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From Theater Major to NYC Council: An Interview with Jumaane Williams

“I changed my major from theater to film because, in many of my auditions, I was typecast as a drug dealer or a murderer, and that changed my perception of what people thought a black man was.”

On April 13th, New York City Council Member Jumaane Williams (D-District 45) joined Merion West‘s Erich Prince to discuss his primary challenge to incumbent Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, his approach to re-integrating released prisoners, and how Democrats fundraise.

Thank you for joining us at Merion West this afternoon, Councilman Williams. Getting started, can you tell us about some of the early experiences that helped to shape your political worldview?

I’m a New Yorker, and I’m a first-generation American. My parents came here from the Caribbean. I was educated in the public school system, from pre-school (now called pre-K) to masters. I have lived with Tourette’s Syndrome and ADHD. My life is in Brooklyn, and I happen to be a black man as well.

All of those things definitely influence how you see the world and how the world sees you. I’ve had many other experiences such as traveling overseas, being able to understand other cultures. So all of those things helped me navigate to where I am now. I’ve always had a passion for social justice issues, in particular. Funny enough, my first love is acting, and that is what I was going to school for, but I was always interested in social justice.

I changed my major from theater to film because, in many of my auditions, I was typecast as a drug dealer or a murderer, and that changed my perception of what people thought a black man was. I got very involved in college, becoming aware of the importance of electoral politics.

You gained a lot of attention for the “Fair Chance Act,” an effort to help applicants with a criminal history gain employment. Can you talk about broader changes you’d like to see in how we re-integrate those who have committed crimes back into our communities, in New York City and across the state?

That piece of legislation was extremely important in terms of breaking down barriers for communities. We had some difficulty getting it through, but we helped navigate it through. It was an active continuation of some of the work I had done in my first term when we had passed “The Community Safety Act,” which primarily deals with addressing some abuses taking place in prisons. For me, we have a tendency to address public safety incorrectly. We tend to think that public safety is owned by the law enforcement domain. There are, however, so many other people, who help to push public safety. Part of that is addressing historical problems.

We want to make sure that people who enter prison can be re-integrated back into society. That often doesn’t happen. I’d love to see us continuing the work we’re doing with the prison population. The legalization of marijuana is a great push, but we have to start talking about looking at those people who have criminal records now before it was legalized, a conversation that has not picked up as much steam as legalization. We have a tendency to put a stigma on people for the rest of their lives necessarily. We need to help reduce the recidivism rate. We know what works, but we need to have the political courage to pursue it.

This leads nicely to my next question. New York state, historically, has had the Rockefeller Drug Laws, some of the strictest in the nation. Although they have been eased recently under Governor David Paterson, what further efforts would you like to see? I understand, for instance, that you’ve called for marijuana legalization.

I’m happy with some of the direction in how the opioid crisis [is being dealt with] because we’re starting to look at people who are addicted to drugs as people. It’s unfortunate that it took this crisis to be able to do it. Opioids are now being viewed as drugs predominantly happening in all communities. When communities with more melanin in their skin had drug problems, all they received were arrests and jail sentences. The same type of compassion was needed in those communities, but they didn’t get it.

When it came time for us to do something about the opioid crisis, this was doctors’ and lawyers’ children, not a ghetto problem. There are judicial discrepancies on how we treat this matter.

Police now walk around with antidotes for overdoses. I can only imagine asking police to do this decades ago when certain communities were being ravished by drugs, as well. So I’m happy, on one hand, to see that there is compassion about it now. It’s disheartening because there are still people with more melanin in their skin, who suffer from the same issues and the same problems, and no one is reviewing their cases. No one is going back to look at their cases and dealing with the effects of the criminal justice system. So we have to continue going down that road and understanding that everybody deserves compassion as needed, and, hopefully, we can do that.

There are a lot of things that need to be changed in the criminal justice system in general. Unfortunately, a lot of that depends on the lens you look through. Many people don’t want to talk about it. But when you put a racial lens on it, the more melanin you have in your skin, too often, you get a harsher sentence, a harsher reality than someone else.

You  have been called by the New York Progressive Action Network (NYPAN) co-chair George Albro, “one of the very rare breed of Democrats who is not scared off by the Cuomo/Hochul horde of millions” and reliant on the support from the so-called 1%. Would you like the Democratic Party to change how it fundraises and a move towards more of the Sen. Bernie Sander’s (I-Vt.)  mode of fundraising or is PAC fundraising just a reality of politics today for many major seats, for Democrats and Republicans alike?

I’m honored by that compliment. I want to make sure people understand that I try to match it with a commensurate amount of courage. I don’t know if I would be here if it [were not] for public financing. I’m a community organizer and a community organizer by training. It’s very difficult for someone like me to get into elected office in New York state because of how often incumbents get re-elected. The matching fund system allows small donors to have access to a lot of power, often by small donations in a public race. We very much need to minimize the amount of impact that billions of dollars have on our political system, on people who are running, on policy. We need to make sure people working 9-5 have the voice of people worth billions of dollars.

In the campaign we are running, we want to show that action and energy are as important as billions of dollars.

Your opponent, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul argued in 2015 op-ed that “all schools – public, charter, parochial, private – deserve our support.” Is that an idea you also support?

I believe all students deserve our support; all students deserve access to a quality education. As a public school baby from preschool to masters, I very much believe in the public school system. I do believe that everyone should have access to a quality education. That looks different in different areas, so I’m open to creative ways to provide that. But it cannot be at the expense of having a quality public education.

Would you be open to charter schools in some cases?

I’ve never been opposed to charter schools, but I oppose the idea of replacing the public school system with a charter school system, which is what is occurring too often. There must be a funded and a well-operating public school system that everyone can access. If that’s not happening we have a problem. The answer to [underfunded public schools] is not just to replace them with charter schools.

For the last question, and you’ve alluded to this a bit with your background as a community organizer. Is there a political or civil rights figure from history who has most inspired your political work?

My first real hero very early on in my life was Dr. Martin Luther King. I admire what he did and how he did it. I admire his strength and ability to use non-violent resistance. He very much framed my work. Another hero of mine was Malcolm X because of his fortitude and his ability to fight for civil rights as well. It was interesting to see the combination of the tools used by [Dr. King] in the South and the tools that [Malcolm X] used in the North.

Thank you very much for joining us this afternoon, Councilman.

Thank you.

Erich J. Prince is a co-founder and the editor at Merion West. Erich has written for a variety of publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Hartford Courant, The News & Observer, and the Orlando Sentinel. His writing has been honored with two awards from the Columbia University School of Journalism. He studied political science at Yale, completing his thesis on the history of polarization in the United States Congress. Contact Erich at erich@merionwest.com.