Our Body Politic

The Truth Behind Deputy Gangs Inside the LA Sheriff’s Office

Episode Summary

There are at least 18 documented gangs inside the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. Farai speaks with award-winning reporter Cerise Castle about her 15-part investigative series that explores the complex history of ‘deputy gangs.’ Her reporting finds that this group has terrorized and murdered Angelenos for decades with litigation related to these cases costing the County just over $100 million over the past 30 years. Later, Karen Attiah, Washington Post columnist and show contributor, leads our weekly roundtable ‘Sippin’ The Political Tea,’ on the importance of authentic self care including social media breaks. Attiah is joined by Morra Aarons-Mele, host of The Anxious Achiever podcast AND a forthcoming book with the same title; and Isa Watson, author of Life Beyond Likes and founder & CEO of the Squad app. Content Advisory: Descriptions of police violence

Episode Transcription

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Farai Chideya - This is Our Body Politic. I'm Farai Chideya. Inside the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, there are violent gangs of deputies that have terrorized and murdered Angelinos for decades. That's what Cerise Castle exposed in her 15 part investigative report, A Tradition of Violence, which was published in 2021 by the nonprofit community newsroom. Knock L.A.. Her reporting, which is now also a podcast, earned her a Courage and Journalism award from the International Women's Media Foundation and an American Journalism Online award from NYU. And now she's a winner, along with Carvell Wallace of this year's prestigious American Mosaic Journalism Prize. As a warning to our listeners. Our conversation includes descriptions of police violence. So please take care of yourselves. Thank you for coming on the show Cerise. 

Cerise Castle - Thank you so much for having me. 

Farai Chideya - Full disclosure, I was on the selection committee for this award and it was just such an honor to get to consider different people and a great honor to see your work be foregrounded. But I'm sure that well before the awards, there were a lot of tough choices. How did you make the choice to report this work, knowing that you probably weren't going to be the most popular person in the L.A. Sheriff's Department? 

Cerise Castle - I got into this work because I saw a need in my community that had not been met for several decades. While I'm not the first reporter to dive into the deputy gangs and I really want to credit and thank the people that came before me that laid the foundation. There really wasn't any solid accounting of the history of these gangs. I finally was afforded the opportunity in a somewhat ironic way. I was out covering the protests that erupted across Los Angeles in response to the murder of George Floyd in 2020. And while I was covering that, I was actually shot with a less lethal munition by a police officer. And the injuries that resulted from that incident placed me on bed rest and put a hard stop to the work that I was doing. And I didn't feel right sitting in that time, being a black journalist, not engaging in what was happening in the discussions that we were having in this country. After I was shot, there was a report on local news by a reporter, Kate Cagle, at Spectrum. She got her hands on deposition testimony from a deputy inside of the sheriff's department who said on the record that a young man who had been shot and killed just a few days after I was injured, that he was killed as part of a… perhaps a ritual to get into a deputy gang. And when I saw that on television, all of these memories and the question that I had been carrying came rushing back to me. And I thought to myself, well, perhaps this is the moment that I can finally dive into this investigation. And I began. 

Farai Chideya - So you are on bed rest, but your brain was active. Deputy gangs. Those are not words that I've heard together a lot. What are deputy gangs? How many people have potentially died from this? 

Cerise Castle - So deputy gangs are very similar to what people would associate with a street gang, a criminal street organization. The only difference is that deputy gangs have the legal authority to kill people and they are protected by county government, sometimes state government, while they are doing these various crimes. The California Penal Code defines a criminal gang as a group of three or more people that share a common name sign, hand gesture, symbol that commit a lengthy list of different criminal offenses ranging from theft, murder, so on. And these deputy gangs fit this description perfectly. 

Farai Chideya - And how many killings are they suspected of having been a part of, or do people know? 

Cerise Castle - It's hard to tell. Deputy gangs are incredibly secretive. They are not advertising the different situations and deaths that they are responsible for. In my investigation, I uncovered 19 deaths that I found were deputy gang members were responsible. All of those were people of color, and seven of them were people that were in the midst of a mental health crisis. 

Farai Chideya - 19 people at least. That is not insignificant. One is too many, but 19. And you were reporting on years of activity. Just a basic question. Why didn't anybody stop this sooner? 

Cerise Castle - That is really the million dollar question. Local government here in Los Angeles County has known about deputy gangs since at least the 1980s, But there was never any investigation opened into this issue until after I published my 15 part series. The California legislature has known about this issue since at least the 1990s, as has the federal government, and yet there have not been any policies handed down that criminalize or make it grounds for discipline to be in a deputy gang. 

Farai Chideya - You mentioned that some gangs like the Wayside Whiteys and The Executioners in Compton are white supremacists. Other gangs let in officers of color. I think that we all know now…as much as we ever knew that not every officer who kills a citizen is white. Can you give us a sense of the different types of deputy gangs that you encountered and how explicitly white supremacy was part of them, or whether for others it was in the background? 

Cerise Castle - All of these gangs have links to white supremacy, and I think that is the way it is because white supremacy is inextricably linked to policing in this country. While you do have some deputy gangs that may be predominantly made up of people of color, such as the Banditos, which is mostly Latino deputies in the East Los Angeles area, they are still carrying out crimes and offenses that target explicitly people of color, sometimes even other Latinos. And you see it in other gangs as well. One of the white supremacist gangs that I reported on, a gang called IPA, which takes its name from a Ku Klux Klan acronym, it has Latino and black members within its ranks. This idea of white supremacy… you do not need to be a white to be a white supremacist. 

Farai Chideya - And yes, I always point out that Enrique Tarrio of the Proud Boys is Afro-Cuban and a white supremacist. And white supremacy is an ideology. But it's still shocking, isn't it, sometimes to realize how people of color are a part of white supremacist organizations? 

Cerise Castle - Yes, it's shocking. And it does not get any less disturbing. 

Farai Chideya - So for the ones who are perhaps more explicitly white supremacist and white led. Give me a case, something you investigated and what you found out. 

Cerise Castle - One excellent example of how white supremacy can be present in these deputy gangs and the complete lack of accountability that we see from both the sheriff's department and county government. Again, comes from the IPA gang. This is a gang based at the North County Correctional Facility in Los Angeles County. And its members, while they are mostly white, include people of color as well. Recently, a member of the gang who is alleged to be a shot caller or leader was charged with felony assault on a woman of color. This man, Konrad Thieme, had a history of domestic violence dating back to when he first joined the sheriff's department. He was arrested for domestic violence. He was never charged. He was never disciplined for that by the sheriff's department. And he went on to have several violent incidents that I was able to uncover through my investigations. I found that he attacked at least three women of color while out on patrol. And none of those attacks were flagged by station leadership. None of that was ever questioned until his body camera was audited. And that resulted in the charges that he is still facing. However, he is currently on leave from the sheriff's department, which means he can still get his job back. He's still getting paid and he's still entitled to his pension. 

Farai Chideya - You reported that over the last 30 years, litigation from cases involving deputy gangs has cost over $100 million. What does it mean that these big checks are going out? But it doesn't sound like the officers are being tracked and disciplined the way that anyone else might? 

Cerise Castle - Yes, that's correct. And from what I've been able to uncover in my reporting, none of the officers that contributed to that $100 million number were disciplined for any of those actions. It's really become institutionalized these payouts that are given to families. The county just appears to see it as the cost of doing business with the sheriff's department. This money, in most cases, it's coming from the county's general fund, which is generated by taxpayer dollars. This is a system where both residents and visitors to Los Angeles County are effectively paying off these families to go away after they have lost a loved one. And there are no changes that are demanded by county government for the sheriff's department to fix how they are doing business and engaging with the community. Already this year, the sheriff's department has shot seven people and it is mid-February. People are happy to point to the fact that we elected a new sheriff, but without any meaningful change or policy to address these issues. The problem, unfortunately, continues to metastasize. 

Farai Chideya - Let's go back to another one of the historic cases. Hong Pyo Lee in 1988. Can you tell us about that case? 

Cerise Castle - Hong Pyo Lee was a young man who was driving through the city of Compton late one night, and he was followed by a few deputies out on patrol who claimed that Hong Pyo ran a stop sign and they followed him from Compton to Long Beach, which is several miles chasing him. He got his car to a railyard when he stopped his car. The deputies at that point had exited their patrol vehicles and for some reason they opened fire on Hong Pyo and killed him. In the sheriff's department's narrative about the incident, they said that Hung Pyo had attempted to use his car as a weapon and run over the deputies. But forensic evidence shows that never happened. Hong Pyo was stopped. His car was in the park position and he was executed. 

Farai Chideya - What happened? Was there any consequence?

Cerise Castle - After he was shot there were two officers on the scene from the Long Beach Police Department, and it came out in deposition testimony that one of the officers said to the other one, we've just witnessed a murder. The family of Hong Pyo filed a civil rights lawsuit against Los Angeles County, which settled for $999,000. But none of the deputies that were responsible for his death appear to have been disciplined. In fact, they were promoted. The highest ranking deputy on the scene was a man by the name of Paul Tanaka. He is Japanese and he was a member of a white supremacist deputy gang called The Vikings that was based at the Lynwood station. Paul Tanaka went on to rise through the ranks following this shooting very quickly. He ended up as undersheriff that is second in command of the entire sheriff's department under Mr. Lee Baca, who was a sheriff of ours that was federally indicted for obstruction of justice, along with Paul Tanaka. And both he and Tanaka served time in federal prison as a result of those federal obstruction of justice charges. They've both since been released, and Mr. Tanaka is out living his life. 

Farai Chideya - We interview all sorts of people on this show and certainly have interviewed members of law enforcement. For example, we interviewed Dr. Erroll Southers, who's an expert on extremism and terrorism. And I brought him on this show because I had heard him on Trymaine Lee's podcast Into America. And having an officer as he was researching the Klan, saying, Well, you might see me at one of those meetings, you know, like one of his fellow officers just being like, hey, just as a heads up. And so one of the things I think about for the people who are in law enforcement to try to really do good, they have to work with these people every day and they see them get off for this. I mean, have you talked to members of law enforcement who want to see this ended and how do they feel about it? 

Cerise Castle - Oh, yes. I have several sources that are both former and current members of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, and they're horrified that this is the state of the department. They all would agree that things have continued to get worse over the years. And it's an incredibly dangerous environment to work in as someone who wants to do the right thing, someone who wants to treat members of the community compassionately and with respect, that's looked down on and that sort of thing is not rewarded. The people that are trying to do the right thing are often the ones that are passed over for promotions. These are the people that have false investigations placed on them for calling out their colleagues who have done something wrong. I believe they would agree when they say that there needs to be a radical change in the department and many of them believe that the department needs to be completely abolished. 

Farai Chideya - So where do things stand with this investigation and how it's being received by the public? How have people in law enforcement, people in government, citizens and residents of L.A., how people responded to your reporting? 

Cerise Castle - The response to my reporting from the public has been fantastic. The community created a hashtag Google #LASDgangs, which I have seen placed on stickers that I've spotted throughout Los Angeles and beyond across the United States. I've seen that same hashtag tagged on freeway overpasses, hung from banners. The response from members of law enforcement, I would say, also are overwhelmingly positive. I've been able to make contacts with additional people inside the department as a result of my reporting who have brought forward other concerns and other leads for me to follow. Attorneys have used my reporting to completely change the course of litigation that they are pursuing against the county where clients have been assaulted and even killed by deputies. But of course, there has been negative feedback as well. I have received a number of death threats as a result of my reporting. I had to briefly go into hiding when the series was first published because these were credible threats, calling for my death, for my rape. I've had. Unexplained police cars parked outside of my home. I've received anonymous phone calls with heavy breathing or a voice telling me all kinds of horrible things and calling me horrible names. I have had officials and people within county government threaten me for stories that I have published. But. None of that would ever stop me from doing what I'm doing. There's just such a great need for this. Before me. There was never really anyone that was dedicated to spending time on reporting out this issue. And it's a story, unfortunately, that continues to unfold with each passing day. And I feel an immense amount of responsibility to my community and to my neighbors to continue to expose what is happening inside of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department. 

Farai Chideya - So let's talk a little bit about this prize. You have been granted the American Mosaic Prize, and it is for freelance journalist. And most of my career I worked in big newsrooms. I spent some time freelancing and I was always financially paranoid about where the next money was coming in. I just think that the fact that this American Mosaic Journalism Prize comes with money is important. What has it been like to take the risks aside from potential violence and all the things you just talked about, the but the financial risks of being a freelance independent reporter. 

Cerise Castle - Reporting on this story has been probably the most expensive endeavor that I've undertaken professionally. Everything from just accessing documents necessary to make sense of what is happening. That's a significant cost for the podcast. I spent about $6,000 on court documents. One case that I am looking into at the moment, I was quoted $24,000 to review all of the material by a clerk at the federal courthouse. So that cost is exponential. But there is the everyday cost as well, driving out to these various courthouses and these various locations to visit sources. The cost of security. I mentioned that at one point I had to leave my home for two weeks and go to a safe house and be without a cell phone disconnected because the concern was so high for my safety. You know, that is not without cost. And there are concerns that come up every day that, you know, have a price tag attached to them. For example, if I if I get a good tip from someone that lives in Texas and I need to go travel there, there's always the question of, you know, how am I going to be able to afford this? When I wrote the initial series, I actually went into debt to accomplish that. 

Farai Chideya - Yep. 

Cerise Castle - So this prize, I mean, it's truly life changing. This will give me the opportunity to continue my reporting without that worry, without the stress that comes with trying to figure out how am I going to be able to afford to keep reporting on this. I am frankly gobsmacked. I'm excited. I am relieved at the chance and the opportunity for this. And the community stands to benefit so much from this as well, because I can continue to go after all of these stories without any concern. From a financial standpoint. 

Farai Chideya - I can't tell you how happy it makes me to just to see a path for someone like you who's dedicated, brave. You know, completely on it. And for whom the traditional system of journalism just doesn't really pay what it should. So obviously, this is a game changer for you. What do you think a game changer would be for freelance journalists like yourself who are taking risks… because it's rough.

Cerise Castle - I would say the greatest action that legacy media outlets can take for freelance journalists is acknowledging and crediting their work. While my series did have a significant impact in the Los Angeles community, it really wasn't until the IWMF recognized the work that I received that same recognition from establishment journalism. There were several articles that were written about deputy gangs that borrowed heavily from the reporting that I did and did not credit where that information had come from. There was no acknowledgment of the work that I had done, and that continues to keep the risk very large for me. While the threats have sort of died down, they're not coming as frequently as they were in the past. I really credit that to the fact that other journalists have begun to acknowledge me as a reporter and the work that I am doing before, when I was just a freelancer that no one was really familiar with, it would have been very easy to do something to me and have it not really make any impact. And I think that's why so many members of law enforcement were comfortable taking those actions against me. There are still some, I still have deputies that monitor my Instagram religiously. There is still a team of so-called crime analysts at the sheriff's department that watch everything that I do online. But the threats have, as I said, sort of died down a little bit. And I'm not the only freelancer that this happens to. One of my mentees, Ben Camacho, exposed a police gang in the Santa Ana Police Department, and he was met with so many threats and very little acknowledgment from the establishment, really taking that time to credit the people that are doing the work and giving them that respect. It can quite literally help keep us alive just beyond the, you know, professional accommodations, which I think we deserve as well. It can literally be the difference between life and death for freelancers like us. 

Farai Chideya - What other sorts of issues are you looking at, Cerise? 

Cerise Castle - One of the issues that's really at the forefront right now for reporters in Los Angeles covering the sheriff's department is the state of the jails. The L.A. County jail system has been the subject of a monitor since at least the 1970s. And yet the concerns that were brought up 40 years ago are still very present today. There is an obscenely high number of deaths that occur in the jails. And a recent study from the University of California, Los Angeles, in partnership with a community health organization, Dignity and Power Now, found that of the deaths that they were able to look at at least 50% of the deaths that they were able to examine, that had been marked as natural causes showed evidence of physical assaults and of those deaths, these were all young men of color. We know that there are deputy gangs in the jails, and we know that because recruits straight from the academy are being placed in the jails, they are being trained day one in these violent deputy gang tactics. They're overseeing the potential murders of folks incarcerated at the jails and taking those same brutal tactics out onto the street and further perpetuating that cycle of violence. 

Farai Chideya - So given your service to Greater Los Angeles by doing this work. What makes you love L.A.? What gives you life about L.A., even as you see it's more troubling side? 

Cerise Castle - Yeah. I could not imagine making my life anywhere else. Los Angeles is a beautiful county. We have so much biodiversity here. We have an ocean, we have forests, we have deserts. We have one of the most diverse populations in this country. And the sense of community that I have become more familiar with through my reporting is it's incredible just to see people coming together to call on county government to make some really necessary changes. While I am engaged with so many of the negative aspects of life in Los Angeles County, I'm also given so many opportunities to see beauty like that, to see so many people coming together and working for the greater good. It's incredible. I can't imagine living anywhere else. 

Farai Chideya - Well, that's a perfect place to leave it. Cerise, thank you so much for spending time with us and I hope you'll come on again. 

Cerise Castle - Oh, I would love to. Thank you so much for having me. 

Farai Chideya - That was Cerise Castle, L.A. based freelance journalist and winner of a 2023 American Mosaic Journalism Prize for her 15 part series, A Tradition of Violence. You can find a link to her full investigation and the companion podcast at our Web site, ourbodypolitic.com. 

Farai Chideya - Each week on the show, we bring you a roundtable called Sippin the Political Tea. And this week our body politic contributor and Washington Post columnist Karen Attiah is back to lead the conversation. We're talking, unplugging, resetting and resisting hustle culture. Take it away, Karen. 

Karen Attiah - Thanks, Farai. I'm excited to be here. Joining me this week is Isa Watson, co-founder and CEO of the Squad App, a professional skydiver and the author of Life Beyond Likes: Logging Off Your Screen and Into Your Life. Welcome to the show, Isa

Isa Watson - Hi, Karen. Thanks for having me. 

Karen Attiah - Of course. And Morra Aarons-Mele author of the upcoming book The Anxious Achiever: Turn Your Biggest Fears into Your Leadership Superpower, and host of The Anxious Achiever podcast. Hey, Morra. 

Morra Aarons-Mele - Hi, Karen. 

Karen Attiah - So this week, we're discussing how to disengage from toxic digital habits and reengage in real life. Plus, we'll discuss hustle, culture, soft life culture and the value of slowing down and being present. To begin, Isa, you've said that you wrote your book because you realized you were living, quote, such a BS. What did that look like to you? 

Isa Watson - You know, I was on Wall Street at the time, a strategic right hand to the C-suite at JPMorgan and in big roles. And I was so focused at that time on positioning myself to the world. You know, I was getting top 30 under 30 awards, top 100 alumni awards, and that's what I over indexed for. And so when I actually went through my own personal tragedy where my parents sponsored a bus trip because of us at Hampton University, every year, this particular year, the best right off a straight road, flipped over, ejected both my parents out their front window, and my dad didn't survive that. I realized when I hit rock bottom that I had not invested in the stabilizing forces in my life, those relationships and in living my actual life. And so my BS was really around, Hey, let me show this Isa to the world and less about living as Isa. 

Karen Attiah - You've talked about rejecting the idea of being busy all the time and the power of saying no. Can you talk a little bit about that? 

Isa Watson - I think that we are in this hustle culture slash perfectionism echo chamber and the digital ethos. And what that does is that makes us feel like we're not doing enough when we're looking at someone else talking about their hustle. And, you know, social media is one of those places where you're comparing your whole life to other people's perfection and highlight reels. And when we have gotten into this whole culture of talking about hustle all the time, it really kind of invalidates us or it feels invalidating, but we just want to rest, right? And so I always tell people that there needs to be some type of dissociation between what we feel and how we're living our lives and what we see online. 

Karen Attiah - Morra, I want to turn to you. You've been open about your early career anxieties and you've said you were worried that you didn't have the right temperament to be an entrepreneur. So how did that affect your early career decisions? 

Morra Aarons-Mele - I kept getting jobs and then quitting them and crying a lot in the bathroom in between. I really came of age professionally in a world where mentorship didn't exist and you sort of just had to figure everything out on your own. And I was motivated and smart and very ambitious, and so I was able to interview well and get good jobs. But the whole environment of the office and showing up and office politics and networking and trying to hold my own in a meeting and work under fluorescent lights all day, frankly, was just too much for my very anxious, very introverted temperament. And it wasn't until I had quit about nine jobs that I realized I have to work differently. I thought my ambition was gone for two solid years after I quit my last corporate job. Then I started freelancing. And once I was able to work on my terms and manage my day to suit both my ambition and my anxiety and my introverted nature, I realized I love what I do. I want to do huge things. I just need to do it my way. 

Karen Attiah - I guess for both of you, there is this intersection between busyness and imposter syndrome, quote unquote, especially for women probably, and probably especially in the digital age, where we have to perform busyness, we have to clock in, we have to be available all the time. We have to, you know, be ready to text back. I'm curious about how that maybe intersected for you. 

Morra Aarons-Mele - I still have chronic anxiety and a big way my anxiety manifests is through constant action and movement. I mean, I think that the question behind why am I so busy to me is why am I so anxious? Because that feeling of restlessness, of never stopping, of constantly comparing of imposter syndrome, imposter feelings, even perfectionism acting out perfectionistic thoughts, which is ,”if I'm not perfect, I'm not worth it.” And perfectionist behaviors which can look like overworking, micromanaging or avoiding that's all about anxiety. And so I have no problem with hustling your heart out when it's right and it's coming from a place of mission and values and purpose. But what I ask people is, “Are you so busy because you're so anxious?” 

Karen Attiah - I've seen over the last maybe like two years or so, you know, social media and this sort of esthetic called like #softlife or #blackgirlluxury. So like photos and stories of black women vacationing, traveling, indulging, and just this idea that black women and girls should model and show ourselves resting and enjoying. So like the antidote of wholesale culture. Here's vlogger Lucy Benson talking about #softlife. 

Lucy Benson [CLIP] - The other part of self-care is treating yourself. Taking yourself on trips, solo dates. You know, spoiling yourself. Why are you making all this money if you cannot shower yourself with gifts, if you cannot put it back into yourself? 

Karen Attiah - I'm curious about what you make of the soft life esthetic movement. 

Isa Watson - Well, in theory, I like it because I think that black women in general wear consider these really strong beyond human beings. And I feel like we're not really extended a lot of grace in big ways. And so, you know, for there to be a realization of, hey, we should give ourselves grace, we should invest in what self-care looks like for us, I think that's powerful. I think that on the flip side, you know, we just also have to be careful of does this feed into the perfectionism echo chamber? Like if I'm not showing these fabulous vacation photos, do I feel not great because my soft life is probably me with a bonnet on my head, laying up in my bed with probably a little bit of cracks in my eyes, still watching my favorite TV show and a cup of tea. And so I think that, you know, there's that component to, like I said, in theory, I like it. I just want to make sure that people understand that not all soft life moments are instagrammable and that's okay. 

Karen Attiah - I suppose this is a broader context of the sort of #selfcare movement. You know, rest is as resistance. I'm curious of what you make of performing rest and care online. 

Morra Aarons-Mele - It's so interesting because I hate the word self-care because it has become so minimized and also so feminine. And sometimes, unfortunately, when words are feminine in our culture, they don't get taken seriously. Self-care is essential to mental health, to performing your best, everything. But it's also easily made into a commodity as just one more thing to buy and spend money on. And I want people to take self-care really seriously and build it into their days because it's an essential part of life. 

Karen Attiah - Absolutely. And I so agree with you in terms of self-care as as this term, I think in many ways what we're talking about when we say self-care is maybe more so self-soothing in response to the fact that society, particularly for women, does not care for us in terms of affording maternity leave or in terms of mental health access, in terms of just all the ways that the patriarchy and racism and sexism, you know, affect us. And so I think there's something to be said for… there's an element of self-care that does require policy engagement and activism, right? 

You're listening to Sippin’ The Political Tea on Our Body Politic. I'm contributor and Washington Post columnist. Karen Attiah. This week we're discussing unplugging from digital distractions and hustle culture with Isa Watson, founder and CEO of the Squad App and the author of Life Beyond Likes: Logging Off Your Screen and Into Your Life and Morra Aarons-Mele, author of the upcoming book The Anxious Achiever and host of The Anxious Achiever Podcast. 

Okay, So we're talking now it's Black History Month specifically is black women. Personally, I don't love being online during the early days of Black History Month because it feels somewhat exhausting to feel like, you know, we have to perform black history maybe, or blackness or educating white folks. Right. So I'm just curious about how we can even think about using this time this month as, you know, black people and black women to think about energy preservation and to think about how, again, you know, social media, we can use it or not use it constructively. 

Isa Watson - Yeah, there's a lot of performative behavior on social media and Black History Month and Women's History Month. There's also just a lot of conversations that, you know, I choose not to opt into because I'm black every day. You know, I'm not black for these 28 days in February. And so I think that for me, you know, I've learned to ignore a lot of the performative behavior just because it helps me protect my own sanity. Right? I can't engage in a lot of conversations that people want to engage in all the time, because I'm…you know, people can talk about it, but I have to live in the skin and walk the walk every single day and experience what that's like. Right? And so I think self preservation, I like that term you used because I think I find a lot of black people in a lot of black women… Because keep in mind, we have two months back to back. Right. There's Black History Month as Women's History Month. More performative behavior. And so I think it's really about choosing what to engage in, choosing what not to engage in, and just protecting your space, your mental space. Like Morra said, I don't I'm not going to have the energy to to be engaged in everything at the time that it pops up. And I think that's okay. 

Karen Attiah - Yeah, I think a lot about Toni Morrison's words about racism. And this could be applied to Women's History Month, probably talking about the fight against sexism. And the purpose of these isms, she's talking about racism, but the purpose of the isms is distraction. It distracts you from your work. You have to take a break and explain to somebody why you deserve to be treated as a human being. And that gets exhausting. So like you said, I'd rather be in my bonnet in the bath, like be online trying to convince people to just be decent human beings to women and people of color, black people. So to wrap this up. I'm just curious about the ways that you both unplug and just what are your rest and your care practices. I'll start with you, Morra. 

Morra Aarons-Mele - I'm a work in progress for sure. 

Karen Attiah-  Aren't we all? 

Morra Aarons-Mele - Aren't we all? You know, I think that just learning that you can have boundaries, you don't have to participate every day in the discourse on social media. You probably don't even have to slack as much as you think you do. Right. And really thinking about what makes me feel balanced rather than what makes me feel drained. Also, as I get older, I really think that there are seasons in our life. You know, if you are in a moment where you need to perform on social media because you are trying to build a name for yourself because you have a book coming out like, it's okay to say, you know, these six months are going to be really rough. I'm going to be performative. I'm going to be exhausted,I'm going to check my email all the time. But this is a season in my life and it's aligned to my purpose, my values and my mission. Like, I've written this book and I really want people to pay attention because I think it's important. And so in six months, I'm going to reevaluate, you know, like we have seasons in life, and I think it always is about checking in with why am I doing this and how do I want to do it? 

Karen Attiah - Absolutely. How about you Isa?. 

Isa Watson - You know, and I talk about this in the book, but I think that there's a huge under-investment and friendships. You know, there's so much instant gratification of, hey, we're not connected on Facebook forever. We're friends or, hey, I see your posts and your baby is looking perfect and you look great. We're friends. But the reality is that friendship is such an active investment. It's a high effort, high reward type of thing. And I think that, you know, quite frankly, social media has made us complacent and feeling like we understand what all is going on in our friends lives, and we don't. I oftentimes ask people like, Hey, when's the last time we talked to your best friend? Often it's like, “Oh, well, a few months, three months, I've been meaning to call them.” But, you know, and I always tell people, like, if you had the level of intentionality with your friendships and investing of those as much as you do your work calendar and all your work requirements, we would be much happier beings. The CDC released data just this week saying that teenage girls have reached a record high level of sadness, feelings of persistent sadness and hopelessness. Right. And it's up 60% from a decade ago. And so I really do think that kind of investing in friendships,  that's where I guess so much of my love, so much of my stabilizing forces. And, you know, quite frankly, I'm a professional skydiver. I know it kind of like freaks people out a little bit. But, you know, when I jump out the plane at 14,000 feet, like that's my meditative space. And, you know, I'm skydiving at least twice a month, you know, throughout the year and it is so mentally resetting for me. But it took a lot of experimentation to find that that was the thing for me. And I think a lot of times people have to just have the patience to experiment with finding their joy centers. We take other peoples “Sure, I play, oh, they play tennis.” But like, I don't know, I don't I don't like it too much. Right? So experiment with your joy centers and friendships…they’re so critical. 

Karen Attiah - That is amazing – we'll definitely have to have a black girl skydive chat. I think you guys, you both have brought up so many interesting points and so many actionable things that I hope that our audience can take away from this. So I do want to thank you both for joining. Thank you so much, Morra. 

Morra Aarons-Mele - Thanks, Karen. 

Karen Attiah - And thank you, Isa. 

Isa Watson-  Thanks for having me. 

Karen Attiah - That was Isa Watson, founder and CEO of the Squad app, a professional skydiver and the author of Life Beyond Likes:  Logging Off Your Screen and Into Your Life. And Morra Aarons-Mele, author of the forthcoming book The Anxious Achiever: Turn Your Biggest Fears into Your Leadership Superpower and host of The Anxious Achiever podcast. 

Farai Chideya - And that was Karen Attiah, columnist at The Washington Post and Our Body Politic contributor, leading our roundtable, Sippin’ the Political Tea. 

Thanks for listening to Our Body Politic. I’m host and executive producer, Farai Chideya. Nina Spensley is also executive producer. Our Body Politic is produced by Diaspora Farms and Rococo Punch. Emily J. Daly is our senior producer. Bridget McAllister is our booking producer. Steve Lack and Anoa Changa are our producers. Natyna Bean and Emily Ho are our associate producers. Kelsey Kudak is our fact checker. 

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, and from generous contributions from listeners like you.