Jay Finds Activists Who Bear Witness, Take Note…
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Fueled with new information about the power of police union contracts, host Jay Ellis is determined to figure out if real change is even possible. So he heads to Austin, Texas where community organizers Sukyi McMahon and Chas Moore changed the course of history…in a city council chamber.
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[00:01] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: This podcast contains difficult content that may be triggering to some listeners. Please be advised.
[00:10] Dash-cam audio: Take a seat back in your car please.
[00:16] Sukyi McMahon: The police officer came to her door and asked for her license. He said that she’d been speeding and he’d pulled her over for that reason.
[00:27] Dash-cam audio: Put your feet back in the car so I can close the door.
[00:30] Sukyi McMahon: She asked him if they could just get on with it. I’m trying to just go about my day and this shouldn’t take longer than it needs to. But he took some serious offense.
[00:10] Dash-cam audio: Stop resisting, stop resisting me!
[00:46] Sukyi McMahon: And she’s maybe a buck, buck 20 at the most. And he’s around 200 pounds. Anyone who saw the moment where he picked her up and threw her on the ground — audible gasps.
[01:00] Dash-cam audio: Oh my God!
[01:02] Jay Ellis: This is The Untold Story: Policing. I’m Jay Ellis.
[01:07] Sukyi McMahon: He was just so overpowering and I can’t — I don’t know how to really explain. I can’t think of a good analogy for it. All I saw was just a huge, oppressive force against a tiny woman who just didn’t know what to say or do with her body to make it stop.
[01:37] Jay Ellis: It makes my stomach turn and mind race to all kinds of places, and If you’re anything like me, you get upset when you hear stories like this one, out of Austin, Texas. About Breaion King, a young teacher, who had this violent encounter with the police in 2015.
[01:55] Sukyi McMahon: And then en route to her being booked, and she’s sitting in the backseat seat and she’s handcuffed, and he says —
[02:05] Dash-cam audio: Why are so many people afraid of black people? I can give you a good idea why it might be that way: violent tendencies.
[02:21] Sukyi McMahon: It became glaringly obvious that nothing would come of it for this particular police officer. It’s like you grieve for the inability to get justice for her.
[02:35] Jay Ellis: Stories like this are so pervasive, we know the ending before the story even starts. And more often than not, the ending sucks, to be real. But today, we’re going to hear a different story from Breaion’s town. A story about an activist group that fought to redefine policing in their community, and won. In our last episode, I got my eyes opened in a major way about this really really important thing I barely even know existed: police union contracts.
[03:10] DeRay Mckesson: What they do, that is unlike anything else in organized labor, is that they create a set of protections around discipline and accountability, that almost guarantees that officers can’t be held unaccountable.
[03:23] Jay Ellis: I learned a lot from DeRay McKesson. You should check out episode 1 if you haven’t already. He gently reminded me that knowledge is power if you use it. And the knowledge DeRay laid out made me want to do something. He suggested I call up Sam Sinyangwe, just like I did in episode 1, because he always knows where to start.
[03:42] Sam Sinyangwe: Start with the data, analyze the data.
[03:47] Jay Ellis: He’s a data scientist. He specializes in weaving hard numbers, stats, specifics into a coherent fabric you can actually do something with.
[03:58] Sam Sinyangwe: And then push for policies that have worked, and that have evidence of effectiveness at addressing those core issues.
[04:07] Jay Ellis: And that’s what Sam did for police union contracts.
[04:09] Sam Sinyangwe: The police union contract project we launched in 2015 originally, focusing on 81 of 100 largest cities. Those are the cities that we could get access to their police union contracts. And so, we requested all of these contracts in cities across the country and started to look through them. We talked with legal experts, and there are very few people across the country who actually have a specialized focus in understanding police union contracts. But we found those people.
[04:38] Jay Ellis: What I learned is that Sam and a small army of volunteers combed through each of these 81 contracts from all across the country. They flagged the things they found that make it nearly but impossible to get justice for people brutalized by the police the way Breaion King was. They organized that information and put it all out there on the internet so that anyone — yes, even you, faithful listener — could get a glimpse at the numbers, at the facts. What did he learn from all that number crunching?
[05:06] Sam Sinyangwe: This is why the police union contracts matter so much. What cities were doing was negotiating away the ability to hold police officers accountable for misconduct, and letting the police unions essentially write the rules for how officers can be investigated or disciplined.
[05:28] Today, we’re going back to Breaion King’s city. A city of live music, barbecue and, according to Sam’s data, a bad police union contract. I got to know a pair of amazing activists who used their understanding about police unions in the service of real change. You heard from one of them already. Sukyi McMahon was telling that story at the top of the show.
[05:50] Sukyi McMahon: I come from a household where my father was a police officer, but he was an activist turned police officer. And I think I had a role model because he raised us to be advocates for ourselves and for people who are black.
[06:10] Jay Ellis: Sukyi is one of the directors at the Austin Justice Coalition. They’re this ‘all hands on deck’ organization that is working on improving racial justice, in a bunch of ways, all at once. Chas Moore founded the organization.
[06:21] Chas Moore: And a lot of us were only at the rallies and the protest, which is fine. It’s all a part of it. But, you know, some people that didn’t want to do that all the time. Some people wanted to do the policy work and direct action that way.
[06:35] Sukyi McMahon: We were very new, very fresh, just spongeing up as much as we could about the landscape and the climate for change in Austin.
[06:47] Chas Moore: You know, we kind of just carved out space at the table and brought our own chairs. And, you know, here we are.
[06:52] Jay Ellis: Chas and Sukyi told me that In 2015, they were doing a lot of drafting policy. A lot of presenting it to the Austin city council. Apparently they did good work, had some success getting new policy through. That empowered them, gave them a real taste for wielding influence. Then, in 2016, the violent arrest video of Breaion King went public.
[07:15] News anchor: The council voted today to settle Breaion King’s civil rights lawsuit. When video of the arrest in 2015 surfaced, it sparked national outrage. And we want to warn you: it is difficult to watch.
[07:26] Jay Ellis: Seeing it over and over and over, I get it. It really struck a nerve.
[07:32] Sukyi McMahon: Outside of just how angry we were, we were like, what the hell happened that this woman never saw justice?
[07:40] Jay Ellis: In fact, Breaion King tried to file a complaint about a year later, and she was told she missed the deadline for reporting misconduct, so her complaint was never heard and that police officer was never punished for it. You hear about this stuff again and again, but when it’s going on in your own backyard, it makes you realize that you’re part of the system that lets it happen. It changed the way Chas and Sukyi thought about their work. I mean, that blown deadline for making a complaint, for all their good intentions writing policy, there was this giant loophole.
[08:14] Sukyi McMahon: If someone breaks that policy, what happens to them? And that was in the contract.
[08:20] Jay Ellis: The Contract.
[08:22] Chas Moore: Really just reading the police union contract and having a little bit of common sense is like, oh, man, this is terrible.
[08:29] Jay Ellis: The police union contract. I’ll be honest, I didn’t quite get it. Like, where are these police union contracts coming from? How come I’ve never heard of them before? And how the heck were they at the root of what was going on in Austin? I’m learning, just like you. And here’s what I found out: Police officers, in like a million individual cities and towns, all across the country, form unions. You know, like labor unions: hotel workers, transportation workers. The police officers organize together as one unit, giving them way more leverage when they negotiate their contract to work for the city. Those negotiations with the city happen about twice a decade. And the negotiations are almost always done in secret. Behind closed doors. And that, so I’m told, is the police union contract. To me, going over a contract is kind of a chore, it’s a lot of dry reading. But, Chas and Sukyi saw it differently.
[09:39] Sukyi McMahon: It was a goldmine for reform that no one had been looking at. Didn’t even occur to people that they could have any kind of movement in that space.
[09:49] Jay Ellis: I’ve heard activist friends talk about wanting to set rules for police to follow. They can come up with as many rules as they want, but the police union contract controls what happens after those rules are broken. So you really have to do your homework. Read that contract cover to cover, or you’ll miss the actual problem. And then once you’ve figured out just what that problem is, it’s still gonna be an uphill battle to fix it, because the police have major clout.
[10:19] Chas Moore: If you would ask them to take a word out, they would have lost their mind because they were just so used to not having to listen to anybody. Like the community or the city council. People normally tell the police, “yes.”
[10:34] Jay Ellis: And then, as if that’s not enough, the only window for changing a contract is when it comes up for renewal, just once every few years. Because, you know, it’s a contract. Once it’s signed, you’ve got to do what it says until it expires. So, to me, it seems like changing those contracts is kind of like The Olympics. It takes a ton of preparation, you face stiff competition, and you have to take your opportunity when the time comes. So let’s jump to 2017, when Chas and Sukyi’s opportunity was fast approaching in Austin. The Austin activists identified eight parts of the current police union contract, eight ways that the contract weighted the scales of justice heavily in favor of the police. One: a 180-day deadline to file a complaint
[11:32] Chas Moore: That was problematic because the Breaion King incident where the police chief wasn’t made aware of this until a whole year later.
[11:40] Jay Ellis: 2: Automatic discipline reductions.
[11:44] Sukyi McMahon: Suspensions were reduced to written reprimands, and that meant that they would be moved to a confidential file and not publicly available.
[11:52] Jay Ellis: 3: Civilian oversight boards couldn’t file complaints against officers.
[11: 57] Chas Moore: Somebody might not feel safe even going online, we thought it would be imperative for the oversight office to be able to file a complaint on behalf of people who came to her.
[12:08] Jay Ellis: 4: Permanently sealed records.
[12:11] Sukyi McMahon: The written reprimands would go into a confidential vault, and we were just trying to crack that open.
[12:17] Jay Ellis: 5: Civilian oversight boards had no power to call witnesses.
[12:22] Chas Moore: If we’re talking about true oversight, we think that these people should be able to subpoena witnesses, officers, anybody.
[12:29] Jay Ellis: 6: In-person complaints only
[12:32] Sukyi McMahon: They had to go in, show their license, sign an affidavit. All of these steps that made it complicated and intimidating.
[12:40] Jay Ellis: 7: Civilian oversight boards were kept out of the room when police questioned witnesses
[12:45] Chas Moore: We thought it was important for the oversight person to be in that room, and to be able to read the cues and hear the voice. And also let the witness know that, you know, hey, I’m here. I’m on your side.
[12:57] Jay Ellis: 8: Promotion of officers regardless of misconduct.
[13:01] Chas Moore: This may be one of the only jobs in the world where, you know, you can work a job and you can continually mess up and do all the bad things and then still get promoted.
[13:11] Sukyi McMahon: We felt like those should be taken into account.
[13:16] Jay Ellis: Eight things. Eight powerful features that the Austin activists wanted to take out of the contract that their city signed with the police union. Eight things that would start to level the playing field of police accountability. Chas and Sukyi were determined to be in that negotiating room when their city’s police union contract was up for discussion. Their mission? To bear witness to the process, keep track of proposed changes to the contract, and report those changes to the wider community. Bear witness. Take notes. Report out. They wanted to shine some daylight on the process. Their goal was to disrupt a contract renewal process that for many years had been on autopilot. But just getting into that room was the first challenge.
[14:03] Chas Moore: The fact that these meetings were from like 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the week is probably intentional. People are at work, you have jobs. You’re a parent. You can’t you can’t come to these meetings.
[14:16] Jay Ellis: I’ve heard that a lot of the time, the details around these negotiations are under wraps. People don’t even know when or where or even that they’re happening. Luckily for us, Austin is kind of special, because negotiators there had to open the room to the public, but they didn’t have to be happy about it.
[14:33] Sukyi McMahon: it was just a constant stream daily of insults on their part about why we were even in that space and what we could possibly contribute to this discussion.
[14:47] Jay Ellis: But the activists ignored the insults. They kept showing up with their laptops, bearing witness, taking notes, reporting out.
[14:56] Chas Moore: Typing like they were running out of time. But in order for us to get the word out, we had to take those notes. We had to let people know what was going on. And we had to be able to bring that room, bring those negotiations to the community to let them know. And once we were able to do that, people were like, oh, this is absurd.
[15:17] Jay Ellis: For close to a year — the spring through the winter of 2017 — whenever the police association met with city reps, maybe a couple times a month, sometimes more, the activists were there, too. Bearing witness. Taking notes. Reporting out.
[15:31] Sukyi McMahon: I remember we went in there and we were listening to the requests that the APA, the Austin Police Association, was making. And we were all puzzled. It reminds me of when my eight year old asks me for Christmas presents and he asks for: the galaxy, and you know, unicorns. I’m like, none of this makes sense.
[15:53] Jay Ellis: But, The activists couldn’t speak up. They weren’t allowed to.
[15:59] Chas Moore: Because, you know, we’re not the ones — I mean, it is a contract, right? So it’s a contract between the city and the police association. So, you know, we couldn’t, we couldn’t say anything.
[16:09] Jay Ellis: All they could do was ignore the insults. Bear witness, take notes, report out.
[16:15] Sukyi McMahon: It changed the dynamic of the discussions. The city negotiator told us that he felt that they were actually having a conversation for the first time. In one of these negotiations, there was actually a back and forth happening. He wasn’t just getting bulldozed by the police association. So we do know that our presence just in general, changed what they said and how they said it.
[16:41] Jay Ellis: Now, I wouldn’t have thought anything could make the ins and outs of contract negotiations popular with regular folks. But that was Chas and Sukyi’s plan. They reported what they saw in that room, and for the first time, people learned just what they stood to lose. What they had already lost. People got worked up about it. When I heard about this, I was like, wow, now that is a really smart strategy to solve a complicated, multi-layered problem. These guys really know what they’re doing. I mean, if you think about it, those negotiations were all kind of a sham. The police always got what they wanted, and the city council always approved it.
[17;24] Sukyi McMahon: The dynamic is usually just give them what they want and rubber stamp it and go about our business for another three to five years.
[17:31] Jay Ellis: So how do you throw a wrench in the middle of a machine like this? You’ve got to find an access point. Our friends in Austin calculated that their access point was the city council. See, the police union doesn’t answer to the community, right? But the city council does. And while the city council isn’t in that negotiation room, anything that comes out of it needs their approval. See how brilliant that is? Get the city council to reject the contract coming out of those sham negotiations. That’ll force the police union back to the negotiating table under different circumstances. There, they’ll have to hammer out a deal with the community. So, working backwards, to capture the city council’s attention, first they had to capture public attention.
They listened, took notes and reported out to the community. And they made sure the city council knew that the public was invested. But they also had to prove that the police union’s demands were not OK. For that, they needed our friend Sam’s help.
[18;34] Sukyi McMahon: We were able to take the data from Sam and DeRay and show that we were just a handful, one among a handful of other cities that failed. And I think that elevating this conversation to that national level was really instrumental because we were able to say: eyes are laser focused on us right now, in this moment. What is your decision? How are you going to manage this moment and be remembered in this moment?
[19:04] Jay Ellis: The idea was to force the city council to ask themselves these questions, too. Because all this information gathering was leading up to one crucial moment: the city council vote on whether to renew the police union contract.
[19:45] Jay Ellis: It’s funny. In Hollywood, the world I come from as an actor and storyteller, the most dramatic scenes play out on the streets, maybe in the courtroom, and definitely In the bedroom. But in real life, if you’re paying attention, a lot of the real action, that stuff gets decided at city council meetings. Now stay with me here, it might not sound like it, but it’s about to get real. It’s December 2017. Members of the Austin City Council are getting ready to vote on whether to renew the police union contract proposed by the negotiators. There are 10 council members, and the mayor gets a vote, too. So 11 votes are in play. They need at least 6.
[20:27] City council audio: And then we’ll go to public testimony.
[20:28] Jay Ellis: Over and over representatives from the police express concern that the force will quit, that Austin will descend into chaos. But thanks to months and months of bearing witness, taking notes and reporting out, Chas and Sukyi managed to drum up even more community interest. A lot of interest. Hundreds of people show up for this vote, and nearly everyone is waiting for a turn at the mic.
[21:39] Chas Moore: Literally like the council chambers is full. We have people sitting outside. We have people sitting in the foyer. People just testifying for hours about why this contract could not pass.
[21:52] Jay Ellis: Sam and DeRay even make an appearance to throw support behind their Austin friends.
[22:09] Sukyi McMahon: And of course, Sam is nerding out with his PowerPoints, and he’d obviously really sunk his teeth into what the dynamics here in Austin were. Just having them present, it meant that Austin was a part of a grander, bigger movement-making moment.
[22:55] Chas Moore: I think I was the last speaker that night at like hour number eight, right between like hour eight in the ninth or tenth hour or whatever. I still didn’t quite know how this vote was gonna go. I knew we had five. I was praying we had a six. And it sounded for a moment that city council was going to, like, postpone this thing again. I was like, no, no, no, no, no. Like, we’re not going to do that. We’ve been here nine hours We’ve been here just as long as you. I’m just like losing it.
[23:56] City council audio: Vote! Vote! Vote! Vote!
[24:03] Jay Ellis: It’s nearly midnight and then, finally, the council votes. They all vote against renewing the existing police union contract.
[24:29] Chas Moore: And everybody’s hand go up. All eleven, you know, ten city council and the mayor. Still to this day, there’s no way you could have told me you would have had 11 votes. We were fighting just to get the six, and we celebrated that night, but it was also like, now the work is going to begin.
[24:57] Jay Ellis: And guess what? That night, chaos doesn’t descend onto the streets of Austin.
[25:03] Sukyi McMahon: The number of police officers who retired or who left were nothing out of the norm. And the sky didn’t fall.
[25:13] Jay Ellis: I guess there is a little bit of Hollywood in this story, after all. It’s your classic David and Goliath encounter playing out in the halls of city government. And I’d like to end the story right here, in a scene of celebration and revelry. But, it’s really not the end of the story. The story continues when the union comes back to the table to renegotiate. After that night, real negotiations could begin. And the negotiating room looked pretty different after that vote. For one, there were a lot more people from the community, and they weren’t on the periphery any more.
[25:51] Chas Moore: it was much easier because they started respecting our opinions, because we were — we had proven to them that we were capable adults, reading a contract just like them and using our own logic to say, no, that’s bullsh*t. And we can’t let that fly.
[26:06] Jay Ellis: And by the following November, the city council held another vote. This time, to approve a new, dramatically reworked contract, rounded out with months of community input and real compromise. Chas and Sukyi started this journey with 8 things in the contract that they wanted to change. And in the end?
[26:24] Chas Moore: I would say we got like, seven and a half.
[26:27] Jay Ellis: They didn’t do half bad.
[26:28] Sukyi McMahon: It was a moment for us. We were very unexpected. No one imagined that this group of young black folks would come in and take a seat like the way that we did.
[26:40] Jay Ellis: So, in Austin, they sort of wrote this playbook and totally nailed it. So, I asked Sam, where’s this playbook going next?
[26:48] Sam Sinyangwe: Portland is one of a handful of places that has been working on the policing contract issue for quite some time now. Portland has one of the largest racial disparities in arrests and policing in the country. It also has a huge, huge issue with police arresting and using force against people who are homeless.
[27:15] Jay Ellis: Sam and the activists in Portland have their work cut out for them, but he’s looked at the data. He’s seen the results. And it looks like, for now, the most effective thing is to take this one contract at a time.
[27:28] Sam Sinyangwe: These contracts are negotiated locally. And so a local strategy, a city by city strategy, one that accounts for the differences between cities, the differences between the contracts that each city has. All of those things come into play and they’re different depending on where you are. It may not be sort of sexy, it may not be the most exciting thing, but these are documents that structure whether or not a police officer will be held accountable in your city. Whether or not a police officer who has shot somebody will get their job back. All of these things are critical, so it has to be a part of the strategy. I think part of this is helping to demystify what to push for in those rooms or what to demand when in a city council meeting and providing sort of the data and the research that can help inform those decisions.
[28:17] Jay Ellis: But in typical Sam fashion, he’s already joyfully diving into Portland’s municipal nitty-gritty.
[28:23] Sam Sinyangwe: We actually did a session in front of the city council, as well as the mayor and the police chief, providing an overview of these issues, doing a presentation to ground what some of those issues in the contract are and why they matter.
[28:43] Jay Ellis: I’m realizing all of this could be a story in my own city, or in your city. We can make changes in the police union contracts. As a start, we can find out when they expire. That sets a timeline for actions needed. If you live in Portland, now is the time to get training for your contract olympics. If you live in Chicago, or San Jose now is your time, too. If you live in Louisville or Baton Rouge, Dallas, or Houston, or countless other cities where contracts are coming up for renegotiation, now is your moment, now is the time to join with others in your city to do this work. Now is also the time to visit joincampaignzero.org to learn all about the details of your city’s contract, and that means information on how to go about changing it. And, take it from a Hollywood guy, that’s definitely a better ending than something we could make up here.
[29:38] Jay Ellis: Next time on The Untold Story, I’m going to try and dive a little deeper into some of my own misconceptions about policing. There are buzzy phrases and probably straight-up myths that I’ve heard, and then there are the truths. We’re going to figure out which is whih. You won’t want to miss that. So, if you haven’t already, go ahead and subscribe to this show, and tell your friends to do that, too, because these stories are important for everybody to hear.
[30:06] The Untold Story: Policing is presented by Campaign Zero and Lemonada Media. It’s produced by Matthew Simonson and Rae Solomon. Supervising producer is Jocelyn Frank. Music by Hannis Brown. Sound design and mixing by Matthew Simonson. Executive producers are DeRay McKesson, Jessica Cordova Kramer, Stephanie Wittels Wachs and me. For more information, follow campaign zero on social @campaignzero. And you can donate to support the work of Campaign Zero by visiting joincampaignzero.org. For more information, check out nixthe6.org. I’m Jay Ellis. Thank you for listening y’all.