When Derecka Purnell was growing up, the police were a familiar presence in her life. Years later, the lawyer, activist, and author realized that her vision of a just society was radically different from the world in which she’d been socialized — and it didn’t include police at all.
In her new book, Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom, Derecka talks about the events that shaped her position — and how she went from a skeptic of the abolitionist movement to one of its most vocal champions.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, HOST:
I’m Karen Grigsby Bates, and this is CODE SWITCH from NPR.
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BATES: In the past month, we’ve watched several major court cases unfold, cases that have illuminated a lot about how race and justice work in the U.S. There was the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, the white 18-year-old who shot and killed two people during the unrest last year in Kenosha, Wis., and who was acquitted of all charges in November. A few days later, the three white men who chased down and killed Ahmaud Arbery were all found guilty for his murder. Arbery, you’ll remember, was a 25-year-old Black man who was attacked while he was jogging in Brunswick, Ga., last year. November also saw the trial of organizers of the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Those people were found liable for inciting violence, although, as our NPR colleagues reported, quote, “jurors could not reach a verdict on two separate federal conspiracy charges over whether organizers conspired to commit racially motivated violence or whether they had knowledge of it and failed to prevent it.”
Each of these cases has sparked discussions about whether justice was served, whether these cases are anomalies or the norm and what precedent they might set going forward in this country. But there’s also what seems to be a louder and louder chorus suggesting that trials like these will never be able to enact real justice, and that policing and trials and prison sentences are not the path to justice, no matter how a jury winds up ruling.
Derecka Purnell is one of the leading voices in that chorus. She’s a lawyer and activist and a writer. Her new book is called “Becoming Abolitionists,” and it’s about how she arrived at the conclusion that a better future doesn’t include prisons or police because when she first heard people mention that idea, she found it pretty farfetched.
DERECKA PURNELL: The first time I heard about abolition, I was just like, what? Abolish what? Clearly, y’all don’t know what y’all talking about. Y’all haven’t been to the places I’ve been. You haven’t lost the friends that I’ve lost. I’m not even dealing with y’all today.
BATES: Derecka was definitely a skeptic, but the more she learned about the abolitionist movement, the more she started to connect its goals to the vision of justice she had for her own life. Before he left for parental leave, our host, Gene Demby, called up Derecka to talk about how she went from side-eyeing abolitionists to being a vocal abolitionist herself. That story begins in St. Louis County. Derecka is a young girl and her family and friends and neighbors, they all call the police a lot. Here’s Gene.
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GENE DEMBY, HOST:
So can you talk us through why you called 911, like, why everyone called 911 as much as they did when you were growing up?
PURNELL: Yes, of course. So we called 911 because it was often the default response to a lot of harm that we were facing in our homes, in our families when fights broke out, when someone needed medical assistance. It was the only resource, and so it became the default resource. There were no clinics in my neighborhood, no grocery stores. The last grocery store in that neighborhood closed down in the year 2000. There hasn’t been a fresh food source since, right? And so there were all these unhealthy, toxic pieces of our environment that made us sick that – there were stressors that made us fight. So 911 became the go-to response to solve a lot of these crises that could have been prevented.
DEMBY: So you said you had to spend a lot of time mitigating your experiences with the police. And you also write in your book that policing was a fact of your school life when you were growing up. So can you tell us what that looked like?
PURNELL: Yeah, sure. So I write in the book that when I started middle school, it was days after 9/11. And there were metal detectors and there were the school cops who searched everyone who came in. And I just assumed that it was related to 9/11 and I was like, well, what does this small, all-Black middle school in South St. Louis have to do with these terrorist attacks in New York City? And then I came back for seventh grade, and they were there again. And they had been there every year after. And then I realized that, oh, you know, these school cops, they aren’t here to protect us from whatever is outside. They’re here to primarily harass, you know, my friends and boys who I had crushes on. And so, you know, watching them, you know, move through the hallways, putting people in in-school suspension over all of these silly offenses that are just not worth losing any instruction time, any educational time, it was just like, wow, why do we have to run from cops in our neighborhood and then go to school and run from, quote, “school resource officers,” unquote, in order to learn, in order to get an education? And I watched that from sixth grade all the way until I graduated high school.
DEMBY: How did you feel about those police officers? Did you have any sort of relationships with them? Do you talk to them? Like, what was your stance on their presence? How did you feel about their presence?
PURNELL: Yeah, it really depended. Many of us, we had our favorites. We knew which SRO was cooler than the others. We knew which ones would sort of, like, turn, you know, their eye to us being a little bit late to class. And then there was when the hall sweeps would happen, what I did notice is that even our favorite SROs would still primarily take students down to in-school suspension. And so this objective relationship that you have – right? – the personality traits of this particular officer, the – how kind they were, if they patted you up when you were crying because you had to miss your geometry test because you were caught up in this three-minute hall sweep – it didn’t really changed the system of policing within the school, right? It didn’t undermine the hall sweeps. It didn’t preserve our instruction time. What it ultimately did was make us less resistant to the presence of police in our schools. And that’s what was dangerous.
And I envy – you know, I envy the students who were called bad students, who chose not to run during the flight-and-fury time in between classes, who just walked very slowly in defiance of the entire system because they knew that it was wrong. And I was like, oh, man, these students – like, they’re going to always get in-school suspension. But they were subtly critiquing the system itself. And I wish I had been more understanding of that when I was younger, instead of judgmental.
DEMBY: Yeah, you talk a lot about how when you were younger, you were, like, a really, like, rules-following (laughter)…
PURNELL: Super rules-following.
DEMBY: …Kind of socially conservative person.
DEMBY: You know, you write that you were a devout Christian. You cut off ties with friends you thought were having premarital sex. And so I’m just curious about how that shaped the way you saw the kids who were getting yoked up by the SROs and also who were having, I guess, contact with the criminal legal system outside of the school. Like, how did you feel about them at the time?
PURNELL: Oh, that’s a good question. Well, hearing you describe it like that is as if it was linear, but it was much more messy. It was much more messy. So I didn’t become a devout Christian until I was in college. By the time I was in college, I was really searching for some set of answers on how to live the rest of my life. I was trying to figure out how to live a life of decency. And I was finding myself associating decency with middle-classness and Christianity and using that to be different from what I associated with, like, sinfulness and poverty.
So I think that that just probably came from me trying to escape an unfortunate set of circumstances – right? – that led to me living in a class-exploited neighborhood and thinking I can pray my way out of it, and then going to churches that taught me that, you know, Black people are poor because they’re not faithful. And we need to increase our faith in Jesus and increase our faith in the church in order to get our entryway to heaven. And so that came with a package. It came with, oh, well, we have to be homophobic. We have to love the sinner and hate the sin for people based on who they loved or be critical of women who had sex and got pregnant, and they weren’t married. So all of these ideas were sort of presented as a package of what it meant to be a Christian, and then through finding that so challenging and rubbing up against what I was learning in college – right? – about capitalism, about slavery and having conversations with pastors I respected and saying, hey, I don’t think Black people are poor because we’re not faithful. You know, there was this thing called slavery, right? And there’s inequality. And there’s discrimination, right? There’s, like, a longer history of what makes Black people vulnerable to being exploited in our jobs and in our places of education and what relegates us to substandard housing.
I think that probably has something to do with where we are in this country and not necessarily our relationship to God. We’re the most prayingest (ph) people I know. What are you talking about? It’s learn – it’s, you know, going to class, learning about other kinds of Christians, learning about James Cone and Howard Thurman, reading texts like “Jesus And The Disinherited,” that teaches that God is on the side of the oppressed, meeting other kinds of Christians who are making sense of their faith through justice and – right? And so it’s – I was so grateful to be to be pushed to think about these ideas through, you know, the Children’s Defense Fund and Marian Wright Edelman and their invocation of Ella Baker and Martin Luther King. And so now I see myself in the tradition of people of faith who are much more like them and less like, you know, the people who I found myself finding refuge with early on.
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BATES: When we come back, we’re going to get into when things changed for Derecka and what kind of post-police, post-prison world she imagines.
PURNELL: What we’re trying to do is not just make police disappear overnight, but also reduce our reasons why people think we need police, right? We start building the actual immediate responses to the harm that people articulate.
BATES: That’s after the break. Stay with us.
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BATES: Karen – just Karen – CODE SWITCH – and we’re back with more from Gene Demby’s conversation with lawyer, activist and author of the new book “Becoming Abolitionists,” Derecka Purnell. This time we’re getting into that pesky question that all abolitionists have to think through. If you get rid of police and prisons, what do you do with all the bad guys?
Here’s Gene again.
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DEMBY: I’m going to just put it out there. So some years ago, I was interviewing Marc Lamont Hill on this podcast – like, one of our very first episodes. And he brought up police and prison abolition. And it threw me ’cause – and I did the thing. I was like, what are we going to do about rapists? What are we going to about murderers?
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MARC LAMONT HILL: Imagine punishment – there are other ways to imagine justice.
DEMBY: Are there other ways to imagine punishment around nonviolent offenses and any number of offenses that are felonies that don’t have victims, right? But what about, you know, rape? What about murder?
HILL: Yeah – I mean, that’s always the question, right? When I talk about…
DEMBY: And, you know, now that I’ve read and interviewed and learned more about abolitionism, I see how my reaction is exactly the reaction that almost everyone has when they try to conceptualize, like, what a world without police or prisons might look like. It’s almost impossible. So I’m curious about where you were in your life – because you are an abolitionist now, right? So I’m curious about where you were in your life and how you first responded when you initially heard about this concept called abolition.
PURNELL: The first time I heard about abolition, I didn’t even take it seriously. I was just like, what? What are these people talking about? I was at some organizing meeting, some rally somewhere in college. And I was hearing people talking about it. And I was like, what – abolish what? What? Like, y’all, I am from South St. Louis. We can’t…
PURNELL: …Abolish nothing. Clearly, y’all don’t know what you’re talking about. Y’all haven’t been to the places I’ve been. You haven’t lost the friends that I’ve lost. You haven’t…
PURNELL: …Experienced the violence that I’ve experienced. I’m not even dealing with y’all today. And then when it started coming up again when I was in law school, I wanted answers. I wanted to know what would happen to the murderers; what would happen to the rapists – right? – even though I knew people who had been on both sides of a gun, or I know of people who pull the triggers. I know of people who have died, who’ve been killed – several people. Every year, someone from my high school gets killed from gun violence. It’s one of the scariest statistics that I live with on a daily basis. Like, who is it going to be this year? It’s so, so scary, right? And so I was like, well, I want to know what’s going to happen, like, to these very specific people who I call murderers, who live in this universe, right? – the people that I watch on Netflix. It’s just like the “Making Of A Murderer (ph).” What’s going to happen to that person?
And so the more I began asking these questions, the more time that I had. That’s what law school allowed me to have – was time to actually read abolitionist literature – you know, read “Abolition Democracy” by Angela Davis, read her other book “Are Prisons Obsolete?” – the more time I had to study, you know, works from, like, Naomi Murakawa. I mean, I just had so much time to start learning the history of police, the function of police, how this word crime is a social construct, how there’s so much sexual violence in this world – in this country, in particular – and it’s not all reducible to what to do with a rapist – right? – because most people who commit sexual violence will never see a day in prison.
And so police and prisons are currently inadequate responses to the sexual violence that we have right now. They’re currently inadequate responses to the homicides that we have right now – right? – the harms of our nightmares. You look across the country – the police clearance rate for murders is something like 40-50%, which means that 40-50% of people accused of murdering someone are just arrested and charged – not even convicted, right? In places like Baltimore and St. Louis, it’s even lower – like 30%. And so that means 70% of people who may have killed someone are never even arrested and charged, and the ones who are are not even prosecuted. And then the ones who are prosecuted – sometimes the prosecutors and the police will try to pin multiple murders on them so they can improve their clearance rate.
And so that’s the system that we currently have. So I had to understand those statistics. I had to understand the layout of the criminal legal system. I had to understand the history of police inadequacy to these harms and then learn that, well, the police weren’t created to respond to these harms in the first place.
DEMBY: It sounds like what you’re saying is, like, when people say – like, I asked, right? – what are we going to do about rapists and murderers? And you’re saying like, well, what are we doing with them right now?…
DEMBY: …Like, where there’s a fact (ph).
PURNELL: …Which ones? Yes, absolutely. Which ones? – including the ones in police departments, including the ones in police departments. And so right now what we have is a system where if you kill someone, especially United States, where, like, 14,000-16,000 people are killed every year. Putting someone on a case doesn’t necessarily stop more people from killing people. The death penalty is not even a deterrent for something like homicide.
A lot of the times the people who make the decision to kill people – if they make that decision, it’s because of patriarchy. It’s because they’re trying to control someone else’s sexuality, especially if it’s a woman, and they are concerned about, she’s going to sleep with someone else – or if they’re concerned someone else is going to try to sleep with her. So then that leads to a homicide. Or it’s two men who are fighting or going back and forth, and one feels as if their manhood has been disrespected. And so we see the No. 1 reason for certain kind of homicides is a petty argument that escalates.
Or I lost one of my childhood friends this summer – Marshall – to a gun shooting over a parking lot at a Sonic restaurant. So him and this guy were going back and forth, and the guy kills him. I lost another childhood friend, Allen, a few months ago because his neighbor – there was complaint – Allen made a complaint that his neighbor wasn’t sweeping up the grass. And that escalated to a gunshot, right? – so these petty arguments that leads to someone’s manhood feeling trivialized, leads to gun violence, leads to homicides.
The police can’t stop that, right? The police can’t fight patriarchy. They perpetuate it in so many circumstances. And so I wanted to figure out, well, why are people killing people? And I had to go out of the law to find that because the law just sort of trains us how to respond. So I had to understand sociology, had to look at history. I had to look at psychology. And the more that I realized, like, oh, we need to ask, why all these killings happening in the first place? Why are people conditioned to kill each other? Why is it true in the United States but not true in other parts of the world? So these sets of questions made me start, you know, thinking more deeply about whether police can ever be reformed to be an adequate response. And the book answer is, no. It’s an obvious resounding no. Like, no, it’s not. It’s not a deterrent.
And unfortunately, people try to mimic policing, which creates another kind of violence. So we look at the men who killed Ahmaud Arbery. We look at George Zimmerman, who killed Trayvon Martin. We look at any of the other vigilantes who see themselves acting as police – who carry out their violent acts against people of color, against poor people, against women. And so if we truly want to undermine and reduce homicides, we have to reduce our reliance on police.
DEMBY: Yeah. I actually want to ask you about the sort of limits of the law. But you are yourself a trained lawyer. And I’m just curious how you…
PURNELL: I know. I know. I know.
PURNELL: Don’t tell nobody.
DEMBY: You went to Harvard law, of all places.
DEMBY: I’m trying to figure out – I just want to – I’m curious about how you reconcile those things – right? – like, what you see as the limits of the law in addressing these problems.
PURNELL: Yeah, this is true. Well, one, when you asked me to introduce myself in the beginning – and I said, I’m a lawyer; I’m a writer; I’m an organizer. I very much mean that. I am all three of those things…
PURNELL: …One, because the law is completely insufficient to build a movement for freedom. It just is, right? And so as a trained lawyer, what I try to do is use my legal skills to help organizers figure out how to wage campaigns against oppressive institutions. Sometimes that means reducing power for the police. Sometimes it means trying to close a jail or a prison. And so the law provides a very specific avenue in order to get that done. You know, as a lawyer, I can represent people. I can get people out of jail. I can sue people, right? I have this particular skill set, and I pay a lot of money every year to the District of Columbia to maintain my license that you need in order…
PURNELL: …To get these things done. But I’m also an organizer. So outside of being a lawyer, I’m a member of an organization of political organizations that wage campaigns against oppressive institutions, right? So we’re – or we’re trying to, you know, get a law that’s passed. We’re trying to fight for sweeping policy change at the local level or at the national level. So I do political work because I believe that if we’re going to become the kinds of people to change this society, we also have to change the society that we live in.
And so I’m in meetings every single week. I spend numbers of hours reading, talking with organizers, coming up with strategy, talking to people in our community, trying to figure out how we can change to become better people and how also we can change our society. And writing, to me, is so important ’cause it allows me to think publicly about ideas that I’m working through as a lawyer or I’m working through as an organizer or as I’m working through as a parent, for example. So I do all of those things precisely for the reason that you said. Like, how do I try to reconcile that? Well, I don’t. I just try to do other things, too.
DEMBY: So what is the hardest thing to convey to people who are skeptical about abolition?
PURNELL: It depends on the level of their skepticism. If you’re skeptical but curious, it is much easier for us to have a conversation about what abolition means and what it could look like, right? So, for example, there are people in St. Louis, when I was talking about abolition when I was a lawyer at Advancement Project, who are very, very skeptical about abolition. They’re skeptical because they were vulnerable to violence, from their partners, from their neighbors, from strangers, from their parents, from their children and from police. And then we were saying, let’s take away the police. And they were like, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. I know I don’t have all these other resources and you’re going to take away the remaining institution that’s at least well-funded in this city? That’s what you’re going to do?
And so being in conversation with people like that is so important for me and I think other abolitionists to affirm that, to be honest and say, yes, you’re absolutely right. You are vulnerable to all these sorts of violence. And right now, you know, the police are an inadequate response. And so one thing that you can be rest assured is that especially in the United States, police abolition is not going to happen overnight. It’s just not. There are nearly 18,000 law enforcement agencies, about a million cops. There is no way that we’re going to snap our fingers and all of the police are going to leave. That’s just not going to happen.
Second, police abolition is not mere police absence, all right? It’s not just the disappearance of police. Just like slavery abolition just didn’t mean that slaves would disappear, it means that we will fight to create a society where Black people can live with dignity and freedom and peace and justice and build the kind of relationships and communities that they deserve, right? So that’s a complete restructuring of what we understand the United States to mean at that time. What we’re trying to do is not just make police disappear overnight but also reduce the police, reduce our reasons why people think we need police – right? – start building the actual immediate responses to harm that people articulate and build long-term, lasting solutions that will prevent harm over time.
And so I don’t think I’m going to see the total eradication of police presence (ph) in my lifetime. I don’t think my baby’s going to see it in their lifetime. But what can happen in all of our lifetimes is the will and the commitment and the courage – right? – to have the courage to make sure that it does happen in the future.
DEMBY: One of the things that happens a lot in these conversations are always like, people want particular answers for these things. What you’re trying to do and what other abolitionists are trying to do is, like, reimagine, like, reconceptualize some really basic, fundamental things about the way we understand, like, our society and how we interact with each other. And I’m curious how you respond to those specific requests. Like, when people say, what are we going to do about rapists and murderers, they want to know, like what is the abolitionist response?
PURNELL: Yeah, I think it’s an important question. I don’t think that abolition – well, I’ll speak for myself. I try not to shy away from those questions. The – more than the specific question, it’s the context in which I’m asked that question. So if someone asks me that question on Twitter or if someone asks me a question on the panel, being able to give an answer in two minutes is usually not the best solution. The same – we’re trying to diagnose a huge problem. If you receive a medical diagnosis that was harmful and scary and you – and a doctor had to give you an answer in two minutes, that would be insufficient, right? And so it’s the context.
And so, for example, when I’m in an organizing space and I’m asked, you know, what about the murderers, what about the rapists, the people who are asking me those questions, they’re asking because we are responsible for then helping to build and promote those solutions. And so in St. Louis, for example, when we were trying to close the workhouse, which is a jail in St Louis, one of the questions that came up was, well, what about all the people who are doing these shootings? Where are they going to go? And so in addition to trying to close the jail, what we try to advocate for and what organizations like Action St. Louis and CAPCR want was a street violence interrupter program to try to undermine retaliatory violence that takes place in St. Louis that is a cause of shootings, right? People shoot other people because they are either retaliating or it’s preemptive to avoid being shot themselves.
And so one thing that we can do is make sure we have an avenue that prevents that violence from happening in the first place. Police do not prevent that violence. They make people more precarious. And then once they exit jail if they are arrested, they go back to the same circumstances where they then have to protect themselves.
DEMBY: When you say they make people more precarious, you mean, like, what happens is often the police themselves – because of the way police treat, you know, Black communities – right? – Black neighborhoods, the police themselves are not an option for resolution of conflict for a lot of people. And so they have to find other ways to resolve the conflict.
PURNELL: Well, they’re not – they arrest people. They give them gun charges. They put them in jail. The people go to jail or prison for a couple of years. They come back out; they have a record; they can’t get a job; they’re in the same set of circumstances. They need a gun to protect themselves because they can be robbed or they can be killed. And so you create a cycle of people who are going in and out of jail based on gun charges or homicide charges who ultimately never get to the root of the problem, right?
And so one avenue is prevention, right? We need gun buyback programs. We need people doing street violence interruption programs. A second set of avenue is responding. So we have prevention and we have response. And response really is a local – is really a local endeavor. Sometimes it happens through these formal restorative justice processes. Sometimes it happens informally – right? – with the families trying to come together and mediate the conflict between those people, right? And then a lot of times it’s not the case that they want people to go to prison. What victims and survivors often want is some measure for them to be heard, some level of accountability. And when we have more options than prison and police, that the survivors of harm and violence choose that – you know, for sexual violence and for homicides and attempted homicides, right?
So how can we start learning and investing and resourcing those communities that are giving people other options besides prison and police in terms of harm? And the more we talk about those examples, the more we resource them, the more we can learn from them, the more that we can practice them in other places. So when we say, what are we going to do about the murderers and people who cause sexual violence? – beyond prevention, we have a roster of options, a plethora of options that we can provide people. But we should not pretend as if they do not exist.
DEMBY: So over the last year, defund, which is not abolition but is adjacent to it – right? – has become a conversation that has, like, entered the mainstream. And it is really unpopular. I’m curious as to how you, as a person who is thinking about abolition, both think about conversations around defunding as an incremental step toward abolition or as something that keeps policing in place. How do you feel about the defund movement, which seems to have a lot of critics come from both the left and the right?
PURNELL: Yes. Yes, it does. I really appreciate defund the police. I appreciate, it in some ways, even more than Black Lives Matter. When Black Lives Matter became a national rallying cry in 2014, there was so much polarization around the phrase. There was so much resistance to it from the left and the right. You would see, you know, politicians say, Black Lives Matter, comma, “all lives matter” because it felt so polarizing and so divisive. And a lot of the same critiques used towards defund the police were also initially used towards Black Lives Matter.
And one reason why I love defund the police is because it’s a policy demand. It’s actually a policy demand. One critique of Black Lives Matter from people who are sympathetic to its cause is that it didn’t mean anything. Where is the policy? Where is the plan? What are you really asking for? Black Lives Matter is just a slogan. And so then, you know, six years later, in 2020, instead of saying Black Lives Matter, people started saying take away resources from the police as a very specific policy demand, well, now that’s much harder to co-opt.
We’re hearing people say, well, this is the policy that we want. We want you to take away resources from the police, and we want you to invest it in all of the other resources that make us safe. We want better schools. We want better housing. We want health care. We want quality jobs. We want to be able to work with dignity. We want child care. We want our student debt canceled. So we want to remove resources from the carceral state and pour into all of these other avenues that make us live healthy lives full of dignity and joy. And I think it’s our job, you know? I think it’s our job to make sure that we explain what we mean when we say, defund the police, you know, that we talk to people about what we mean in terms of resource reallocation.
And I saw this quote just this morning that made me so, so happy. It was a Dr. King quote. And it says, “a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus,” right? And so it’s like, how do we make sure we continue to mold consensus around something that’s unpopular but would bring us so much – you know, just so much of a better society? And I hope that more people are being called to be molders of that society, molders of that consensus, instead of just reflecting the current consensus that we have – because that’s where all the oppression lives.
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BATES: Once again, that was CODE SWITCH co-host Gene Demby in conversation with the lawyer, activist and writer Derecka Purnell. Her new book is “Becoming Abolitionists.”
And that’s our show. We want to hear from you. You can follow us on IG and Twitter. We’re – @nprcodeswitch. I’m @karenbates. Or email us at [email protected]. And subscribe to our newsletter by going to npr.org/codeswitchnewsletter.
This episode was produced by Summer Thomad. It was edited by Leah Donnella and Steve Drummond. And a shout-out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam – Kumari Devarajan, Jess Kung, Christina Cala, Alyssa Jeong Perry and Sam Yellowhorse Kesler. Our intern is Aja Drain. Our art director is LA Johnson. I’m Karen Grigsby Bates. See ya.
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