Trust Your Gut (with Myles E. Johnson & Mario Rosser) | Crooked Media
Jon, Jon & Tommy's first ever book is here - Order Democracy or Else NOW! Jon, Jon & Tommy's first ever book is here - Order Democracy or Else NOW!
June 22, 2021
Pod Save The People
Trust Your Gut (with Myles E. Johnson & Mario Rosser)

In This Episode

DeRay, Kaya, Sam, and De’Ara cover the underreported news of the week, including prison mail and forced labor, artist David Drake, and the business of editing bodycam footage. DeRay interviews writer Myles E. Johnson about Black queer representation, then sits down with Mario Rosser—candidate for NYC Council, Central Harlem District 9.



DERAY MCKESSON: Hey, this is DeRay. Welcome to Pod Save The People. In this episode, it’s me, Sam, Kaya and De’ara talking about the news that you do not know from the past week– But you should, especially when it comes to race, equity, and justice– And then I sit down with two incredible people back to back.

The first is Myles Johnson to discuss black queer representation in the media and to host on things around culture. I trust Myles so much about the way he thinks about culture and blackness. And then I sit down with Mario Russo, to talk about his run to be a city council person in New York City, representing district nine. Here we go.

My advice for this week is trust your gut. There been a lot of things happening in my world where I’m like, Oh, this feels a certain way or like, this person is giving me some vibes. And I’m like you know let me do it or not. And today, was one of those days where I got confirmation. I’m like, trust your gut. My spidey senses don’t go off randomly. Trust your spidey senses, ask the questions, but when you know the answer, trust the answer. Here we go.

DE’ARA BALENGER: Family, welcome to another episode Juneteenth style of pod save the people. I am De’ara Bellinger, you can find me on Twitter and Instagram @de’arabalenger.

SAM SINYANGWE: I’m Sam Sinyangwe @samsinyangwe on Twitter.

DERAY MCKESSON: I’m dera@diy on Twitter.

DE’ARA BALENGER: Well, I feel like every week for us is a Juneteenth week. However, it’s official now as President Biden made Juneteenth a federal holiday. Now, should we celebrate? Absolutely. Does much change for us? Not really.

So, I think it’s just been interesting in terms of where we are given the year and a half that we’ve had and I guess the 400 years prior to that, I’m just really thinking about Juneteenth, how it was made a federal holiday, how now every corporation and they mama gave Juneteenth off, I don’t know what instruction they gave to white folks to do with their Juneteenth.

However, many people had it off. So, things to think about, to reflect on, obviously, the struggle continues. But it was beautiful. I was in Brooklyn yesterday in Fort Greene park, and I just to be in the presence of such incredible energy. I think, yes, the Juneteenth of it all, the celebrating, excellence, and joy of it all. But just the fact that now in New York we can be together again.

So I’m feeling inspired, I’m feeling hopeful, and grateful. Just trying to figure out where to go from here and what Juneteenth will develop into, since it is a federal holiday now. Obviously, in many places Juneteenth has already been a holiday in so many respects, and so many traditions, and rituals have followed year in year, and year again. But yeah, it’s just interesting to reflect on, what did you all black people do for you Juneteenth?

DERAY MCKESSON: You know, De’ara, it was this juxtaposition of the symbols and the substance. This, like, it does matter to commemorate Juneteenth. It does matter to have a space to talk about the history together as a community. At the same time, it is like this juxtaposition of that and seeing Congress move so quickly, was something like 21 days or so for them to make this a federal holiday, and election day still isn’t a federal holiday. And they still haven’t moved on all the substantive change that they promised, right?

Like we still don’t have a new Voting Rights Act, we still don’t have the For the People Act, we still don’t have– I mean a whole host of things– economic, and student loan debt cancellation, like a whole host of things that would actually in a material way help. Black people are being held up, while the symbols sail through Congress with full support.

So, I think that is sort of the frustration in this moment. It’s like, yes, it does matter. This is something but it’s clearly not enough. And in lieu of the substance, it becomes this controversy. This conversation about, are we just getting this because folks are really not trying to actually give us something substantive? And I think that’s been what I’ve seen so much of the conversation is focused on.

SAM SINYANGWE: I will say, the thing that sort of blew my mind is just how far we’ve come in terms of the public conversation about this stuff, and all of you remember 2014, 2015. I remember being the guy on Twitter who would be like, I think this thing is racist, and people like DeRay makes everything about race. So you’re like, Juneteenth, the people like, he wants to celebrate? Or like anybody insult me for a host of other activists and organizers.

This year I was out at a nightclub, like a lounge. It is a lot of people there, people are drinking, dadadadada– I go to say hi to my friend and he goes, Oh, I’m happy you came over here because this guy had a question. He was asking about something. I’m like what’s he asking you about? He’s like, giving this boy a quiz on Juneteenth in the club.

It’s like maybe midnight, and he’s like, what is Juneteenth? And I’m like, is this a test? He’s like, where was it? Why was important? I’m like, why are we– what’s happening in the club? But it was like such a– and the guy was real, he was like, people should know this. And he wasn’t even, it wasn’t like a high mighty thing and he was probably a little tipsy, but he wanted all his friends to be able to not only explain what Juneteenth was, but talk about Galveston, talk about how it only freed– everybody was it free–

Because if it was just one of those things, I was like, we’ve come a long way that is the club at midnight, and people asking people about Juneteenth. And legitimately, this is a real conversation. So, that warmed my heart. I do like both of you worry about the symbolism of it all, and Lord knows the police are still beating us up and the voting restrictions for the midterms, Lord– I don’t even–

We all might have to be voting captains on our block. It might be a block by block, everybody is voting– it might be more than all hands, we’re going to need all limbs on deck for this next one because I just read today that Georgia is going to get 10,000 more people kicked off the rolls before the next election. A you’re like the Juneteenth holiday doesn’t do that. So, good to celebrate, it was cool to see people out yesterday, and I remain worried.

DE’ARA BALENGER: Last comment on this subject is, CBC singing Lift Every Voice and Sing.



DE’ARA BALENGER: Y’all, we are trying to keep these young people interested, right? We’re trying to– we are really trying to do some prep work, talking about the midterms, just– come on, please. Just please. Just stop. Just please–

DERAY MCKESSON: They really are not helping us, they really are not helping.

DE’ARA BALENGER: I mean, I just was like, Oh, they’re going to sing the whole entire song, and poor Nancy. She’s just trying to mouth the words. Does she– does she know?

  1. So, the Juneteenth of it all, my news, it really spoke to me, so I hope it does the same for you all. But it’s essentially about these poetic jars and pottery that were made by an enslaved man back in the 19th century, his name is David Drake. And his work now, all these years later– is setting records at auctions. Being the star of the show in a lot of museums now. the centerpiece of representing the artistry of enslaved black folk.

Essentially, from 1619 beyond– This is a New York Times piece– it talks about black craftspeople. Both freed and enslaved, and they work to produce all this brilliant and beautiful architecture, handcrafts, decorative arts, across the American South.

And it’s so fascinating that I came across this article, because my mom sent me earlier this week, this digital archive of black craftspeople. And they actually have an Instagram too that is really, really, really dope. And we’ll put a link into the Instagram so you can see it, because it really does– it profiles so many amazing crafts but also just kind of architectural works of enslaved black folks.

So I was reading this piece and thinking about this digital archive that my mom sent me, it was all fascinating to me because obviously, our ancestors made incredible contributions to art, architecture, music, science, agriculture, culinary arts, carpentry, but we never hear about it with the frequency that really reflects the weight and the impact all of this work brought to this country.

And second, when we hear about it, I feel like we’re supposed to be surprised. Even this New York Times piece a little bit was like, kind of presents everything like, wow, and they did this– But obviously, we did these things, right. And just a reminder of some of the things that enslaved labor built in this country, obviously, the White House, the US Capitol building, Wall Street, and the Trinity Church in New York, UNC Chapel Hill, Monticello, Mount Vernon, the University of Virginia, the list goes on and on and on and on and on.

So it’s interesting to see that of all of these things and all these manifestations of the artistry and the brilliance of enslaved people, museums are really fascinated with pottery and with pots, and so, in particular, the work of David Drake. And what makes his work so interesting is many things, but one of the things is the inscriptions that he puts onto these works.

And so, the inscriptions are both beautiful but also defiant. So when one of the jars which people are saying that it dates back to April 12th 1836, it was two years after South Carolina passed an ant-literacy law that was designed obviously, to prevent enslaved people from reading and writing– and David Drake had inscribed in this one piece, cantenation. Which is a variant of cantenation, the state of being yolked or chained into the pot, just bad mofo.

So, what’s going to happen now, is like, since these jars– and since it’s kind of the artistry and crafts of enslaved people are like on trend now, we’re going to be seeing more of it. And in fact, this particular piece at auction they were saying was going to go from $40,000 to $60,000 but actually went for $369,000, which is the highest price in auction record for David Drake’s work.

His work is being bought by art museums in particular. In 2020, buyers included the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, the st. Louis Art Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Met, and the International African-American Museum, which is in Charleston, South Carolina. I don’t know why they lumped International African Museum in with these others, the International African-American Museum, which I’m honored to have work with and be a partner of, the intentionality behind this museum is actually to highlight the cultural contributions and achievement of enslaved people, and they’re going to do that with like centrality and rigor.

And so, these other museums where I think it is on trend, with international African-American museum this is something that they have specific intentionality around. As museums are being criticized and being forced into a space where they have to show how they’re being accountable, how they’re being more inclusive what they’re showing, a lot of these museums are really after David Drake’s work.

Timothy Burgard, who is a curator at the Fine Arts Museums– so that is the museum that won the auction to get this David Drake piece I spoke about earlier– and he says that, this museum plans now to symbolically center the issue of the slavery system, which historically has been minimized and marginalized by museums.

I don’t know if that’s what the issue is, but at least David Drake’s work is going to be shown in this museum. And hopefully, there’s a little bit more deeper thinking into why his work is important, and why these institutions need to be more inclusive and more equitable when it comes to what they’re showing.

This was really fascinating to me. They’re actually going to do a tour of David Drake and other works of enslaved black folks who did all kinds of beautiful crafts. And it’s going to be showing in New York and Boston, which is the first time a show of its kind will be showing outside of the South.

So I just wanted to bring it to the pod as we celebrate the achievements and excellence of the black folks.

DERAY MCKESSON: So this was a really fascinating story. Just reading through some of the messages that were engraved in this pottery, it almost reminded me of tweets in a way. Like the brevity that you had to be, the limits in terms of just the physical space to transcribe a very– it had to be something that was meaningful that was short there was a certain number of characters that you could fit and in transcribing in this very physical piece of pottery.

And the politics of that, of what you put in, how you describe what you’re going through in an experience where obviously, everything that you put on that pot, you’re going to be– has going to be read, and reviewed, and you could be punished for, and harmed for. And yet, and still you see these acts of resistance. The ways in which– in some ways, things that transcend a lifetime.

So, thinking about and one of the pieces of pottery, it’s transcribed says, L.M says, This Handle Will Crack. And L.M scholars believe is referring to Lewis Miles, who was the person who had enslaved David. Again, to say, this is handle will crack. The handle still hasn’t cracked, right? And so, this was almost like, putting this on here saying, actually, this is not going to crack. This is well-made.

DE’ARA BALENGER: Like he don’t know– he don’t know anything.

DERAY MCKESSON: And the proof is here like the proof would only come out down the road, this was like an intergenerational play, like we’re seeing it here. And that is the cunning– the resistance of it all, the way in which you’re able to make meaning out of this tiny bit of space that you have access to doing something that is illegal at the time, it’s wild, right?

And seeing the product of that today, is really cool and at the same time, there is this other element which you spoke to De’Ara, of all of these museums, auctioning it off, and trying to commodify it, and buy it, and have like a piece of their museum talk about this. And there’s something a little bit off about that, but at the same time, like the piece itself is powerful and it’s important.

This is something that I was not aware of, in terms of it just in art form and another dimension of creativity in the context of this period. And so, I would encourage everybody to check it Out.

SAM SINYANGWE: I second everything that was said, and you know what? This made me think about all the things that black people didn’t sign, but we made. It reminded me too of Jack Daniels, how it came out later that, a black man did that. Like a black man was the distiller, came up with the formula, did all of it. And thank God there’s somebody who was able to reclaim that, but there was a huge– that was something that we learned about recently.

And I think about all that they said, one of the pots was as large as 40 gallons. I mean that’s a lot of clay, that’s a lot of pot. Just to carry that much, to make that much, that’s a lot of clay to do a 40 gallon stoneware pot before electricity was a thing that people had access to. I mean, that’s incredible.

And yeah, it just made me think about– so shout out Sam, that was the idea of the cutting messages, you get 10 points for that. I’m like, that’s good. And I just think about all the things that black people didn’t sign. All the paintings, all the pictures, all the drawings, all the silverware, all that black people literally toiled to make and some slave owner put their name on it and commodified it. And that’s what this made me think of. So De’Ara thanks for unearthing this piece of history and reminding us. And just how gross is it that like they’re still making money off this? You know like, just the whole– I mean, we’ve already said it, but it’s like even in reclaiming the History–

DE’ARA BALENGER: That’s what I feel like, I feel like it should be home. I don’t know where home is,


De’Ara But it should be home. It shouldn’t be at a museum, particularly museums where we aren’t meant to feel welcome anyway, right? So who’s going to see this? Who’s going to benefit from it actually being in some of these places?

SAM SINYANGWE: So, my news is about a company called Critical Incident Videos LLC. So, they’ve been the subject of a new article in the San Jose Mercury News. And what’s interesting about this, they’re a company that specializes in editing, and producing, and working with law enforcement agencies, to make available body camera videos.

Now, this is– we’ve talked about Lexipol in the past, the company that writes the use of force policies for something like 3,000 law enforcement agents across the country, they’re making a lot of money writing these policies for 95% of California’s law enforcement agencies.

Now, what this article does that’s interesting is that it offers a lens into another area of this broader industry, which is now that in California law enforcement agencies are required to release body camera footage within 45 days– based on new legislation that’s been passed, there’s a whole business now with cities that are contracting with this company to produce that footage and make it available.

And just like in the context of Lexipol, where they write those policies in ways that allow the police to use chokeholds and a whole variety of tactics that are harmful to people, in the body camera space, this company is editing and cutting the footage in ways that is designed to sort of exonerate law enforcement.

So you may have seen law enforcement agencies that do a big press conference, we have the police chief, that’s a high profile incident of police violence, and they put out a video. I remember with Stephon Clark, when the police started Stephon Clark in Sacramento, then a big press conference. They put out a video, and the video wasn’t like an impartial, unbiased, we’re just going to put the footage that exists out there. It was a very different exercise.

They walked you through– first of all they framed what were you were about to see before you even saw the footage, then they went frame by frame, zooming in to particular things. So they would zoom in to the cell phone that he was carrying and be like, well, we don’t know if the police thought that was a gun, but they made it look really menacing. The footage was really grainy, so you didn’t have the clarity to distinguish the two. And that was a choice because they actually have control over the degree of the resolution of the footage.

So each step of it seemed like it was to construct a narrative whereby you would believe that the officer might have thought there was a gun, even though Stephon Clarke was carrying a cell phone. And it turns out that’s not a coincidence, it’s an isolated incident. There’s a whole business, there’s a whole industry, there are companies like Critical Incident Videos LLC, that literally do this.

They make a lot of money contracting with cities across the country to produce this video, to cut the video in certain ways, to make it available in ways that often seek to exonerate the police with the videos that your city has paid a lot of money to buy these body cameras, to get that video, in the hope that it would provide some lens of transparency and accountability for police violence. And it seems like in the context of capitalism, that we’re seeing companies exploit that and actually do very much the opposite with it.

DERAY MCKESSON: I honestly don’t think I can be shocked, I’m like, I’ve seen it, and then I saw this. It was like, well, we’re being outorganize and outflanked in such an incredible way. Of course, there’s like a PR firm that this is all they do is fudges the narrative around body cameras.

That is– and the the best part about it to me was that it’s run by a former newscaster. You’re like, yes, of course. And I’m sure that that person is a gazillionaire now, I’m sure that person consults on a whole host of cases that don’t necessarily hit the news, don’t become big, but there’s a formula for how we do this.

And one of the worst parts about it is that there’s no organized response on our side, right? That we just– I mean, this is the first I ever heard it. This is when you put it in the thing for this to be the news, but try to think through, how do you even defend against this?

Well we don’t have the unredacted body– like you’re fighting for the unredacted body camera footage, you’re fighting to get the police reports, and dadadada– they have everything at their disposal. So by the time you even call out the lie, it’s four weeks after, it’s so far gone. The police have killed almost 500 people so far this year, and most people know three names.

This made me both incredibly sad, it made me think about if this is happening in this one part of the country, it’s probably happening in most of the other big cities. Like there’s probably a consultant or like some firm that specializes in this, at the house originally, and I just didn’t think I could be shocked anymore. And I was like, well, you got me. This was just wild.

This Lexipol, a part of me thinks that there’s the supervillains meeting happens once a month where they all come together and they’re like, hey, we need to plan for this, and somebody funds it because it’s just so organized.

My news is about the prison industrial complex. So we talk about privatization of prisons and private prisons, normally, people talk about private prisons. Again, less than 8% of prisons are privatized. We’ve said repeatedly, that the privatization of services in prisons is actually like the biggest thing. But then I came across this article that talked about how there’s a push to eliminate physical mail from prisons, starting with the federal prisons. And as you can imagine, Trump was one of the pioneers of this.

So there is a company that is called Smart Communications, and they make a product called Mail Guard. And what Mail Guard does is that, Mail Guard takes the physical mail, scans it, and then puts it on a tablet. So, if you’re incarcerated, you will not get physical mail any more, you will get the mail to read through a tablet.

This was piloted during the Trump era, people flipped out, but as you know, Trump was doing his thing, it he listening to anybody. And people expected that the Biden administration would roll it back, and to everybody’s surprise, they have signaled that they are actually trying to expand Mail Guard into more places.

Now, luckily, Mail Guard is not really picking up at the local level, so the article talks about some places that one or two jails that have picked it up, but in general, not being picked up. But the federal government seems to have a commitment to this.

Now, the purpose of Mail Guard was supposedly to get rid of drugs. That was like the thing. But it looks like it didn’t even do that. So, according to state data, drugs are still entering state facilities at the same pace, whether through faked legal mail. So Mail Guard doesn’t apply to legal mail. So there’s quite some of this stuff like that, or through– ding ding ding the corrections officers, which is how most of the contraband gets into prisons and jails anyway–

And the other thing they know is that after implanting the Mail Guard the average number of drug tests coming back positive from September 2019 to August 2020, hovered around 1% with the exception of two months was zero positive drug tests. And it’s like this data looks very similar to the data that was there before Mail Guard came in to play.

So, there are some places like Pennsylvania that they have a contract up in the air, and obviously the federal government we’re trying to press on them to end this. But the reason this matters is a couple of reasons. One is, people should be able to touch their mail. If you get a birthday card from your kid, you should be able to touch it. You should be able to read a letter, you should be able to keep it in your cell, like just emotionally, you should have a connection to the outside world as we deal with the issue of mass incarceration.

The second though and what the company will say is that Mail Guard’s free, right? It’s supposed to make prisons more secure, containing contraband. Here’s the thing, is that, it is not really free in design because somebody has to pay for the tablets and they’ll say the tablets are free. And you’re like OK, cool. But remember, every time you download a song it’s a cost, every time you know there’s somebody who’s incarcerated that I talk to regularly and support, every time I send him a letter, I have to buy an electronic stamp. This is the only place in the world who you have to buy stamps to send emails, that’s wild.

So, yeah, the tablet is technically free, but everything you do on the tablet is not free. And when you make the mail, something as basic as the mail go through this, you essentially are guaranteeing that there will always be tablets that the government will eventually have to eat the cost for storage, or the internet, or something with regard to a tablet and then the user would be responsible for the cost of using it.

I honestly had no clue, I didn’t know there was a push to transition out of physical mail. I knew that people are transitioning away from visits in lieu of video calls, which is its own problem. But I didn’t know the end of physical mail was even a plan.

SAM SINYANGWE: On the one hand, it’s like things are digitizing, things are– I get that we’re trying to move more things to be digital, that sort of makes sense. But when you see how this is actually being implemented in terms of imposing new layers of surveillance, removing the ability of people to connect in a physical way, that you mentioned DeRay, like just having a physical letter, a physical embodiment, and a connection to the person or persons that you care about on the outside is really important.

And seeing the exploitation of what happens when you digitize that information in terms of everybody getting charged for every single message they send, for everything that they look at online. The system doesn’t make sense.

And I’ve thought for a long time that one thing that would make sense– in addition to continue to do physical messages, physical mail– would be to give people access to the internet, to give people access to a tablet or an iPhone or some connected device, to have access to the outside world, to have access and to break down some of these barriers that continue to exist while they exist in the physical space to have some sort of connection digitally to people in the outside world.

But then you see on how that is actually implemented in practice, and it’s very different, right? The way in which the prison industrial complex exploits that– and yes, you could have a tablet, and yes, the tablet is technically free. But everything you do on the tablet is going to cost you more money than you have. It’s going to cost your family members money.

It’s going to cost all of this money to send a basic message and to stay connected. And we know that staying connected is important to maintaining your sanity, to maintaining your state of mind, to not reoffending, to doing all the things to reintegrating when you get out of prison. And yet and still, that is something that they’re creating financial barriers to doing and cutting off the existing avenues to stay connected that were physical.

So I mean, I still think that people need access to like broader access, in the context of incarceration, to information that is communicated digitally to the internet, et cetera, without paying a lot of money. But they definitely shouldn’t cut off your physical access to the world. Obviously that is more meaningful, more tangible that matters and especially when we talk about visitation and being able to physically see the people that you care about in your life.

That is extremely important. If you can’t even do that, then even be able to touch a letter from them, they’re trying to cut it off, too. There’s something really sort of cruel about the way in which they’re implementing this as well.

DE’ARA BALENGER: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s the human piece of this, right, which we don’t dig into enough. Y’all, these folks need their physical mail. They need pictures. They need– like my cousin was incarcerated. I think it was probably– it’s got to be 15 years ago. I have every letter she sent me, every single letter still to this day. And those are really, really, really important to me, right.

And so when you think about the families of incarcerated people and even incarcerated– it’s– these are human beings who are still living their lives. You’re not dead in prison. You still have responsibilities to your family members, to the community that you’re building inside. So I just– it’s just wild to me that anyone thinks it’s appropriate to take away somebody’s physical manifestation of love, joy, support, happiness, fulfill– all of those things, right?

And so I think, the other great part of this piece, too, was a quote from Ebony Underwood. And I love Ebony Underwood and have the honor of working with Ebony. But she runs an organization called We Got Us Now. You should know the organization. It’s a nonprofit that is run by and serves young adults and children of incarcerated folks.

And so one of the things that Ebony said is she’s like, there’s nothing like getting a birthday card you can touch and hold, to see handwriting you may never have seen before. And for Ebony– you know, she also talks about in this piece how her– you know, her dad is her dad. And her dad was incarcerated for 30 years. He got out just in January because of compassionate release.

But her dad was her dad. And not being able for him to receive things from his children, to not have had that over the course of 30 years, that’s a huge– it’s a huge– was a huge– would have been a huge deal to them. So, yeah. So I think, yeah, we got to keep eyes on this and keep the pressure on this administration because this things like this, there’s just not as much of a light on them obviously.

And so we have to make sure that folks are aware and organizing so that these type of contracts don’t continue to get through.

DERAY MCKESSON: It also strikes me as a really sneaky expansion of the surveillance state. Because you got to believe–

DE’ARA BALENGER: That’s right

DERAY MCKESSON: –that in a year, it’ll be searchable, like they will be able to search all the mail. They will do handwriting analysis. We’ll see that introduced in court. We knew that it was her handwriting because we saw it like– you know that’s coming. They won’t say that our front desk like– it makes you think of the Uber Lyft stuff where the Uber Lyft prices were real low for the first couple of years.

Now to take a Uber, it’s $12,000. You know, they’re not going to lead off with that. But all the search will mail. That’ll be a thing in the name of public safety. You’re like, no, that’s not it. And by the way, who is mailing– are people really mailing bags of cocaine through the US Postal Service to jails? I don’t believe it. I don’t.

DE’ARA BALENGER: Well, that’s the thing. And that’s the thing that they said, there’s no data that show there was a decrease in the suicides that whatever state was talking about. There’s just– is no rhyme or reason. There’s no rhyme or reason.

DERAY MCKESSON: But who is– but are people really mailing drugs? I just don’t even know Black– I don’t know Black people who are mailing cocaine over the US Postal Service to the prison.

KAYA HENDERSON: Not with their address on it. That’s for sure.

DERAY MCKESSON: Right. Definitely not with the address on it. But I’ll– people believe that story. I’m like, hmm, this sounds like a lot on the surface.

KAYA HENDERSON: My news this week comes from the Washington Post. And it’s a pretty timely article as we wrap up the first national celebration of Juneteenth as a federal holiday. There are a group of lawmakers in Congress who are actually working on a constitutional amendment that would remove the punishment clause of the 13th Amendment.

Now as you probably know, the 13th Amendment outlaw slavery in the United States, quote, unquote, except as a punishment for a crime. And this proposal, led by a number of Democrats in Congress, aims to eliminate forced prison labor, which many view as the continuation of slavery’s legacy of injustice.

In fact, some argue that the Biden administration’s priorities around voting access, changes to policing are necessary but not sufficient and that eliminating forced prison labor is necessary to address racism and inequality in our country.

Now many of you know the history of forced prison labor and the 13th Amendment after watching Ava DuVernay’s 2016 documentary, 13th, where she takes pains to really tell the story of the fact that just days after the official nationwide abolition of slavery in December 1865, Southern states moved pretty quickly to create hundreds of laws targeting Black people for enslavement through the criminal justice system.

These became known as Black Codes. They ultimately turned into Jim Crow laws. And these laws prohibited Blacks from selling certain foods, from gathering on corners, from gathering in a disorderly way, from carrying a pistol, from staying out too late, and all kinds of other malarkey. In fact, these laws allowed white people to take Black children into years of servitude claiming that they could take care of them better than their own parents.

And so you had many plantations that actually expanded even after the 13th Amendment’s ratification. My colleague, Sam, did a post about how many plantations actually turn directly into prisons. The same name that they were as a plantation is now the name that they are as a prison. A Virginia Supreme Court justice in 1871 said, a prisoner is a slave of the state.

So this forced prison labor, which extends into our country’s history today– and as you know, disproportionately affects people of color, poor people, Black people. There are a bunch of folks who are advocating for removing this punishment clause. And so there are a number of states, red and blue both, who’ve recently removed the punishment clause from their state constitutions.

Colorado was the first to repeal it in 2018, and other states are following. And so there is a movement. There’s a wave of folks who believe that if we’re going to do Juneteenth, then we ought to go all the way and really abolish all of slavery’s longstanding tentacles that still affect the work that we do today, with the way we treat people today. So Happy Juneteenth. And let’s abolish forced prison labor.

DERAY MCKESSON: Don’t go anywhere. More Pod Save The People is coming. Pod Save The People is brought to you by Better Help. What interferes with your happiness? There’s a lot going on. There’s a lot– with the world opening. Let me tell you, I’ve been outside a couple of days. And I’m like, whoa. I’ve not– I got to adjust to that. It’s a lot going on. And the thing is that you don’t have to be alone in how you adjust that this has been a rough enough past year. There’s actually help out there.

KAYA HENDERSON: Better Help will assess your needs and match you with your own licensed professional therapist. You can connect in a safe and private online environment which is so convenient. And you can start communicating in under 24 hours. It’s not self-help. It is professional counseling.

DERAY MCKESSON: And here’s the thing. You can send a message to your counselor any time. You’ll get timely and thoughtful responses, plus you can schedule a weekly video or phone sessions, all without ever having to sit in an uncomfortable waiting room because Better Help is committed to helping you facilitate great therapeutic matches. And they make it easy. They make it free to change counselors if you need. It’s more affordable than traditional offline counseling. And they got financial aid.

KAYA HENDERSON: The service is available for clients worldwide, which is super cool because there’s a broad range of expertise available that might not be locally available in many areas. There are licensed professional counselors who are specialized in depression, stress, anxiety, relationships, sleeping, trauma, anger, family conflicts, LGBTQ matters, grief, self-esteem, and more.

DERAY MCKESSON: Everything you share is confidential. The service is convenient, professional, affordable. And you can check out the testimonials posted on their site every single day. It’s not a crisis line. Better Help is a support to help you. And there’s so many people who have been using Better Help, that they’re recruiting additional counselors in all 50 states.

KAYA HENDERSON: We want you to start living a happier life today. As a listener, you’ll get 10% off your first month by visiting Join over one million people who have taken charge of their mental health. Again, that’s betterhelp, H-E-L-P, dot com slash people.

DERAY MCKESSON: Pod Save The People is brought to you by Faherty. It’s finally summer, and we get to get out there and make up for last year. You know, I, this weekend, went out to the park. I’ve seen so many people. It’s been great. And that’s where Faherty comes in. They make the perfect clothes for summer.

KAYA HENDERSON: Faherty is a family-run brand, making high quality, timeless clothing with modern design and functionality. You know when you’re searching for that ideal summer outfit, that suit, that shirt, that dress that feels like you’ve had them for years. Maybe it’s in a gorgeous print, and it fits so perfectly that it feels almost too good to be vintage. But it still looks like it might be. Well that’s Faherty.

I got a very cute summer shift from Faherty. Just kind of a cream linen– maybe not linen– cotton thing that I could use in the daytime or at nighttime. And the quality of the material is so high. It’s so comfortable. And you just throw it on and make it work.

DERAY MCKESSON: And they’re so confident the quality of their stuff, they have a lifetime guarantee of quality. They’ll replace or fix your clothes forever, no matter what. And to top it all off, Faherty is giving our listeners 20% off. Yes, 20% off.

KAYA HENDERSON: So stock up on all your clothes for summer now. Head to and use code, PEOPLE, at checkout to snag 20% off all your summer gear. That’s PEOPLE at Faherty, F-A-H-E-R-T-Y, brand dot com FOR 20% off.

DERAY MCKESSON: Pod Save The People is brought to you by Helix. Helix Sleep has a quiz. It takes just two minutes to complete. It matches your body type and sleep preferences to the perfect mattress for you. I didn’t even know that there were different types of mattresses when I was growing up. A mattress is a mattress is a mattress. But why would you buy mattress for somebody else?

You can actually get one that’s made for your type of sleeping. And with Helix, you get a mattress that you know will be perfect for you. Everybody’s unique, and Helix knows that. So they have several different mattress models to choose from, soft, medium, firm. A mattress is great for cooling you down if you sleep hot and even a Helix plus mattress for plus-size sleepers.

KAYA HENDERSON: We took the Helix Quiz, and we were each matched with a specific mattress. I was matched with the Luxe Dusk because I wanted something that was medium in terms of firmness. And I sleep on my stomach and also my side. And it’s a great mattress. Oh, my goodness. Setting it up was fast and easy. Delivery was fast. It’s soft.

It’s supportive. It’s great. And so if you’re looking for a mattress, you should take the quiz order the mattress that you’re matched to. And the mattress comes right to the door, shipped for free. You don’t even have to go to a mattress store again.

DERAY MCKESSON: Helix is awesome. But you don’t need to take our word for it. Helix is awarded the number one best overall mattress pick of 2020 and by GQ and WIRED magazine. Just go to, take their 2-minute Sleep Quiz, and they’ll match to a customized mattress that will give you the best sleep of your life.

KAYA HENDERSON: They have a 10-year warranty, and you get to try it out for 100 nights, risk free. They’ll even pick it up for you if you don’t love it, but you will. And Helix is offering up to $200 off all mattress orders and two free pillows for our listeners at

DERAY MCKESSON: Myles Johnson is a writer and an artist and I’ve been following for a number of years. I remember first coming across him on Twitter and then with his incredible New York Times op-ed about Beyonce not winning the Grammy. Myles cover stories in pop culture, politics, Black feminism, queer theory, and so much more.

Today we talk about America’s relationship with celebrities, Black queer representation, and who currently has power in the media. I love Myles’s voice. You will, too. Here we go. Myles Johnson, the one and only. Thanks so much for joining us today on Pod Save The People.

MYLES E. JOHNSON: Thank you for having me. I’m excited to talk to you publicly.

DERAY MCKESSON: So we first met because of some of your writing online. And I was like, I think he has such an interesting perspective. You went on to write at so many places. You wrote one of those iconic pieces about Beyonce and the Grammy’s. How did you become a writer? What was that journey for you?

MYLES E. JOHNSON: Essentially I’m an artist, DeRay. And I always want to create things. But I came from a background that was– you know, I have a single mother. She was forced. She was also marginalized again because she was a lesbian. So I think that the thing that was the most low cost for me to create something was writing, you know.

And I think that’s how come people think that I have this interesting perspective because I kind of think about the world as an artist and try to make sense of things and connect things that aren’t always necessarily connected. And I was doing actually writing just because that was the thing that I had. I did have a cheap Acer laptop, and I had a Wi-Fi connection.

And that felt like the thing I had most accessibility to. That was kind of the first of it. And then more resources, more money, the more things I was able to make and be a part of. And the more people who knew me, the more opportunities I got to be a part of things that were beyond the pen and paper, too.

DERAY MCKESSON: But I want to bring you on so we could talk about some things in culture that we just haven’t talked about on the pod before and that we certainly haven’t had an expert on. One of those topics is Lil Nas X. So there’s been a lot of conversation about “Call Me By Your Name,” the latest song.

There’s been a lot of conversation about the way that Lil Nas X has presented in the public and that he presents himself as a gay Black man. We obviously know his record with the initial song that made us all love him, “Old Town Road.” How do you think about the presence or the role of Lil Nas X in this moment?

MYLES E. JOHNSON: I think it’s simultaneously really, really exciting and exhilarating Lil Nas X in this moment and really boring. But you know the actual bend of pop culture history. I think what’s interesting is the vehicle that’s doing it, right? So Lil Nas X is Black, he’s gay. And he’s a dark and Black man. I think that even when I was a little kid and watching CeeLo when watching on repeat, “Thousand.”

And watching– and even like Rick James. It’s something subversive when a dark-skinned Black man decides to do things that fails hetero-patriarchal dynamics and structures. So meaning that when a dark-skinned Black man does something that quote, unquote, act gay. But I think the thing that’s boring about it is he’s doing what Madonna did. And not to say that he’s being reductive.

But we’ve always had pop stars, pop culture icons use religious symbolism in order to assert both their independence, their agency, and also their sexual freedom. But now, the body that’s doing it is different. But the body that’s doing it is also representative of the time that we’re in. We’re in this queer moment.

We’re in the moment where trans folk, queer folk, gay folk were all kind of being pushed to the front and seeing what we do when the spotlight is on us. Whereas Madonna was– I wouldn’t say that’s she’s a part of the wave of feminism necessarily. But she was riding that wave of feminism where she was able to say, well, I’m a woman. And I have agency over my sexuality.

I’m going to say what I want to say. These different patriarchal norms have oppressed me, and I’m going to use the imagery that I create in order to push against that or to create something new. Lil Nas X is doing the same exact formula, you know. And I think maybe Lady Gaga, with the last death rattle of that subversive blonde pop star.

Then Lil Nas X is kind of seeming like the new dawn of something new. And I think that’s what’s exciting about it. But the reaction is like out of a storybook, you know. If you look– if you look at controversial moments in pop culture, the pop star does something controversial, then some people embraced it. And then 20 years later, it’s seen as a more demure and shot of based off of what things that will be going on in 20 years because things must get more provocative.

Things must get more titillating. So that’s kind of the overview of how I see it. It’s an interesting moment. But then also, when you go a little bit about pop culture history, it’s like, oh, we’ve done this before. We’ve been here before.

DERAY MCKESSON: Do you think that is the same, too, with little Lil Nas X sort of saying like, you know, I’m making art. I’m making music. I’m not necessarily here to be people’s role model. If that is what people get out of it, cool. But that’s not like what I wake up to do. Is that in the same vein or does that feel new or different to you?

MYLES E. JOHNSON: No, that’s the Britney Spears line. That’s– I could list so many pop stars that have said that line where basically they’re saying, I’m not the babysitter of your children. I’m not the role model to your children. Don’t use me as a surrogate babysitter or role model. My opinion on that is that they’re right. They shouldn’t be the babysitter to other people’s children.

But I do think when you are a celebrity and you’re doing something as universal as making music, you’re inherently taking a role-model stance. And I do think there’s something healthy about showing a Black gay man beheading Lucifer as a role model. I think there’s actually something really empowering about that. Maybe the symbolism in the message is not necessarily appropriate for kids of all ages.

But I think that when those kids become of age and see that may be the same person who made “Old Town Road” also made this and when those kids come to a certain level of maturity and consciousness, I think that will be OK. I think that you will feel empowered by that in the same way because often, pop culture must go back to Beyonce.

I think that it’s the same way that we’ve seen Beyonce be liberating her sexuality as she was a mother, as she was coming to a feminist consciousness. I think maybe every single song and every single moment of that era wasn’t necessarily appropriate for kids. But I think that when those kids become a certain age, they’ll actually appreciate what they saw and what she did and what she created.

It’s a little bit dishonest to say, you’re not a role model because you just– that’s just what that role is. But I do think that you’re not a babysitter. Meaning, you don’t have to muffle your own maturity in your own self expression in order to be appropriate for children.

DERAY MCKESSON: Boom. And how do you think about our relationship to celebrity? I ask because in some ways, it felt like over the pandemic, we were celebritied-out. I was, for sure. It was like you know, we couldn’t leave our homes. Our homes are tiny. We’re in tight spaces. And then you saw celebrities complaining about being trapped at their 20-room estate.

And you’re like, no, I don’t really know if this is– if we’re in the same boat here. And it also felt like there was some celebrities where– you used to see them every often. And now, it was like I see you every 12 seconds. Like this is– that felt more indifferent. But do you think our relationship to celebrity is changing? Is this cyclical, too? It’s just sort of the same old, same old. Is the internet doing something new? I don’t know. I wanted to know what your thought was about that.

MYLES E. JOHNSON: I think there’s two things when it comes to– I like the separation– I can’t quite remember who said it. But I like the separation that somebody did when it comes to what is being an artist and what’s being a celebrity. And what’s being an artist who’s famous first for being a celebrity, right? And I think celebrities really, really focus on scale.

They focus on getting more people to like them, you know. When you got that Black folks like you because you collaborated with the baby. Now you have to get this audience to like you and this audience to like you and this audience to like you in scale, scale, scale because you want that picture in your documentary where you’re taking up arena. That’s kind of like a celebrity idea about it.

And I think that in this moment, with the fact that the internet’s coming, we’re seeing a lot of celebrities trying to be their own type of I guess, island, I would call it, or like their own type of kind of cult of personality nation. You’re not just buying the products that the artistic product that they’re creating. But you’re also buying the skin care that they use, or you’re also buying the children’s book. You’re also buying the clothes.

You’re also maybe even creating their own online group chats in communities and hashtag. So now you’re really investing in those things. And that’s exhausting. And most people just simply are not– no matter how fantastic your art is, no matter how great the film is or how great the performance is, most people are just not that interesting to create entire communities around them, specifically when a lot of celebrities negotiated a lot of their own uniqueness in order to become celebrities.

Meaning, a lot of celebrities, in order to be mainstream celebrities, have to wash themselves in certain ways and have to muffle themselves in certain ways. That actually, when you put them up close, you actually look very similar to other people, which is not enticing. It’s really ballsy for the consumer. Now there are a lot of exceptions to that rule that I will name, sort of– but I won’t name.

But you know, I think Rihanna is like a really unique artist, a unique person. So her stuff, her nation is interesting. And you want to visit that. You want to become a citizen of that. Even Solange– obviously, she’s news. It’s really interesting. You want to know about it. You’re not getting it everywhere else. But a lot of these celebrities are doing the same thing. And it’s exhausting for the consumer.

How many restaurants do you really need selling you French fries? You know. Like it’s just not– it’s just not that exciting. And it is exhausting, specifically during last year where we weren’t able to leave the house. And our escape was the phone and was celebrity culture which I hope, on a spiritual level, makes people more grateful when you leave the house now, that you’re like, oh, wait.

I see how bad it could be. And now I appreciate the fact that my only form of escape is not media in celebrities and in the world making that they do. That’s not as imaginative as it could be.

DERAY MCKESSON: Does that hold, though, for the TikTokers and the Snapchaters? That like it seems like there is enough to create a whole community around them.

MYLES E. JOHNSON: My challenge to that is we have to see in 10 years. Vine is a good example of that. How many people survived after Vine left? How many people who are on Twitter or Instagram who might have been some of the landmark people that made those sites sexy, made those sites interesting? A lot of those people are no longer here. A lot of those people are still working to have ownership over those things.

Or simply, they just got phased out for something younger and more exciting. It’s not simply about what you’re able to create in the now or what you’re able to create in the next two to three years and what you’re able to do then and selling t-shirts and going viral now. It’s about will this last in the 10 years, in 20 years, you know?

They’re trying to– and somehow, for the modern day, recreate the Elizabeth Taylor model where, oh, once I’m done with film, I could be perfume. And I can also do activism in this place and stuff like that. So I’m kind of this thing that exists– the household name. I’m this nebulous thing that exists in your home no matter if I’m creating the work that you knew me for or not.

That’s not necessarily being recreated all the time with the people who are getting really popular in TikTok. And it’s invisible because it’s not always communicating in a live event. It’s not always communicating in products like actual films.

A lot of people who are really funny and have a lot of engagement on TikTok and on Instagram and all these different platforms find it really hard to communicate that into films and television shows that they get. You have to kind of keep on recreating that stardom on TikTok at a really fast pace. And more people than that kind of get phased out, you know. And that’s the truth of that.

DERAY MCKESSON: That’s bad on that. Did you see– that’s what you– that’s definitely what you gave. That settlement. So Naomi Osaka’s like I’m not doing press at these events that– I’ve done it. People ask the same question. My mental health also is important.

And I’ll just take the fine. It feels like there’s like something happening with a younger group of stars that are pushing back on these models that like everybody’s done for a long time. And this is just the way you do it. What was your read of Osaka’s comment?

MYLES E. JOHNSON: You have a group of people. And this is my generation. I was born in ’91. I feel like people who kind of still remember that bubblegum pop era and that kind of fascination with pop culture era. So you have a group of people that were disillusioned. And notice– specifically when social media happens, they noticed that their own power noticed that I have the power.

You need me in order to be successful. You need me in order to make the headlines. You need me to see the monster. When you are talented and you do have a group of people that are interested in your work or when you are the artist or when you are that excellent sports player, whatever the case might be, you don’t have to do certain things.

You don’t have to participate in certain things that felt like non-negotiable to another era because you now are plugged into your fan base. You are now plugged into talking directly to the people who would keep you alive or who would– when you want to go and do something with Nike or you want to do something on your own, maybe from the ground, up, you can actually plug into that fan base.

And you don’t need to be a part of that machine that really, really thrives off of cannibalizing people’s mental health. And I think that right now, that’s just a moment that is indicative of a bigger moment where people are kind of realizing, wait, you need me way more than I need you. And if I decide to collaborate with you, it must be worth my while. And if not, then I’ll pay that fine.

If it’s $20,000, if it’s less engagement, whatever the quote, unquote, fine is, I’m willing to do it because it’s not worth it. It’s just simply not worth it. And I think again, seeing how companies interact with social media and how much companies kind of form social media and form people who like come– normal everyday people who go viral or people who have these niche platforms has done something to our psyche to realize, wait, people who do that don’t not need those people.

People don’t do those type of things if the content’s inconsequential, or those people are inconsequential. So it kind of makes us think like, wait, maybe we’re the people who control fame and celebrity and control our narrative way more than these people are. And I don’t have to do whatever it is they say I must do just because they’re part of this like legacy or is because it’s part of this bigger like Hollywood pattern or habit.

DERAY MCKESSON: It is really cool to see people opt out of feeding the beast because they can’t talk directly to people, as you said. Now what’s your read of what people generally call the movement right now? So you see– you’ve been around, obviously since the first day of protests in 2014 and the Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, George Floyd.

People talk about 2020 as like a reckoning year. And that’s not how I think about it. But that is the language people use. How would you describe this arc, and where are we?

MYLES E. JOHNSON: I hope that exhale was audible because I think that’s collectively where we are, looking exhausted exhale. I think a lot of people are really tired. And I think that, from what I can tell and what I can feel is that people deconstructing things, pushing against things is exhausting. It’s not a long game plan.

Even our most heroic people who have pushed against things have given up their mental and physical health in order to do it. It’s not a lifetime game plan. And I think what I’m seeing at the community is that we’re really exhausted. And we’re really looking to generate things, to create things, to produce things, and looking for people, communities that are centering generating things, centering like the alternative.

I haven’t actually seen as many people in my life than I do today that are really interested in what does the new world look like. What does justice alternative look like? What does a world without insert, whatever oppressive force that you can think of? What does that actually look like? What does it feel like? What does it smell like? How do we treat each other? What kind of food do we eat there?

How do we treat the Earth there? Really interested in the generating of it. How do we employ it? How do we start it now? How do we not just theorize about it? How do we not just text things into the social media ether about it? How do we actively do it? Because not only is that productive, that’s also a life-giving practice. When you give life to things, you kind of feel alive.

And I think when you try to destroy things and kill things, it involves you. And I think you’re seeing kind of like a natural– I think we’re seeing– excuse me– a natural kind of state where we’re exhausted. And it’s cyclical. And I’m noticing a lot of things like the nap ministry. There’s countless other things that kind of feel like they’re centering on rest and generating new ideas, rather than pushing against or deconstructing other ideas.

And I think that, as a collective mind, we’re just exhausted. And we all feel that we need a nap. And we all need something to feel optimistic about and feel like we’re creating something, instead of to tearing things down, to tearing things down because there’s truly endless things to tear down in this system. And it’s just not sustainable to always focus on that half of slowly deconstructing things.

DERAY MCKESSON: Well, we consider you Friend of the pod. Can’t wait to have you back. And thank you so much for joining us today.

MYLES E. JOHNSON: Of course. Have a good one, DeRay.

DERAY MCKESSON: Hey, you’re listening to Pod Save The People. Don’t go anywhere. There’s more to come. Pod Save The People is brought to you bu Bombas. You know, I love a good sock. I didn’t know that there were different types of socks till I was an adult. A sock was a sock was a sock when I was growing up. You just got some socks on the sock drawer.

But lots of things can make your workouts hard, extra resistance, double speed, one more mile. Your socks shouldn’t be something that add to the pressure of a workout. I hate working out. But that’s how Bombas Performance Socks are built to be nothing but comfortable and supportive. It really is like floating.

KAYA HENDERSON: Bombas Performance Socks have taken all the amazing innovations that make Bombas the most comfortable socks you’ve ever worn. And added their special Hex Tec performance technology. Bombas Performance Socks are stitched with special moisture wicking yarn and temperature-regulating vents that allow cool air flow in and prevent overheating.

DERAY MCKESSON: They come with a pillow-like tab to save you from blisters, stay-up technology, a special arch-hugging system, and an extra layer of cushiony comfort on the bottom for the perfect amount of support. They come in different styles for every sport with specific design features to help you optimize performance and keep you comfortable no matter what you’re doing.

KAYA HENDERSON: And like all their socks, for every pair of Bombas Performance Socks you buy, they donate a pair to someone in need. They’ve donated over 45 million pairs so far. I love my Bombas. And I hate socks, generally. But these jokers are the whole entire joint. They caressed my feet, they make my workouts easier. And so you need to get yourself some Bombas.

DERAY MCKESSON: Go to today, and get 20% off your first order. That’s B-O-M-B-A-S dot com slash people for 20% off. Pod Save The People is brought to you by Pew Charitable Trusts. The numbers say America’s demographic landscape is changing. As a nation’s young and diverse populations grow in the coming decades, is the data telling that story?

KAYA HENDERSON: Listen to a new season of After the Fact, a podcast from the Pew Charitable Trusts on the important connection between race and research. You’ll hear from experts on topics from medicine to public safety, who are trying to understand where gaps exist and tackle the work ahead.

DERAY MCKESSON: Find it anywhere you get your podcasts. Visit to learn more.


And now my conversation with Mario Rosser. He’s running to be on the New York City Council, representing Harlem District 9. I met him out. We had a good conversation. And I wanted to share that conversation with you so that you could hear about all the incredible young people running for office across the country. And one of them is my Mario Rosser. Here we go. Mario, thanks so much for joining us today on Pod Save The People.

MARIO ROSSER: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

DERAY MCKESSON: Now, first question is why the New York City Council? Why now? Like what led you to this idea of running for city council, running for public office? Why that role? Why now?

MARIO ROSSER: Just the impact. At the end of the day, that’s what drives everything that I do, to make an impact in the way that we invest in our young people in our community, to make an impact in prioritizing resources for a community that has suffered from disinvestment and suffered from the inequity.

And right now, we have an opportunity to actually prioritize Harlem in a way that is possible because of what we’ve done over the past year in terms of recognizing across a wide variety of types of people that live in the city that we just can’t rebuild New York City and go back to what we were doing before.

And so right now, there is a real opportunity for us to capitalize and translate that consensus into real impact and budget priorities for our community. For me personally, I’ve spent my life focusing on making sure that we invest in our young people who are first-generation college students, making sure that we help Black people have access to economic opportunities and wealth creation and helping entrepreneurs grow.

These are the things that I focus my career on. And I view being in office and particularly in city council, as a specific way to make an impact this larger. And so for me, that’s what drives everything that I do.

DERAY MCKESSON: And what are you hearing when you are out in Harlem talking to potential voters? What are the issues that are top of mind from them?

MARIO ROSSER: Number one in Harlem, people have real insecurity about even being able to stay in their homes. When we talked about the eviction moratorium, Harlem is ground zero for what it looks like when that ends and what that could further mean in terms of displacement of Black people in Harlem. And so by far, that is the number one issue in Harlem.

People literally are concerned about even being able to be in Harlem. If people can’t live in Harlem, then we’re talking about youth programs. We’re talking about other things in the neighborhood. To a certain extent, it doesn’t even matter because people are going to be– we’re going to have to talk about those issues in another neighborhood where Harlemites are going to be living because they won’t be living in Harlem.

If we’re not able to keep Harlemites in Harlem. And so I can’t emphasize enough how basic and how fundamental that issue is for whoever represents the neighborhood, whether it be on city council, whether it be at other levels of representative government. Right now, the number two and number three issues, which are really two sides of the same coin, are getting young people, particularly kids who are between that age of 13 and 18, real opportunities and things to do with their time.

If people don’t name that as the number two issue– does say the number two issue is being able to walk outside and being comfortable that you’re going to physically be OK. When we talk about the realities of what we’re dealing with the Harlem, we’re talking about a neighborhood that has been overpoliced in a neighborhood that has predictably seen what happens when poverty rates go up and an economic crash happens, in addition to the uptick in crime that we typically see in summers.

And grandmothers that I talk to everyday are saying, young people, teenagers being shot outside of their building. And so Harlem is where these things are actually happening, and people are dealing with real-life situations.

And one thing that I have attempted to do is not just recognize and give voice to the frustration and pain that people feel due to the death in our community, whether it be from police or whether it be from others in our community but talk about, what is the path forward for us to create a neighborhood where policing– and those approaches don’t need to be the center of the conversation around public safety. Its housing. It’s youth. And its safety in Harlem.

DERAY MCKESSON: What do you say about the safety conversation? As you know, the past year has been a conversation about moving away from police. There are still people in community who either want more police or at least want the same amount of police. What is your stance?

MARIO ROSSER: We need to get to the point soon and quickly where policing doesn’t have to be the center of the conversation around public safety. I speak literally every single day with grandmothers and aunts and young mothers and a lot of folks, who will look at me in the eye and literally– and we’re talking about Black people in our communities who say, hey, Mario, I want you to put more police in our community, after we spent all year marching.

And what I’ve tried to do in my campaign– and I’ve been pretty clear about my position that we must cut the police budget. I’m on record saying that we need to cut it by at least $1 billion. I stand with that. And what I think we’ve been able to do and what we need to do is be able to leave room at communication so that we can actually get these things done by meeting our community members where they’re at.

Because when grandma tells me she wants more police, where really as grandma said, she wants the neighborhood that’s safe, and she is comfortable walking outside. And the end of the day, it’s clear that that’s not what policing has gotten us in the past. We see neighborhoods where people have incredible economic opportunities. And there’s a low unemployment rate in there’s high entrepreneurship rate.

People aren’t just talking about police. And so that’s my vision for Harlem where we’re making the investments right now in getting compassion and outreach to people who might be houseless in our community and living on the streets and getting them into supportive housing and getting them the mental health services that are actually going to be effective.

We cannot just poke police at this issue and expect this to solve our problems in our community. When we’re talking about young people who are put in shelters, none of this is hypothetical because this is what I grew up with. You cannot go police at that and saw that.

And so I think what we’ve been able to do in our conversations with everyone in our community is really communicate with everyone where they’re at, while also not disregarding the very valid things that people are literally seeing on a day-to-day basis happen to their daughters, their sons, their grandsons, some of whom are not with us anymore, who still should be with us. That’s what I support.

And that’s what we’ve been talking about. And thus far, I think people respect it because they know it’s coming from an authentic place.

DERAY MCKESSON: And what about COVID? You know, you’ve had people in your life impacted by COVID. What do you think the recovery plan is? Especially knowing that in cities like New York, it was communities of color that were hit hardest, that got the least amount of resources, got the least care. What comes next?

MARIO ROSSER: Targeted recovery funds to specifically the issues we’re dealing with in our community. There’s so much talk about an economic recovery this and economic recovery that. Our Black community, the whole community has seen many so-called economic recovery. And I call this so-called because many recovery packages never actually recovered our community and never did anything meaningful.

And so instead of talking about an economic recovery, what we need is a community recovered. And for me, that means specifically targeting recovery dollars to our youth centers in Harlem so that when we’re talking about creating a safer neighborhood, where kids just aren’t on the streets idle but they have recreation centers and mentorship programs and entrepreneurial development programs where they can go and have a space where they can actually grow and develop their ideas.

Because they’re doing this already without really any material resources. So if we’re able to envision this recovery as being one of community care, I think that is what we can look back upon in 2025 and say, you know what? We made the right investments, and we directed the funds in the right way in Harlem.

Beyond that, to me it is incumbent on us, as a city, to ensure that as we reboot the economy, we, as a City Council, whoever is elected as mayor, holds companies that are operating in the city far more accountable to actually hiring the people who have stayed in Harlem, who haven’t left the city during this pandemic. I mean, I spent a lot of my career working within the tech sector.

I worked at LinkedIn as a Partnerships Manager. I see a lot of people know about LinkedIn as a company where you’re able to go and find economic opportunity. What we need to do is make sure that as companies, like LinkedIn that have office spaces in New York and Google’s and others, have people return to the office, let’s make sure that we’re getting the Black folks.

A lot of folks who have been in New York into these roles that increasingly, tech companies are requiring you not to even have a college degree for it, but you can just go to a six-week accelerated program. And all of a sudden, you’re doing entry level SQL work. And so, these are actual things that need to be accomplished in the recovery that is going to create long-term sustainable opportunity for our community.

And to me, that’s what it looks like. I would be remiss not to say that we need to make sure that we’re not cutting funding to our public hospitals. In Harlem, specifically, we have an anchor institution, our Harlem Hospital, that has absolutely been ravaged from a budget perspective over years. It’s underfunded. The staff are overworked.

You can talk to folks at places and institutions such as the New York State Nurses Alliance, and they talk about how nurses are in unsafe conditions because hospitals are trying to cut costs in order to basically make more money. And they’re not putting enough nurses to be able to take care of the people.

From a long-term health perspective, we need to make sure that we are getting our community the resources that we are due so that physically, we are taken care of. And so all across the board, it is about a community recovery, not just an economic recovery to get back to normal. But it is really getting resources into our communities in specific ways that people are voiced.

DERAY MCKESSON: But what do you think will be some of the challenges on the council? Like it’s a big council, what do you anticipate to be some of the challenges?

MARIO ROSSER: Some of the challenges will naturally revolve around the negotiations for the budget. The new council will take office in January of 2022 and immediately go into budget negotiations a year after coming out of COVID. And I think there is always that tendency to want to return to normal, just do things as they have been done.

And so I think that there will be a predictable tension between folks who really want to make sure that we rebuild the city in a way that is recognizing– we haven’t been prioritizing our budget in a way that solves problems and reduces poverty and really create sustainable safety. And those who just kind of want to go back to business as usual– and I think that that is going to be probably one of the defining factors.

More than anything, what I’ve seen is that I think we care to find common ground as long as we meet people where they are. Folks who are representing our communities spend as much time actually on the ground, speaking to people in real authentic ways. And I think through that, we can see clearly what the common ground is across New York City. But to be honest, I think that is going to be where the natural tension is.

DERAY MCKESSON: Now, I wanted to double back around health care. You talked about the anchor hospital. I think about what it means that we have an aging population. One of the things– you know, you obviously know Harlem. There’s a solid community of older people who have– they lived their life here. They have raised families here. And the City has not always taken care of them. What can we do about that?

MARIO ROSSER: Yeah. Number one, we have to make sure the older people can stay in Harlem. I was at a building last week that opened in 1967. It’s called Esplanade. And I met a person who is 102 years old. They didn’t look like it. And I opened the door. And I said, you know, sir, my name is Mario. I’m running for city council. Just want to come by and introduce myself and really hear what’s important to you.

And number one, to be honest, 102-year-old told me, it was his kids and grandkids that he’s concerned about, being able to even live in Esplanade– and himself. Many buildings in Harlem that were legacy, solid, middle-class anchor buildings for middle-class Black folks and folks who are making a lot less than that are undergoing transactions and tax structures where senior citizens are at risk of not even being able to stay in apartments that they’ve lived in for 40-50 years.

And so we need to make sure that we are providing stability so that seniors can age in place, where ease in the pathway for seniors to be able to move into buildings that have elevator access. Because it’s a damn shame we’re asking seniors to walk up six flights of stairs at 89 years old, when we could get them over into some buildings that are bit more accessible.

To speak about accessibility, that is also an issue. You talk to seniors in the neighborhood, they’ll talk about being able to get on buses so that they can go see their friends at a senior citizen, down the street. And the buses are making local stops. So the issues the city council deal with are so specific in terms of literally what people are dealing with on an everyday basis and the steps that they’re taking to the neighborhood.

People might be surprised in what I speak about with regard to helping seniors. But if you really talk to seniors in the neighborhood, at least on the local level, right here in the neighborhood, those are the things that they’re concerned about, making sure they can stay in their homes, making sure that spaces and amenities are accessible.

And a lot of seniors are going to talk about making sure that they can walk outside and have complete security and being able to go outside, especially after coming off a year where so many of them have been locked inside. They’re dealing with loneliness, just like everybody else is. And they want to get outside and be comfortable with that. And so those are things I think we need to do for seniors. And that’s what they’re telling me.

DERAY MCKESSON: Cool. Well, we consider you a Friend of the Pod. And can’t wait to have you back.

MARIO ROSSER: Hey, DeRay. I just want to say thank you for the opportunity to come on. I’m honestly humbled to be on your platform. You have been a champion for our people in ways that I don’t even think are fully appreciated. And so I know you would go down as one of the greats. And it is an honor to be on here with you and for you to give me the opportunity to share our vision for Harlem. And I look forward to working with you in everything that you’re going to be accomplishing moving forward.


DERAY MCKESSON: Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning in the Pod Save the People this week. Tell your friends to check it out. Make sure that you raid it wherever you get your podcasts, whether it’s Apple Podcast or somewhere else. And we’ll see you next week.

Pod Save The People is a production of Crooked Media. It’s produced by Brock Wilbur and mixed by Bill Lands. Our Executive Producer is Jessica Cordova-Kramer and myself. Special thanks to our weekly contributors, Kaya Henderson, De’Ara Balenger, and Sam Sinyangwe.