Monday, October 30, 2017

Interview: Campaign Zero's Sam Sinyangwe

Scott Henson and Sam Sinyangwe
In the most recent Reasonably Suspicious podcast, we published an excerpt from an interview I did in September with Sam "Swinging Sammy" Sinyangwe - one of the founders of Campaign Zero and a leader in the national, post-Ferguson police accountability movement. We talked a bit about his personal background, as well as Campaign Zero's work to hold police officers accountable by vetting and seeking reforms in police union contracts. You can listen to the full conversation here:

For more background, check out a speech Sinyangwe gave in Austin last month (audio/transcript/materials) detailing specific criticisms of Austin's police contract. Find a transcript of our interview after the jump.

Transcript: Scott Henson interviews Campaign Zero's Sam Sinyangwe, September 2017.

Scott Henson: This is Scott Henson and I'm here with Swinging Sam Sin-yan-gwe - Tell me how to pronounce your name.

Sam Sinyangwe: Sinyangwe.

Scott Henson: Just to start with that, tell me a little about your background. What's the family origin of Sinyangwe? And tell me a little about your family.

Sam Sinyangwe: So, the origin is from Tanzania, so it's a Swahili name. My dad's Tanzanian, came to the United States when he was 24. My mom's from New York City. They met in college and long story short I showed up into the world. My story really is a story of ... I grew up in Orlando, Florida. I experienced a range of different levels of racism in the school system. I attended a predominantly white school. I was like the only black kid in school so it was an interesting experience that taught me a lot about one ... what it feels like to be an outsider, but also it gave me the strength just to organize and to identify injustice. That has stuck with me in my work today.

Scott Henson: Tell me about your earliest activism. What's the first time you said "Hey this has got to change I'm gonna do something?"

Sam Sinyangwe: Yes, sixth grade. Sixth grade was my earliest activism. This is gonna be an elementary school story.

Scott Henson: Oh my word.

Sam Sinyangwe: I was in sixth grade and I was in school with a teacher ... My teacher was... She was wild. She would target me for all kinds of stuff. She would always sort of single me out as being a trouble maker when I was doing the same thing that everybody else was doing. I thought that was unfair. I organized some of my friends around it. We would take some of the phrases that she would use. She would always say "You're off task", so we would create signs and chants and incorporate "off task" into it. We had a song for it, and sooner or later, it caught onto enough kids actually repeating this. They had a language to actually take on and sort of mimic the teacher, right? So, this is classic troublemaker shit.

Scott Henson: Yes, yes its borderline activism, borderline troublemaker shit.

Sam Sinyangwe: Right, right, right. You always gotta thread that needle. Long story short -

Scott Henson: You're still threading that needle by the way.

Sam Sinyangwe: Yeah. Long story short word got to the principal that students were saying that this teacher had problems and wasn't the best teacher. So the principal came in and observed the class for the entire day. That happened to be lab day. And lab day we were doing some experiment, I forgot what it was, but there was salt involved. I told my best friend at the time ... I said, "Spill the salt. The teacher's gonna flip out in front of the principal and then cry." And he did it, he spilled the salt. She flipped out, yelled at him in front of the principal, and he started crying and the teacher got fired. It's kind of funny but looking back I think that was a moment that taught me that I could change the circumstances I was in and I could organize and I could identify a problem and actually take action and the system could actually change around me.

I think that stuck with me later on as I studied racism and racial inequity in education. I would come to learn that it is not at all unique to my experience, but in fact, black boys in particular throughout the education system are singled out disproportionately. Suspended, disciplined for the same behaviors as white boys in school, including in sixth grade and elementary school. I think it is a broader microcosm of the world, but it was a lesson that I think has stuck with me.

Scott Henson: Probably stuck with that teacher too, I'm guessing.

Sam Sinyangwe: Probably.

Scott Henson: So you went to college on the opposite coast. Was there something in Orlando that you wanted to get away from or what's that about?

Sam Sinyangwe: No I think-

Scott Henson: That's a long way away.

Sam Sinyangwe: It is, yes.

Scott Henson: Orlando to Stanford.

Sam Sinyangwe: I looked at a lot of colleges and you know Stanford does this thing where ... Number one, it's an incredible school. Number two, they do this thing where when you get into a school, they invite you to new students weekend where you basically are touring the school. You're shadowing a student and getting a feel for what it is before you decide whether to go there. And Stanford likes to play this trick on students where they invite you out during the week that is the best weather of the entire year. I was looking at schools up north, schools all over the country, and Stanford was the only one where the kids were out. It was sunny. They were wearing t-shirts and shorts and sandals and everybody's having a great time.

Scott Henson: No humidity.

Sam Sinyangwe: No humidity. It was like the ... Orlando is incredibly humid right? Stanford is just like, it's like heaven. You feel nothing but the rays of the sun. So I loved it. I was there. Then I got there and I didn't realize that there were actually three or four months that is incredibly cold-

Scott Henson: And you won't see the sun, in fact.

Sam Sinyangwe: Right. So I learned that the hard way, but I don't regret it. It was an incredible school.

Scott Henson: Oh I'm sure. I'm sure. Alright, so, Campaign Zero is really a big demarcation from  - to my mind, because I've been in this more than 20 years - all of the police accountability activism that's happened before, frankly, in American history. It's a big change. There's not been anyone taking on these sort of institutional questions. What you've gotten in the past has been, “We have to create a civilian review board.” And then it's created and it has no power and everyone's disappointed. And then we do this city after city after city.

And what y'all did to my mind that was amazing and different and new, is really step back and took an institutional examination of all this. What's most impressive is that you did it at a time of this incredibly hot-button, white heat activity going on in Ferguson and in the aftermath of all that when things are blowing up around you. I've always thought well maybe it's because they picked a small core of people to try and pull that off.

But tell me a little bit about how Campaign Zero came about and sort of how y'all were able to get this broader institutional focus in the midst of all this swirling chaos that was going on when you did it.

Sam Sinyangwe: As you said, in those early days of the protest and as they reverberated around the country near the end of 2014, in those conversations it became clear that a couple  things needed to happen. One, that there was no comprehensive data being collected by the federal government or by state governments on people who had been killed by police. So, the data to identify the scale of what was happening, where police violence was happening, which is a precondition to getting to why, had not been done. That step hadn't been done. The second thing was that there hadn't been a comprehensive analysis of what are some of the evidence based solutions to this issue of police violence? That's because again there wasn't data, there wasn't evidence around what works.

So there were great ideas. A civilian review board is a great idea, but there's not a lot of evidence around what types of civilian oversight are the most effective in holding officers accountable. How does that compare to a traditional sort of internal affairs process? In terms of the likelihood that complaints are sustained and result in discipline. If that type of rigor hadn't been applied to this issue and that was unacceptable because of the urgency of this issue. The fact that 1,200 people every year are killed by police. A huge number of people are impacted by police violence beyond that. What we did was collect that data. Build the most comprehensive database of people killed by police and use the data to develop a base of evidence around, what are the institutional policy and system changes that need to take place based in that evidence that can actually get us to a place for ending police violence.

Scott Henson: One of the things that Campaign Zero's done that really has not been done as systematically is critique the role of police unions and the role of police union contracts. Talk to me a little bit about how the traditional liberal base has reacted to this and some of the tensions that come when you're asking accountability activists to mostly ally with the left to take on unions and sort of stick their finger in that fan.

Sam Sinyangwe: Right. It is one of these issues where as we were looking at all of the ways in which this system has enabled or refused to hold police accountable for police violence, what was clear was that police unions were playing a huge role in that process. They were playing a role through legislation where they were putting in place policies and laws.

In 14 states, police officer bills of right that made it much harder to investigate and hold officers accountable for misconduct. They were playing that role in negotiating police union contracts that had provisions in them that disqualified certain complaints. If you submitted a complaint more than 60 days after a police officer beat you up, they could not investigate that complaint. Or if they took longer than 180 days to investigate the complaint then they couldn't discipline the officer or they'd give officers 48 hour delay before they would even ask them for a statement about what happened.

Some states like Louisiana took 30 day delay before officers actually can be asked what happened. So, all of these things were happening sort of behind the scenes, but really in plain sight, right? The police union contracts, these are public documents, but they hadn't been reviewed in a systemic way to identify what are the ways in which these contracts are making it hard to hold police accountable so that those types of contract provisions could be targeted and removed.

To your point about the left and some of the tension, I think this issue of police union and police union contracts hasn't become a national issue until now. In part because there is sort of a bipartisan consensus not to confront the police union. On the right you have people like Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin and others who are taking on unions, trying to dismantle labor unions, doing all this terrible stuff. But they're exempting police unions from all of that legislation.

On the left you have a huge influence of labor. To be clear, the labor unions do incredible work. They ensure middle class and fair wages for workers, but in the context of policing, they have operated in a much more nefarious way by making it much harder to hold this institution that has the power to take life and liberty. Allowing that institution to operate in ways that completely evade accountability. And so, we decided to take that on directly through our police union contract project, and been working to get those provisions removed in every city.

Scott Henson: Right, which brings us to why you're in Austin now. You've come to Austin to lobby the city council on our police union contract, which according to your metrics is among the worst in the country. Explain to us why it's so bad and what kind of reaction have you gotten talking to our city council members about it.

Sam Sinyangwe: Yeah, so it is one of the worst. We looked at the hundred largest cities in the country ... 81 of which sent us their police union contracts. So, among those 81 contracts that we looked at, Austin was one of only six cities that had every single type of problem that we identified could be in a police union contract, was in Austin's contract.

Scott Henson: And for the record, Austin, I told you so. We hated on this contract when it was first passed, so ...

Sam Sinyangwe: Yep, and so, just to give you a sense of what's in Austin's police union contract, if the police department takes longer than 180 days to investigate a complaint of police misconduct, it can no longer discipline that officer as a result. So you can imagine the department if they didn't really wanna hold an officer accountable they could just drag their feet longer than 180 days, and they actually couldn't hold an officer accountable after that. The contract had this 48 hour delay where if the police shoots somebody or beats somebody up they get two days to craft their statement and version of events before they can actually be interrogated about that incident.

In Baltimore, the Department of Justice, when they issued their report of the practices in that police department, they found that officers used this time period specifically to collude with one another, get their story straight, and protect themselves at the expense of transparency and openness about what really happened.

The Austin contract also erases records of police misconduct, so if an officer is suspended, has a record of suspension, they automatically reduce that to a written reprimand after two to three years. And then, that becomes a sealed record so the public doesn't get to know as well as the police department can't actually consider that past suspension when it's considering future discipline against that officer. So if you have a huge history of misconduct, and as we know, there are a handful of officers that tend to be responsible for a disproportionate amount of police misconduct, the police department can't actually consider that record of misconduct because of that type of provisions. So-

Scott Henson: Rolls off every two or three years.

Sam Sinyangwe: Exactly. And so, those are the type of things that are in this contract. I mean, citizen oversight is prevented from having subpoena power and the power to independently investigate complaints of misconduct from this contract. So, all of those things are in the contract. They're really problematic, and so, what we've been doing is talking with council members in their offices to push them to remove these contract provisions. And I think in general there has been consensus in most of those meetings that indeed this contract is problematic. That these types of provisions shouldn't be in the contract, and that in removing them and negotiating with the police union on how to remove them, accountability for police in the city of Austin shouldn't be negotiable. It shouldn't be sort of a bargaining chip. And I think that the city will hopefully stand up to the police union, and hold the line and say, "We are not going to bargain away police accountability". Given all that's happened both locally and across the country with regard to policing, it's just too important to the city to just negotiate away.

Scott Henson: That's great. Well, that's all I had. Is there anything else ya wanted to say to the good people while you're here?

Sam Sinyangwe: I would say that now is a critical period where over the next month or two, the city council will have to decide what it's going to do. Whether it's going to approve this really problematic contract or really push and prevent these types of provisions from being reauthorized for the next four to six years. And so now's the time to really put pressure on the city council and the mayor and make sure that they hold the line for the city.

Scott Henson: Alright, thanks a lot, I appreciate you talking to me.

Sam Sinyangwe: Thank you.


Steven Michael Seys said...

Kudos to Swinging Sammie. If he is successful, Austin,TX will have a better, more responsible police force. If the excellent and conscientious officers would step up to root out the few who break the public trust, then they would enjoy the respect and confidence of the public once again.

Anonymous said...

As I read this I thought maybe I wouldn't be against all of the caveats in the police contracts, if our citizens were afforded those same protections. Let my arrests roll off of my history after 3-7 years and give me the opportunity to outlive a bad decision...

Anonymous said...

The only way a person can "start over" is to have the three major credit bureaus purge their huge databases after a certain number of years have gone by. Police databases rely heavily on a person's credit records-----although nobody will ever admit to this publicly.