This is the most anxious time for our city and country that I can remember. I hope you all are safe, taking care of yourselves and each other. I’m writing today with a few thoughts about how I’m approaching this moment, and commitments I’m making going forward.
Start from listening to the anger and pain of Black people
First, the starting place for this moment, in general, but especially for white people, is to listen as honestly as we can to Black people about the anger and pain they are feeling, and the system of white supremacy and systemic racism it reflects. That is not easy — because it implicates us, because the anger is so deep, because what it would take to change it is so big. But it must be the starting point.
There are so many powerful voices speaking up right now. The one I will share here is Trevor Noah’s insight into how Amy Cooper’s racist phone call is connected to George Floyd’s death: What does it mean that she knew she could make that call? It means that it is common knowledge that we live in a society where state violence can be called down on an African-American man, without cause, at any moment. For those of us who are white, this is a time to think about what it means to walk around as a black person in a society where that’s true.
The police must de-escalate
In New York City and lots of other places, too many police officers are escalating conflict. We’ve seen it in officers violently shoving people to the ground, indiscriminately spraying pepper-spray, in one case removing a young man’s mask before spraying him, and last night, even police violently driving their cars into a crowd of pedestrians (which one could only do with a willingness to cause injury or death, and with a sense that there would be no accountability for it). There must be accountability for these acts, investigations with real consequences, including removal from the force and prosecution.
Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Shea have failed to rise to the moment. The mayor’s defense of inexcusable police conduct sends a message to NYPD officers that such conduct is acceptable. His allegation that the protestors are just a few radicals, not supported by New Yorkers and especially by New-Yorkers-of-color, is disconnected from reality. As Mara Gay writes this morning, the result is a lack of moral leadership, when we need it most utterly.
So it’s good that New York State Attorney General Tish James will be leading an investigation of policing of these protests. I’ll be interested in the results of the commission the mayor is appointing, led by two serious individuals with good track records; but I’m skeptical they will have any real authority. And I’ll be talking with my colleagues (especially Public Safety Chair Donovan Richards and Oversight Chair Ritchie Torres) about how the Council will use our oversight authority too. There must be accountability for there to be any sense of the possibility of justice.
There are, of course, some violent protestors as well. Here the words of John Lewis make sense to me: “I know your pain, your rage, your sense of despair and hopelessness. Justice has, indeed, been denied for far too long. Rioting, looting, and burning is not the way. Organize. Demonstrate. Sit-in. Stand-up. Vote. Be constructive, not destructive.”
For those who throw molotov cocktails at officers, or break storefront windows, there must be accountability too. The NYPD have already arrested and charged two women from upstate for throwing a lit gas-filled bottle at cops the other night. I worry much more, however, about whether we will hold officers accountable. And also, as the City of New York, we don’t hire the protestors. But we do hire the police.
Immediate action on police reform and racial justice
We aren’t going to dismantle systemic racism overnight, but we damn well better start making some real progress on police accountability.
I was glad to see Governor Cuomo indicate that he would sign legislation to repeal Section 50-A, which has served to shield police officers’ records from public scrutiny, making it much harder to identify, hold accountable, and when necessary remove officers with a history of misconduct from the force. Together with Communities United for Police Reform and other allies, we’ve been pushing to repeal 50-A for years. Let’s do it right now.
At the city level, cuts to the NYPD’s budget are necessary. As the city faces a massive deficit, the mayor proposed a budget that would put a hiring freeze on teachers, counselors, youth workers, parks workers … but not police officers. If we can’t afford to hire more teachers, then we cannot afford to hire more cops. Communities United for Police Reform (CPR) is leading a campaign for #NYCBudgetJustice. Together with Public Safety Chair Donovan Richards, I was one of the first Council Members to call for an NYPD hiring freeze this year, as a matter of both racial justice and fiscal prudence, and I’ll be working with CPR and Council colleagues in this campaign in the next few weeks.
There are also meaningful steps the Council can take to strengthen police accountability, including a bill to make chokeholds a crime, and to strengthen the Right-to-Know Act.
Clarity on equity and social solidarity as we move forward
The rage in the streets is very likely to continue for the next few days, in New York City and across the country. De-escalatory policing and steps toward racial justice aren’t going to change that. The many factors of systemic racism, widening inequality, growing polarization, lack of leadership, compounded with the grief and economic anxiety of the COVID crisis, which has hit communities of color the hardest, has made this is the most combustible time of our lifetimes.
So it’s fair to wonder whether we are, collectively, up to the task for moving through this moment together. But I know our responsibility is to do everything possible to make it go better — to build social solidarity that sees inequality and works to correct it, that sees pain and works to heal it, that knows we only have a chance if we build stronger collective institutions to confront crises.
So, I’ll be out at protests again today, expressing my anger, handing out masks, trying to be a force for the balance John Lewis calls us to, calling for change, and especially listening to Black neighbors. I’ll be working with my colleagues to insist on accountability in policing, in the short and longer term. I’ll be fighting for #NYCBudgetJustice over the next few weeks, as part of our work to confront the City’s fiscal crisis as thoughtfully as we possibly can.
And of course I’ll keep working with all of you on how we move forward in responding to the COVID-19 crisis, so we can open our economy back up, support small businesses and workers alike, keep people safe and healthy, help bring back our wounded but still-so-beautiful city, make real progress on the racial inequities we are seeing so painfully, and get us ready to face the future more resiliently.
Will that be enough? No, I know it won’t.
Am I really fearful about the days ahead? Yes, I really am.
Is it required of us anyway? Without any doubt.