free.


UNDISTRACTED: September 15, 2022

The Hidden Latinx Stories We Don’t Hear, with Julissa Natzely Acre Raya

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Brittany: Hey, y’all it’s Brittany. One of the things that mattered most to me, when I knew I was gonna become a mom was not passing on my bad habits. I mean like, yeah. I want him to make the bed every morning because I certainly do not, but it’s beyond chores for me. There are traits I’ve had to unlearn in short order because I need him to be better than me.

My biggest Achilles heel is people pleasing. I think I’ve told you all that before, right now, through lots of therapy and coaching I know that people pleasing is actually, for me, a trauma response based on loss. After my dad died when I was 12, I subconsciously thought that making people happy would keep them around.

And that way I wouldn’t have to lose anyone else that I loved. It kept me entirely too long in what turned out to be some emotionally and narcissistically, abusive relationships. Ones that never got physical, but most certainly left their mark. And yet perhaps the most persistent, most narcissistic relationship I’ve been in my whole life is my relationship to whiteness. 

It was the social default that told me I was never good enough, never desirable enough, or intelligent enough or accomplished enough. And the social pressure to assimilate to its attributes had me second guessing myself and shirking my culture in far too many instances. Too often, the people I was pleasing had no interest in ensuring I was my best Blackself, just that I was palatable for them. But best believe I’ve been on that unlearning journey for a good minute now.

And my son. He’s gonna grow up more free than I ever did. We are UNDISTRACTED.

On the show today, I’m talking to Julissa Natzely Arce Raya, a Latina author and activist who lived undocumented in the U.S. for 15 years. She worked her way up the ladder on Wall Street only to find that the American dream wasn’t all that was cracked up to be.

Julissa Natzely Arce Raya:. And the reason I’ve worked so hard was to have that financial stability. And here I was, and I had it and I still couldn’t get on a plane and go see my dad because the immigration laws of this country are so backwards. And I think that that was the start of me really questioning what is this for? And maybe it’s a lie that if you work hard, you can have everything that you want.

Brittany: That’s coming up. But first it’s the news.

So employers who want to use religious beliefs to deny their employees healthcare, they got another win last week. We’ve been down this road before, and it’s usually a company who doesn’t wanna pay for their employees birth control or abortion care. But this time a conservative sued because he didn’t want to provide his employees with HIV-prevention drugs. The treatment in question is called PrEP, which is short for HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis. 

News Anchor: HIV prevention drugs taken daily shown to reduce the risk of getting HIV by 99 percent. 

Brittany: In other words, these drugs save people’s lives. And let’s talk about which people. By the end of 2019, an estimated 1.2 million people in the United States had HIV. And the disease hits communities of color the hardest. Black people account for close to half of all HIV diagnoses, Black women account for the majority of new HIV diagnoses amongst women in the U.S.. Yeah, I don’t know which part of the Bible it was where Jesus says no, no, no, please turn away the sick.

I don’t feel like healing them. This is literally the antithesis of who this entire religion was named after. And it sends the message that people in positions of power are just free to use the government to deploy their own personal agenda on people who have less power. Because be clear, this is not a religious agenda. It’s not what Jesus would do. It’s what you would do. And it sucks.

Now, you’ve probably been hearing about the ongoing water contamination crisis in Jackson, Mississippi of late.  Last week, the city restored its water pressure to normal levels, but with an advisory still in effect. It says folks still have to boil water before using it. 

Now you’ve seen those brown water videos. I don’t know how you can boil water that looks like coffee and turn it back into water again. But you also might not have heard about some of the other water crises happening in the country due to neglected infrastructure, environmental racism, and climate change. One of those crises is uncanny similar to Jackson and it’s happening right now, right up the street from me in Baltimore, Maryland. 

City officials have been insisting that residents boil their water after E. coli was discovered in a West Baltimore sample over two weeks ago. Investigators have yet to identify the root cause of the crisis, but until the city is able to nail down a cause, affected residents will be boiling their drinking water.

Baltimore and Jackson may not be neighbors, but they have one thing in common that cannot be understated. They are majority Black cities. The pattern of water crises is undeniable and very much not new. Before Baltimore and Jackson, we saw it in Flint, Michigan, another city with the majority Black population.

These failures in infrastructure and public health continuously hit the same kind of vulnerable communities. So say it with me everybody, safe drinking water is a racial justice issue. As our climate crisis escalates, we are only gonna see more water safety issues arise. And if we don’t treat resource inequity and racism with the utmost urgency, our communities will continue to be the most impacted. 

Now I just wanna end this news run down by congratulating the multi-talented, forever iconic. Ms. Sheryl Lee Ralph who won her very first Emmy on Monday for her betrayal of the beautiful, elegant, always wise, always resourceful kindergarten teacher, Barbara Howard in the ABC series “Abbott Elementary”. Ralph’s Ms. Howard character is the beating heart of that entire show. And it’s absolutely no shock that she had the speech of the night.

Sheryl Lee Ralph: Lord.

Brittany: A lot of people are just learning who Ms. Sheryl Lee Ralph is for the first time and they might view this as a win for an up and comer on the scene. But the thing is Sheryl Lee been Ralph. Okay. 

She has been around and for a whole lot of Black people she’s been center stage since the 70s. My mama’s generation loved her as Deena Jones in the original cast “Dreamgirls” on Broadway, a role for which she was nominated for a Tony.

I, of course, loved her as Dee Mitchell, that’s Brandy’s mama on “Moesha”. Okay. I mean, we could go on and on. This woman is a legend, Broadway, television, film. She was even in Denzel’s debut, “The Mighty Quinn”. Okay. Singing, dancing, doing the damn thing. Sheryl Lee Ralph is an example of why we need to reframe the Hollywood narrative because recognizing a veteran as a breakout star, when white audiences finally discover them, that’s honestly embarrassing for the entire industry.

We need to honor a legend like Sheryl Lee Ralph, say her whole name, as a legend. Her Emmy is a great start, but let’s keep those flowers coming. And Sheryl Lee Ralph, thank you for warming our screens, our hearts, and making us laugh for all of these decades. Your triumphs are so deeply deserved. We love you.

Coming up, I’ll be talking to Julissa Natzely Arce Raya, author of “You sound like a white girl: The Case for Rejecting Assimilation’,’ right after this short break.

And we are back. My guest today is someone I’ve been wanting to talk to for a long time. She’s a friend and we’ve shared many stages together. Julissa Natzely Arce Raya is the creator of the web series “La Historia Uncovered” and the author of several books about her experience as an undocumented Mexican immigrant growing up in the U.S.

So to celebrate really, to complicate, Hispanic Heritage Month, which begins today, we wanted to talk to Julissa about the untold stories of Latinos in the United States. 

I imagine that you may have some complicated feelings about so-called Hispanic Heritage Month

Julissa: Yeah, it’s a little bit of a love, hate relationship, right?

Because to me, I like Latinos, even the words that we use, right? Like Hispanic Heritage Month, like I prefer to use now Latino Heritage Month, Latinx Heritage Month. And, you know, I feel like we matter like every day of the year. But there certainly is sort of like this emphasis in this 30-day period that starts September 15th through October 15th. 

There’s an emphasis on our community and everybody wants to work with us and everybody wants to pay attention to us. I’m sure, you know, other communities that have their own month feel that. Right? And my whole thing is. If we matter on October 15th, then on October 16th, we should be just as important and people should wanna work with us just as much, if not more.

Right? Like, like I’m getting so many requests to speak and I’m really grateful for all those opportunities. And at the same time, I think, I am now fully committed for Hispanic Heritage Month. I can’t take any more requests, but like I’m available, you know, October 18th, I’m available November 1st. 

Brittany: Like the rest of the year.

Julissa: Yeah, what’s up?

Brittany: You know, I always had this running joke with my friends, especially before COVID, when people would ask me to come speak a lot. I would say that pretty much all of the money that I made speaking would come between MLK Day and the end of Women’s History Month, because of course, sandwiched in between there is Black History Month and it’s like the rest of the year I can do whatever.

Julissa: Right. Yeah. 

Brittany: And yet we wanna make sure that untold stories are being told obviously beyond Hispanic Heritage Month. But I do think that, you know, Being creatively subversive as it were to say, okay, I’m gonna take this attention that you’re giving and flip it. 

It’s something that you do incredibly well. You really unearth and amplify conversations, stories, histories that may be old hat to some folks, but brand new to others. And that certainly aren’t in mainstream spaces enough. I loved to talk about some of those stories with you, about some stories of Latine heritage that you’ve dug up and really found inspiration in.

I know one of them starts with people that we don’t normally talk about as freedom fighters, cheerleaders. 

Julissa: Yeah. 

Brittany: So tell me about the cheerleaders of Crystal City, Texas and what they won. Cuz I found this a very beautiful story. 

Julissa: I sort of decided a few years ago that if I was gonna participate in Latino Heritage Month and Hispanic Heritage Month that I wanted to do it on my own terms. And I wanted to use those 30 days as an opportunity to share so much of the history that I’ve learned over the past few years that so many of us don’t know. Because I think that there’s a real problem in the United States that people do not know who Latinos are. 

Joaquin Castro, Congressman from Texas says this all the time. And I also think the problem extends to us, you know, to ourselves, like we don’t know our own history in this country. And so it allows many people to treat us as though we are foreigners as though we are from someplace else, as though we belong someplace else. When in reality, you know, Spanish was spoken in the United States before English was spoken in the United States. 

Like we have roots in this country that go back to before this land was called the United States. And so there’s so many of these stories that I have unearthed uncovered for myself that I wanted to share with people. And one of those stories was the story of these cheerleaders in Crystal City, Texas in 1968, 1969, where.

Crystal city, Texas to give you some background it’s, at that time it was, it continues to be a very large Mexican-American population. At that time, the high school was 85% Mexican-American, and yet only one of the four cheerleaders could be Mexican-American. And it might not matter anywhere else in the country, but in Texas who holds the pompoms, who snaps the football, it’s a very clear indication of who is in charge.

And so the white people in the town very much wanted to hold onto that power, even though the demographics of the high school and of the talent were changing. And this group of 15, 17-year-old girls organized with the help of Chicano leaders. Just walkouts for 17 days. And the middle school joined in, the elementary school joined in, teachers from around neighboring towns came in to teach them so that they wouldn’t fall behind in their studies.

It was a real, real community effort. And they were able to overturn that rule as well as be able to have culturally appropriate instruction in their school. They used to get hit if they spoke Spanish in the classroom or in the hallways, like physically struck if they spoke Spanish. And so they also got rid of that.

And within two years, the city council and the school board became majority Latino. So the change that these young girls were able to enact in their town was incredible. And I wonder what it would have done to my confidence, to my psyche had I learned about that story when I was a teenager, because I was a cheerleader in middle school.

I was in the dance team in high school, but I wanted to be a cheerleader because I wanted to be all American, right. And the all American cheerleaders. That were ever portrayed on television shows in the movies were always white, were always blonde. And so my idea of what a cheerleader looks like was that, right.

And I wanted to be a cheerleader because I wanted to fit in. I wanted people to not question whether I was supposed to be here or not. And, you know, I feel like as inspired as I am by this story of what this woman accomplished, I’m also really sad that I’m not the only person that has never heard, that had never heard of that story.

And still today, this civil rights movement in Crystal City, Texas and in South Texas doesn’t make the textbooks. It doesn’t make history lessons. And I feel like we’re being robbed of this inspiration that could really help us feel grounded in this country. 

Brittany: And I would say that folks who are not Latino are being robbed of understanding of the beauty and complexity of diversity, right? I’m curious, once you learned that story, did it shift things for you?

Julissa: Yeah. I mean, I think that, you know, growing up, I always had this question and it was a very simple question, which was where were we? Because I would learn different history lessons in school, but they never talked about Mexicans. Right? 

It was like Mexicans didn’t exist in this country. And I knew that Mexicans had been in the United States because a large portion of what today is the United States had been Mexican land. And so I knew we had existed, but I kept having this question, like where were we when we landed on the moon?

You know, where were we when the Civil Rights movement was happening? Where were we when I don’t know, uh, X, Y and Z thing was happening. Right? And it wasn’t really, until I was an adult that I really went out and started finding the answer to this question. Like where were we? And it certainly has shifted my perception so much about my place in this country about my community’s place in this country.

It has really empowered me to say I don’t belong someplace else. And even though I wasn’t born here, this is still my country. And so many people in the Latino community have never been immigrants, many times we think of Latinos and immigrants as though they’re synonymous. In my case, yes, I am both a Mexican immigrant and an American Latina, but many Latinos have never been immigrants.

You know, their families have never left. Like I have friends in Texas whose family appear in the first census of Texas when it was a Republic. And yet they still have to answer the question, but where are you from from.

Brittany: That double question, right? Yeah. 

Julissa: And it’s like, it’s never enough to say I’m from Brownsville, Texas.

You always have to answer like, but where are your parents from? But where are your grandparents from, you know. And so learning all of this history has really changed my perspective of, again, like how I see my place in this country. 

Brittany: Okay. There’s another piece of Latino history that you talked about that I wanna hit on, the Brown Berets and the Brown Berets came out of the Chicano movement in the 1960s and in their struggle for liberation, they were running clinics and newspapers, fighting police violence, talking about inequality and education and health and jobs.

They were really a similar organization to the Black Panthers, but we hear so much less bout them. Can you talk a little bit about the connection and solidarity between the Berets and the Panthers? 

Julissa: One of the things that really stood out to me was the ways in which the Brown Berets worked with the Black Panthers and how they were really supportive of each other’s movement in really respectful, beautiful ways. And that there was a strength in us fighting together. And I think because we don’t know that history, we sort of think that we’ve been at odds with each other’s communities. You know, from the beginning and certainly there has been friction between communities of color.

And I very much put that at the foot of white supremacy convincing us that we are each other’s enemies. And because what happens when we fight each other is we’re just strengthening white supremacy. And I think that it’s intentional, that so much of this history has been lost because then we don’t have examples to look back on to say, yes, there is fiction, but let me point you to these instances where we did come together. 

Brittany: It is deeply intentional to require marginalized people to remain in competition with one another. Right? To convince us that whatever power we can seize, we have to hoard to make sure that the person next to me never has access to it.

Are there specific ways, uh, that you think that kind of inter community solidarity, especially racially could help us make more traction on certain issues right now? 

Julissa: You know, I think a lot about the Black Lives Matter movement and especially like, around police violence. Right? And I’ve written about this, how moved to action I was by the Black community and how we really owe the Black community everything when it comes to any progress or any attention that has been placed in police violence. You know, there was this one specific case in Los Angeles, his name was Andres Waldado and he was an 18-year-old Salvadorian kid who on June 18th was shot in the back by police and was killed. 

And, you know, I don’t know what specifically it was about Andres, I think maybe it was, you know, the first picture I saw in him, of him online just really reminded me of my nephews and of my brother. He was kind of really growing into his body, you know? And it just, it really hit me so hard and I went down this sort of journey of not just learning everything I could about his case, but of learning about what does police violence look like in Latino neighborhoods, starting with Los Angeles, right? 

And in Los Angeles where I live, 50% of the people that are killed by police are Latino. After Andre was killed, I started going to Black Lives Matters protests in downtown LA. you know, the weekly ones that weren’t necessarily getting the cameras and the news stories. And I started going every week and it was a really painful, but very beautiful thing to see how the Black community was holding space for Latinos to come up for the families of Latinos who’ve been killed by police to come up and say the names of their loved ones and to sink together and to chant together.

You know, I was really sad when this happened, because I also saw so much of the racism that still exists in my community, right? And people sort of coming up with, like Latino Lives Matters. And I was like, oh no, no, like that is not what we’re gonna do. Like that is not it. And then, but then explaining to people why that is racist. Why we should not be doing that, why that’s akin to people saying all lives matter. Right? And sort of like that education that it’s gonna take for people to understand that. And so policing is one issue that is very clear to me that we can really work on it together without decentering Black people in that conversation. 

Because, you know, even when I say 50% of the people killed in LA county are Latinos. But Black people are still just disproportionately killed in Los Angeles. Right? Something like four times the population. And so all of these things can be true. And I think that there’s enough space for us to talk about all of these things, without it being one or the other.

Brittany: Absolutely. I think that both and mentality is what builds powerful coalitions. I’m also thinking about gun violence. That is something that uniquely, unfortunately links our communities. We followed up the massacre at Tops grocery store in Buffalo with the massacre in Uvalde. And especially as we talk about Texas, I’m thinking about Uvalde. I’m thinking about El Paso. 

I’m thinking about this governor’s race. I’m thinking about the fact that gun violence, gun control is at the top of a lot of voters’ minds, period, but especially in Texas. And especially in Black and brown communities. I’m curious what is on your mind and heart about those communities right now, as they face the aftermath and try to not only put the pieces back together of their lives, but also try to chart a path forward that will better guarantee this does not happen again and again and again, like it has been. 

Julissa: Yeah. Well, you know El Paso and Uvalde both happened in heavily Mexican, Mexican-American neighborhoods. They were different in that El Paso, Texas was a terrorist attack that was perpetrated because, you know, as the shooter wrote in a manifesto, he wanted to quote, kill as many Mexicans as possible.

And Uvalde it’s still not really quite known what the motives were, but in either way what I wanna make sure that doesn’t happen is one to your point that it doesn’t happen again. And secondly, that it’s not forgotten. Because with El Paso on the one year anniversary of one of the worst mass shootings in this country. On the one year anniversary, not a single major U.S. newspaper ran a front page story, commemorating, remembering the people who died in El Paso. 

I just felt like it was so easily forgotten that people moved on so quickly because they didn’t value the lives that were lost. I think so often the country moves on and it especially can move on so much more easily when the people who died are Black and brown. 

Brittany: Right. Because you don’t have to mourn with people that you don’t see as fully human. I wanna get back a little bit to what we were talking about in the beginning, because I think so much of your own process of self discovery and learning your history you’ve been really transparent about in terms of understanding the consequences of assimilation culture and you wrestling yourself out of that.

Julissa: Yeah. In my book, I talk about it in three ways. I talk about sort of like the lies of assimilation, those being the lie of whiteness, the lie of English and the lie of success. You know, when it comes to the lie of success, I think for a lot of us who have come from, like lower income families who are the first in our families to go to college, we sort of fall into this trap of professionalism just being another word for assimilation. 

You know, and like companies saying, yes, we wanna be diverse. We wanna be inclusive, but you have to show up in this very specific way in order to actually find success in those companies. Right? Like I worked at Goldman Sachs and on Wall Street for 10 years before I became a writer and I.

Let me tell you, like, I could not show up as my full self when I was in those environments. Right? I very much had to.

Brittany: Wearing a lot of J.Crew.

Julissa: Brooks brothers. Yeah. And I just think that it shows up in this sort of thinking that you have to act white, that you have to sound like a white girl in order for people to take you seriously and the problem is that. Like I did find that to be true. You know, like when I talked a certain way, I felt like people took me more seriously than like when my accent came out, for example. Right? And so those are just like the realities of things. But I think that things aren’t going to change until we change them, right?

Until we push back and we say wearing my big hoop earrings and my red lipstick as AOC does now is professional. In Latino communities, assimilation also shows up very much in yearning proximity to whiteness. Like I think that so much of what’s happening in south Texas, especially with more and more Latinos voting Republican has a lot to do with assimilation.

And when wanting to seek proximity to whiteness in the way that we vote and it all comes down to wanting to belong in this country, wanting this country to see us as though we are part of it. And because, you know, all of these very heavy things that we’ve talked about, I love being Mexican. There’s so much joy and happiness and light that is in my culture. That is in my being. And I wanna celebrate that. I want everybody to know how amazing it is to be Mexican, to be Latina. 

Brittany: Yeah. That you actually don’t have to go and seek that approval externally. That everything you need can be found in the place where you stand. 

Julissa: Yep.Exactly. 

Brittany: I love that in a lot of ways on paper. Right? And, and you’ve written some about this. You are kind of this poster child for a very normative idea of the American dream. You, you went to college, you speak English fluently. Like you say, you worked on Wall Street as an executive. You checked all of the boxes that America tells you to check.

So you more than most people then know the cost of that version of the American dream, you know, what gets sacrificed and what gets lost. Was there a moment when you came face to face with just how costly it was? And what you did, were you, were you willing to pay it? 

Julissa: I definitely have paid a very high price for this sort of illusion of the American dream. And that probably was the beginning of this journey that I’ve been on to be honest, which is when my dad was sick and he was living in Mexico and I was living in the us and I was still undocumented at the time. I didn’t have papers. And so if I left to go see him I wasn’t gonna be able to come back or I was gonna have to like, actually cross the border to come back, which then means I was gonna basically become ineligible to like fix my status because of current laws if I crossed illegally.

And so in those hours of agonizing about what to do, my dad passed away and I never got to see him alive again. And I remember being in my apartment in this high rise building in Manhattan with all this money in my bank account, and I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t get on a plane and go see my dad.

And there had, there was a point in my life where maybe the reason I wasn’t gonna be able to get on a plane was because I didn’t have the money right? By this last minute plane ticket and the reason my family came and the reason I’ve worked so hard was to have that financial stability. And here I was, and I had it.

And I still couldn’t get on a plane and go see my dad because the immigration laws of this country are so backwards and are so broken. And I think that that was the start of me really questioning what is all this for? And maybe it’s a lie that if you work hard, you can have everything that you want.

And if you just work hard enough, you can have the American dream because it’s not true. There’s so many obstacles and so many barriers and so many laws that actually make it impossible for so many people. 

Brittany: Yeah. I appreciate your generosity in sharing that with us, cuz I know it can’t be easy to continue to have to dig from that well, and you know, cuz we’ve talked about this. I lost my dad too. 

Julissa: Yeah.

Brittany: Revisiting that is always a particular pain, especially when it comes with these additional discoveries. 

Julissa: Yeah. 

Brittany: As a Black woman who is descended of enslaved Africans. This is the only home generations of my family have ever known because they built this country.

And yet in different spaces and places I have discovered times that I paid way too high a cost. 

Julissa: Yeah. 

Brittany: For approval and assimilation with a culture that never was fully going to accept me. And that did not have to give what I truly needed. 

That in and of itself can be a thing that has to be mourned, right? Because you are letting go of a version, a picture, a vision of yourself that you realized was built on sand. And yet there’s so much freedom on the other side, right?

Julissa: There really is like, I have never been happier. It was definitely a struggle because in order to reject assimilation I also had to come to terms in the ways in which I helped advance white supremacy in the past.

I had to come to terms with the ways in which I’ve upheld the patriarchy in the past. Like, I feel lighter, you know, like I feel like this load that I had been carrying on my shoulders has been taken off because I am now walking without seeking the approval of, like you said a society, a culture that never wanted me to begin with. You know. 

They just wanted our land and that’s it. Like literally during the Mexican-American war, President Polk wanted as much land with the least amount of Mexicans and that is why the border was drawn the way that it was drawn.

Brittany: This is why we learn our history. This is why we decolonize our minds. And this is why we recognize that that kind of personal liberation of letting go of assimilation culture is an essential part of communal liberation. 

Julissa: That’s right, right. 

Brittany: Part of the challenge of assimilation culture, especially for a lot of Latino youth is guilt and shame when it comes to language.

Trying to figure out how much or how little Spanish to speak, where you can speak it, with whom you can speak it. And it’s this double bind, right? You preserve your identity, but you also are in a position to be targeted for racism. How do you navigate that particular difficulty or challenge as a young person? 

Julissa: Well, I mean, as a young person, I feel like I handled it completely wrong which was like, forget my Spanish. Like, I am only gonna speak English and. you know, I’m gonna pretend like I don’t speak in Spanish when people are speaking Spanish to me. I was 11 when I came to live in the U.S. and so this is sort of like an 11-year-old girl trying not to get made fun of at school for having an accent or for not speaking English.

You know, I think over time I’ve realized just how important it is to me to hold onto my Spanish, because like my mom only speaks Spanish. So just to be able to communicate with my mom, like I have to speak the language. And one of the things that I, you know, that I write about in my book is that English not only separates us from our mother tongue, it cuts the umbilical cord to our mothers.

In the 1920s schools in Texas and California, 80% of schools were segregated by Mexican schools and white schools. And the determining factor many times was it was English that was used as the excuse.You know, they would say these kids don’t know how to speak English, therefore they have to go to a different school.

Of course, what courts found is that, you know, it was many times based on the student’s last name, not on their ability to speak English or not. But so English has been really dangerous for us and not speaking English specifically, but it’s a complicated relationship because then, you know, then you go to Mexico and then people there sort of wanna make fun of my Spanish or wanna correct my grammar or because I’m not conjugating a verb correctly.

And so then that also sort of makes you wanna hide and just be like, well, I’m not even gonna try because it’s very difficult to actually be completely fluent in both languages. You know, I feel like one always suffers. I see it in myself. Like when I come back from Mexico and I’ve been speaking Spanish for two weeks, like my accent comes out more, you know, now I don’t care, but there was a point in time that it did, you know, it would really bother me.

So yeah, it’s complicated, but I do really hope. And I do think that there is a lot of Latinos nowadays who are taking it upon themselves to learn Spanish again. And also understanding that Spanish is not the only language that is spoken in Latin America. There are still many indigenous languages.

And as we know, Spanish is also a colonizer’s language. Right?

Brittany: And there it is. 

Julissa: We didn’t speak Spanish. We spoke Zapotec and Nawat and so many of those languages have been lost. And our connection to our roots have been lost because I don’t know, you know, colonization has completely erased any roots of me being able to say I was part of this specific tribe.

I don’t know. I have no idea whether I was, you know, Mayan or Aztec. It’s all very complicated. And I think our identity as Latinos is complicated for those very same reasons. 

Brittany: You know, before I let you go, I wanna ask you about a current piece of policy. You spent 15 years living in the U.S. undocumented. So I imagine that you have been closely following the Biden Administration’s recently published rule to codify DACA and to protect that program from lawsuits. Do you think that that move is going to be enough to keep undocumented children and young adults safe? I mean, what’s really the next step, because like you said, at the very beginning of this conversation, this country has convoluted arcane frustrating plain old wrong immigration policy. 

Julissa: Codifying DACA is not enough. I mean, we knew that DACA was not enough. It certainly gave a lot of young people an opportunity to work in the country legally to feel protected from deportation. And of course, all of that went out the window, you know, the moment that Trump became president. And people’s lives have been dependent on court decision after court decision after court decision and the DACA program has been obliterated. 

I mean, right now, It is still open for people to renew their DACA, so someone who already has DACA they can renew it. They can get another two-year permit, but anybody who is now of age to apply to DACA, because you have to be 15 years old to apply to DACA.

No new applications are being accepted. You know, there is all of these high school-age kids who have to live in fear of deportation who might not have access to things like a driver’s license, might not be able to go to college depending on the loss of their state. And so just DACA by itself protects a very narrow amount of people. I mean, you know, in Spanish, like I would say like Biden needs to grow some cojones and like actually do something. 

And that’s true of like Democrats, you know, like how many times have Latinos shown up for Democrats to get them elected on the promises of immigration reform? And, you know, I was able to fix my immigration status because my husband’s American citizen and I was able to fix my status through that.

And also because I came here on a visa. Had I crossed the border illegally, I may still be undocumented. And I think about all the millions of people who still have not had any relief. Who were children when the Dream Act was introduced and when different immigration proposals were introduced, who now are adults who now have children of their own, who have had entire lives waiting and waiting and waiting for politicians to have the same courage that they have putting their bodies and their lives on the line fighting for their rights.

Brittany: Well, I think that we can leave it right there because that is a very clear and profound call to action for the folks that we elect to represent us. I’m so, so grateful to you for the work that you do, for the speaking, for the writing, for all the young people who will see a clearer and brighter pathway, and won’t ever have to endure that assimilation trap because they’ve got access to books like yours.

Julissa: Thank you, Brittany. 

Brittany: I appreciate you.

Julissa Natzely Arce Raya is the author of “My Underground American Dream” and “Someone Like Me”, which are both available in English and Spanish.

Somebody asked me this week what liberation looks like to me? I spent 14 years of my career working in education and my answer to that question was always the same. An African greeting asks, how are the children? And liberation in my book is always being able to truthfully answer the children are well.

Now that I’m a mom, I’m asking how is my child? How is the world he’s living in? Becoming a Black mama has everybody asking me, telling me really, that I have to prepare my son for the world he’ll be living in. Assimilation culture, that same supremacist concept that asked Julissa to shorten her name and shed her heritage wants me to mold my son into an acceptable version of a Black child for America’s consumption. 

And I’ve got a duty of course, to make sure that he is ready for the world. But if assimilation culture only asks if he’s ready for the world, liberation asks if the world is ready for him. If it’s ready to be a place that welcomes agency and autonomy, creativity, genius, and joy in skin, like his.

In skin like mine, in skin like Julissa’s. If liberation is nothing else, it is asking how is the world? And always being able to truthfully answer ready for all our children to thrive.

That’s it for today, but never for tomorrow. UNDISTRACTED is a production of The Meteor and Pineapple Street Studios. 

Our lead producer is Rachel Ward.

Our associate producer is Marialexa Kavenaugh.

Thanks also to Treasure Brooks, Hannis Brown, Raj Makhija, and Davy Sumner.

Our executive producers at The Meteor are Cindi Leive and myself, and our executive producers at Pineapple are Jenna Weiss-Berman and Max Linsky. 

You can follow me at @MsPackyetti on all social media and our team @TheMeteor.

Subscribe to UNDISTRACTED and rate and review us on Apple podcasts or most places you check out your favorite podcasts.

Thanks for listening, thanks for being, and thanks for doing.

I’m Brittany Packnett Cunningham. Let’s go get free.


UNDISTRACTED: September 1, 2022

The Kids Are All Right. The Adults Are F***ing Up!

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Brittany: Hey y’all, it’s Brittany. So there was one particular episode of this podcast that I could not stop thinking about all week. Back in March, we spoke with Senator Elizabeth Warren about student loans, remember? 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren: Here’s the deal, about two out of every three Americans, and that includes Democrats and Republicans, say we gotta cancel student loan debt. We just gotta do this. 

Brittany: Well, I know there’s been a whole lot of cheering going on this week because after years of people like her and other legislators and hundreds, hundreds of organizers, we finally got some traction as President Biden has agreed to cancel some student loan debt. Okay. Pause for applause.

But you know, while plenty of us, even those without student loan debt like myself, see this as an amazing moment of relief for millions while we continue to push for more, other folks are pissed about it. They’re saying, you know, I paid my own way. Why should anyone else get a free ride? Hey, I’m Joe taxpayer, I don’t wanna foot the bill for your education. 

And I just cannot get over how selfish all of that sounds. I mean, I am descended from people who spent their tax dollars on pools they couldn’t swim in, so you can really miss me with that self-righteousness and the memes have been cracking me up. Like if Jesus fed 5,000 hungry people with just some loaves and fishes, are you really gonna be upset that you packed your own lunch?

Because that’s how you sound. Young folks are up to their eyeballs in debt, just because they got the educations we told them to get. Entire college counseling departments told us that this was good debt. Come to find out Credit Karma does not care. It is all debt to her. And more than ever this debate has highlighted stark generational divides, not just in what people believe in their ideologies, but in the circumstances they’ve been living in look. Gen Zers saw their parents’ homes get foreclosed on during the housing crisis while billionaire bankers who gave the subprime loans in the first place got bailed out.

If you’re 25 years old today, you and your older siblings have already endured multiple recessions and you probably can’t find a job or an affordable place to live, even with that expensive ass degree. And that’s just the economy. Policies of yesteryear have saddled millennials and Gen Zers with growing inequality, continuously racist institutions, and a climate crisis that just put one third of Pakistan underwater last week alone.

So if desperate times call for desperate measures, Gen Z and a lot of us millennials who feel the same burn are not waiting on your increments and even ideas of a few years ago, feel out of step and out of touch. So today’s show, the entirety of it, is dedicated to young people, what they’re dealing with and how they are changing the world and do not call them up-and-comers, they are here, and hell plenty of them are saving the rest of us right now.


On the show today, George Johnson, the author of one of the most frequently banned books in America, the stunning memoir All Boys Aren’t Blue. And Jennisen Lucas, a school librarian who’s leading the resistance against book banning from the inside. 

Jennisen Lucas: To me, this is an absolute attack on our first amendment and our right to read, our right to gain information, our right to share our own stories.

Brittany: That’s coming up. But first it’s the news.

A lot of high school juniors spend a year prepping for college entry exams and visiting schools and trying to figure out just how to make the money work. Lord knows that’s what I was doing, but one rising junior Talia Kantor Lieber had something else on her mind. 

When the Supreme Court overturned Roe, Talia told her dad she refused to go to college in a state where she couldn’t legally have an abortion. She’s not alone in this sentiment. Over a third of students say that the Supreme Court’s decision has factored into their college or university selection. So Talia took it a step further and turned it into a reporting project for us over here at the meteor, she called up 61 colleges and universities in states where abortion is banned or likely to be banned and asked if they would pay for students abortion travel. The result, five maybes, three Ohio schools, the College of Wooster, Kenyon College and Oberlin College all said students could access emergency funds, which they could potentially use for abortion care.

The University of Idaho and Vanderbilt University said the same. But nine other schools gave flat out no’s, 21 schools gave ambiguous answers, and 26 schools didn’t even respond. Here’s Talia talking about her reporting. 

Talia Kantor Lieber: Our schools are supposed to help us protect our education and asking them questions about whether and how they will do that is for everyone’s own good.

Brittany: It is for everyone’s own good and we’re grateful for you Talia for making sure we got some damn answers. Plenty of college students have needed and will need abortions; and accessing them should be simple, cost effective, and always safe. And just a reminder, if you are not already subscribed to the Meteor’s newsletter, you’re missing extraordinary work by extraordinary journalists who are fighting for a more just world. You can sign up at wearethemeteor.com.

And while we’re talking about young people taking matters into their own hands, let me set the stage for you. It’s the Coalition for Life’s annual benefit dinner in St. Louis. Y’all know, I love me some St. Louis. The Coalition for Life is, you guessed it, an anti-abortion group that funds and organizes those people who hang around clinics and they harass people getting care there. 

The benefit is being held in terminal one of the airport. Volunteers are escorting attendees, some of whom have paid up to $10,000 to be there. They’re escorting them to their seats and then unbeknownst to the staff of Coalition for Life, some of these volunteers are ducking into the bathroom to change out of the event’s church, formal dress code into booty shorts and crop tops. Hello. 

Then waves of disruption begin. First, a pair of volunteers starts passing out lube and condoms, safe sex is the best sex, but security kicks them out. Now by now, the staff of Coalition for Life is starting to realize they’d been infiltrated and they start sending volunteers home, just all willy nilly, cuz they have no idea who is who. 

But before they can get their bearings, another group of protestors is charging the stage during an anti-abortion doctor’s speech. This group of protestors has a banner that says Abortion is Holy and they chant and dance and shout. And they have plenty of time to do all of this because security has been distracted by the earlier incident.

Now police eventually show up to shut the whole thing down, but there were no arrests made because according to the Riverfront Times, a middle-aged woman goes up to a cop and tells them that the Coalition for Life doesn’t want to press charges. And it turns out she’s one of the infiltrators, too. One of the activists, Keith Rose, told Riverfront Times: We cannot fight them in the courts anymore. They’ve made that impossible. We can’t really fight them in the legislature, at least here in Missouri anymore. They’ve made that impossible, even though we are a majority of the national population. So we’re going to be fighting them in a more gorilla style. 

You gotta hand it to Gen Z, conservatives fucked around, and now they’re finding out. I’m hoping to see more actions, especially those that disrupt these groups’ ability to raise money and cause even more harm than they already have. In the meantime, donate to your local abortion funds.

It’s how we take our power back, through some good old mutual aid and love and support for one another.

And finally, as I mentioned at the top of the show, President Biden finally stepped up to cancel some student debt. Most folks will get $10,000 canceled. Pell Grant recipients will get $20,000 and everyone has to make less than $125,000 a year. Now, of course, there is much more to do, but this did not happen in a vacuum.

It took enormous external pressure. A lot of it driven by younger organizers, there’s Maxwell Frost, a young Black activist in Florida who made student debt along with gun reform and universal healthcare, a centerpiece of his primary. He won. And as a result, he’s one of the first Gen Z congressional candidates ever. 

A group called NextGen America sent over 17,000 letters to the White House asking President Biden to cancel student debt. And a popular TikTok account, The Pocket Report, asked viewers to send President Biden pens.

The Pocket Report: So given the timely nature of this crucially important issue, the only reason we can fathom that Biden hasn’t signed a bill is because he must not have a pen.

Brittany: Listen, they say on Twitter, the bullying works. I’m just gonna say collective action works and Gen Z knows that better than anybody.

Coming up, a conversation with George Johnson and Jennisen Lucas about why banning books actually provides parents with less choice, right after this short break.

And we are back. So one of my 50 11 jobs is a writer, y’all know, and in the past I was also a teacher. So when I see the pressure that authors in school librarians and educators are facing over what books kids can have access to, I get pissed off for them. My guests today are a writer and an educator.

Their work is to help people like the young folks you just heard about in the news, hone their critical thinking skills and become builders. George M. Johnson calls their book All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto, their essays track what it was like growing up queer and Black, including experiences of sex and sexual assault.

The book was published in 2020 to critical acclaim. It topped the bestseller list, but then conservatives coordinated to try to get the book banned. That allowed George to join the ranks of the most banned authors in America and gave their book an extra boost of exposure while giving them an extra dose of trouble.

Jennisen Lucas is a school librarian in Cody, Wyoming, and has served as the president of the American Association of School Librarians. She’s an outspoken advocate for kids having access to books that show them the world as it is, a world that they might not currently see reflected in their own insular communities.

So Jennisen, I really wanna start with your personal experience of people trying to forbid school libraries from stocking certain books. So earlier this year, a group of adults in Wyoming who don’t even have children in the school system, let’s be clear, sent an email to your district in Cody with a list of books that they were concerned about. Tell us what happened from there. 

Jennisen: Well, when we got that list, it was shared to our superintendent and then they shared it with me. So I looked over it to see what we actually did have in our library. Some of the information was actually really good and helpful to me because it was pointing out that we didn’t have as balanced a collection as I wish that we would.

So we had liberal authors, but not conservative ones. And we want to be able to provide all of the viewpoints that we can, so that was helpful. The other ones that were just a list of these are books that we don’t think are appropriate for children was a little bit less helpful, to say the least.

And so far they have not come after all of our LGBTQ books. Although they have mentioned that we have a hundred of them in our school library that they don’t want to have be there. I’m like, oh, great,  let me read them.

Brittany: Yeah, right? You’re like, thank you so much for this list of recommendations. I wanna put in context though, what you’ve been experiencing. How is this moment feeling different from your past years as a librarian?

Jennisen: Well, this is my 20th year as a school librarian. So, the last year has been very different in that it seems very organized and very national. In the past, it usually concerned parents that are worried for their children who come in to talk to us in the library. And that’s exactly what we want parents to do.

We want parents to be paying attention to their children and coming to talk to us when they have concerns.

Brittany: You’re saying concerns about what’s going on with their own child.

Jennisen: With their own child, yes. And so I’ve had parents who’ve come in and complained about books, about zombies, for instance, because it was causing their child to have nightmares.

This is a whole different situation. When these lists are being put together by very powerful groups that are sending them around the country, and then start talking about how our teachers and our librarians are providing these books and teaching our children these things that we don’t want them to know.

And that’s not at all the case of what’s happening. We provide book for children who need books to see themselves or to see other people that they know and to see how the world works. And that’s not the same as indoctrinating children, so that whole push and the fact that it’s been very much vilifying toward teachers and librarians and authors and others that are really trying to provide children the experiences that they need in order to become adults in the world as it actually exists. 

And that’s been a big change and, you know, going to work and feeling like people are gonna call me out or call me names just because I’m doing what I believe in my heart is best for our kids is a little bit different. 

Brittany: And when you talk about preparing young people for the world, as it is, not how some people wish it would be. Just to put this in context, Cody, Wyoming is about 10,000 residents, 95% of whom are white. 

Jennisen: Correct.

Brittany: So the world you’re preparing your students for is big and expansive, even beyond that, 

Jennisen: Correct. Because our students are likely to not stay in Wyoming. I mean, I talk to these students. I work in K through 12. Our high schoolers are talking about going out and getting experiences out in the world. They want to see the world and that’s great. That’s what we want them to do. But they’re going to encounter things that are not in Cody and we need to be able to prepare them for that as well.

That’s part of our job.

Brittany: So George, you’re coming to this from the other end and your incredible book All Boys Aren’t Blue, award-winning I should say. It has been banned frequently over the last year, plus really for a really heartfelt representation of a queer Black experience. One way to look at this is that you’re in great company, right? In Genesis’ district this year, people try to get The Handmaid’s Tale banned.

They try to get The Color Purple banned. The district committee rejected those challenges. But as an author, George, how do these bans really impact you? 

George: I always say, like, to make any list with Toni Morrison was just a dream for me. So like to be on a banned book list. But as a author, you know, it’s tough because all you wanna do is just tell your story or tell a story that you didn’t get to have when you were a teen or when you were a young adult and you needed those words to know that you existed in the world and you needed those words, because you didn’t have the words to even say what it was that you were feeling. And so when you put something into the world, like I did, that existed for 17 months.

And was doing perfectly fine. And I was watching all of these beautiful reactions from teenagers, not just here but across the world because the book was in multiple translations. And then all of a sudden it goes from a love fest of this beautiful story of family, to a hate fest of LGBTQ people, of Black people, of Black LGBTQ people.

It’s really demoralizing. I, fortunately was raised by strong people, many strong Black women, as well as queer people in my family, so me taking on the fight was never not an option. Like it was, I was always going to take on the fight and I even knew at some point the book would be banned. I didn’t think it would look like this.

I didn’t think it would be this heavily politicized. I didn’t think I would become like public enemy number one on the hit list at this point. I don’t know, I take it all in stride and I kind of live by the principle of the forbidden fruit. And it’s like, if you forbid something, it makes more people interested in it.

And I am fortunate that because of the amount of interest teens who didn’t know that they had a book that existed for them now do know and are getting it. So. 

Brittany: Ah, yeah. I, you know, when I watched your face kind of become one of the poster children for this conversation in my mind, I was like, oh, they chose the right one.

Like George, if anybody’s ready for the fight, it’s George. Tell us what your book is actually about versus what people say it’s about. 

George: Yes. So, the running thing with my book, which also lets me know that they’re not reading the book because the running thing about my book is that my book is pornography and pedophilia and grooming.

Right? That’s like the three things that they hit on, but I know they’re not reading the book because if they read the book, the part where I critique Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, as well as Abraham Lincoln comes before I start talking about sexual abuse and agency. And I know that if they had got to that chapter first, they would’ve been very, very upset about some of the things I said about the forefathers.

So I know they’re not even reading the book, but the book is actually about family. Like, I talk about my grandmother. I have a letter in the book to my mother. I have a letter in the book to my younger brother. I talk about my experience growing up with my father, as well as having a gay older brother who actually recently passed a few weeks ago.

The heart of the book is really my grandmother nanny. And so just about what it looks like to be a Black queer child who didn’t have the words and then a youth who at the age of 10, that’s when other kids started to realize you were different. And then by 15, you’re questioning your identity. But I always had a place to call home.

And so it shows like this beautiful story of even though the world in society felt like it was against me I always had a family that always had my support and how queer kids can become if they just have the support and they just get the tools and the resources that everybody else has afforded. 

And so, yeah, I just think it’s like a powerful journey through one’s true life experience when you don’t fit inside societal constructs.

Brittany: Yeah. I mean, I, when I was first starting to get to know you and your work, I remember all of the beautiful pictures and stories you posted about your nanny and I felt like I knew her. Right? I felt like I loved her and that came so alive for me as I read the book. And then I’m thinking about a news alert you got just this morning about young people in my home state of Missouri. What’s the, what’s the news that you got about All Boys Aren’t Blue in Missouri?

Missoura, not Missouri. 

George: Yeah. Missoura . So the headline reads new Missouri law will ban sharing visually explicit materials with students and just real quickly educators across the state will soon have to remove certain, visually and sexually explicit books and materials from the school libraries and shelves.

Senate bill 775 would make it a class A misdemeanor for school officials to provide this content to students in private or public Missouri schools. 

Brittany: Wow. 

George: With exceptions for artistic and scientific significance, violators would face a year in jail or a $2,000 fine. 

Brittany: Wow. 

George: It’s always interesting though, because of the way that the federal law is, they always have to put the exception for artistic significance. And that’s the part that they often fail specifically with my book, because even in several of the court cases we’ve had, we had to prove the artistic significance. And like once we started putting the, all the awards that had won, that it was the number one book chosen by teens in 2021.

And all the judges were like, you can’t say that this doesn’t have artistic significance when teens and the American libraries, like it has all of the things that says, it’s it has the merits, but this bill is a lot milder than the criminal complaints that I’ve had at six different sheriff offices. So. 

Brittany: Good God. Well, George, what the hell is going on with these criminal complaints? Why are you being pulled into Sheriff’s offices? 

George: What started that wave is that when certain conservatives, primarily white citizens feel that they aren’t being heard they like to use 911 as a personal concierge service.

And so it’s like if they actually follow the rules of the school board and the school board makes a decision, like, okay, we’re keeping the book. And then the superintendent backs that decision and they follow all of those policies and they still feel like they didn’t get their way, then criminalization is the route that they are choosing to go.

So all of the complaints have been under the pornography law, which is basically you can’t disseminate porn into a minor. What’s happened in several of those cases is the actual sheriff or like someone in the police department has read the books like that they’re challenging and they’re like, yes, there are things in here that talk about sex or sexuality.

However, we cannot deem text pornography because it’s a very, like the law on what is pornography and what is it pornography is very, very clear. And they’re like, these books have thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of words that relate nothing to that. And you’re literally saying because of these three or four paragraphs that this thing should now be deemed pornography. 

So they’re continuing with it. I think their next step is gonna be federal lawsuits. We know where they’re going. They have a conservative Supreme court. They really wanna overturn the 1982 Pico case, which gave students the right to choose what books they want in their libraries.

So they’re trying to get it to the Supreme Court so that the 82 case can be reviewed.

Jennisen: It doesn’t surprise me, unfortunately, because we’re seeing it so often, but it does hurt my heart and it makes my heart sink because basically what they’re doing is turning off people’s voices and our young people need to hear positive voices.

Like you mentioned before, we don’t have a lot of diversity in Cody. People are surprised to find out that we have LGBTQ IA+ students in Cody. I think they’d be even more surprised to find out that some of the adults also identify in those ways and just watching those and knowing that we have people in Wyoming that might be wanting to pull that same kind of law in is kind of got me fired up in my belly a little bit too, to make sure that these are voices that need to be heard.

We don’t know which kid needs to hear it. So it needs to be in our library for whoever it is that does. 

Brittany: Yeah, we’re talking about the tactics that these conservative activists, I use the word activists very loosely here, are using to get books banned. Jennisen, what do a lot of these cases have in common, right?

What’s similar about the states where the banning is actually occurring?

Jennisen: One of the things that we see is it’s the same material and it’s the same complaints. So we’ve, we’ve started to see that there are groups that are sending out packets of information and putting up websites with the information that say, when you go to your school, these are the passages you’re gonna complain about so that they don’t even have to touch the book before they go in and actually complain about it at school board meetings, then they’re taking it to legislators and getting them all riled up.

They’re reading the salacious passages in the school board meetings, which are televised now for transparency things. And that gets everybody riled up. Particularly the people who think that these are topics that are somehow out of the for children. And unfortunately dating is not out of the norm for children.

Sexual exploration is not out of the norm for children. And I say that with children, including teenagers, it definitely should be out of the norm for younger children. 

Brittany: Of course, of course. 

Jennisen: But with Georgia’s book, for instance, his book was not meant for kindergartners. And one of the tactics that’s being used at school board meetings is that they come in and they specifically use that word children.

And they use it to invoke the idea of this being handed to a kindergartner. And that is absolutely not the case.

Brittany: Jennisen, what you’re talking about is making me think about this recent story out of Oklahoma, the teacher who provided her students with a QR code so they could access Brooklyn’s public libraries banned book list.

She wanted to pass out the code because the rules in Oklahoma were becoming super strict about introducing or creating a quote hostile environment for kids based on race, ie they didn’t want white kids to feel bad about themselves. Right? So she said, I’m gonna give them this QR code that they can access these books outside of the four walls of this school.

And then she ultimately ends up resigning. She said, and I quote, I don’t feel like I can go back into a classroom right now in this state and the environment we find ourselves in and do my job. Jennisen, are you hearing a similar sentiment from librarians? Are they just fed up? 

Jennisen: Yes. There’s a lot of us that are fed up.

And in fact, right before I came to this meeting, I was in a meeting with my principal talking about our policy for selecting books and having them reviewed by a committee before we can put them in the library. And I was sitting there thinking really, that’s my job. You know, but I have to have somebody else look over my list to help protect me.

And I will say that in Wyoming, it is not nearly as bad here as it is in Florida, in Texas, apparently in Missouri, in Oklahoma, Tennessee. And we are seeing that a lot of those laws are the exact same wording from one state to the next. So somehow or another people are talking to each other. 

Brittany: Copy and paste the hate.

Jennisen: Yes. 

Brittany: Which brings me back to you, George, we look at books like yours, and I think we can often and easily say representation matters. We’ve heard that, we know it matters, but I also think that your book really goes beyond mere representation. What do you think are the ways that you’ve extended or moved beyond mere representation in your book that are really the things that feel threatening to the parents who are complaining about it?

George: That’s really at the crux of the issue, right? It’s like, oh my God, like not only does this book teach LGBTQ teens and Black queer teens that they exist in the world. It also teaches my child empathy for their existence. And it’s also teaching my child that all of the things that they learned about the people who founded this country were inaccurate.

And that there’s more to the story like, and it teaches my child that my child may be playing a role in someone else’s oppression. And that’s what this book is teaching. Right? It’s also informing the students that exist around people like us of how to better treat us what their role is in society versus how our role is in society.

And it’s also giving resources in many ways to make those teens who are not queer, because of some of the topics I talk about in the book, question everything. And that was the ultimate goal. Right? What happens when you indoctrinate teens with the truth, specifically teens who will be the next set of teens who are in power and even more when you indoctrinate Gen Z, which is the most diverse population of any generation in the United States? What happens when you give an actual population that will be more people of color than white, the truth?

And I think that’s the fear. It’s like they all may band together, which we’re watching happen. And I think they, the youth are rising and that’s, that’s really what it is. Yeah. 

Brittany: Hello. yeah. This phrase indoctrinate with the truth. That’s the sticking point, right? That’s what people are actually afraid, young people will be indoctrinated with. We’re we’re thinking of calling this episode The kids are alright. It’s the adults who are fucked up.

George: I mean, that’s really what it is. Like the kids are alright. 

Brittany: Yeah. The kids are definitely alright, especially when they’re able to read books like yours, George. I’m curious what you’ve heard from young readers of your book. How have they, how have they responded? 

George: You know, even the situation in Florida, even though certain right-wing people were able to get on school boards, like the case where the criminal complaints were filed against me,the student who took it up, Jack, when my book first got banned and the criminal complaints happened. He DM’d me. And so we, that was back in November. And so I started working with them behind the scenes and literally he’s been to the White House because he led the school walk out. They got the woman who filed the criminal complaints. She lost 51 to 49.

So they actually were able to mobilize and get her off the school board. But it’s not just him. I’ve seen the petitions in Kansas city where my book was first banned, which was Kansas city, Missouri. Those students there, I talked with them, had a huge petition, got the book back into school. So like they are being empowered by the text.

And I think they read the text, like, like they read my book and it is a survival story in many ways, but then they actually still have me alive and they watch my fight and watch how fervent I am in my fight. And I think it inspires them even further because they’re like, it’s not just these words on a page.

We actually still have the person here and we are watching them go this hard. And I think that’s what’s happening.

Brittany: It’s the power, that’s what folks are afraid of. It’s the power. You know, a lot of the calls for book banning are coming from a group that calls itself Moms for Liberty, which is of course funny, considering that their kids are not at liberty to check out whatever books they want, but that’s beside the point.

Their mission they say is to stand up for parental rights at all levels of government. Jennisen what have they, in groups like them been able to achieve, right? So we know that they’ve gotten books banned, but what else have they tactically gotten done? And what has it been like dealing with them? 

Jennisen: I am a mom. I have a nine-year-old and I actually firmly believe in liberty and I believe that my child should have access to everything the world has to offer. And I might not necessarily agree with it, but I want him to think through it. You know, so as I was listening to you talk about that idea of indoctrination, I was like, well, you know, that’s such a buzzword now that has such negative connotations to it. 

And what I think that people are fighting is the idea of these children or young adults thinking for themselves and coming to a different opinion from their parents. And as a librarian, that’s what I wanna have. And I love seeing these young people because even here in Cody, Wyoming and I better put in a claim here that I am not speaking for my school district.

Brittany: Of course. 

Jennisen: Even though I am a district librarian, our students are ready to take on those challenges. 

Brittany: That’s right. 

Jennisen: I want our people to be able to think for themselves and look at the world and fix it. That’s what I’m hoping is gonna happen.

Brittany: That’s why you do what you do, right? And that kind of critical thinking and inquiry is always age appropriate.

I too, am a mom. I’m a new mom. I’m very sure. First of all, that these Moms of Liberty would wanna ban every single book that is in my baby’s library, that we’ve already started reading him. But George, I always find it interesting that the parents whose rights seem to matter to this group are always the same.

They’re white, they’re cisgender, they’re at least straight presenting. They’re conservative. They’re often women, but the people who are legislating are often men. What does that spark for you? 

George: I don’t know, it’s just comedy. I, it’s like, I had one call where I didn’t know I was gonna be on an interview with one of the Moms for Liberty.

And so it got all the shock value that it wanted when she was like, and, you know, I read your book, but I don’t think this and this and this and this. And I was like, oh, but you’re fine with Romeo and Juliet. And she’s like, well what do you mean? And I was like, I mean, Romeo was much older than Juliet, so you had a grooming issue there.

I said the same thing you’re talking about in my book, and it’s a suicidal love story I said, but you’re fine with your child reading that. And so then the newscaster was like, so yeah, let’s talk about it. So I just find it kind of, like I said, nonsensical at best and yeah I just don’t know where it ends. Right? 

Because it’s like, okay, so you got it out the library, but now. it’s at the airports, now it’s in Barnes & Noble, now it’s at Target, now it’s at Walmart because now you’ve given it so much buzz and you’re giving our books all of this stuff and we’re finding new access points. So you eliminated one access point.

We found five more for your team. What exactly did you win? 

Brittany: What exactly did you win? At UNDISTRACTED, we are always concerning ourselves with what resistance looks like. I mean, we’re talking about the way students are resisting. We’re talking about the way librarians and educators are resisting.

You have been resisting really creatively, right? Like working to ensure that there are free copies of All Boys Aren’t Blue available across the country. You help turn the text of your book into an award-winning dramatic reading, which is incredibly powerful. And I think there may be something, a little something else in the works with Gabrielle Union.

So you can pick up the book and, or hopefully soon you can watch the TV show. Talk to me about what creative resistance looks like. 

George: I think what’s going to happen is, you know, as authors we have a lot of rights. Like you get a contract, that’s like all of these different rights, like dramatic rights, this right, that right.

And for me, I’m like, that’s what our next step has to be. Right? How do we take our text, the text that they’re trying to ban and find creative ways to turn them into other projects in different mediums and in different formats, right? You have books that are now going to be turned into Broadway, right?

Like, I still have a lot of different rights and a lot of different ways that I can take these words and turn them into something else. Honestly, it’s staying one step ahead, right? And you know, before you know it, it just becomes so expansive that there’s really nothing they can do to stop the work getting into the hands of the youth who really, really need it.

And I’m also seeing the teens come up with creative ways. You know, whether they’re pulling their favorite quotes from the books and turning them into shirts and turning them into  

Brittany: Oh wow. 

George: Their senior projects. I’ve had a lot of artwork sent to me from an art class, like where every different student did like their own rendition of the book cover.

So I think there’s other ways that we are figuring out around to still inspire and to still keep the kids with the materials that they really, really need.

Brittany: Before I let both of you go, help put into context what this means if we allow book banning to become part of the character of America. Who are we becoming? What does that make us?

Jennisen: That is a fantastic question to ask because it scares me to death because to me, this is an absolute attack on our first amendment and our right to read, our right to gain information, our right to share our own stories. The irony of the first book this year, being challenged in my district, being The Handmaid’s Tale was not lost on me because when I read it, the focus in it to me was the fact that they literally silenced the women and they took away their ability to even say hello to each other. This is shutting down an entire voice. And if we do that, our government, as we know it in our country, as we know it will not survive. 

Brittany: Yeah. George you are very literally the chair of, is it Banned Books Week?

George: Week. Yes.

Brittany: Bring it full circle for me. What are some banned or taboo books that were pivotal in changing your own life and were offering you solidarity when you needed it most?

George: I would say certain books, like it was the Three Negro Classics, but we read it. I think, I feel like we were in like the sixth or maybe seventh grade when we read it.

And I remember it was like this really thick book cuz they put all three of these books into one book. Yeah, I read, like, I feel like it was like a, a youth version or something of like the autobiography of Malcolm X. And like, that was another book that like really changed the way that I thought about a lot of things.

And now this is gonna sound really, really silly, but I remember being in college, I feel like Confessions of a Video Vixen came out in college. 

Brittany: From the Three Negro Classics to a hood classic. All right. 

George: But I just remember that book because it shook everybody, right? There was not, my mother read it, my aunts read it. Like there was nobody who hadn’t read that book. In reading that book though, one thing it taught me, especially as a memoirist, is that when you tell your story, you often are telling other people’s stories. I’ve been thinking about it for the last two years, like, wow that’s kind of interesting how, like just the notion of telling the truth or the notion of telling your truth can rattle so many people. 

Brittany: Well, I’m grateful to both of you all for continuing to shake up the world in the ways that you do. Jennisen, George, thank you for spending time with us. And we will absolutely be standing with both of you as you make sure that we don’t go backwards. Only forwards. Thanks y’all so much.

Jennisen Lucas is a librarian in Cody, Wyoming, and the former president of the American Association of School Librarians. George M. Johnson is the author of All Boys Aren’t Blue, which has been optioned for television by Gabrielle Union.

Y’all the comparisons should be obvious, racist, xenophobic, fascist nations ban books. Free countries don’t. We are either cool with being just like Hitler and his band of hate filled brothers. Or we are absolutely disgusted at the mere thought and we do everything in our power to stop us from crossing the gravest of lines there are. 

You think this wouldn’t even be a debate, let alone a political selling point, but lest we forget in every era where freedom becomes more abundant, people who perceive their power to be threatened will retaliate. Marginalized people here and across the globe know this all too well. Indigenous, Jewish, Muslim, Black, Asian, Latine, disabled, queer, and women communities around the world know all too well.

Our freedom will be met with repression. It’s guaranteed and any fascist worth their weight and paraphernalia will be committed to starting that repression with children, the young people who in their estimation cannot and must not know truths that will set them and the rest of us free, because if they do, they will question everything.

They’ll challenge everything. They’ll stop obeying the unjust loss and start writing just once they’ll stop subscribing to your institutions, your ideologies and your expectations, and just go out and build their own. The audacity of youth serves revolutions well. In every successful changing of the social guard for the sake of freedom, young people have led the way and we are wise never to limit them, but always to follow them.

Hey, that’s it for today, but never for tomorrow. We’re taking a break next week. So we’ll see you on September 15th, the first day of National Hispanic American Heritage month. 

UNDISTRACTED is a production of The Meteor and Pineapple Street Studios. 

Our lead producer is Rachel Ward.

Our associate producer is Marialexa Kavenaugh.

Thanks also to Treasure Brooks, Hannis Brown, Raj Makhija, and Davy Sumner.

Our executive producers at The Meteor are Cindi Leive and myself, and our executive producers at Pineapple are Jenna Weiss-Berman and Max Linsky. 

You can follow me at @MsPackyetti on all social media and our team @TheMeteor.

Subscribe to UNDISTRACTED and rate and review us on Apple podcasts or most places you find your favorite podcasts. 

And especially to you young folks out there, thanks for listening, thanks for being, and thanks for doing.

I’m Brittany Packnett Cunningham. Let’s go get free, y’all.


UNDISTRACTED: August 25, 2022

Will We Be Smarter About the Next Epidemic? Two Experts Break it Down.

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Hey, y’all it’s Brittany.  So, it’s been almost two and a half years of COVID and I cannot possibly be the only one who was praying that something, something good would come out of this. You know, that maybe the crisis of COVID would finally give us, I don’t know, like a crisis of consciousness. I mean, against literal centuries of American history to the contrary, I, an eternal cautious optimist figured we’d finally get some of those workplace accommodations the disabled people have been fighting for, for ages. 

Or, you know, at least we’d realize that we could actually provide healthcare free of charge like we did COVID tests. Or maybe we’d realize we had the ability and the money to meet people’s needs after all, the way we sent those stimulus checks. Yeah. I was tripping cuz a lot of those accommodations went away after the corporations wanted us all back to work and those tests suddenly seemed to have dried up and those stemies did not come monthly like we thought they would. Then checks was real light. 

Back in 2018, I taught a study group as a Harvard Institute of Politics fellow, and I taught on power and elements of white dominant culture. And my class and I discussed individualism, perhaps the crowning jewel of white supremacy culture and how it is going to be the death of us all. It is antithetical to the kind of community minded, collective care and policy making that COVID should have taught us we need now more than ever. So, no, we do not make it on our own. No, I am not free unless you are. And no, our government cannot simply allow, you know, the fittest to survive.  

In community, our success is determined by how the most vulnerable people are doing. And by that standard, we’ve got a whole hell of a lot of work to do. We are UNDISTRACTED.

On the show today, we’re talking about the virus that it’s time for us to all stop calling monkeypox and start calling MPV. 

Dr. David Johns: So much of what we’re experiencing right now at this moment with looks like Covid, which looks like HIV. Well, all of this is built upon the most insidious of all diseases, which is white supremacy.

Brittany: I’ll be joined by Dr. David Johns of the national Black Justice Coalition and Dr. Monica Gandhi, director of AIDS research at the University of California, San Francisco. That’s coming up, but first it’s the news.

If you feel like your medical needs and overall general well-being took a hit during the pandemic, you are not alone. And now there’s data to back up what we also felt, that the hardest blow was dealt to marginalized and isolated communities. NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard School of Public Health.

They all conducted a poll to try to understand how healthcare access changed during the pandemic and they found that one in five households that experienced a serious illness within the past year said they had trouble accessing care. 

Tomeka Kimbrough-Hilson: So unless you’re dying or you need this to live, you couldn’t get an appointment.

Brittany: That’s Tomeka Kimbrough-Hilson, a 47-year-old Black woman who told NPR she wasn’t able to get treatment for a uterine growth even after the crisis period of the pandemic in 2020 passed. Providers were too backed up dealing with deferred care and unfortunately, Kimbrough-Hilson‘s story is not an outlier. The polling also reflects the inequity baked into our healthcare system of those polled, more than a third of American Indian and Alaska native households and a quarter of Black households had trouble accessing care for serious illnesses.

Only 18% of white households reported the same. Doctors anticipate the impact of delayed diagnoses to last for years. And the data is a good reminder that COVID has not happened in a vacuum. The reality is that it is still better to be a white patient than a patient of color in America.

And before sharing this next story, I want to mention that it details abuse and sexual violence. So if you need to take a break, come back and join us in about two and a half minutes. If you’re active on Twitter, it’s likely that you’ve seen Dan Price go viral more than a few times over the last few years. As CEO of the payment processing company, Gravity Payments, his tweets ranged from criticism of President Trump to advocating for women’s rights to bragging about cutting his own pay in order to create a minimum salary of $70,000 a year for all his workers. It got him a lot of positive attention. Inc. Magazine called him the best boss in America and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich called him a, quote, moral CEO. But that glossy coverage was hiding some really ugly truths.

According to the reporting from The New York Times, Price is accused of sexual assault and, what the Times called, a pattern of abuse in his personal life. He denies these accusations, but in one particular case, a 26-year-old woman reportedly told the police he attempted to kiss her and grabbed her throat.

In another incident, a woman he was dating reportedly told the police that he initiated sex with her while she was under the influence and falling asleep. But the Times also reported that in 2015, his ex-wife did a TEDx talk where she claimed that she had been abused by her former husband. Now that talk was never broadcast.

This is the thing, though. This was not hidden. There was that Ted talk and a piece in Bloomberg Business Week in 2015 that included the domestic violence accusations. Now Price lost a book contract as a result, but using social media he was able to just tweet his way through it, right back to the top of the search results.

Our memories are short these days and harm can often hide in plain sight. Yes, even at the hands of those we think share our worldview. So, I hope that the survivors get justice or at least some of the accountability that they deserve and that we hear their stories in the same way we were so eager to listen to Dan Price in the first place.

Now, I wanna close the news by honoring a seminal work of historical journalism. This month, we celebrate the third anniversary of the 1619 Project. The launch of the project in August 2019 acknowledged a different anniversary, 400 years since 20 kidnapped Africans were brought to Point Comfort, small port in Virginia and sold into enslavement.

The 1619 Project completely reframed American history by focusing on the consequences of enslavement and the work of Black Americans to fight for a better nation. At the heart of this project is the acknowledgement that every aspect of our country has been touched or shaped in some way by the institution of slavery and by the enslaved. There were essays, a podcast, articles, and a curriculum that more than 4,000 educators have reported using. The project was a full work by dear friends of mine and was created and developed by Nikole Hannah-Jones of The New York Times. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 2020 for the project’s introductory essay.

We of course had the great honor of interviewing Nikole last year.

Nikole Hannah-Jones: The America we actually live in is explained by 1619. It is explained by a country that believes that you can commodify human beings, that bases economic systems, it’s political systems on the idea that certain human beings can be deprived of all rights and all liberties.

Brittany: Y’all some stories change the world and once you hear them, you can never go back, only forward. And that’s what the 1619 Project did for us. We are so grateful it’s in the world.

Coming up, I’ll be talking to Dr. David Johns and Monica Gandhi about getting to a more just healthcare system, right after this short break.

And we are back. So, it is truly the same old story every single time. We just talked about it in the news, that Black and Indigenous households had more trouble accessing medical care during the pandemic than white households. We saw it with COVID. Data from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that Black, Latine, and Indigenous Americans were, and still are, about twice as likely to die from COVID as their white counterparts.

And now of course, we’re seeing it with the thing that’s being called monkeypox. Data from New York City released last week shows that Black men have been getting vaccinated against the virus at far lower rates than other populations. According to the city health department, 31% of the folks who are most at risk of infection are Black, but they’ve only received 12% of the doses so far. 

That’s because the vaccines initially were only available by appointment and wealthier folks with more flexible schedules, were able to spend time tracking down a slot. It’s the exact same thing that happened with COVID vaccine appointments at first. I wanted to dig into why this keeps happening. So, I got in touch with two folks who can talk about this from different perspectives.

Dr. David Johns is a sociologist. He’s the executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, which strives to empower queer Black folks and those living with HIV and AIDS. Dr. David, Dr. Monica. We have so much to talk about. I’m so grateful to you all for being here. I wanna talk about so-called monkeypox, that even calling it that is a conversation which we will have.

I wanna talk about pandemics in general. I really wanna talk about how we build a culture and community of care and having both your public health expertise, Dr. Monica and your education and queer community expertise, Dr. David, I think is the right combination to have this conversation and I really wanna start by setting the table for our listeners. So David, I wanna start with you and then Monica we’ll come to you. I’m curious, what you think is the most important thing to understand about what the world is calling monkeypox right now, 

David: First, friend, let me say thank you for having me in this space. It is a privilege and an honor to share with you. And to you Dr. Monica, I’m excited to join in this discussion with you, as well. So, I don’t use a term that you’ve used. I’m gonna use MPV throughout the course of this conversation. It is what the National Black Justice Coalition, the civil rights organization that I have the pleasure of quarterbacking and the team for, has advocated that the White House, that the World Health Organization, and others use to get away from stigma. 

And so that’s a really long way of saying the following, which is that is not an African disease. It is not a gay, same-gender loving, or MSM disease. But it is an infectious disease that is transmitted by close, personal contact. That does not necessarily have to be intimate or require exposed lesions. 

And there have been so many previous examples of problematic language use to describe health crises and outbreaks and diseases that have existed for a lot longer than I’ve been alive, but have now only become problems that they’ve affected white Western privileged communities, in particular white gay men, but the lack of thoughtfulness around framing and communicating the virus, how it’s transmitted, how we can take vaccines and engage in other behaviors to reduce the likelihood of transmission, to increase rates of survival for those who become affected often result in so many Black, brown, and Indigenous and poor and disabled dying and or suffering in ways that do not have to be our reality.

Brittany: Yeah, you bring up so many important points. When we talk about MPV, we know terms like MSM, which means men who have sex with men is commonly used in public health, but can be problematic in other ways. I’m just curious, your thoughts, Dr. Monica, what is the most important thing for us to understand about MPV right now?

Dr. Monica Gandhi: Yes. I mean, it’s a great point, David, but one issue is that all infectious diseases seem to have all these disparities in them and it really got revealed for us during COVID and we are not working hard enough to address. So, let’s just go to MPV. I like that. I’m gonna use that name from now on. 

Brittany: There we go. We’re connecting dots already. Let’s do it. 

Monica: But this is an orthopoxvirus. It’s a DNA virus that its cousin is smallpox, meaning they’re both in the same family. And what that means is that we didn’t actually start seeing outbreaks of problems with this virus until we stopped mass vaccinating the world for smallpox, indicating that probably smallpox vaccine works against it.

And then after the smallpox vaccinations ended, cuz we eradicated smallpox in 1980. Then we come to May 13th. May 13th is the first day that there’s this new kind of outbreak being described to the WHO and now it’s over 40,000 people who have been infected during this outbreak over 103 countries. And you’re right, now all of our attentions on it, because it did end up affecting at the beginning more white gay men.

And then actually, if you really drill down, there are higher and higher proportion of Black and Latino gay men being infected. So that just means to me that you’re right, we’re not working hard enough on messaging to the right communities, getting the vaccines out to the right communities, ensuring that people are okay saying that they come into a clinic and say, Hey, I may be at risk, so I’d like the vaccine, please. These are very important, like de-stigmatizing ways to talk about the pandemic. And I just keep on watching it look like HIV at the beginning where we didn’t message right and it’s not being messaged right here. 

Brittany: First of all, we’ve already gotten a great push on our messaging, right? I know that the WHO, the World Health Organization, is currently accepting submissions for a new name. And so hopefully just like I was pushed and just like you adopted this, that we see the World Health Organization go with MPV very soon. When you talk about framing, that of course has an impact on policy.

Monica, you wrote back in June in The Atlantic that the U.S. is underreacting to MPV. Do you feel like that is still the case right now in August? 

Monica: Yes, we are underreacting. The reason I say that is that unlike with COVID, when the infection started growing, we had a vaccine that we could have just used right out of the gate because the smallpox vaccine is effective for monkeypox at maybe 85%.

We don’t know the exact number and we didn’t have to develop a new vaccine from scratch. So, Quebec and Canada had already figured this out. They looked at this and they said, oh, this is spreading. We’re gonna go buy this vaccine from this Denmark company and already in Quebec, in Canada, they’re at 0% growth with new cases. In the United States, we have the highest percentage, about a 25% increase every week.

So, we’re not slowing down yet, but the UK, Europe, Canada, places that just got on it with the vaccine, they are slowing down already. And that’s what I wrote in June 24th. And that seems like a lifetime ago. That was two months ago. We’re still not there.

Brittany: So, clearly we’ve had time. 

Monica: Yes.

Brittany: To figure this out and have not made the choice to, and I’m curious, David, how much you think that has to do with the perception by some, the intentional and unfortunate implication, I would say by certain outlets and certain people that this is a queer or gay disease. We know that pandemics often first spread in specific communities, right. Either demographically or geographically. And yet some people will take this to create a narrative that is very dangerous for marginalized people.

So, I’m curious if you feel like, David, part of the hesitancy to solve this has to do with how the narrative has been driven around this disease and how people perceive it. 

David: Absolutely. Quickly, three things come to mind to the point of naming it a significance. I recently returned from Ghana and that the disease originated in west Africa is not lost on me. Again, I make the point that MPV existed for a lot longer than I have been alive, but there was a lack of focus on it in part because African descendants are thought to be disposable.

And so it is not until privileged Western white populations, that it became a crisis. And we should be more mindful of that, especially considering how rich and diverse and important the continent of Africa is and how opportunities to get ahead of infectious diseases results in increased success on the back end. 

The second thing is the way that we’ve talked about it here too, for the kindergarten teacher in me thinks that adults often make things much more complicated than they need to be.

And it should be lost on no one that the same way in which early conversations about COVID, which reflected early conversations about HIV, which suggested that it was a disease that was specific to a group of people. And if you are not a member of that community, then you didn’t need to care about it or be concerned about it.

And one of the things that has resulted in, to go back to the HIV AIDS epidemic, is that Black people, not just Black gay, same-gender loving men who have sex with men continue to be disproportionally impacted, but Black cisgender heterosexual women, as well. And it’s because the narrative is still that it’s a gay disease.

And if you are not gay, then you don’t have to be concerned about it. And then the last thing that I think about now is that because Black people like native people and Indigenous people engage in intimate, romantic, and otherwise relationships with each other we’re in proximity with each other, we’re in community with each other. We are more likely to transmit diseases to one another. 

And for folks who don’t know, the CDC said some time ago that if rates continued as they have that one in every two of us, Black gay men, same-sex loving men, men who have sex with men, would become HIV positive. One in every two, like it’s been a crisis for some time. And that is still the case, not because we engage in riskier, sex behaviors or sexual behaviors, in fact, that data suggests otherwise. But it’s because we love on one another. And so while I started with naming that it’s not an African disease, it’s not a gay, I want to be clear that it’s affecting us in a particular way.

In New York city, the cases amongst Black men was 25%, which is roughly the same portion of our population there in California, where I’m from 11.5% of MVP cases, our Black men, which is twice our population in the state. Georgia, the Department of Public Health found that 82% of cases affected Black gay and same-sex and loving men.

And roughly two thirds of those are also affected with HIV. In North Carolina, with 70%. I could go on, but the point I wanna make here is that it is a crisis in our community for all of the reasons that have to do with white supremacy, anti-Blackness, justified distrust of the medical industrial complex.

And because we still don’t engage and democratize healthcare practices that give people the information and access to resources that can be life saving and life affirming and all that’s within our control. 

Brittany: You bring up these, what I hope for most people are obvious parallels between COVID and HIV and AIDS, specifically our response to both of them, this fact that we often attribute it to some kind of pathology or moral failing in a particular community.

I’m curious though, when we talk about getting it right, what are the lessons that both of you want leaders to learn from these previous pandemics? Monica, I’m curious about the lessons from COVID specifically that you want, and then David, I’m coming back to you as well. 

Monica: This is where you could see that there would be quite a bit of cynicism in Black and brown communities about the monkeypox response.

Cuz look at what happened. This is a vaccine preventable infection. So, the fact that there’s been circulating monkeypox in Western central Africa in different outbreaks, including Ghana for the last decade. They’ve been rising in prominence over the last decade. The fact that we had 20 million doses of MPV vaccines sitting here in the U.S. and destroyed them when they could have been used in places like Western central Africa to stop it there.

Brittany: Oh goodness. 

Monica: It’s just so hard to hear.  I can’t even, that just sounds so colonialist and awful. I don’t know what to say.

Brittany: Cuz it is. 

Monica: Yes. And then why wouldn’t you have distrust in the public health community if it feels like something isn’t happening fast enough? So, what happened with COVID is that because it affected everybody though it was disparate, but because it affected everyone, it moved fast on a vaccine.

Nine months, got a vaccine. Here, there was a vaccine and they’re still not moving fast. Is that because it’s affecting more gay male communities, more Black and brown communities? Where’s the urgency around this because it’s actually extremely uncomfortable. There’s lesions that are in very sensitive places and people are feeling awful.

And so it feels like there’s not an urgency because this is a more dispensable population in some way. That is how it can be perceived. And that’s profoundly disappointing because to me, it reminds me of HIV, which is that is HIV it took years and years to get to a good antivirals to treat it. It took until 1996.

And if it affected everyone, including the president and the first lady and everyone else who gets COVID, it’s possible, we would’ve moved faster on that. 

Brittany: Hello. David, what are the lessons that you’re hoping are picked up from COVID or from HIV AIDS on this? Cuz my thing is, I remember in 2020 feeling like maybe we’ll finally understand how to care for one another.

Maybe we’ll finally understand how to set better health policy. Maybe we’ll finally understand how to properly resource people and all my little hope feels like it just keeps floating out the window because the lessons are so obvious and they don’t seem to be being learned. So, what are the lessons that you hope are picked up now and that you are pushing to have picked up now and that you are pushing to be picked up now?

David: Yeah, I was smiling to literally keep from crying. Anyone who knows me, knows that I care deeply about our babies, none of whom asked to be born. And the older I get, the more I struggle with the question of why we simply don’t heed the lessons that we’ve had so many opportunities to learn. Three things come to mind in this regard, in terms of lessons that we can apply in this moment.

One is democratizing vaccine access and other resources to guard against not only MPV, but polio, which there are recent resurging cases of and other things that we don’t talk nearly enough about, especially given the way that so many of our immune systems have changed as a result of COVID and the way that it’s forced us to live our lives differently.

And this especially is important for me, it’s small, rural, and isolated communities. Brittany, we’ve talked about this before and Dr. I’m sure you know that like most Black queer trans and non-binary people live with other Black people, we are not necessarily located all of us in neighborhoods or major metropolitan spaces that are most likely to be prioritized by the CDC and state health departments looking to Institute PSAs or campaigns or provide resources to mobilize community members to be able to do important work.

And to be mindful of how MPV and related viruses are showing up in day cares, where we are trusting that our babies are going to be safe and a part of their development requires physical, nurturing, and affection, as well as on college campuses where young people are engaging with each other in intimate ways.

Related to that, it’s important for us to focus on overcoming misinformation and disinformation. This goes back to the conversation we’ve been having about stigma, but for me also means requiring that professionals in particular, those who have platforms in the media are required to be culturally competent.

Such that people are not making the kinds of mistakes that newsrooms apologize for when all of their early coverage is of darker-skinned or African descended people. And again, that’s something that we should be beyond at this point and we clearly are not. And then the last one is working with community navigators. That’s a term that exists in federal legislation that the CDC has funded. And these are people who work in the kinds of communities that I have just named and that we’ve been talking about where people have the greatest needs and are least likely to have access to literal care. And this is especially the case as there have been so many attempts in Southern states to prevent people from having access to life-saving and life-affirming care. 

And so prioritizing and compensating again, equitably people who do work for what Howard Thurman called the disinherited. Is another lesson that we should have been applying at this point in our history.

Brittany: You know, I joke all the time and to your point, David it’s I laugh to keep from crying. They’re like individualism is gonna kill us. COVID has made that very clear. Our response to MPV is once again, making that very clear, because one of the biggest lessons I’ve personally taken away from both how we’ve treated Covid and how we continue to treat HIV and AIDS is that we both need proactive government leadership and individuals to make specific choices.

That it is a both and not an either or. Because right now, it feels like we’re living in the either or. It feels like the government has chucked up the duces and the support, the resources are waning at best. And the onus now is being primarily put on individuals. Do either of you feel like that’s the case? And if you do, does that worry you? 

Monica: You know, one thing I will say is that there is an article about our fractured healthcare system in the United States and how we have had the highest per capita death rate of COVID than any other high income nation. And it is so tragic. It is so embarrassing, but this article, which I’ll share with your audience, was actually about the fractured healthcare system that we have a system by, which people are hanging on by a thread.

Obamacare has been threatened numerous times. There were governors that didn’t do Medicaid expansion, which was necessary for people to be on insurance and places where there is universal healthcare and it’s not such a fight. If you look at, like the Nordic countries, places where there’s universal healthcare, their rates of death were so much lower.

Like, how are you supposed to take care of your own ability to get a vaccine for MPV if there is not a vaccine for MPV? How are you supposed to get over the doubts of the long history of what the U.S. has done in terms of marginalizing communities? If we did not figure out with COVID how to fix these health inequities, we were lost because COVID was so dramatic. Was so on the world stage, we didn’t do well enough and this would be the exact right time to say what are all the things we did wrong? 

David: I agree. And I think in threes, as you can tell three things come to mind.

Brittany: Like a preacher. 

David: How my papa I would be proud. One is the words of Freeman Hrabowski, the former president of UMBC and a member come to mind and it’s really important for me to name that we should not be beholden to the tyranny of either or, but be liberated by the beauty of both ends. So, I just wanna underscore that, yes, I think that the way that you framed the challenge. As it has been constructed is flawed and problematic and should not be the cases we think about solutions.

The second is I’m a sociologist by training and I chose sociology because I’m fascinated about the ways in which individuals exist in community. And I understand as a student of African theology that we exist and thrive in healthy community where we understand that none of us are disposable. And so I just wanna name that for me what’s vexing about this is that it’s not even frustrating. So much of what we’re experiencing right now in this moment, which looks like COVID, which looks like HIV, but all of this has built upon the most insidious of all diseases, which is white supremacy. 

Brittany: There it is. 

David: And a lesson until we do a better job of naming with greater precision, this is Ayala talking about name a thing beloved, and creating institutions that allow us to disrupt how systems function as they are designed to, we will continue to have versions of conversations that sound like this. 

Brittany: Yeah. David, something that you tweeted recently is really sitting with me as I’m listening to both of you talk, you said white supremacy is being afraid to hope. That is resonating with me in this moment, because if the root virus is white supremacy, and we have not made any indications that we have much interest in solving that, curing that anytime soon.

And therefore that means that we are going to keep having this conversation again, then like, how do we not be afraid to hope? 

David: I think that our legacy, and in this moment I’m thinking about a brother, professor Henry Lewis Gates, who helped me to appreciate that our legacy is one of hoping in spite of, and so I think that the fear is something that we acknowledge as real and present and omnipresent in the way that Black feminists teach us white supremacy has always been. And we appreciate the teaching of our ancestors and elders who help us to appreciate that like, we know how to overcome, like we know how to respond to this. 

And we celebrate things like you, Brittany, having this platform where you teach the babies that there are folks like the good doctor who were in the community doing work that even by her share presence is disruptive.

When we think about the ways that white supremacy and anti-Blackness, and LGBTQIA stigma phobia and the like are designed to operate. 

Monica: I wish I could say something more hopeful, but I would say this, is that I remember after the George Floyd protest, listening to Cornel west saying I have never felt more hopeful.

And then there was this very kind of backtracking on that, that occurred in this country. But one thing I would say, and this is from my viewpoint from health is I’m not a sociologist, I’m someone who works with gay populations and infectious disease, which always occurs in a disparate fashion.

Infectious disease has always been littered with disparities and shame and stigma and all of this that should never happen. And I would say that COVID played out in such a visible way. The U.S. is such an outlier in terms of its outcomes that I do think that from this lens of health and from infectious disease, we’re all very alert to infectious disease right now, I’m hoping these conversations will center around something as simple as if we have poorer outcomes and other high income nations. We should have a commission on why were all the reasons that our outcomes were worse with COVID it was a visible respiratory virus that anyone could get and that I’m hoping could redirect the conversation to more justice.

I think that’s as hopeful as I can think of as an outcome from this. 

Brittany: Yeah. I wanna stick with hope and give it a bit of a plan because we know without it, it’s just a wish. Because I find myself driving around and getting more and more depressed when I see these tents that advertise COVID testing and the banner on the tent will have a big blacked out word before COVID testing, because what they’ve taped over is the word “free”.

Cuz the federal government is no longer funding rapid testing, never mind that the testing they’re doing are like often just kits that you can buy at the pharmacy. The idea was supposed to be that there was some place where you could access this for free. And now I just see this as such a grim picture of how much to your point, Dr. Monica, our healthcare system is really built for profit and not for people. 

Monica: Yes. 

Brittany: It feels like we really missed the very clear opportunity to implement universal healthcare during COVID if at no other time, this seems like the most obvious time it would’ve been done. So, I’m curious, Dr. Monica, how we create the political will to get this where it needs to be?

Monica: Even profit would say, even profit motors would say that we had a really inefficient and really expensive response because we didn’t have universal healthcare. And as a physician, all I can think of is that universal healthcare should have been automatic from this because then we wouldn’t be commercializing testing and vaccines and treatment that will leave out so many people who don’t have healthcare access.

So, this is to me, a perfect springboard to point out that if we didn’t have Obamacare to begin with, it would’ve even been worse. And Obamacare wasn’t exactly universal healthcare as practiced in Europe and Canada. So, I still think it will end up being more expensive to have had this emergency response where you plug holes instead of a nice clean everyone got healthcare access.

And when we do a commission on this, cuz we need a commission, we need to recirculate back to those conversations that Obama started so long about, about universal healthcare. 

Brittany: David, give us some more marching orders because your background is in policy. You used to be one of the few Black senior staffers on the Senate side, right?

You worked for health education, labor and pension, that committee? Who do I need to call? Whose doorstep do I need to show up at? What does my sign need to say at the protest? Put us to work because we still aren’t getting it right with COVID. We’re clearly not getting it right with MPV. What does our plan of action need to be?

David: It is so much more challenging to strip a right from people after it has been granted to them than to stay in the space of knowing that something is important and you haven’t done everything that needed to be done. And in this moment, what’s precedent for me is the sad reality of having witnessed fundamental rights that have been long and hard fought for, be stripped away from so many people and that we’re having this conversation about people not having access to fundamental forms of care after the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the presumptive challenges to things like same-sex marriage.

I still wrestle with knowing that there’s a through line between the war on drugs was designed to strip communities and families of Black and brown and Latinx and native men, and similar attempts to do that around birthing people, particular Black and brown and Latinx and native women. And that we continue to see the implications of a non-existing in terms of functioning for the people healthcare system and allow it to happen is our fault.

Bell Hooks talked about the importance of schools and size of democracy. And in her book, Teaching Critical Thinking, she reminds all of us that it is our responsibility, every generation, to teach the babies that we gotta defend democracy. And so for me, the marching orders is a space that we share, Brittamy, which is to ensure that our babies understand what is happening and how systems right now are functioning as design.

And to identify the elected officials, the people who are elected and appointed and in positions of privilege who see them as disposable, like the lieutenant governor in North Carolina, who stood in the pulpit of a Black church and called LGBTQ kids trash, and empower them and the adults who care for and about them to vote and to overcome the challenges to our ability to vote and to run for office and to do the things that we know work for democracy. Now, to be clear, they’re not easy things to do. And I know a whole bunch of people right now are rolling their eyes like keep talking that same old institutional stuff. But, we have seen evidence of opportunities for folks like me and people we know and love to serve as evidence of shifts and possibilities.

And so I, I hope that’s helpful for folks in terms of what we can and should be doing right now.

Brittany: Absolutely. Our health and our healthcare in this country have always been political. I think people see it as now becoming politicized about the controversy, so to speak over masks and we’ve seen the abortion bans.

We’ve seen government ending gender affirming care, and yet health and healthcare, particularly for populations of people who’ve been marginalized intentionally has always been deeply politicized. And so before I let both of you go, we talked a little bit about the policies and the practices that we have to push for at the government level. But when it comes to creating communities of care and infusing how we treat one another, what we expect from our government with ideals and prescriptions that come to us from an understanding and belief about community and togetherness.

Dr. Monica, and then we’ll close with you, Dr. David, what are those community based mindsets that you think we need to move into this next chapter with to turn the corner into community wellbeing and really thriving?

Monica: That Is such a great point, cuz I, I wrote this piece during COVID for Newsweek called “Four Things HIV Activists Did to Influence COVID”. And one thing that HIV activists did is not only did they really push the EUA process there should not be a drug out there that can save lives and we take a long time to approve it.

But the main thing they did was community based messaging to get people to take antiretroviral therapy or prep. And so community-based messaging. community-based. Yes. 

Brittany: Thank you very much, Vanna Black. Yes.

Monica: We’re seeing the PrEP of HIV being shown. Community-based messaging. That is so much more effective than even when Ronald Reagan took five years to mention HIV when so many people had died. I don’t think people wanted to take advice from a unique community based messaging to get to people to take a vaccine or people to take a drug or to people to take PrEP or so. This is, has to be built into our, when we talk about universal healthcare, which is what I’m gonna be pushing for after these two pandemics, it should pay for community messengers.

It’s so much more cost effective to have people take a drug than just throw it at them and not have the community and advocates come, who look like you, come and tell you why it’s a good idea. So that’s gonna be my push.

David: Yeah, for folks who couldn’t see that moment as Dr. Monica made that reference to PrEP, I held up a bottle of Truvada, which is a pill I take daily to reduce the likelihood of becoming HIV positive.

Monica: Excellent. 

David: And it wasn’t easy for me to come, like to this point, right, where I have Truvada pills around my home and take them out and take my pills publicly in part, because I want people to ask me questions and I do that, Brittany, because I have had so many people who I know and love become HIV positive in the time that I’ve known about and have had access Truvada.

And when I think about the fact that it doesn’t have to be the case, it makes me mad. And so to Dr. Monica’s point, empowering folks who are of and from who work on behalf of and love our community and not just some of us, but all of us is incredibly important. And then creating spaces where we have the language and the support to have sometimes uncomfortable, but lifesaving and affirming conversations about HIV. 

We have a whole toolkit called Words Matter HIV to get people, the literal language, to engage in the discussion, to know, for example, that none of us should be saying things like full-blown HIV, a term created by the media.

That’s supposed to conjure up this Ghostbusters image of HIV as this thing that is anything other than a virus that can be managed, but we use a term stage three HIV. right. So, we reduce stigma. We invite people who are living with HIV to feel seen and centered in ways that are much more humane. And we otherwise create spaces where people can talk about things that if left in the dark can kill them.

And then the last thing for me is demonstrating, like radical compassion. I think often about a series of conversations between James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni, uncle Jimmy and Nikki in Paris, what they debated and disagreed about so much in terms of the challenges we faced and what the solutions would be, but what they agreed most often is that what was required to overcome white supremacy and anti-Blackness was love. 

And in this moment, I hope that we can get over the superficial things that get in the way of us demonstrating compassion for the disinherited, the least of these, those who we celebrate in June, when it’s cute, but disregard for the balance of the year or for women identify folks for whom some male identify folks don’t care about them until they birt one of their own, right? 

Like finding ways to actually get beyond the socially constructed and politically constructed barriers that only work to the benefit of white supremacy is the thing that I fundamentally believe will get us through. And the lesson that I hope all of these attacks on our lives will lead us to learn in ways that allow us to shift the way that we show up for one another.

Brittany: Absolutely, Dr. Monica Gandhi, Dr. David J. Johns. I ain’t know doctor, but I definitely feel much smarter after having heard from the both of you. And I know our UNDISTRACTED community will feel the exact same. Thank you for this conversation and most certainly for everything you do. We’ll talk soon.

Dr. Monica Gandhi teaches medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. You can find the paper she referred to in our show notes and you can follow her on Twitter @monicagandhi9. Dr. David Johns is the executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition and he’s on Twitter @mrdavidjohns. Gotta get that Mr. changed to Dr., friend. So if, as David said, white supremacy is being afraid to hope, then we have to be the antidote. 

And we have been, you have been, we’ve been giving folks rides to vaccine clinics and dropping groceries off at our neighbor’s doorsteps. We’ve been engaging in mutual aid and still masking up indoors, even when the CDC gives us the Kanye shrug. We’ve been showing up, we’ve been showing each other that honest to God’s subversive and revolutionary love because that’s been our only life blood. So I’m not giving up on policy and politics, quite the opposite. I’m simply hoping that if we build it, they will come because if we can manage to build the communities we need on the ground, perhaps, perhaps it will be a model for the policy we deserve.

Let’s get to building y’all.

That’s it for today, but never, ever for tomorrow.


UNDISTRACTED is a production of The Meteor and Pineapple Street Studios. 

Our lead producer is Rachel Ward.

Our associate producers are Alexis Moore and Marialexa Kavenaugh.

Thanks also to Treasure Brooks and Hannis Brown.

Our executive producers at The Meteor are Cindi Leive and myself, and our executive producers at Pineapple are Jenna Weiss-Berman and Max Linsky. 

You can follow me at @MsPackyetti on all social media and our team @TheMeteor.

Subscribe to UNDISTRACTED and rate and review us, y’all, on Apple podcasts or most places you check out your favorite podcasts.

Thanks for listening. Thanks for being. And thanks for doing.

I’m Brittany Packnett Cunningham. Let’s go get free.


UNDISTRACTED: August 18, 2022

A Future Without Police? Andrea Ritchie on Crime and Abolition

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Hey, y’all it’s Brittany. It was just over eight years ago that I found myself in the middle of an uprising I absolutely saw coming. Michael Brown Jr.’s killing by a Ferguson police officer was the spark, but the match was ready to be lit. My hometown is St. Louis, full of creative, beautiful people was besieged by economic stratification, educational, inequity, and severe racial discrimination.

One street, Delmar still stands as the divide between a Black St. Louis to the north and a white one to the south. Everything from median income to life expectancy are starkly different on each side of the line. And frankly, folks were sick of that shit. Those days and nights were filled with police terror and tear gas, but always, always we fought back. A determined people are an unbeatable people.

And what emerged were organizations like Action St. Louis and elected leaders like Cori Bush and mayor Tishaura Jones, an unbridled determination to set a model for what can and must be different about how we are governed and the voice we deserve to have in building in. But that was to come in the later years, in 2014 I was just there to play my part alongside so, so many others. 

Sometimes that meant bailing folks outta jail. Sometimes I would help facilitate organizing meetings. Sometimes it meant being a translator, taking the demands of the streets to the Ferguson commission and President Obama’s policing task force, both of which I was a member.

And I told those in charge that I could only occupy those seats if they understood that I would still and always be a protestor and some of what I made sure got done on paper I’m immensely proud of. And yet, despite all I saw around me, my deep knowledge of history, I still thought for years that the police were always just gonna exist, that their presence could be minimized. It could be monitored. It could even be accounted for, but in this country they were just always gonna be part of the deal. 

And at some points I let that limit my own imagination. Thank God for evolution. We are UNDISTRACTED.

On the show today, I’ll be talking to author Andrea Ritchie about how we move past our policing system to create a more just world. 

Andrea Ritchie: If you believe that everybody should have access to every kind of care that they need, that their bodies need, that their hearts, their souls, their spirits need everywhere all the time, then join us. That is an abolitionist struggle. 

Brittany: That’s coming up. But first it’s the news.

Okay, let’s talk about crime for a second. Is it up? Is it down? If you’re confused it’s not just you. According to a report released this summer by the Council on Criminal Justice, homicides are down 2% in the first part of 2022 over the same time last year. But despite that reduction, the murder rate is still far higher than it was before the pandemic. Time reported that in 2020 homicide jumped by nearly a third over the previous year.

But, and you might not know this, according to the Brennan Center, crime overall in the U.S. peaked in 1991. So, yeah, we’ve seen some rises, but overall we are much safer than we were just a few decades ago. One reason, all this is confusing is that the police are incentivized to make crime look high. The media reports on crime breathlessly to grab clicks and views and that makes people feel less safe, especially if they’ve experienced harm in the past. 

So, because this is an episode about what real public safety can look like and the better world we can build, we’re gonna talk about the effect media coverage of crime has on our perception of it and the danger that perception can pose to marginalized communities.

So, I reached out to one of the smartest people I know, Wes Lowery. He’s a journalist, a fellow at Georgetown University and the author of The Can’t Kill Is All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement. 

Wesley Lowery: Basically everything we know about crime, policing, courts is deeply underreported and underdeveloped in some ways. We actually, there’s much more that we do not know than we do. And so I think it’s important always to frame conversations that way. Right? That what we are looking at are snapshots because very often things become very absolute ‘well, crime has gone up X.’

Well, there’s a lot of caveats in that. What do we really know? What are we looking at? X, Y, and Z. But then secondarily, what we also know is that there are all types of different social and political structures that factor into crime and crime outcomes. Right? If every afterschool program in a city is shut down, well, maybe you have more 17 year-olds who might steal a candy bar from a store or harass someone on the street or X, Y, and Z. Right? 

So, I think that’s why people are asking these questions, they’re looking at them. But it is, as you noted, important that there’s been so much political narrative right now, it’s increasing, it’s increasing, everything’s scary. Things are bad. And we can talk in a second about perception versus reality, cuz what is actually true does matter.

But what people think is true also does matter in terms of outcomes. Right? But look, even in this moment where so much of the political narratives have been like outta control crime and everything’s crazy and X, Y, and Z, the reality is based on what we know. There have been some increases in recent years, but it’s not as if things are spiraling into chaos, the way that watching maybe some cable news channels or other places might lead you to believe.

Brittany: Well, let’s have that conversation because to your point, perception is reality. How is the coverage of crime trending in the media? Is it proportional to what people are actually experiencing?

Wesley: No, I do think that we are falling into a lot of the same traps of the eighties and nineties around these conversations where our coverage too often is not particularly smart. So, for example, you might be in a city like New York, where at the city and the state level, there have been steps to try to do bail reform or to change the way people are treated in and out of the system and where certain politicians, because they believe it’s politically advantageous when a crime is committed and there’s media pressure to respond to it, like to blame the bail reforms. Right?

Now, I think it’s our job in the media to figure if this even had anything to do with it. Right? Well, what is unquestionably true is there has been an increase in violence in New York, in recent years, right? It’s just true. We know that, right? But what we allow people to do is we allow people who are not doctors to diagnose the problem.

So, insert politician goes ‘Well, it’s because of X, Y, and Z’. We allow people like the police very often to frame those narratives and without forcing them to show their work as well. And very often what ends up being the case in the criminal legal system is big sweeping claims almost never stand up to scrutiny.

I think the other thing that’s important to note though, cause we were talking about this perception and reality issue. What is also true is crime and violent crime specifically is very segregated in our country, right? We live in various cities where there are really seven or eight cities stapled together.

So, you can live in a part of New York where murder happens, or you can live in a part of New York where murder doesn’t happen. But what we are seeing is people who do not live in violent places becoming increasingly scared that it could eventually come to where they are, right? But, and we can talk this way cuz we know each other and the podcast we’re on, right? 

There’s a difference between, like white people actually facing violence and white people being scared that they could face violence, right? 

Brittany: That they’re going to, yeah. 

Wesley: Many of the white people in our nation, who, especially who live in and around cities live where they live, because they fled certain parts of the city or their parents or grandparents did precisely because of these fears, right? And so it’s a chief motivating factor, this fear of what those people might do to us. I might be harmed as I’m walking here or doing this. How do we capture that real thing while not perpetuating that fear? Right? How do we write about people’s fear without…

Brittany: Feeding the beast.

Wesley: Exactly. And it’s really complicated.

Brittany: It is complicated, which is why I wanna double click on it because the reality is that violent crime disproportionately affects Black and brown communities. Right. We look at the study from The Marshall Project. We know that often when media outlets are actually covering homicides and violent crime that occurs in Black and brown communities, the portrayals are less humanizing than when it occurs in white communities.

So, when that’s happening consistently, what are the effects on the ground in Black and brown communities? 

Wesley: Brittany you and I met in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri around police protests after Michael Brown’s death, and we’re talking what a week after August 9th. Right? And so we were all just recently rethinking about Ferguson and Michael Brown’s death.

But one of the things I think about often is right. So much of our conversation in that space about the relationship between Black Americans and the police is about the presence of bad behavior, negative behavior. So. this is one of my, I use this a lot, I say a relationship can break down for two different types of reasons.

It can break down for, because of the presence of bad behavior or the failure to meet expectations. Your girl can leave you because you cheat on her. Your girl can leave you because you forget the anniversary. Right? And those are two different categories of thing. Right? 

Brittany: But either way we leaving.

Wesley: Yeah. Either way you’re single now. Right? But the point is, when we talk about the relationship between Black Americans and immigrant communities and certainly Indigenous communities historically, but we see the video of the young man in the street, or someone being tear gassed or someone being beaten, the presence of bad behavior. Black people are the most victimized people in our society.

They are the most likely to have their television stolen, their car broken into to be shot, to be stabbed, to be harmed. Right? They are taxpayers who want safety, who want justice if they are harmed and victimized, want to know that the system has been responsive to them. And so in order to understand the lack of relationship, we have to understand not just the negative things, but the failure of the police and the criminal legal system to serve Black people when they have been victimized, right? 

We did a project at The Washington Post called Murder with Impunity back in 2018, that we looked the street corner in any city where murder is functionally legal, where statistically murders happen here all the time and they never solve them. When we talk about violence, especially when we talk about homicide, what we know is that the police in the United States of America, making arrest in about half of the homicides, right? Depending on exactly what statistics you’re using it fluctuates somewhere between 40% and 60% of homicides. Right? 

Once you start looking at Black homicides, specifically that number plummets, once you start looking in cities, plummets even further. Right? And so what we know is that there are so many Black Americans, in fact, most of the Black Americans living in the places where they are most likely to be victimized living in a place where they have almost no expectation of receiving justice. And so at a time when crime is increasing, the idea that, well, the way we fix it is just to spend more money it suggests there at the very least some follow up questions to be asked.

Brittany: I’m interested in whether you think it’s gotten any better since the protest in 2020, around police violence. Do you think that reporting on crime has changed at all since then? Has it gotten better? Has it gotten worse?

Wesley: You know, the media at large has a bias towards the outlier. Right? We don’t write about the planes that land, what that can do is it can skew public perception about the urgency and the is, and that cuts in any number of ways, right? Your credibility as a true teller as a journalist is how does what you write and what you say hold up? Yeah, I think there are a lot of people who 10 years from now, 20 years from now, we’re gonna look at stuff that they wrote under their names and we’re gonna go ‘So that’s what you thought was happening in 2020?’ 

Brittany: You thought Trumps wasn’t gonna be that bad. Yeah. So TLDR, Be like Ida B. Wells, not Roger Hills. 

Wesley: That’s pretty good.

Brittany: Period. End of story. 

Wesley: That’s the tweet.

Brittany: Wesley Lowery is a journalist and the host of “Unfinished: Ernie’s Secret”, the story of a civil rights photographer, who was revealed to be an FBI informant. It’s available right where you found this podcast.

Coming up, I’ll be talking to abolitionist Andrea Richie about President Biden’s call to fund a hundred thousand new police. Right after this short break.

And we are back. Like, none of us know what we don’t. But I don’t think I realized just how much I didn’t know eight years ago when I found myself standing among thousands of people who’d become my friends and my movement family on West Florissant Ave. in Ferguson, Missouri. Just 10 minutes from my home, but we were in a war zone.

Now I’m a student of history, my history and my people’s history. So, I knew that killings by police were not a new phenomenon and this was not a new movement, just the cell phones that captured it all were new.

And I knew deep down that we could live in a world where the police didn’t kill people. But what I had never considered, what I did not know, I could even dare to imagine is that we could live in a world without police. There were a lot of voices who were my teachers on this, and you’re about to meet one of them.

Andrea Ritchie is an organizer, activist, attorney, and writer. And in a moment when Congress folk put on kente cloth and note in the capitol rotunda in this completely unserious moment to show solidarity with the movement only to wind up supporting a plan from President Biden to shell out $13 billion to train a hundred thousand new police officers.

Yeah. I had to call Andrea up because as Wesley pointed out in the news, that’s just throwing good money after bad. We know policing doesn’t prevent crime, cops don’t solve crimes, and prison doesn’t heal people who’ve experienced harm or the people who perpetrated it. So, what should we be investing in instead?

What does that new world look like? I knew Andrea would have some answers. 

Andrea, it is very good to be with you for this very important conversation. I was trying to remember the first time we met and the first time we were in the same room together and we agreed that it was when you testified in front of President Obama’s 21st Century Policing Task Force, which I was a very young member of.

I’m very, very glad that yours was a voice among the many cuz your voice has fundamentally transformed not only what I believe to be true about policing, but really what I think is possible. 

Andrea: Wow, that means so much to me. I was really conflicted about appearing in front of that task force because of the way it was constructed.

But your presence on it made me think that there was some possibility of inserting something into that process that would not be more of the same. And there was some mention of sexual violence by cops in the process, I think had a lot to do with you being there, to hear what I had to say and fighting to get in there. 

Brittany: And that is truly what I was there trying to do. So, I’m glad a little bit of it got done. But look, we’re sitting here in 2022 and there aren’t necessarily millions of people pouring into the streets like there were two summers ago protesting police violence across the globe, but this issue is always timely, especially right now, because of course President Biden has proposed $13 billion, with a B, in federal funds to train a hundred thousand new police officers. 

So, your book with Mariame Kaba is called No More Police. Way to state the aspiration right in the beginning. So, you know, with that, I imagine that you have a bit to say about President Biden’s proposal. 

Andrea: I mean, so much to say. And also given that I was around last time when he orchestrating criminal punishment policy and structuring so much of the resources, the orientation, the legitimacy, the ways in which we respond and address so many kinds of violence, including domestic violence and gender based violence towards pouring massive resources into policing and making every response be connecting back to policing. 

And that’s what he’s doing right now, including pandemic response. He is responsible for the fact that billions of dollars that were supposed to go to helping and supporting our communities in surviving and recovering and healing from an ongoing pandemic are being poured into police, as well.

So it’s sort of from 1994 before, until the president into the future, he’s the same person who’s always been with the same agenda. 

Brittany: So now there are several bills in Congress that would execute on this idea, this call from President Biden for more police, and now progressive Democrats, to their credit, have managed to block these efforts earlier in the summer.

But these proposals are coming back, you know since Democrats are always worried about looking soft on crime.

Andrea: And if they are, then they should be investing in the things that, first of all, they should be questioning what is considered crime and what isn’t. And certainly the crime of having a million people die in a largely preventable way through the COVID pandemic.

Certainly someone should be held accountable for, for instance, and that happened under their watch, for sure. But I think also if folks really want to end the things that are called crime and end violence and end harm and end the conditions of poverty and unmet needs and organized abandonment that produce what then gets criminalized or called crime, then to not be soft on, it would be to actually invest in the things that people need. The things that people need to be safe. Housing, healthcare, youth programming, education, library, common spaces, healing, transformation skills to deescalate conflict, to intervene, interrupt, and heal from conflict.

There’s so much that they could be doing that would actually be strong on eliminating the conditions that produce what is now called crime or criminalized and they are refusing to do that fairly consistently with some exceptions. 

Brittany: You know, this movement against police violence has clearly gained steam over the last decade, although it’s not new or novel to the last decade.

And of course not everyone has the same vision for what that looks like. Right? For some people it’s a full abolition of the carceral system that’s police, jails, and prisons. For other people it’s about police reform and accountability. So cops who kill people are finally held accountable in this current system.

For some people it’s about defunding the police and to what you were really saying earlier, reinvesting in the people, right?  In schools and healthcare and social infrastructure. And for a lot of us it’s a combination of multiples of those, but I think everyone who’s been involved in the movement in some way, shape, or form can at the very least agree that the cops don’t need more cash.

So, why does Biden seem so hell bent on cutting more massive checks? What is this proposal really tell us about the administration’s priorities? 

Andrea: It tells us about a particular vision of society in which shrinking resources and growing instability to climate catastrophe and the crisis of late racial capitalism will be met with more and more police and more and more containment and control and surveillance and punishment and exclusion and exile. 

That’s what the vision of the world that’s being articulated, is that things are getting worse for more and more people because of conditions that people like Biden and capitalism and policing and criminalization have created.

And that the response is gonna be more of that. And that as resources shrink those resources are gonna be more and more heavily policed to keep them available to a smaller and smaller group of people. That’s the vision of the world that’s being advanced. And it’s so clear when the president is saying the money that we set aside for pandemic relief should go into the pockets of police and not into the pockets of people.

There’s no clearer articulation of the vision of the world that he’s advancing than that. 

Brittany: Yeah. I mean, the ACLU has said that Biden’s plan has two kind of competing approaches, right? That this is about more criminalization and incarceration, which you just pointed to, but also there are supposedly investments in community based services. I’m curious if you think that both of those approaches are really there and what you think of that juxtaposition? 

Andrea: Well, I think one that what’s being framed as community based approaches is really more policing in a different form. Right? There’s policing by the actual police and then there’s policing by mental health professionals through involuntary commitment and incarceration of people with unmet mental health needs.

There’s policing through the family policing system. There’s policing through surveillance, that mandatory drug treatment, you know, mandated different kinds of programs that are about supposedly correcting individual failings and flaws, as opposed to systemic conditions that produce people’s trauma responses and traumas and conditions.

And so,  I think that they’re not actually an opposition. I think the way that he frames them, they’re a continuum of policing and surveillance and punishment. And I think that they’re also very much conditioned on collaboration with cops. So, even if they’re not cops, the presumption is that there’s collaboration with cops and that’s again, dating back to 1994.

That’s how he framed up the Violence Against Women Act, which is we will give money to service providers for prevention, intervention, support, care, but the presumption is always that you are collaborating and cooperating with law enforcement, with policing as part of that process. And that if you’re not doing that, you don’t get the benefits of the services.

And I think that’s true for the violence interruption programs, but the overall vision that he has around community responses is policing or collaboration with policing.

Brittany: You know, this is why I always love talking to you, reading what you’ve written, because I think you really help all of us reframe things that we maybe assumed we understood. Right? So, you know, something you’ve said has helped me reframe this issue myself. Years ago, I stopped saying ‘police brutality’ because that would make these things sound like isolated incidents, right. Bad apples. Right? And I started saying ‘police violence’ because that acknowledges that this issue is structural, but you go further.

You’ve written that police are violence, not safety. So, when you talk about collaborating with the police, even on something as egregiousnb as violence against women, we have to recognize the frame that that’s not a violence interruption if the police are themselves violence and they’re not providing that safety.

So, talk us a little bit more through what you mean by that. 

Andrea: Well, that was part of what I was testifying to that time that you and I first met, which is that we frame cops as responses to violence when in fact they are perpetrators and enablers and facilitators of violence, even in the context of responses to violence.

So, an invisible no more the police violence against Black women and women of color, which was kind of where a lot of the information I brought to the task force is gathered ,there’s a whole chapter on police violence in the context of responses, to calls for help. Of sexual violence by cops who are responding to sexual violence complaints, to physical violence by cops responding to domestic violence calls against people who were survivors.

And so at Interrupting Criminalization, the organization that Mariame and I cofounded together, we recently put out a report kind of gathering all the research and information about police sexual violence that we are aware of and then creating a curriculum for service providers to make sure that they are responding to the fact that when someone calls a rape hotline, or a sexual assault hotline, or a domestic violence hotline, the person who they may be talking about is a person who did them harm might be a police officer. And that for most agencies, because of the Violence Against Women Act that Biden was the architect of, for most agencies the only response they have to offer is the cops. So, if you call and say I’ve been raped by the cops, they’re gonna say, well, let’s call the cops, right? 

So, I think that reality and my own experience of that and my experience of working with survivors of violence is how I understand that police are violence because they’re not protecting the vast majority of survivors from violence.

The vast majority of survivors don’t even call them because they know their needs aren’t gonna be met and they know they risk violence and deportation and incarceration and criminalization if they do. And then for those, when the cops do respond either cuz someone called or someone else called, there’s an alarming amount of sexual, physical, and other forms of violence that happen in those context. 

Brittany: We’re gonna come back to this intersection of gender and justice in a second, but I want to really double down then on what the vision is. There is of course, a very powerful precedent for abolition in this country. So, how folks get there? Like, what does it mean to be an abolitionist in 2022? 

Andrea: Actually I’m gonna quote Erin Miles Cloud from the Movement for Family Power, because she actually said it in one of the ways I’ve found really most beautifully articulated. She said everybody wants safety for someone, some of the time. Abolitionists want safety for everyone, everywhere all the time. So, if that’s a vision that resonates with you, then join us. Cuz that’s what we are building. 

Brittany: I love that. 

Andrea: And that can start with, you know, if you believe that having a place of your own, where you can close the door and be safe in that space called housing, whatever shape that takes, is a form of safety that you are excited about promoting then get in on the fight for housing for all.

If you believe in quality, accessible, transformative education, that isn’t about policing and discipline and containment and control, but education that is about growing and thriving and building people to be able to live into their greatest human potential. Then join us. You’re doing abolitionist work.

If you believe that everybody should have access to every kind of care that they need, that their bodies need, that their hearts, their souls, their spirits need everywhere all the time. Then join us. That is an abolitionist struggle. So, I think people need to understand. The vision is that everyone has what they need to thrive.

Brittany: You wrote a little bit about that in Essence, specifically around Breonna Taylor’s killing, like you said now, we want far more than what the system that killed Breonna Taylor can offer because the system that killed her is not set up to provide justice for her family and loved ones. Families and communities deserve more than heartbreak over and over again, each time the system declines to hold itself accountable. 

You and Mariame are so good at really cutting through to the roots of suffering, because that’s really what we need to get at. Not how we punish someone when someone has suffered, but rather, how do we prevent the suffering from happening again? I wanna get a little bit more specific.

What does it look like to repair the harm and then do the collective work to create prevention? 

Andrea: Yeah, I think one thing is not, you know, adding to suffering with more suffering. So, actually in Colin Kaepernick’s book Abolition for the People, I wrote something called building a world where Breonna Taylor could live.

And I think for me, it would first be about breaking down what caused that moment. Right? And, and not just a warrant or a no knock warrant, but the war on drugs under which the warrant was written. right? The gentrification and property

Brittany: Ding ding, ding. 

Andrea: Then, you know, coalesced with the war on drugs to send those cops to her door.

Yeah and then the anti-Blackness and the misogynoir that also shaped the way her life was perceived, such that her family had to read on a piece of paper that no one was injured in an event that killed their daughter. Those are the things I think are part of the accountability and healing is actually eradicating those things.

Secondly, I think there’s a really important model in Chicago which is that there is a commander in the Chicago police department who had served in Vietnam, learned to torture people, Vietnamese people, in the context of Vietnam war brought those torture techniques and tools back to Chicago and tortured over a hundred Black and brown men and women on the south side of Chicago.

Through advocacy, both at the United nations and long time organizing in Black communities on the south side of Chicago, there was a call for reparations for those folks and that we would use the U.N. framework for reparations, which is certainly apology, certainly compensation, but also restoration, return you to the state you would’ve been had the harm not been done. 

Certainly rehabilitation, healing the hurts that have happened on all levels and most importantly cessation and non repetition. And so historic legislation was passed in Chicago for those survivors that gave them compensation, that had the mayor of the city apologizing to them for something that up until that point he had denied it even happened.

But also that they got access to healthcare services through a dedicated center, the Chicago Torture Justice Center, which then opened its doors to all people who had been impacted by the violence of policing. And they were offered access to city jobs and city education, all the things that were stolen from them through their wrongful incarceration. And so were their children. And so were their grandchildren. 

That is one way that reparations has played out for the violence of policing in one place for one group of people. But I think it offers some ideas of what it could look like for reparations, for the killing of Breonna Taylor.

Brittany: Absolutely. 

Andrea: It would be an apology. It would be an acknowledgement of the harm that the family and community would be able to speak their harm, would be able to say directly to the people who did the harm and to the people who launched the war on drugs and to the gentrifiers and to all the forces that were involved in killing their daughter, their harm.

And that those folks would need to be accountable for. It would need to make repair for it. And we would need to remember, and we would need to stop the things that produced in the first place.

Brittany: But what happened to Breonna Taylor almost broke me. In part, because looking in her eyes, looking at her face, I saw myself, I saw. I have cousins and good friends who look exactly like her.

This has everything to do with the much less discussed intersection of gender and policing. So many people think that this conversation about police violence is solely about the police killing Black men. And yet you have written extensively about how something you spoke about earlier. Police sexual violence is actually the second, most frequently reported forum of police misconduct, but we don’t talk about it. 

And for Black women, specifically interactions with police are more fraught. We’re the most likely to face an arrest or use of force during a traffic stop. We are the most likely to be killed by police when we are unarmed. And we’re the fastest growing arrest, prison, and jail population. And nobody’s talking about it.

Andrea: Well, I wanna challenge that a little bit because I think we have always talked about it. Black women, girls, queer and trans people have always talked about it. 

Brittany: Yes. 

Andrea: And we are not nobody. Right?  

Brittany: Correct the record, you are a hundred percent right. A hundred percent.

Andrea: And that’s part of what I wrote about in Invisible No more. It wasn’t just that the violence of policing as experienced by Black women, girls, and trans people is invisible no more, but I also wanted our resistance to be invisible no more. Right? From the resistance of enslaved women and girls and trans and gender nonconforming people through, you know, Ida B. Wells through all the folks who documented and resisted state and police violence throughout history. The Combahee River Collective, even Delta. Are you actually a Delta?

Brittany: No, I’m not Greek. 

Andrea: You’re not Greek. 

Brittany: I feel like all my best friends are Delta’s and AKA’s.

Andrea: There it is. But the Delta’s organized against actually police sexual violence by police against Freedom Riders and folks during the Civil Rights Movement. And so there’s ways in which we have always done that, but that’s not the story of the Civil Rights Movement. Right? We don’t know, for instance, that Rosa Parks, one of the first things that she organized was in the committee in defense of Gertrude Perkins who was raped by two Montgomery police officers 10 years before, you know, the bus boycott. 

And, so I think we have been talking about it and we continue to talk about it, but we have not, it hasn’t shaped the way that resistance has happened for the vast majority of folks. Right? So, that’s how we end up in a situation where it’s framed as an anomaly.

The real story is, you know, George Floyd. The real story is Eric Gardner. The real story is Mike Brown. And those are real stories. And in each instance, there are similar stories that perhaps even happen contemporaneously that don’t command the same attention and don’t shape how we understand the violence of policing.

That it’s not only killings, it’s not only physical violence, it’s sexual violence, it’s family separation. There’s all kinds of ways in which it’s gendered as profiling in the context of prostitution related offenses. So, we really need to think, through our experiences, what are the things that will actually produce safety, wellbeing, and thriving for Black women, girls, and trans people.

And that will start to point us towards what the actual solutions might be. 

Brittany: You’ve been intubating just how difficult a relationship trans folks have had for a long time with the police, but like you’re saying identity itself when you are trans has been criminalized as being further criminalized.

And we’re watching a lot of that unfold in real time right now, you know, we watch the bathroom bans happen. We watched the legislation around who can play what sport, you know, just in the past year we’ve seen states like Texas attempt to criminalize gender affirming care for young trans people. What do you think the end game is for these legislators?

Cause where I’m sitting, I’m like, why do you even care? Why, how I raise my child, right? In an ideal world, you would mind your damn business, but what do you think is their end game? And what should we be doing to stop them? 

Andrea: What I know their end game is, is white supremacist, patriarchy.

Brittany: And there it is. 

Andrea: Judeo-Christian theocratic state. They’ve said that’s their end game. And they’ve also laid out their plan to get there and they have executed that plan and that means domination and control and containment and surveillance of sexual gender and reproductive autonomy. And so that means that figh for people’s gender self-determination and affirming care is the same fight as the fight for abortion care. 

Brittany: That’s right. 

Andrea: Is the same fight as the fight against criminalization of prostitution and prostitution related offenses. Is the same fight against criminalization of pregnant and parenting people.

They are coming at all very intersectionally and we have not been resisting very intersectionality, so right that means that we have a shared struggle. That doesn’t mean that it’s a competition. And that’s where I think a lot of CIS women have really fallen directly into the trap laid for them by the right.

Cause the right is like let’s not have everyone resisting intersectionally, so let’s get these folks mad at these folk and divide and conquer. Exactly. And divide and conquer. And so many CIS women are falling into that trap being like you’re somehow harming me more than the state that’s taking away my reproductive autonomy by recognizing that people of all genders can get pregnant. Like that somehow is the worst injury than what the state is doing. And that is you’ve completely been brainwashed by the right. And you’re not understanding what patriarchy is. 

Brittany: See this is why I was like, we have to call you. Connect the dots, Andrea. This is what people need to understand.

Okay. So, I wanna end this conversation really in a place where you took us in the beginning where you invited people into the kind of world that you and so many others have been beautifully envisioning. Because there is a difference between abolition and reform. I know it can take people a little time to sit with ideas and that calling for police reform might be tempting while abolition seems far off. 

You know, admittedly, once upon a time I was that person. And so for someone who. Still in that place, a reformist and not yet an abolitionist. Notice I said not yet. What do you want to invite them to think about? And more importantly to do?

Andrea: I want them to think about what brings us closer to the world that we’re dreaming of that I was talking about earlier, right?

And there are some things that bring us closer on that path that are short of abolition. And then there are some things that push us further away from that path. Right? An example is a lot of folks are thinking about decertification of cops and setting up sort of registries and processes for decertifying individual cops and decertifying police departments and feeling like that’s a way we’re gonna get a hold of police violence, the violence of policing, is by figuring out who should be allowed to do it and who shouldn’t based on these categories. 

It’s who should be certified and not. That presumes that we’ll always have cops and that also puts more resources to policing by then setting up an agency that investigates and decertifies and legitimizes people who aren’t decertified and then people can appeal their decertification and then there’s a whole, like, it’s a whole apparatus now that is being built around policing that isn’t actually reducing or eliminating the violence or power of policing.

It’s just legitimizing it and putting more resources into it. That’s a reform that’s not bringing us closer to the world we want. A reform that is bringing us closer to the world that we want is one that fires cops who do harm, that defunda police departments, that shrinks the power, the size legitimacy of policing and invests resources in the things that we need.

So, you don’t need to be an abolitionist to say, pandemic release funds shouldn’t go to cops. You can say pandemic relief fund should go to pandemic relief. And that can be something that, you know, is not a full on full throttled abolitionist demand, but is one that brings us closer to a world where we have all the things we need.

The organization I cofounded with Mariame, Interrupting Criminalization, has a number of resources available that connect the dots and invite folks to go look at the website and see where they can plug in around those. So, I think there’s many ways people can dive in right now, and I just encourage people to just give a little thought to kind of 10 steps down the road is the thing that you’re doing reinforcing the legitimacy, the power, the resources, the violence of policing. Or is it bringing us closer to a world where everyone has what they need in terms of material needs, where we have skills to prevent, interrupt, and transform harm and where we are all able to live and grow into our fullest potential and where we are able to live sustainably on a planet in crisis together. 

And some folks may wanna take an exit, may think now, I’m gonna take an off ramp before we get to abolition. And maybe the further down the road, they go the further down they feel like they can go with us as they see the kind of world and the vision that we’re building.

And that is our job as abolitionists, is to make that vision clear and to make it clear all the ways in which it does what so many of us are longing for. Which is to create thriving, safe, healthy, joyful, beautiful, sustainable, and accessible communities. And lives. 

Brittany: Amen. Brilliant and practical.

Thank you for joining us. Thanks for all that you do to make that world not only something we can envision, but something that I truly believe we will experience one.

Andrea Ritchie is an attorney who represents people who have experienced police violence. She is the coauthor of the upcoming book No More Police: A Case for Abolition, written with Mariame Kaba. If there is absolutely anything I hope you take away from this episode, really from this podcast and this beautiful community of voices that make up UNDISTRACTED, I hope and pray that it’s this, it is never too late to imagine more and then go build it.

The goal is always that every one of these episodes invites you to reach further into our collective aspirations and dig deeper in our work to get there. Not to cheer ourselves on for how woke we can be, but to challenge ourselves and one another lovingly. To care less about looking good and care more about doing good, unpopular as it may be.

So, I am a former reformer who’s learning how to be an abolitionist. In this community known as UNDISTRACTED, it’s not about perfection it’s all about progress. For me, too. In the moments where I thought I was being my most revolutionary self it is those who pushed me to get radical, to truly get to the root that I made me better. 

Get to the root. It is the only way forward.

Hey, that’s it for today, but never for tomorrow.


UNDISTRACTED is a production of The Meteor and Pineapple Street Studios. 

Our lead producer is Rachel Ward.

Our associate producers are Alexis Moore and Marialexa Kavenaugh.

Thanks also to Treasure Brooks and Hannis Brown.

Our executive producers at The Meteor are Cindi Leive and myself, and our executive producers at Pineapple are Jenna Weiss-Berman and Max Linsky. 

You can follow me at @MsPackyetti on all social media and our team @TheMeteor.

Subscribe to UNDISTRACTED and rate and review us on Apple podcasts or most places you check out your favorite podcasts.

Thanks for listening. Thanks for being. And thanks for doing.

I’m Brittany Packnett Cunningham. Let’s go get free.


UNDISTRACTED: August 11, 2022

“People’s Kids Are the Center of Their World” – Caitlin Dickerson on the Horrors of Family Separation

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Hey, y’all it’s Brittany. There is so much I never fully anticipated about parenthood, feeling perpetually unrested. That time, baby IM decided to do a full number two while I was giving him a bath this past Sunday, that was fun. The way his smile alone would make me feel 10 feet tall on even the cloudiest day.

One of the things I never fully expected was how much I’d miss my son all the time. Even when he sleep like he’s in the next room, Brit relax. But I knew in advance that some of the issues I cared most about would take on new meaning for me. I started my career in education and spent 13 years in the field daily asking myself that old maasai tribe greeting in the form of a question How are the children?

I even printed out that phrase to ensure that it sat on every desk I had, but there was nothing that could compare to having my own child and measuring everything against how it would impact him and how I’d respond as his mother. Family separation is something I pray to never have to endure. Of course it is a very real part of our American history. Enslaved children being sold off from their families, indigenous children being kidnapped to attend so-called Indian boarding schools, and modern day mass incarceration—all systems reliant on separating parents and caregivers from the children who need them most.

 And, not but, all of these abide in a deep wretched cruelty that was perhaps most fervently on display during the Trump administration. Trump’s family separation policy in many ways was the culmination of US practices and conservative rhetoric over hundreds of years and dozens of administrations. 

It was so vile. So convoluted. So evil that we are only now making sense of just how deep it went. And there are families who still have not been reunited. Every bit of that reality, which you’ll hear about in today’s episode, is my worst nightmare come true. So until we ask, how are the children and the answer for every last one of them is, well, we’ve got more work to do.


On the show today, I’ll be talking to Caitlin Dickerson of The Atlantic about her latest reporting on the Trump Administration’s so-called zero tolerance immigration policy. 

Caitlin Dickerson: Families walked off of the bus and really at the same time, you know, agents would approach the parents and start to take the children away saying almost nothing.

If anything, they said, you know, we’re under orders from President Trump. We have to take your kids away.

That’s coming up. But first it’s the news.

Let’s start with a hearty congratulations to the goat, the greatest of all times, Serena Williams. She is planning to step off the court, put down her racket, and move on to new. What I’m sure will be incredible things. Writing in Vogue, she says she doesn’t like the word retirement and she’s not great at saying goodbyes.

Instead, she wants to work on an evolution. She’ll be spending more time working with her venture capital firm and hopefully fulfilling her daughter’s wish for a baby sister. Serena, what can I say? You are an icon to me and so many other people, especially little Black girls who were trying to get in where everybody said we couldn’t fit in.

Thank you for your commitment to excellence, to kindness, and most importantly, to showing them what we can do.

On Sunday, the Senate adjourned for recess without voting on the Respect for Marriage Act. If pass the bill would codify same sex marriage into law, so the Supreme court can’t take that right away like it did with abortion earlier this year, you know, just whenever the mood strikes them, the legislation has passed in the house and President Biden is reportedly eager to sign it.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin: People need certainty that this is a time of great fear and anxiety about whether same-sex couples, marriage license will be valid. 

Brittany: Five Republicans have agreed to vote ‘yes’ on this bill, which means we need five more to get over that dag-blasted filibuster hurdle, but that likely won’t happen until September now.

Meanwhile, there has been a giant leap backwards for LGBTQ rights. So let’s break it down. As you know, state attorneys general are the officials who are tasked with advocating for the public’s interest and a whopping 22 of them are suing the Biden Administration to allow them to cut funding for districts who, get this, provide free school lunch to LGBTQ kids.

Why? Because of new policies that cut funding to any schools that discriminate against LGBTQ kids. I just wanna make sure you heard me they are suing so that they can discriminate against kids. I guess queer kids are just supposed to go hugry. Children, young people who aren’t allowed to vote, but still have to take the shit end of the laws. 

The lawsuit is led by the attorneys general of Indiana and Tennessee. And by the by, that Indiana guy is the same person who’s threatening the doctor who helped that 10-year-old rape victim from Ohio. So, you know, he sounds awesome. 

But here’s an important thing to always remember. Attorneys general are elected officials and nine of those attorneys general behind the lawsuit are up for reelection this year. So listen closely if you live in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, or Texas, or you just know somebody who knows somebody who does, this is your chance to make your voice heard.

Those states are also electing governors this year, so y’all know what to do, vote they asses out. And while you’re at it, call the Senate and tell them to pass the Respect for Marriage Act. Our LGBTQ siblings have fought too hard and too long to see their rights rolled back with the stroke of Clarence Thomas’ hateful ass pen.

Now, last week on the show, we celebrated the release of Beyoncé’s “Renaissance”. We laughed, we cried, literally, we ended the discussion on a simple note: Black women are underappreciated for all we do, and we deserve our flowers. 

Danyel Smith: I am truly, truly about Black women in music receiving the credit that they’re due, but I’m really about Black women just receiving the credit that we are due. We are denied it. 

Brittany: Well, today we applaud Queen B for doing the things she does best, making history, and breaking records. So how does she do it this time? Cuz you know my girl is always up to something. She landed “Renaissance” a number one spot on Billboard’s charts. Now topping the charts is not news for Beyoncé because she’s done it with her albums six times before, but with “Renaissance”, she’s now the first woman artist in history to have all seven of her solo albums debut at the number one spot on Billboard’s 200. 

The individual songs on “Renaissance” have also flourished since its release on July 29th. All 16 songs from the album have made it on Billboard’s hot 100 list so far.

All of this said, we know that Beyoncé’s cultural impact cannot be quantified. Her history making is unmeasurable. Record breaking always looks good on her anyway.

Coming up, I’ll be talking to Caitlin Dickerson, a staff writer at The Atlantic, about the Trump Administration’s disastrous family separation policy right after this short term break.

And we are back. So the Trump Administration called their border strategy, zero tolerance, but that doesn’t even begin to describe what it really was. It was a campaign to capture and lock up people crossing the United States at the Mexico border. It was an attempt to move everyone into the criminal system.

Even people who were legally seeking asylum. It overwhelmed the court system, the detention system, border enforcement institutions that were problematic to begin with. And it intentionally separated children from their parents without any plan for how those children would be cared for and then returned to their families.

Five years later, up to a thousand of those children still haven’t been reunited with their loved ones. Caitlin Dickerson, a staff writer at The Atlantic, has written the definitive reported account out this week of how zero tolerance came to wrench thousands of children away from their parents in what, I feel is, a deeply inhumane attempt to slow down immigration to the U.S.

I sat down with her to talk about how something so horrific could happen. There are a lot of things that have shattered my spirit, especially since becoming a new mom, Buffalo and Uvalde in particular,  and then I read your story and found myself so distraught at what this country is capable of doing, I mean, this is incredibly reported. It is thoughtfully written and it is so terribly devastating. 

Caitlin: It’s a really, really painful story to sit with and to be honest with you, I sort of feel like I haven’t stopped thinking about family separation since 2017, since it started, I felt like I had to do everything that I could to get to the bottom of it.

You know, this is why I became a journalist, to hold our government accountable, you know, regardless of who’s in office and to make sure that we all have the facts we need to fully engage in our democracy. And this was a story that stood out for a lot of reasons, but one of them was just we weren’t getting good information.

You know, I wasn’t used to being told things that were completely untrue by government officials. Normally you get a ‘no comment’, you know, change the subject. You don’t get an outright falsehood. So, just really felt like I had to stick with it and learn as much as I could. 

Brittany: I’m so grateful that you did.

I know many, many people are in the general public, families who are afflicted by this. I mean, this is the work of journalism, right? It is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable and really you’ve published what a lot of folks are calling the definitive story on family separation, The Atlantic dedicated over 40-print pages to this critical story. That’s how important it is.

And you spent a year and a half on it. So for people who haven’t read it yet, or who like me have read a piece of it and then had to put it down and will revisit it when they’ve got the emotional strength. Can you tell us just briefly what you found?

Caitlin: Sure, and I should just start by saying,  I’m really grateful for the positive feedback and grateful that people are reading my story, but I think that, you know, the definitive stories of family separations are those of the families who are impacted by this.  

Brittany: That’s right.

Caitlin: And they’re going to continue telling their stories.

You know, kids who experience this are getting older and they’re feeling ready in some cases to tell their stories. There are a couple of academics who are working really hard to collect their oral histories and let them tell their own story. But in the meantime, you know, we do what we can as reporters to fill in the gaps, you know, where to begin, right.

I mean, it was really easy at the height of zero tolerance and family separations to just quickly jump to this idea that, you know, this was some idea that Stephen Miller came up with, you know, with the support of Donald Trump and, you know, the administration was chaos and that was it. But I knew that wasn’t true.

I mean, I’d covered DHS for years. I know that the federal government is huge and slow moving and requires a lot of people and a lot of support to do something like this. I mean, there were thousands of families physically removed, you know, physically separated from each other sent then onto other federal agencies who had to take them in. How does this happen?

And I learned a lot about the bureaucracy, you know, it’s something that doesn’t have the best reputation. Our federal bureaucracy, people think of it as boring and slow moving. And you know, all those things may be true, but includes these very specific systems that are in place to make sure, you know, knowledgeable people get a chance to weigh in on policies, you know, just because a political appointee wants to put something into place doesn’t mean it’s feasible. Doesn’t mean it’s ethical. Doesn’t mean it’s legal. 

And in this case, all of those systems were disempowered, were sidelined, or were just completely ignore. 

Brittany: So I think one of the really important facets of what you have done is put a human face on this conversation about family separation.

Tell us a little bit about a family that really made an impression on you. Why were they traveling to the United States and, and what happened when they got here? 

Caitlin: Well, I can tell you about Nosario Jacinto Cario, he’s one of the first separated parents. I remember interviewing back in 2018 and he’s from Guatemala.

He’s very poor. He comes from a family of corn farmers. He has no education and he wasn’t making almost any money. You know, his family was very hungry. Danger was also part of their day to day life. Cartel violence is prominent in the area where they live. But if you asked him, you know, the primary reason why he decided to bring his, at the time, five-year-old daughter, Filomina with him to the United States, it’s because they just didn’t have enough food to eat.

And so, you know, they traveled to the border with money that was loaned to them, having no idea that zero tolerance had just been implemented right before they arrived. And they were separated. He’s one of over a thousand parents who was deported without his daughter. And he had this experience, which was quite common where he was told if he agreed to his own deportation, you know, signing a document that he couldn’t read, even if it had been written in Spanish, he wouldn’t have been able to read it, but it was in English in his case. 

He was told he’d get his daughter back in two weeks. And so when we first got on the phone together, several weeks had passed. She still wasn’t home. Nosario was very confused, you know, about who I was, about lawyers who were trying to help him were, you know, who worked for the government, who didn’t.

I remember him telling me, you know, I said like, where are you getting your news? Where are you getting updates? And he’s like, I don’t even have a radio, you know, all I’m getting are phone calls that come in very irregularly when I have enough money to pay for a call on my cell phone. 

You know, it’s at the height of zero tolerance, everybody in the country is paying attention. Us reporters are just trying to do our best to fill people in most importantly, the parents themselves. And what I remembered about our interview was that I kept trying to ask him about Filomina. Tell me about her. What is she like? What does she like to play with?

You know, what’s her favorite color? And he just could not answer any of my questions, you know, he’d hear me out and he would start to, and then he would interrupt and say, but do you, when do you think she’s gonna get back? And how many days do you think it might be before she gets home? And he said, you know, why has the U.S. government kidnapped these children? What does it want with them? What is it doing with these children? 

That interview really struck me then. And it’s still with me, which is why he’s in my story today. I mean, he was completely speechless when I called him when I got started on this most recent piece and let him know there were still families that hadn’t been reunified.

And, you know, I tell this story in the piece of asking him more recently, you know, does Filomina still look back on her experience in the United States and he just put her on the phone. I didn’t wanna dive right in, you know, she’s, she’s so young, she’s nine years-old now. And so I didn’t even, you know, spit out a question in time for her to just kind of start to try to respond.

You know, she knew what I’d asked her dad and trying to eek out a couple of words and then Nosario gets up back on the phone and he just says, I’m so sorry, she’s crying. Like just hearing her father talk with me about this experience had her in tears. 

Brittany: I keep finding myself picturing the children and the parents that you write about. So Filomina is kept in the U.S. while her father is sent home. And this is reminiscent of so many of these stories now that are happening. It’s also reminiscent of stories of the Holocaust, right? And U.S. enslavement. You talk about children literally being ripped out of their parents arms. I really just wanna make sure people get this. 

Can you put us back in one of those moments when a separation is actually happening in a detention center? Cuz I don’t want people to miss this. 

Caitlin: Sure, so it was actually really hard to figure out what the separations themselves looked like. Parents would describe them, but you couldn’t get a government official to go on the record.

And I tried, you know, to get dozens of border patrol agents to talk to me for this story. And, you know, they would cancel at the last minute, they would change their minds. Finally, I spoke to this woman, Naris Gonzalez. She was a Salvadoran consular worker who was based in a CBP processing center in south Texas during zero tolerance.

And she watched literally hundreds of separations take place and she was brave enough to come forward and tell her story for this piece. She said it was like a war. She said it was complete chaos. What happened was parents and children would be apprehended at the border. And once a critical mass of them were collected by border patrol agents, they would bring these families in buses to the facility where Naris worked.

The families would walk off of the bus and really at the same time, you know, agents would approach the parents and start to take the children away saying almost nothing. If anything, they said, you know, we’re under orders from President Trump. We have to take your kids away. And very quickly, of course, these scenes began to escalate and, you know, there was screaming, there was crying to the point that several times border patrol agents asked Naris who’s, you know, a native Spanish speaker, she’s Salvadorian, for help. They asked her to intervene because they could tell that parents were gonna get violent and were gonna fight back to keep their children with them. And Naris, she saw kids getting hurt.

I mean, because there’s literally when an agent is pulling one arm and the parent is pulling the other arm and once parents had left, she said, you know, these just absolutely cuddling, screams, still haunt her today. She spent a lot of her days inside the cells where kids were held together. And, you know, just knowing that she was, from, you know, the part of the world where they came from, that she wasn’t a U.S. government official, kids really physically clung to her and would cry and scream even harder when she had to leave at the end of the day.

So she still really struggles with what she saw and, you know, as a reporter, I’m just grateful that she came forward. Her story aligns with what we’ve been hearing from parents for years, but it’s helpful and meaningful to have it, you know, from a government official as well. 

Brittany: And so this story is being repeated.

Hundreds thousands of times along the border. How many children were separated from their parents that we know of?

Caitlin: More than 5,000 children were separated from their parents under the Trump Administration. And you know, there’s a debate statistically between the ACLU and government over exactly how many remained separated today.

But it’s likely between 700 to a thousand. 

Brittany: My God.

Caitlin: There are at this point 168 children whose parents have not been found at all. We don’t know where they are. Those who have been located, for the most part, have an opportunity to apply to re-enter the United States if they were deported and gain three years of legal status, it’s a difficult process.

But there are resources out there to help these parents, but it’s kind of important to understand that, you know, so much time has passed, those families that remain separated are in very complicated situations. You know, you have, for example, I’ve heard about, you know, a parent who’s, their sibling was killed in their home country.

And so now they’ve become the caretaker for a niece or a nephew and, you know, that child isn’t eligible to enter the United States. And so you have a parent who doesn’t know, should I go to the United States to get my child back? What do I do about my niece or nephew who I’m the caretaker for now, or, you know, parents who’ve had another child while they were deported, you know, is that child eligible?

So it obviously goes much deeper, right? The harm from separating families. But at a very basic level, when you have parents and kids who’ve been separated for years, It’s very complicated to try to come back together, you know, under these specific and narrow avenues that have been made available.

Brittany: So you’ve got the policy of family separation itself, which is clearly cruel and evil. And then the actual implementation of it lacked infrastructure planning. The way it played out on the ground was a disaster. Reading your piece, I’m gonna say a thing I know you can’t say cuz I, I will say it. I was especially angered by like the amount and the vast network of ancient people it took to make this happen. 

But one of the shocking things I realized reading your piece was that so much of how poorly it played out on the ground was completely anticipated. And that contradicts what we were so often told, right? That this was just a policy that would unexpectedly awry.

And no one knew that it was going to go this poorly, but you found people within the Trump Administration predicted literally all of the additionally terrible things that wound up happening to families. And yet the administration continued to move forward with the policy anyway. What were some of those outcomes that were predicted, but never mitigated?

Caitlin: You’re right. So when I started out reporting this story, I kept hearing over and over again, as you said. You know, we had no idea that parents or children would get lost. We had no idea that four years later, some families would still be separated. And that wasn’t true and and documents very clearly show otherwise. But sort of at the top, I just wanna point out that these outcomes also weren’t rocket science. 

They were documented very clearly and explicitly in government reports, but you can call up any prosecutor in the country and say, Hey, I’m thinking about imposing a program that’s going to jail thousands of parents who are traveling with very young children outside of their own communities where they’re not gonna have family members who can take those kids in, you know, what do you think? Can courtrooms across the country handle that if we start say tomorrow? 

No, there’s, there’s absolutely no reason to believe that such a program would be implemented smoothly. And that’s fairly obvious to anyone who’s familiar at a baseline with how this system works. But beyond that, I found reports from within DHS. as well as within DOJ once parts of DOJ, like the U.S. Marshals discovered this was coming as well as within HHS, which cared for the kids. You know, very explicitly documenting what could go wrong. 

One report that stood out in particular came from the civil rights division of DHS. It literally warns of quote future populations of U.S. orphans. It warns of infants being separated.

It warns of children or parents being deported, you know, without their relatives. All of which took place and these reports really weren’t taken seriously. And then you have, you know, as I said, HHS took care of the kids, that agency wasn’t warned in advance that zero tolerance was coming, even though members of their bureaucracy, you know, Jonathan White, one of the more prominent among them had made clear, separated children tend to be very young.

You know, they’re gonna be very traumatized. Again, all these things are sort of common sense, but it says something that you had government officials pointing them out in advance and still their warnings were not addressed. 

Brittany: I mean, let’s talk about some of these government officials, right? Because you talk about this division between so-called immigration hawks and the Trump Administration and then these careerists, and those two groups in some ways had conflicting approaches.

Terrifyingly, you write that there were a lot of people who didn’t necessarily approve of the policy, but just figured somebody else, somewhere in another department in another bureau in another agency would fix it. That’s really haunting because it kinda shows how horrific things end up happening, partially because people just stand oddly by.  What do you learn about that phenomenon?

Caitlin: I think I learned that there was a really significant amount of naivete among people, you know, moderate Republicans, who a lot of them didn’t vote for Trump and took these positions in the administration with ideas that, you know, we were very idealistic and didn’t find ways to speak up or to push back, when now they say they wish they had. 

So when you take a job in an administration like the Trump Administration, you know, walking in the door, you know, you’re going to have a Stephen Miller pushing for really harsh enforcement policies. Some of which may not, you know, be ethical, some of which may not be feasible.

Some of which may not even be legal. I mean, a lot of the administration’s policies ended up in court. And so knowing that’s gonna be the case, the bureaucracy, if you will, it becomes even more important to point out these failures or these, you know, potential pitfalls of such policies. But instead what people said to me, you know, sort of unaware, I think of how it sounded is that, you know, well, I couldn’t speak up in this meeting.

It was a speak-when-spoken-to environment, you know, wouldn’t have been strategic to push back against Stephen Miller. He was so close to the president. So what I had to do was after I left a meeting, go into my office and vent to, you know, my friend who worked in the Bush Administration with me. And I would sort of say to them, like, do you think that was effective in pushing back against these policies?

I mean, many people pointed out to me that, you know, they would hear Stephen Miller and another, you know, very influential hawkish member of the administration who people don’t know as much, but Gene Hamilton really pushed this policy forward very aggressively. They made it clear when they would propose ideas that they didn’t know a lot about immigration enforcement.

They didn’t understand, you know, the basics. And so again, the bureaucracy becomes that much more important to say, hey, this actually isn’t gonna work and people just stayed quiet. 

Brittany: The irony is not lost on me that when some of these folks were talking to you, they were caring for greeting or even saying goodbye for the day in the background to their own children.

Why was the family’s separation strategy such a departure from previous enforcement efforts at the border? I think because we know that this is extreme we don’t necessarily understand what the shift was. 

Caitlin: So, family separations were the culmination of this strategy of prevention by deterrence that comes out of the 911 era.

And that uses mainly prosecution, criminal prosecution as a way to discourage illegal border crossing. And so that started, you know, in the post 911 era with migrant workers who are coming to the United States, often single men to do some work and either send money home or go back home and use it to support their families.

And we started putting them in jail a couple days at a time, you get a misdemeanor conviction. The idea is just to kind of over time, lower the number of people who decide to cross the border illegally. And there are all kinds of issues that come up right away with this approach that I try to detail in the piece.

And even though, you know, if its efficacy, as well as its ethics are being questioned, it becomes more and more popular until a government official Tom Homan actually working under President Obama has the idea of imposing this same consequence against families, which will trigger an automatic family separation.

I mean, it comes out of this real panic within the national immigration enforcement infrastructure over increasing border crossings and Congress doing nothing about it, you know, who are effectively our immigration cops, right? To determine policy and what tool do they have to use? They have prosecution, they have punishment.

And so that’s what they use even though the group we’re talking about now is predominantly asylum seekers. And, you know, I think to answer your question, it felt like such a departure because children, you know, very, very young children among them were directly impacted by this. You know, of course we have family detention in the United States.

We have programs that, you know, I’ve spent a lot of time in asylum camps in northern Mexico where people live with their children outside in filth. I mean, as trying to get into the United States, these are not good conditions, but to actually take children away is just on a whole nother level. And it was really, came up all the time in my reporting.

You know, we started our conversation today with you talking about becoming a new mother. I mean, people’s kids come up all the time because people’s kids are the center of their world. And so to take children away was just beyond anything that we’ve ever. I shouldn’t say that we’ve ever done, but beyond anything in modern immigration enforcement that’s been done.

Brittany: I mean, you talk about Tom Homan, who you dubbed the intellectual father of this idea of separating migrant families as a deterrent. And it was so interesting to me to read your conversation with him because he talks about the moment he dedicated himself to, I guess what he believed was his purposeful work.

He talks about seeing a father and his five-year-old son who died of heat exhaustion coming over the border in the back of a trailer tractor. And he sees the five year-old dead and blames the father for his death. I’m curious, did Tom or anyone that you spoke to who perpetuated this policy, did any of them stop to consider what desperate circumstances might exist for a father in the dead of night to take that kind of risk with their son? Did that never actually occur to anybody? 

Caitlin: I think that Tom Homan is a really good example of what happens when you allow somebody who from his early twenties has been an enforcement officer along the border to try to come up with a solution that requires humanitarian policy, that requires economic policy, that requires international relations. 

I mean, this is not an easy challenge to try to confront and what we’ve done as a country by not addressing it at the legislative level is left it to people like Tom Homan who became a border patrol officer in his early twenties to figure this problem out.

And so, as I said before, I mean that’s the solution that he comes up with is that we’ve gotta punish them. But because that’s what he has available to him. I do think that Tom Homan has at times acknowledged and considered the circumstances that cause people to leave their home countries. I think there’s also a lot of demonization and a lot of building up of the conversation around, you know, the smuggling organizations that transport people to the United States, that places a lot of the blame for what happens to families on them.

And horrific tragedies like the one that he saw, they play out every day and, and it is smugglers who are at fault, of course, for leaving people in the back of a tractor trailer. But there’s so much focus on the smuggling organizations that it seems to take away when you talk to people like Tom Homan and others in the enforcement apparatus from, you know, their acknowledgement of the circumstances that you’re describing. 

It’s really hard for them to hold that balance, it feels like, in their minds. And Tom Homan is also somebody who appears on Fox News very frequently. I mean, he’s somebody who has views that are based on a career in law enforcement, but also, you know, very clearly a talking head and also clearly somebody who’s become very political over the years.

And so there’s a lot going on in that conversation. He tells that story because he knows it’s powerful. 

Brittany: So we’re talking a lot about the people, because there was folks who made choices to speak up, to not speak up, to pursue things, to ignore things that led us to this spot. And you reveal that people in the Trump Administration deliberately misled Congress, misled the press.

They certainly misled the public. Is there a way now do you believe to hold these folks accountable at all? 

Caitlin: So when I put that question to our current DHS secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, he said it was up to DOJ to hold the government officials responsible for zero tolerance accountable, but DOJ under Biden has been defending zero tolerance and the separation of families in court cases brought by families who are suing over what they experienced. 

You know, I’ve done some digging into that and the basic premise behind it seems to be that, you know, a lawyer has an ethical responsibility to represent their client as vigorously and thoroughly as possible.

And so these DOJ attorneys are representing the government. And so what are they doing? They’re defending the government. And I just explain that because I know a lot of people are really confused by the position that DOJ has taken here, but it really does leave almost nobody to take up a cause of holding officials accountable.

Brittany: So you’ve been tracking family separation as we talk about for a long time now. I’m curious how separation affects kids and families over the long term. What are you seeing in the families that you’ve been following consistently? Cuz this is not trauma that goes away, despite what some of these administration officials may think. 

Caitlin: These families are really struggling. And that includes parents and children who are only separated, you know, I say only, um, because by comparison, it’s a short period of time, you know, for a month or two.

And I’ve also spent time with parents and children who spent years apart, both parents and children I’ve heard say, you know, this isn’t the child I remember, or this isn’t the mother that I remember. A lot of kids are struggling with this idea that they feel like they were abandoned. They feel like their parents gave them up, or somehow intentionally brought this on.

And it’s something that psychologists were not surprised to see. It’s very disruptive to a child’s ability to develop healthy attachments at that young age to go through something like that and to see their parent in a moment of such powerlessness where they’re physically trying to pull them away and basically lose that fight.

So kids have regressed behaviorally and intellectually in a lot of ways. And in a lot of cases, you’ll see things like bedwetting, you know, just really paranoia and insularity, not wanting to leave the house. A lot of kids lost their speech during zero tolerance and are still coming back cognitively from that.

And parents are severely depressed, too. And you know what I hear often from the mental health professionals who are treating them is that the parents are so focused on their kids, that they’re actually not dealing with their own trauma, even though many of them are experiencing night terrors that same, you know, paranoia and insularity and just fear.  Some of it fear that’s founded and based on real risk, but there’s just this baseline sense that everything could fall apart, that you know, their child could be taken away again at any moment. And it hangs over them all the time. So, you know, it’s been very, very severe in terms of its impacts. 

Brittany: This is going to require correction over a long period of time. Are there particular lessons you really hope the Biden Administration learns from your reporting?

Caitlin: I hope what readers, including those in the Biden Administration take away from the reporting is that our immigration system is not working and going back to the same old tools is clearly not overall impacting border crossings. Number one, which is, which is the goal, you know, of any administration that doesn’t wanna look as if it’s, you know, got a chaotic situation at the border.

There’s always a great deal of fear about that, regardless of whether you’re talking about a Republican or a Democrat in the White House. But also I think there’s a lesson, you know, Frankly for all of us in watching the ways in which people who actually were very empowered didn’t speak up, you know, I heard cabinet secretaries would say to me, well, there was nothing that I could do.

You know, I was under so much pressure. That’s the job of the cabinet secretary, you know, that’s a job that comes with a lot of pressure.  And so our own agency that exists regardless of what our role is, but in particular, if you’re in these very high roles that have very real power you can use it

You know, you don’t have to cow to what somebody is screaming at you and telling you to do.

Brittany: Absolutely. Caitlin, thank you so, so much for your tireless commitment to telling this story and to making sure that families are truly heard from, like you said, I hope that we continue to hear more from them and that we don’t turn away when it becomes difficult.

Thank you for having this conversation with us. We really appreciate it. 

Caitlin: Thank you so much for having me.

Brittany: Caitlin Dickerson covers immigration at The Atlantic where she’s a staff writer, she’s previously reported for The New York Times and NPR. Moments like these make me ask myself, did America ever want the world’s tired, poor, their huddled masses yearning to breathe free? Because judging by our government’s behavior, the answer is a resounding indignant, intentionally cruel ‘no’. America won’t just reject you and your hopes, it will make sure the rejection is as painful as humanly possible.

In my faith and many others, there is certainly justice coming for those folks with these kinds of evil proclivities. Karma is a bitch ain’t scripture, but it might as well be. And politically we are going to have to collectively decide to be those bitches named karma because we should each be burning inside that this has happened in our name, whether at the border, a prison cell or a foreign military base.

These people can never, and I absolutely do mean never, be allowed to be at the helm of decision making again. The Biden Administration must continue to decry this policy and use its power to hold all those involved accountable to the bitter end. DAs and states attorneys general that have the power to prosecute Trump Administration officials better be sure they make it stick.

FBI, I never been a fan of y’alls, but if you gonna do one thing right, make sure it’s this. And we, the voters, who hold the most important political office, the office of citizen, we have to make sure that those folks never see the inside of a government building again. Because don’t be confused, Trump was the symptom.

There’s a deeper virus and people like Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott, they are excited to come and fill his slide. So we can’t leave any power on the table, especially not now.

That’s it for today, but never for tomorrow. Especially not in midterm season.  UNDISTRACTED is a production of The Meteor and Pineapple Street Studios. 


Our lead producer is Rachel Ward.

And our associate producers are Alexis Moore and Marialexa Kavenaugh.

Thanks always to Treasure Brooks and Hannis Brown.

Our executive producers at The Meteor are Cindi Leive and myself, and our executive producers at Pineapple are Jenna Weiss-Berman and Max Linsky. 

You can follow me at @MsPackyetti on all social media and our team @TheMeteor.

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Thanks for listening. Thanks for being. And thanks for doing.

I’m Brittany Packnett Cunningham. Let’s go get free.