By: Lorenzo Jones via Medium
The smoke hadn’t cleared from the New Year’s fireworks when newly elected Mayor Eric Adams launched into action to undo any perception of progress in New York City. The former cop won the Democratic primary in June 2021 with a mere fraction of the city’s electorate; most New Yorkers did not vote for him. Even more telling, most registered Democrats didn’t vote at all. But here was the new mayor making the rounds on local and national TV, declaring a mandate and attempting to convince people that New York City had gone downhill, and that — Surprise! — he’s the one to fix it.
Mayor Adams’s playbook on public safety is all too familiar. Even before being sworn in, he opposed abolishing solitary confinement at the notorious Rikers Island jail complex while cozying up to the correctional officers union. At a time when the human rights crisis at Rikers is at its absolute worst, Adams has demanded rollbacks to bail reform so that even more people — mostly poor and Black and Latinx people — can be jailed at Rikers, even when they haven’t been convicted of anything.
In the face of New York City’s ongoing housing crisis, he has misused Scripture in an attempt to justify destroying the makeshift camps of people who don’t have homes and forcing them into the scandalous shelters he’s fighting to underfund in his first budget.
What makes Mayor Adams a credible voice on public safety? Is it that he was an officer with the NYPD when that force was targeting Black and Latinx people through the racist stop-and-frisk practices and mass incarceration that some of us survived? In the past, Adams has voiced public objections to stop-and-frisk. But as mayor he is promoting policies and practices that look an awful lot like stop-and-frisk.
Anyone familiar with New York City in the 1990s knows that Eric Adams’s approach looks eerily similar to that of a previous mayor. Adams is emerging as the poor man’s Rudy Giuliani. If there isn’t a public safety crisis, the mayor will try to argue otherwise, and his answer to such a crisis — real or exaggerated — is to bring back the policies of the failed drug war. As the old-timers used to say, the devil doesn’t have any new tricks. At least Giuliani had innovative hateful policies against poor people. Adams is doing nothing but plagiarize Rudy. We should just call him Mayor Giuli-Adams.
So for those of us who care about equity, health, and justice, what to do about Adams? The answer may not be obvious. The city and state will have elections for some political office for five consecutive years: statewide and congressional elections in 2022; City Council races again in 2023; national and statewide elections in 2024; citywide elections — including for mayor — in 2025; and another round of statewide and congressional elections in 2026.
Mayor Adams, a former NYPD captain during the failed drug war on poor New Yorkers, is pushing for people to be politically involved. What could go wrong? Under his administration, political involvement could become the most useful tool against progressive system change. Respecting the difference between political involvement and civic engagement will be critical to effective advocacy and organizing.
Here’s what mere political involvement looks like: during every election, people are asked to participate in the democratic process. Those who are suffering systemic oppression and racism in some of the most marginalized communities have had to depend on these political campaigns, which become their own machines once they win. In New York City, Eric Adams is the leader of the political machine that Black and Latinx people have been asked to support. Black people are being invited into a political process that has no answer for our survival with this mayor at the helm.
Many organizers and advocates fighting against the drug war and mass incarceration have not had to deal with a regressive municipal leader with national influence — like Eric Adams — on issues related to rebuilding the safety net. Mayor Giuli-Adams is traveling the country, repeating 1996 talking points about “quality of life” crimes. The antidote to this nonsense is real accountability derived from political power we build through civic engagement.
I was taught that civic engagement is local participation in activities that promote fellowship and increase communication among neighbors and anyone who lives, works, or worships in a neighborhood. In practice, civic engagement is based on the old adage “Think globally and act locally,” and the past two and half years of the pandemic have brought this reality home. Think about the mutual aid networks that have taken root in New York City and throughout the country.
This civic engagement has resulted in holding people accountable in political campaigns, in their support for candidates, and in the political appointments leaders make. Civic engagement is the most effective regimen to hold elected officials accountable. Adams’s willingness to ignore New York City’s progressive political wing is partially based on the support he receives from constituencies that are active in civic engagement efforts connected to his political machine. That is, Adams has a base and he is relying on it.
But though his base is powerful, it is small. So this political strategy can be disrupted through block-by-block participation in local action — independent of the political machine — by being informed, active, and inclusive. Local organizing and civic engagement can generate new ways for people to engage, through more productive channels than merely supporting political figures and recycling failed policies that have harmed our families and neighbors.
Block clubs, neighborhood associations, and grassroots action groups working on public safety on the ground are increasingly participating in local and statewide campaigns for policy reforms, whether progressive or conservative. We can cultivate this energy in our fights for justice by organizing in ways that are focused on building political power beyond the narrow scope of the electoral process.
Lorenzo Jones is co-founder and co-executive director of the Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice.