Our Body Politic

How History Books and Monuments Shape our National Narrative, Preparing for the Next Pandemic, and Practical Advice on Staying Safe During Police Encounters

Episode Notes

This week Farai Chideya looks at what makes it into our history books—and why—with New York Times investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the 1619 Project. Then she talks with poet and philanthropist Elizabeth Alexander about how monuments and public spaces also shape our historical narrative. Dr. Mary Bassett of Harvard University shares what she thinks it will take to truly address healthcare inequities laid bare by Covid-19, and how that would prepare us for the next epidemic. And the weekly roundtable Sippin’ the Political Tea welcomes special guests Kyhisha Zebley, a police sergeant in Philadelphia, and Gabriela Mejia, an anti-harassment advocate at the organization Hollaback!, to talk about how to be a safe and effective bystander during encounters with police.

1:05 Nikole Hannah-Jones on why teaching the 1619 Project is a free speech issue

12:41 Poet Elizabeth Alexander on the role of public spaces in teaching history

20:59 Dr. Mary Bassett talks about lessons learned from Zimbabwe’s healthcare system

29:15 Sippin’ the Political Tea: how to be a safe witness to police brutality with a law enforcement officer and an anti-harassment advocate

Episode Transcription

Farai Chideya: Thanks for listening to and sharing Our Body Politic. As you know, we're only a few months into this show and we're shaping it with lots of input from listeners like you so I want to ask you a small favor. After you listen today, please head over to Apple Podcast on your phone, tablet, laptop, or anywhere you listen and leave us a review. We read those because your ideas matter to us. Thanks so much. 

This is Our Body Politic. I'm the creator and host Farai Chideya. This week, I bring you conversations about how we in the US understand our country's history and how we craft our national narrative. And I talked to two experts about how to be safe when engaging with police on our weekly round table, Sippin' the Political Tea.

First, what it means to talk about our country's history of slavery. Nikole Hannah-Jones is a Pulitzer prize winning investigative journalist at the New York Times. She's most well-known for creating the 1619 Project, a collection of essays and research about the legacy of slavery in the US. She's also co-founder of the Ida B Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, which mentors and trains investigative reporters, and editors of color. It's named after Hannah Jones's hero, Ida B Wells, the pioneering black investigative journalist, who turned a spotlight on lynchings at the turn of the 20th century. Nikole Hannah-Jones, welcome to Our Body Politic.

Nikole Hannah-Jones:

Hi, how are you?

Chideya: Great. I'm really glad to have you with us. And of course your work has been so influential in recent years and controversial depending on who you are. And for those who haven't listened to the 1619 podcast, or read the 1619 Project on the New York Times, just give us the cliff notes.

Hannah-Jones: Well, the 1619 Project was a major multimedia project published by the New York Times in August of 2019 that marked the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans sold into the colony of Virginia. And used that anniversary to really make the argument through a series of essays, that slavery was a foundational institution to the development of the United States, and that so much of modern American society, its institutions, its culture, its politics, even our geography can be traced back to slavery and its legacy.

Chideya: What is it that you can pick out from sort of the public debate that you want to make sure that people are clear on?

Hannah-Jones: Well, I mean, one, I think most of the people who have criticized the project have clearly not read the project. It is in a work of journalism that uses history to talk about modern America. It is a series of essays making an argument and people can decide for themselves whether they believe that we have marshaled the facts effectively to make that argument. And yeah, that's what I would ask people to do is actually read the project or listen to the project for themselves.

Chideya: And you've also been talking on Twitter and otherwise about bills restricting the teaching of literature about race and history, bills that clearly some of them have the 1619 Project squarely in mind. And one thing I believe you said was that local media has been sometimes covering these bills, these restrictive bills, better than the national media. If so, why do you think that is?

Hannah-Jones: It's not that the bills have the 1619 Project in mind, the bills are explicitly targeting the 1619 Project, written in the text of the bills that are being introduced everywhere from Rhode Island, to Missouri, to Mississippi, to Iowa. So I have been tweeting a lot about how this is fundamentally a free speech issue. This is an issue of state lawmakers trying to prohibit the teaching of ideas that they don't like. And specifically the teaching of a work of American journalism. Local media have certainly been covering this as free speech issues. They've talked about how they believe that these laws are unconstitutional, how they really subvert the will of local school boards, of local school district, of educators, versus the national media, when they cover this at all, or really covering it as politics as usual. This is higher than simply Republican lawmakers don't agree with teaching about racism or that this is... I've seen it constantly framed as part of the culture wars. This is much bigger than that.

Chideya: And this ties in with another one of your areas of expertise, segregation in the school system. How does what we get taught tie in with the long history of segregation, including very much so in the city of New York?

Hannah-Jones: Part of this is a segregation issue. It's about what type of schools should be teaching what, how we define America, how we think about ourselves as a country, how we think about our history, what histories are important. I've been thinking a lot as we're working on the 1619 Project books about this idea of even our national memory is segregated. The way that we think about our country, the parts of our history that black people think about, and how they think about them versus many white Americans is segregated. And certainly the way we teach this. So at my high school and at many schools across this country, learning about black people is an elective. And so all of this is what we are seeing manifest in these arguments around the 1619 project right now.

Chideya: Where I grew up in Baltimore in an almost all black neighborhood in a majority black city, the textbooks were horrifically bad so much of the time. In your fantasy, which you're working towards making a reality, what would educational materials look like? What would history look like for people like your own daughter?

Hannah-Jones: Yes. So I think that one, I think we have to understand what is the role of social studies and history in our K-12 educational experience. It is not to actually teach the true history of what happened in this country, all of the facts, what they actually meant, the reality. It is meant to create a shared sense of identity around America as an exceptional nation. And this is not unique to the United States, but the history that you learn in school, whether it be public or private schools, are a nationalistic endeavor. So we should be clear about that. So when I think about, if I were to be designing social studies curriculum, it would be one that tries to be more truthful about a multi-racial nation, and doesn't just use as is typical now, people of color as props in a narrative. Because there's certain things you have to talk about black people because of the Civil War. You have to talk about native people to explain Manifest Destiny. It's never going to be perfect, but we could certainly do a much better job. To borrow kind of from Eric Foner, the history we've been taught does not explain the country in which we live. We've been taught the history of a country that does not exist. And so therefore we're really unprepared to understand what we see around us.

Chideya: And I also want to talk about another project that you're working on with Wajahat Ali, and I'm not going to describe it. Tell us just a little bit about what you're thinking of there because I know it's kind of in the planning stages.

Hannah-Jones: Yeah, so after the election, but particularly after the insurrection on the Capitol on January 6th, many of us who, as people of color, journalists of color, had long been really appalled and upset by the inability of some of our colleagues to really understand the phenomenon of Trump, the white nationalism that was undergirding so much of the politics. And then leading up to the election seemed to just have this abiding faith not based in history or reporting, that our democracy is strong and old and would hold. After the insurrection, some of us just started commenting on Twitter about how this is highly problematic for our profession to have the people who we charge with translating our politics and our democracy to our country and our fellow citizens and the world, seem totally unprepared to deal with the reality of who we were as a country. And we just had conversations and decided that we were going to try to put together kind of a blue ribbon commission to hope that we could help our colleagues understand how to do better. But really much more importantly than that, understanding that if the press is not doing its part, our democracy cannot survive and that's not being hyperbolic at all.

Chideya: It really strikes me, just pivoting to the broader picture, that your life has really had some incredible harmonics because you started the Ida B Wells Society to help train other black reporters and reporters more broadly. And when you got a Pulitzer, so did Ida B Wells posthumously. How did that feel?

Hannah-Jones: That was so... Everything about that was surreal. I mean, clearly it's surreal to get the call that you won a Pulitzer, because whether you admit it or not, every journalist hopes that you will one day produce something worthy of a Pulitzer. And so that in and of itself was just surreal and then to win a Pulitzer for something this black, something that was about slavery and black people was just astounding. But when Dana announced that Ida B Wells was also getting the Pulitzer and I was watching the Pulitzer announcement, I just started crying. I could not believe it. And I was crying for two reasons. One, it was... Everyone who knows me, knows my Twitter handle was Ida Bae Wells, that since I read her autobiography in college, I have considered her kind of my spiritual godmother. But also you just realize she would never have gotten during her lifetime. She didn't get it. But so many brilliant black writers and reporters never received this highest honor, not because they weren't worthy, but because of the country that we lived in. And so it was this... I was both ecstatic and really sad, because you just realize it's also just part of this pattern of black people's brilliance not being recognized until they're long gone. So it was this cosmic... It felt like cosmic justice, but also justice delayed.

Chideya: Nikole Hannah-Jones, thank you so very much for spending some time with us.

Hannah-Jones: Thank you. I really enjoyed it.

Chideya: That was Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times and the Ida B Wells Society for Investigative Reporting. The 1619 Project continues to expand. Keep an eye out for the upcoming documentary and feature films and The 1619 Project books for adults and children out this fall. 

A nation's history can be read in its books and documents, but my next guest is going to talk about how it shows up in our culture and public spaces. Elizabeth Alexander is a writer and educator who's played an important role in building the field of African-American studies. You might remember her reading one of her poems at President Barack Obama's first inauguration in 2009. She's also the President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The nation's largest funder in arts, and humanities in higher education. She's currently working on a project to assess who and what we memorialize in monuments. She told us that of the hundred outdoor statues in Washington, DC, only five of them are women, and only one of a woman of color. Dr. Alexander, welcome to Our Body Politic.

Elizabeth Alexander:

Hello, Farai. I am happy to be here.

Chideya: Tell us a little bit about your trajectory; academia, of course, letters and poetry. Why did you want to lead a foundation?

Alexander: It has been a relatively organic and surprising path. Writing poetry, writing memoir, writing essays about the culture have been the way that I've moved through the world. Arts and culture let human beings know who we are and sort of exchange at the soul level. So being able to do that from a foundation perspective was incredible. It seemed to me that the opportunity to lead and also to continue saying that the cultures of people of color are central to who we are in this country. The critical thinking that has come from the intellectual traditions that I come out of, that allows us to ask questions about who's at the table, who's not at the table, the distortions and misuses of power. All of those questions that come out of African-American studies are extremely useful when you are thinking about sharing resources and also about all of the different ways that we are telling the story of who we are.

Chideya: Everything that you have just been talking about comes up in your Monuments Project. Tell us about that and why it's so important to you.

Alexander: I am so excited about the Monuments Project. Thinking about monuments by which we mean not only statues and places that are designated as memorial places, but also the way that, in public spaces, we tell stories. If you imagine walking around with a child anywhere, and the child comes upon a statue and says who's that and says why, that will help us understand at a glance why the proliferation of Confederate monuments and commemorative spaces in this country, monuments that teach nothing less than a rhetoric of white supremacy. Monuments that were very, very often erected long after the Civil War was lost by the Confederates. To continue to venerate, how many Robert E. Lees do we need? What does it mean that the National Cathedral in Washington DC, that magnificent landmark, put stained glass windows to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson in 1953 in their nave? I pause on the example of the National Cathedral because they have done an extraordinary corrective in recently taking down those stained glass windows and saying they are an impediment to worship. And all of these spaces, cathedrals, parks, public places are places where we learn. If you think about all of the statues of war heroes that have single men cast large in bronze, cast at a scale designed to intimidate. All of the public commemorations that celebrate war, all the public commemorations with individual men that suggests that, that's how history moves when we know that that's not the only way that history moves. History is collective, history is communities, and individual figures are only one way to think about who and what is important and how change gets made.

Chideya: So when you think about all of the huge problems that have been foregrounded in our era, including that of racial inequality, give me a specific example of some monument that exists that is important to understand in the context of what you're talking about. It could be a monument that you wish were changed, a monument that recently went up. But give us a concrete example of something that you keep your eye on with this work.

Alexander: Well, we've been very excited and proud to have been supporters of the Equal Justice initiative's Memorial for Peace and Justice. Bryan Stevenson started with the legal work of representing people who were unjustly accused, juveniles who were sentenced as adults, people who were on death row. And after doing that work for some time, he came to realize that the stereotypical perceptions of black and black men in particular, that if those didn't change in some way, if the history wasn't told, that there would be no way that the legal system could fully function as a tool for justice for people who needed it the most. And so that was when he thought about what would it mean to have a didactic museum that narrated a story and helped us understand the movement from slavery to Jim Crow, to the resistance to civil rights, to over-incarceration. But then to look at the memorial itself and the emotional impact of a memorial that, in the walking through, it has no figures, has no people, has these hanging heavy slabs or tombstones or plots that have names and counties where people were lynched.

Chideya: And I'm so moved by having visited the space for the anti-lynching commemorations, both the sculpture garden and the museum, as you're speaking about, with the jars of soil. It's actually very gripping.

Alexander: And I think it becomes a co-narrative that eventually both brings us closer to the truth and also co-writes, and sometimes overwrites these stories that have been over-told. What's also really exciting in the Monuments Project is that there will be many forms to this work. We are looking at something really extraordinary. The Bray School at the College of William & Mary, which was a schoolhouse that was encased in another building on the campus. A renovation took place and the original building inside was revealed. And this building is, so far as we know, the oldest schoolhouse where black children were taught in this country, freed and enslaved. When it was against the law to teach black people to read and write. That is to me another way of thinking about what a monument could look like.

Chideya: Dr. Elizabeth Alexander, so great to have you on. Thank you.

Alexander: Thank you so much, Farai. This was a real pleasure.

Chideya: That was Elizabeth Alexander, poet, essayist and president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. My next guest is focused on the structural problems that impact communities of color. Dr. Mary Bassett is Director of the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University. Welcome, Dr. Bassett.

Dr Mary Bassett:

Thanks for having me.

Chideya: So a little over a year ago, before the first lockdowns in the US, you and your colleague wrote a piece in the Washington Post that was really ahead of the curve. And you were warning that the coronavirus could hit the US harder than other wealthy countries. So what was it that you saw and kept track of in terms of the pandemic and our inequities?

Bassett: Well, the first thing to say is that the US has long-standing inequities by racial ethnic group. There hasn't been a single year, beginning in the colonial period before this was even a country, when the Black population was not sicker and died younger than the white population. The other part of your question, I think, is really important to me now that we have a vaccine. Thinking about what drives exposure was really what made us worried about the vulnerability in the United States. And I'm worried that people are going to stop thinking about exposure and just think about how we need to get the vaccine out, get everybody to get a jab and not tackle the structural vulnerabilities which therefore might be with us again. Because this may not be the last microbes that surfaces. In fact, it's almost certain not to be the last one.

Chideya: One of the pieces you co-authored spoke about the coronavirus and prisons. What do you think we need to take away from the pandemic about learning about health and incarceration and how to treat people?

Bassett: The people who are incarcerated are there because we, as a society, put them there. And in my view, that means that we have a special obligation to people who we have determined would be deprived of their freedom, including their freedom to protect themselves from exposure to COVID-19. And we have done a terrible job. There were clear ways to address this. The principle one being decarceration. That means anybody who wasn't a public health threat should have been fast-tracked to be discharged from incarceration so that they didn't have the possibility of experiencing a death sentence. So on this, I think we still have a long way to go. I think many of the right questions were asked and answers were given, but action was not taken.

Chideya: What do you think Americans need to know about the pandemic and about global health? And in very simple terms, one of our recent guests was talking about how this is a global pandemic and we can't just say, well, we have to deal with what's in our own borders, but that often is the frame that we end up approaching public policy with in the US, including public health. How would it be helpful to start considering the question of what is the role of the US in global public health?

Bassett: I think if there's anything, it shows that we're all connected. It's a highly transmissible infectious agent. It's not as though we're isolated from each other or that it's really possible to isolate ourselves from others and especially a big country like the United States, not an island nation. So I think the first thing is to acknowledge that we're all connected. And then unless we can tackle these kinds of threats for the whole world, that all of us will continue to have vulnerabilities. That's the global part in which the US is challenged to show leadership now.

Chideya: You're someone who was born and raised in the US, but lived many years outside of the US, including in Zimbabwe, which is my father's home country. What did you learn about global public health in your journeys and living abroad?

Bassett: I often say that just about everything that I've learned about public health, I learned in Zimbabwe. I mean, Zimbabwe is in terrible shape now, politically, economically in terms of its place among nations of the world, but in its early days, Zimbabwe was really a role model for what it meant to implement a public health oriented health system. And I got to be there when that was going on, when infant mortality was halved, when immunization coverage of children went up four fold, and this was done with a leadership at the ministry of health that was probably mostly in its thirties, dedicated and determined and young. And so I learned that there are couple of things. You have to have good leadership, and at that time, Zimbabwe did. And it has to be technically competent, which was also true. Many, many people with advanced degrees headed home at independence to be part of building Zimbabwe. And the other is that you have to have respect for your people, and you have to believe that people want to be part of the project of being healthier. And that meant implementing things like community health workers and using strategies that brought health care closer to people. That's something that we still have a lot to learn from in a wealthy country like the United States. We have a lot to learn about leadership. We've just experienced four years of really damaging leadership, but the US has been in trouble public health-wise, even before the last administration. And we have a lot to learn about gaining the trust and being trustworthy for everyone in our society and being determined to deliver care to everyone. So those are things that I learned from Zimbabwe that you have to have good leadership, and you have to be committed to engaging communities in the work.

Chideya: Dr. Bassett, thanks so much for joining us.

Bassett: My pleasure.

Chideya: That was Dr. Mary Bassett, director of the FXB Center for Health & Human Rights at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. We love to hear from our listeners, so every week we invite you to call the speak line. Right now, we're asking if you were the mayor of your city or town, how would you handle law enforcement and public safety? We got this voicemail from a listener named Charles.

Charles: Police should be informed that they are subject to criminal prosecution for their movements. We act as if cops are kids, they can't control themselves, they can't help themselves. Well, I tell you what, you need to sit some time in jail for some of these crimes that you have committed. Literally hold them accountable to the point of saying to them, if you commit illegal acts, we as the police department are going to file charges against you.

Chideya: To leave us your message, call 929-353-7006. That's 929-353-7006, or go to ourbodypolitic.show for a Google forum to respond in writing. Each week on the show, we bring you a round table we call Sippin' the Political Tea. And this week, we have two special guests. We're going to talk about being a bystander to police violence and go through practical advice on how to interact with law enforcement, especially when you're a woman of color. Kyhisha Zebley is a police sergeant in the Philadelphia Metropolitan Area. Hi, Kyhisha.

Kyhisha Zebley: Hello there.

Chideya: And Gabriela Mejia is the training and communications associate at Hollaback!, an organization dedicated to ending harassment in all its forms. Welcome to the round table, Gabriela.

Gabriela Mejia: Thanks for having me.

Chideya: Kyhisha, you've been on the police force in Pennsylvania for two decades. And so how did you react to the guilty verdict for Derek Chauvin?

Zebley: So as you just heard me sigh, that was my initial reaction. It was emotional, it was a sense of gratitude and a sense that there was accountability for this horrendous action that we saw at the hands of Derek Chauvin, and a first step towards seeing more justice in instances where police officers act outside of the bounds of their duty. And then shortly after that, a reality check and almost a somberness because you've realized that this was the beginning of a win, but there's still so much more work to do.

Chideya: And did you talk about it with any other people you know in law enforcement? Sometimes when something big happens, you talk about it a lot and sometimes it's a bit of a hot zone and you don't really want to talk about it. So were you able to talk about it with other friends in law enforcement?

Zebley: I have been able to and some friends who are in other aspects of the legal field, other attorneys, and it was definitely great to have that perspective of people who are actually attorneys and prosecute and defend and getting their perspectives and seeing what my fellow colleagues feel. And many felt the same, gratitude, gratefulness, and a sense that there was accountability and we are moving towards more justice when we see someone like Chauvin get that kind of a guilty verdict. It felt like a win.

Chideya: And Gabriela, let me turn to you. And you use real life scenarios of police brutality in your trainings at Hollaback!. And there were witnesses to George Floyd's death. Here's a clip of an under-age witness who testified during the Chauvin trial.

Witness Clip 1: It was difficult because I felt like there wasn't really anything I could do as a bystander. The highest power was there and I felt like I was feeling it.

Chideya: And so Gabriela, by highest power, I think she means the police. So walk us through what a bystander in her situation can do to empower themselves and what they should not do in a situation like this.

Mejia: There's a few things that people can do. There is a methodology that we share, which is the five Ds, and quite a few of these can apply when you are witnessing police sponsored violence or harassment. And the one that we see an example of in this case was document. Documenting a situation can be very helpful in bringing attention to this issue, but also just having proof and having that proof be helpful in possible reporting. You can also show up for someone in support and solidarity by being in community with them, standing in solidarity with them. And that can be an example of our D that we like to call delay. When you can't do anything as the harassment happened and you couldn't stop the harassment, you can still show up for someone afterwards. You can go up to them, you can let them know, "I can be your witness. I saw what happened. It wasn't okay. What do you need from me?" And that is being in community with them. And you can, of course, directly intervene if this harassment is ongoing and you have assessed your safety. You can directly speak up about a situation by asking some clarification on what's going on and directly addressing the situation only if you feel safe enough to do that. So that is really what we ask before you do any kind of intervention, assess your safety and choose whether it be an indirect action or a direct action to show up in support of someone.

Chideya: So can you give us those five Ds that you mentioned?

Mejia: Yes. Our five Ds of bystander intervention are distract, causing a distraction to bring an end to harassment. We don't really recommend this one in the case of police sponsored violence because it might be perceived as obstruction of justice. The second D is delegate, which is asking for help in an incidence of harassment. Asking for help from someone in a position of authority or from other bystanders. The third D is document, and that is taking a picture, a video or notes on a piece of paper. Just remember to give it to the person who was harassed whenever possible so they can choose what to do with that. Four his delay, which is taking care of someone after harassment has ended. That's sometimes our only option because harassment happens quickly or an incidence happens and ends quickly. And our last D is direct. This is the only direct action we suggest, which is assessing your safety and directly asking for that behavior to stop. And that's the end of your engagement with that person committing the harassment because they don't deserve your attention. You should be taking care of the person who has been harassed. And that's what we really recommend with your intervention, show up in support, show up to take care of someone.

Chideya: During the trial of Derek Chauvin, we heard a lot of the witnesses express that they wish they could have done more. Here's another clip from one of them.

Witness Clip 2: It's been nights I stayed up apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life.

Chideya: Kyhisha, what would you say to bystanders or witnesses, encouraging listeners to have a plan if they ever find themselves in that kind of a situation?

Zebley: So Farai, most importantly, and one of the things that Gabriela said, was to assess safety and to use good judgment. Exercise your right to record, which had it not been for that young lady who exercised that right, we wouldn't have at least seen the accountability that we saw with Chauvin's conviction, because I am certain that if it hadn't been recorded from the bystander's perspective, we very likely would not have seen this go to trial. So in addition to recording what you see, Gabriela also mentioned about being in community, and that goes along with sort of trying to tone down the temperature of what's happening, if it's possible. If there's going to be anyone in the scenario who is sort of using some emotional intelligence and trying to calm the situation, if it's not the police in that moment, let it be you. If there are other bystanders who are really getting upset and vocal and maybe giving what officers may perceive as some sort of threatening behavior or aggressing towards them or coming towards them in an attempt to see if they could help or aid, try to be the one who is bringing the temperature down and asking everyone to, "Hey, let's move back. Let's give them some space." Definitely record, and if you fill the need to get on the phone and dial 911 yourself and give them the location that you're at, let them know that you're on a scene where a police officer is behaving in a way that you feel is making an individual unsafe, and ask for a supervisor to respond. Again, these things take time, which we know that George Floyd had a lot less of, but they're all things that as a bystander you can do that keep you safe and also empower you to act to help someone.

Chideya: Gabriela, I want you to chime in on this. Of course, Kyhisha was talking about the video shot by a teenage girl who recorded Derek Chauvin killing George Floyd. That in and of itself was an act of courage, but how should people in a situation like that go about taping an interaction with police or hopefully in much less fraught and lethal situations? Are there legalities about it that we should think about, and what other sorts of things should we keep in mind?

Mejia: I think an important thing that Kyhisha just mentioned was that you have legal protections when it comes to recording these instances of harassment. So your right to record is protected by your First Amendment rights. So I would say remember that and remember to keep a safe distance. We have all gotten used to keeping six feet from each other, and that's a good number. So keep a six feet distance. Hold your phone steady. That can be helpful with the quality of the evidence that you're recording. If you're choosing to record with your phone, hold it horizontally to capture the most detail. Get at least some 15 seconds of steady footage. Say the date and time out loud. That can also be very helpful, or write it down on a piece of paper and hold it up to your screen or to your camera. If for any reason maybe you don't have a phone or you don't have access to your phone, you can write down everything that you saw, every single detail that you can remember, and that is also a piece of documentation that can be helpful in recalling that information. So I think those are really important ones that we can all easily remember.

Chideya: I want to go one level deeper with both of you on this question of videotaping or recording. During the whole summer of racial reckoning, we saw reporters who sometimes have press credentials being pepper sprayed, arrested, told that they were part of illegal civil disobedience when they were doing their job. That's people who theoretically have some additional protections. So if you are someone who has the legal right to record, but you are being told that you're going to be arrested, et cetera, let's just keep it real. I'm going to keep going with this, and Gabriela first, how do you make good judgment calls about your own safety?

Mejia: I think it's a judgment call every single time. When you intervene in most instances of harassment, you have to consider your safety and consider whether you're willing to be arrested. There may be this perception by police that you're obstructing justice, and that may be the reason for arresting you. So we also do give advice if you are arrested. Remember that you have a right to remain silent. You can lock your phones, and police can't search there without a warrant or you giving your agreement that they can do so. Understand that there are rights protecting what you're doing and that it is someone else's judgment call to arrest you. It's not a sentence.

Chideya: Yeah, absolutely.I want to bring in the question of traffic stops. According to the Bureau of Justice statistics, the most common reason for contact the police is being a driver in a traffic stop. We've seen a lot of different high-profile ones, including Army Lieutenant Caron Nazario, who's Black and Latino, who was pulled over in December in Virginia. Here's a clip from the police camera. I want to warn listeners it's jarring.

Officers Clip: Keep your hands outside the window. Get out of the car now. Get out of the car now.

Chideya: So obviously, in this case, there were a lot of different commands shouted. But in general, Kyhisha, what do we need to know about traffic stops?

Zebley: When you are stopped by the police, it is, in that moment, a seizure, and you are typically not free to leave. Like in the instance of what we saw with the lieutenant who was stopped and that video went viral, he was apparently trying to get to a more lit area for his own safety. Even times I've had people say that they were doing that for my safety as well. When you are pulled over, roll all of your windows down, even if it's 20 degrees below. Roll all of your windows down. Put your interior light on so that you relieve the sense of the unknown for the officer that's approaching your vehicle. If you happen to have a child in the vehicle or something like that, let the officer know, "I have my baby in the back. Can I put my window up now? There's no one in the back besides my child. You can see inside clearly. Can I put my window up now?" Try to keep your information that you will need in the instance of a traffic stop, insurance card, registration, all of those things, try to keep them in an area that is visible and easier for you to access, rather than reaching into areas that may cause pause or alarm for, again, an officer that is anticipating the worst. As a citizen, should you have to always be compensating for an officer's potential fear? No, you shouldn't. But the reality is we see instances where something as simple in the instance of Philando Castile, where he was reaching for something that the officer asked him to get, and in that instance, the officer felt fear, unsafe, uncertainty. So to eliminate these instances and then deal with the reason for the stop, whether it was legitimate or not and whatever is to come of that, whether it's a citation or a warning, but, just like with a bystander, be in a position where you can take action based on something that was perhaps done unlawfully or without fairness.

Chideya: So Gabriela, listening to Kyhisha, what's your take on the basic rights people have during a traffic stop and also just personal safety?

Mejia: I think a lot of what Kyhisha said can be helpful, but also remember your rights. I would really encourage folks to visit the ACLU and just do a quick search on your rights. They have some pretty good resources there, and if that situation feels like it's escalating and there is just anyone around or there's any way that you can get others involved, it can help situations deescalate when more people are involved. If a traffic stop turns into an arrest, you have a right to remain silent. They can search you or your belongings if they suspect a weapon, and you have a right to a local call. I'd also like to stress the fact that we shouldn't all have this long list. There can be a different way for us to interact with the people that are keeping us safe. It shouldn't be up to Black and Brown people of the United States to have all of these things in mind every time they're stopped, and we're hopeful about that, but definitely something to keep in mind.

Chideya: We'll have to leave it here. Gabriela, thank you so much.

Mejia: Yeah, thank you.

Chideya: Kyhisha, thank you so much for joining us.

Zebley: Thank you, Farai, for having me. This has been a very rich conversation.

Chideya: Thank you so much for joining us on Our Body Politic. We're on the air each week and everywhere you listen to podcasts. Our Body Politic is produced by Lantigua Williams and Co. I'm the creator and host, Farai Chideya. Juleyka Lantigua-Williams is executive producer. Paulina Velasco is senior producer. Jen Chien is executive editor. Cedric Wilson is lead producer and mixed this episode. Original music by associate sound designer Kojin Tashiro. Our producer is Priscilla Alabi. Julie Zann is our talent consultant. Emily Daly is our assistant producer. Production assistants were Mark Betancourt, Natyna Bean, and Sara McClure. This program is produced with support from Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, Meadow Fund, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Compton Foundation, the Harnisch Foundation, the BMe Community, and from generous contributions from listeners like you.


Chideya, Farai, host. “How History Books and Monuments Shape our National Narrative, Preparing for the Next Pandemic, and Practical Advice on Staying Safe During Police Encounters.” Our Body Politic, Diaspora Farms LLC. May 7, 2021. https://our-body-politic.simplecast.com/