Stick Around for Friends (with J. David McSwane) | Crooked Media
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August 23, 2022
Pod Save The People
Stick Around for Friends (with J. David McSwane)

In This Episode

DeRay, Myles, Kaya and De’Ara cover the underreported news of the week— including U.S postal workers dying from heat stroke, Minneapolis plan to fire white teachers, Kanye West on Fox News, and artist Isaac Julien breathes new life into the Harlem Rennaisance. DeRay interviews award winning investigative reporter J.David McSwane about his new book Pandemic Inc.: Chasing the Capitalists and Thieves Who Got Rich While We Got Sick.










DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Hey, this is DeRay, and welcome to Pod Save The People. On this episode it’s me, De’Ara, Myles and Kaya talking about the news that you don’t know from the past week. The news that was underreported but really important about race, justice, and equity. And then I sit down and talked to the award winning investigative reporter J. David McSwane and talk about his new book, Pandemic, Inc: Chasing the Capitalists and Thieves Who Got Rich While We Got Sick. I know you heard stories about PPP fraud and all that other stuff, but I learned so much in this book and I wanted him on because I want to talk to an expert. So here we go. Hope you learn to. [music break] And my advice for this week is to don’t give up on your friends. Like I have a friend who we used talk. I saw them around and then, like, their life changed, they started dating somebody and they were really busy and I would text him like I didn’t hear back, but I, you know, but, but I still we never had a falling out, care about her, a good person. And I like, when she was on my mind I would text and da da da. I’m like, I would see that she would read it and like she didn’t reply. And then the other day I texted her and she replied, it was like, Hey, da da da and like, so much is going on. But it’s one of those things where like I could have just been like, you know what, I’m not going reply da da da but it was like I didn’t give up. We have a good friendship. She’s a good person. I knew she was busy and I wanted to make sure that I acknowledged every time she was on my mind. We had a great conversation the other day, she’s back from under what she was dealing with and like, it’s dope. Don’t give up on your friends. 


De’Ara Balenger: Family. Welcome to another episode of Pod Save The People. I am De’Ara Balenger. You can find me on Instagram and Twitter @DeAraBalenger 


Myles E. Johnson: I’m Myles E. Johnson. You can find me on Twitter and Instagram @pharaohrapture 


Kaya Henderson: I’m Kaya Henderson and you can find me on Twitter @HendersonKaya 


DeRay Mckesson: And this is DeRay at @deray on Twitter. 


De’Ara Balenger: Lots going on as usual. But one of the main things we all know is going on in and it is hot as we don’t know what outside everywhere. So much so that in China what are they doing? Closing factories, turning down the lights, doing all types of things. Um but, you know, at least they are trying to do something combat uh to do some type of energy savings, because I don’t think we have any plan for that United States. That’s happening. The other thing that is not hot temperature wise, but in terms of tea is Dennis Rodman being approved to go to Russia to get Brittney Griner. 


Kaya Henderson: That is fascinating to me. Hmm. 


Myles E. Johnson: Like between that and the China heat stuff like Earth is not beating we’re in hell allegations. [laughter] [indistinct] And the fact that we had like somebody who was dipped in right at the president I’m like hmm. It’s it’s giving it’s giving hell it’s [laughter] We’re not we’re not beating those allegations yet. [laughter]


Kaya Henderson: Mmm. Um. This the Dennis Rodman going to Russia is fascinating. First of all, you know, his friendships with these authoritarian dudes, Kim Jong-un in North Korea and Putin, I mean, literally his quote was something like [indistinct]


De’Ara Balenger: Michael Jordan in Chicago. [banter] 


Kaya Henderson: Anyway. 


Myles E. Johnson: Gee whiz. 


Kaya Henderson: I, I think. My prediction is that Dennis Rodman has a higher than likely chance of success uh for two reasons. On the one hand, let’s acknowledge the work that is already being done. They’ve been in conversations around what a prisoner swap should could look like. And there are a bunch of people who are on the ground working on Brittney Griner’s behalf every day. Uh so I don’t want to act like that hasn’t been happening, but it would be a tremendous embarrassment, I think, to the U.S. government if the outcast, NBA rebel could go and accomplish something that the United States government could not. And so I think Putin might be predisposed to giving Mr. Rodman whatever he wants, not just because it’s inevitable that this is likely to happen, but also because he can give a little, you know, poke in the eye to the U.S. government. 


Myles E. Johnson: Yeah. And then I think you’re completely right. Um Miss Kaya. It’s so interesting how the how I have to switch from Auntie Kaya to Miss Kaya on the podcast. [laughter]


Kaya Henderson: Why switch? We are family. 


Myles E. Johnson: Right. But um Auntie Kaya I think you’re totally right. And I and as you were speaking, I thought about how um Russia has been responsible for so many of the narrative buildings on social media. And it’s really intelligent about knowing what is the uh narratives and the arguments and debates and the culture wars and the political wars that are happening in America and doing things specifically to start those things up. And I think that they know that the core of where we’re at right now is celebrity and political power needs to stop overlapping. And I think that this move, just even if it’s just all in vanity and optics for a lot of people, will seem will make people think that wow celebrity is still more politically powerful than um uh just our our government system. And I think Russia wants us to continue to argue and be scared about that. 


De’Ara Balenger: Can I just say who, who, who? Someone who was a fake diplomat for a time or two. You know who the best diplomats are? Black people, obviously. [laughter] So I’m not surprised by this at all. 


Kaya Henderson: Wait a minute. Wait a minute. 


De’Ara Balenger: I think he’s gonna go over there. 


Kaya Henderson: You have to support that assertion. Why are Black people the best diplomats?


De’Ara Balenger: I mean. Because I feel like we’ve had we have to wear so many masks all the time. We have to be people pleasers. We have to be entertainers. We have to all of these things that. Culturally, we all just somehow are able to do and subscribe to and perform at. Like, it just makes us good at going to places in the world and being beloved. And I think also just about like Black American culture globally. I mean. I mean, I’m in Portugal at an Indian British wedding, and they were playing Dr. Dre all night long. Okay. So.


Kaya Henderson: We create the culture baby, that’s what we do. 


De’Ara Balenger: Come on, come on. So I’m not surprised. I think he will bring her home, and we’ll all have to be nice to Dennis Rodman for at least six months. [laughter]


DeRay Mckesson: Um I will say that. I was talking to a professor and he was telling me that there’s like a long, long history of Russian involvement around race things in the country and that the internet has just like exacerbated it. But that, that this goes back long much further than than this moment, which was interesting to me and it is so fascinating that, you know, we talk about everything is about race and people think they were being dramatic. But for a foreign country’s best way to disrupt the entire thing is to amplify white supremacy. Like to be more racist is the strategy to like topple the government is truly fascinating so uh we’ll be interested it’ll be interesting to see. And also like who I when Dennis Rodman said publicly he got approved, I’m like, what was that call like? Like, who did you call? Did you like did you call the State Department? Like, how did you did you call Biden? Did you call Putin? Like because, you know, somebody has to let your passport. Like, I’m so confused about just like the how of this moment, uh which I’m interested in. 


De’Ara Balenger: I saw something, DeRay, that said he went there and met with Putin in 2014. So I don’t know what their relationship had been since that 2014 visit but.


Myles E. Johnson: So I do not have. Ya’ll know I love culture and the thing about loving culture, specifically pop culture where Blackness and pop culture meet is that it’s not always the deepest thing I can find, but it will be a really interesting thing. And sometimes the most absurd things help me get to a really deep place, because I do think what happens is when uh in pop culture is when something something happens it is a um symptom of something else that’s happening that can be deeper and more interesting. Um so I’ll say what I was going to say is Kanye West definitely put clothes in a trash bag and told everybody to go search through them and to buy their stuff that way. And it was a really mm I want to say a really big deal, but it became kind of like political, like fodder for a lot of people or in discussion just because A.) uh slow cultural Newsweek, if you’re not on Beyoncé’s PR team. And also I think that anything that Kanye West does, we kind of like psych- uh hyper analyze it. In the article, which was on Pitchfork, it says the point of the sales tactic West said, had been to promote a more egalitarian approach to clothing. I’m an innovator, and I’m not here to sit up and apologize about my ideas, said West, before reiterating his oft repeated talking points about media efforts to put him in a box. This is a not a this is not a joke. This is not a game. This is not just some celebrity collaboration. This is my life. I’m fighting for a position to be able to change clothing and bring the best design to people. The one big thing about people having conversations with Kanye West that I think is interesting is that we we ignore this is this is happening in this current moment with Wendy Williams and Kanye West. In my opinion, where we’re ignoring the mental capacity of the people we’re talking to and we know and we pretend like everything’s normal. And I think that because nobody is wants to be seen as, oh, I’m not a doctor, I don’t wanna mis-diagnose anybody or say anything like that. I think that we have like foregone like common sense because there used to be a time where you’re able to be like, no, I don’t think that this person is in the capacity to have a conversation that I’m trying to have with them or whatever. And I think us just forgoing that, turns into exploiting them because we don’t talk about what we’re really observing, we’re just pretending like everything’s normal. And that to me, that’s its own, like cultural crime. Right? The other thing is because I’m a human and I’m full of contradictions. The other thing is I really do think that what he did was really interesting, maybe not in the ways that he wanted it to be interesting, but I thought it was really interesting that to me in America, homelessness and uh is is the the cultural nightmare that a lot of us are in risk of experiencing. But nobody wants to discuss how we do not talk about homeless people, how we do not observe where homeless um uh what homeless people are doing, how there are certain things that we do in order to just purposefully uh disappear homeless people and not be affiliated with it. And that’s so interesting that celebrity and that power and cultural power would have people maybe even emulating what homeless people do just because celebrity is now evolved. And it was really dystopian to me like. In my head when I first came to New York because there’s so many ridiculous New York themes. One of the jokes that I made was, Oh, if you put something in Manhattan and you just put all the food in like a garbage can and call it the new hot chic restaurant and say that Rihanna went in, everybody will be interested in going to that new hot chic restaurant, even though we are saying no, it’s that we we affiliate that with like homelessness and poverty. But given the right social power and celebrity around it, we uh there is a group of people who will participate in it. And I kind and I felt this that I said as a joke to being like flip to somebody um and about my how I felt about Manhattan. But then looking at this, I’m like, huh, maybe I was, maybe it was less of a joke. And it seems as though there is just a slew of people who are not being necessarily romanced by decadence or glamor or flash or or any of those other things that we can see why people desire. It’s just simply celebrity. Is this simply cultural power? And I think that’s really, really, really interesting. And again, just tying that into what we were talking about earlier with Dennis Rodman and um Trump, that is the American that’s the great American currency it seems. If we’re not backing money with gold anymore and we’re not doing that, I would like argue to say we’re backing money with celebrity. And I think certain times in moments like this are is proof that celebrity is getting bigger and bigger and stronger and stronger and getting more and more complex. And. And people are kind of falling for it. Not everybody, but enough everybody to swing a state. [laughing] Um, That’s my news. That’s my thought. That’s my thought. That’s my conversation I’m bringing to the table. Um. [laughing] What y’all think? And it’s okay if you don’t think nothing because y’all are strong intelligent Black women, don’t got time to think about clothes in trash bag. That is okay too. [laughter]


DeRay Mckesson: So I actually thought this was like a fa– I didn’t think that, you know, Kanye wasn’t able to describe it this way. But I thought that this was a beautiful mockery of capitalism because, first of all, there’s not Black person I know who is rummaging through these like I this is the part of the common sense. Like, I literally don’t know anybody who would go into an actual store and rummage through trash bags at the gap to buy clothes like that is it is so comical. Like I imagine having to talk to my grandmother about this and her thinking that this is some wild joke, that we’re in on because like it just can’t be real. Kaya you disagree? 


Kaya Henderson: But. But. Well, you didn’t think that people would pay. I don’t know however much they pay to have them ugly dinosaur eggs on their feet running around the place. [laugh] And they do. And so. 


Myles E. Johnson: And Black people’s Black cur– And the thing about that too, Black people’s Black cultural currency works better on people who are not Black. 


DeRay Mckesson: Oh, for sure. For sure. It is just such a good mockery, though, of that. I think it’s a mockery of fast fashion, too, because the reality is like this stuff costs pennies on the dollar to make and the markup is actually just so wild. So to put it in trash bags and have people rummage through it. In some ways, to me, when I first saw it outside of the like, Kanye is being Kanye and I love the meeting at GAP where he forced these people to put this in trash bags and put it on the floor like I don’t even know what the like how they did that. But I am interested in like the indictment of fast fashion. I think this when I saw it, it was an indictment of fast fashion that like it costs pennies on the dollar where making people rummage through trash bags um. That part about homelessness, I don’t really like that. All of it feels like one big mockery to me and at best a social critique which Kanye can not was not able to deliver. I wish y’all could see guys Kaya’s face, by the way, everybody. Because it is great. I can’t wait to hear what she has to say. [laughter]


Kaya Henderson: So uh so on the one hand, I mean, I don’t understand how it can be an indictment of fast fashion while at the same time charging people exorbitant prices for this stuff. 


DeRay Mckesson: But that’s the point. 


Kaya Henderson: And this was–


DeRay Mckesson: The contradiction is the point. 


Kaya Henderson: Well, but people actually go buy it. Like, I don’t think that people get that point right. I think people think that they are. And so maybe I don’t know, but that might be above my pay grade. Um. There was one online commenter who said Balenciaga and Kanye’s fetish with the homeless as fashion muses, is everything that’s wrong with billionaires. They no longer see the plight of people. They don’t see humans that are suffering. They see opportunities to be edgy and profit from it. And it’s disgusting. And that pretty much feels like I feel a little bit about it. I think this is ridiculous. I take I totally appreciate Myles’s point about us treating people with mental health issues like everything is normal and you know, intellectualizing it from an artistic perspective. Kanye is going through all kinds of mental health issues like Wendy Williams. And there was a time in American journalism where people would be like, you know what, we shouldn’t report on this. This is like beyond the pale. And we are like, nope, if he’s going to say it, we’re going to show it and whatever. And I think that is a travesty. Like I deeply worry about. I look at kids on the metro and on the bus. You riding the metro or the bus and but you got Yeezys on that cost I literally don’t know how much. And this the you know, the celebrity the celebritization of these consumer products um that young people can’t afford but are, you know, chasing after just and I know it’s not just Kanye, right? This is everything and everybody but it that none of this feels right in my spirit. And so I’m just going to leave that there. 


Myles E. Johnson: And I think that like a lot of things, I totally love the piece because it just sounds like to me that in order to truly critique something, you can’t collude with it. And if you if you’re colluding with it, then the critique kind of gets absorbed in just the participation of it. 


Kaya Henderson: Right? That’s what I was trying to say Myles. Yeah. That right there. [laughter] You can’t critique and collude. Do it baby do it.


DeRay Mckesson: There we go. There we go. Wrap it up.


Myles E. Johnson: And then so that makes it that makes a lot of sense to me. And then I think, you know, generationally we’ve had um from Jordans to Yeezy, we’ve had these kind of cultural fashion things for each generation that we that we reached towards in order to um feel good about ourselves and as status symbols as what we believe in. And I think that’s you invest in that even more the younger you are and the more you’re trying to find yourself out. You find yourself out. You define yourself by these things. I think it’s the first time. So I don’t think that part is unique. I think it’s the first time that, you know, it was Versace chains and it was gold and it was things that looked royal and decadent. Now it’s. You know, dinosaur eggs as you so that. Great. This is dinosaur eggs and trash bags. So it’s interesting that that it’s not so interesting to me that these two things are happening, because I think these always happen. I think what it’s happening over is saying something about the psyche of where we’re at right now because, you know, who who who who didn’t want to spend three of their, three of their checks for a Cudi sweater, but they were cool looking and they looked fly or Versace chains with the you know with the goal you’re like that makes sense even if it was still silly. But now it’s things that kind of feel a little dystopian and, and, and almost mocking the same people who are participating in it and saying, look at you doing something that you’re probably one or two paychecks away from living and you’re you’re participating in this. So it’s interesting. Oh see. We got to a smart place. 


Kaya Henderson: We did, and I just–


De’Ara Balenger: I want to say, too, because I unfortunately have given a lot of thought to Kanye, because I’m still hoping for a return of the George Bush doesn’t care about Black people, Kanye. And you know what? And I this is probably a jump, but I feel like he is the Eldridge Cleaver of culture. Like of all the Black Panthers that are beloved, we always knew Eldridge Cleaver was one that was like, oh, there he go. So in his book and er– because I’ve read all the Panther biographies, autobiographies. Eldridge Cleaver talks about how he would rape white women as a revolutionary act. Right. So it’s just like. Ridiculous ideology that are so steeped in mental illness and the implications of racism. But it’s still like a voice and and a message that people are somehow allowing and absorbing. So I don’t know. I just think of it as just like, he’s not the first person in our culture that has meant so much, but also. [laugh] Has just, complet– you know, has has meant so much, but also has just created space. For all the things that you all were talking about in a very smart way, you know? And so I just I that’s I guess that’s how I’m just thinking about it. Is just like this isn’t the first time we’ve had somebody that’s very much a part of who we are, speak wildly and not in like a Ben Carson type of way, but in like a way where we’re just like we. Maybe we’re we’re kind of we’re holding on to you still. We need to let you go. We’re holding on to you. But. Um. And there’s a relevance there that he always seems to have. Um. So I don’t know. That’s I’ve just been trying to think about it more like an ideological way as opposed to, like, pop culture way. 


Myles E. Johnson: And white people deserve that. Like, I think as you were speaking, I thought about the Nikki Giovanni and James Baldwin conversation, the piece where she was like, you go to work and you smile for the white man. You come home and you like, hit me. And I do think there’s something really cool about a celebrity moment where a lot of Black celebrities are just acting out, where it used to be, you know, and I love me some Diahann Carroll. You know, and I love Harry Belafonte and I love Sidney Poitier. And like, I love those um those family members. But that’s some how that’s an Oprah. Like, that’s some heavy respectability. I am acting right at your dinner table and maybe at my own kitchen table I’m really gonna say what I really feel. And I think that it’s kind of like high time that, you know, if you want to deal with the Black goodness and joy and sad and moral sanity and clarity and these like cultural and political storms then you also have to deal with, quite frankly, you know. 


De’Ara Balenger: That part. 


Myles E. Johnson: The other the– 


De’Ara Balenger: The rage. 


Myles E. Johnson: The rage, the things that maybe–. 


De’Ara Balenger: Yup. 


Myles E. Johnson: Feel maybe feel confusing, feel like insanity, feel like those things. That is all that is. That is just as much a part of our unit. The moon is just as much a part of the Black universe as the sun is. And I think for a long time, you we we’ve been pretending that we were 24/7 sunshine in order to get um to be able to be looked at. And now it’s not happening. So I agree that it’s probably a necessary evil, but it’s evil. [laughter]


Kaya Henderson: I, I I love this podcast. Because only here. [laughter] We go from Kanye to Eldridge Cleaver. 


Myles E. Johnson: Listen. 


Kaya Henderson: To, to Harry Belafonte.


De’Ara Balenger: Diahann Carroll. 


Kaya Henderson: And Oprah and Diahann Carroll. [laughing]


Myles E. Johnson: We brought it home. 


Kaya Henderson: I love it. I love it. I love it. 


DeRay Mckesson: I will say the last thing about Kanye is that he’s also a great example of what happens when somebody’s so famous that the rules get stretched. Because those posts about Pete and those videos of him being like, somebody not famous, they be kicked off the platform. Like, it wouldn’t even be a conversation about like, could you stay with a beheading of somebody you clearly know? This is not this isn’t a random piece of [?] Like it would so obviously be harassment and and yet Kanye remains. 


Kaya Henderson: But do you, do you think that is because people are cutting him slack or because the profitability of keeping Kanye on the platforms is higher than. Right? It’s not because we think he should be able to do whatever he wants to do, but him off of these platforms is actually detrimental to the platforms. The platforms. Right. Like, you understand–. 


DeRay Mckesson: I think it’s a little bit of both. I also think that they, I think Kanye’s so intense that they are also worried about the backlash. Like he will be so wild to Facebook. 


Kaya Henderson: Yup, yup. 


DeRay Mckesson: If they kick him off, then I think they’re like, you know what, let’s just take the post down. Lets like, keep taking the posts down. But him off. He, you know, he’s so famous, he’ll like talk about us in every other forum he has in a way that the cost just doesn’t seem to be worth it. But but that’s not I. But as you know, the question is not like, is it right or is it wrong? Like those videos are clearl– I mean, that is harassment. 


Myles E. Johnson: But also we’re living in a eq– so Yes, Trump is not in office anymore. And the thi– but I think A.) the things that happened before Trump, before the election, before him doing anything, there was a lot of absurdity and a lot of ridiculousness that happened in order to allow that pinnacle to allow that moment to happen with Trump. I’m talking about I’m thinking about Monica Lewinsky, Bill Clinton. I’m thinking about uh Reagan being a Hollywood star and then getting into office. I’m thinking about like all the ways that we kind of set the, set it up. And we’re still looking we we’re still living in the echo of a lot of absurdity. And I think that soon as you talked about that, I thought about Kathy Griffin in the Trump thing. And I think that that was a really ridiculous moment. And I think that she did something that was inside her space as an artist and a comedian and wasn’t like, we’ve seen that happen before. His reaction was ridiculous. And I think that just certain things we’ve lived with, live with with where it’s like Kanye West is not the most ridiculous thing that we’re seeing. And it’s like, if we if if we start censoring him where it’s not the most absurd thing that we’ve seen from the most powerful person in the world. [laugh] We we haven’t gotten there yet so. 


Kaya Henderson: There’s that. there’s that. 


DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Don’t go anywhere. More Pod Save the People is coming. 




Kaya Henderson: Well, um my news is about a very interesting. Um, not even proposal. It is a um a contractual agreement that the Minneapolis Public Schools and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, which is the teachers union, have struck that supports the retention of uh the recruitment and retention of teachers from underrepresented groups. And basically um in Minneapolis public schools, which DeRay is uh knows intimately, having led human capital efforts in that school system um and not just Minneapolis all over the place, um there has been a concerted effort to improve the connection between teacher demographics and uh student demographics. So, for example, in Minneapolis, in fact, something like 67% of teachers are white and only 37% of of of kids are white. Right. And basically what that means is you have larger representations of African-American kids and Latino kids and Asian kids and whatnot. And the teaching demographics don’t actually match up. And there’s been a whole lot of research that shows that when kids are taught by people who look like them, uh academic success happens uh more easily. In fact, academic success is kids have better educational outcomes, better emotional outcomes, better behavioral outcomes. In classes with same race teachers um in Minneapolis public schools, Black and Hispanic students are more likely to be disciplined and less likely to graduate. And fewer than one in ten pass the state math test, and only one in five can read at grade level. And so you have this situation where kids are not doing well. The research shows that same race teachers actually have outsized impacts, and the district and the teachers union have acknowledged past discriminatory practices, which have disproportionately impacted teachers, the hiring of teachers of color. And so now they are trying to fix that, right, by prioritizing the hiring and retaining of teachers of color. Everybody sort of agrees with the idea that you would do your best to recruit and retain teachers of color. Except when the rubber meets the road and we get to situations like what we call excessing or what in the rest of the world is called layoffs. And what happens is schools don’t have enough money to pay for all of the things that are uh hitting their books. Personnel are the most expensive resource. And so at some point you have to start laying off teachers. And I know you’re asking why are we laying off teachers when we have a teacher shortage? Well, the way schools are funded is tied to enrollment. And so if enrollment in your school district decreases, which has happened all across the country as a result of the pandemic, if enrollment decreases, then you have less money. If you have less money you gotta lay off teachers. That’s just the simple gist of it. And what the Minnesota Federation of Teachers has agreed to in their contract is that they will lay off teachers um in seniority order, except if the teachers represent an underrepresented category. Basically, it means that white teachers are going to get laid off before teachers of color. And of course, um Fox News is having a field day with this. And people are calling it, you know, the most racist thing they’ve ever seen. And it’s against the law and all of this jazz. Um but if you really pull it apart and discuss the nuances of it, there are some pretty interesting reasons why the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers oh, which, by the way, is led by a group of white women and represents disproportionately a group of white women have agreed to this policy decision. And so you get into this conversation, this is where politics and education intersect in really weird ways because, of course, the Right has a whole lot to say um about this, what they are calling a race based approach to teacher layoffs. But what people won’t say is there’s been a race based approach to hiring, prior to this. There’s been a race based approach to laying teachers off. In fact, if they laid teachers off the regular way, it would make the district district’s teaching force more white and give kids, uh give kids of color an even a lower chance of being successful given all the research and the person who actually. So the article that I’m citing comes from The New York Post. But Michael Harriot in, who writes for TheGrio, did an amazing analysis, which from a very logical and clear standpoint, asks big good questions, right? Like, why are teachers being laid off? Why can’t Minneapolis pay its teachers? You know, why would people agree to reverse racism? And he literally takes down each argument in an article that I think is worth reading, because we can react to the headlines and whatnot. But if we’re really thoughtful about what it means to educate children of color and providing them with the best resources that they possibly uh can have, then it is a very complicated conversation to think about who gets laid off in what order and why. The point that that Michael Harriot makes that I think is hard for us all to grapple with, is that if you are pursuing equity, somebody loses. There is no way to redistribute resources and make things more equitable without somebody losing. And I think that is everybody is in agreement that kids who need more should get more. Only just not at my expense. And I think that is the big conversation that we’re really having without saying that we’re having it. And that is that some folks don’t want to lose what they’ve had. I’m a leave that right there. 


DeRay Mckesson: And I’ll say, you know, I was surprised by this because two reasons. One, I used to lead staffing for human capital in the school system there for the whole school system. And the Minneapolis teachers contract is one of the wildest documents I’ve ever seen. They’ve negotiated everything, like how many minutes you can be in the hallway? I mean, it’s like so it’s very intense. And to get this in must have been I mean, like the fact that it’s in the contract is actually really impressive. And I am frankly shocked that the union and the district got to a point where this was actually something they codified in the contract. So shout out to them because I had to live through that contract. And it was, it was stuff that like, you know, we’re counting minutes, you know, like we didn’t need to negotiate this. The second thing, though, is that layoff, like Kaya said, the layoff stuff is bad. I mean, it’s like a nightmare process. And I had to do it in Baltimore. And I remember fighting with the teachers union about laying off the worst teachers. Now, mind you, we had 6000 teachers. It was like 70 of them across the entire district were rated like the, the worst possible thing. And we were like, well, if they’re in the areas that we need to lay people off, we should probably layoff the teachers who like I mean, in Baltimore at the time, it was very hard to be in the lowest. I mean, it was it was hard to be in the highest, but it was also hard to be in the absolute lowest. And we were saying to the teachers union, like, the best thing for kids would be like if we gotta have people go, then like the teachers in the absolute bottom should be. And when I tell you, they fought us tooth and nail, we were like guys like this is it really makes no sense. And I do think that when the lens for all this becomes what is the best thing for kids and how do we do the work that we do right? These things make a lot of sense. And I’ll tell you, when I was in Minneapolis, Minneapolis schools had the lowest performing Black students in the state of Minnesota and the highest performing white students in the state of Minnesota. And I’ll never forget, I went to one school. They tau– you know, I taught in New York, opened an after school center in Baltimore. I’ve seen kids at all ranges of ability to control their behavior. So they tell me this school’s off the chains. I’m like, Well, let’s go see. I go in. The kids are just loud. That’s it. Nobody’s hitting, throwing like they are all seated and loud. I’m like, if this is the this is the behavior, I’m like, their whole family’s loud. Loud is what the, the neighborhood’s loud like that’s not the behavior. You’re suspending kids for being loud and this is it. I’m like, Y’all, take me back to like, I got to go to the office. This is silly um. But I saw the way racism impacted our schools and it was truly wild. 


Myles E. Johnson: I won’t um. A.) I just learned so much from this. Even hearing y’all have this discourse. I love when y’all talk about education. It’s so. It just it educates me. Um. The other thing that I was thinking about is this is a symptom of [?] symptom of what happens when the gu– when you put things like education through a system like capitalism, white supremacist capitalism, no less, and then everything becomes about money. And I feel like this is one of those, like, sad re– ree– to me, like reactions to it. And then the other piece [laugh] that Auntie Kaya said that’s always going to ring true, is that don’t use this as political fodder. Don’t use this as a moment in order to scream, reverse racism, to scream all these other things and then not care once the heat from this story leaves. Because if this was something you truly cared about, there are ways to get in and to advocate all the time. Don’t just care now because you’re able to, you know, falsely uh support an argument because of this like one isolated moment, if you look at it the right way for the right lens and just excuse all common sense. It’s so intellectually dishonest and cruel to really see this moment and use it as a way to uh create this uh fictive race war that’s in people’s heads. 


De’Ara Balenger: Well, born in Minneapolis, family’s all still there. My mom’s favorite expression is I wouldn’t raise a chicken in Minnesota, and that’s why I was not raised there. My cousins that have gone to public school, a couple of which their moms, my aunts have gone to the school and their Black children were facing the wall where the white kids in the class were facing the teacher. So I can give you a million anecdotes about how Black kids are treated in Minneapolis public schools just from my family’s perspective. So I’m excited to see this. I hope it makes the difference. Um. Yeah. Thanks. Thanks for it. Thanks for bringing it, Kaya. 


Myles E. Johnson: I think now I understand what happened because, yes, I am not an expert on um education. I am, however, a spiritualist. And I think me and De’Ara need to come together and do a seance for Prince and bring Prince down and haunt Minneapolis. And that’s what we need to do. We need to get together on that. And we got y’all. Y’all, y’all handle y’all’s business. And we’ll do it. 


De’Ara Balenger: I will. I’m a stand in the back and do whatever you want me to do. 


Myles E. Johnson: Listen. 


De’Ara Balenger: I’ll light the candles. [laughter]


Myles E. Johnson: We need purple sage. [banter] 


DeRay Mckesson: You crazy.


Myles E. Johnson: We need purple sage. We need a cup, a glass of water from the um from the Lake Minnetonka and [laughter]


De’Ara Balenger: Lake Minnetonka. We can go there. We can get on my cousin’s boat. 


Myles E. Johnson: Not the lake. 


De’Ara Balenger: Right in the middle of the lake.


Myles E. Johnson: And we gonna and we gonna and we’re gonna and we’re gonna get Prince back and we gonna haunt the people who are um making Minneapolis a horrible place for Black children. And he’ll come back for that. Jesus came back for less. [laughter]


DeRay Mckesson: Jesus came back for less. [laughter] And Myles continues.


Kaya Henderson: That’s the quote. That’s the quote. 


DeRay Mckesson: Right, that’s the quote.


De’Ara Balenger: My news is from Art Net, and it’s just like a combination of all my favorite things and favorite historical figures. And so it really starts with Isaac Julien, who is now doing this incredible um exhibit, but like film piece at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. But where I know Isaac Julien from is he years and years ago in the nineties did a movie called White– uh Black face White Mask. That was basically about Frantz Fanon and about the revolution in Algeria in the sixties. I love Frantz Fanon because one of the things my white college did is expose me to um the wretched of the Earth, which is one of my all time favorite books and why Frantz Fanon was so incredible because he was a psychiatrist. And so a lot of what he talked about was actually the impact of racism on the Black psyche. Um and it’s so crazy that we’re this is kind of all related to what we were talking about earlier around Kanye and Eldridge Cleaver and all these other things. Just to Myles’s earlier point, like we don’t talk about the darkness, the spiritual, the psychic darkness that racism causes. And Frantz Fanon years and years ago had done so much scholarship around this. So Isaac Julien. So that’s how I know him from, from, from, from that moment. And now he’s created this work around Alain Locke, who was also obviously one of my favorites. So Alain Locke, we know, is the first black Rhodes Scholar, incredibly brilliant, also the founder really of the Harlem Renaissance. And he’s also called, you know, the founder of like Black Modernism. And my other favorite thing about Alain Locke is if you all have ever read The Big Sea by Langston Hughes, Alain Locke literally shows up one day at Langston’s apartment, like knocks on the door, like on his flat in Paris. And he’s like, Hey, I’ve been writing your letters. Now I’m here, I’m on vacation. Let’s hang out. And at this point, Alain Locke is very mu–, very like significantly older than Langston Hughes, but he wines and dines Langston Hughes all around Paris. They go to the opera, they do all these things. And it’s kind of like Langston’s, like entree into like the like Black elite literati. Langston is writing about it, to Countee Cullen, who’s also one of my favorites because remember County Cullen married W.E.B. Dubois’s daughter, but then they had to get a divorce because obviously he was a gay man. So it just is like all these juicy Black historical connections that I just love and would wish somebody would just write a book about all of this. And I also, you know, and I love Isaac Julien and I love what he does in terms of really celebrating the Harlem Renaissance and how there was like a liberation around sexuality that somehow just did not continue as we moved into the Black arts movement, as we moved into the, you know, the Black power movement. And I just wish we would spend more time. Just focusing and celebrating and indulging in the Harlem Renaissance and all of the beauty and joy and just juiciness that came out of the Harlem Renaissance. So really, Isaac Julien was kind of just like my entree and him. I’m going to try to get to Philadelphia to see what he has going on there. In the other thing that he has there, it’s like really in context. So the Barnes Foundation was I forget the guy’s last name something Barnes, but he was one of the early collectors of African art, African sculpture. And so the Barnes Foundation has a ton of that. And so there’s also this conversation between Barnes’s idea of art and how art should be interpreted. And really like him believing as a curator, he wanted to tell you what you should take from the art and Alain Locke on the other side, being like he feels like art is a way to get you. You know, art should be a way. Art should be interpreted with ever you’re bringing to whatever context you have to it. So there’s just like this interesting conversation happening there. But with, you know, the work around Alain Locke being among the this kind of this this collection that Barnes had put together. So all that to say, it’s an interesting article. Isaac Julien, I think is a genius and fabulous. If you can watch, it’s old. Uh but if you can watch his early films, they’re incredible. The other film that I hadn’t seen that came up in this article was Finding Langston. I don’t know if y’allhave seen that– 


Myles E. Johnson: Whoa. Yes. 


De’Ara Balenger: –Either, but it was in the nineties and it was. Yes! so I’m going to try to it’s on like MUBI, like Mubi dot com or something. 


Myles E. Johnson: I love the app MUBI. 


De’Ara Balenger: Yeah. 


Myles E. Johnson: I mean I don’t love it, I mean [?]. [laughter] 


De’Ara Balenger: But that was maybe we should do we should, you know, do do a film with screening and cocktail around that one because I’m super excited to see it. So just wanted to share all this Black beauty with y’all. 


Myles E. Johnson: So, so so so good. Um, I love Finding Langston. And then it’s like, like, like fun fact that, like, none of Langston Hughes, his family did not let. The reason why you don’t really hear a lot of the poetry or anything like that is because his family would not let him be in that uh his work be used for that film, because it explored Langston as um as a as a as a queer person. And the estate, estate said, Ohh, not on our watch. Um. I love Alain Locke. So I’ve been a little bit obsessed with Alain Locke and since the pandemic um my old roo– before I moved in um with uh my boyfriend, um my old room, my old, my old roommate um got like the issue of like Fire!! Magazine and has so many um just like just different things that were happening during the Harlem Renaissance. And I really got to consume it as an adult. And I had the time to really do it without feeling I need to read something else that felt more productive. And I’ve really just soaked it all in and I really fell in love with Alain Locke. And I’m a human story person, like even the the the work of his life and then also the, um the tragedy of kind of like his like loneliness and him being like a queer person and how that informed everything else that he did. I just think that he was such a such a such an interesting character. And to your piece about us all studying it, what I did find, um and maybe this is one of the reasons why I felt like I kind of intuitively got it to read it. I did find some interesting echoes of what was happening during that time. Inside of classism, inside of a Black no Black classism. Black Elitism, and the separation of Black thought and art and idea creation actually being hindered because there was this like internal classism and respectability policy uh separating things. I was like, Well, that sounds familiar. [laugh] That feels like something that’s happening today too, inside of so much of um Black art and Black culture. And I think that the more we read about things, because we hear, Zo– Zora Neale Hurston and Alain Locke and um uh Langston Hughes, and we hear all these different names. And I think that history kind of just kind of makes everything flatten together. I’m like, these people didn’t like each other. They all like [laugh] they and you know what I mean? And then like even since the point, like Zora Neale Hurston calling the group of writers, she hangs out with um the [?] And saying like, no, we’re not with them. And we are anti respectability, anti classism and tie um non provocative thought to be honest and anti all those other things like that is uh to me it’s like fundamental to see like how we are arriving at the to me the dichotomy that Black cultural creation in art and politics are right now because so much of it is informed by respectability, politics and uh classism. So thank you for bringing to this. I’m going to, I stan everything you bring De’Ara, you I want to, can I be your nephew/neice? [laughter] And just go everywhere you go. [?] culturally.


De’Ara Balenger: Already. Already. Already.


Kaya Henderson: There’s a great podcast on um Zora Neale Hurston and the [?] and the whole anti respectability Movement on GirlTreks’s podcast. So for people who don’t know, GirlTrek is a, an organization that um supports Black women, Black girls and women walking for health, for community um. And they get you out to walk, but they create these great Black history podcasts where you’re learning about different Black women and men across history and liberation or futurism or whatever, whatever. And they’ve got a great episode on the [?] and this whole, you know, this whole backlash within the Harlem Renaissance between the elite folks and the people who identified more with the people as worth checking out. 


DeRay Mckesson: This is one of those weeks where I learned more, so I did not know much about Alain Locke, hadn’t really read a ton about Alain. I’d heard the stories about Alain and Langston Hughes, um but I don’t have much to add. This is all learning I learned from you all and I learned from the reading. I was like, okay, let me do some reading. It is funny. During the protests, people were like, Have you read da da? I’m like, No, they’re shooting at us, I have not read, so I feel like I’m getting up on the reading now. And I added this to the list, boom. 


Myles E. Johnson: Yeah start with The New Negro. That is the one, you know, there’s so many there’s this like little meme thing that I saw. People one, I need to figure out who it is. I’ll bring it to the podcast next week because it wasn’t People, it was one particular company or like person. But like, um have you never read um Octavia Butler? And they like didn’t have like a whole bunch of questions about your interests. And then like had a whole bunch of tiers of questions that kind of made you arrive at your perfect things. And they did it with like Audre Lorde, Octavia Butler, Toni Morrison, Bell Hooks. And I thought that was such and James Baldwin and I thought that that was such a cool way. Your commentary and reminded me um, DeRay I thought that was such a cool way to take out the shame of not reading something. And I think that sometimes even with me, I was an only child. So I read a lot because I was really lonely. So there’s a lot I read bell hooks in middle school and high school and a lot of that stuff that people read that are like kind of canon. I read really early on because of loneliness, but then I would notice that a lot of people were scared to admit that they weren’t familiar with something because they thought it was like maybe even an indictment on their commitment or their intelligence or whatever to certain things. And um I don’t know that the idea of like reading Alain Locke in my thirties and when I’m my frontal lobe is [laugher]


Kaya Henderson: Fully developed?


De’Ara Balenger: I think, I think that’s right. 


Myles E. Johnson: Developed. 


De’Ara Balenger: And, you know, one thing that I do I was encouraged to do by a really dear friend of mine, Kareen. Is I read Mama Day by Gloria Naylor every year and every year I take away something different from it. So I think– 


Kaya Henderson: Okay. 


De’Ara Balenger: –you’re definitely on to something there, Myles.


Kaya Henderson: So let me tell you what I want to do, if you’ll indulge me. So at my company, Reconstruction, which teaches Black history, Black culture, Black literature, we put out a great Black books list. Right? And the idea what we ask ourselves is, what do we want all kids, all Black kids to read by the time they graduate high school um so that they have a fully informed Black identity and that it’s our attempt to redefine the canon with Black authors and Black literature. And of course, we know that there’s no twenty set of books or a hundred books. 


Myles E. Johnson: Of course. 


Kaya Henderson: Or whatever, whatever. And so it is a dynamic list that we continue. We push out usually every holiday, Juneteenth, Black History Month, for Christmas. That way when people are looking for uh books to buy for kids in their lives or adults in their lives, they have a fresh perspective. And I would love to do the Pod Save The People version of the — 


Myles E. Johnson: Oooo. 


Kaya Henderson: –great Black books list, where each of us contributes books that have changed our lives to a list that we can put out for our listeners and we’ll share with our Reconstruction family. But I do think that reading is a is a lifetime of learning. If you didn’t read it when you were in middle school or high school, there’s still time. And even just having books in your atmosphere, research shows, even if they’re unread, that is good for your brain and so– 


Myles E. Johnson: Hold on, send me that link. Because I’ll buy ten and read none. [laughter]


Kaya Henderson: Yes, that’s okay. That’s good. But there is it is it also is an opportunity to support Black authors and to get conversations going in the community. And so if you all would, I will send around an email asking us for our best Black books uh recommendations and put together a Pod Save The People great Black books list. 


Myles E. Johnson: That would be so cool. 


De’Ara Balenger: Yes. 


Myles E. Johnson: I was just talking to my boyfriend about how everybody’s like. And I love when people read Bell Hooks because I think Bell Hooks is like that, she was, I love Bell Hooks. But everybody reads all about love and maybe everybody reads feminism is for everybody. But I was like, you know what? Because we’re talking about childs, talking about children. And you know how we want children to go into this world and stuff like that. If we have them together, I’m like, you know what? I want everybody before they turn on another television to read Reel to Real by Bell Hooks, Black people and media representation. Like you like. To me, it is the protection that you need in order to consume media as a Black person responsibly. And I think that that I think that was the one but that I did not read until my twenties. And I’m like, uhhh, I wish I got had that before I saw before MTV and BTE got to me. So I love that idea. Love, love, love, love, love. 


DeRay Mckesson: I want to reread uh Parable of the Sower. I remember reading it the first time and I’m like, Oh, this is timely. I need to reread.


Kaya Henderson: We just reread that with my book club. Cause right now. Mm hmm. 


DeRay Mckesson: So my news is back to the heat. And it was something that I was surprised about is that UPS, uh UPS drivers are stuck in cars that they got no heat, and I just didn’t know this. I like, you know, I think I understood that UPS is really big. I think I didn’t know that UPS is the world’s largest package delivery company and among the biggest employers in the country. I just like I think I missed some of the scope of UPS actually, but there are drivers who have photographs of their cars being or their trucks being over 150 degrees in the back of the truck, which is wild uh. Dave Reeves, the president of Local 767, one of the Teamsters unions that represents the drivers, said they’re vomiting, their bodies are shutting down. It’s awful. Which I didn’t know. And this is also with the USPS, the Postal Service, um the government records show that since 2015, at least 270 UPS and USPS drivers have been sickened and in many cases, hospitalized from heat exposure. And we already talked about like the heat waves are happening. It is bad. But what I was really shocked by was UPS’s response. UPS and I quote in not putting air conditioners in the trucks uh UPS said, quote, “Our package delivery vehicles make frequent stops, which requires the engine to be turned off and the doors to be opened and closed about 130 times a day on average. The health and safety of our employees is our highest priority, justifying not putting air conditioners in the cars because they have to open and close the doors is wild and they already make a gazillion dollars. This won’t break the bank. And now going to USPS, this is also an issue with the USPS, where the government data shows that about 34% of the vehicles have air conditioning and an additional 66% have fans. But it didn’t even dawn on me, like especially with UPS. being a private company, I just assumed they were air conditioned because like, I like couldn’t imagine in the summer driving around having to carry those boxes to people’s houses and get back in the car into heat just feels wild to me. So I want to bring it here because obviously, uh you know, who are all the essential employees in the country? Poor people and Black and Brown people. So I wanted to bring it here. 


Myles E. Johnson: Thank you for bring um for bringing this. And I think, you know, I’m totally guilty because of just how baked in UPS and just delivery services in general are into like daily lives. I think that sometimes you just figure everything’s going well or you just don’t think about it because it’s just I think sometimes you can see something so often that it almost becomes invisible as if like just as much as actually seeing something so often and not thinking about it can make the workers um just as invisible as, you know, literally them being like disappeared in and at of hospital hours or something like that where you don’t necessarily interact with them. And I think that is so important for workers, too. I love that this article made it to being written and put out there because I think it’s so important for those workers to be able to advocate for themselves, because we do just assume if you don’t say anything, we do just assume everything’s going well. And you’re right. Those people, the people who are doing UPS and delivery services are us. They’re Black. They’re Black folks in and in Brooklyn. Those, the only people I see doing doing UPS and Amazon deliveries are Black folks. And you see how loud though the Amazon um critiques and protest got. And I think that if things that are happening that are treacherous and horrendous to people’s bodies are happening with UPS, I’m super glad that they got the platform to be able to screen for their rights because we need UPS obviously [laugh] like that during the pande– I think it only got exacerbated during the pandemic that this is a service that we are is becoming necessity. It has become like the other water in America in a lot of ways. 


Kaya Henderson: Um I got the like, this is so appalling to me. First of all, like being in a hot tin truck for hours on end is miserable. Um, and the fact that only some of the vans have air conditioning is ridiculous. When juxtaposed against the following data, the consolidated revenues for UPS were at 24.8 billion, which is up 5.7% from last year. Their consolidated operating profit of 3.5 billion is up 8.5% from last year and up 9.3% on an adjusted basis. Basically, that means that UPS is making 10% more in billions of dollars than what it made last year, in part because we’re all ordering every single thing online and having it delivered. And you mean to tell me that folks who have these kinds of quarterly earnings can’t put fans and air conditionings in the trucks, can’t reduce the time on route so that people actually have time to go to a decent bathroom so that all the water that they are drinking has a place to go, like this. This is not a travesty. This is an issue of will. We know what it would take to keep these drivers safe even when the drivers say they are sick. There doesn’t seem to be a clear response that doesn’t prevent people from dying or going to the hospital. And so if UPS really cares about their people, then they need to do something ridiculously different. That’s all. 


De’Ara Balenger: You know, what this brings to mind as well is like all the foolishness around FedEx and I can’t. I was searching for the article, but it’s not popping up. But just in terms of like at FedEx at their big plant in Memphis, which obviously it’s Black folks are mostly employed there and they’re hourly because they don’t want to make them uh salaried uh employees because then they have to pay for benefits, etc.. But I think it’s probably similar, similar at UPS where there are pickers and packers. And and there’s so much similarity. Between an institution that has shaped and framed the legacy of America to these parcel companies like I think so this is that’s where it takes my mind to I guess I’m not surprised by this because of just the very structure of how these companies are operating, who they employ, how they employ them, what benefits they give, what benefits they they, you know, they, they don’t give how they push back against, you know, unions, etc. So. I just. Ugh. I don’t know what to say y’all. This one. Something else. 


Kaya Henderson: Can I say one thing before we leave? [clears throat] Last week um I talked about uh we were talking about Ron DeSantis. We were talking about the raid on Mar-a-Lago. And I talked about a clip that I had seen with Ron DeSantis um defending the FBI’s raid of Mar-a-Lago. And a Pod Save The People listener sent me a piece on Twitter to say that that clip that I saw was false. And so I want to just let you all know Ron DeSantis did not defend the raid on Mar-a-Lago. I, like a whole lot of other people, were duped by a piece that somebody put together to make it look like that. And it’s up on my Twitter page if you want to see it @HendersonKaya. Um but I just wanted to make sure to clarify that what I thought I saw was not exactly what I saw. And uh super thanks to the listener who um hit me to it so that I could clarify, thanks. 


DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Don’t go anywhere. More Pod Save the People is coming. [AD BREAK] 


DeRay Mckesson, narrating: This week, I had the honor of talking to award winning investigative reporter J. David McSwane to talk about his new book, Pandemic, Inc. Chasing the Capitalists and Thieves Who Got Rich While We Got Sick. Now, it’s no secret that the government was not prepared for a global pandemic under the Trump presidency. From PPP to EDD loan fraud have been a hot topic in the media and online. But you might not know about some of the details around the stockpile, what the Trump people did with what we did have in reserves. I learned a ton. The government ended up giving out tons of contracts to all these people who are fraudsters and now the Biden teams trying to clean that mess up. But there are a lot of details here that reminded me that when we vote for people, we actually need to be looking for some sort of administrative acumen, too, because it’s not all random TV interviews. As you and I learned all too well again with the last president. Here we go: 


DeRay Mckesson: David, thanks so much for joining us today on Pod Save the People. 


J. David McSwane: Thanks for having me. 


DeRay Mckesson: Now, I learned a ton in the book, so I have a lot of questions. We won’t be able to cover them all, which is a good thing because people need to go out and buy the book. Did you know that you always wanted to be a reporter and how did you start to write about the pandemic or the fraud in the pandemic more so? 


J. David McSwane: Yeah, I did know from a young age that I wanted to be a reporter. I was actually involved in my high school newspaper and uh that’s sort of how I got started. And same in college did the newspaper thing there and then have uh moved my way around the business through uh Colorado, Florida, Texas and in Washington, D.C.. Um, and you know, in answer to the second part of your question uh, you know, basically had this realization in March 2020 that uh you know this was going to be a major historical event, prob you know uh one of the largest, if not the largest news events in my lifetime. And like every other reporter, was, just trying to find my place in it. And, uh you know, it was daunting, if you think about it. I mean, this was the first time in history that really every journalist in the world is on the same story. Uh you know, 9/11, you know, sportswriters kept doing their thing. You know, it didn’t, this was bigger. Everything was affected by COVID, um you know, and I just sort of fell back on the tried and true method of following the money. I’m here in Washington, D.C., and you know the CARES Act had been passed. And it’s pretty clear that, you know, billions and billions of dollars were going to be spent addressing this uh public health crisis, this, you know, real nightmare. And just having been a reporter for a while, had a sense right away that there’s no way they can vet all of these people. And that’s a lot of money. And people are going to come out of the woodwork and try to get rich. And uh just started taking a look at the contracts that were awarded, crunching some data along with colleagues. And, you know, the questionable companies really just popped out right away. And it was a matter of what can we confirm from our, from our homes? Because uh, you know, the country was really locked down at that point. 


DeRay Mckesson: Now, I learned a ton. And then the in the early chapters, you talk a lot or I learned a lot about the stockpile. I think I’d seen people talk about the stockpile, but I didn’t really know anything about the stockpile. And then I read and I’m like, Oh, the man is like, they gave away all the stuff in the stockpile, you know, I didn’t know anything about um, oh, what’s the process called? Secret sequestration, which you talk about in the book and how that impacted the stockpile. Can you tell us why the stockpile why is that such a big part of this story and what happened with the stockpile? And did you already know the stuff about the national stockpile before you wrote this book or did you learn in this process? 


J. David McSwane: Well, I didn’t know about the stockpile before the pandemic hit, uh you know, but certainly caught up pretty quickly and well before it became time to write the book. But the reason the stockpile matters is by the time COVID hit, the federal government had something like 1% of what it needed to address just the initial onslaught. And we’re talking masks, gloves, gowns, really basic materials for frontline workers. So the history of how we got there seemed pretty crucial to me because it was that shortage that spurred the Trump administration and the federal government to just start throwing billions, you know, around anyone and everyone. And what I found and digging into it is we really should have been prepared. The writing was on the wall. I mean, this was prophesized by uh you know the science community, within the federal government uh that there is going to be a pandemic. We are going to need these things and we need to stock up. And and what I found in digging into it is, you know, it really the idea comes together uh during Bill Clinton’s administration. It really grew under George W. Bush’s administration, uh particularly because of 9/11 and wanting to be ready for a bioterrorist attack. And that really becomes the focus. Uh but there’s all this funding, all this focus on stockpiling for a national emergency, and then it sort of falls to the wayside. And then you see the the sort of Tea Party wave of 2010 and this uh just pervasive idea that that from the right that we need to get in the way of anything the Obama administration wants to do, particularly Obamacare. And the agency charged with rolling out the Affordable Care Act happened to be Health and Human Services and tucked down way in their budget is the national stockpile. So Republicans really forced this situation where Democrats had to compromise uh to keep to avoid a government shutdown and all kinds of things that happened when you don’t pay your bills. And the stockpile was just one of many, many of those compromises and that really hobbled funding for the next decade. Uh so we didn’t have all of the things we needed. And you can just sort of see it every step of the way. We we knew perfectly well this was going to happen, but the politics of our era uh really hobbled us when we needed it most. 


DeRay Mckesson: Is the stockpile in one place, or is the stockpile like a euphemism for like a million different buildings all around the country? Just. I didn’t know. 


J. David McSwane: Yeah. So the stockpile is not in one place. The idea is that you can have a regionalized response very rapidly. So you wouldn’t want a stockpile in Atlanta trying to address an issue in Seattle. So you had a dozen at the time, maybe more now warehorses uh warehouses sort of strategically placed about the country uh to respond to regionalized things. And we found ourselves in the worst case scenario where it wasn’t regionalized. I mean, this was a national emergency. Every state needed these supplies and they needed them now. Uh so it was all that much worse. 


DeRay Mckesson: Now, also, the chapter, um there’s always a guy. I don’t know if that’s what I think, that’s what the job is called, but that’s definitely like the tag I got from like that’s what I remember. And the guy who like made masks had a mask factory. The story about uh when people had the the like special orders that pinged his daughter’s phone and. And everything went to her. Um how did you find that guy? Like, how did you even. I was like, fascinated by that story. And it was such a powerful reminder A.) There is always a guy and that, like, we should listen to those people because they often tell us the truth. But how did you find him? Like did you? Did I just miss that story in the national story? 


J.David McSwane: Yeah. I mean, so this was amid uh probably the hardest you know news cycle of probably our lifetimes where it was just you could not keep up. Every day was its own trauma with whatever press conference was coming out of the White House and whatever news we were hearing out of Seattle probably must at this point. Um but the chapter’s actually called We’re in Deep Shit. And that is a quote from Mike Bowen, who is the guy, he’s this uh sort of gruff uh guy down in Texas who was uh running this mask manufacturing uh plant, of which there was like one left in the whole country. And he’d been warning for more than a decade in letters. And, you know, through an organization he formed that if we are hit with a pandemic, we don’t have domestic capacity to address it. We don’t have enough masks made onshore. The federal government needs to invest in this because China is responsible for 90% of our mass supply and they’re going to choke us off. And it was really eerie going through his correspondence over the decade before COVID hit that he’d really called it. He said this is exactly what’s going to happen. And when it did happen, he did make some headlines uh you know because he had tried to negotiate with the Trump administration, particularly trade adviser Peter Navarro, to ramp up domestic capacity and get some masks moving and in an affordable price. And and what we ended up doing for a lot of different reasons eh was ignoring his warnings, including, you know, even after we knew he was right and instead relying on, you know, these brokers, these mercenaries who were fighting for masks and charging seven times the price. And ultimately most of them were coming out of China anyway. So he he was he was sort of the Cassandra in this story who really had uh sounded the alarm and no one listened. 


DeRay Mckesson: I’m going through my notes. I read the book on PDFs. So I have like all these highlighted notes. But Peter Navarro is probably the character that I knew the least about. As I mean, I didn’t know Matt the Bowen guy either, but I learned about him. But Peter Navarro seems to have had a huge influence and was moving a whole lot of things through. And um and I’m interested in how you think about is he still around? Is he like is he still in Trump world? And looks like he you know, some people believed him in the moment. Some people didn’t. He definitely moved a lot of contracts through. Is he still a character in the political space? 


J. David McSwane: Oh, yeah, he’s very much still a character. He, uh you know, not long ago was actually, uh you know, arrested for failure to appear before Congress. You know, he was among those who was subpoenaed to testify in the January 6th hearings. And he defied that order. And and, you know, sort of less prominently displayed in, you know, in their news cycles. He still is at the center of the congressional inquiry into um you know the Coronavirus response at large. And I didn’t know much about him either, other than some of his, you know, histrionics uh that, you know, play on Fox News and elsewhere. But the more I dug into it, the more I realized he at it and on one hand was one of the first people within the Trump administration to acknowledge the threat. The administration was in denial, and much to the detriment of all of us pretending that this wasn’t happening. He was sounding the alarm, saying, you know, this is going to be bad, people are going to die. We need to stock up. We need to start spending money, uh which, you know, he struggled to get traction with in the Trump administration. So he did something remarkable. He just kind of inserted himself into federal purchasing, uh which you don’t see. You don’t see, you know, people working in an appointed office, the White House, or appointed to a political office in the White House uh ordering who gets checks and who gets deals uh from the federal government. It that’s that breaks all the rules. And it’s it’s very it’s remark– historically significant. And in doing so, he got some things moving, but he awarded some weird contracts that are still being investigated. Uh the federal government lost money, had to recoup money. Uh and then meanwhile, people like Mike Bowen, who had a legitimate product to sell at a uh you know, at a fair price, weren’t getting contracts because he didn’t get along. So he really just kind of put himself in the middle of this. And he’s quite a character. He’s very brusk. Is he’s really known for being sort of an outlandish guy uh by inserting himself, he sort of muddied the waters even further. And it began to look like the Trump administration was just picking winners and losers uh all over the place, uh which was further complicated by Jared Kushner, the president’s son in law, inserting himself into how the stockpile was working. So uh it just became a real mess. And there were these characters in the middle of it, and I tried to sort of, you know, guide readers through uh that mess that got us to the point that we all remember in March 2020 when nurses didn’t have masks. 


DeRay Mckesson: There is this great line on page 79 into 80 where you say uh there’s this great parapgraph but the last sentences. I was like, that is good. Uh He’s a blunt instrument. Call him prickly. Called prickly by some, worse by others. He he just has that thing, you know, that thing, a persistence beyond reason, the confidence to outlast enemies and weather embarrassment which only delusion or supernatural faith or both can provide. And I was like, and when I read that, I was like, I can totally see this guy. Like, I can see this person in the White House. 


J. David McSwane: Yeah, we’ve we’ve all met that guy. In some, in some way. 


DeRay Mckesson: Yeah, you’re just like, ahh so and let’s talk about you. There’s a whole portion about the Kushner kids. Uh, And one of the stories that I was like, You got to be kidding me is the guy who responded to the tweet like, I can make all the things, and you’re like, this guy has 75 followers. Like, why did this? Do you think that the Kushner kids were like, do they not care? Do you think they were overconfident? Like, what was it that made them sort of just waste so much money? 


J. David McSwane: I think there’s a few answers to that. Uh, you know one is an arrogance that really um. It was was persistent throughout the Trump administration from the beginning. Trump had even run on you know this concept of draining the swamp. And what that really meant when you apply it to federal government is really lacking a respect for expertise and thinking you have all the answers. And then you add to that this, you know, sort of blind adherence to free market capitalism. You know, the market will solve this. Uh, we’ve made money and, you know, within the confines of American capitalism, we know better than the government and emergency managers uh you know would tell you in a crisis like this, you do not want to leave things to the free market because you’re going to have exactly what we had, inflated prices. You’re going to have goods that aren’t working. Uh, you’re going to have states competing against one another. Uh, and, you know, that’s been pretty well forecasted. And yet the Trump administration came in and said, you know what, we’re going to we’re going to handle this. And Jared Kushner uh you know brought in a bunch of well-to-do people from Goldman Sachs and other consultant you know uh and financial companies to help identify products. And they just really had no sense of those supply chains, they’d had no access to like they couldn’t cut a check for the federal government. So people who actually knew what they were doing within the pandemic response were like, what the hell are these guys doing here? And, uh you know, they were eventually sort of relegated to taking in, you know, all the tips. And there were just thousands. And I fielded a bunch of these myself, of people who claimed to have masks in a warehouse and probably didn’t, uh you know, but in a few really high profile examples, like the ventilator uh example that you’ve mentioned, they referred, uh you know, that guy who tweeted at the president to uh New York State, which immediately awarded a contract thinking that FEMA had vetted this guy and uh they actually paid up front in this incident and instance and are now having to to claw that back. I haven’t looked at the case in a few months, but uh yeah, just created this, this real mess. And you had really alienated the people who were experts, who knew what was going on. And it was you know these people who just said, you know, we understand free markets. We’re going to direct this uh sort of getting in the way. 


DeRay Mckesson: Now, one of the things that I also didn’t know was about uh Governor Abbott. Like I mean, I remember Governor Abbott on TV and and Texas is Texas, but I had no clue. So the range of decisions he did or did not make and like why he matters, why did you devote a whole section to Abbott. 


J. David McSwane: Uh well partly because a decent chunk of the book it ha– occurs in Texas, that’s where, you know, following some of these scams had led me. But also I was a reporter in Texas for five years and had covered the Abbott administration and the legislature. So I knew it really well and you know had watched with interest, you know, his decision making early in the pandemic and was actually surprised that, you know, early on he essentially does call for uh he doesn’t call it a lockdown, but he follows the blue states and says, we got to shut down bars and you know other things. And you sort of see that what what appeared to be a really strong and even controversial decision just sort of wither away under the politics to which he subjects himself, which is Fox News, his own lieutenant governor. Uh you know, people who can who can really use conservative media to pressure him and it really falls apart. And he you know, and he makes this very eyes open decision to reopen bars and salons, uh really caving to that pressure uh at a time when it was extremely dangerous. Cases were really high. We had no vaccine. Public health uh you know apparatus had not really had a chance to catch up from that first wave. So I wanted to bring in, you know, the politics of these decisions, you know, caving to pressure from from businesses and from from the far right, because they had a profound effect on our ability to you know catch up to the need in terms of supplies uh and tamp down caseload so that nurses you know could make that one N95 last for two weeks. 


DeRay Mckesson: Now, one of the things I was also struck by was that there weren’t a lot of people who got super in trouble, it seems like. Do you think that with the task force or the whatever Biden has put together to hold people accountable, do you think that that will catch some of these people who like lied about having masks, who didn’t have the ventilators, who like completely made up their ability to get things from China? Or do you think we really did– it’s just like. That we just got to let that go. And there will only be PPP, like sort of the personal loan fraud. Or do you think we’ll catch these people? 


J.David McSwane: Well, right now it feels like a little bit of both. Uh you know, there is one character I focus on a lot, just because you know I had a really close up view, uh you know, who was ultimately you know convicted of crimes uh you know for lying to the federal government about having supplies. And, uh you know, the folks who got um paycheck protection program loans, who lied about having employees. They were sort of the easiest to catch. So there were some high profile examples of that. But there’s a pretty monumental effort going on right now under the Biden administration and within the federal government uh to catch up to all of the fraud, because it was just that much and the mentality uh both at the federal and state level and even local levels really became, you know, lives are at stake. Let’s throw money out and ask questions later. And, you know, it was a bonanza for fraudsters. So I think we’re going to see more accountability, but it’s really going to be a cleanup effort. And you know we’re going to find people who got yachts, you know, in 2020 uh with ill gotten gains uh in 2025. 


DeRay Mckesson: Now, the other thing, the history that I just didn’t know was about the vaccines, like I had never heard of um. I’m on page 233. But Dr. Karikó, I didn’t know anything about this story. Seems like the one thing that they got right with throwing some money around and shout out to the doctors for developing a technique that allowed us to get the vaccines. It looks like the vaccines was like one of the few things that they actually did, right. Even if he sabotaged the vaccines later and it was like don’t take them or you know drink bleach or you know let the sunlight get into your lungs. Which were my strategies that worked. 


J. David McSwane: Yeah. 


DeRay Mckesson: How do you think about what happened with the vaccine? It’s like maybe am I right to think of it as a success story or is this just like it was sort of probably inevitable given that the research was sort of around and it was the right moment? 


J. David McSwane: Yeah, I don’t. I think you’d have a hard time making the argument that Operation Warp Speed wasn’t a success because we turned around uh vaccines that are highly effective really quickly. I mean, within basically a year of having you know the genetic uh information needed and clearing the hurdles with you know, uh agencies like the Food and Drug Administration. Uh so I think from that perspective, it’s definitely a success. And part of the reason I wanted to focus on it was it effected all of us. And there were a lot of people who were at the right place at the right time who made billions and billions of dollars as a result of that. And at the same time, uh that kept us from you know, that profit motivation, patents, things like that kept us from having a real global solution to a pandemic, you know to a virus that doesn’t care about our national borders. Uh and I think that’s something we need to consider down the line you know as we prepare for the next one. And some of that has alleviated itself, which is you know more time and other options uh for vaccines. But that profit motivation was substantial. The federal government had really funded a lot of the early research that led to the vaccine. When COVID hit, they funded the the uh you know the studies and the manufacturing of it and then paid for the deployment of it. And yet, private corporations and their uh you know insider shareholders are the people who got really, really rich from it. So I don’t make the argument in the book that capitalism writ large is bad. Uh. Just that. Was this the most, in terms of the vaccine, was this the most equitable way to do this? And did it have to come along with such obscene profits uh you know for a select few people? 


DeRay Mckesson: Now, at the end of the book, uh you know, one of the cool things about your book is that literally every step of the way, I learned something new and I was like, okay, cool. And at the end, uh you talk about the nursing home. I mean, you talk about things. But the nursing homes is the thing that stuck out to me. And I will just read two things. One is that you said, about 70% of all U.S. nursing homes are for profit. Legitimately blew my mind. Like did not know it was that much. That’s crazy. But this paragraph was like, oh, my goodness. One 2020 study examined more than 18,000 nursing homes. About 10% of them owned by private equity and found nonprofit versus private can mean the difference between life and death. Those researchers discovered that short term mortality, people dying not long after being placed in the nursing home was 10% higher in facilities owned by private equity. That is– 


J. David McSwane: Yeah. 


DeRay Mckesson: Wild. I mean, so can you talk to us about why you included it? Why was why are the, COVID had an impact on everything. Why were the nursing homes a key part of how you tell this story? 


J. David McSwane: Because they’re a really uh accessible example of the systemic failures, not just within our health care system, but within you know just with how we take care of people. Um when you have profit motivation, motivators in things like nursing homes, how do you increase your profit? You spend less money. And that manifests itself in having fewer doctors and nurses, having less skilled doctors and nurses, having them work you know longer hours for less pay. And you see a decline in quality of care. Uh and, you know, I didn’t want to write a chapter on, like, the merits of universal health care because that could be, you know, a five volume book, you know, versus, uh you know, the American health care system. Nursing homes are something that it’s just pretty basic when you add those profit motivators, quality of care declines, and there are real consequences just day to day. You add a virus that targets elderly and infirm people with an astounding mortality rate, and you’re really going to see that highlighted. And we did. And no journalist I know who covers health care was at all surprised by what we were seeing. And, you know, you remember in those first months, the really scary stories were coming out of Kirkland, uh you know the nursing home near Seattle. Uh and we just saw that over and over and over. So I wanted to take just a quick systemic view of of how that model really endangers people, uh you know, in the context of a pandemic. 


DeRay Mckesson: I also didn’t know that there were federal regulators of nursing homes until I read about um the the Medicare Medicaid people going to the Brighton facility. Um.


J. David McSwane: Yeah, maybe it’s because they don’t do all that much. [laughter]


DeRay Mckesson: I was like, I never heard that story about federal [?] I guess that’s why. Okay, cool. Um so there are a couple of things that we ask everybody. The first is, what do you say to people who feel like they did all the things, right? They called, they emailed, they testified, da da da dat and the world still hasn’t changed for them or the people in this context who like, you know, I think about all the essential employees we had to, all the people who like they didn’t get to stay home and like they didn’t get to and their families got screwed by this. What do you say to people who sort of read things like this and lose hope in the belief that things can get better? 


J. David McSwane: Yeah. I mean, it’s hard when you take the pandemic as a whole, it’s hard to feel optimistic. It highlighted, uh you know, in in high contrast the inequities in our entire way of life, our entire system. In infrastructure, in health care and education. Uh we know that story by now. We’ve all felt it in some way or another. Uh you know, ideally, this would serve as a lesson of how to improve some of those systems, for instance, for, you know, for profit nursing homes and the oversight of them and the motivators in that arena. Uh but but more broadly, I you know, this book was meant to really be a blueprint of what not to do when we’re faced with a crisis. You know don’t let political pressure uh force you to open bars earlier. Uh something, in fact, you know, Governor Greg Abbott of Texas later said he regretted, uh you know, I just kind of wanted to get it all down. And there have been a few books uh from this era that focused on the good guys and the vaccine or whatever. And I thought, well, why don’t we focus on the bad guys and the things we didn’t do well so that maybe we can learn from those mistakes. But I mean, it’s going to take baby steps. It’s going to take community action. Um, Local leaders pressing their own uh you know, their own public health entities. Uh, You know, we’re still fighting over what schools should really do. I mean, these are all kind of battles on the local level. And we are seeing, uh you know, the federal government is now painfully aware that the stockpile needs to be beefed up. Uh, you know, some of those things should improve just by virtue of having been through this. 


DeRay Mckesson: And the other question that we ask everybody is, what’s a piece of advice that you’ve gotten over the years that’s stuck with you? 


J. David McSwane: Yeah. I mean, this is true in life and and also in my work. Uh, never assume that you know everything. Uh, I approach every story with the assumption that I don’t know half of what’s going on, because it’s the things that you learn that ultimately become the story, and those are the things that uh you know will change your perception and how you proceed. And I think a lot of the lessons, at least, you know, sort of. More conceptually of the pandemic, particularly with among our leadership was. You know, a real sense of of arrogance in terms of knowing the solutions, knowing the answers, uh when, in fact, there should have been more deference to people who have studied pandemics uh and people who understand science. And uh I think that’s I think this country would do a whole lot better uh if we stopped assuming we really know everything and started listening to each other. 


DeRay Mckesson: Where do people go to stay in touch with you, to follow you, to make sure that they are up on the next thing you write? How do people stay in touch? 


J. David McSwane: Well, I’m on Twitter @davidmcswane. Uh, I continue to work for ProPublica, where I publish stories uh and as well I have a an email or I’m sorry, a website:, where uh you can find contact information. 


DeRay Mckesson: Oh, well, we consider you a friend of the Pod. Can’t wait to have you back, everybody. Go check out the book and read uh the article. Actually, I first read, I didn’t realize this was you because you wrote an article about being on the plane with him. 


J. David McSwane: Yeah, that was really what set it all off in the early months yeah. 


DeRay Mckesson: I read that and when I started reading the book, I was like, I know this guy already because I read that article, okay cool, [?] from the pod. Can’t wait to have you back. 


J. David McSwane: Thanks for having me. 


DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning into Pod Save the People this week. Tell your friends to check it out. Make sure to rate it wherever you get your podcasts, whether it’s Apple Podcasts or somewhere else. And we will see you next week. Pod Save The People was a production of Crooked Media. It’s produced by A.J. Moultrié and mixed by Veronica Simonetti and executive produced by me. Special thanks to our weekly contributors Kaya Henderson, De’Ara Balenger and Myles Johnson.