Our guest today is lawyer, writer, activist, organizer and author Derecka Purnell. Derecka joins us to discuss her forthcoming debut book, Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom out October 5th. Our conversation is an inspiring discussion of the questions surrounding police abolition, the power of our imagination, and the books that have informed much of Derecka’s thinking.
The Stacks Book Club selection for September is Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy by Heather Ann Thompson. We will discuss the book with Derecka Purnell on Wednesday September 29th.
*Due to the nature of podcast advertising, these timestamps are not 100% accurate and will vary.
Traci Thomas 0:08
Welcome to The Stacks, a podcast about books and the people who read them. I’m your host, Traci Thomas and our guest today is Derecka Purnell. Derecka is a lawyer, writer, activist and organizer. She is also the author of the forthcoming Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests and the Pursuit of Freedom, which will be out on October 5th. Preorder that book right now. Trust me. Today, Derecka and I talk about the vastness of the human imagination, the questions surrounding police and prison abolition, and the books that have guided Derecka on her journey to becoming an abolitionist. The Stacks book club pick for September is Blood in the Water by Heather Ann Thompson. We’ll be discussing the book on the show on Wednesday, September 29th with Derecka Purnell. Let’s get to this episode. You all are going to love Derecka. She is incredible and inspiring and so thoughtful.
Alright everybody. I’m really excited. Today, I have Derecka Purnell. Lawyer, activist and now author. I never do this, you guys, but her book is not out until October, but it was so important to me to have Derecka be the guest who talked about Blood in the Water this month. So I begged her publicist to let me have her early with the promise that you all would still buy the book, so you have to preorder it right now. It’s called Becoming Abolitionists. Derecka, welcome to The Stacks.
Derecka Purnell 3:49
Hi, thank you so much for having me.
Traci Thomas 3:52
I’m so excited to talk to you. I already told you that after reading the book, which I already told you I freaking love, I think it’s gonna change the game of how people think about abolition. And we’re gonna get into that, but I have a million questions. I took so many notes. There was so much in the book that I wanted to remember. Before we get to that, can you just tell us a little bit about yourself? Where you’re from, how you got into writing? Give us a sense of who you are.
Derecka Purnell 4:25
First of all, thank you again so much for having me. I am out of my mind nervous. I can’t believe this is happening. Like, this is a real conversation about something I wrote. So just thank you again for the opportunity. My name is Derecka, I am from St. Louis Missouri. I got into writing, I think most honestly because my mother and my grandmother were writers. And so it’s so funny My grandma has this beef with Maya Angelou and Maya Angelou has no idea who she is. But she’s just like- Poetry? I can write poetry like that. So my grandmother used to fill up these metal boxes with poetry. Now always break into them and read them. So my grandmother was just an incredible writer. And my mom was a comedian. And she would have similarly notebooks of jokes and prayers. And so I grew up around these two women who are always writing and I used to play around, I write stories, and I was a kid, I do all this adventure stories. I used to remake Babysitter Clubs so everyone’s Black. I used to do all that and stuff like that. And then when I got to high school, I started like reporting the news. And I really enjoyed writing it I enjoy presenting in front of class. And then throughout college, just by myself always wanted to tell a story, some sort of a story. And yeah, it kind of just sort of goes from there. I was very fortunate to get publishing random newsletters or emails, and because you’re like the president of whatever, organization, you’re responsible for drafting statements all the time, right, so for news for good news for bad news, celebratory news activist stuff, so I was usually the person communicating. And I just realized how much I loved it. And then 2000, I guess, 2011 or 12, I decided I would try to call myself a writer. And more seriously what I thought it meant to be a writer. And it was really bad. It was really bad. It mostly consisted of Facebook rants. But one thing that taught me was that I could, when I’m angry enough, can communicate very well sometimes. And it was in those sometimes that I noticed made a difference. And so through that, just just being voluminous, practicing, getting honest feedback, seeking feedback, I continue to try to write, but that hasn’t been my primary identity. And now it’s weird because I’m in this space where I care less about being a lawyer, and I care more about what it means to think and debate in public and push people and to be pushed around ideas. And now I’m just- I have 17 jobs because of it and one of them is writing and having a column now at the Guardian, and I’m grateful for that.
Traci Thomas 7:26
Yeah, it’s funny, I was thinking about how I was going to introduce you. And I was like, there’s too many titles. Like, is that possible? There’s 1000 of them. But you know, I want to spend a lot of time talking about abolition, because obviously, that’s what your book is about. And I think, at least for me, I’ll tell you kind of a little bit about how I have come into thinking about abolition to set this up. Because I I’m probably not alone, I would imagine. But I think that the police are fucked up. And I think that prisons are fucked up. And I also came from a place of like, but we need these things, because that’s what we have. And that’s what I understand. And in the last like, five, eight years, I don’t know, you know, I recognize how broken I guess you could say the system is, and and I have had a hard time figuring out how to respond to that criticism that I have and that other people have with something that is quote unquote, productive, right. And like thinking that abolition is like, not a real option. I think that’s sort of how I was approaching my feeling so like defund the police felt really appropriate, because it’s like you can defund and you can move things around, and you can fix it. And it hasn’t been until the last like maybe two years that I’ve even really started to think about abolition of the police. I think prison abolition to me was easier to understand and easier to grasp onto. And, and then, you know, jump to last month, or like two weeks ago, reading your book, and being like, holy shit. I know, this is scary for me. And I know this is scary for people to think about abolition. But I’m also really hopeful because this book has made it seem like something that we can have, like something that we can be having conversations about for real and not having conversations about that are like, one day, but having conversations that are like how can we move towards this today? Like as soon as we get off the phone? How can I move towards right and so and so for people who are at home who are like this is crazy, you know, whatever pejorative Marxist communist socialist, whatever like label you want to say or like, whatever crazy left wing this and that and even people who think that progressive like I know I think of myself as progressive and I just admitted that I thought that abolition was a little cuckoo, right? But for people who are kind of coming to this conversation, my only ask of you listening at home is that you can just try to keep your mind open to the idea of possibility and like more and more possibility because for me, keeping that space has helped me. And it allowed me to read your book in a way that it really affected me deeply. So I just sort of want to give that precursor to folks who are listening, because Derecka has has created this text that that allows for possibility and, and not to spoil the ending, not that there’s a spoiler, but towards the end of the book, you say something along the lines of like, we deserve to have other problems. Like we deserve to be working through other problems. And to me, I think at that point, I was like, I realized that I was blocking this option and this possibility, because of all the things I mentioned before. So with all that being said, thank you. And I’d love for you to kind of talk loosely about what police and prison abolition is all about in the in the broadest of terms, and then we’ll kind of narrow it in.
Derecka Purnell 10:49
Okay. Wow. What a preface, thank you so much just for your kindness and your curiosity and generosity. Just truly, truly, thank you. Because I deeply resonate with you. I thought that for so long, I had been used to being what I thought the most progressive person in the room. And then I just kept living. And I kept meeting people who are committed to freedom that I had not been introduced to yet. And it’s only through those conversations, those debates those late night, going back and forth. This doesn’t make sense. What are you talking about? This isn’t realistic. I know people who get killed, I know people who’ve been harmed, I’ve been harmed. It’s been through those debates and commitments and being in spaces with just people who had different ideas about freedoms at my own, that I was pushed to think more critically about who the police were, what the police do, and ultimately, forge and analysis through these conversations through this debate and organizing, that really made me understand that police abolition was not simply about policing. Right, it was actually what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney says, which is, what kind of a society that could have police, and what will it take to undo that society. So for so much of my life, I assumed that police were as normal as milk carriers, and firefighters, nurses. These are just the regular institutions that pop up on your fill in the blank charts at school, like recognize the person in your community who’s got he can say hi to you on Thursdays, and it’s like, oh, yeah, they just in that list. I remember cops coming into my class in fifth grade, and walking around with like, books and guns. And it was like, oh, yeah, like, this is like cool. Like, these are people who are in our, in our neighborhoods in our community. And as I gotten older, either personally, or to my family had so many different experiences with with the police and the institution of policing that just caused lots of harm, just lots of harm and interpersonal harm, institutional harm. And I was just forced to question the purpose of this institution. Right. And so for people who are curious about prison abolition versus police abolition, I would say and this is drawn, you know, abolitionists, thinkers who have been thinking about this and organize around this for much longer than I have, I think about it as a way to stop undermine the reasons why people need police, right? So undo the reasons why people think they need police and undo undermine eradicate the actual institution of policing. Right? So it’s all of those things like, why do we need police in society? Right? Why do people think they need it? Or why do we have them and start eradicating those reasons, and also building the kinds of relationships between each other, between our communities between this place that we’re temporarily calling the United States of America and to this planet? Because ultimately, that was it’s gonna take? And, um, yeah, I guess I try to ask myself, and I’m thinking about the interview I just did, where someone asked me, you know, look at these other countries in Europe, they have way less police fatalities in the United States as a as a model as an example. And I remember when I came to that conclusion of how it’s not as simple as reducing police fatalities, right, because police is still going to be here to carry out evictions. And what kind of society will evict people because they don’t have money because they don’t have resources. What kind of society will allow people to sleep on the street during a global pandemic, where there’s more than a million people dead International, like what kinds of societies permit these things, and then the use the police to clean it up. I don’t want to live there. I don’t want you to live there. I don’t want to live there. I don’t want the listing to live there. And so it’s not as simple as more diversity or more training. If they’re just better trained. They can treat the people nicely who are being evicted, but the visuals and stop no amount of politeness stops the power that causes so much harm and exploitation by society. And so my hope for abolition that people understand this as broader projects, eradicate harm and the institution that perpetuates the harm,
Traci Thomas 15:03
Right. Because like one of the things you say in the book is, even police officers who are the good apples, like the ones who are great, and they’re there, they come from diverse backgrounds and like, they have great training. And they know that people in their community, even those people, rough people up, even those people are arresting people for standing on the street corner for no reason, like, even the best police officers are hurting communities in ways that we don’t need. We don’t need that, like. And I think another thing that you say that I found to be really like, a lot of my reading, I guess if this was like, my thinking was changing as I was reading it, and one of the things that you said is like, and I’ve heard so much of like, with defund the police, it’s like we want to reallocate these funds for training or for diversity, or for you know, X, Y and Z or replacing, you know, people who are the police with other people. And you made this point, you’re like, I don’t want to replace the police, with people who police. Like, it’s not enough to be like, Okay, we’re gonna get rid of police officers, but then we’re gonna hire this group of people who go in and evict people like, that’s another police officer. That’s just an eviction person. And I think that that also, I guess, you know, we come to these these ideas as individuals over time through different avenues. Like it’s such a personal thing, how you develop your own set of moral your moral compass, your own political leanings, like all that stuff is so individual, and of course, it could be a book, you read a person, you know, uh, you know, a person that you saw on TV, like, who knows, but that, that, like, we are not trying to replace the police with people who police? It was like, of course, because there are so many police officers in our lives, hall monitors, right, like, that’s a kid police. You know, like, there’s all these, like people who do policing. And we are taught, like you said, from a young age to believe that the police are necessary like that they come into our schools and like, tell us about things. And you you have the experience of the militarization part of it with your ROTC, which you talk about in your book and like, do you think that we have fundamentally like in America, Americans as a whole obviously, not everyone, but do you think we have like imagination problems, like a lack of imagination, or a lack of curiosity, that we have been unable to imagine other solutions?
Derecka Purnell 17:27
Oh, not at all. I think that we have incredible imagination. So I don’t think imagination or let me say this, I think the word imagination is rather neutral. Right? Okay. I believe slavery was a fixture someone’s imagination, I think really seen or imagined. Someone imagined the tools, we imagined tear gas, we imagined all of these ways to be violent in our society. So I don’t actually think it’s a problem of imagination. I think we have we are the people who decide to have beliefs and to use police. They make calculated decisions that’s predicated on our humanity, on the ways in which we experience pain, violence. It’s why they know to put people in in a cage is why they imagined to put people in a 24 hour holding cell. It’s why they know when to use nightsticks or when to use a gun or when these are all, like, man, extensions of someone’s imagination.
Traci Thomas 18:22
God, you’re so right.
Derecka Purnell 18:23
I know, it’s so messed up. Because even as a kid, you’re like, imagination is great. And then you realize, like, at least for me, as I started to get older, especially after the first time I got tear gas. I said, Who imagined this? Right? Oh, imagine to create some chemical to put it in a can to shoot it out of a tank for it to explode. Someone imagine this and engineers, scientists, there was so much intentionality that went into these tools of destruction into these shops into these professions. So surely the imagination is there. I have no question that imagination is we’re wasting our imagination to uphold white supremacy, capitalism, colonialism, homophobia, racism, right? So it’s how do we eradicate that imagination that leads us to violence, and make sure we’re investing in promoting it amplifying and celebrate and experimenting with all the levels of imagination that helps people feel more free, more liberal and more liberated? That’s what I’m interested in. That’s why I think project of abolition can offer us as eradicated that level of imagination, and making sure other forms of imagination are able to manifest the way that eradicate harm in this society.
Traci Thomas 19:42
Yeah, Damn, you’re so right. I felt better. I feel more hopeful. Everything about you makes me feel more hopeful. I feel like I don’t know. I just I have like very warm feelings for your brain. And for you. I think another thing that really struck me about the book is like Like that policing is not broken, we don’t actually have a problem with policing, police and policing and the criminal system and all of that are working as designed. Like you’re saying, like this imagination to create all of this, like, this is what they had imagined. Right? And like that it is it’s not just about police and civilians, but it’s about land and labor and capitalism and white supremacy, and all of these things and like, and you talk about how, you know, to policing is, is in partnership with these paradigms. And then you talk about abolition being in partnership with other paradigms. What are those?
Derecka Purnell 20:34
Oh, it sort of depends on-
Traci Thomas 20:36
Give us a handful. Also, everyone, again, read the book, it’s all in the book. I’m trying not to spoil the whole book as I want you all to go out and get it. But I also get to talk to Derecka Purnell. So I want her to also tell us everything she knows.
Derecka Purnell 20:49
Yes. Well, there’s so many- in the book, I’ll talk about it a few. Because space, right? Are you going to start writing? At some point, even now I’m looking at and find myself being like, Okay, I agree with myself here, I’ll have it say my editor is like, No, you have to let it go. You have to move on. Right. So in the book, I talked about a few different paradigms as I was being politicized around them. So like climate justice, or justice, environmental justice, disability justice, but you’re still like relatively new to me, I’m still finding myself struggle through so many of these concepts, because it’s, you would think that policing take place in the vacuum, right, which is what the real reform paradigm kind of pushes us to think that we can like fix the police. And then they can be better responses to all these other ills in society. That’s actually not true. So I love that abolition has been and people forged alongside other paradip colonisation, for example. And I think what I think I say in the book is something like, there’s some people who think or argue or suggest that abolition can, like speak to everything, right, like abolition is their primary paradigm. And I think that it’s very important that some people are organized in that way. And I think lots of people out organized with thinking about abolition alongside feminism, right, which is why there are people who are critical of so called feminists who use incarceration and police as a women or gender issue when it’s like, well, actually, prison and police aren’t feminists, they’re anti feminist, right? And right, and that’s how we get into some carceral feminism. So for people who are organized at the intersection of feminism and abolition, those two paradigms together are able to produce new lenses for us, again, free, same with a disability justice, or same with environmental justice. So we can think of we can conceive of a society where the penalties for polluting the earth like for littering, it’s like a fire or someone goes to jail, right? And we can see people saying, This is how we’re going to protect the Earth from like, all of this horrible littering. Right? Well, that’s not necessarily abolitionists, but people will say like, well, this is towards environmental justice or climate justice. But then we have people who say, Well, what if there are other ways for us incentivize people to throw trash away? Or how do we reduce trash without relying on the carceral state? Right? That would be an example of something that’s intersection between environmental justice or finally, environmental degradation alongside abolition. When I try to do when I study these, like paradigms, I’m organized within them as asked which traditions are we in? Like? Are we relying on police and prisons or prosecutors to sort of enforce what we’re fighting for? Are we trying to undermine those institutions place in the world that we want? And what I hope to do, what I hope to be doing is to undermine their place in the world that we’re building.
Traci Thomas 23:48
How do you encourage folks to who are working towards abolitionist ideas and wanting to implement it in their lives? And so how do you? How do you help us to reform our thinking, right, because like that example of giving someone a ticket for littering, like, that seems like an idea that I might have. And then you’re saying, like, oh, actually, that’s not super abolitionists, like, that’s actually still a part of the carceral State. It’s like, how do you encourage folks to change their thinking?
Derecka Purnell 24:15
Well, it depends on which folks, it depends on which 17 jobs right. So like, in one instance, it may be silly someone to say like, Hey, Stop, don’t use the police for this or in other ways, it’s like, right. And so I love writing for people who are curious about abolition for people who are thin sitters, not for people who already got it or not for people who are very antagonistic, or for people who are like, oh, like, what’s this thing about? I’m hearing different I’m not really sure I love writing for people who are right there. Because I remember being at that place and feeling really isolated from communities that I belong to, who didn’t share or didn’t engage with beliefs that I was forming. And so here I am asking questions without capitalism or abolition or decolonization or racism, all of this stuff. And I remember like not feeling particularly safe, like in my church or in certain fringe groups like asking these sorts of questions. And so I found myself being attracted to people who were willing to explain certain concepts and ideas to me, without making me feel bad for not already knowing what they meant. So I like love that. I think organizing is another example too. And demonstrating that another way, it’s possible. And that’s when I see the work of Dream Defenders or after St. Louis, I look at these organizations. And I think how creatively they organize not only to like meet people’s needs up front, but to also project alternative visions of society into the world and to tell people it’s worth fighting for. And so I just love that so, so much, because we have people who are literally going like they’re forging the future that they say that we can have, by waging campaigns against the government, by, you know, rescuing people from being kidnapped by prisons, and police who are belly mothers out, who are bailing people out who society says she’s staying car serrated because of some harm they’ve caused, they’re calling into question. So many contradictions, right. So in Florida right now, you know, the governor is trying or the governor is, has moved to ban mass, right. And it’s a penalize people penalize school district penalize business businesses, who encourage a mass square. And so then you get an organization like a Dream Defenders, for example, who has been constantly protesting against the governor for all these other reasons. So now there’s a culture of resistance that people are drawing from. And now you have local school districts, I want to say directly because of the dream differences, but you have local school districts who are now defying the governor’s mandate. And it’s like, this is the kind of resistance that we need to show that another world is possible. So I would highly encourage people to read to be to read and think with other people to organize to join an organization alongside one of these paradigms, right? Because it’s gonna take a lot of different creative solutions to build the society that we want. And I think that’s an opportunity. I didn’t I didn’t have the opportunity to do that. Or at least I didn’t even know if the opportunity like was within my reach. And now like the organizers, right after reuteri, I feel fortunate to find community who tried to make that possible.
Traci Thomas 27:25
Yeah. This question, I think, is important. The question is bad, but the answer is important. So I’m kind of just setting I’m setting up because I want you to talk about this, basically, which is, why are people so obsessed with abolition abolitionists, having all of the solutions like that you can’t be an abolitionist unless you have a response from murder, all forms of murder, all forms of rape, all forms of this, all forms of that, especially knowing that prison, and the police are not a solution to any of these things. Yeah. And like, we still have all of these things. And we have a police force that is incredibly well funded and prison systems that are incredibly exploitative, and all of this. So I’m wondering what your thoughts are about why people are so obsessed with abolitionists, being able to solve all of society’s ills?
Derecka Purnell 28:16
Yes, I think for a number of reasons. I think there’s a group of people different words that people aren’t encountered. They’re the What about the murderers? People? What about the sexual violence? People who are who don’t care about what I say? They don’t care? If I haven’t some issue, they don’t care if I give them? Here’s 1000 ways that people have been murdered here. 1000 answers? It’s a gotcha question. It’s a Ha, you don’t have a specific answer to this. And what Mary Acaba will probably say is that those people don’t even have an answer. Police are clearly not the answer. There’s so many homicides are increasing alongside police budgets, it makes no sense. It literally does not make any sense to continue to fund the institution. But they can’t, that there is no burden on those group of people to explain why police make sense. Not, there’s just absolutely not so. So one group of people, then there are people who are actually encounter on a daily basis or in an organizing capacity on a lawyer capacity, who seriously wants to know, if the police are removed as an option. And prisons are removed as an option, will I be safe? And those people I care deeply about those people and people I have in mind, it’s people, my family, my mom, people who live in an EU particular neighborhoods where there are options for safety or police or nothing. And now you’re telling people who have been dispossessed, exploited, vulnerable to all kinds of violence from their partners, their lovers, their children, their neighbors, strangers and cops, that you’ve got to remove the one thing that’s funding in their communities. And now it’s like, are we just gonna have nothing? So I think that those particular people are obsessed with defunding the police or abolition because they seriously want to know, and I think they have the right to know. Yeah, if we take away this institution, am I gonna be safe? Right. And that’s when I think the burden is on abolitionists and other organizers to explain that, well, one, we’re not going to lose police overnight, because people love cops too much. So you don’t even have that there’s over a million cops 80,000 law enforcement agencies like you are fine. Like, that’s not going to happen. But what has to happen is that the very same factors that lead to your vulnerability has to be addressed, because otherwise, the police are only going to be the solution, and they can’t even solve that problem. They are the problem. So we have to be committed to explaining that look, not only do we want to eradicate policing, we also want to eradicate the other kinds of harms that you’re vulnerable to. We don’t we don’t you’re not safe from police, and you’re not safe from sexual violence. abolitionists are committed to figuring out how to keep you safe from sexual violence. Do you feel unsafe because of gun violence, abolitionists are committed to eradicating gun violence. So we don’t see police as a vacuum as just one institution that needs to go away. We see them as a failed response to the harms that also keep you unsafe. Now, we need your partnership to be committed to figuring out how to keep you safe from all violence, including the violence of police, and I think that’s on us to do that.
Traci Thomas 31:24
Right. Okay, I’m gonna ask you a question now that I think I could be, this could be like, I’m still an asshole. And I’m still learning. But this is one of the things this is one of the things that came up for me in the book, and it’s something that I’ve been thinking about, you know, prior to the book, but I’d love to get your take on it, which is, I know, accountability is a huge part of the work of abolitionists, right? Like community accountability, accountability to those in your community and the community to the people and all of that. So no, but yes, yes, yes. Sorry, some. And I’m wondering, is punishment ever warranted in the world in which we are able to have abolition, right, like in this world that you are working towards every day and in the world that you’re writing about? And I think of that on like a bigger scale, like when the government does something wrong against citizens? Like I’m not thinking about punishment for an individual who cards causes another individual harm, but I’m thinking about the pollution that the government is will willfully allowing, or the corruption you know, an Enron scandal or Bernie Madoff type thing. Like, is their punishment allowed? And is it warranted? And like, what does it look like?
Derecka Purnell 32:39
Oh, yeah, I don’t think you’re being an asshole at all. Actually-
Traci Thomas 32:41
I don’t know. I just, I sometimes I think about the question, like the questions that you probably get asked all the time, where you’re like, This person is such an idiot. And they said that they believe in this. And then they’re asking me this dumbass question. So I just want to make sure.
Derecka Purnell 32:52
No, no, no. So I have tons of questions about abolition. Constant questions. My ideas about abolition are constantly evolving. So there are things I believe before I wrote that book that through writing that book, but I don’t believe anymore. I was let go or I think differently about. So it’s yes. So I hope that anything, any paradigm, any idea? In the practice, we always have the freedom to ask questions to provoke to be curious, because I ultimately think that’s like, good. It’s, yeah, so you’re not an asshole, unless you’re trying to be an asshole.
Traci Thomas 33:31
I’m not trying to be but who knows.
Derecka Purnell 33:33
I think it’s a very important question. I think the first thing I will say is that I think that there’s no one abolition world that I would say people I consider abolitionists to agree on, right? Okay, so there are people who are very, very anti punishment. They believe that it’s immoral for any human to have the capacity to inflict violence upon another human being in a way that causes harm in a way that’s arbitrary. In a way that doesn’t comport with ideas of what it means to be a good person, a good citizen, right. And so there’s an overlap between like those abolitionists and like, pacifist, for example. Now, there are people who are abolitionists socialists, who want to reserve the right to punishment, because they believe that capitalists should be punished for causing so much death and destruction, right. So those people probably say, have some forms of violence and or punishment, and I don’t think violence a punishment are the same thing on the table. Right? Because they will probably say like, yeah, you know, what the kinds of violence that BP does in the world the kinds of destruction, those executives need to be brought, and I don’t know beheaded, whatever. So there are people who believe in revolutionary violence, who believes that, you know, part of the abolitionist or insurrectionary project is to hold people accountable for harms if committed costumers destruction right. They’re abolitionists who I think I’m maybe closer to this camp. I think they’re abolitionists who believe that under the current world that we have, whatever source of punishment, we demand for the people who cause violence will be the silly for them, but it will be the for for the rest of us. So one example is Bill Cosby, or even a cop, we shouldn’t even do a cop. But Bill Cosby, that Bill Cosby is free, I think is one example of what it means for someone with power, wealth status, even a black man to be put in, in prison and then ultimately released. And then the impulse is to say, well, this is proof why, you know, survivors don’t come forward. And it’s like, well, the alternative is issued to it’s, it’s not simply because of this one individual person is that the system is only going to put a cap on the kinds of punishment that we have a place for people who we consider to be harm causes, right. And so I don’t think that punishment, like in the way that I think of punishment is an arbitrary infliction of violence that’s decided, you know, non democratically or morally towards another human being, I don’t think that punishment is a good thing. Now, abolition is worth it. Want maybe we can settle disputes or fights or harm for all sorts of reasons. In the actual abolition is worth it. I want there are no major polluters, like, we’d like that something like that. It’s not even on the table. Hopefully, what’s left, I like accidents, you know, people who cause harm, because I mean, I guess I’m still a Christian. And so I do believe in some forms of sin. And I think those things are gonna happen. I think we do have to figure out accountability. I think what sometimes people think accountability is like, Oh, we like you sitting in a circle. And we like talk about our feelings. And like, after that everyone sort of got no actual accountability for harm. It’s very, very, very hard. It can be gruesome, sometimes punishment may feel like a better solution, because some people just want to get it over with, right, that’s actual true account of what took place, the harm that was caused that outlash of it, that what the person’s gonna have to do to repair the harm through the accountability due to some sort of processes. So we actually, accountability, I think, could be actually much more harder than punishment. I think punishment can be much more satisfying, because it’s usually it’s immediate. It’s one sided, like one person gets to decide, like, what’s going to happen to this person, it gives us some sort of satisfaction that something was done, right. And we don’t have to bet we don’t have to be held accountable as to whether the punishment was like, right or sufficient. So I think that the punishment game makes me a little bit uneasy because it feels a bit arbitrary. And I think that accountability is important. I think he can be much harder than punishment. And that’s ultimately what I want in the world that we have.
Traci Thomas 37:51
Okay, you’re freaking genius. We do this little thing here called Ask the stacks someone has written in to me, they’re asking for book recommendations, and you are gonna give them one and I’m gonna give them on. I’m just bringing this on you this is a surprise. So this is the only surprise of the whole thing. You gotta gotta keep keep your on your toes. Okay, so this one comes from Emma. Emma says I’m looking for an engrossing unputdownable nonfiction book. I especially love investigative journalism, or just good reporting on a specific topic, historical than or person. Something in the vein of Empire of Pain, Blood in the Water and Columbine. Even better if it’s a lesser known topic. I will I’ll give some examples. So you have time to think. Is that okay?
Derecka Purnell 40:12
Yes. Oh my gosh. Yes.
Traci Thomas 40:17
Okay, Emma, here are my suggestions for you. The first book I actually haven’t read, but I’ve been wanting to read and I’ve heard it’s frickin incredible. It’s called Wave by Sonali and I’m going to probably mess up her last name but Sonali Dariangala and it’s about the tsunami that happened in the 2000, like eight range. I think they made a movie out of it with what’s that blonde lady? Gosh, I should have done more research anyways. It’s called wave. It’s supposed to be great. It was like on one of the top 50 memoirs of the last 50 years list from the New York Times. I really want to read it. I’ve heard it’s fantastic. The next book is a book that I just finished. It’s called Paradise by Lizzie Johnson. And it’s about the fires the camp fire in Northern California. And it’s about kind of what happened there and how it all unfolded. And it’s really not hard to put down. And then the last one is some real true investigative journalist. I’m giving you a major throwback. It’s All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodard about Nixon and his impeachment and Watergate and all of that. So those are my three recommendations. They’re sort of all over the board. Derecka, you only have to do one.
Derecka Purnell 41:22
Okay, so this is a book that is in my queue right now is Another Day: The Death of America. Gary Young. Okay.
Traci Thomas 41:29
Really good. It’s really good. Yeah.
Derecka Purnell 41:31
I’m like, yes. That’s like, it’s so- that’s such a specific request.
Traci Thomas 41:35
I get a lot of really specific questions. You did good. It’s so good. It’s about it’s about 10 children who are killed by gun violence in America on one particular day. It’s like a random day in November that he picks and it takes you all across the country. It’s a really, really good book. Okay, now we’re gonna get to your tastes and reading Derecka, so it should be easier. These are the books that you love.
Derecka Purnell 41:59
It’s so hard. I get so nervous with stuff like this.
Traci Thomas 42:03
Don’t be nervous. Everyone knows it’s your opinion today. I’ve had so many people yell at me and be like, How can I possibly pick so you know, it’s fine. You’ll be great. You’ll do great. We always start here. Two books you love and one book you hate. And you can love it for any reason, and you can hate them for any reason.
Derecka Purnell 42:19
I love Robin Kelly’s Freedom Dreams. Like it’s probably my favorite book. Whatever question you’re gonna ask me it’s gonna be Freedom Dreams. One of the most important books of my life. Another book that I love Breathe by Imani Perry. Just so beautiful. I have two sons and I was like, Oh my God.
Traci Thomas 42:45
I have two sons now too. The two son, black mom club is alive and well thanks to Imani Perry.
Derecka Purnell 42:58
Yes, yeah, representation.
Traci Thomas 43:00
Yeah. What about a book you hate?
Derecka Purnell 43:02
Oh my gosh, there’s this book. I feel so bad. But like calling books out because-
Traci Thomas 43:09
It’s a safe space.
Derecka Purnell 43:10
So there’s a genre of books that I hate which are like, handbook criminal justice reform kind of books like Decarceration- like the Road to Decarcerate America. So books that are kinda like that- that look at one particular institution, like in a bubble, and it’s just like, here’s how we like decarceration- typically it’s not, it’s really not. like there’s no little to no engagement with capitalism little to no engagement. So why people aren’t like situations is super sympathetic to like non violent, quote, nonviolent drug offense. It’s so those sorts of like handbook, he kind of makes me like, a little bit nervous, because then it feels like, this is something that we could just do overnight, and like, boom, there it is. And it’s usually not. So yeah, that’s one of my one of the books I’ve read. That was just like, come on.
Traci Thomas 44:01
Okay. What about what are you reading right now?
Derecka Purnell 44:04
What am I reading right now? I’m reading the book. Oh, yeah. So I’m reading this book about the kidnapping club. I’m like, What’s the name of this book? It’s as much about Yeah, it’s a really cool book, actually, about all of these like judges and higher ups in New York City, who basically engaged in the slave trade by kidnapping like free black people, or capturing like slaves who front away from the south, and basically sold them through like a loop back to slave owners, and sometimes often for a profit. So that’s a book that we do right now.
Traci Thomas 44:39
That sounds really interesting. Yes, it’s complicated.
Derecka Purnell 44:41
I think it is really, and it has this really interesting history of like, Rikers, and some black abolitionists who like fought to break up this kidnapping club. It’s yeah, it’s very, very interesting. Because I’ve had to turn some blood, blood in the water. I was like, what am I really like? Oh, yeah.
Traci Thomas 44:59
Are there any books that are coming out besides your own that you’re looking forward to.
Derecka Purnell 45:03
Well, Miriam cobban Andrea Ricci have a book that’s coming out about police abolition. I’m excited about I’m excited for Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s book. And so all the books that are coming out I’m really excited about Oh, yay. I just bought David Correa and Tyler Wall’s book. I’m blanking on the name right now. I’m excited to read that book.
Traci Thomas 45:25
I’ll link everything in the show notes. So yeah, don’t worry. So don’t you don’t worry about the title. Well, it’ll all be there. People look in the shownotes.
Derecka Purnell 45:33
And there are so many books that have come out that like 99% of the books that I’ve read. So there are books that have come out in the last year that I’m so excited about, like the three mothers. I haven’t waited to read that book for like seven months. I have to finish the kidnapping club. I am very excited about the two mothers.
Traci Thomas 45:55
When you’re not reading towards abolition, what sort of stuff do you like to read?
Derecka Purnell 46:00
Mostly nonfiction, because I’m very, I love reading about history. So Elizabeth Hensen’s book, it’s just like kind of up my alley, even though it’s not. It’s weird that it’s not towards like his it’s not towards abolition, but it’s about rebellion. I love reading those sorts of books. I love reading books about like religion. I love Jesmine Ward. So I don’t read a ton of nonfiction. But when I do is it’s Jesmine Ward. Yeah, so my genres are typically like history, social movement, history, black liberation theology, and then books. So ones just kind of you kind of have to read this book.
Traci Thomas 46:36
Okay. And then books by Jesmine Ward. What’s a book that you really like to recommend to other people?
Derecka Purnell 46:44
Oh, Freedom Dreams. It’s the book I recommend the most. It’s the book that I gift the most to people. I’m always like, Okay, you have to read this book. Because even though it’s not reading towards, like abolition, or some particular project, Robin just does such an incredible job of like, showcasing all the ways that so many people have struggled for freedom using their imagination towards like, liberation ends. And it was the first book where I was introduced to this history of black socialist organizing black communist organizing radical black lawyers, radical black writers, musicians, poets, people who are surrealist, it was just like a catch all book. And it was also the first book I read. were contrary to like the, here’s how to do this specific thing in 10 steps. He has this incredible conclusion, where he just sort of like writes about the world that he wants, which was a huge inspiration. So like the conclusion to my book. And so I was just like, oh, wow, this feels good. I wish writers like this, like, more of just taking a risk and saying, These are the kinds of things that I like. So definitely the book, I always recommend to anyone, any age, it’s the book I get the most. It’s the book that I consider one of my Bibles.
Traci Thomas 47:55
The conclusion of your book gave me chills. Oh, I have that in my notes. I was like, remember that this made you feel things? Do you have a favorite bookstore?
Derecka Purnell 48:06
Oh, man, so I love different bookstores for different reasons. So I’m a huge library kids. I grew up mostly in a library. So I didn’t start going to bookstores until college. I love Sankofa in DC, because it’s just like, it’s just so it’s just deeper than a bookstore. It’s just like much deeper than the bookstore. I’m also love writing those references or working on Co Op bookstore in Baltimore. I also love charm cities, the new bookstore in Baltimore. It’s really cute. They have like puppet space upstairs for kids. I love left bank books. It’s in bookstores down the street from one of my favorite libraries in St. Louis. I love China in Boston. Oh my gosh, they have these tater tots called mega tots. And they have mozzarella cheese in the middle. So I love going to China and reading Yeah, so those are some of the ones that I probably spent the most amount of time in are probably like precious to me. I love both Oh Bolarian books even though I haven’t been It’s like my favorite bookstore that I get books from online because Bolarian in San Francisco it’s like a radical left bookstore they have a ton of out of print movement books. So even though they think post I wasn’t able to visit them, but I get a ton of books and pamphlets and like activist stuff in there.
Traci Thomas 49:27
What’s the last book that made you laugh?
Derecka Purnell 49:30
Every book I read is like the world is ending, police are bad. It’s so depressing. What’s a book that made me laugh? Oh, well, I think already said Breathe, but there’s a section in Breathe where Imani is talking about how the airports in St. Louis sell flaming hot chips, and it was so specific and so true. That’s the last time I remember laughing out loud.
Traci Thomas 50:00
Well, what about the last book to make you cry?
Derecka Purnell 50:04
Oh man, Men We Reaped. Oh my gosh.
Traci Thomas 50:09
So we have done both Men we Reaped and Breathe on this podcast. So you’re really speaking to my soul.
Derecka Purnell 50:16
I mean, Men We Reaped felt so familiar to me. Yeah, like, it’s, it’s, it felt so familiar. I don’t. I don’t know if people read the book, but just the amount of loss and grief. Like connected to the people like in her life. This made me think about how every year I’m constantly preparing to like lose people, especially people. I grew up with people, I hung out with people I like, play sports with and it’s like another kid, another kid who’s like, get to become like a full man or another man who’s yet to come out. It just spoke to so many different kinds of people in my life. And so that, yes, so that book is just yeah, very emotional. Yeah, I’m very emotional. I cry from commercials. So I’m sure there’s lots of books that have moved me. But that book moves me in a very deep, intimate way.
Traci Thomas 51:08
What’s the last book that made you angry?
Derecka Purnell 51:12
And what doesn’t make me angry? So when I was doing research for the book, I’ve read one of the kids from the Jena Six, he published a book. And it’s like a, it’s a tiny book, maybe it’s like 40 pages. And I didn’t know I didn’t just like read it, like count from him that wasn’t just from like, the interviews and things that were swirling on the internet, other kinds of like, violence that those kids went through, that precipitated, like the events that cause on the marches. Just it made me just, I was livid. I like it, like brought me back, like 15 or 17 years. It’s just Yeah, so that. Yeah, so that was probably the last book that made me it. I don’t know what how to describe this feeling. Where do you get like, I don’t know if it’s like retro actively anchored. Like, but some of that it’s like, I wanted to go back and like, do something about this. I had already passed, like reading this kid’s book, like they had to be sent away out of the state because it wasn’t safe for them to like go to school. The judges. I mean, yes, that yes, that was maybe was it?
Traci Thomas 52:22
Is there any book that you’re embarrassed to have read?
Derecka Purnell 52:28
Embarrassed? No, I’m very proud of my Sister Soldier days. I’m proud of my Coldest Winter Ever days I’m very proud of my Zane days. My middle school, high school you know, very proud of them came in probably consider that embarrassing now. But now I like love those books.
Traci Thomas 52:48
This might be the same question. But do you have any problematic favorite books?
Derecka Purnell 52:52
Problematic favorite? Oh, yeah, It’s probably Coldest Winter Ever. You kind of have all the violence, all the drugs bailing out the sex all that? It’s, it’s, there’s nothing quite Yeah, that genre is a very interesting genre. And I haven’t read in a long time, but it just really speak to like lots of black people who I know, like, who like share, we share like laughter story community over those kinds of texts more than like other traditional, like, mainstream texts. And so yes, it’s a problematic fave, but it’s one it’s one that allows me to do really good work.
Traci Thomas 53:31
Yeah. Do you have any favorite books about where you grew up? Like about St. Louis area? Are there any books out there that you love?
Derecka Purnell 53:39
Well there’s a really good book out there called the Broken Heart of America by Walter Johnson which is brilliant. So everyone should kind of read that book. There’s another book called The Life and Struggle of Ivory Perry. It’s by George Lipsitz. Also, just it’s I guess it’s a biography, but George just does such an incredible job of like, painting a history of St. Louis organizing activism, I just really, really love and then what actually makes me so sad is that in the beginning of I know why case first things Maya Angelou talks about living in St. Louis, and we lived in the same neighborhood and she does not like it like she does and so she talks about being in love with her she talks about like her teachers and like other kids and then she was like, I want to go back to the south. So I try to redeem my middle school because he went to St middle school so I try to like we give our middle school a little bit and like become an abolitionist. But that’s why I can also just an incredible books and it’s not about St. Louis but St. Louis has a little cameo there.
Traci Thomas 54:49
Has a moment.
Derecka Purnell 54:51
But my grandmother doesn’t like Maya Angelou.
Traci Thomas 54:55
Full circle moment! If you can It assigned one book to be read in high school. What is the book you would assign to your students?
Derecka Purnell 55:05
Every answer is going to be Freedom Dreams. I mean, in high school I think The Bluest Eye was so transformative.
Traci Thomas 55:17
Another book we’ve done on this podcast,
Derecka Purnell 55:20
It messed me up. This is like, I was probably the most obvious thing that I can say about Toni Morrison. It’s not like a deep, original thought. But it’s the first book that I read someone like write about race without talking about race. It was just like, oh, yeah, like, why am I attracted to these things? Or why do I desire these things? And even the same with the girl and the boy, she goes to the boy’s house. And the way Toni Morrison is describing how how short the little boy’s hair is. So boy, like how black he is, it was just like, Oh, my God, it’s just just revelatory. So I would probably say the bull’s eye.
Traci Thomas 56:03
Okay. This is my last book question for you. Okay, I have a million but this I’ll stop here. I stole this from the New York Times. If you could require the current president of the United States to read one book, what would it be?
Derecka Purnell 56:14
Are there any books about resigning? Because what should Joe Biden read? From Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation, by Taylor.
Traci Thomas 56:26
Okay, good answer. Yeah. All right, everyone, this is your reminder. Derecka has book is out October 5. This is everyone reminder right now. preorder it there is a link to the book in the show notes wherever you’re listening right now if you look at your phone or your computer, you will see a hyperlink to the book. That is where you can preorder it. Do that now. I will remind you this pretty much everyday this month, as I remind you about Derecka but we will be back on September 29. The last Wednesday of the month discussing blood in the water by Heather Ann Thompson. There will be quote unquote spoilers though there aren’t really spoilers this event happened 50 years ago, so you know, whatever. But please read the book. It is a long book. So give yourself time. I didn’t it didn’t take me long to read it but just you know if you if you need the time, take it because it’s over 500 pages. So giving everyone that update. But again, please, please, please read becoming abolitionist preorder it. Derecka. Thank you so much for being here.
Derecka Purnell 57:25
Of course. Thank you so so much for having me. This was this is incredible.
Traci Thomas 57:29
Oh, yay. And everyone else. We will see you in the stacks. Thank you all for listening. And thank you to Derecka for being my guest. Also a big thank you to Emily Lavelle for coordinating this interview. Again, I want to say a huge thank you to Kevin Bartelt for helping me to migrate the show and making this transition back to the indie world seamless. This x book club pick for September is blood in the water by Heather and Thompson. We will discuss the book on Wednesday, September 29 with Derecka Purnell. If you love the show, please head to patreon.com/thestacks to join this x pack and get our new bonus episodes and other exciting perks. Make sure you’re subscribed to The Stacks wherever you listen to your podcasts and if you’re listening through Apple podcasts, be sure to leave us a rating and a review. For more from The Stacks, follow us on social media at the stacks pod on Instagram and at the stacks pod underscore on Twitter and check out our website and stackspodcast.com Thank you and welcome to our new sound editor Christian Duenas. Our graphic designer is Robin MacWrite. And our theme music is from Tagirijus. The Stacks is created and produced by me, Traci Thomas.
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