By Michell C. Clark
You might not be able to recognize Samuel Sinyangwe by name, but you’ve absolutely seen him on your Twitter timeline.
With over 160,000 followers, Sinyangwe is a driving force on the platform and a perfect example of how people can use social media to both inform readers and spark a revolution. A data scientist and policy analyst by trade, he was galvanized by the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. It was then that he connected with DeRay McKesson, a vocal activist and organizer on the ground in Ferguson, to research policy demands that were effective in eliminating police violence. Sinyangwe subsequently collaborated with McKesson, Brittany Packnett, and Johnetta Elzie to launch a police reform platform called Campaign Zero and propose ten policy solutions for police reform — including the decriminalization of offenses that don’t threaten public safety, establishment of effective civilian oversight structures, and creation of national standards for the practice — and reporting — of police use of deadly force.
Since its inception, Campaign Zero has used a series of data-driven initiatives to spark conversation and influence policy with regard to police reform and accountability — Mapping Police Violence offers a frequently updated interactive map of every person killed by police in the United States; the Police Scorecard displays detailed evaluations of use of force policies and accountability for every police department in the state of California; and the Police Use of Force Project gauges the efficacy of use of force policies in America’s 100 largest city police departments.
Sinyangwe is committed to fighting for policies and legislation that hold police departments accountable and eliminate police violence and believes that using data is integral to ensuring that the proposed solutions are effective. His vantage point has proven to be invaluable, as institutions such as the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI have failed to collect data with enough substance to offer insight into effective solutions. In 1994, Congress instructed the Attorney General to “acquire data about the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers” and “publish an annual summary” of the findings, but that process was never implemented. To this day, the U.S. does not count how many lives are lost due to police use of deadly force.
According to Mapping Police Violence, police killed 1,164 people in the U.S. in 2018. As the 2020 Presidential election approaches, Sinyangwe plans to use his research to hold candidates accountable as it relates to policies that will prevent this trend from continuing. Thus far, Campaign Zero has engaged with Senators Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, as well as former Housing Secretary Julián Castro, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and former Vice President Joe Biden.
He spoke with MTV News spoke about personal experiences that pulled him into activism, how he uses data to inform his activism, and what people should know leading up to the 2020 election.
MTV News: When did you commit to creating change as an activist?
Sinyangwe: The deaths of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown prompted me to gradually become conscious of the need to address police violence and violence in the criminal justice system. During the weeks and months after Mike Brown’s killing, I began to connect with activists on the ground in Ferguson to figure out how I could best be of service — my background in data science allowed me to see that there was very little data available in regards to policing.
I was used to operating in the education space during the “No Child Left Behind” era, where everything was tracked, from the individual school level up through the district. The federal government could tell you how much rainfall there was in rural Missouri in the past 100 years, but couldn’t tell you how many people were killed by police last year. Without data, we couldn’t have a real conversation about solutions, because we had no way of evaluating their effectiveness. I sought to collect and utilize data as a means of holding police institutions accountable and enacting solutions that are proven to address the core problem of police violence.
We’ve built Mapping Police Violence, the most comprehensive database of people killed by police in the country. It launched in April 2015, and subsequently became a model — the Washington Post and The Guardian used the same methodology a couple [of] months later to build their databases. The federal government is using that methodology to develop a comprehensive, official count of people killed by police.
MTV News: Was there anything about activism that surprised you when you were first starting out?
Sinyangwe: I learned early on in my journey that we don't need to wait for permission to take action. We’re conditioned to believe that we need permission, or funding, or an institutional co-sign to impact the world. The organizations that I would interface with were so focused on their own priorities that they were ignoring the issues that were driving people to protest in the streets.
There are billions of dollars being spent in the field of criminology, and all of that is focused on how to use the police as a strategy to promote public safety. None of that money was being spent to research how to stop the police from committing violent crimes or endangering public safety. We had to prioritize asking questions, conducting research, and implementing effective solutions because all of the institutions I thought we needed had already failed us.
MTV News: How did social media come to play a role in your activism?
Sinyangwe: I learned about what was going on in the world through social media when the news wasn’t reporting on these issues. When media did start picking up what was happening in Ferguson, they were spinning a very different narrative than what I was seeing from people who were on the ground. Social media became an important tool for learning about what was happening, and connecting people.
I connected with the other members of Campaign Zero — DeRay McKesson, Brittany Packnett, and Johnetta Elzie — through Twitter. I replied to one of DeRay’s tweets saying "I can help build a policy platform to achieve these goals in a data-driven way." Social media gave us a way to collaborate and contribute to causes we care about without the barriers that came with established institutions.
MTV News: How do you approach the responsibility of having such a large social media following?
Sinyangwe: My responsibility is to share thoughts and information that can help people address fundamental challenges. It’s not just about critiquing what’s being said or theorizing — it’s about adding direct value to the conversation and helping people contextualize what’s happening using data, facts, and research. It’s important to arm people with the information that they need in order to be effective advocates for change in their communities. To address police violence, people in every community, city, and county across the country need to have access to tools and information that will allow them to evaluate people in power and hold them accountable. Putting out information that helps people to understand that process is a responsibility.
MTV News: How do you use data to inform your activism?
Sinyangwe: We started by collecting data on the issue that was most urgent in the eyes of the people — people who’ve been killed by police nationwide. That information was more likely to be reported by media than non-fatal incidences. We cross-referenced and compiled data nationwide from official databases, obituaries, and social media. This allowed us to create a more comprehensive database and draw conclusions about what was happening in different communities.
We learned that Black people were three times more likely to be killed by police than white people and more likely to be unarmed when killed by the police. We were able to do this analysis by jurisdiction as a means of holding institutions accountable. There’s no national police department to address — there are 1,800 police departments nationwide.
We broke down police violence in the 100 largest cities nationwide and found there’s a lot of variance in rates of police violence. We decided to ask questions about what was happening in cities with the lowest rates of police violence — such as Irvine, California, and Buffalo, New York — in comparison to the rest of the country. We evaluated police use of force policies, police union contracts, deadly force laws, and information on police training in each of those locations. We found that a set of policies and practices associated with significantly lower rates of police violence — solutions that had evidence of effectiveness. Sharing information about those solutions became our priority.
Many cities have adopted new policies in direct response to this research. California just passed a deadly force law that directly borrowed language from our use of force analysis. Individual police departments such as Baton Rouge, Orlando, and Sacramento have also adopted policies based on our research. We’re building a new field from scratch because preventing police violence hasn’t been a focus for previously existing organizations.
MTV News: Social media is really emotion-based, and is based on how people feel. But you work with a lot of data — why is bridging the two together important to you?
Sinyangwe: It’s important because different people respond to different things. A lot of people respond to emotional appeals such as seeing pieces of themselves, their son, or their daughter in someone who’s been killed by the police. That's what brings them into the space. Other people are moved by what the numbers and trends say, and how it applies to them.
MTV News: What goals do you have for Campaign Zero’s impact on the 2020 election season?
Sinyangwe: During the 2016 Presidential election, we played a role in shaping many of the major candidates' police reform platforms — including Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley. In the present, we’re engaging with candidates such as Kamala Harris, Julian Castro, and Pete Buttigieg; along with Joe Biden’s team, Elizabeth Warren’s team, and a range of others to ensure that we can share recommendations based on our research. We want to ensure that our research is informing their public policy platform and holding them accountable to adopt platforms that reflect what works, instead of just giving lip service.
MTV News: What’s the most important thing you want people to know about the 2020 election right now?
Sinyangwe: I want people to know that the Federal Government can play an important role in investigating police departments for misconduct and forcing them to change their policies and practices in ways that actually save lives. A VICE News investigation found that among the 50 largest police departments across the country, police departments that had federal interventions had a 30 percent reduction in police shootings.
We need to push candidates to embrace the concept of scaling up what is proven to be effective. Under the Obama administration, the federal government only had the resources to investigate three police departments a year. There are 18,000 police departments. If we know that these investigations have a significant impact, why do we only have resources allocated to investigate three police departments a year?
MTV News: How do you inform yourself as a voter and a consumer of the news? What do you recommend for people seeking to inform their own choices?
Sinyangwe: I get a lot of information from people on Twitter who I trust — people who are experts at subjects such as immigration or voting rights. Being aware of what’s happening in real-time is key. I also recommend researching the effectiveness of policy. I’ve been paying a lot of attention to the racial wealth gap, and I’ve realized that a lot of the proposed solutions, such as education, don’t address the racial wealth gap at all. Issues of housing and inheritance are more closely tied to the racial wealth gap. I encourage everyone to do the research to challenge their own assumptions so that they can be more effective in their advocacy.
MTV News: What do you do when you’re not working? How do you engage in self-care to help you sustain your efforts?
Sinyangwe: I'm a foodie. I find a lot of happiness in exploring different types of cuisine. I don't have a great process as far as self-care. I think a lot of activists lack that process because this work is really taxing. I have to read through the stories of every single person killed by police in the United States every single year. It’s intense, and yet it must be done. We have to grapple with reality in order to change it, and while it’s important to take time off, there’s no easy way to make space for self-care while engaging in this field of work.