The gulf between people and police is widening, and comedian W. Kamau Bell is podcasting about it.
On December 20th, gunman Ismaaiyl Brinsley allegedly shot and killed two New York City police officers in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. He later killed himself. The murders came after weeks of nationwide protests against law enforcement in America, with people taking to the streets to denounce the shooting deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the non-indictment of the police officers involved, and reports indicate that Brinsley committed the killings as revenge against law enforcement at large. With these new killings, the tenor surrounding the situation had changed in one fell swoop.
The shootings gave Bell pause, but also a chance to find a new platform. He’d already, in his small way, taken part in the protests. He also discusses race and law enforcement in his work. In a recent Vanity Fair piece, Bell say he’s “petrified of the cops,” and describes his fear as a cultural inclination, a means of survival. But it was when he got to speak candidly with retired LAPD police officer Anthony Escobar in September, two months before the Michael Brown grand jury decision that he felt like he had something worth saving and one day sharing.
"I’d never had that kind of unfettered access to a police officer where I never felt like he was going to turn on me or arrest me or murder me," Bell told me over the phone. The conversation turned into an hour-long podcast he calls Coptalk, and it seemed like the right thing to help bridge the yawning gap between police and the communities they serve. But when two cops die and the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association says protesters and the mayor himself have blood on their hands, what can a podcast hope to achieve? He’s is still figuring that out, but releasing it feels like a step in the right direction.
"There’s a part of me that goes, ‘Is this actually the wrong time to put this out?’" he told me, letting me in on his doubt. "But I sort of feel like I can’t sit on this any longer."
Coptalk was made and released through the EarWolf Podcast Network this week, which hosts popular shows like the Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast. Bell calls his effort the first episode of a new series, but he isn’t sure what episode two will look like yet. In fact, he doesn’t seem to have a fully realized plan. All he knows is that this show just needed to be out there now.
"I just want to add this to the conversation."
"It was just about trying to focus on what it’s like to be a cop in these situations and what is it like to be a person who’s not a police officer [and] just walked into the neighborhood," Bell told me. "And I certainly don’t think that we addressed that in that hour-long conversation. I think there’s more we could address. I just want to add this to the conversation."
Sharing this conversation via podcast, as opposed to, say, an appearance on Meet the Press, felt right and in keeping with the media landscape today. There’s something to the DIY-ness, he says, of making something important without worrying about production values. Bell even cited Serial, the true crime podcast that quickly became the fastest-growing show in the medium, for giving him the opportunity to make something he feels is powerful and his own.
"I think the one thing Serial did was it started conversations about the criminal justice system," he said. "Now, it didn’t have to do necessarily with police brutality or abusive cops. I don’t know that it addressed the racist side of the criminal justice system. In my mind, that’s not their job." He laughs. "That’s my job."
Over the course of their talk, Bell and Escobar converse frankly about how police and communities (particularly communities of color) interact. Escobar even gives a first-person perspective on how law enforcement is trained to use the weapons at their disposal — billy clubs, tasers, and guns — when faced with the kind of threat Michael Brown was said to have posed. The discussion can be hard to hear at times, especially in light of how the case panned out. It’s even clear that the two disagree on fundamental points, and Bell concedes that the show could have also been called "Trigger Warning." It might be too much for some people. But that's okay. For him, the key part of this discussion was that there was some attempt to reach consensus. It’s the kind of discussion we need more of.
"Sometimes the best thing we can do is shut the fuck up and listen to other people."
"Sometimes the best thing we can do is shut the fuck up and listen to other people," he said. "I think we live in a time where, with social media and Twitter, everybody has an opinion. It would have been really easy for me to sit down with Anthony and go ‘No no no no no.’ Even times when I disagreed with him, it was just like, 'No, let me let him talk and get his point across.' And I think the challenge of doing more of this podcast is [finding] other cops who are as open as he was." He continued, "I think if we did more of these [podcasts], we’d do them live, and I think we’d start to go around the country and go to the places where they need to talk to the police who patrol that community. The problem is can we get cops to sit down at that table? I got lucky."
Truthfully, Bell doesn’t have much hope that cop-community relations can change much in the near term. "Unfortunately right now, people think we’re an occupied nation negotiating with the police, as opposed the the police being our servants," he said. But, as a comedian with a platform who’s used to "spitting into the wind," it’s enough for him to try to build something that can effect change.
"We are at a critical time, and you have to be open to all new ideas and all new ways to solve the problem," he said. "Because you don’t know where the solution’s gonna come from. Obviously people are dying, and it seems like every day. That’s why I felt like I couldn’t sit on this any longer. This may be the first step toward us working on this show and figuring out what we can do here. This is my way."
Update: A previous version of this article stated that EarWolf hosts WTF with Marc Maron. That was incorrect and the piece has been corrected.