Brittany Packnett on Police Reform and Black Lives Matter

President Obama described Brittany Packnett as a voice to “make a difference for years to come,” and she has campaigned for police reform, was part of the Black Lives Matter movement, and established Teach For America’s first civil rights agenda. Alicia Menendez spoke with her in New York.

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ALICIA MENENDEZ: Brittany, thank you so much for being here.

BRITTANY PACKNETT, ACTIVIST: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.

MENENDEZ: We knew going into Tuesday night that there were going to be two different verdicts on the Trump presidency delivered by two different Americas. What’s your take on what we saw on Tuesday?

PACKNETT: My take is that there is energy out there and there is energy in places where people least expected us to see it. You know I was in Tallahassee, Florida stumping for Andrew Gillum, pushing people to vote yes on Amendment Four, to restore rights to suddenly incarcerated Floridians. And we were at Florida A&M University. And in a packed stadium at 10 p.m. on a Monday, young people were excited about making their voices heard. They were excited about changing the course of history. And they were not looking for some kind of instantaneous fix. They were looking to do their part. And I think that’s energy that we can’t ignore. Whether some races will work out the way we want or not, we can’t ignore the fact that there is energy everywhere in the pockets and places that we keep ignoring —

MENENDEZ: But as much as those — right. And as much as there’s an energy from those sides, there’s also energy from the other side.

PACKNETT: Certainly.

MENENDEZ: And I wonder stepping back and looking at it through the lens of demographic change, you feel that is in some ways inevitable of the people who have always had power, of course, want to guard their power

PACKNETT: I would say that I also believe though that the conversation we’re having now is not just about who has power and who doesn’t have power but actually how do we redefine power. Is power elected office? Is power having the most of demographic? Or is it actually making sure that the right voices and the right people are showing up at the right times to ensure that all people can be heard from? I think the young people and the marginalized people are trying to redefine power or trying to say that we can have a Congress that looks very different, right. We can have Muslim women in Congress and Native American women in Congress and black women in Congress. And women, period, actually showing up in these spaces and will broaden out the conversation that’s happening on the legislative level at the very least. So yes, people who have always had traditional power will always try to protect it. But I’m not interested in taking away somebody’s power, I’m interested in redefining power so that we can figure out how we all share it. Power is not actually some kind of finite source. It’s not like oil, right? It is more like the air. I’m breathing, you’re breathing but there’s not any less air for us to breathe as we both do it. Just like if we share power with one another instead of trying to hoard power from one another, we actually can create a space and a place where we can all live equally and fully.

MENENDEZ: For someone like you who put a lot of time and a lot of effort into some of these races, particularly the race in Florida with Andrew Gillum, the race in Georgia with Stacey Abrams, there is in Texas with Beto O’Rourke. All members of marginalized communities at the top of the ticket. Part of what you wanted to see was their ability to win to send a message more broadly about leadership. And yet, where we’re sitting today, none of them have been able to claim victory in those races.

PACKNETT: Not yet. I do think that there was a clear lesson to progressives across this country that we want to make sure that our party apparatus is that our government institutions better reflect our communities. So I think if people like to Lauren Underwood rising to victory when I think of people like Mandela Barnes who’s the new lieutenant governor in Wisconsin, places where we didn’t even remember people of color live let alone could win statewide office, that matters greatly. When I also think about the amazing victory of Amendment Four last night in Florida, the fact that it’s 1.5 million Floridians will now have their right to vote back, that matters greatly. Not just because they won but because of how they won. Because they won with grassroots organizing because it was the voices from the most marginalized communities leading the fight, because it was formerly incarcerated people themselves who got out there and said, “We’re going to make sure that our voices are never silenced again.” And hopefully, that will start a trend across the country.

MENENDEZ: Let’s stick with Amendment Four, one of several victories we saw for voting rights. We also saw in Michigan changes that would allow for automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration, an independent commission for redistricting. But on the other side of the ledger, we saw lots of voters in Georgia complaining of challenges to being able to vote. We saw it in advance of election day what seemed like systemic efforts to make sure that people were not able to vote. Where does that leave us? Can we heal the divides that we have currently in our country if we don’t take on the systemic issues of our democracy?

PACKNETT: Well, we have to take on the systemic issues of our democracy. That’s why Amendment Four matter so much. It is the largest restoration of voting rights since the Voting Rights Act. That is not minor. And I’m hoping that that starts a trend so that it’s not just 1.5 million people in Florida but the 6.1 million people across this country who are formally incarcerated, who currently don’t have the right to vote will see that come back to them. But it’s also the reason why on the morning after the election, Stacey Abrams is still fighting. She’s saying, “I will not concede until every vote is counted and I want to see what every vote says.” What does it mean to actually have someone like Brian Kemp run his own election? How do we go and correct for those things, not just in Georgia, but across the country? There are so many ways that people try to suppress the votes of marginalized people. And that to me is an indicator not just how — not just of how important the vote is but of just how powerful they know marginalized people to be. They know that we are triumphing. They know that we can be victorious when we come together and we put our mind to it. And that is a threat to the status quo. So we have to tackle that in a systemic way but also at the grass — in the grassroots way that says, you know, let’s take care of Georgia, let’s take care of Florida, let’s take care of Michigan, and let’s keep tackling this thing until we’ve taken care of the entire country.

MENENDEZ: Does the Democratic party need to do some soul-searching over where it is and what it takes to win?

PACKNETT: I think it absolutely does. I think that that process has already started. And I know a lot of young organizers and activists and political operatives of color who have been pushing the party from the inside and the outside to make sure that that soul-searching really results in something substantive. That that soul-searching results in a party that fully reflects not just our values but our communities. That we are not only putting up candidates that look like us, that looks like more of us, but that their chiefs of staff and their legislative directors also are coming from our communities. And that those folks are staying proximate to what’s happening in our neighborhoods. It’s one thing to have representative diversity. It’s another thing to pursue equity because we’re actually being informed in our agenda by the people.

MENENDEZ: One of the big narratives coming out of 2016 was about white men and more specifically white women support of Donald Trump already in the exit poll numbers. We’re seeing white women again showing up for Republicans. Are you interested in persuading white women to vote for Progressives?

PACKNETT: I’m interested in white women persuading one another to vote for Progressives. I think that there is a conversation that we should be having amongst our own people about what it means to possess a marginalized identity as a woman and what it means to vote in our own interests. But that doesn’t mean that we let white men off the hook, right. That doesn’t mean that we somehow expect them to behave in a certain way simply because they do not possess a marginalized identity. We should be pushing everyone toward accountability and mutual responsibility in creating an equitable society. That is all of our responsibility as citizens. Yes, people vote in their own interests but what if, what if I went to the ballot box and also voted in the interest of children? What if I went to the ballot box and also voted in the interest of immigrants? What if I went to the ballot box and also voted in the interest of people who are incarcerated? What if I showed up for people who are not allowed to show up at the ballot box and made sure that my voice was standing equally alongside theirs as I cast my vote? What would our country look like then? What if we just stop doing the things that we know cause harm to people and try to do the things that help?

MENENDEZ: And I know you don’t want to let white men off the hook but I do have to ask the question about white women. You said on Positive America on HBO, “Your whiteness will not save you from what the patriarchy has in store for you.” What does that mean?

PACKNETT: I mean I think we can look unfortunately to Christine Blasey Ford and see exactly what it means. When Dr. Ford decided to speak her truth and open the door frankly for lots of other women to speak their truth about what they had experienced from Brett Kavanaugh, what they knew to be true of his character when it came to how he treated women, when it came to his habits of sexual harassment and beyond, we saw exactly how white men rallied around one another, how white men closed ranks around Brett Kavanaugh and said, “We have been planning on placing him on the court for decades and you will not interrupt that process.” And still we find that white women are showing up for a party that does not value them, that does not value their healthcare, that does not value their wellbeing, that does not devalue — that does not value their autonomy and their independence and their own brilliance. And so there are examples throughout history, and the most recent one is those Kavanaugh hearings where we saw a lot of white women daringly and courageously stand up and speak their truth. And they were shut down quickly and abrasively.

MENENDEZ: What do you say to those who say, “Yes, but the allegations against Brett Kavanagh were simply allegations”?

PACKNETT: They are allegations at this point. However, we know a couple of things. We know that there was not a full investigation not just of what happened to Dr. Ford, what happened to numerous other women who came forward. And I personally don’t want to live in a country where on the highest court in our land, one-third of the men on the bench are accused of sexual assault or harassment. There should be some places where the people who occupy those seats should be above reproach. There should be some places like the Supreme Court of the United States where there is not even a hint or a whiff of that kind of impropriety. [13:50:00] Sure those are just accusations, however, there were plenty of other folks that the GOP could have put forward who wouldn’t have had those kinds of accusations against them. This is somebody though that we know believes two things. One, that Roe vs. Wade should be overturned which again is not in the interest of all women, white women included. And two, that a sitting president can’t be indicted and how convenient for Donald Trump. So I’m convinced that there were lots of reasons why they wanted to see Brett Kavanaugh through to the end. And Dr. Ford was the glitch in their system. She was the glitch in their plan. And her whiteness didn’t save her from what patriarchy had for her.

MENENDEZ: One of the conversations that have long been had in Democratic circles was this idea that black women consistently deliver margins of victory for Democratic candidates but they are not invested in as candidates themselves. There are those who believe that Democrats should clear the field in certain cases in order to allow for black women to run, especially in Democratic safe districts. But I wonder if this election where black women played by their own set of rules ran for seats that nobody thought they could win, either one like a Lauren Underwood or came within striking distance like a Stacey Abrams if that changes that piece of the narrative?

PACKNETT: Yes. Well, I’m hoping that it does. I’m hoping that it at least continues to open a door. You know Shirley Chisholm who is kind of all of our godmother is in this political space as a black woman. She said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” I think this new generation of black women is saying, “We’ll bring a folding chair to their table but we’ll also work on building our own table and making sure that our table is a place where all people can state and sub and dine and experience life as we all deserve.” That’s why I’m excited about Lauren Underwood. That’s why I’m excited about Ayanna Pressley. That’s why I’m excited about Rachel Rollins who’s the new district attorney over in Boston. Like it matters that black women are looking at every seat as a possible place for us to be sitting, not just at the tables where we haven’t previously been invited.

MENENDEZ: You come from a family that is very political. You have been an activist basically since you were a child. You became known to the greater public during your time in Ferguson. You now teach a class at Harvard. What, when you look at this election, do you see as being the fingerprints of activism on this election? And what does this election mean for activism in return?

PACKNETT: In a traditional sense, we think about the power of the people always in kind of traditional political front works. Are you running for office? How many people are showing up to vote? How many people are donating to their party or candidates of choice? We have to recognize that if all politics are personal, then it is not just about when we show up at the voting booth that we make our politics and our values known. It is also about when we show up in the street. It is also about when we show up at city council hearings. It is also about when we hold our election — our elected officials accountable. Last night in my study group at Harvard, we were talking about power and we invited Kim Foxx who’s the first African-American woman to hold the state’s attorney seat in Cook County, Chicago, Illinois. And I asked her. I said, “You know as someone who is trying to drive toward equity, even in a prosecutor seat, what can the people be doing to actually equip you to do that?” And she said, “Look, get organized, right. Hold me accountable. Make sure that I’m hearing about the things and the trends and the inequities present in the system that I run that I might not even know about.” So here’s an elected official asking us to play our part as citizens, not just on Election Day but every day. So you don’t ever have to go out in the street to have an activist heart and an activist mindset because all that means is that you’re ready to tell the truth out loud and in public and hold decision-makers accountable to working toward the will of the people.

MENENDEZ: I want to ask you about saying the truth out loud in public because I think for a lot of people that’s a very scary thing to do. And for me as someone who’s consumed a lot of your content online, one of the things I’m struck by is your incredible clarity and intentionality. And I’ve often wondered, is that innate or is that learned?

PACKNETT: It’s probably a bit of both. I come from a faith background. Both my parents are community leaders and activists but they’re also both ministers and educators in their own right. And so I was raised to understand that Jesus not only loved everybody but wants everybody to be free. So I was raised with a liberation theology that says, “I don’t get to give up hope because God didn’t give up on me even when I was in my most hopeless state.” But I also think that I’ve learned it from the great examples throughout history. There’s been a full-color photograph of Harriet Tubman that’s been circulating in the last few days and it is so incredibly striking. It was taken in 1911 in Mount Auburn at her home and here she is this aged woman sitting in a chair kind of hunched over. But you can look into her eyes and start to think about all of the people that she went back and rescued from their own enslavement. And you know, she didn’t go back one day. She didn’t go back two days. She didn’t go back three days. She went back over and over and over again. She took every single chance she had to make sure that people got free. And if Harriet can keep doing it, then I don’t have any excuse. And so I just think that that’s our responsibility. That’s a moral code that I was raised with. That’s something that I’ve learned from great leaders in the past. And I’m hopeful that if people get anything from listening to me, they know that they have power within their own grasp and that they can seize that power and actually influence the world in a good way. MENENDEZ: Brittany, thank you so much.

PACKNETT: Thank you.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour speaks with Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe about former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray Caso about the migrant caravan. Alicia Menendez speaks with activist Brittany Packnett.