It’s our solutions episode! Jay arrives at six things that have got to be eliminated in order to usher in substantial improvements to public safety and policing in America and he talks with Netta Elzie (activist, organizer and co-founder of Campaign Zero) about how she transformed her own grief, frustration and anger into steady irrefutable progress. Step one: dive in.
Learn more at nixthe6.org
Follow @joincampaignzero on Instagram
We appreciate the audio contributions from the following sources:
[00:12] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: This podcast contains difficult content that may be triggering to some listeners. Please be advised.
[00:21] Netta Elzie: Yeah, we took family vacations all the time. We went to Atlanta for one of my birthdays. And my mom told the lady to watch me. We were at the pool. I did not know how to swim at the time. She’s like, watch her. She’s wild. Watch her.
[00:37] Jay Ellis: This is The Untold Story: Policing. I’m Jay Ellis.
[00:42] Netta Elzie: Next thing you know, my mom turns around for like two minutes. What do I do? I jumped in. I probably wasn’t scared. I was just like “this is the best!”
[00:54] Jay Ellis: This is Johnetta Elzie, but everyone calls her Netta.
[00:57] And my aunt didn’t know how to swim, so everyone was just looking like “whaaaat.” You know black people and swimming.
[01:07] Jay Ellis: Jay: Was your hair braided?
[01:09] Netta Elzie: No, my hair was like in this cute little ponytail situation. She would dye my hair pitch-black. I don’t know what that was about. So all that hair dye was just in the pool. Just hair dye and me. I was doing what I wanted to do, so yes, that was very freeing.
[01:29] Jay Ellis: Over the last few episodes, we’ve been wading through facts and myths and policies together. Learning a lot about the systemic hurdles that are in place that really restrict police accountability and true public safety. Now, this episode is about how to take the next step. Or as Netta might say, how to jump on into that pool, feet first, and figure it out as you go. This is episode four, y’all. This is the last episode in our series, and our solutions show. Today we’re going to highlight six ways that we can focus our energy to improve public safety and criminal justice. Six aspects of policing that have got to go. And to get started, we’re going to talk about what it takes to be a changemaker. How we can all start, swimming .and loving the pool.
[02:27] Netta Elzie: I love water. I know how to swim now.
[02:30] Netta is one of the people who helped start Campaign Zero, an organization working to end police violence. She grew up in St. Louis County, Missouri, and she was right there in the middle of all the energy and urgency flowing through the streets during the Ferguson protests. But before Netta was an organizer, her feelings were a lot like mine, and probably like yours: stirred up, always there, but kind of without direction.
[02:59] Netta Elzie: So I feel like if you go to school with white people and you are not white, you are always actively involved in this kind of work in this space. It like, preps you for it. You either fall into it and assimilate or you stand in your blackness and you fight. So, like, even in going to these private schools, private Catholic schools, with older white women who have never encountered a little black child. Whew! The few times we did talk about black people in class always being looked at like, “OK, here, resident black girl, tell us about it.” It’s like, homeboy, I’m learning about this shit with you. There’s something about that classroom dynamic where they almost look at you like you were there during that time. Like Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech, everyone’s looking at me like, oh, wow, what do you think? Well, I’m in third grade. What do you think I think? I don’t know. Like, I’m sad. You telling me this man made this great speech and he’s dead. It’s sad. That’s what I think.
[04:03] Jay Ellis: All right, tell me this, when in your life did you get involved with the community organizing side of all of this? What led you to this kind of work?
[04:12] Netta Elzie: That summer before August 2014, I started getting pulled over more. The city and St. Louis County was wearing me low with this ticket that I had paid, but they lost it. So they kept charging me and giving me a warrant. So then I can’t drive anywhere because I’m constantly getting pulled over. And I’m like, I paid this, I paid this, and the police would tell me:
“if I run this, and it comes back that you didn’t pay it, I have to take you to jail. Or you could just get another ticket.” And I’m like, “well, hell, if I’ve already paid it, and you’re telling me that is not paid, what are my chances if you check it? I’m definitely going to jail!” So you just accumulate more tickets.
[04:55] Jay Ellis: And shortly after that, Netta’s life completely transformed.
[04:59] I lost my mother in January 2014, she passed away from lupus. After my mom passed, two or three weeks later, St. Louis City Police shot and killed one of my really good friends named Stephon Averyheart. We had been friends for like five, six years at this point. My best friend was dating his best friend, so we were just always together, you know. But he had two strikes, and he made it very clear to all of us that if he ever got in trouble again, he was not going back to jail. And I was sitting on a couch, literally just in a daze, depressed out of my mind because my mother. And when Tori calls me and tells me that the police shot and killed Stephon in the back of his house in an alleyway with no witnesses around, I just had a lot of loss, and a lot of trying to recover my own spirit after my mom passed, trying to teach myself how to grieve.
[06:08] Jay Ellis: In Ferguson in 2014, black Americans made up 63 percent of the population, but 82 percent of all police stops. That’s according to data compiled by the state attorney general. Black people who were stopped were also more likely to be searched and arrested than other citizens. Even given all that, Netta was still just taking it day by day. Like a lot of 20-somethings back then, she was posting to Facebook, recording little rants here and there. And her Facebook account reminds her about one of those videos every year around the anniversary of Mike Brown’s death.
[06:43] Netta Elzie: And it’s me getting pulled over by the police. Maybe like a week before August 9, 2014, I made a video. I don’t know who I thought I was, but I’m like in the video like “all I was trying to do is make it to work so I could go to work and go to my desk and take my selfies,” and look at this hater. And so, like in the rearview mirror, you can see the police lights. And I was like, girl if you only fucking knew, like, whoa, eight days later, you and the police really gonna be have way more run-ins than just this.
[07:52] Jay Ellis: When that cop shot and killed Mike Brown, the city, and the nation just exploded. For Netta, all her piled-up grief and frustration, it was redirected into community action.
[08:07] Netta Elzie: Just organizing. I threw myself into organizing. The movement was definitely a lifesaver in that way for me. Trying to meet as many needs that I could at the time. So even when people started coming into town from other places, I would just tell them, hey, just bring your stuff to pump two at the QT. We see it as the epicenter because this is where when the QT burned, that’s suddenly when national and international attention gave a damn about Mike Brown being killed. That’s when more than one local news station started to talk about Mike Brown’s death and what happened.
[08:52] Jay Ellis: For Netta, talking about what happened was only one part of what needed to be done.
[08:58] Netta Elzie: The Virgo in me is a problem-solver. So in the early days of Ferguson, I saw a problem which was people needed food. People needed water. People needed supplies. We needed supplies to pick up the tear gas and the damn rubber bullets off the street on West Florissant because the police would tear gas all night. And then just leave the shit. They there was no pick up anything.
[09:22] Jay Ellis: Netta was on the ground for about a month. Night after night, she’d head out into the streets demonstrating, and then during the day she’d coordinate supplies, and safety trainings for demonstrators. The needs were constant.
[09:33] Netta Elzie: In the very early days, I was trying to be everywhere and doing everything.
[09:45] Jay Ellis: She was messaging with people via Twitter, and Tumblr, and in person, organizing on behalf of people outside of Ferguson, as well.
[09:52] Netta Elzie: So, we started TheDemands.org and you could literally go by state to state to state and see what each group or each city’s demands were for their local city council or state representative. And then from there, it just kept morphing into more projects. All of the intersections just kept leading back to one place.
[10:34] Jay Ellis: Was there ever a time where you felt overwhelmed or scattered in all of that?
[10:38] Netta Elzie: I think I was the first night when we went to Canfields, and it was so hot, his blood had stained the pavement. So even with them trying to wash it away, it was almost like — I don’t even know the word to describe this moment. But I was looking underneath this streetlight and you could still see his blood, but it was like illuminated almost. And it was just one of those moments where you just have a conversation. And at that point, I was 25. And I’ve already been having all these kind of wild conversations with God, with the universe and like trying to connect with my mom again, you know? And this just kind of felt like one of those moments where it was just like, OK, so what you gonna do?
[12:38] Jay Ellis: I was kinda picturing myself just jumping into the giant metaphorical pool of community activism and organizing and I gotta admit, I couldn’t help but picture a lot of frantic splashing and signaling to the lifeguard. But if I’m honest, it’s time to admit that I do now have some legit knowledge about policing and that means you do, too. I learned that there are a number of very specific aspects of policing that really have got to change. Six things that we gotta nix. So let’s talk ‘em over. Thing 1: No more police contract negotiations without community representation. Nix that.
[13:27] Sukyi McMahon: No one imagined that this group of young black folks would come in and take a seat like the way that we did.
[13:34] Jay Ellis: Sukyi McMahon and her co-organizer Chas Moore from episode two, they really showed me how important it was to be in the room when their city’s police contract was up for renewal.
[13:44] 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. It wasn’t just getting bulldozed by the police association.
[14:00] Jay Ellis: Thing 2: No more police contracts that block accountability. Nix that. I learned that there are all sorts of b.s hurdles built into contracts that we can push back against. Things that make it hard to get to the facts when misconduct does occur. DeRay talked about some of those in episode 3:
[14:19] DeRay Mckesson: In Chicago it says that only two people can be in the room at a time and only one person can ask the officer questions at a time, which on the surface doesn’t seem like a like, OK, whatever. But the moment that two people start talking to the officer at the same time, you’ve technically violated the contract. So could you imagine getting a discipline decision overturned because two people were just talking at the same time?
[14:41] Jay Ellis: And similarly, Thing 3: No more re-hiring of officers who have been fired for misconduct. Nix that. That’s a no-brainer! I mean if we actually get them fired, don’t let a police union contract get signed that just sweeps that misconduct under the rug. Sam Sinyangwe dished this out for us in the last episode,
[15:01] Sam Sinyangwe: With the contracts, they really map out from start to finish, from the time that an officer commits misconduct to the time that they are investigated, whatever happens with the results of that investigation, and then what happens to the records of that investigation after the investigation is over, and how that officer can then erase those records, get reinstated and basically erased all of what happened to that point? All of that’s articulated in the contract.
[15:26] Jay Ellis: Government contracts are public records, which means that we can look them up and learn more. And if reviewing contracts isn’t your thing, connect with a local group in your city, like the Austin Justice Coalition. The fourth thing: No more police unions influencing the cities’ police budgets. Definitely nix that.
[15:47] DeRay Mckesson: Now in Louisville, the police union contract literally says that no layoffs can happen at all during the duration of the contract. That is wild. There are a set of cities across the country that have similar protections, where even if you decrease the budget, it won’t change the number of officers.
[16:03] Jay Ellis: If the city council is going to be responsive to its citizens, and we do pay their salaries, by the way, that city council needs to be able to make changes to the budget and invest in legit community safety. And zooming out, I want to highlight another thing that I’ve learned: that fixing these failing systems, it has to be a multi-pronged approach. And that means we need to dig into the contracts at the city level and we also have to work to dismantle the problems that exist at the state level. So Thing 5: No more statewide police officers’ Bills of Rights. Gotta nix that.
[16:41] Christy Lopez: Because they sound so innocuous. Bill of rights, that’s great. But what they do is they give police officers an additional layer of protection above what anybody else has, sometimes even more protections than defendants in criminal cases have.
[16:57] Jay Ellis: You remember Christy Lopez, right? That lawyer from our last episode who worked for the Department of Justice. She made one of my grandma’s sayings blazingly clear: don’t trust a wolf in sheep’s clothing. We can let our state reps know that those special bills of “rights” are totally wrong. And now for the 6th Thing: This is kind of the elephant in the room. Or for our continuing metaphor, the elephant at the pool. Even when hundreds of citizens speak up at council meetings in Austin and in Portland and in Baltimore and in Ferguson, there is a lot of money that is positioned to speak louder than all those words. Lobbyists. Police union lobbyists.
[17:54] Sam Sinyangwe: The Guardian did an investigation where they found that police unions had given $87 million to local and state politicians over the past few decades. That includes $65 million in Los Angeles alone, $19 million in New York City and nearly $4 million in Chicago.
[18:15] Jay Ellis: Y’all know by now, Sam isn’t the kind of guy to just read that news story and move on.
[18:19] Sam Sinyangwe: We actually did an investigation that did a deeper dive into California, which is the largest state and also the state where the largest number of people are killed by police. And what we found was that 118 of the 120 state legislators in California had received money from police unions.
[18:42] Jay Ellis: If this were a TV show, it would be like The Wire. When Lester is like, “You start to follow the money, you don’t know the f**k it’s going to take you” Well, that’s kind of how it is out here. Money from lobbyists makes its way into a million different political settings, but what’s new is we can nix that. Because the hard numbers, the raw facts, the information about who is funding your representatives is super easy to find. Campaign Zero has a website with all the data you can dream of. It’s nixthe6.org.
[19:24] Sam Sinyangwe: You can look up your representatives in your state and see how much money they’ve received from the police unions. And then you can call them and tell them to donate that money to a good cause, donate it to racial justice, donate it to folks who are organizing locally for police accountability, and then make a pledge never to accept police union money ever again.
[19:46] Jay Ellis: Boom. Sam Sinyangwe data master, yet again coming through with the numbers we need. All this information, easily accessible, means that I, and you, and your sister, and your aunties, we can all let our representatives know that these six things — all six of them — have got to go. They are welcome no more. It’s time to “nix the six.” I feel like everything I’ve learned, everyone I’ve spoken to, has led to this. And actually you know what? I’m just gonna go to the site right now. I am opening up my laptop, typing in nixthe6.org It’s all there. So what are you waiting for? I’m ready. DeRay is ready.
[20:38] DeRay Mckesson: The question now is how hard can we push? I know a lot of content, but it reminds me of being in the classroom, the content is never enough. You know your neighborhood and community better than I’ll ever know it. I feel the same way about being a teacher. A lot of people know math, but you didn’t know my students. That is the question. How do you take the content and put it in place and help people develop it and grow it in context. So that’s my advice: I say go do the thing that you can do better than anybody else, which is convince the people in your community about the power that they’ve always had. To show them the content as it manifests in your community. To push the people with structural power to do the things that we deserve.
[21:48] Netta Elzie: I think that is necessary, it’s necessary in the moment. It’s necessary for the future and it’s necessary for the world that we’re trying to build.
[22:02] Jay Ellis: Now, you know our girl Netta, she is not waiting for anything. She’ll tell you it doesn’t matter at all if your braids get a little messed up when they get wet, and if your edges curl. It’s time to get in that water and swim like our lives depend on it, because they do. It’s time to jump in.
[22:25] Jay Ellis: The Untold Story: Policing has been presented by Campaign Zero and Lemonada Media. It’s been produced by Matthew Simonson, and Rae Solomon. Supervising producer: Jocelyn Frank. Music by Hannis Brown. Sound Design and Mixing by Matthew Simonson. The executive producers have been DeRay Mckesson, Jessica Cordova Kramer, Stephanie Wittels Wachs and me. I’m Jay Ellis y’all. Thank you for listening.