Kai Wright: This is the United States of Anxiety. The show about the unfinished business of our history and its grip on our future.
Reporter: Should you be allowed to listen in as first responders respond to a crime? Well, free speech advocates argue yes.
AMBI: [Police radio chatter]
BEN JEALOUS: This [Citizen] app creates the transparency that allows all of us to be safer.
TODD MAISEL: How will you know if there's news? If the NYPD decides that they don't want you to know you're not going to know.
MALKIA CYRIL: It's not a conversation about cameras. This is a conversation about surveillance.
PROTEST CHANTING: Hands up. Don't shoot. Hands up.
JACOB CRAWFORD: We're not there to catch video of police hurting people. We really are out there to stop it from happening.
SASHA COTTON: People don't know what they don't know, and so we've all been raised in infrastructure that thinks that the way that you solve violence is through policing.
JAMES P. O’NEILL: It's not just actually being safe, it's feeling safe, and there's a huge distinction there, and what I would tell them is that you're part of this. You're part of the solution here.
Kai Wright: Welcome to the show. I'm Kai Wright. Before we get started tonight, I want to note the death of civil rights organizer, Bob Moses. He passed earlier this evening at the age of 86. We've talked a lot about voting rights lately. Bob Moses was among those who helped create the right we are now fighting to keep. Rest in peace, sir. This spring, Darnella Frazier gained reluctant notoriety as the person who documented George Floyd's murder. 17-year-old young woman was walking with her nine-year-old cousin when she saw Floyd struggling for his life and turned on her phone's camera. Without that recording, there would likely be little evidence to challenge the cop's claim that Floyd was already in medical distress. I thought a lot about Darnella's brave act.
Today, all sorts of people monitor the police as they do the public's work. Some of us are acting consciously as journalists and watchdogs and some just acting on impulse like Darnella. You see something, you say something, but Darnella's brave act also has a long political history rooted at least in part in the mid-20th-century effort to make newly established civil rights a real thing. It's also an act that many police departments are now trying to limit, and that's what we're going to talk about this hour, the past and the future of monitoring the cops, and we'll be taking your calls later in the show.
We begin in the summer of 1966 in Los Angeles. Ron Wilkins was a 19-year-old at the time, and he joined up with something called the Community Alert Patrol. This was just about a year after the Watts Rebellion and it was one of the first cop watch campaigns to emerge out of that era's movement for Black self-determination and Black self-defense. Ron tells us the story of how the Community Alert Patrol came to be and how he joined the effort.
Ron Wilkins: I began as a street-tough, as a young hothead running the streets, and that's how I got into the movement. I knew Huey Newton who founded the Black Panther Party. I knew Willie Mukasa Ricks, he's the one that actually shouted Black power on the Meredith March in June of 1966.
Kai Wright: Ron says the thing that prompted him and other activists to begin monitoring the police was a murder.
Ron Wilkins: Leonard Deadwyler who was 25 or 26 years old. He was taking his pregnant wife, Barbara Deadwyler way across town because they felt that she was about to deliver. He was speeding and running through some lights. He had tied a white bandana on his car antenna to let people know he was in distress.
Kai Wright: The LAPD sees Leonard's car racing and they either ignore are just don't see the bandana he's tied up to say he's in distress and they chase after him.
Ron Wilkins: They made it a hot pursuit. They had a number of cars behind him. He finally stopped, and when he stopped a cop, I never forget his name. His name was Jerold Bova, went up to the window with his weapon drawn and he claimed because that Leonard Deadwyler's car lunged forward caused his weapon to discharge and he blew him away. We concluded in the community that this was one racist traffic stop, too many.
People were just fed up, very frustrated, and trying to figure out ways that we could be protected and stop the terrorism, the police terrorism that had been unleashed on us, and it was something that had been going on for generations. How do we stop it? Me again, being a young hothead with nothing better to do. It was summertime and all that, we met in a community center. As I recall, some of the meetings were in churches, in Black churches and it was in those meetings that it was decided that a patrol would be created to police the police.
It was modeled after this notion when you have nations that conflict with one another, the United Nations would come in with observers to make sure that whatever truce had developed that it would be honored by both sides, and so that's where the idea of a patrol came about, but in this situation, that patrol would actually monitor police behavior. We had signs on our cars that said Community Alert Patrol. We had a phone number there and of course, LAPD has on their cars to protect and to serve. We put to protect and observe. We're going to protect our community and observe you, and that's precisely what we did.
We had CB radios, which are amateur radios to communicate with one another. Then we had another older Black man who had the radio communication skills and so on that put the antenna up and would also install the radios in our vehicles and make sure that they were tuned and working properly. There were about, I would say 25 to 30 guys with their cars, and that number would fluctuate, and there were women who would ride usually with a guy. We also had some women who would run our base station, who would be on the radio there, who would also listen to the police scanners. The scanners were something that we didn't know whether they were legal or not. When we did manage to come across one, we'd keep it under wraps. I didn't use a scanner much because when you went into the streets, you didn't have to be out on the street long before you'd see the police doing something. You didn't need no scanner to find them. They were right there. They were ever-present.
People would see us and often they would smile and wave because they were happy to see us, and if of course they were stopped by police, they'd be so happy when we pull up and we would pull up behind the police car. We would get out, keep our hands in plain view. We'd have a camera in one hand, maybe a walkie-talkie in the other hand. We talked to the people that were stopped by the police on some occasions, even though it was made clear, we had some volunteer attorneys that used to give us a lot of legal advice and points about how to handle ourselves. We were always trying to be very cheerful legally to not overstep.
You go out and the police are wicked and violent and it took courage. Not everybody was up for it. Only the toughest, in some ways, craziest, I guess I was a bit crazy to be out there because I was out there continuously in a vehicle where I was easily recognized by the police. I'd never put my signs off. You had guys in the patrol when they weren't patrolling they took the damn signs off because they trying to go somewhere with their woman or their children and they don't want no damn police stopping them. Some guys I remember would go out and patrol once or twice, and then once they got jammed up really bad by police, they would show up or call in and say, "I can't go. I can't go out again."
Kai Wright: Ron says, this is exactly what the LAPD was trying to achieve. They were targeting his group to discourage them. Just recently, a couple of years ago, he was out at a community event and he noticed a man staring at him.
Ron Wilkins: He looked at me and he had a real excited look on his face and he said, "Are you, Brother Crook?"
Kai Wright: That was Ron's nickname, Brother Crook. He says, "Yes, that's me. Who are you?"
Ron Wilkins: He said, "I'm so-and-so, so-and-so I'm a retired LAPD officer and I used to work 77 Precinct." I said, "Yes, that's the one we call little Mississippi." He said, "Yes, that's right." He said, "I just got to tell you this." I said, "What is that?" He said, "We used to report the work in the assembly room there in the squad room and on the wall, they had a big photograph of you and that car that you drove and they used to tell us to be on the lookout for you and whenever we saw you, to give you hell." There was one time they stopped me in late one night in an area where they were a lot of warehouses and factories and no people out. Two cops grabbed me and pulled me through the window of my car, through the side window, pulled me out, and beat me.
Kai Wright: There was another time an officer pressed his revolver to Ron's head.
Ron Wilkins: He had taken the rounds out and he kept pulling the trigger and I didn't know when he pulled the trigger and just blow my head up. You get beaten and get all these damn tickets. Again, the guys who would roll just like me, we didn't have a job, we didn't have a regular job. You can't pay for these damn tickets and stuff and didn't want to be in court, you didn't want to be profiled more heavily than everybody else in the hood. It was hard, it was damn hard. It was hard. I think a lot of the support began to just dry up.
Kai Wright: CAP ultimately folded after about a year of almost daily patrols. Ron says that work he started over 50 years ago is still needed today.
Ron Wilkins: Some people right now are trying to get them to stop doing chokeholds. There are different measures taking place, ultimately, even with that, somebody has to watch that, has to check on that, which means you need patrols, you need people on the streets to police the damn police.
Kai Wright: There are lots of ways to police the police. Darnella Frazier and many others have simply used their cell phones. For many, many years, journalists and watchdogs of all sorts have used another tool. One that is likely about to be taken away. Coming up, the uncertain future of the police scanner, stay with us.
Kai Wright: Welcome back. This is the United States of Anxiety. I'm Kai Wright. Viral videos are the most well-known examples of people policing the police. Ramsey Orta filming NYPD is they choked Eric Gardner. George Holliday training his camcorder on LAPD as they beat and tased Rodney King. These were moments in which people acted on impulse to bear witness when they saw public servants doing something that didn't feel right. For decades, journalists and activists have been trying to bring greater transparency to police work with more routine day-to-day monitoring. And maybe the crucial tool for bringing about that kind of transparency has been the police scanner. Reporter Jenny Casas has been learning about the scanner's history as a watchdog tool and about how police departments today are limiting its use. Jenny's story begins during last summer's protests over the killing of George Floyd.
Jenny Casas: Gwynne Hogan is a reporter at WNYC. When the first protest in Manhattan came three days after George Floyd was killed, she went out to cover it.
Gwynne Hogan: It was smallish. There were about 150 people there, very few reporters.
Crowd: [people singing] We are the people
Jenny Casas: When the sun started to set, police moved in quickly to arrest about a third of the crowd.
Gwynne Hogan: It was the most arrest I'd ever seen in a protest. I've been covering New York City for almost seven years at that point. That was about 60 arrests. We're talking like compared to what we saw in the days that followed relatively few. That for me was like, I had never seen 60 people arrested. It was shocking.
I had been working like, I don't know how many days in a row, by the time it got to Monday and my editors were like, "You cannot go out tonight, you need to sleep." Which was easier said than done because I sat at home and all my colleagues were out there and there were 100s of people, 1000s of people in the streets again but I was like, "Maybe I could help out by listening to the police scanner.
Police scanner: [unintelligible 00:15:35]
Jenny Casas: At the time in the WNYC newsroom, people were tuning into the police radio scanner to hear what was happening on the ground. Then passing that information to the reporters on the streets.
Police scanner: [inaudible 00:15:49]
Gwynne Hogan: Within like, god, it had to have been like 10 or 15 minutes that I turned it on, there were two comments that I overheard on the scanner that really just like sent me into a deep fear spiral.
Police scanner: [unintelligible 00:16:06] we have a group of people blocking traffic on Albany and Dean street [unintelligible 00:16:08]
Gwynne Hogan: One, officers on the line were in a car and described being surrounded by protestors on all sides.
Police scanner: [unintelligible 00:16:18] That's all we say about a hundred or more.
Gwynne Hogan: Somebody on the scanner said run them over.
Police scanner: Run them over. [unintelligible 00:16:29]
Gwynne Hogan: Nobody responded. On the scanner, nobody said, "How dare you say that?" It was just like said, and I was just like "What." Then another back and forth between people on the scanner. Somebody said, shoot the motherfuckers.
Police scanner: Shoot the motherfuckers.
Police scanner: Don't put that over the air.
Gwynne Hogan: It's hard to know who is talking. There's obviously the possibility of interference. And so I right away emailed DCPI, which is the NYPD's public relations line and they didn't deny it. They said that there would be an investigation and that clear communication is critical, which made me think that maybe they were police officers on the line. I was shocked that I heard that within 15 minutes and I was shocked that the NYPD didn't immediately deny that it was real.
Jenny Casas: The NYPD claimed that what Gwen heard didn't appear to come from an identifiable police radio, but their response wasn't definitive. They said it could have been interference or a stolen police radio. The department still isn't sure. Reporting on the NYPD can be like trying to guess the contents of a Black box. Even if those comments didn't come from a cop, listening to the scanner is one of the only unfiltered views inside the department.
Gwynne Hogan: The NYPD is a very opaque agency. We talk to teachers, we talk to city employees and all different agencies but it's so hard to get cops to talk to you. That's why it reinforces this opaqueness. This was like a tiny little window.
Jenny Casas: It's easy to take for granted that you right now could go online and listen to the scanner and hear officers responding to calls for service, reporting to dispatchers, taking their lunch break, all the day-to-day of their jobs. Policing is public service work. If we can follow city council hearings online and watch Congress on C-SPAN, the scanner is like a low-quality, less curated public access feed for police. Even that imperfect window into the NYPD, it's closing. In the next three to five years, all NYPD radios will be updated so that police can encrypt their communications.
Reporter: The NYPD confirms it is evaluating whether to encrypt police radio transmissions, making it impossible to monitor police calls.
Jenny Casas: Plan has been in the works for years now, although it has been delayed because of the pandemic. It's also a massive job to switch out every radio and the largest police force in the country. New York City has models, cities, and counties across the country are moving to encrypt.
Reporter: Police scanners are about to go silent. Starting April 1st, Orlando police will encrypt its new digital radio
Reporter: Encryption is a major national trend in policing and some people believe that-
Reporter: -outrage from members of the community, after they found that the county's police scanners won't be open to the public anymore, there'll be encrypted.
Jenny Casas: Encrypted radio communications are undecipherable and unhackable, at least not with a technology that an average person or a journalist has access to. If a feed normally sounds like this, [unintelligible 00:20:12] on an encrypted feed, it would sound like this [inaudible 00:20:19]. The NYPD has said very little about why they want to use encryption and the department declined my request for an interview. Other police departments argue that open scanners leave officers vulnerable to people who could listen in and use the information with bad intentions. At a press conference in 2019, NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea said he didn't want criminals to have better technology and tools than the police even though police scanners have long been used by journalists to hold police accountable.
Dermot Shea: Certainly we consider transparency, but we are-- First and foremost, the first immediate concern is not with the media. It's with New Yorkers and keeping them safe.
Unidentified Speaker: Like the commissioner cited the example of a kidnapping, how do you conduct one of those over the radio when the whole world is listening for entertainment value?
Jenny Casas: The NYPD already uses encryption for some of their units and for dispatches with the FBI and SWAT teams. Plus, officers already use their cell phones when they don't want to put something over the radio, but once all the radios are encryption capable, the NYPD will decide who gets to listen and that raises concerns for people in media like Todd Maisel.
Todd Maisel: I was bitten by the bug early on in school.
Jenny Casas: Todd is a semi-retired photojournalist with 40 years in the business, New York Daily News and AM New York. He's part of this long tradition in New York City of listening to the police scanner to find stories.
Todd Maisel: I was a journalism student at NYU. The one thing that distracted me the most sitting in class at Washington Square was hearing the fire engine go by. We'd always refer to it as they're playing my song. I wanted to know more. I started listening to radios. I bought a radio from RadioShack and I started listening. One day, there was an explosion at the ConEd facility on 14th Street knocking out power all over the place. That was my first real experience with covering spot news. I did some crazy things. I broke into the plant. I climbed the coal tower. I got into the plant, made pictures that nobody did and I brought them to the Daily News. I got $5 for that.
Yeah, it got me going.
Jenny Casas: There was a time where most newsrooms had scanners. Reporters have them in their cars working the midnight shift following police and firefighters all night. In its heyday, this kind of reporting was considered honest and gritty. Today, it's often seen as racialized and over sensational focusing on individual tragedy instead of the systems that cause them but this kind of reporting is responsible for bringing cases of police misconduct to the public. We have gotten used to seeing it from bystander videos, but local media also plays a big part.
Todd Maisel: You have to be on scene quickly. Otherwise, you lose the nuance, you lose the information, the cops lock the place down. This encryption thing has really brought up a lot of fear in me because there are people at the NYPD who would like us to know nothing. Suddenly, the news is what the cops want it to be. You know what, to me, that's very dangerous. It's very dangerous.
Jenny Casas: I'm going to have you introduce yourself.
Albert Fox Cahn: Sure. Three, two, one. My name is Albert Fox Cahn and I'm the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project.
Jenny Casas: Cahn is a frequent guest at the City Council testifying on the need to make the NYPD more transparent.
Albert Fox Cahn: If you want the worst-case scenario, police scanning could be restricted the way we see with body cams where we see bodycam footage which was supposed to be a police accountability tool being held back for years and only released when the NYPD loses in court because they control when that footage can be seen and if it's favorable to the cops, it comes out in minutes, but if it shows real misconduct, it often will be hidden.
Jenny Casas: The NYPD has said it's open to letting the media listen to the encrypted feeds but that still leaves them in charge of who has access and who is even considered a legitimate journalist.
Albert Fox Cahn: If the scanner is encrypted, if it's harder to track police activity in real-time, again, it will change police reporting from an accountability tool into access journalism, where the only way you get to report on the police is to pay lip service to what they want said. I think it will just give police even more control of the narrative.
Jenny Casas: Police encryption is also a challenge for protesters.
Jamie: People should have a right to hear what public authorities are doing and encryption takes that away.
Jenny Casas: I'm not going to tell you this person's real name, but for the sake of the story, let's call him Jamie. He's not a journalist, but he's spent a lot of time listening to the NYPD this last year, trying to make sense of what he's hearing on the scanner.
Jamie: Well, the first thing is how do they understand what people are saying?
Police scanner: [inaudible 00:26:09]
Jamie: Because the audio quality can be terrible and really muffled and so on.
Police scanner: [inaudible 00:26:15]
Jenny Casas: Jamie is part of a collective called Radio 12 and they formed in response to the protests last summer. Members of the group monitor police communications on the scanner and then they send that information out to protesters on the ground using social media and text messages.
Police scanner: [inaudible 00:26:34]
Jamie: It's just like people giving updates about workgroups are
Police scanner: [inaudible 00:26:39]
Jamie: We do a lot of sizing up groups and stuff like that too.
Police scanner: [inaudible 00:26:44] right now. [unintelligible 00:26:47]
Jenny Casas: The goal is to try to help people avoid violent interaction with the police like a 2020s version of what Ron Wilkins was doing with the Community Alert Patrol in 1965. Because historically, monitoring the police has resulted in retaliation, we're giving fake names to everyone we talked to from Radio 12.
Jamie: Sometimes, especially at the peak, you could hear officers really panicked, calling for reinforcements or the arrest van.
Police scanner: 14 University, 14 University [inaudible 00:27:21] 14 at Broadway that we have another crowd coming off, we're going to get surrounded [unintelligible 00:27:30]
Police scanner: Be advised we're working on it, we're working on it. Be advised, all units [unintelligible 00:27:38]
Radio 12 Member: One of the things that is said of the scanner is we're sending a bus to this location-
Jenny Casas: This is another scanner listener who we've also agreed not to name.
Radio 12 Member: -which means a very large vehicle that we're going to put the people arresting in and they will say where that bus is going. If you possibly knew some people who were at that location, first, you can tell them, "There's a bus on the way, leave if you don't want to be on the bus," or if you haven't been able to confirm that they indeed are not on that bus, that you can figure out where that bus is going, then call that precinct and say, "Are you holding this person? Have they been able to call their lawyer? What are they being charged with?"
Jenny Casas: What Radio 12 members realized was that protesters were being arrested and then jailed in faraway precincts. There were cases where people were arrested in the Bronx and then taken all the way to Queens.
Radio 12 Member: That's information that you get from the scanner that was so counterintuitive and if it wasn't for the scanner, we wouldn't be able to know that things like that were happening.
Jenny Casas: This work is exhausting, time-intensive, and unpaid. They sift through the information on the scanner and then to make it easier for protesters, they built an interactive map to log what they hear. Because these protests have been happening across the country, Radio 12 members in New York share that infrastructure with other organizers. Their map tool is now being used by activists in cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, Portland, and Los Angeles.
Radio 12 Member: What will be lost if the police guys are encrypted is a very important window for transparency and accountability because that's part of the job. People who sign up to be of public service need to let the public see what their service is.
Jenny Casas: The NYPD says full encryption is still a few years off, but the work is already underway and it comes at a time of intense debate about the role of police, a time when community leaders and public officials are calling for more transparency, not less. We raised the NYPD's plans with the city council member Adrienne Adams. She's the chair of the public safety committee that oversees the NYPD. In a written statement, she called the move to encrypt problematic. "A change that requires real scrutiny," and that it shouldn't be a unilateral decision for the NYPD to make. Activists like Jamie are bracing for the eventuality that the department is going to have its way.
Jamie: Yes, it does feel like at some point the party is going to end and I don't really know what comes after. We should always be looking for opportunities like this. My suspicion is that there are a lot of other places where we have this kind of cracks in the armor, I guess, in terms of how something that feels as impenetrable as the police work. Yes, I would hope someone walking away from the story starts to look at their world a little bit differently and try and seek those things out.
Kai Wright: Looking at our world a little bit differently. After a break, I'll be joined by community organizer Ejeris Dixon who has spent a lot of time helping New Yorkers look at public safety differently. We'll talk about cop watch efforts and we'll also talk more broadly about how communities can take care of themselves today, in the spirit of what Ron Wilkins and his friends were trying to accomplish back in 1966. We will take your calls. I want to hear about your efforts to just step up in general when you see someone in trouble in the streets. Maybe it was involving the police, or maybe it was stepping up to support someone who just didn't feel safe without involving the police. Tell us about your experience at 646-435-7280. That's 646-435-7280. We'll take your calls after a break. Stay with us.
Hey, a quick program note in both politics and news, it's depressing to see how quickly people can just move on from something as if just because we all talked about a problem as the lead news story for a few months. That's enough, regardless of whether anything's actually been done about it. It feels like that's happened with police reform. On this show, we're trying to keep policing and criminal justice reform on the front burner, finding new and hopefully interesting ways to keep that conversation going.
As part of that effort, we've created a page on our website where we've gathered some of our episodes on policing, you'll find a pretty eclectic mix there, more histories like the one you just heard, from investigative work, conversations with former and active-duty officers, and intimate stories about young people in particular. Just go to WNYC.org/anxiety and look for the collections tab. You'll see the policing collection right there underneath it. Check it out and if you like what you see, I hope you will also share it with somebody. Thanks for listening.
Welcome back. This is the United States of Anxiety. I'm Kai Wright. I'm joined now by Ejeris Dixon, who is the executive director of an organization called Vision Change Win which helps community groups build organizing strategies. Ejeris is also co-editor of the book Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement. They have been organizing and working in communities here in New York on racial justice campaigns for many years and they've had a particular focus on ways we can all find justice outside of cops and courts and the like. Ejeris, I'm so happy you could join us.
Ejeris Dixon: I'm so happy to be here Kai.
Kai Wright: Ejeris, it seems to me there is a larger idea behind all of the cop watch efforts we've been talking about so far on the show and whether it's individuals like Darnella Frazier or its organized efforts like the one Ron Wilkins was describing from back in the '60s. Honestly, even if it's like my colleagues in the WNYC newsroom today, it's all rooted in this feeling that institutions of criminal justice are failing our community so we can step up and take care of ourselves. I say all that to say, I wonder if you can help us think about these copwatch efforts in that broader context of the community stepping in where institutions are failing, how does it fit into that kind of movement?
Ejeris Dixon: I'm so excited to speak with you about that. I was looking at a, there was a Gallup poll that happened in 2020 that said 9 out of 10 Black people nationally don't have confidence in the criminal legal system. I would name that, particularly marginalized communities, oppressed communities, Black, Latinx communities, queer and trans folks, low-income folks, we've been building safety and alternative institutions for generations. Recognizing that the institution of policing is connected to slave patrols in the south, or union-busting efforts in the north, we are looking at institutions that have a really particular imprint, when they think about who a criminal is and isn't, and who they are protecting and who they're not.
I feel like I came into this work as an organizer and activist, but I also was raised in it, if that makes any sense, because I have a dad who used to take photographs of the cops out the window when he would see suspicious activity. My mom would talk about the way that neighbors that she grew up with would come together to address domestic violence on their streets. There's just a large history similar to your first guest really talking about there's a long history in our communities of creating our own institutions and safety to really look out for our needs.
Kai Wright: Let's talk about what that can look like because first off, it's notable how much the public conversation I have to say has changed in the past year. This time last year, there was just so much focus on this kind of conversation, police accountability and it seems now the focus has really shifted to public safety and this head-scratching about how to achieve it. Again, this has been some of your work, so tell us a bit more about what it means for a community to keep itself safe. What could that look like?
Ejeris Dixon: Absolutely. I think safety is rooted so much in communities and in people who have the least getting their material needs met. We had this expansion of mutual aid efforts that happened in the pandemic, where people were supporting people to get their medicine or supporting people to have access to food, have access to jobs. There are so many ways where the actual institution of policing doesn't create safety. What safety looks like is people are safer even if you say crime rates or instances of violence go down when people's material needs are met when their emotional needs are met when their psychological needs are met, and when they have housing. Communities keep themselves safe, whether it's domestic violence programs in communities or consent training in schools or safety patrols or cop watch efforts, or soup kitchens.
Kai Wright: As a form of safety.
Ejeris Dixon: All of this is a form of safety. As people either discrimination that happens in systems, the community members who don't have access to systemic support, or people who get kicked out of various institutions, like the ways that we create safety and our emotional and material security are incredibly linked. It's just not part of how we talk about safety, at least in a broader public sphere.
Kai Wright: Let's take some calls to Ejeris. Let's go to Yevgeniya in Montreal. You've got it. Yevgeniya, welcome to the show.
Yevgeniya: Hi, Kai. Thank you for taking my call. I actually called in a few shows back and I spoke about how I was assaulted by the police here in Montreal. I'm a New Yorker. I was never assaulted by the NYPD but Montreal Police really have it out for me, it seems. I criticize them a few years back publicly using my Twitter and this year, they wound up assaulting me in public. No one filmed it. There were nobody cams. The news outlets were not interested because there was no footage and a month later, actually, someone was assaulted in a very similar manner in Montreal but because someone recorded it, it became an international story, even though we were assaulted in a very similar way.
My point is that because of this my anxiety around police and public went through the roof and my small way of keeping police accountable is to do literal cop watching. What I do when I see cops just hanging out in uniform, I literally just watch them. I look at them, I stare at them. I say nothing. I do nothing other than look at them and I cannot tell you how uncomfortable it makes them feel. I've had police walk up to me, be like, "What's up? Do you have a problem?" I say nothing. I just walk away. It's really funny to me how just uncomfortable and unsettled they are.
Kai Wright: Yevgeniya, thanks for calling back, and thanks for that. I remember your call from before and it's just really an awful thing that occurred. Thank you for continuing to testify for us. Matthew in Park Slope, welcome to the show.
Matthew: Hey, how are you?
Kai Wright: Very well.
Matthew: Thanks for taking my call. I live on a fairly wealthy block in Park Slope. About three weeks ago I received, we have a block email so that people can sell things and report things that are not right on the block and all that sort of thing, it's pretty active. I saw an email come in in the middle of the afternoon that said the subject was like, "Hide your kids, keep your kids safe. Don't let them go outside." Then they went on to say that there's a man outside playing with himself. I went to the window and this happened to be like right below my window and in fact, there's a man in a wheelchair, he's in the street.
He's in between parked cars and he's in a wheelchair. He has a bag over his head. He's fully clothed. He has his hand in his pants and it looks like he's masturbating, but he's not a threat to anyone. I was quite upset by this. The email said, "I already called the police." That was the first thing it said, "I already called the police." I responded to it and to the whole group to just raise the idea of like why do we have to initially immediately call the police? I don't really see this man as a threat.
Kai Wright: How did people respond to that, Matthew?
Matthew: No one responded. That's why I called in. I'm pretty shocked that no one came to defend me. It was just me and this person who said, "Well, I don't think it's right, that they're out there. I tried other things that they didn't work." This all happened within four minutes and one of the things they could try. I just felt-- I don't know. I just feel like people around here, I don't want to say pretend, but I thought people were more progressive, I felt people were on the same page as like don't just call the police on a community member because they're weird.
Kai Wright: I'm going to leave it there Matthew. Thanks for calling. Before we take a couple more, Ejeris, do you want to respond to anything you heard either of those calls and really in thinking about tangibly how people deal with situations like this in a transformative justice model?
Ejeris Dixon: Absolutely. I just think that what both of the callers showed us are gaps in ways that police handle situations. The situation where there was the person who was outside and masturbating like that's clearly a mental health crisis. One, there are ways that people have created crisis response teams of folks who were trained to navigate mental health crisis, but there are also just ways where communities can band together. If anyone let's see if there is a local organization nearby that is providing support for people in need that does community outreach, that we can get access to this person.
I think with our first caller, I there's so much data on how much sexual violence and sexual harassment is actually happening from police. Two-thirds of people who experience sexual violence don't report. Also, one, I think because most people tell someone that they know as opposed to a stranger, but two, also because people know that they may experience more harassment and more violence. I think that the only thing I would shift about the first caller is the idea that this person may need people. Maybe people to go places with other people to ensure that this person feels safe, where they're at. There's a lot that we can do by just coming together. Those are my quick thoughts over our first two calls.
Kai Wright: Let's go to Sophia in Brooklyn. Sophia, welcome to the show.
Sophia: Hi, thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to point out the community outreach effort of harm reduction groups. There is a really cool history in the city amidst the AIDS epidemic, people basically illegally distributing syringes and safe use supplies to drug users. The program started related to ACT UP. Those programs continued without institutional or city infrastructure or support until syringe exchange was legalized in the '90s and they are still doing really cool and great work in our communities.
I think it's also interesting to reflect on the fact that they're able to access communities of drug users and people who do sex work in a compassionate way that oftentimes those communities engagement with more institutional infrastructure doesn't provide, law enforcement certainly, but even the public health and like community health infrastructure that we have. I think a great example is NYHRE, which is the New York Harm Reduction Educators up in Harlem. They also have a lot of community intervention strategies like mobile vans. I think especially in light of the overdose deaths statistics that we've gotten from 2020, which are just astounding, this is a really cool mode of community members, keeping other people in their communities safe.
Kai Wright: Thank you, Sophia. I'm going to leave it there because we're getting tight on time. I want to ask you that example, Ejeris, and so many others, I do struggle here and I want to put something to you. You mentioned the mutual aid that sprung up over the last year. We did a whole show earlier this year about that from food security to policing, all of it, communities banding together and, even for public safety, as we've just talked about, but I have to say, I wrestled ideologically with this because the idea of abandoning public institutions, which are supposed to be there to help everybody no matter what. I know that's not what they're actually doing. That's not what's actually happening too often, but I'm resistant to abandon that goal in favor of what are ultimately private efforts even if they're community-driven. I wonder if you can help me think about that. How do you think about that tension?
Ejeris Dixon: Absolutely. I think I think you guys had Dean Spade on earlier and I share his viewpoint that mutual aid is part of an ecosystem of social justice movements. Meaning people need support right now and our systems are failing. I believe that there are some things that we still need to organize for the systems we deserve. It doesn't have to be an either-or even. If an individual or even groups of individuals will say, "I'm prioritizing mutual aid."
What really helps us is recognizing that our mutual aid efforts may not be able to scale, we may not be able to reach every on, and while they can be blueprints for the world that we want, we still deserve public services that are accessible to everyone and that don't harm people in the process. To remove harmful systems and to support and increase supportive ones. We've even seen this way that sometimes bad, but sometimes good. The Black Panthers free breakfast program, a community-based mutual aid effort that became a part of a systemic response. There's a lot of critiques on how that happened but there is a way that we can help create the blueprint for what we need and deserve. I would reject the notion that it's an either-or because we still need to organize so that people can get the systems that they need.
Kai Wright: Well, certainly, I believe strongly in either-or thinking is the poison of so much of our political conversation, so I needed to wash my brain of it in this case. Ejeris is the executive director of Vision Change Win which helps community groups build organizing strategies and is co-editor of the book, Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement. Ejeris, thanks for this time.
Ejeris Dixon: Thank you.
Kai Wright: The United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC Studios. Mixing and music by Jared Paul. Matthew Mirando is at the boards for the live show. Thanks this week to Matthew Sherman, for his help on our story about how the NYPD is planning to encrypt its radio communications. Our team also includes Carolyn Adams, Carl Boisrond, Emily Botein, Karen Frillmann, Gigi Polizzi, and Christopher Werth. Our theme music was written by Hannis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass Band. Veralyn Williams is our executive producer, and I am Kai Wright. You can keep in touch with me on Twitter @kai_wright. You can reach us by email @anxietywnyc.org. As always, I hope you'll join us for the live show next Sunday, 6:00 PM. Eastern. Stream it at wbnyc.org, or tell your smart speaker, "Play WNYC." Until then, take care of yourselves. Thanks for listening.