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Kerby Jean-Raymond on Defunding Police: "Anything Else Isn't Worth Talking About"

  • Words: Jian DeLeon

  • Photography: Mark Clennon

For the latest edition of FRONTPAGE, we sat down with designer Kerby Jean-Raymond to discuss the dire need for police reform in America. Specifically, de-funding them and putting that money where it will actually foster real growth and change.

On June 4, the Council of Fashion Designers of America released a statement along with action steps the organization would take to address racism, promote inclusivity, and create opportunities for Black talent in the fashion industry. Among the initiatives are an “in-house employment program specifically charged with placing Black talent in the fashion industry,” mentorship and internship programs pairing Black students and graduates with established companies, and a diversity and inclusion training program it would implement and make available to its members.

According to Pyer Moss founder Kerby Jean-Raymond, the CFDA still isn’t doing enough. As one of the most prominent Black members of the council, the designer isn’t afraid to speak truth to power, or use his platform to amplify the interests of the Black community. He attended the June 2 meeting where the CFDA wanted to discuss the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests and the systemic racism that has long been prevalent in the fashion industry.

He says he worked with other members of the CFDA — like Virgil Abloh, designer Prabal Gurung, and Public School’s Dao-Yi Chow — to craft a list of reasonable, actionable demands that CFDA members and its associated companies could be held accountable for. The points they outlined are as follows:

1. We're calling on all U.S. retailers to train and instruct their employees to not make frivolous 911 calls for non-violent infractions.

2. We're calling on all companies to not hire off-duty police officers in their retail locations.

3. We're requiring that all CFDA affiliated companies commit to having 15% of their senior leadership staff be Black, the representation of what we are in the population.

4. We're no longer accepting brands into the CFDA that do not meet these bare minimum standards of diversity.

5. We're calling on all US retailers to commit 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned brands.

6. We will create a placement division with the CFDA that pairs Black talent with companies looking to hire.

7. We will be creating a program that pairs Black talent with established Black talent in the fashion industry.

Instead, the CFDA chose to ignore these requests, and released what Jean-Raymond calls a “fucking watered-down, bubblegum-ass statement that didn't address the issues.”

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Given the deplorable acts of racism and violence that we have seen play out in our country over this past week, our response as an organization was first and foremost on our minds and in our hearts. Black people in this country are reeling from years of injustice stemming from institutional constructs such as slavery, segregation, mass incarceration, police brutality and economic and voter suppression. The Black community is experiencing anger and frustration on top of the effects of the global pandemic that has hit communities of color the hardest. Having a clear voice and speaking out against racial injustice, bigotry and hatred is the first step, but this is not enough. It is not enough to simply say that we stand in solidarity with those who are discriminated against. We must do something. The CFDA outlines initiatives that will immediately be undertaken to create systemic change within our industry: • The CFDA will create an in-house employment program specifically charged with placing Black talent in all sectors of the fashion business to help achieve a racially balanced industry. This program will be tasked with identifying Black creatives and pairing these individuals with companies looking to hire. • The CFDA will also create a mentorship program and an internship program focused on placing Black students and recent graduates within established companies in the fashion sector. • The CFDA will implement and make available to our members a Diversity and Inclusion training program. • We will make immediate contributions and take up fundraising activities in support of charitable organizations aimed at equalizing the playing field for the Black community such as, but not limited to the NAACP and Campaign Zero - amongst others. We urge each and every member of the CFDA to take stock of their corporate structure to ensure that they have a racially balanced workforce and we challenge the retail sector of the fashion industry to ensure that their roster of brands and their product assortment is representative of the Black talent in our industry. Sincerely, Tom Ford, Chairman Steven Kolb, President & CEO #blacklivesmatter

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In addition to creating more opportunities for Black talent, these requests specifically diminish the involvement between the fashion and retail industries with the police. The abolishment of the police force is Jean-Raymond’s most urgent objective of the moment, and talking about how to do it is the only reason he even agreed to this interview.

The outline for what a world without police looks like already exists, as multiple examples on social media have shown us. Reallocating inflated police budgets to youth programs, education, and healthcare would do more to diminish crime and create self-sustaining communities more akin to the suburbs, according to Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“Affluent white communities already live in a world where they choose to fund youth, health, housing etc more than they fund police," Ocasio-Cortez explained in an Instagram Story. “White communities bend over backwards to find alternatives to incarceration for their loved ones to 'protect their future,' like community service or rehab or restorative measures. Why don't we treat Black and Brown people the same way?”

It’s a sentiment that is quickly turning into action. Cities like Los Angeles and New York have vowed to cut police budgets and reallocate those funds. The Minneapolis City Council voted to dismantle its police force. Reform laws named for Eric Garner and Breonna Taylor, two Black lives lost to police brutality, have recently been passed. But Jean-Raymond knows that there’s still a long march ahead towards police abolishment, and he’s going to do everything he can to make sure no one loses sight of the goal posts.

All over the country we’re seeing states actively taking steps to dismantle police departments or reallocating budgets away from them. Broadly speaking, how do we even start working towards abolishing the police?

It’s a multi-step process, and it requires all hands on deck for it to happen quickly. There are the immediate, short-term solutions that you see with #8CantWait and Campaign Zero's harm reduction programs that have been around forever, but it's really a smart approach to a bigger problem.

Semantics and words matter. Seeing catchy phrases and things like that do work. We live in a meme society, and the revolution will be memed — I think it's important for us to have a deep dive into all of these pieces that lead to the bigger solution, which is community policing, community safety, demilitarization of the police, abolishing the police,  and all of the things we can agree society needs right now.

That’s definitely something we’re seeing in how information is being spread and the Black history narratives going viral on social media.

All of these different facts are coming to light in bite-sized, tangible bits. You're getting it in memes and people are reposting at a rate that's dangerously fast. We're getting a lot of historical information thrown at us that the public may have ignored before.

And I think our collective consciousness is understanding that police are trained like a cult. We just saw that in Buffalo with the older gentleman who was pushed down — 57 officers essentially turned in their resignation because they wanted to protect [their fellow cops].

This “blue wall of silence” is a proper cult. Just like MAGA is a cult, just like Kabbalah is a cult, and just like Jim Jones had a cult. One of the things that we have to look at — and why we have to disband our current police and create completely new community-serving public safety measures — is because these people are not trained to do what they were supposed to do in the first place. Something went wrong. They're not serving their communities, they're not living amongst the people, they're only serving each other. Why would you become a cop just so you could protect other cops?

"These people are not trained to do what they were supposed to do. Something went wrong. They're not serving their communities, they're only serving each other. Why would you become a cop just so you could protect other cops?"

It’s clear that reform isn’t enough. Campaigns for police reform like #8CantWait have their fair share of criticism, but we’ve also seen laws passed in honor of Eric Garner and Breonna Taylor that ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants.

With #8CantWait specifically, their approach is to deal with the things that we can immediately address overnight. Mayors can put these things into effect. Banning chokeholds doesn't mean that the violence is going to stop — I don't think anybody believes that means the violence is going to stop — but with chokeholds clearly banned, it makes it a lot harder for the [police] unions and their legal defense to justify those actions. It's an effective thing that can reduce harm to individuals almost immediately.

The common denominator is that people in power usually agree that these killings are wrong and egregious, but what we don't talk about enough is how powerful these police unions are and these pre-negotiated collective bargaining agreements that keep police officers from facing accountability.

So ultimately, defunding the police is about taking power away from those unions?

Defunding the police is the ultimate goal, but we also have to remember that politicians and people in power have been trying to fight these police unions and these corrupt police departments all around the country forever. So it's super important to give credit to these organizations, like Campaign Zero and the Know Your Rights campaign, who are using tactical approaches and playing chess with the system.

At the same time, we have to give credit to the people on the street who are making noise and doing whatever the fuck they need to do to get attention. We all know that America respects money, and if they fuck with somebody's pocket, they're going to pay attention. We need universal pressure being put on corporations and businesses that support police.

How do we keep putting that pressure on?

One of the things that we can implement specifically in fashion and retail is to no longer call the police for non-violent offenses. [George Floyd] shouldn't have had the police called on him for a $20 counterfeit bill in the first place, especially when we know what police have done to Black men and women historically.

Speaking of accountability, you also took the CFDA to task for ignoring the list of demands you helped put together and instead issuing a statement you found totally inadequate. In many ways, these institutions continue to fail the Black community.

It's fucking lip service to the movement, and it's bullshit. Honestly, this is probably one of the biggest slaps in the face that I've ever gotten, and me and Virgil [Abloh] are going back and forth on this thing like, "What the fuck do we do?"

As far as the way that they conducted themselves and chose to omit specific language that can make Black people feel advocated for? A governing body like the CFDA holds so much prestige within the fashion space, and for them not to advocate in the proper way leads Black people to believe that there's not going to be any help when we get here — or if we can ever get there at all.

"This is divine intervention. We got a pandemic, no distractions. We never had a movement free of distractions the way that we do now. Now all you can do is pick a side — and if you don't pick a side, that means you picked a side."

Not for nothing, the CFDA also has Black people in positions of power, however oftentimes these roles can be marginalized in their organizational influence.

I'm not going to speak too much on it, but what I will say is in my experience with working within these industries, the few people of color who are there are very scared to speak out, because they're usually retaliated against in micro-aggressive ways. And I don't blame them for not being able to speak out.

I have a privilege because I have rights to my own company, I don't really answer to anybody — I've never had to — but for a lot of people, this is a new thing. Getting by and getting up is a means of survival for a lot of Black people, so I can't fault them for showing up in spaces and not feeling like they can be their complete selves when the removal of all of their progress can be done in a swift instant.

One of the very first things you posted when the worldwide protests were gaining steam was “Don’t get tired.” We’re all trying to maintain this energy and sentiment as long as we can — why do you think it’s been so sustained?

The revolution needs to take naps. We went back to school, we went back to work, and if you were very outspoken about Black shit at home and how we were being mistreated by the system, then the next day, you had to take the LIRR and go into your racist, micro-aggressive office and deal with people — you got tired.

Now, this is divine intervention. We got a pandemic, no sports, no distractions, no new movies coming out, no concerts — nothing. The world has to focus on the same Black shit we've been trying to get done for the past several years. We never had this before. Not in the Civil Rights era, nowhere. We never had a movement free of distractions the way that we do. Now all you can do is pick a side — and if you don't pick a side, that means you picked a side.

Jenna Wortham described this extraordinary moment as “a glorious poetic rage.” How does this feel different to you than what was going on in Ferguson six years ago?

We’re at a turning point in history where it's like: Where do you want to be in this chapter? Where do you want to tell your grandkids you stood? And who do you really think is going to win? I'd bet on the winning team, if I was you.

Here's the thing: If evil prevails, there will be no history books. In order for there to even be a history book where we're talking about 2020, good has to win over evil before 2050. We have to accept it as a moral issue. I don't want to liken this to other genocides and other tragedies that have happened in the course of global history, but a lot of us would feel like if we could go back and undo certain parts of human history, we would. We're at one of those points right now. We can collectively make the change we need to make: completely dismantle the current policing system.

Only 5 percent of 911 calls are for violent crime, so why does an officer need to show up at your house with a gun? Why do you need to pull me over for a speeding ticket with a gun drawn? Why do you need to come investigate a missing child with a gun drawn? The same way you can gauge whether to send a firetruck or an ambulance, you can gauge whether to send somebody with a loaded gun or somebody with a pen and a pad.

This is a fight you’ve been engaging in through Pyer Moss for nearly a decade now, even back in 2015 with the “They Have Names” T-shirt. How do you stay so consistent and mission-driven?

Right now, I'm only lending you my likeness so that you can bring attention to defunding the police. That's the trade-off. This is not a self-serving mission; this is something that needs to change in my lifetime. I'm terrified of bringing children into this world.

My nephew is 15 years old, and I started this fight when he was in the nut sac. He likes Odell Beckham a lot, so he dyed the top of his hair blonde, and now he has braids at the top. He likes NLE Choppa and he's putting me onto all these young rappers that I didn't even know existed, TikTok challenges, and things like that.

He's stepping into adolescence, but to some random, trigger-happy cop who's never lived in his neighborhood in Mount Vernon, who's on their third week of the job, that little boy becomes a grown-ass threat. That story is not unique to all these mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and grandmothers who are genuinely terrified for themselves and for everyone else just trying to conduct their normal, everyday lives. This shit is scary, and it has to stop. Anything else is not worth talking about.

"We’re in a turning point in history where it's like: Where do you want to be in this chapter? We can collectively make the change."

Between brands, stores, and publications, there’s certainly a renewed desire to leverage the equity of the Black community as a way to show support. But as you’ve called out on Twitter, there’s an egregious amount of virtue signaling and performative allyship.

I’ve remarked on it [happening] with clothing stores specifically, the ones who are now touting all these Black brands that they’ve never carried or even gone to see themselves. Magazines I've never even heard of are putting me in these round-ups, and it's so disrespectful because they’re not even categorized; it's just “Black designers.”

It's detrimental to those who have put in the work to differentiate themselves and carve their own lanes. People who are doing really unique, gender-defying and poetic work like Telfar are being put in the same breath as a single-product DTC, venture-backed company. They’re not giving them any differentiation — just grouping them all together because they're Black.

If they wanted to have a little bit more respect, they should admit they never supported us, and follow that up with why they’re going to start, and why you should, too. They should educate people about what we do instead of just putting us on these erroneous fucking lists. You can guilt people into buying things because we're Black, but that can harm our businesses, because once these people feel like this “trend” is over, then they have a pass to forget about us.

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