Brentin Mock is a staff writer for CityLab who focuses on the role of justice and civil rights in the laws and policies that govern our lives, particularly in the urban environment. He has a long history of reporting on environmental justice, voting rights, and voter suppression. We speak to Mock about his recent piece for CityLab, “The Strangest Form of White Flight,” a feature within a larger series on the Cityhood movement in Georgia, which Mock describes as a Brexit-style secession to carve up new cities informed by racial politics and legacies of segregation. Previously, Mock served as justice editor for the environmental news site Grist, and as a national correspondent for Colorlines. His work also has appeared in The Nation, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Essence.
Paul Farber (Host): Brentin Mock, thank you for joining the Monument Lab podcast.
Brentin Mock: Yeah. Thanks for having me on the show.
Farber: A week before the election, you published an article, "The Strangest Form of White Flight" for CityLab. It's a deeply troubling and remarkable story about a ballot measure in Georgia to create a new mostly white municipality called Eagle's Landing, carved out of an existing city, Stockbridge who had recently elected a black mayor and all black city council. How did this special ballot measure first come to your attention?
Mock: Wow. I've been running a series based off of what's called the "Cityhood" movement, which is happening around Metro Atlanta, the suburbs of Atlanta. Basically, Metro Atlanta has a lot of unincorporated areas, meaning basically areas that fall within a county but they don't belong to a city or any municipality but lately, since 2005, some of these unincorporated areas decided that they wanted to municipalize, incorporate themselves into cities. And I was doing reporting out of Dekalb County. If you know anything about Metro Atlanta, it consists of five or six different counties that come together, that encompass the entire Metro Atlanta region. Dekalb County is one of the major counties and I was doing some reporting on some Cityhood movement that was happening there and as I was doing reporting there, that the people I was talking with would say, "Well, you also need to look down at Henry County," which is south of Atlanta. Dekalb County is east of Atlanta. Basically the people in Dekalb, they were saying like, there's something really crazy happening down there. There's basically a black city down there that has a white neighborhood, that was looking to basically secede from it, like in a "Brexit" kind of way but not only do they want to secede but they want to take half of the city – and we're talking about the city of Stockbridge. They want to take half of the city of Stockbridge with it, it's completely unprecedented, completely crazy and that was enough to get my attention.
Farber: And Stockbridge is where Black Panther and other productions are filmed, are there other important aspects of city to understand?
Mock: Yeah, yeah. They call it Hollywood South. It's the staging grounds for several TV shows and movies, some of the scenes from Black Panther. If you saw that movie and you think of that big mountain with the waterfall where Killmonger and Black Panther fight, and Killmonger throws him over the edge, all of that was shot in this area in the city of Stockbridge. Also the TV show, The Walking Dead is shot there. Stranger Things. A bunch of others, I mean, I could go on but it's a pretty well-known area and because Georgia has a pretty generous film tax credit, a lot of movie studios go there to film.
Farber: You've placed this in the context of the Cityhood movement. Curious to hear more what is this Cityhood movement and how does this compare to other precedents including segregation, white flight, and other tactics of exclusion?
Mock: As I said before, the Cityhood movement happening around the suburbs of Atlanta, unincorporated neighborhoods are ponying up to become new cities and as you can imagine, the places that can afford to do this are the wealthiest neighborhoods. There's been about a dozen new cities that are formed since 2005 starting with Sandy Springs which is north of Atlanta. Sandy Springs and the majority of the new cities that have formed have been these white wealthy enclaves. When you look at Metro Atlanta, Metro Atlanta is actually a quite diverse place overall, especially when you compare it to a lot of other places around America. But, in various areas around Metro Atlanta, you have these pockets a lot of the wealthiest residents live, white residents live. This is also where most of the commercial and economic development happens. When you go into these neighborhoods, like Brookhaven, Dunwoody, Sandy Springs, these are the places where people all around Metro Atlanta go to go shopping, to eat at a fancy restaurant, to stay at a nice hotel, all the biggest shopping malls, all of those for the most part are closest to these white wealthy neighborhoods. Since they have that kind of revenue coming in and out of there, they know that they can basically use that revenue to become their own city. They don't have to depend on the county anymore to survive, right? It should be said, when I talk about these 10 or so new cities that are formed, a lot of them formed right when their county government became mostly black, right, when the county commissioners, county CEOs when they became African-Americans, this is usually when white neighborhoods have decided that they don't want to be subject to a county anymore. They want to become their own city and so this have been happening all around for the most part in, like I said, white, wealthy neighborhoods and that's kind of the segregation that exists in Metro Atlanta, kind of paved the way for that to happen. Only in recent years have we seen a few cases of majority African-American neighborhoods municipalizing. One is South Fulton in Fulton County which is west of Atlanta. You have another city called Stonecrest which is far deep east and Dekalb County. Both of those are majority black cities that were formed in the last two years. And there is a pending proposal for a majority black city in Dekalb County called Greenhaven that has not been able to get through to legislature but basically these places, these majority black neighborhoods are not forming for the same reasons that the majority white neighborhoods have formed cities. The black cities, they're basically forming because they're being left behind. Let me kind of spell this out. In Dekalb County, there's North Dekalb and there's South Dekalb. Most of the white neighborhoods are in North Dekalb County and like I said, most of the commercial and economic development, commercial real estate is in North Dekalb County as well. When those areas in North Dekalb County form their own city, basically what they did was they sucked a lot of the tax revenue that they were generating out of the county, that the county normally would have depended on to provide services throughout the rest of Dekalb County. When these white wealthy neighborhoods, when they form new cities and take most of their tax revenue with them, what's left behind are the less wealthier areas. The areas where there are more African-Americans living and they'll have services that need to be paid for, right, your police, your fire, parks or recreation, zoning, water, infrastructure, but the county has less tax revenue to work with, to provide services to those areas. Now, the leftover black areas are basically saying, "Well, we need to municipalize also so that we can keep our tax revenue, at least what we have to ourselves and we don't have to share it with the rest of the county." It's a very kind of complicated process that's going on throughout Metro Atlanta but it's very much informed by the segregation that exist there.
Farber: And when you say that segregation paved the way for this Cityhood movement, what specifically comes to mind, how do you see those legacies playing out now?
Mock: When you look at the areas that are municipalizing, the way that they're drawing the new municipal borders for the new cities, they're able to very easily carve out an area that is predominantly white because that is the pattern, the spatial layout of the county, it's very easy for them to just carve out this neighborhood. It just happens to be majority white but that's because that's where all of the white residents had flocked to. Then, what happens is, who gets left behind are black neighborhoods and again, it's because of the spatial relationship that it has with the other neighborhoods around Metro Atlanta. It would be one thing, the people were carving out cities and there was a lot of racial inclusion and diversity and economic diversity. That's not the case. Even when we talk about Henry County and the story we were just talking about before, the neighborhoods that try to break away from Stockbridge, the neighborhood is called Eagle's Landing, they carved out an area that actually had some racial diversity. It was about equal parts African-American and white but they selected the wealthiest neighborhoods to put into this new city that would have been called Eagle's Landing and they were able to do that because of the economic segregation that exist. The wealthiest neighborhoods would have been at Eagle’s Landing and the poor and working class neighborhoods of Stockbridge would have been left behind. Not to mention the racial composition of the city of Stockbridge, it was mostly black people who were left out of it so you have a city of Stockbridge that would have been majority low income working class, majority African-American. These were the people who would have been excluded from the city of Eagle’s Landing.
Farber: Speaking of class dynamics, one detail that you uncovered in your reporting which just jumped off the page, was this idea that one of the motivations of the ballot measure so that Eagle's Landing could recruit a Cheesecake Factory. When that came up in your conversations, what were your thoughts and how does that play out as, this detail that it seems trivial but it carries with it a punch.
Mock: It was startling. Basically, when I went to Henry County, to report on the story, I went to go meet with the people who were behind the effort to secede Eagle's Landing away from the city of Stockbridge. The women who was behind this, her name is Vikki Consiglio. I met with her at this big fancy country club that anchors the neighborhood of Eagle’s Landing. I sat and talk with her for maybe an hour and a half, I had spoken with her plenty of times before on the phone as well and what I recognized, kind of indexed in our conversation was that she kept mentioning Cheesecake Factory. When I would ask her, "why do this? It's one thing if you want to start your own city, just from unincorporated neighborhoods, there's nothing wrong with that but why try to take half of the whole city that's already established with you?" Her answer was that she was trying to make this new city, Eagle's Landing, more economically attractive for upscale eateries and fancy hotels and fancy stores to come to Eagle's Landing. She thought that she could not do that as long as they were associated with this city called Stockbridge. She was very specific when she talked about what kind of "upscale eateries," her words, that she wanted and the word, cheesecake factory just kept coming up. Even when I've spoken with her previously in phone interviews from previous stories because I wrote three stories on this, it just kept coming up. And what is it with them and the Cheesecake Factory? [Laughs] Do they not know that this is kind of a cheesy suburban punchline restaurant to most people. But to be honest the kind of city that they were trying to create very much sounded like a cheesy suburb, forgive the pun, I mean, everything that she described about it and the kind of places that she wanted to put in there. No offense on Cheesecake Factory or anyone who likes Cheesecake Factory. She may have been very sincere in wanting that specific restaurant for whatever reason but it was clearly, it was smoke and mirrors for something else. Which was that they wanted to do this Brexit thing where they could finally control the land and finally control how the tax revenue was generated and shared and in doing that, they did not want to share their tax dollars with the people from the city of Stockbridge. Again, what would be this poorer, blacker remnant of Stockbridge leftover, Stockbridge had just elected its first black Mayor, an all African-American city council, it was clear from talking with her that she had a lot of disdain for that Mayor and that City Council. Just from talking with people in both Eagle’s Landing and Stockbridge, it was clear that wealthy white people had controlled Stockbridge for almost all of its hundred-year history. They're in a new kind of milieu, if you will, where all of a sudden, they're looking around and you know, you have a black mayor, a black city council, the African-American population has grown significantly over the past decade and they saw that they were losing their power grip on this place. That was the real reason behind it. The Cheesecake Factory was kind of put up as an illusionary thing. I guess it's what they thought would sound the best in the media other than saying, you don't want to be associated with this black city. But the Cheesecake Factory rationale sounded just as bad.
Farber: It seems uncanny to the television program, Parks and Recreation, where there's a town, Eagleton, next to Pawnee, has a similar dynamic, as you said, there's smoke and mirrors because this is ultimately about exclusion and a fear of power on behalf of an African-American electorate and elected officials.
Mock: There are several ways that this could have happened, right. A lot of Eagle's Landing is an unincorporated Henry County, right? They wanted to have more say in their government and more control over their local zoning and land use policies. One thing they could have done was they could have lobbied the city of Stockbridge to incorporate those areas into the city of Stockbridge, to annex all of that unincorporated area into the city of Stockbridge, which would have been a more inclusionary model, right? We're going to share in the decision making with the rest of the city. We're going to share the tax revenue generation and resources. But they chose to go the opposite way. They didn't want to do inclusionary, they wanted to do exclusionary, which is, form a competing city right next to it and the part of Stockbridge that they wanted to take from Stockbridge just happen to be the area that had, it was Stockbridge's as commercial real estate district. It was like the one major area where there were already restaurants and stores and hotels. The major tax revenue generator for the city of Stockbridge and Eagle's Landing wanted to basically just swipe that away. But yeah, the irony was not lost on me, this was exactly a plot out of Parks and Rec. As it happens one of the municipal services, the Eagle’s Landing said that they wanted to take on was Parks and Recreation.
Farber: On election day, the ballot measure did not pass, this "strange form of white flight" as you've written, did not take hold. It was not agreed upon by voters, what did the vote reveal to you?
Mock: It was a ballot initiative. In order for an unincorporated area to become a city, that neighborhood that wants to become a city has to lobby to the state general assembly. They have to produce legislation that will be passed through the state general assembly but the legislation that gets passed is basically just permission for a ballot referendum to go on for election day, which allows the people who live in that area to vote on whether they want to become a city or not. The ballot referendum on election day for Eagle's Landing the place that would have become Eagle's Landing would have had I believe 9,000 people in it. There were roughly 8,000 people who voted on this ballot initiative so that let me know one thing which was, a lot of people were paying attention to this. If you know anything about ballot initiatives and referendums, that's usually the lowest hanging fruit on election day. A lot of people don't vote. You usually have very low turnout, very low rates of people who vote on ballot initiatives mainly because they don't know what the ballot initiative is because usually, there's very poor voter education outreach on ballot initiatives. Also ballot initiatives notoriously are very poorly worded. Almost intentionally written in a way to confuse voters so a lot of voters just end up not even dealing with it. That was not the case for this Eagle's Landing ballot initiative, roughly, maybe 80, 90% of the people who would have lived in the city came out and voted for this thing. So that let me know that this people were really aware of this and they were really hyped up about it. The ballot initiative lost like 5,000 to 3,000 votes. I'm rounding up very generously. I saw that 3,000 people came out to vote for this. People I spoke with said, "We'd be lucky if 300 people voted on this.” This was before the vote happened, because they thought that like most people just wouldn't care. They were confused. But 3,000 people voted for it so Eagle's Landing lost, that ballot lost but if I'm the people behind Eagle's Landing, I'm looking at 3,000 people and I'm saying like, "Hey, I have something to work with here. Maybe I might just change a few things in this proposal and we'll try this thing again in a couple of years." I haven't spoken with Vikki Consiglio or the people behind Eagle's Landing since that vote was taken but when I spoke with her before, she was very determined, very adamant about this happening and I wouldn't be surprised that she's seeing that 3,000 or so people who showed up to vote as a kind of a mandate for them bringing this thing back to the ballot very soon.
Farber: You've covered voter suppression for CityLab and Colorlines, especially around the dismantling of the Voting Rights Act. How do you see the current election and especially given the work that you've done around Eagle's Landing as a real challenge to the democratic process in Georgia and perhaps elsewhere?
Mock: Georgia is one of many states across the former confederacy, across the deep south that has a long entrenched history of trying to make it as difficult as possible for black people to vote, if not, keep them from voting all together. What we've seen in Georgia, in this election is just a continuation of that legacy. Voter suppression is heritage in Georgia, they might as well put voter suppression on their state flag. We can start with one of the more controversial policies that are in place which is that when voters, fill out their voter registration forms. Basically those registration forms will go to the department of the Secretary of State's office or to the Department of Motor Vehicles where the motor registration information on the card is crossed checked against other databases such as driver's license database, social security database to ensure that everything on the voter registration card 100% exactly matches with whatever information is in those databases. And what happens is the person out the voter registration form, they don't know how this information looks in these databases. Maybe your driver's license, your name is Thomas and that's what it says on your driver's license but you're known as Tom to the neighborhood and to your friends. That's what you put on your voter registration form, the Secretary of State's office sees that as a discrepancy. We need to put a pause on this meaning, basically, we're not going to put the registration form all the way through. You may not even know that your registration hasn't gone through and so you go to vote on election day or if you go in for early voting. Basically, this is something that the Secretary of State, Brian Kemp, the guy who happens to be in the run off race against Stacey Abrams. This is something that Brian Kemp has been trying to do for the past 10 years. When he first tried to do it, Georgia was subjected to Section V of the Voting Rights Act under a pre-clearance. This is where it's going to be a little wonky but under a pre-clearance formula that is set in Section IV of the Voting Rights Act. Basically, that pre-clearance formula says, there are certain areas in the United States, mostly across the deep south that have a history of discriminating against black people when they go to vote. Because of that, we want these states anytime they try to create a new voting policy, that policy has to be reviewed, and approved or rejected by the federal government specifically by the Department of Justice. Georgia was subjected to that pre-clearance formula, up until 2013 when the US Supreme Court got rid of that pre-clearance formula. Now, there are no states that are subjected to that. All the states that, again, have this history of fighting against the voting rights of black people, literally not letting them vote or making it as difficult as possible, all of a sudden, all of those states across deep south are now on equal standing with the rest of the United States and this means that they can make all kinds of changes to the voting policy and they don't have to have them pre-cleared or reviewed by the federal government. That exact match voter registration policy, I was referring to, that was a one point rejected by the federal government when Georgia was subjected to the Section IV pre-clearance formula but once the supreme court struck that pre-clearance formula, Brian Kemp put that policy through to the state afterward and it was approved and ever since then there had been hundreds of thousands of people whose voting registrations have been challenged or paused or frozen or erased from the files. The grand majority of those people have been African-Americans and Latinos. Several civil rights organizations such as NAACP LDF, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, [and] several voting rights advocacy organizations have sued Brian Kemp over this policy. They continue to sue him even now as we speak, there's litigation pending over this. When the Supreme Court, when they took Georgia and the Southern States out of this pre-clearance formula, they said they did it because the days of racism are over, right? This might have been good back in the 60s when they were firehosing African-Americans but we don't have anything like that anymore so we don't need this formula. But everything that's been happening in Georgia suggest that we definitely still need them to have this pre-clearance review process happening by the federal government.
Farber: In your work, you are exploring these really urgent timely issues concerning this election but you connect your reporting to legacies of exclusion and repression in the past whether that would be around segregation or ongoing ... or displacement or discrimination. How do you explore that connection between these tactics of the past and the practices of the present when it comes to voting rights and the kind of “right to a city”?
Mock: It's just white supremacy. White supremacy is not static. I mean, it's like a cancer. You can eliminate it to a certain degree in one organ and then you come to find out that it's metastasized and has reformed in another organ and it's doing different activity and different damage but it's still the same. It's still cancer and that cancer is still white supremacy. So we blotted out perhaps legalized racial segregation. Yeah, you can't tell black people that you can't live here or you can't live in this neighborhood or you can't live on the street, anymore. That is true but now, today, it's just more insidious. Right now, it's just "we want to have control of zoning so that we can control what kind of ... how the street is used." Whether it's for residential and if it is for residential, what kind of residential? Are we going to exclude multi-family apartment housing which usually brings in renters, people with low income, people of color, and make it exclusively just for single family houses? That is just another way of instituting segregation just in a different font. The connection between what's happening now and in the past is ... I mean, what they have in common is white supremacy. If there was no white supremacy, there would be no one who was trying to control who and what comes into a city, or who and what gets taken out of the city. If there was no white supremacy, there would be no reason for voter suppression, right, because everyone would be equally invested and everyone having a fair shot at voting. Everyone would be equally invested and everyone having a fair shot at holding certain offices whether that's the governor or whether that's a county commissioner or whether that's a mayor but we understand that it's been whites and white men in particular who've occupied these seats: governor seats, mayor seats, city council seats, state legislative, congressional district. White men have controlled these seats forever in the United States, right? We're only in the past 20 years, really seeing some kind of critical mass of people of color and women finally coming in, occupying these seats. I think white men are aware of this and because of their loyalty to white supremacy, they are constantly trying to change the rules such that they can continue to have their hold on power, have their hold on these seats, have their hold on land use, how land is used. That is what is causing them to constantly change the rules, change the laws to make it more difficult for people of color, women to be able to participate in democracy, in city government, in state government and really all forms of government.
Farber: A few episodes ago, we spoke to art historian Kirk Savage about white supremacy and the development of civil war memory that erased the experiences of enslaved peoples and African-Americans soldiers in place of a public memory around the confederacy. Kirk Savage spoke about, this is part of a massive PR campaign and a plan to hold power over an emancipated African-American population. You've written about this in a few ways. Your piece, "Say Goodbye to Confederate Avenue" around another issue in Georgia took on the attempts to rename some of Atlanta's confederate commemorative streets. What is the status of that work and how do you see that as a tool for confronting these tactics of exclusion?
Mock: What is the point of having streets that are named after military generals from the confederate army whose main mission was to keep slavery and white supremacy alive and as the fuel for America? What is the point of having streets named after those people? What is the point of having big stone monuments commemorating these people? These people who wanted to have white supremacy be the prevailing rule of law over all of America. The only reason to have streets named after those people, have monuments standing that commemorate those kind of people, confederates, is to remind America that white Supremacy is still with us. Yes, the confederates lost the civil war but white supremacy is still here and we're going to remind everyone about that, every day, by naming the street that you live on after the military generals who fought on behalf of the confederate cause. Or to have these monuments in Atlanta, on Stone Mountain, one of the highest elevated mountains in that entire region and on that, you have inscribed the largest confederate memorial in America overlooking a supposedly black city. They call Atlanta the "black mecca," right, and literally you have a huge inscription of white confederate generals literally overseeing the city. The conversations we had about "well, what do we do, do we take the memorial down or do we put other people in it?" We're having that conversation in 2018 about what to do about people who fought to keep slavery and white supremacy alive back in the 1800s. Atlanta just now voted to rename several streets that are named after confederate generals in 2018 and it took a year of studies. I mean, they had a committee, they put together. They studied this and research this just to come to the conclusion that yeah, maybe these guys are racist and we shouldn't have streets named after them. I mean, that wouldn't have taken a year if you ask most black people who live in Atlanta, that would have taken a few seconds. They'd said, "No, get rid of [them]." When you look at these things from the perspective of the oppressed, and the victims of white supremacy, these are not things that need to be studied, researched, debated, discussed in any kind of way because they are the people who have to live with this and have to be reminded of the fact that white supremacy is still ruling their lives in a lot of different ways. It's going to take a gargantuan effort to really crumble white supremacy but the very least that we can do is take its monuments down. The things that are memorializing it and that's where we're at today. It's not just in Atlanta. It's happening in Baltimore, it's happening in New Orleans, it's happening in Memphis. We have so many monuments. I mean, there are literally thousands of monuments to a cause that wanted to enslave all non-white people in this country and a lot of those are still standing and a lot of them are still being debated and it makes literally no logic. It arguably is a monument to white supremacy itself that we are only debating whether these things should come down as opposed to just doing a blanket sweep of them.
Farber: From your perspective, across these different cities that you mentioned which are reckoning with confederate monuments, commemorative streets and other kinds of sites of memory, what is the relationship between elected officials and activists? Are you seeing ways that they work together, are you finding other spaces where there's an obvious tension around pushing that status quo?
Mock: There's an obvious tension. When you talk to activists, there's a group called Take 'Em Down NOLA in New Orleans. This is a group that had been pushing, advocating for taking down confederate monuments in New Orleans for decades. The organization itself Take 'Em Down NOLA is only a few years old but the advocacy push to bring down the monuments is something that lasted decades. Former mayor Mitch Landrieu, he decided to have four of them brought down last year. There's still dozens, hundreds all over Louisiana and New Orleans that are still standing but four were taken down and there definitely was not a lot of synchronicity between the mayor and the activists. The activists who're trying to, they were trying to do a broader push to bring down all symbols of white supremacy throughout New Orleans and the mayor wanted to kind of focus on a few that he thought were the most problematic. There wasn't even synchronicity between the Mayor and the City Council because there were some city council members who didn't even want to deal with this at all. what's happened is since those four memorials came down, Mayor Mitch Landrieu kind of gets to walk away as a solo hero in this. I mean, he recently released a book about his trials and ordeals in coming to this very difficult decision, I guess to bring down these monuments. Meanwhile, there has not been much conversation between the activists. Mostly black, not all black activists who've been pushing for this for decades. You see a similar thing happening at Memphis. There's a group called Take 'Em Down Memphis. This is a network, right? A lot of black people in a lot of cities, they've had it up to here with having parks named after Klan members and monuments named after confederates throughout this city. In Memphis, huge push there to bring down monuments. The mayor finds a creative way to do it. Still not a lot of conversation going on between the Mayor, city government and the activists but one of the black activists in Memphis, Tami Sawyer, she was one of the leaders of Take 'Em Down Memphis. She actually just joined the government. She ran to be a county commissioner for Shelby County where Memphis is located and she was elected. Now you have a situation where one of the activist who's been pushing for again, not just bringing down these confederate monuments but trying to bring the city into this culture of dismantling white supremacy in general. She is now in government, in county government and I'm really excited to see what kind of things that she will try to implement and execute as a county commissioner to bring people up to speed on this whole movement to dismantle white supremacy.
Farber: Once monuments are dismantled, street names are changed, do you get a sense of the ways that especially activists, and perhaps their partners in city government deal with the next steps? What are the next steps after a takedown occurs?
Mock: Well, it's interesting. I know in New Orleans there is a process playing out to do exactly that. Some of the activist there are part of this process to have people of New Orleans, the residents of New Orleans kind of crowdsource, if you will new ideas of what should go up in place of the fallen confederate monuments. That is very much something that is happening with the city, in tandem with the city government, it kind of has to be that way. I mean, the city government still owns these grounds, right? Still owns the land. Before something else goes up, you got to have the permission and the cooperation of the city. I'm really excited that a good friend of mine, Bryan Lee is helping to lead that effort in New Orleans.
Farber: He was a guest on our podcast with Sue Mobley and Paper Monuments. [Paper Monuments is] a sibling project of Monument Lab. We've been working closely with them for the last few years.
Mock: Yup, yup. Yeah, Bryan and Sue, they are true leaders in New Orleans and they're leading this process. I can't tell you where precisely they are right now with it but I can say that in starting this process of getting the entire city together so as a city, they can come out with ideas as to what should replace the confederate monuments. Now, you're generating conversations and discussions throughout the city about not only the memorials of white supremacy that were once standing and why they had to come down but also, ideas about the names of people and places that should be lifted up. These heroes, black heroes, Latino heroes, women heroes in the city, whose identities have been stamped out because of the fealty to white supremacy. Now we have these opportunity to lift these people up as true heroes who people who have been working to unite the city, people who have been working to help black people vote, helping black people better participate in democracy. These are the kinds of people who should have been lifted up to begin with and now the city finally to have some discussions about who these people are. It can never be underestimated how the level of ignorance there is about people of color and women who fought for voting rights, civil rights, human rights. Again, whose aims and voices get erased, if not overcast because usually there's again there's usually a white male who wants the kind of, be the lone victor. And this is the kind of thing that I think they're trying to work through.
Farber: In your writing, you weave together stories of visits to monuments and sites of public memory, whether that includes the National Memorial for Peace and Justice or, in a piece for the Atlantic, a drive along Jefferson Davis Highway nearby Richmond, Virginia. And in that piece, titled "Harriet Tubman Was My Wonder Woman," you reflect on the visit to that monument with your then 12-year-old son. You pause to examine a confederate monument. I don't know if this is too personal or not, would you share or could you share some of the experience of visiting sites and what it means to you and your family to experience those in the process of reporting and traveling.
Mock: Yeah. I mean, I think, traveling to these sites, it's an opportunity for me to have a father and son conversation about white supremacy, right? My son, he is 15 now, when we did that story. He may have been 12 or 13. I kind of looked for any opportunity I can to talk about racism and white supremacy with him. To Help him understand, that this isn't just some stuff that happened hundreds of years ago. That there are symbols and examples of this that exist today and wanting to share with him that these things are literally enshrined in our cities, in our landscapes, in our roads, our bridges, our schools, our streets. And help him understand that one, it's not cool. Two, you don't have to deal with it, like you can speak up. You can say, I don't want this, I don't want to be reminded of this, I don't think that this is appropriate. I remember when we did that stretch down, Jefferson Highway, it was a learning experience for both of us really, because I had probably driven up and down that highway dozens of times throughout my life but I never stopped to get out the car to go look at these monuments that are literally sprinkled across this highway, especially as you get closer to Richmond. I got out with him, we would read it and then, we have iPads and iPhones now so not only are we reading inscriptions but we can look these things up. We can look up who these people are, not only look at not only what they were doing in the civil war but also what they were doing in their lives. Did they own slaves, how did they treat women, what were their views and perspectives on civil rights and voting rights? That was the kind of experience that we had. I remember one of the – I tried to put this in the Atlantic story. I think they may have taken it out – but one of the monuments we stopped at, we read about one of the generals and then we looked them up. And he was a creepy guy needless to say and I remember, my son asked if he could pee on the monument and as a father, as a responsible father, I couldn't allow that. Inside, I wanted to join him in peeing on it. I didn't want to obviously set that kind of example as a father. I didn't say that he could not do it. What I told him is, when we get in the car, look up a book, do some further research on this monument on who this guy is and write me a report about this monument and why it's a bad thing and if you do all of that, I don't care what you do to it. You could spray paint it, you could take a dump on it, I don't care. I did that not necessarily to encourage that outcome but more to steer him towards like studying and investigating the history. It's very easy to just kind of dump on things, piss on things, but let's take a look at what we're dumping on first and understand why it's so bad. Don't just take my word for it. This is as a 12, 13-year-old, I really encouraged him to investigate these kinds of history for him. That particular trip went up from what I remembered it, I was pretty intentional. As it was, we were actually driving to Charleston, Charleston, South Carolina because if I'm not mistaken that was not long after Dylann Roof shot up the Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston. We were actually driving from Washington DC and we had stopped at Richmond. This was a completely educational road trip, right, where we're driving to Charleston. We're also stopping at these other places so that we can talk about literally the legacy of racism and white supremacy that had led up to that moment where Dylann Roof walks into a black church and slaughters nine African-Americans. That way, once we got through the church, once my wife and my son, once we got to Mother Emmanuel Church, my son, he asked, "why would anybody do that?" Well now, he knows why because we'd stopped at all of those monuments and we did all of that. We have that educational journey leading up to Charleston. Now, he understands in a very visceral and visual way.
Farber: As a reporter, in a moment where journalists are under attack, where a series of African-American women journalists and the White House Press Corps are disrespectfully communicated with by the president, what is your duty? What is the way that you keep your purpose and your focus in your reporting?
Mock: The purpose is dismantle white supremacy, I'm going to shout that all day long to the grave. That is the purpose and white supremacy is going to do what it's going to do. When white supremacy is threatened, yeah, it's going to incite, if not, exact violence on journalists and particularly journalists of color. When white supremacy feels threatened, yes, it's going to insult women, it's going to insult the disabled, it's going to insult and offend anybody who dares to stand in its path, who dares to question it, who dares to challenge it. That's nothing new. The violence is definitely unsettling because we already know how this thing can turn out, right? We don't have to go back far in history to understand, we don't have to go back to the civil war to understand that once you start enforcing white supremacy through the execution or even the incitement of violence against people of color, and when that's coming from the leader of a nation. If it's coming from a president, we only need to go back to the Hitler's army to understand like how far that thing can go. It's important now because it's in our living and present memory what happened with the Nazi empire. We have to do everything that we can to ensure that it never gets to that point again, which is why we can never normalize or take for granted any kind of trifling statement that comes from the President. Or that comes from the governor or right in Mississippi, the person running for senate joking about going to a public hanging and being in a front row seat. We can never – as triggering or as damaging as those, and troubling as those statements are – we can never just let that slide. You have to keep press annoying, you have to keep questioning that. You have to keep calling it out and calling it out in very loudly so everyone understands that this is not okay. There's a whole history behind public hangings and lynchings and nationalism. They're not even dog whistles anymore. I mean, these are pure dog yelps that are going out right now. We have to not just quiet those but we have to completely mute them.
Farber: You attended the University of Pittsburgh and in the aftermath of the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre, you wrote a poignant piece, focusing on the neighborhood in which Tree of Life Synagogue sits in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill and it read as highly personal, honest, sobering, and it's really meaningful to read. How did you decide to write that piece?
Mock: It wasn't difficult. I live in the neighborhood where the Tree of Life Synagogue is located, the neighborhood of Squirrel Hill. I lived there for many years. Right now, I live in the neighborhood that neighbors Squirrel Hill, so it's literally across the river for me. I was in Squirrel Hill when it happened with my family, on my way to brunch. And I'm not Jewish, I don't have much connection or proximity to Jewish life in the religious or cultural sense. I don't think I have one close friend who's an actual practicing Jew. But while I don't know what it is like to live as a Jewish person, I definitely know what it's like to not feel safe. To have my life threatened or to be targeted or scapegoat it as the reason why society is perceived as messed up or wrong because of my race, because of my skin color, because of who I am. My connection to place, meaning the neighborhood, Squirrel Hill was a reason enough for me to express my condolences not just for the people of that synagogue in the neighborhood but also for Jewish people in general. It was something that I just thought I needed people to understand. I knew that there are going to be a lot of people writing about the hate crime itself, the actual shooting. I knew there are going to be a lot of people writing about the synagogue and about the attack on Jewish people in general. I also knew that I knew Squirrel Hill very, very well and I wanted people to understand that Squirrel Hill really is an exceptional neighborhood in Pittsburgh. There's a lot of segregation in Pittsburgh, something like 100 neighborhoods but the majority of African-Americans are literally squeezed into three or four neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, right? Every other neighborhood, you go into, it's predominantly white. All the people who you're going to walk and drive past are white, any store, bank, hospital, any building out of this at all you're going to, it's going to be mostly white people that you are interacting with. There's not enough commerce and business going on in the black neighborhoods to even speak of. So nine times out of 10, you're dealing with white people and you're interacting with them and if you're not white, then you're constantly reminded of your proximity to whiteness as a consumer or as a resident or as a constituent. That's not the case when you go to Squirrel Hill. You go to Squirrel Hill, there's a lot of Jewish businesses but there's also a lot of Asian, Chinese, Taiwanese businesses, restaurants. There are Indians, Hindus, Palestinians, that have businesses there. They are black owned. I mean, there is a black bar in Squirrel Hill. I mean by a black bar, I mean, you go in there and it's like mostly African-Americans behind the bar and sitting at the bar. You just don't see that kind of diversity in any other neighborhood in Squirrel Hill. You absolutely don't. It was because of that kind of diversity, that kind of welcoming, that kind of inclusion that somebody like me, like I always felt comfortable there and I'm not the only one who feels this way. A lot of black people who spoke up about it and that wrote that piece, who agreed that they have that same kind of welcome and embracing feeling when they were in Squirrel Hill. I tried very hard to find black people who did not feel that way. Before I broke that piece I was on Facebook and on group texts saying like, "Hey, has anybody had a racist experience at Squirrel Hill, please let me know because I'm about to talk about how warm and fuzzy and diverse it is but I don't want a bunch of people writing me afterwards saying, are you crazy, there's a lot of racism there." Literally, I mean, nine out of 10, black people that I spoke, they all have this feeling so I knew that this was a thing, and it's the kind of thing that I feel when I'm in Brooklyn or certain parts of Brooklyn or when I'm in Atlanta. I've lived in New Orleans, I've lived in DC, I've lived in Montgomery, Alabama. I know what segregation feels like and I know what it feels like to be in a neighborhood where you are viewed almost completely with suspicion just for being black and I know they're in a lot of different contexts. Squirrel Hill is one of the few places in my life that I did not feel that way and I understood that this was because of how Jewish people presented the neighborhood. I know how Pittsburgh would like to present itself to the rest of the nation. It aspires to have the kind of welcoming and inclusion and diversity that Squirrel Hill has. It is far from Squirrel Hill. But Squirrel Hill is basically the apotheosis of that in Squirrel Hill. I felt deep down inside, that the guy who shot up the synagogue, we know that he blamed the Jewish people for sponsoring this program that would have brought in immigrant refugees from conflict nations, many of them in Africa, the Middle East and South America. The guy who shot the synagogue, that was specifically the thing that incited him to go in there and do that massacre. But that program, that immigrant refugee welcoming program that that synagogue sponsored was basically in sync and in line with really the culture and the value system of Squirrel Hill as exemplified by the kinds of people that you see going in and out of there all day every day. That was an attack on diversity, it was an attack on sanctuary and that was the kind of story that I wanted to present to help people understand. It wasn't just the synagogue, this entire neighborhood was like that.
Farber: Brentin Mock, thank you for taking the time for this conversation and for all of your reporting.
Mock: Thanks for having me on. Great convo.