Today we’re joined by two award-winning journalists from the field of criminal justice and police misconduct. Ali Winston and Darwin BondGraham have coauthored the book The Riders Come Out at Night: Brutality, Corruption, and Cover-Up in Oakland, an exposé following many years of investigation. We get into why they wanted to write about the Oakland Police Department in the first place, and ask whether the police can be reformed. We also discuss how the authors feel their own identities played into their writing of the book.
The Stacks Book Club selection for January is The Meaning of Mariah Carey by Mariah Carey with Michaela Angela Davis. We will discuss the book on January 25th with Chelsea Devantez.
*Due to the nature of advertising placement, these timestamps are not 100% accurate.*
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 today I am speaking with award winning independent journalists. Ali Winston and Darwin BondGraham, who have co authored the book, The Riders Come Out at Night: Brutality, Corruption and Coverup in Oakland. If you’ve been listening to this show, you know this was one of my most anticipated books of 2023. Because I am an Oakland native and any book about my city is important to me. The book examines the Oakland Police Department, which has been the subject of the United States his longest running criminal reform program, having followed the department and its stories for 13 years. Ali and Darwin have a lot to share with us about modern day policing, state violence, and they try to talk about if it’s even possible to truly reform a police department. Our January book club pick is Mariah Carey’s autobiography The meaning of Mariah Carey written with Mikayla Angela Davis. We will discuss the book on January 25. With our guest Chelsea Devantez. Quick reminder, everything we talked about on each episode of the Stacks can be found in the link in the show notes. It’s a new year, it’s a new you. And if your resolution was to put a little money behind your favorite independent creators, I have just the thing for you. It’s the stacks pack which is the Stacks Patreon community for as little as $5 a month you earn perks like our virtual book club, access to our active discord community and bonus episodes. Plus, right now till the end of January, you get our fantastic reading tracker. So if one of your other resolutions was to read more, this rocker is just the thing for you. More than not you got to know that your money is going to support the work of the Stacks, which is a black woman run independent podcast all about books. It’s super easy to join head to patreon.com/thestacks and be a part of The Stacks pack. Paulette Durazo gala Mazzuca, Kathleen Penner and Bethany Berger, thank you all so much, and thank you to every single member of The Stacks pack. Alright, now it’s time for my conversation with Ali Winston and Darwin BondGraham.
All right, everybody. I am very, very excited about today’s guests. If you know me, if you’ve been listening to the show, you’ve heard me talk about this book a whole bunch at the end of last year and the beginning of this year. It’s called the writers come out at night brutality, corruption, and cover up in Oakland. And I’m joined by both of the authors Darwin BondGraham and Ali Winston. Welcome to the Stacks.
Ali Winston 2:44
Hey, thanks so much for having us.
Traci Thomas 2:46
I’m so excited. Everyone know, I mean, not everyone, but you all know, and most of my audience knows I’m from Oakland. I’m a big anti-police person. So this book really speaks to all my biases and backgrounds. But I would love for you one of you to start just in about 30 seconds or so tell everyone what this book is about?
Ali Winston 3:06
Sure, I mean, this book is kind of a compendium of our decade plus of reporting together, it has a history of the Oakland Police Department of Oakland as a city, and the city’s struggle with the quandary of policing, police accountability, public safety, and the overall kind of underpinning question in this book is whether or not American law enforcement can be reformed in its current state.
Traci Thomas 3:33
I have questions about that. Well, we’ll we’ll come back to that. I want to ask you sort of really broadly, how did the idea of putting because you’re both reporters in the Bay Area, you both have been doing this work? How did it come to you to say like, we want to write this, or this should be a book and we want to write it together? And now’s the time to do that.
Darwin Bondgraham 3:55
Yeah. complicated answer. But basically, yeah, basically boils down to, you know, yeah, we were both writing for the alt weekly newspaper in Oakland for a long time, the East Bay Express. And, you know, we would write these stories that were like, you know, officers got drunk at a bar and wandered down the hill and committed a home invasion, you know, like and beat up the homeowners while they were blindingly drunk or officer ran a red light and like, ran a motorcyclist over and then lied about it and blamed it on the motorcyclist. And even though, you know, video contradicts that and officers in the police department, you know, shot someone in the head with a beanbag, and then you know, like, avoided accountability. And we would write all these stories and they were kind of like, they felt like these one off, you know, like, horrible things that happen and we would have to shoehorn in this like brief, you know, explanation that, you know, in a paragraph or so that Oakland is under federal court oversight, because actually like these problems are, you know, system and deeply ingrained in history of the department and there’s a reform effort underway. And we, you know, over time, we just got frustrated and realize, like the only way to like really properly ever do this, yeah, is to treat this as like a book length project. So we knew we had to do it someday. The way it really came about was at different points. We both had a lot of free time. So a few years ago, I got laid off my job at the time. Ali was freelancing. Also, I was at the New York Times. Yeah, he was at the New York Times we we linked up then and we’re like, oh, food, and let’s do the book, then I got a new job. And then I’ll lead left the times. But basically, along the way, we just, you know, fortuitously found the time and the space to actually do the research, interview the people and put it all together,
Ali Winston 5:50
We got a good lawyer, were able to sue the city for dozens like 30 Odd open Public Records Act requests that we had in for old police incidents. There was a really important California law, SB 1492. Yeah, 1421 1421 1492 is a different year. But 1421 was really important. It actually opened up older substantiated cases of police misconduct and internal affairs files to the public. There’s been a progressive rollback of some of the secrecy laws around law enforcement records in California over the past five, six years or so. And it’s really that our lawsuit, our lawyer, Sam Ferguson, really tore the city of Oakland a new one and actually set state precedent. No, no, he said state precedent for access of public records to these files, it was the first time that anybody had really tested the law out in the courts. And that enabled us to write about incidents, some of which we both covered extensively, but kind of, you know, looking at it through a straw, and really opened things up to us in a way that we didn’t have access to beforehand. We also because of this project, and because of the way we shaped it, we’re gonna get a little bit meta here. If you’ve ever read city of Cortes, the Mike Davis history of Los Angeles, if your readers haven’t, I highly recommend it. It’s one of the best books about Southern California and urban history ever written in the US rather. And Mike Davis uses the history of the Los Angeles Police Department to explain the shape of Los Angeles as a society and as a metropolis in 1990, right before the Rodney King riots, and he uses the jackbooted LAPD of first bill Parker, and then Daryl gates to kind of lay out how that social order came about and how the police were really the kind of gatekeepers of that social order. And in many ways, throughout, first of all, the book was kind of our tent, one of our templates for how to think about Oakland and how to think about the police as a central institution, for the for the city and for the society as well. For control, not just control and ordering of society, but also controlling the disorder, allegedly, and we really looked at that book as kind of a template for us. And we wanted to do a little bit of a Northern California version of city of courts. And in many, many, many ways Los Angeles and Oakland have a lot of parallels. It’s not just in the two police departments or peds like a little LAPD. That’s how I think of it as an east coaster.
Traci Thomas 8:15
Well, I live in LA and I’m from Oakland. So feel like the police are the same. And I lived in New York City. So I feel like those three police departments have really done they’ve done a lot to really make police look great in this country. Just a brief tangent because you said you wrote for The New York Times did you do the police beat?
Ali Winston 8:33
They’re like the NYPD I grew up in New York City and I moved back to New York to cover the NYPD extensively as an investigative reporter. It was a bit of a bait and switch and not honesty. I was very, very unhappy in the Metro section or what was left of it. They ended up basically gutting it. But no, the the way in which law enforcement was covered, having covered it on the west coast in a place where honestly like the NYPD is a pretty shitty department. No, no, like the standard. The physical standards are awful. Individual cops have terrible training. They basically hire for numbers they don’t hire for quality. Pound for pound, like alright, so just objectively in law enforcement pound for pound, a California highway patrolman, or a Fresno County sheriff is worth six NYPD officers just because of what they’re trained to do tactically, the amount of money that they earn, the time that they get trained up on what they are required to do in their day to day job. The fact that they’re I mean, if you’re handling a patrol car in California, and you’re expected to go on high speed chases and whatnot, you have to be able to handle for it. I see Ford Explorer Ford interceptor at high speeds, tight turns pit maneuvers. The cops in New York City can barely hit the target. They might not even know where the safety is on their Glock.
Traci Thomas 9:48
Whatever ringing endorsement. I want to ask a little bit about the Oakland Police Department specifically, as I mentioned, I from Oakland and one of the things that I remember I was born in 1986. So I was sort of growing up in Oakland in a lot of the time. As in the book that you talk about was like really high crime. And I remember like Oakland was I don’t know if it actually was, but it was the murder capital of America at some point in my lifetime or close to it, you know, like, and it was like, it was treated the way that like people talked about Chicago and Detroit right now. And I always believe that to be true, but in reading your book, and in reading, like so many different stories of police officers, lying and making stuff up and saying that there was a crime being committed that wasn’t and arresting someone who was, you know, asking for help, or whatever that looks like? Was it really that bad? Like, was Oakland really a truly crime infested place? Or was some of it like, added on? And I’m asking that genuinely because I remember in my mind being sort of scared of Oakland as a kid and now I’m like, Oakland is so different. It really doesn’t feel I mean, similar, same in some places, insane, but has like a different PR spin than it used to like Oakland’s whole image when I was a kid was like, Oakland is a terrible place. And it’s violent, and it’s dirty, and it’s horrible. And now it’s like Oakland is Brooklyn. And I love Oakland, I just want to say Oakland is the greatest place on Earth. Okay, I’m done.
Darwin Bondgraham 11:13
We live in Oakland to it. The answer is both. In the 80s, and the 90s. Oakland was a very dangerous place. And it was primarily dangerous for lower income African American and Latino residents. They were the people who experienced the highest rates of gun violence, robberies, rapes, burglaries, other other crimes, they were the people who also experienced the highest intensity of environmental racism, of ongoing housing discrimination, job discrimination, other forms of systemic racism, this all combined to make Oakland by the 1980s. And going into the 90s. Yes, a very dangerous place and dangerous for the people who lived there. It was also somewhat dangerous to be a police officer during those decades. It’s also true that the police department at the time, there were some officers that were some squads or some leaders, who were genuinely committed to trying to create better community relations. In the 90s, Oakland had an increasing number of police officers who were like born and raised in the city, or were African American or Latino and like, they wanted to make a different kind of department than what it historically been. And they ran up against other people in the department who primarily lived in the suburbs and had a more sort of like military notion of like what policing should be go in and occupy the streets command and control use physical force to like dominate people. So yeah, it really was both a very dangerous place. And also there was in fact, like, a very biased media, regional media narrative that kind of like demonized Oakland, I remember this because I grew up in the North Bay in Sonoma County. And I recall, being in you know, Junior High in high school, and you would hear about Oakland, and it was, people talked about it as some like, very like dangerous place that you probably didn’t want to go to. I went several times when I was a kid. And I would go down to the Bay Area and visit San Francisco or Oakland, and I was, I was a skateboarder and rollerblader. And we like, we used to come down to the cities and just like hanging out, and we I loved Oakland at the time, but like, you know, like as a visitor and a white person coming in from the outside. It wasn’t a dangerous place for me. And I kind of I kind of knew that and felt that at the time.
Ali Winston 13:48
Yeah, I think that there’s also, you know, San Francisco had a lot of problems during the 80s and 90s, as well. But the thing about the difference between San Francisco and Oakland and San Francisco had, and still does have the preponderance of the white collar jobs in the region, right. The media interests like the Chronicle and the examiner, and most of the, you know, the local public broadcaster are based in San Francisco, San Francisco law firms are very the white collar firms in San Francisco, especially those big finance firms and law firms have an interest in keeping San Francisco’s image shined up. So one way in which they would kind of deflect attention off San Francisco was to play out the problems in Oakland and San Francisco, really, you know, the problems facing Latino and African American communities in San Francisco were very deep during those periods of time. And I do think that Oakland did because of the city’s you know, predominantly African American and as you know, you know, during the crack era, entire dialogue about super predators and whatnot really fell down on young black youth. That being said, Oakland was extremely violent place in there a 80s and 1990s predominantly in the flatlands, a lot of it was driven by the narcotics trade. We document some of the players in that era. There’s a chapter in our book called Small wars, taken from a really good San Francisco Examiner series by our colleagues, Carla marinucci and Lance Williams. And it kind of lays out like they spent months on the street just talking to the young men involved in this trade and like just showing, hey, look, this is actually what it looks like on these flats. You may not see this up in the hills of above interstate 580, which is kind of the demarcation line still is between for people who don’t aren’t familiar with the Bay Area, like Oakland is weird. There’s like uphill and downhill. The hills are where the wealthy people congregate that are well wealthy people live good schools predominantly nice leafy hillsides, it’s very idyllic. And then below 580 Is the flood that’s trending towards the flatlands. That is the flatlands which are were predominantly black and Latino, increasingly Asian now. There’s gentrification in some parts of it, too. But those are our and still those were and still are the areas impacted by the majority of like, poverty and violence and a lot of the issues that still plague Oakland to this day. So there’s, yeah, there are there were always issues there. But the police department, it’s also important to note that like that older culture that Darwin was talking about earlier, that resistance, that kind of hard edge, blunt nosed, you know, jackbooted policing culture, that’s an old thing. It’s a white thing as well, predominantly white, it goes back to the Second World War beforehand, a lot of the families in Oakland, there’s a lot of legacy families. And underneath the surface, that apartment, that stuff is always present. There’s always this core that pushes up against the people who want the department to be something different. They’re always the people. And this is not just Oakland, it’s concert and other departments. They say, Well, these are our traditions. And this is our, you know, this is our culture and paramilitary culture, we want it to stay like this, because that’s what worked, what they think worked.
Traci Thomas 16:55
Okay, so let me ask you this, then. Is there something inherently wrong or flawed or interesting about the Oakland Police Department that makes it stand out against other police departments to you all? Or is this just where you live in your beat? And what you what you work on? Like, I guess, is sort of the question like, why Oakland As a more succinct?
Darwin Bondgraham 17:20
Yeah. We wrote a whole book about how terrible the Oakland Police Department is. But I’m going to tell you, the Oakland Police Department is actually one of the most professional and best police departments in the country. Oh, that’s right. It’s sort of a weird, yeah, it’s like a weird whiplash thing to say, but um, you know,
Ali Winston 17:43
Why are you giving away all the chapter titles?
Darwin Bondgraham 17:47
I know. But yeah, like, I mean, the reason I say that is because like, a lot of what we were grappling with, in writing this book was, well, we want to present Oakland as a case study, right? And like, compare it to Los Angeles, Chicago, Baltimore, New Orleans, you know, St. Louis, all these other cities all over even states and rural areas, just like law enforcement in general. This is a case study of law enforcement. But, you know, we kind of had to deal with the fact that like, in some ways, Oakland is an outlier. So Oakland is an outlier in the sense that like, it’s been under federal court oversight, to reform its police department probably longer than anywhere else. It’s also an outlier, in the sense that like before it, even before the consent decree, was imposed in 2003. What was happening in Oakland was probably more efforts by civil society, like civil rights attorneys, activist groups, like everybody from like the Panthers to like brown power groups to like, you know, students, and yeah, just all these organizations and people and activists and citizenry, putting tons of pressure on the police department to change creating a police oversight board, one of the first ones in the country’s strengthening it over time. And so there was just this huge amount of effort to like to do two things to dig up the secrets in the department and make it really transparent, and to change it. And I think one thing about Oakland is we know a lot more about its police department because the curtain has been pulled back in a way that you don’t see with a lot of other police agencies, especially smaller ones in like, rural areas and suburban areas. But even some of the like other big city police departments, we haven’t seen this like, revealing of the secrets to the same degree. So Oakland would see it on the surface, it seems a lot worse. But really, it’s a lot like a lot of other police departments in the country, maybe even a little bit better. Actually.
Ali Winston 19:48
I would say that one to add to all that. One of the aspects about the Oakland Police Department being in a major media market does not hurt by the way. The Bay Area is relatively large. Metropolitan area even though it kind of seems outside like New York and Los Angeles kind of duopoly of coastal media. But one thing that does make Oakland really interesting, as someone who grew up in New York has lived in SoCal, Chicago DC as well overseas is that Oakland is a little bit ahead of the rest of the country when it comes to policing and law enforcement and the reaction against it. So 1950 Right. Well, let’s rewind a bit. That’s the the state legislature California State Legislature holds a series of investigative hearings, investigative hearings into police abuses of the African American community in the city. first of its kind, that we’ve been able to figure out in the state of California and maybe the country that comes about because of agitation by a lot of left wing lawyers, some of them tied in with the Communist Party, really kind of showing that the agitation that like very involved committed on boots on the ground type activism is not a recent thing in Oakland, but tracks back quite some ways. Then the formation of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, in reaction to the Oakland Police Department’s just an entire approach to the African American community was also, you know, went hand in hand with the anti war radicals in the 1960s. The Bay Area was a hotbed of protest against not just the war in Vietnam, but the power structure right of the country at the time. Seth Rosenfeld’s books. aversives is a brilliant, really an account of the period we drew on that quite, quite heavily. Again, another author who fought I don’t know how long his legal battle was for his records. But no, no, I mean, he I think he fought for decades to get some suits answered. And then 1980 Melvin Black is killed by the Oakland Police Department on on young black teenager running away from the cops. John Burris, who’s one of the civil rights attorneys who helped bring the Oakland Police Department under this court agreement instead of the Department of Justice the absence of the federal and state authorities and helping reform the police department here is something we can talk about down the road. It’s it’s really conspicuous and you know, this the agitation over Melbourne black shooting and versus report who’s you know, former prosecutor at the time, then turn civil attorney defense attorney, he really kind of lays out that this guy was killed in cold blood and helps provide the impetus for movement that leads to the formation of opens. Police review board 2009 Oscar grants murder on the new on a train platform, New Year’s Day by 2009 by a barrier rapid police Rapid Transit Police officer. He’s not an OPD officer, but the weeks and months of protest that kick off very, very, very tumultuous protests that I was in the midst of. And it was really a remarkable time. That’s an early moment for the Black Lives Matters movement and a lot of the attention on law enforcement and police misconduct and killing of unarmed black man did folk did end up turning back on the Oakland Police Department who had their own which had their own litany of police shootings, and unjustified brutality and so forth. That, you know, was one of the issues which I really kind of cottoned on to when I first started reporting on OPD in the late 2000s. So in this sense that and Black Lives Matter, the formal movement comes around like three or four years later. So in a way, Oakland is trending ahead of the rest of the country. And you’ll see this throughout the narrative of the book in terms of the developments that you see later on in like Ferguson and elsewhere like that.
Traci Thomas 23:39
I was on BART that night. Not that train, obviously. But I was New Year’s Eve. So we went to sneakers only party in San Francisco. I don’t know if you guys I don’t think they still do it. But you’d have to get dressed up and then you had to wear sneakers only and if you wore heels or like dress shoes, you had to pay more and again, anyways, I just obviously I remember that night so vividly because you wake up the next morning and you hear the story of like something’s happened. And you know, we were parked at West Oakland, Bart and just like the craziness of sorry, no, we were parked at the lake anyways, but the craziness of like, we could have been like we could have been there, you know, anyways, not to make this about me. But every time I hear his name, I’m always like, that being said, I do actually let’s take a quick break and then we’ll come right back. Okay, we’re back. I want to touch on what you brought up only about the federal oversight being lacking in Oakland and what was going on? Can you speak a little bit to that like is that that is obviously not typical. i You’re you’re making the big eyes of like, I could speak for hours on that. So I’m gonna hold you to keep it tight. But I do I would love for you to share like why that is conspicuous to you. What does that what does that say? What does that mean? Why would they not be around?
Ali Winston 24:51
That’s a very this this story I don’t think has really been told this aspect of the writer story really hasn’t come out or is not out in the public consciousness maybe because it’s 20 years ago, but I think because I don’t really examine this question.
Traci Thomas 25:05
Wait, sorry, we should before I let you go. The writers is the name of this the title of your book, but they are like a group of Oakland police officers who are sort of they’re like a cop gang. Okay. Yeah, like we have them here in LA, the Sheriff’s Department. And then there’s gangs down here. And basically, they were a bunch of really abusive, harassing, violent, they’ve tortured people, they killed people, they arrested people. And they were called the writers and so by like by by the people of Oakland like in the people they were harassing would call them like the writers and so the writers would come out at night. Anyways, so that’s who you’re talking about. I realized we never did that. And normal interview, they’d probably be like, tell us what is a writer? But here we are. We’ve made it 25 minutes in go ahead.
Ali Winston 25:52
No, that’s fine. And the writers so that name was actually given to them. They heard the stories urban legend is that they pulled over an African American man and one cop during pulls him over during the day in West Oakland, gives the man a ticket, right some up for a violation. And drivers system. Thank you. He says, the cops confused. He says, What do you say give me four. I just wrote you up? He says no, no, thank you for being so nice. You know, they’re not like this, that he says who he says, well, the day you know, if I got at night, they’re not like not they’re not like this. That’s when the writers come out. Right. And that’s how there’s a long term of African Americans referring to vigilant white vigilantes is Nightriders South elsewhere in the country? I don’t know. We don’t know the origin of that term in Oakland, but it’s stuck. The police that kind of that story rattled around the locker room in West Oakland and this group of cops Clarence Chuck Mab and ag. Jude see app No. Frank Vasquez and Matt Hornung, among others, there were many others. But those are the four who were formally accused in court being the riders engaged in a litany of abuses against West Oakland residents, freeing them up for narcotics possession, pummeled them into submission, kidnapped some people just brutalized them in so if, if your listeners have seen the film training day, this was training day, Northern California, slanted
Traci Thomas 27:20
drugs and guns, falsified reports, all all the good stuff that any one cop could be doing at any one time. They were all doing together as a gang of friends and horrible men.
Ali Winston 27:33
Right? They signed a softball even Yeah, and they would pass around a softball, whatever they signed with their nicknames. And then Ted said the riders on it that was there was a piece of evidence used against them in a criminal trial. So the Department of Justice back to the bigger question. When the time came around, a young cop named Keith Bhatt, who was training with the riders in the summer of 2000 was horrified at what he saw and just had a you know, crisis of conscience and blew the whistle and turn them into the internal affairs internal affairs division and these officers were investigated by the Alameda County District Attorney’s office. And when they were being investigated by the Alameda County District Attorney’s office because the alleged incidents, the allegations made involve egregious civil rights abuses. The deputy DA David Hollister was cross designated as United States Attorney and Assistant United States Attorney for by the district of Northern California. And there was an ADA as well, who later became later rose up to run that office. She did quite well for herself, who was also crossing designated on that case. And when they were done, when Hollister and his investigator, Bob Connor, were done putting, you know, working back through all key facts, allegations and building up their evidence. When they build it up. They came in they went to the federal offices at on Golden Gate Avenue tall imposing building and went up to the US Attorney’s floor to his office and they sat down across his desk and put the file in front of them. And the US attorney at the time was Robert Mueller, who later on to run the FBI, and went on to play a major role in one of the investigations of Donald J. Trump. So Muller took a look through the files look to do through the witnesses backgrounds and their histories in criminal histories. And some of these guys had rap sheets as long as my arm because they were in the street. That’s just who the writers were jacking up. They were jacking up people who were out on the streets, some of whom may or may not have been involved in narcotics trade. And Muller. This industry is of course, the file back towards Hollister said I wish you the best of luck. And the subjects that Hollister told us was that he didn’t want to take a case where he’d be putting the word of four officers some of whom were highly decorated up against a group of people with question criminal histories. Now, it’s worth pointing out that in a similar scandal, the Baltimore gun trace Task Force scandal that broke out a couple years back. Many of the people who testified against the police officers, in that case were convicted and sent to federal prison, did have criminal histories and did have passes drug dealers and people who dealt in weight, not just, you know, a bindle. Here, twist a crack, they’re like these guys did. The case could have been made, but different times different. Mores Soviet.
Traci Thomas 30:30
So obviously, you guys have done tons of research. And I should point out in the book, one of the things that I really love is how much history of Oakland is in this book, UI sort of, you know, maybe like Chapter Four ish, you sort of start bringing in the history of Oakland and kind of work through, there were things that I learned, like, I had no idea Earl Warren was a DA and Oakland. I was like, Really, we have like, look fancy. And like I didn’t know that I knew that Oakland was a racist place. But I didn’t know that the Klan was so active in Oakland, you know, like just little things like that, where it’s like you grew up in a place and you know a lot about it, and you can feel the dynamics, but you don’t always know the details. So I really appreciated those like, I think three chapters kind of back to back to back that like really one in two, slip took us up to the 1990s or early 2000s or so. Which I think is really cool, because I think you do obviously need that to kind of tell this story. But I’m curious to hear what you all say to people who feel that the stories in this book are just examples of bad apples, or even that the Oakland Police Department is a bad apple Police Department amidst other fantastic police departments. And that’s why they’re under federal oversight, right? Like it’s a problem department and a problem culture. And not anything bigger than that. And maybe they don’t, we shouldn’t be worried about a bad seed, which is like what we hear all the time. I’m smiling, because I’m trying really hard to pretend like this argument is valid. But I’d love to hear your all’s pushback or response to that if there is any.
Darwin Bondgraham 32:04
Sure, you know, the claim that or the theory that there are bad apples and that they they make the bunch or the you know, the barrel of apples look bad that rests on the, you know, for that to be true. There would have to be just a what few bad apples, right, right. In Oakland. In 2016. There was a weak period in which three police chiefs had to resign because they all had horrible skeletons in their closet. Right. And the mayor at the time, Libby Schaff, could not find a person within the Oakland Police Department or even externally in another Bay Area Police Department, a sworn officer she could not find one to run the Oakland Police Department. Because so many officers were just damaged goods because their their jacket their files had these kinds of secrets in them. They had been engaged in some kind of behavior years ago, or they had just done something horrible. And they were just unfit to be police chief. And so she had to appoint her city administrator Sabrina Landreth to become the police chief for a while. If you if you look systematically, at any police department, like we did with the Oakland Police Department, it quickly becomes clear that it’s not a matter of bad apples, it’s a matter of toxic cultures and systemic problems that are deeply ingrained and that are handed down through to the present from these these problems in history, like for example, in Oakland, the fact that the city would not hire anyone other than a white man to be a police officer, up until really about the 1960s, early 70s When they started to diversify. The fact that the department remained all the way through the 1990s, a place that openly tolerated homophobia and misogyny it was a very hostile workplace for women. So I just the evidence of like systemic cultural problems and policing institutional problems and policing. We think it’s overwhelming. And yeah, the bad apples argument. Maybe there are some departments out there that are like, you know, mostly great and very professional and have very few like serious scandals, and then maybe one officer comes along and does something and makes everybody look really bad. Maybe that’s the case here there. If that were the case in Oakland, I don’t think the department would have been placed under federal court oversight, you know, 20 years ago, and then repeatedly have failed to fulfill that mission with not just like failing to check the boxes on the technical reforms but like having explosive and egregious scam laws of abuse like, you know, multiple officers sex trafficking, you know, 1718 year old girl, multiple outcrop of
Ali Winston 35:09
another officers, another officer’s wife who killed herself allegedly in extremely suspicious circumstances. And then the same officer goes on to kill himself.
Darwin Bondgraham 35:17
Yeah. Or, you know, officers going out to, you know, police a protest, and just unleashing such horrendous, like, horrific force on the protesters that they end up almost killing, you know, an Iraq war vet,
Ali Winston 35:33
and just lying about it afterwards, coordinating their lies.
Darwin Bondgraham 35:37
So yeah, the bad apples argument. I mean, people can make it, but I just it really, it kind of stretches, it doesn’t line up with the reality. And I think that’s the reason we tried to write a history and just describe what happened. And you know, I know some people will read our book and be like, this is kind of tedious. We keep going through a bunch of these like, incidents and like, you’re just like pouring on the detail. And the, you know, there’s all these citations. And the reason we did that is because we wanted to really show people rather than, like, tell them, you know, what, what the issue is,
Traci Thomas 36:11
this is sort of where we started. And I did say I wanted to circle back to this. And I will preface this by saying, in the last few years, I have done a lot of reading and we’ve had a lot of people on the show who are police and prison abolitionists from Miriam kava to Derrick Parnell. Last year, we read prison by any other name by Victoria law and Maya Shen Noir. And so you know, people who listen to the show will be familiar with a lot of sort of those abolitionist talking points that have really been transformational on how I think about the police, and especially how we think about the idea of reform. And so I want to ask you both, can this be reformed in a way that is actually a reformulation or a way that would change in a goal to do better as opposed to a reform? That just is bullshit that has to be I think what Miriam Kaba told me was like, We want reforms that we don’t have to then reform again, right, like if the reforms are working towards a goal of doing better by the communities than those reforms, like defund the police is technically a reform, right. Like it’s not a full abolition, but it is a reform anyways. So that being said, Do you see a road towards reforming the Oakland Police Department specifically, or police departments? Generally, as to people who cover the police, you should know the police better than anyone else? Right. So what do you think?
Darwin Bondgraham 37:34
We’re not? Yeah, we don’t take a position on these debates around what should be done
Traci Thomas 37:40
to the I guess, what could be done? Is it possible? Yeah. Can you not take a stand on that either?
Darwin Bondgraham 37:46
I mean, we could but but the thing is, we we just don’t feel comfortable doing it. Because first off, who are we like, you know, there’s a bunch of there are a lot of leaders out there with a lot of great ideas and a lot of initiative who are like, are going to propose all kinds of like, transformative stuff. And we’re just we’re just, we’re to investigative journalist. And so the way we view our role, is we take a really hard look at society, we dig for documents, we talk to sources, and we tell which we’re trying to tell people what we’re seeing. And so this, this might be not quite the answer to your question, but like what we are, what we did see in Oakland, having spent, you know, a decade plus, you know, looking really long and hard at the police department, at the city, the context that the police operate in, what we what we do see is a department that has changed a lot. It did not change because like one day the cops woke up and were like, you know, it’d be really great if we had better relations with the community and we like killed fewer people, and we like locked fewer people in prison. That would just be great. You know? No, the police did not do that. Maybe some some people in the department did kind of feel that way. A lot of them didn’t. The leadership, the political leadership of the city did not have an epiphany one day that like, you know, reform or transformation is the right thing to do. Two years ago, the political leadership of Oakland, the city council, they voted to defund the police budget by half by $150 million. In in theory, so, you know, a year later when they actually got to making the budget vote, they increased the police budget. So the political leadership in Oakland like a lot of cities in this country, the police departments there, they have never on their own said like, we’re going to transform policing, we’re going to make it better. The way that the way that the Oakland Police Department got better. And let me give you one example of what I mean by got better. It used to be that like, well over a dozen people were killed every year by the Oakland Police Department usually in an office quote unquote officer involved shooting right Like when officers like chasing someone, shoots them and kills them. And usually one or two or three of those people were totally unarmed. And the suit and the circumstances were extremely controversial. And that was a huge problem. Because those people were suspected of committing crimes, maybe they were fleeing police, maybe some of them were, maybe some of them weren’t. But they were killed, and they weren’t given a fair trial they weren’t given, you know, is a huge problem there. And they’re mostly people of color. Now, the Oakland Police Department usually only kills one or two people a year now killing anyone, law enforcement is a big deal. But it’s that’s a lot better than killing like, you know, 1415 people in here. And the reason that happened, is because of reforms that the department implemented, the only reason the department implemented those reforms is because they were forced to by the Federal Court overseers, by civil rights attorneys, by others who and by social movements, who put huge amounts of pressure on the police department. So the only reason things changed is because externally, civil society said, we want to transform policing, we want to change it. Now some of the people putting that pressure on the department are abolitionist who are saying defund the department. Some of them are like liberal reformers who were like, we just need a better police department that’s more responsive, you know, that has better technology. But all together, what we saw what we’re seeing, when we look back on the history of policing in Oakland, and how it’s changed over time, that’s what we saw. And that’s what works. And that’s how things do get better. Now, is better. Good enough? Are we at a point where, you know, institutional racism and policing is gone? No, we are not. And so like, how can we ever get to that point? How do we get there? That’s not something that all the and I really, you know, I don’t know that we have a an answer for that.
Ali Winston 41:52
Yeah, I think that, for me, our role really is to show the shape of the current problem, right. And to use Oakland as a way to focus in show the proof show the mechanisms show the granular detail of how things have gotten to the point that they’ve gotten to what sort of rep remedies have been tried, how there’s been kind of this two step, one step forward, two steps backward pattern. Throughout history, there were reformed attempts in the 70s, there were serious changes to the police department’s efforts to recruit locally, and 80s and 1990s. There were points in time when the police were when the local police department didn’t have success in establishing trust with the community, and were able to solve more crimes, and help some of these people pushing for accountability and for police for their tax dollars to actually bring them some public safety. Because let’s be honest, something people pushing for police reform to are the victims of are the relatives of somebody who was murdered 510 15 years ago, and that case is cold. That case is unsolved. And that’s a very real aspect of all this, the bigger issue is the shape of the institution. And the institution as it is, may not be reformable, the old may not be saleable. But what will work, what has worked to a degree, what’s gotten us to a better place is just relentless outside pressure, and involvement and engagement from people in the community. This is not the sort of activism that or engagement that you can have on a day to day on a one day, one day on one day off basis, one month, on six months off basis, it’s not a matter of going to one protest or posting a hashtag on social media, the changes that we’ve seen in Oakland come from people who are invested in this city and their community for weeks, years, decades. You know, these are people who are just there and present and paying attention to what’s happening in their community, insofar as what can be done. This is not a prescriptive, prescriptive book. We’re not theorists, we’re not prison abolitionists, that sort of thinker. I know that we might get some flack from that. It’s not our role. You know, we’re not trying to be something that we’re not.
Traci Thomas 43:56
Okay. Let me ask you, this is sort of, let me just ask you guys what you think, Ali? I know, you said that you’re half Turkish, but you’re both white presenting humans. And I’m wondering, and you’re both identify as male. And so I’m wondering, what do you think that you all are able to tell in this story or have access to that other reporters might not? And what do you think you guys miss out on as as white men?
Darwin Bondgraham 44:22
That’s a great question. We didn’t set out to write a book about what it’s like to be brutalized by the police. Or we didn’t set out to write a book about social movements against police violence against institutional racism, although we do discuss those things in the book. What we what we wrote is a story of a police department. And I actually do think that being white men, college educated, professional reporters, I do think They’ve provided us with a bit of like weaponry or armor, if you will, to, like, get inside the department and access some of its secrets, that perhaps are inaccessible to other individuals because of their backgrounds and identities. So I think we’re trying to like, in a way, like, come at this and use, you know, our standpoint, our perspective, to, again, provide information and what other people do with it, like how they take it, and maybe use it to build a campaign or to advance a particular theory of social change or it or anything like that. We hope that they find it really useful. But yeah, in a way, like some of what we did is also limited by the fact of like, who we are, and like our perspective, and where we’re coming from in terms of like, the issue of policing Our book is, you know, it is and isn’t a lot of it, there’s a lot of things that it isn’t and that it can’t do. And I do really want people to know like that, you know, there are those limitations built into it. But if people really want to, like, open up a can of worms, like the police department, pull back the curtain on its secrets, like, it’s there. That’s what it is.
Ali Winston 46:21
Yeah, I think that, you know, one thing that we’ve always tried to do, and you know, this is a little bit of media critique, that does, can you can take it or leave it, but we’ve tried to throughout our careers, we’ve tried to make ourselves as transparent as possible. And what that means is, we’re not the story, we try and let our works. If you read our work, you know, you hear us talk on the radio, or you’re speaking the individual. Yeah, we have personalities, we’re our own, we have our own dynamic like Darwin, and I have our own interpersonal dynamic that we probably can’t describe it, your listeners could or people who know us could or observed us down the years. But in terms of our actual product, we’re not there. Were there in the writing of it. Were there some of the perspective, but we try and let the facts speak as much as possible for readers as as we can. And that’s, you know, you can look at the back of the book, the citations are there, they’re voluminous. We really tried to bring out as much of the truth, the best available version of the truth as possible. There’s, you know, many truths there. Yes, Rashomon is real thing, that idea perspective, and reality is refracted through the lens of individual experience. It’s inevitable that that happens. However, you can try and surround a situation and report around it, find as many perspectives on that situation and really cut through it. I mean, I think that there’s a case our second chapter focuses around the beating of a young man, death of a young man who’s beaten police custody and dies of his injuries. And it’s covered up for a decade, Jerry Morell, we surrounded that story as much as possible. And it happened through many different perspectives. There were dozens there were a dozen, not people on scene. And in order to try and get the best version of that extremely murky story, which, you know, there’s still unanswered questions that we have about it to this day. We got we really, right right through as many records as possible that we turned up there lot, or lawsuits, or pre of Information Act lawsuit, or itself, our own reporting, if so, post facto interviews with people who are there to get an idea of what happened. And that really is the sort of work journalism at its best can do history at its best can do when you really try and get at the ultimate truth of a situation and show your best show your work as much as possible. That’s really what we tried to get at
Darwin Bondgraham 48:36
one more. One more thing on this question. Yeah. If you know, listeners want to learn more about policing in America. Yeah, please read our book. But like you’re it’s only gonna take you so far. You mentioned Derrick, personnel at the beginning of this. And yeah, like that, you know, that’s an inmate her book is amazing. It’s a you know, you supercritical tape. People need to read that. A book I read, you know, while we were writing this was Elizabeth Hinton’s American fire. Well, I’ve read that fantastic book. But I think an even more important book is the the war on poverty, the war on crime. Just the way that the and I say to say that, like, a lot of the books that people need to read to understand policing, and the problems of like racial inequality in America are written by women and people of color. And so you know, I just read, read widely and read as diverse a text as you can. I hope ours is sprinkled in there somewhere. And I think people will learn a lot.
Traci Thomas 49:33
Before we get out of here I have. So you sort of stole one of my questions, which is like, What books would you recommend to folks? And so you guys, you have an intense Notes Bibliography section. So for folks who are reading the book, like there’s pages and pages of sources, and you just mentioned some, so we’ll kind of skip over that one. But this is a question that I asked everybody and it is deeply important to me and you have to answer which is when you write where are you? How are you writing snacks and beverages? Don’t leave that out ritual As candles, set the scene for me, I know we’re running out of time. So you have to do it kind of fast. But we have to know how you write each of you.
Ali Winston 50:07
So I spent a lot of will for this book, I spent a lot of it working in the pandemic, first wave of the pandemic in office in New York. Basically, ride down to my office and off Union Square and set up, stand my desk up. So it will music up, listen to the little bit of a feed, have my notebook out in front of me go through what I had written the day before, I had kind of this target to hit 600 words, when we were 600 words a day out and minimum. When we were going through the writing phase. It’s not the research phase. There’ll be a pile of documents, probably behind my notebook right over there. There’d be a stack of books that I was reading through what like shot City Court shadow of the Panther golden gulag, a bunch of these other books that we used? No, they’re they’re American Babylon. They’d be piled up around me, coffee, probably drink, probably make four to five cups of that a day.
Traci Thomas 51:08
Ali Winston 51:09
Black like my soul. No, seriously, like it was. But then you know, I’d go I’d make my own logic come in and out of the day, I’d go out, take some walks, but I would try and keep on a nine to five and just have a really steady rhythm. And that would also pertain to the reading as well, too, you know, there would just be a way in which you’d have kind of your structure set up, we did set up a really solid outline for ourselves. And we would trade notes on that. And another thing, it’s a collaborative process, Darwin and I have been writing so long that we honestly don’t know each other’s process anymore. It just happens. And we kind of go over one over the other. It’s it’s it really a second nature. It comes from reporting together for years and years and years. It’s not typical, I think. And it makes in a sense, this endeavor a little bit less lonely. So that’s my, that’s my view on it.
Traci Thomas 52:00
Darwin Bondgraham 52:02
Yeah, um, you know, a lot of evenings, a lot of weekends, sometimes I would take a week off of work to plug away at this thing over time. My Yeah, you know, writing process. I had a giant kitchen table at the time, that’s my desk. So it’s just this massive table and documents spread everywhere for when I need them. Just my little laptop computer and yeah, just like, you know, help dolly right. A huge portion of this book while living in the theater apartments in Oakland on 38th Avenue. Shout out to the theater apartments building. People from Oakland will know where that’s at.
Traci Thomas 52:41
What about snacks and beverages? Darwin?
Darwin Bondgraham 52:43
Oh, I don’t know. I’m not good at eating and drinking.
Ali Winston 52:49
I can testify to that.
Darwin Bondgraham 52:55
it’s really, really, really into it. No, but like, it was. It was, it was interesting. It was like watching, I didn’t really reflect that much. Over the years on our like, our process, people would always ask us, like, who wrote this sentence? Who wrote that sentence? I can’t tell who wrote it. And because that’s the pattern you would write through things. We talk about it there because we’d be in constant communication with each other about the process and Okay, well, this doesn’t work. Okay, where does it work? Leave this section on done for now, we’ll come back to this. We need this. We need that. It’s just it’s really iterative. And you know, any of your listeners who’ve worked in a collaborative setting, either in a research setting or journalism setting might recall this. It’s like a fragment of a newsroom. But for a lot of our career, like when we were doing our reporting, you know, we would edit each other before editors got to it.
Traci Thomas 53:48
Oh, that’s cool. Okay, speaking of editing, what are what’s the word that each of you can never spell correctly on the first try?
Darwin Bondgraham 53:55
I mean, lots of words. I think.
Traci Thomas 53:59
I have a lot. I’m a terrible speller, which is where the question came off. Lottery.
Ali Winston 54:03
I can’t remember whether it’s a second second vowel is an A or an E. It always confuses me in the back cover come around camaraderie. Yeah, but one thing one actually thing about spelling and pronunciation one way that you can distinguish a Californian from an east coaster is by pronouncing the word ca. Au ght pronounce it. Oh, caught. Okay, cool. Now Pronounce co T. Caught being you said the same thing.
Traci Thomas 54:31
Yeah, they’re the same. They’re they’re caught and caught. You got that in California. You say those words the same? Exactly. Yeah, there’s a few other words like that. And I don’t know anyways. Orange, orange, orange, orange. It’s definitely an orange also east coasters. They some are Philadelphia and say bagel weird that
Ali Winston 54:56
close. Philadelphia is not a real place. Oh, they said I’ll go. I’ll go down on. on that. Let’s go. Right.
Traci Thomas 55:03
I’m happier that. Darren, did you have a word it was also camaraderie. I said awkward. Oh, awkward is so hard for me to. Okay, here’s my last question for each of you. If you could have one person dead or alive, read the writers come out at night, who would you want it to be?
Darwin Bondgraham 55:20
Well, so Mike Davis did read the book before he passed. And, you know, we mentioned him already, he’s and he gave it a blurb and we just have mad respect for him. Wish he was still here with us? decease but who hasn’t read it, um,
Ali Winston 55:42
I got one. When there’s a man named Gwen Pearson, who was a Tuskegee Airmen, and an open police officer in the 19, from the 19, late 40s, early 50s, through I want to sit, say the 70s He was then he got a doctorate, and sociology and then became a professor of criminology at I believe Howard University was his last stop until he died of a heart attack in the early 1990s. He wrote a brilliant doctoral thesis on police culture, focusing on his experiences in the Oakland Police Department. We used his dissertation as some of our source material, and it was just it was eye popping. You know, he details basically this hard, right? John virture society type hardcore to the police department and outlines some really grim episodes in there and efforts to try and change the police culture. The ways in which the Reformers chief was being beat back by the police union need to read like, it read almost like some of the articles that we wrote ourselves. And, you know, I, while reading this stuff through, I was just kept thinking to myself, God, I wish he was around. I wish I had the chance to interview him. I wish I had half an hour with this guy. You know, so I wish that that Dr. Gwen Pearson was around.
Darwin Bondgraham 57:02
Definitely, definitely one another. A couple other people just real quick, Robert true half and Decker Mitford. They were like, true. Half was this radical civil rights attorney and DACA MyFord was a you know, one of the Mitford sisters in this like a renowned author and social critic. And they were living in Oakland in the, in the 40s, in the 50s. And they were, they were just like allies to a lot of communities that were taking a lot of heat from the Oakland Police Department. And they they caused a lot of trouble for law enforcement by trying to hold them accountable back in the day just be really interesting. They were, you know, somehow able to do this.
Traci Thomas 57:37
And love those answers. Thank you guys both so much. I know we went a little long, but I had so many, there’s so many things on my list that we didn’t even get to talk about. But I’m so grateful for your time and for you writing this book about my hometown, a place that I love and also hate in some ways because of a lot of the things that are detailed in your book, right. And the book is out now for folks who are listening. You can get it wherever you get your books. It’s called the writers come out at night. Darwin Ali, thank you both so much for being here.
Ali Winston 58:05
Thank you so much. Thank you,
Traci Thomas 58:07
And we will see you in the Stacks.
Alright. Well, that does it for us today. Thank you so much for listening and thank you to Ali Winston and Darwin BondGraham for joining us. I’d also like to say a huge thank you to Debbie Norquist for helping make this conversation possible. Remember our January book club selection is the meaning of Mariah Carey, written by Mariah Carey with Michaela Angela Davis. We will discuss the book with Chelsea Devonta is on Wednesday, January 25. If you love this show and want insight access to it, head to patreon.com/the stacks and join the stacks fan. Make sure to subscribe 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. At the stacks pod underscore on Twitter and our website the stacks podcast.com Today’s episode of the stacks was edited by Cristian Duenas with production assistance from Lauren Tyree. Our graphic designer is Robin MacWrite. The Stacks is created and produced by me Traci Thomas.
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