On this episode of Our Body Politic, host Farai Chideya talks with Shannon-Janean Currie, vice president at Benenson Strategy Group, which conducted our inaugural survey for our Living Data series. Farai then speaks with Cathy Cohen, the founder and director of GenForward Survey about the importance of polling. Then, Farai, Cathy Cohen and Shannon-Janean Currie, discuss the main GenZ survey takeaways. We round out the show with Farai in conversation with Former U.S. Capitol Police Sergeant, Aquilino Gonell about his new book, “American Shield: The Immigrant Sergeant Who Defended Democracy.”
Farai Chideya [00:00:07] Hi, folks. We are so glad that you're listening to Our Body Politic. If you haven't yet, remember to follow this podcast on your podcatcher of choice like Apple or Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you have time, please leave us a review. It helps other listeners find us and we read them for your feedback. Here's what one of you had to say: One of the best podcasts. This podcast is exactly what we need more of. Politics in the world are being discussed by those who have been at the forefront of progress and social justice; Black women. This amazing podcast interweaves the perspective of Bipoc folks and uncovers what is impacting our communities in concrete ways. Thanks so much for the review. We are glad you enjoy the show. You can also reach out to us on Instagram and X @OurBodyPolitic where you can sign up for our newsletter. Just click on the link in the bio. We are here for you, with you and because of you. So keep letting us know what's on your mind. Thanks for listening.
This is Our Body Politic. I'm Farai Chideya. OBP is more than a show. It is a way of understanding our world. That's why when I started it, I knew we needed to create new data models to get a real time snapshot of how Americans feel about key issues. So I am thrilled to announce the launch of our Living Data series and the findings from our inaugural survey. Back in October, we conducted a poll with voting-aged Americans to answer a not so simple question in what can seem like the most polarizing moment in our country's history, if Americans look past their political labels, can they agree on, well, anything? So we polled people across the spectrum from Gen Zers to baby boomers, liberals to conservatives. We asked them about their values, identities and political leanings. All so we could understand one thing: Beyond our labels, are we a united America? We'll be diving into some of the findings from our inaugural survey for our living data branded OBP. This first survey is about labels, but before we get into some of the big takeaways from that survey, we're breaking down what happens behind the scenes to better understand what goes into polling and surveys. Joining me now to talk more about the survey and the launch of Living Data is Shannon-Janean Currie, a vice president at Benenson Strategy Group, which conducted our Labels survey. We're going to be doing more from our living Data series through the 2024 election cycle. Shannon, thanks for joining us.
Shannon-Janean Currie [00:02:43] Thank you for having me. I'm so excited.
Farai Chideya [00:02:45] So before we get into our inaugural poll labels, I want to know about your journey as a pollster and your work at Benenson. How did you come into this line of work at a well-known legacy company? You know, as a Black woman.
Shannon-Janean Currie [00:03:01] I have had a very non-linear career path out of college. I worked at everything from BMW, a pharmaceutical company, a financial agency. But generally I've always been very attuned to world news. I used to read Newsweek in high school. You know, I always understood that it was important to just understand, well, what else was happening outside of my little microcosm of a world. But I ended up that balance and strategy group, and I was working alongside our CEO, and I really got to understand how all of the skills that I've learned across all of those industries, they they make so much sense to be a pollster because you bring that knowledge in. And I think as a woman of color, it's really, really, really important to have someone at the table because you have no idea how people just don't look at the world from our perspective. I was on Secretary Clinton's campaign and senior staff. I did some work for Pete Buttigieg for his. And we'll see what happens in 2024.
Farai Chideya [00:04:06] Well, we're excited to be working with you. And one of the reasons that I started Our Body Politic as a media company and, you know, simultaneously with developing the media company, decided that we wanted to do some form of polling and data effort is because cultural competency is important for me. And I always found it truly important as a reporter to pay attention to people who believed very different things from what I believe. I don't see them as less American than me. I also don't see them as more American than me. I see them as my fellow Americans, and that's why I have reported on them. And I think that cultural competency in reporting means a lot to me. And data can be an important part of reporting. What does cultural competency mean for you and does it affect how you do your polling?
Shannon-Janean Currie [00:04:57] Absolutely. And especially when we're talking about the Living Data series, which I see as somebody as a real organic and real time snapshot, or dipstick of how Americans are feeling about, you know, the issues that they feel on a day to day basis. I think it's really important to understand the cultural and societal differences. I think I look at this series of research as really helping and having a good conversation about understanding the American mindset and like what are what are the underlying attitudes and values that are Americans are bringing to the kitchen table, and what do they dream about, you know, what are their goals over their lifetime? And when you understand and can kind of map their mind frame and and understand the questions that they are bringing to making a decision, you also learn how to activate them. You learn the trigger words. You learn how to, you know, turn them away because you're getting a sample of how Americans are feeling: their values, their pain points, their aspirations.
Farai Chideya [00:05:59] Let's talk about this label survey. I will say on my end, I have been fascinated for many years by multiparty democracy, which is not what we have in the U.S.. I came to you with an idea for a survey. And you were like, Naw, girl, this ain't gonna work the way it is right now. And I have always been someone who… I'm not a data scientist, I'm not a pollster. I've worked with data scientists and pollsters, and I, I was like, Well, there's something here I want to get at, but I know that I'm not quite right. So what was the process like for you of trying to understand what I was interested in and also coming to this with much more knowledge than I have of the field and negotiating what it is that we were doing together?
Shannon-Janean Currie [00:06:41] You gave me a good outline. One of the things that is really important in polling and specifically in this labels bean poll is question, wording and order. You have to warm people up with that asking questions and the way that you frame questions impacts responses. I just had a client that is very, very, very focused on positive framing of questions, but we were asking about racism. I was like uh... And so, you know, if you focused on saying, how divided are we and more, how likely are we to come together? If I am doing research for a more conservative client, maybe I put that gender question at the back end so that, you know, I'm not triggering anyone because we have lots of trigger words. And that's kind of what I took out of your first drafts because at their core, all of these words, these labels, are political problems. And even though we can try to use grassroots activists to fix them, it really won't work if we don't focus on the nuances of language within our research and just being mindful of how so those terms and concepts to be triggering. And so that is what I took out of what she sent me. And so we, we structured the survey on and first it's just like, how do you feel about being American? We asked people, you know, do they feel as if they have a say in politics while 30% of Americans do agree with that you know, 70% say politicians don't care about people like me. So I think there's… we're definitely at this inflection point of trying to understand, you know, how this two party system is going to work, because we are very much in our tribes. And what this poll really outlined was how, you know, the labels that we use about each other, especially in this political frame, they just add fuel to the fire and this toxic political environment. You know, you say a couple of key words when you're just trying to get your point across and you've lost the person completely. So, you know, another thing that we did in the survey was test a blind test of the major parties statements. Very broad. And we made sure to keep out, you know, say which party was which. And interesting enough, the latest No Labels party scored pretty decently. Everybody overwhelmingly liked their message. And so it just goes to say, like whatever the Republicans and the Democrats are serving up, it's not landing like it used to anymore. And people are looking for alternatives. And going into the 2024 election season, I think candidates really need to be mindful of that.
Farai Chideya [00:09:26] And so this survey reached over 1500 Americans. And can you tell us a bit about the methodology we used?
Shannon-Janean Currie [00:09:34] Sure. So it was 1500 Americans that are 18 or over. We made sure to do an oversample. So when we say an oversample, we want to make sure that within that 1500 we're getting a good minimum of gen-z, of millennials, of Blacks, of non-Blacks. The margin of error on this data was plus or minus 2.53. But I think one of the most important things that we did in this methodology, like I said earlier, was like words and threw out the living data theories is words really matter and they activate people in a certain way. And so we were very mindful of just the how we ordered questions and to not tip our hands. So people are trying to answer as honestly as possible without guessing that it's a political trap.
Farai Chideya [00:10:24] So what stood out to you? I mean, we're going to be talking later in this show with Cathy Cohen, who's at the University of Chicago. And I'm not going to go but so deep into this survey. But give me an example of something that you found a meaningful finding from our label survey.
Shannon-Janean Currie [00:10:44] We asked a bunch of political labels, things like MAGA and Trumpism and Fascists and centrist and Patriot and the labels. We kind of instantly aligned with the parties. You know, the labels that were big for Republicans were Republican, conservative and Patriot. With Democrats It was a little bit wider and across. But the number one was Democrat and then moderate anti-racist, feminist and patriot. All of them were receiving somewhere between 20 and 30%. I think one of the more interesting facts, though, was how Republicans, 70% of Republicans said that they would support that Democratic statement and 64% of Democrats said they were support the Republican statement. So it’s like we all have the same angle. It's the words that are chipping us up.
Farai Chideya [00:11:43] I'm going to wrap up with. What are you excited about in terms of doing this work together? You know, we have to come up with our next survey just on a general basis. What are you excited about by collaborating on this work?
Shannon-Janean Currie [00:11:56] Well, I am excited about the tracking part. The answer to our questions about your American identity. It might change. And so the ability to see how some of these questions changed throughout this series, very exciting. And then second, like I said, it's that real time, you know, seeing how world events are, seeing how, you know, the Supreme Court rulings to be able to do the research and then to help inform OBP and the Living Data series. I'm thrilled.
Farai Chideya [00:12:27] Me, too. And thank you for joining us for this first installment of our Living Data series.
We're unpacking Our Body Politics inaugural survey Labels as part of our new series, Living Data. Some of the most noteworthy findings from the survey came from our youngest participants, Gen Z. According to our data, Gen Z is an outlier in how they view American identity, political labels, the importance of diversity and inclusion. And even if they're optimistic when it comes to the future of the country. Here to tell us more is Cathy J. Cohen, professor of political science at the University of Chicago and the founder and director of the GenForward Survey, a nationally representative survey that pays special attention on how race and ethnicity shape the Millennial and Gen Z experience. And the Black Youth Project, an online platform highlighting the voices and ideas of Black millennials. Welcome, Cathy.
Cathy Cohen [00:13:25] Thank you.
Farai Chideya [00:13:26] It's great to have you back with us. You know, we had many happy episodes talking about your survey, the GenForward Survey, but it has been a minute. So tell us more about the GenForward Survey. Just outline what it is and what its mission is and what you do.
Cathy Cohen [00:13:42] Absolutely. So GenForward really was meant to amplify the voices of young folks of color. When we often talk about a public, especially when we're using statistics and surveys and polls, the representation of young people and young people of color is usually minimal. And what we wanted to do is something we call oversampling that would allow us to desegregate the numbers. So we could talk about kind of young Black people or young Latinx folks and to compare how things are looking and how young people are thinking about issues not only across generations, which we often do millennials compared to baby boomers, but within generations.
Farai Chideya [00:14:22] Was there a particular catalyst or moment that spurred your creation of this survey?
Cathy Cohen [00:14:27] I think part of it is being trained as a political scientist and, you know, having been trained in the use of surveys and sometimes being able to have enough people in a sample where you can disaggregate and say something about Black people. But quite often I think what we ignore is the complexity and the beauty of Black people and in particular, young Black people. And I would say having can work with young activists, it was clear that both they had a lot to say and that not enough people were listening to their perspectives, their issues and their preferences. When we started the Gen Fourth survey in 2016, we had a question on the survey which says, What's the most important issue to you? Young African Americans said racism. And they have almost consistently said racism as the most important issue facing the country since 2016. However, in 2020, people acted like this was something new. Oh, my goodness. Young Black people are concerned about racism. The reality is that if in fact we listen to them, if we include them in our surveys, if we understand them to be central components of our publics, they will tell us the issues that they are dealing with. And so GenForward was really meant to kind of amplify those voices. And increasingly what we've done is to work with partners so that we can use data to shape the ways in which we move an agenda through policy, but also through mobilization.
Farai Chideya [00:15:52] Survey research is something where I am enlightened by it and frustrated by it. What are some of the problems with traditional polling and survey strategies? And also, why bother doing it if it can often be problematic? What is still the promise of polling?
Cathy Cohen [00:16:10] There's so many problems. For example, we often don't have enough folks. And when I say folks, I mean it could be young people. It could be people from marginalized communities. It could be trans and gender nonconforming young people or people in general. Right? To really do the type of statistical analysis that they deserve and that we want to produce to say something specific about how those communities are facing issues and how they are thinking about, for example, their liberation. So that's one thing. You know, another issue with surveys is that quite often we're repeating questions and there's nothing wrong with repeating questions, you're looking for longitudinal data, meaning you're looking to see how things track over time. And the only way you can do that is to ask the same question. However, if you think back to where those questions originated, they were often, you know, designed with an all white or predominantly white sample in mind. And so quite often I would argue that the questions I'm most interested in and the communities from which I come. Black lesbian woman, you know, those questions don't align with the issues that people are confronting that I want to be in touch with and talking to. And so we have to kind of begin to think about new surveys, new surveyors, new pollsters who can create different types of questions. Now, why do it if I have so many problems, right? Because it is really about the potential. It is not the most important, but it is another avenue through which people can say what's going on in their lives. Talk about the ways forward and make themselves and their communities visible. I often say with a kind of 24 hour media cycle, folks are always looking for content, and sometimes that content takes the form of statistics and percentages from a survey, and they're talking about the American public. And we've got to ensure that when they talk about the American public, it really is the American public that everyone is represented, that the complexity through which the politics of a nation happens is represented in that data. The last reason I will say that I think it's important. Data can help us refine our strategies for mobilization and organizing. We are working, for example, with the Movement for Black Lives on a report that will be released in a couple of weeks. Thinking about how Black people experience policing, think about policing and their preferences for what types of alternatives to policing. So one, we want to center the ideas and experiences of Black people. But two, a survey like that provides data that begins to help organizers who are trying to do this work to refine their messages, to understand how people are thinking about kind of questions of public safety. We're going to find like 50% of Black people say they fear call the police, but they call the police. Well, why? Because they don't have alternatives to calling the police. And they are committed to making sure that they and their families and their communities are safe. And so that type of data allows us to tell a different type of story to the media. But more importantly, it allows us to refine the types of organizing and mobilization that we're supporting in different communities. So I think there's a real upside and importance to polling, but we have to be very careful about how we do it.
Farai Chideya [00:19:33] You have used the term good data in your work in research, and often when I hear the term good data, it means: were the regressions done accurately? It's very much about the mathematics of polling. What do you mean when you say good data?
Cathy Cohen [00:19:46] Well, I mean some of that, right? The statistical analysis. You want it to be tight, right? We want to we want the analysis to be correct. Which programs are you using? All of that is important. But none of that matters if the data isn't representative. I can produce and folks on our GenForward team produce beautiful analysis, statistical analysis all the time, but we are careful to be thinking about who's included and what are the conclusions that we say we're representing. Good data starts with a full representation of the communities and I would argue an overrepresentation in some cases of communities that have often been neglected or silenced. Making sure that you have enough folks that you're not asking six Black people to represent all Black people. So you want the diversity of Black people in the sample that will give you more confidence in the types of statistical analysis you're producing. And then, of course, you've got to explain to people what the analysis means and why it's important. And it seems to me that good data has to kind of go through all of those phases so that we feel comfortable that we're producing something that is meaningful.
Farai Chideya [00:20:57] I'd like for us to pivot to some of the findings regarding Gen Z from our Labels survey. For that, I'm going to bring back Shannon-Janean Currie, Vice President at Benenson Strategy Group, to help us out. Cathy, I'm going to start with you. One of the findings that stood out to me in this poll is not only do a majority of Americans have a declining degree of belief in politics, but Gen Zers maintain it never worked in their lifetime. Have you seen similar things in your research?
Cathy Cohen [00:21:25] I mean, if we just take your point about young people and Gen Zers and millennials and maybe even more likely to find this among Gen Zers about how to make change, we asked this question in two different forms. How do you make racial change? What's the most effective way and how do you make change in your community? What's the most effective way? We give folks, for example, 13 options. That includes things like national elections. And what we find is national elections never show up in the top three or often not even five, that young people are focused on kind of advocacy and policy change that they say you have to change people's minds by talking to them, that there needs to be organizing in communities. And when they do kind of point out electoral, let's say, mechanisms for change, it is usually at the local or state level. And in talking to young people, they will say, I'm looking for the level of electoral politics where I feel like I can maybe hold the person accountable. Their sense is that you have to participate in electoral politics, but it is not necessarily an effective means through which we will make progress. They are more committed. In a strategy of organizing, a strategy of advocacy and working kind of… being able to see the person next to you that you're working with as a way of change. And I think, again, this has to do with kind of levels of trust among both millennials and Gen Zers.
Farai Chideya [00:22:54] And Shannon, you know, maybe you can talk us through some of the data that we gathered that might speak to this question of decline of belief in politics or lack, fundamental lack, of belief in politics from Gen Z, but also about the American dream. Tell us about those concepts as they appeared in this survey.
Shannon-Janean Currie [00:23:13] The way that we kind of structured our poll was to kind of get a baseline understanding of where people are on general current event issues, what are their issue priorities, what are the things that they're voting on. So usually you get that issue question up front and where Gen Z became once again an interesting deviator was whereas most say it's the economy, it's inflation, maybe it's health care, abortion, Gen Z, rate education number two as a number two issue that they're going to be voting on next year. And I think that just speaks volumes to where they're at. They have college loans. They live in a totally different world. They are seeing these culture wars happening in their own high schools from before and they're not liking it. Gen Z was the game changer that killed the Red Wave in 2022. So I think there is… I call them misunderstood and I'm going to continue to think they are misunderstood because when galvanized, they activate. But their frustration again, is really around. Like it's less about politics and it's much more about the cultural divide, that misunderstanding. They very much blame media. They very much blame big corporations and the wealthy. And that is why we are currently on the quote unquote wrong track. They also know that they other generations don't understand them, that we kind of have a little bit more of a negative view. But when it comes to the American dream, they believe in it. They just don't know if it's actually possible. It's like they have the hope. They just don't know the actual activation.
Farai Chideya [00:24:47] They have the dream, they don't know if it can become real. Exactly. Because the whole promise in some ways of the American dream is that it's both a dream and if you work for it, a reality. But it sounds like the polling is showing that Gen Z is like, I'm not sure this can be a reality for me.
Shannon-Janean Currie [00:25:02] Yeah, so we asked a really awesome question about your thought about your American identity and whether being an American is a central part of your identity and you consider yourself an American first and foremost, or if it is secondary and Gen Z says secondary, which by 64 to 36% margin. And so I think we're in the middle of having a cultural rebirth. America is changing. We're becoming so much more racially diverse and culturally diverse. And I think this hyphenated America is going to be something that we're going to have to figure out as a nation. And Gen Z specifically, they are less positive about our ability to really come together. When it comes to their political identity Gen Z tends to be a little bit more softer on being able to say that they are Republican or a moderate, though the number one thing that came up with Gen Z was anti-racist.
Farai Chideya [00:25:54] Hmm. Interesting. Well, let me just bring Cathy in here. Based on the polling that you've done, does does that surprise you or fit in with the kind of polling that GenForward does?
Cathy Cohen [00:26:05] It both fits in and it causes me to ask some other questions, right? So I think what we do is both look at the generational differences, but I'd be very interested in how racially within the Gen Z category that you have young African-Americans versus Latinx versus young whites fall on these different questions. You know, we ask a question, for example, do you believe that Black people are treated as full and equal citizens? And we see consistently, like barely a third of young Black people will say yes to that question. Young whites feel very differently on that question. But to go in a different direction, when you ask about kind of their future and the American dream, we've also asked a question about do you think you will do as well as or better than your parents? Young, white Gen Z ers are the least likely to believe, in fact, that they will do as well as their parents. Now that has to do with their parents kind of racial hierarchy. Their parents have done the best, but it does say that this kind of question of the American dream is fragile even for young white people. And thus we have to be thinking about, for me, what are the possibilities of solidarity from that position of fragility?
Farai Chideya [00:27:21] Well, you know, according to our Label survey, 24% of Gen Z participants say freedom does not describe America at all, and 47% of Gen Z respondents say honesty does not describe America at all, either of you, what are your reactions to that?
Shannon-Janean Currie [00:27:37] Let me just give you a little background so we know, you know, what describes America, and we gave them a choice of 18 different options freedom, diversity, patriotism, democracy. I think the ones that really were interesting were tolerance, honesty, inclusiveness, diversity and freedom. Gen Z seem to distinguish between tolerance and inclusiveness, whereas only 29% say tolerance describes Americans while 43 say about the same for inclusive. The fact that more Gen Z, say inclusive describes America than any other cohort is a sign of hope that they see things better. But they also… they're very pessimistic. Where we misunderstand Gen Z is just their cultural and societal experience. None of us can really relate to yet.
Farai Chideya [00:28:27] Yeah. And I do think, you know, I'm a Gen Xer that graduated from college in 1990, and I was very lucky to have a very steady set of jobs in the first decade that I was out of school. But a lot of my friends got laid off. That was part of the Gen X experience, was discovering that your nice college degree would not necessarily guarantee you the employment you thought it would. And I just can't help but think about Gen Zers dealing with the pandemic as a formative entry into adulthood. Cathy, how does that sort of entry into adulthood factor in here?
Cathy Cohen [00:29:05] I think that's absolutely right. I mean, I think people talk about it as the kind of first formally, fully digitally… generation that we've seen. It's not to say that millennials don't have a relationship to the digital space, but they have not been immersed in it. We could say the same thing about Gen Zers as coming of age in a moment, or an era of gun violence, right? That they have experienced what it is to be fearful in places that we used to think of as safe spaces like schools. And now school is a kind of space of fear. If we think about also the kind of formative politicians that have been a part of their upbringing, it is slightly Barack Obama, but more formidably it's Donald Trump. Right. And, you know, kind of right wing populism that has taken over a Republican Party that we remember is something different. If we look at the kind of political, social, economic context under which young people are emerging, this generation of Gen Z, it makes sense about not trusting the government. It makes sense that they might say, I support inclusion, but don't expect equality. It makes sense that they may not believe, in fact, that they can have the things that maybe their parents had. They are kind of refashioning what it is to be an American. And the types of politics that they live with daily, It looks very different, for example, than when I was coming up and maybe when you were coming up, Farai.
Farai Chideya [00:30:33] So let's talk about 2024. It's often posited that younger people are inherently liberal, but we're seeing some different dynamics. What are you seeing from the polls, Shannon?
Shannon-Janean Currie [00:30:44] You know, I think just like sometimes the Democratic electorate bank shots on Black people first, but especially women of color, we should not make any presumptions that Gen Z is going to be a reliable Democratic voter. 44% of Gen Z have a favorable view of the Democratic Party. 45 of the Republican Party right now, Trump is plus nine over Biden. And I think that is kind of… they want to shake things up. They're not seeing the changes that our parents got to see. There was no civil rights moment for them. I mean, even as a millennial, I like to say the millennials, we just take it… like I'm in my second recession. So we're just like used to it and Gen Z is not standing for it. I think that is something that we need to prepared for as we're mobilizing coalitions and thinking about what their priorities are. Their priorities are going to be different and thinking that they are some type of monolithic group will be detrimental to either party.
Farai Chideya [00:31:46] And Cathy, listening to what Shannon said, how do you make sense of their position going into 2024, regardless of whether they become voters or not?
Cathy Cohen [00:31:54] That's a hard question. I mean, I so appreciate the kind of overall view of thinking about… we have some data, for example, that tries again, to disaggregate that generation and also millennials to think about what are the issues really driving them or that can drive them to the polls. So we asked this question. We asked questions about Dobbs, the abortion issue, because when we did a quick content analysis, all the framing was Gen Zers, Millennials are going to the polls because of the abortion issue. And in fact, if we do a careful statistical analysis, we don't find that what we find is that questions about racism. Sermons about racism are more likely to be relevant and to resonate in particular with Black millennials and Gen Zers than questions about Dobbs. Our concern is that, in fact, there is going to be a framing of what is the issue that is most important to young people. And right now it is for the Democrats. They believe that, in fact, if you just say Dobbs, if you just say abortion, you win the state and you'll win the Electoral College in that state. And we want to say that is an important issue. It is not the only issue. And you will lose young voters if you're not attentive to the range of issues that matter to them. If we are not thinking about the complexity of these young people, and if we assume that young people will just be liberal, then we haven't learned our lesson. I always tell people, yes, a majority of young people voted for Barack Obama and then in 2012, the majority of young whites voted for Mitt Romney. Right. So don't believe that it's a kind of linear trajectory towards the Democratic Party. In fact, you have to win votes no matter how young or how old.
Farai Chideya [00:33:45] So I want to end on a perhaps more hopeful note, which is that from our findings, 62% of Gen Z say diversity is strengthening America. They're the generation that's most likely to self-identify as anti-racist. They strongly believe that some form of racial equity is important to this nation. So how can this kind of data help us better communicate with this generation? And for those of us who believe that voting, even though sometimes unsatisfying, is fundamentally critically important, how can we encourage them to endure what is sometimes the disappointment of not seeing your candidate or candidates win, but being invested in electoral politics? Because what you mentioned, Cathy, and let me start with you, is that it doesn't seem to be the primary wave or secondary or tertiary area that Gen-z is is invested in politics.
Cathy Cohen [00:34:42] Well, I think it's important here to embed electoral politics in a politics of change. Right. The truth is electoral politics is part of that, but it's not all of that. And the worry is that there are too many people who come in. We know at the midterm and at the national presidential election and all the money floods in to say vote, vote, vote, as opposed to we want to provide infrastructure and support so you can engage, engage, engage and engage means voting sometimes and other times it means signing a petition, and other times it means going into the street. But the goal has to be to fight for change.
Farai Chideya [00:35:21] And Shannon, I'm going to let you have the last word. You know, this is the most diverse generation in American history. How do you see these results helping us understand this generation and their relationship to electoral politics?
Shannon-Janean Currie [00:35:36] I think we need to meet Gen-z where they are. We have to understand that they are a totally different subset from the rest of us. I said earlier that they've been fully digital, but you know, when Cathy was talking about racism, while my parents were learning about racism in the local newspaper, maybe over the radio, they caught it that day. I have seen way too many acts of violence in real time. Yeah. And thinking about the trauma that that brings and especially consider the fact that Gen Z, most of them started their jobs during the pandemic by themselves on their laptop. So their presence in the workforce right now, not what we're used to. And I think we just kind of need to look at them because they are going to be a very large generation. The very large voter block as millennials, of course, workforce and voters. But we need to look at them as a totally different breed of Americans and not make any assumptions because, again, like I said, this is a real time electorate where whatever happens today, tomorrow, next month, could flip their whole disposition on the electoral process upside down. And we have to just be prepared for that.
Farai Chideya [00:36:47] Well, Shannon-Janean Currie, vice president at Benenson Strategy Group, thank you for joining us and enlightening us.
Shannon-Janean Currie [00:36:55] Thank you.
Farai Chideya [00:36:55] And Cathy J. Cohen, professor of political science at the University of Chicago and the founder and director of the GenForward Survey and the Black Youth Project. Thank you for joining us.
Cathy Cohen [00:37:06] Thank you.
Farai Chideya [00:37:17] In his memorable testimony for the January 6th House Select Committees first public hearing, then U.S. Capitol Police Sergeant Aquilino Gonell recounted in horrifying detail what he and his fellow officers faced defending the Capitol.
Sergeant Aquilino Gonell [00:37:32] What we were subjected that day was like something from a medieval battle. We fought hand-to-hand. Inch by inch to prevent an invasion of the Capitol by a violent mob intent on subverting our democratic process.
Farai Chideya [00:37:47] Sergeant Gonell continues to speak out about what happened that day, and he's out with a new book to tell his story. That book is American Shield, The Immigrant Sergeant Who Defended Democracy or in Spanish…
Sergeant Aquilino Gonell [00:37:59] Americano el sargento inmigrante que defendió la democracia
Farai Chideya [00:38:05] And he joins me now. Sergeant Gonell, thank you so much for being here.
Sergeant Aquilino Gonell [00:38:10] Thanks, Farai, for hosting me.
Farai Chideya [00:38:12] You're wearing a shirt that says Veteran and behind you are a number of emblems of your service, both in the U.S. military and for the police. Shields badges, honors. I've gotten to hear second hand from my family what it means to serve as an officer who ended up having to defend the Capitol. What's a service mean to you?
Sergeant Aquilino Gonell - All of the medals and things that are behind me, although they are well-received while serving I had not done all the things that I had done because of those of to get any medals, I took an oath to defend this country. Back in 1999, when I joined the military and I for eight years in the Army Reserves and one deployment overseas, I kept that cadmium commitment in an album I returned to to the U.S., Continental U.S.. I came back, finished my education, had one semester left album. I retired from Iraq and I. I knew I needed to finish that. And once I finished out, then I began to to seek another employment, to continue my service to this country as a police officer. Before I left to Iraq, I applied to for multiple U.S. But some of them I never followed because of my deployment. And by the time I got back, I had forgotten. But all these matter behind me. Are a result of my devotion to defend this country as a way to give back this country. Because they gave me that opportunity to come to United States and because he has been my home and I consider this place, this country, my home in a need had. So seeing the Capitol on January six, where I spent 16 years as a police officer, the border police of I enjoyed our job when we were attacked, that was devastating for me. And I'm like, what am I doing? What are these people doing? And then what I wanted to do to defend what I have held dear, which was, you know, defending this country, defending that cap, the proper defending the Constitution. Because when I joined the Capitol Police, I took the same oath that we take, which is a pledge allegiance when we joined the military. So that was like a continuation of my service to this country. And overall, I have spent half of my life, almost 23 years as a public servant. And so in this country. So when people say that, you know, I'm mainly saying these things for. Calling attention to myself or being? I don't think so. I mean, I I'm a foreigner myself, a naturalized citizen. And I was defending the capital being attacked by native born U.S. citizens. That's the irony right there, where normally people say, well, the threat is coming from overseas. The threat is coming from this group or that group. Immigrants. And I don't remember seeing a lot of immigrants attacking the Capitol on January six. Those were.
Farai Chideya [00:03:09] Amen to that.
Sergeant Aquilino Gonell [00:03:10] A lot of a lot of white people were attacking the Capitol and most of them had extremist view. And I'm not saying that the whole January 6 was about racism and discrimination. But there were a lot of racist people there on that day.
Farai Chideya [00:41:45] Well, you saw the Confederate flag used as a symbol of insurrection, which had never happened previously at the US Capitol. People brought that on that day and part two of your book starts with the morning of January 6th, 2021, the day of the attack at the Capitol. You were stationed at the Lower West Terrace that day. So can you walk us through a little bit of what happened there?
Sergeant Aquilino Gonell [00:42:06] I mean, I started my day at roughly 5 o'clock in the morning and I got to work around 6:10. We did all the things that I needed to do as a supervisor for a squad of 15, 12 people, and then also an additional 12 or 15 other officers who I also had to supervise because they only had an acting sergeant. So I was kind of helping out and giving direction. So overall, we have… I have at least 30 people under my command and we brief whatever information we had at that time. We went to breakfast and then we were staged at the north entrance of the visitor center. It was now on to close to 12:00 in the morning that we began to listen and hearing a lot of commotion on the radio. And as you can hear on those communications, it's kind of like a crescendo of urgency there's a lot of things that were happening. And it became, the radio became more busy, more busy and with more urgency. At some point, I think around close to 1:00, there was a call on the radio that says, send all units available, all available to the west front. We have a breach. You have a breach or something like that. Officers are getting attacked. So my area of responsibility was not even the lower West stairs or the West Front. It was the East. But because of that urgent call, I took upon myself to say, you know what? Let's redeploy and go to a West Front. At no point did I think that the mission was also a target or was part of the attack because we were surrounded, but we didn't know that. All I care was that the officers on the West front were attacked and they called for all senior units were… I'm always part of that group. And as a supervisor, I made a conscious decision to respond. Once I got to the outside the building where the president comes out to get sworn in on the west front, on the iconic arch, all I could hear is a crowd, the roaring crowd attacking the officers in the body. Once we got to this stage, I paused for a little bit. All I see is all these people running toward the capital. I see those people rushing to attack the capital and and breaching the police line, some of them attacking the police officer as we were going down. When I got down there to the west front, to the police last night, immediately became engaged with the violence myself. There was more time for me to coordinate because we were trying to help out the officers who were already there and they were already getting beat up. Pushed, shoved, trampled taking to the ground by spray, bear spray, all kinds of stuff. So that was a. Probably like half an hour to an hour fight. Then we lost the police line. We all got pushed, including my team, to the southwest corner of the stage. And if. If it wasn't because of Metropolitan Police, we would have lost the police line a lot earlier. Those 60 to 70 officers from Metropolitan police were when I saw them coming down off the stage and the grand steps. I'm like, thank God they are coming. But then they stopped. There was no more of them. I'm like, This is going to be a ****. And it was. We fought there for probably another half an hour. We push him out to all the way to the set of steps in the west front. We tried to set up a police barrier and stand our police line with barriers. We officers and the people are relentlessly continuing to attack us with everything that they have and everything that they could get their hands on to include breaking down our police barriers and throwing cans of soda, batteries, wood poles, sprayed pepper spray, people with weapons there.
Farai Chideya [00:46:46] And we we've seen in some of the footage that, you know, at least one of the attackers on January 6th was using a Blue Lives Matter flag. And you've said that some of the attackers called you and your fellow officers traitors as they beat you. But let me ask you a bit of an emotional question. I'm asking you questions right now that must still call up emotional reactions for you, because you have to be a human being as as well as a book author, as well as someone who has served in many ways. Why do you take on the emotional labor of telling your story? What do you hope that telling your story will give to America as a gift?
Sergeant Aquilino Gonell [00:47:35] Part of keeping the oath, the way I see it is telling people what happened to me. So I probably like a week or to a few days after January 6th, I saw an article on The Washington Post where Michael Fanone And 2 or 3 other officer came in and spoke about what happened, their experience, and not to take anything away from them. But I was like if that their story, mine was a lot worse because I looking through records and various injuries, I have been attacked. I was attacked by more than 50 people.
Farai Chideya [00:48:23] 50 people.
Sergeant Aquilino Gonell [00:48:24] More.
Farai Chideya [00:48:24] Wow.
Sergeant Aquilino Gonell [00:48:25] And sometime simultaneously, sometime in the individually, sometimes all in conjunctionall out. People are pushing me, kicking me, punching me, trying to take away my equipment, hitting me with stolen police baton, pepper spraying me and stuff. And like, that’s only at the west front alone. Then, you know, we're moving into the tunnel where I almost lost my life. Now, once, not twice, but three times. And my day did not end on January 6th. My day ended ended at 3 a.m. on January 7th. Especially that way when they're same experience in the tunnel. In the tunnel, that's where my foot was injured. That's where my shoulder, left shoulder was injured and that's where I almost got dragged just like they did to Michael Fanone. Had it not been because Metropolitan police officers that hit the person who was pulling me, I think I would have been pulled into a crowd as well. That right there, I, I run into many officers who were like me defending their entrance and that because we thought that that was the only entrance that was being breached. And we were then sure that we needed to stop the mob from coming in because all these entrances around there leads to safe passages for the elected officials. I knew that because I work there, I walk those hallways before and those are safe houses and things like that that are secure for the members. But. When I made a conscious decision to stay there not for three minutes, not for an hour. But I was there for from from 1:00 all the way to 6:00PM. Now that I take some time to gather myself. Yes. But when Hodges was being pressed against the door frame and he couldn't breathe. And he yelled and scream. I was right next to him when my colleague, one of the first person to call, was injured and he got concussed, which I didn't know until 1:00 in the morning. I didn't know what happened to him, but I saw the fear in his eyes. I saw that the whiteness in eyes, in fear and all I can do is keep your head up, keep, you know, pay attention forward. Not only that, I had to worry about him, but I also had to worry about the people who were in front of me. And when he got hit. I couldn't do anything. He got taken out when Michael Fanone relieved me, and later on, this is like months later that I find out that he actually relieved me. I didn't know who he was. I didn't know. But yet he would leave me and the guilt to still there. It gives still there because some like like you said earlier, why do I take the trauma to to say, well, a lot of the thing that happened to me and to my officers, including some from empathy that came to our rescue, I think because of what they did, I think we all being telling a different story about what happened. And I think I'll take it upon myself to tell my story so people learn what happened because it was multiple people attacking me, multiple people attacking the other officers. And we risked our lives to, you know, and put our bodies in the way so the elected officials continue their job and do their work and the originally thinking that they were going to do the right thing. But unfortunately, they have now they have turned back… their back on us, on the veterans, on us, the police officers. For a party that continued to claim they are in favor or support of police officers to back the blue, the law and order, the rule of law. To me, that's B.S. because they had not shown that they do care about that, especially when it comes to police officers from Capitol Police, Metropolitan police and all those law enforcement personnel that responded at the capital risking their lives to say save theirs. And, you know, just last week, the former president called the January 6ers that are incarcerated hostages.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: I call them the J6 hostages, not prisoners. I call them the hostages. What's happened, man? It's a shame.
Sergeant Aquilino Gonell - So if he is calling them hostages, what does that make me? The hostage taker, The kidnappers? I mean, it's insane.
Farai Chideya [00:53:23] Yeah. And you're talking about former President Donald Trump, who has certainly played a very distinct role in inciting the crowd on January 6th. But he wanted to be there in person. He wanted to go. And it was the Secret Service apparently, that prevented him from showing up in person.
Sergeant Aquilino Gonell [00:53:40] Yeah. And the other thing is the level of this belief is that the very same people who we risk our lives, the very same people who are running scared off the Mall, people who are fearful for their lives on January 6, now had the guts to downplay or deny what happened or continue to support the former president.
Farai Chideya [00:54:08] This is only the beginning of our conversation with former Capitol Police Sergeant Gonell. After the holiday, we'll bring you part two of this important conversation. And what compelled him to speak up.
Sergeant Aquilino Gonell [00:54:19] For somebody like me who has swore an oath to protect the Constitution, devoted half of my life to protect this country. Remaining silent was not an option to me.
Farai Chideya [00:54:32] Before we wrap up, tell us what's on your mind by leaving us a voicemail at (929) 353-7006. That's (929) 353-7006. Or share with us on social @OurBodyPolitic. Thanks for listening to Our Body Politic. We're on the air each week and everywhere you listen to podcasts, we'd also like to invite you to sign up for our newsletter where we share additional insights and resources for the OBP community. Check us out on Instagram @OurBodyPolitic and click on the link in our bio.
Our Body Politic is produced by Diaspora farms and Rococo Punch. I'm host and executive producer Farai Chideya. Nina Spensley and Shanta Covington are also executive producers. Emily J. Daly is our senior producer. Bridget McAllister is our booking producer. Andrea Asuaje, Ann Marie Awad, Natyna Bean, Morgan Givens, Emily Ho and Monica Morales Garcia are our producers. Amelia Schonbek is our fact checker. Our associate producer is David Escobar. Our technical director is Mike Garth with help from Elijah Sheets and The Cutting Room studios.
This program is produced with support from the Luce Foundation, Open Society Foundation, Ford Foundation, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, Democracy Fund, The Harnisch Foundation, Compton Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the BMe Community, Katie McGrath & JJ Abrams Family Foundation, The Pop Culture Collaborative, and from generous contributions from listeners like you.