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To The Left, To The Left

  • New York, Virginia, and Kentucky have primaries on Tuesday. We speak with two progressive candidates for congress: Jamaal Bowman, who’s running against incumbent Rep. Eliot Engel for New York’s 16th congressional district, and Charles Booker, who’s running against Amy McGrath, for senate in Kentucky.
  • COVID-19 is still happening in the US, whether government officials recognize it or not. New daily cases have hit record highs in 12 states, with about 30,000 new daily cases countrywide.
  • And in headlines: an 18-year-old security guard is killed by police in Los Angeles, Bill Barr tries to fire someone quietly and fails, and a new name for Columbus, Ohio.

See below for our full interview with Jamaal Bowman, a Bronx middle school principal, challenging longtime Congressman Eliot Engel to represent New York’s 16th congressional district. 

 

You’ve been in the race for quite some time. In the span of time that you’ve been running, we’ve been confronted by a global pandemic and this broader movement against systemic racism and police brutality. How have those two things shaped and crystalised the priorities for you? 

 

I think crystalized is a good word. It affirmed the reason we were running to begin with. We were running to deal with issues of structural racism and inequality from the very beginning. 

 

I got into this race because the last 20 years I’ve worked in Title I schools, which are schools in poor communities, schools that have been placed systemically in places of concentrated poverty, which creates concentrated trauma. When that happens you have horrible outcomes in terms of education, economics, and criminal justice. It’s really life and death for our kids. 

 

So this all just affirmed that work, and crystallized it, maybe, to voters throughout the district who didn’t think that Medicare For All was something that was doable or necessary. Now they realize, wow, over 100,000 dead as a result of this coronavirus. If we, not just provided health care for everyone, but really invested in health care in a real way, this could have been avoided or averted. 

 

Right, and on the topic of policing and police brutality, there have been numerous documented examples in New York, even just during the protests over it. So, I wanted to ask about the Congressional response. Your opponent, Congressman Engel, is one of many in the Democratic House majority. Do you think that their initial response in terms of the policy they put forward on policing is sufficient?

 

No, absolutely not. It’s the disease of incrementalism, which is how they seem to operate and have operated for quite some time. 

 

We need to have the defunding conversation, and really get clarity on what that looks like. You know, people hear defunding of the police, and if you are of a particular class, you are afraid of that because the police “allow you to protect your property.” But if you live in historically disenfranchised communities, and you live in poverty — you feel occupied by the police, either physically or psychologically. 

 

So, defunding the police and the reallocation of resources toward what our communities need, which is housing, mental health, fully-funded schools, jobs, etc, is something that is not a part of the Democratic response in Congress. 

 

And to be clear, you want to — whether the term is “defund” or otherwise — you’re in favor of decreasing the budget of these city departments and reallocating it elsewhere?

 

Absolutely. Yes, and while we are at it, let’s talk about military spending overall. We spend more than the next seven countries combined [on the military]. A large percentage of that goes towards weapons manufacturing. Our military is one of the biggest contributors to climate change across the globe. Those are the issues we need to deal with. We need to focus on care, well-being, public health, and invest our resources there. 

 

Back to the pandemic. We know that Covid-19 in New York and across the country has disproportionately affected Black and Brown Americans. How has that changed the way that you have thought about public policy?

 

It’s actually made me even more bold and more progressive, if that makes sense. This is the largest crisis since the Great Depression. After the Great Depression, and during the Great Depression, we implemented the New Deal, we created the Works Progress Administration, and we provided a federal jobs guarantee. That’s exactly what we’ve been talking about with the Green New Deal, but specifically targeting historically oppressed communities and communities of color. 

 

This is the perfect opportunity, if we have the right leadership in the White House, to implement a Green New Deal, end our dependence on fossil fuels, get to net-zero carbon emissions, invest in housing, invest in infrastructure, invest in health care, invest in education — to close the gaps that are created now, with every child missing so much school. 

 

This is a chance to rebuild America in a way that it becomes a democracy for everyone. 

 

I want to talk about the way that the race has gone over the last few weeks. It seems that most of the recent endorsements that have been coming out have been going your way, save for a few. What has that meant to you? 

 

It’s incredibly exciting. It’s incredibly humbling. I feel very fortunate to be in this moment with everything happening in this country, and in our world. To be in a position to potentially win a congressional seat and help build the progressive movement overall, is just incredibly humbling. 

 

All I want to do right now is keep my head down, keep grinding, keep working. And our team feels the same way because we’ve got to pull out this win. We’ve got to pull out this win. The polling shows us ahead by 10, which is very encouraging, but we’re still hustling like we’re down by 10. 

 

I mean, I never thought that I would get the endorsement of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. To receive that is just like, wow. There are people all over the country who really care about this race, really believe in the progressive movement, and it’s just very humbling. 

 

We see in a lot of campaigns, yours included, a focus on knowing the community. How important is this idea of knowing and being a member of the community to your campaign, of bringing your lived-experiences to your policy? 

 

Everything I’ve experienced makes me everything I am. I’m running this campaign as my authentic self. I’ve had the cops beat the shit out of me, you know, when I was 11-years-old. And I’ve had a lifetime of police harassment and brutality in some form or another. People need to understand police brutality is not just the police beating the crap out of you, it’s also being hand-cuffed and put in a cage when you didn’t do anything wrong, and then being released without explanation or apology. That’s happened to me multiple times in my life. 

 

I had a sister who was addicted to crack cocaine, that really devastated my family. I lived in the projects. I lived in rent stabilized apartments. I went to public schools and I know how mentors and coaches and sports and the arts have impacted my life. I’ve been an educator for 20 years and I’ve seen children as young as 9-years-old suffering from mental health trauma. So all of that has made me who I am today and rooted my values in our common humanity, and our potential if our government responds with the right resources and the right vision to really uplift all communities. 

 

So you are absolutely right, my lived-experiences will drive my policy. And what’s even better is these experiences are not my own. The constituents in this district share those experiences with me. And those who don’t, [they] have the empathy to appreciate what changes are needed in this country, particularly in this moment as we have uprisings across the country. 

 

Some of the statements that Congressman Engel has made about George Floyd and his decision not to spend his time in the district during the pandemic have drawn criticism. When you look at this, why do you think he has had these sorts of gaffes, or had these moments?

 

He’s been coasting for quite some time in Congress. That’s not coming from me, that’s coming from people who he’s served for a very long time, and people who have been paying attention, and people who are aware. 

 

You don’t have to worry about a primary if you are doing the work. He hasn’t done the work, and he hasn’t done the work throughout the campaign. Now, at the end of the campaign, he’s sending out 10 mailers a week and running a bunch of negative commercials against us because he hasn’t done the work. We stand on our values, we stand on our record and work. 

He’s been in office for 31 years. He’s been in Maryland for 27 of those years. He’s claimed his home in Maryland as his primary residence for 10 years. If you’re not here, you can’t develop empathy. You’re not connecting with the people who are suffering the most. That’s what we’ve heard and that’s what we’re all seeing throughout this campaign. 

 

I’m wondering, if you encounter voters who are trying to decide between you and Congressman Engel, what do you typically say to them? Do you encounter those kinds of voters? 

 

Sometimes, not much, but sometimes. It’s usually like, he’s more experienced, he’s a chair of a committee, he has this “power.” It’s usually that versus my inexperience, versus me never running for office before. 

 

What I say is, what has his experience and so-called power gotten for the district? There are parts of the district where the poverty rate is as high as 30 percent. We have an opioids crisis, we have a homelessness crisis. We have so many issues that he’s never been a fighter or a leader on. 

 

Contrast that to Jamaal Bowman who served the community day to day in our education system as a teacher, a guidance counselor, and a middle school principal. When he saw something wrong with the school system, he did something about it. He opened a public middle school — not a charter school — a public middle school in the Bronx. After opening that school, he built a health care facility attached to it, he organized parents to change education policy. Jamaal shows up and does the work. 

 

Do you find people who don’t know who Congressman Engel is? People who don’t know who their representative is? 

 

Of course, particularly younger people. I think he’s 73 or 74-years-old. There are many who are around his age who know him because they remember when he first got elected, and they know he’s been around a long time. But then there are some — 45 and younger — who have no idea who he is. 

 

There is a reason for that. People are overwhelmed with their day to day lives, they don’t have enough time to get into who their congressman is, and democracy. They are trying to work, they are trying to pay their bills, put food on the table. That’s their focus. The other part of it is, he hasn’t engaged the district fully in conversations and communications around what’s going on in the district, what are the needs and how can I help? So, it’s a combination of all those things. 

 

People would be more involved in democracy if we engaged them in our democracy. It was the same thing in education, when I opened the school, I ran it by engaging all parents and teachers and community members in decision making throughout the school. It was a collaborative leadership structure. That’s the way districts are supposed to be run. Everyone is supposed to matter, everyone is supposed to be involved, and everyone is supposed to be engaged. 

 

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. 

 

 

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