Jamaal Bowman Is Just the Politician This Moment Needs

Henderson Clarke wasn’t sold on Jamaal Bowman.

“Don’t vote for no politician that’s not coming into your neighborhood and getting their hands dirty,” he said Friday, speaking to dozens of demonstrators who had marched on the evening of Juneteenth from Lincoln Park in New Rochelle, New York, to the front of his brother’s home a few blocks away. Exactly two weeks earlier, his brother, Kamal Flowers, was killed by New Rochelle police. Vigil candles were arranged in front of the wall behind Clarke as he spoke, along with balloons, ribbons, and poster boards with pictures of Flowers. “WE LOVE YOU,” was written on the wall above them. “KAMAL LIFE MATTERS.”

“If they’re not interacting with you, keep your vote,” Clarke continued. “I see the Mr. Bowman signs. He had a representative out here. I politely told his representative: ‘Until that man shows up right here he cannot get this vote.’”

Bowman would be speaking in Lincoln Park later that evening. But Clarke was here, now, pleading with the diverse group of demonstrators to engage with New Rochelle’s black population, pleading for educational centers, pleading for cops who understood the community, pleading for real, concrete justice — not chants, not marches, not glossy mailers featuring slick politicians promising change. “These rallies, I love ‘em,” Clarke said. “Don’t mean nothing.”

Jamaal Bowman’s challenge is to make all this mean something.

On Tuesday, the 44-year-old former middle-school principal toppled longtime Democratic stalwart Eliot Engel in the party’s primary for New York’s 16th District. Engel was seeking a 17th term in office, having represented the district — a diverse swath of the Bronx and suburban New York that includes New Rochelle — since 1989. Bowman, who had never run before political office before entering the race last June, appears to have won by more than 25 points.

“Our movement is designed to restore that faith, to restore that hope, to bring back the belief in what is possible, to root our values in everything we do,” he told supporters after sealing the victory. Bowman was buoyed by a platform built around racial justice and community engagement. As the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum this spring, so did Bowman’s campaign. Now, he’s tasked with using his and the movement’s values to bring about real, systemic change.

He firmly believes this is possible, but as he explained to me earlier on Friday following a press conference in Co-Op City, in the Bronx, it’s going to take “full participation,” both from the community and every level of government, right down to the school boards. “I feel this time it’s different,” Bowman told me of the potential for change following the demonstrations. “I also understand people from the African-American community who don’t have that same amount of faith because we’ve been bamboozled and hoodwinked throughout this nation’s history.”

The nation’s relentless oppression of people of color, exacerbated generation after generation by the hollow promises of the American Dream and the politicians who peddle it, are why many are skeptical as they plead for the kind of engagement Bowman has preached. “They have all these rallies. Everybody wants justice, everybody wants peace, but nobody ever interacts,” Clarke said in front of Flowers’s home. “The only way you’re going to know about this side of town, is to interact with this side of town.”

Clarke and demonstrators across America have made clear that this time has to be different. Too many people of color have died. Too many people of color continue to die. If politicians want to consider themselves a part of this movement, their role is to advance major reform by, to borrow a phrase, any means necessary.

But in the House of Representatives, Bowman — who will almost certainly win this November in the heavily Democratic district — will be attempting to make changes in a federal government ruled by a party in the thrall of a racist authoritarian. Even the leadership of Bowman’s own Democratic party is hesitant to embrace the full vision of police reform articulated by the Black Lives Matter movement. So if Bowman and progressives like him want to enact the agenda they’re talking about, from defunding the police to universal health care, they have to prove to people like Clarke that they’re worth the investment. As Bowman notes with his focus on “full participation,” reforming the current system is only possible with the engagement of people who’ve been systematically excluded — people who now need to be convinced that there’s a reason to come back in.

Raised by a single mother in a Manhattan housing project, Bowman was a public school educator for the past 20 years, the last 11 of which were spent as the founding principal of the Cornerstone Academy for Social Action in the Bronx. The school is renowned for its “radical care” ethos, and Bowman has long preached restorative rather than putative justice, as well as a holistic approach to education based on love, understanding, and empathy.

“I deeply love the students that I serve,” Bowman told me in Co-Op City. “I tried to do anything in my power to give them additional resources and support so they could do well in school and beyond. I talk about the politics of love over the politics of fear. … Fear is rooted in institutional racism. It’s this fear of what’s different, fear of the unknown, and looking at something that’s different as deficient. It doesn’t have to be that way. It doesn’t have to be a zero sum game. We can have a political system that works for the people and allows for the economy to thrive. It doesn’t have to be either.”

Bowman was tapped to run against Engel by Justice Democrats, the same organization that recruited Ocasio-Cortez to unseat longtime 14th-District representative Joe Crowley in 2018. Like Ocasio-Cortez and other Justice Democrats including Reps. Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), Bowman is a progressive through and through, supporting Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and overhauling the criminal justice system. He has sworn off corporate PAC money, and throughout the campaign hammered Engel for his relationship with Wall Street, which he had sought to deregulate. Engel’s endorsements came from Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and other establishment Democrats. Progressive icons like Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Elizabeth Warren — as well as the New York Times — all lined up behind Bowman.

As the campaign heated up, Bowman also attacked Engel for being out of touch with the district, particularly as it was ravaged by the coronavirus. Engel spent most of the spring in Maryland. His campaign reasoned that though he may not have been in New York as COVID spread, he was on the “legislative front lines,” helping to bring in relief for New York hospitals. “He did miss a couple of photo opportunities,” the campaign wrote in an email prior to the election. “But of course, he’s well known in this district for showing up. Unlike Mr. Bowman, who just became a Democrat in 2018 when he decided to run for office.

Bowman argued Engel also fell short as police brutality demonstrations swept the city, particularly earlier this month when Engel was caught on a hot mic saying he “wouldn’t care” about speaking at a demonstration if he “didn’t have a primary.” (Engel later said in a statement that he hadn’t wanted to “impose” on the borough president who was asking him to speak.) But to Bowman and to the community who voted for him, being on the ground for the Black Lives Matter demonstrations was not only not optional, it was essential, and his win can be credited largely to his recognition of this fact. Not only was Bowman present for the demonstrations, he has advocated for a new Reconstruction that would include the formation of a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission “to investigate, document, and assess the federal government’s role in America’s history of racism.” Before the killing of George Floyd sparked a nationwide reckoning over police violence, Bowman wrote an op-ed for NBC News in March describing multiple occasions in which he was racially profiled and arrested. He went on to decry former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg for stocking schools in communities of color with police and metal detectors, effectively criminalizing the students.

It’s through two decades working in the education system that the collective struggles of his presumptive constituents were laid bare. “I’ve been a middle school principal in the district for 10 years,” he told me in Co-Op City. “I’ve seen the problems first hand. I’ve had families lose their home. I’ve had children lose their parents to gun violence. I’ve had children suffering from mental illness. The impact of poverty on our kids and their learning. That’s something I’ve understood pretty intimately throughout my career as an educator.”

Bowman’s values are in lock-step with those of prominent Democratic socialists like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, but it speaks to his singular, almost apolitical concern for the community that he doesn’t go out of his way to brand himself as such. It seems like something that has barely even occurred to him. When he’s been asked if he’d describe himself as a socialist in interviews, his response is usually laughter followed by some sort of verbal shrug. When I asked him in the Bronx how he would have responded a year ago if someone told him he’d be taking calls with Bernie Sanders and nabbing a video endorsement from Elizabeth Warren, he acknowledged how surreal it’s been, but quickly demurred.

“I would have told whoever told me that to stay focused,” he said. “This is my first time running for office. I can’t compare it to anything else, even though I often compare it to when I opened up my school. In that context, you have to take things one day at a time and use every day to be better than your last day. Constant learning, constant growth, constant improvement. Surround yourself with amazing people and just see where it goes. For it to be where it is right now is humbling, it’s exciting, and we’re right on the doorstep to something — something huge.”

After Henderson Clarke spoke in front of his slain brother’s home, the demonstrators in New Rochelle marched back to the park, chanting for Governor Cuomo to get the state’s attorney general to open an independent investigation into the circumstances of Flowers’s death. According to the police, Flowers fled the scene after a car he was in was pulled over. The police said Flowers pulled a gun when an officer — later identified as Alec McKenna — attempted to tase him. McKenna fired six shots, one of which struck Flowers fatally. Flowers’s family, and the New Rochelle NAACP, are skeptical, and want answers. Flowers was only 24 years old. His daughter is 6.

A lineup of speakers was scheduled to address the crowd in the park, after which food was to be served. It was a warm, idyllic summer evening. Kids chased each other around the perimeter of the basketball courts, the rims still removed to prevent social crowding in what was once a hot spot for the coronavirus. Bowman wasn’t present for the march, but he would speak last in the park, and as he waited he stood talking with residents, his jacket off, wearing a mask with the Wu-Tang Clan symbol and “Bring Da Ruckus” written across it. Most of the crowd present supported his candidacy.

“I like his platform,” Donna Harris-West, a 59-year-old who has lived in New Rochelle nearly her entire life, told me. “If we don’t educate the children, what kind of future do we have? This young generation out here, that’s my future. When I get older, I want to know that we have people in Congress worried about our health care. Right now they don’t care. It’s too many old white men who need to go. I’m sick and tired of the same old mess. The Democrats are taking this vote for granted, and I’m hoping Jamaal gets in there and makes some serious change.”

As speakers took the microphone to address the crowd, Clarke made his way over to Bowman. The two spoke for several minutes, each taking turns gesturing to emphasize their points. The conservation ended with a handshake and a half hug before Clarke returned to the other side of the basketball court. After a rousing speech by Andom Ghebreghiorgis, a special education teacher who was running against Engel before dropping out and endorsing Bowman, the incumbent’s remaining challenger grabbed the microphone.

Bowman took the opportunity to dig deep into America’s history of systemic racism: the original sin of slavery, how emancipation is not freedom, how as a black man in America he’s never felt comfortable in his own skin, and how Henderson Clarke told him minutes earlier that his dead brother’s 6-year-old daughter still asks him when daddy is going to wake up.

He concluded with a plea for people to come out and vote. “This is not to send me to Congress alone to make laws and pass policy,” he said. “This is about all of us going to Congress together and doing everything in our power to turn this country upside down, until black lives truly matter and until we deal with the issue of institutional racism once and for all.”

The crowd cheered. Ghebreghiorgis came up and gave him props. As the foil was removed from the trays of food and people lined up to eat, Bowman returned to his previous spot on the basketball court. I asked him about his conversation with Clarke. “He represents a community that has been ignored for far too long by elected officials,” Bowman said, his glasses still foggy from the speech he’d just delivered. “There’s a lack of trust and a lack of faith in a system that has disenfranchised them and marginalized them. He was asking me where are the resources for our community? Why don’t elected officials ever come around here. New developments are going up, but where are the resources for us? It’s a sense of anger and rage and frustration and feeling neglected by the government that’s supposed to serve him.”

Clarke told me over the phone on Wednesday that he voted for Bowman. He said he appreciated the candidate coming up to New Rochelle, but he also said that talk is cheap. “We have no facilities. They shut down our parks. We have no playgrounds. They shut down our boys’ club. That was the only thing we had in our neighborhood and they took that from us. We wake up and go to the store and we see 10 or 11 police concentrated in our area. It has us feeling like we’re targeted. Nobody’s trying to help. I told Mr. Bowman, if you want our vote, you have to help. I’m not going to feel comfortable just because you’re from the Bronx and talking to me with your urban dialogue. That don’t mean nothing. We’re frustrated. We’re not compromising with politicians who just talk the talk but don’t get their hands dirty.”

Bowman understands Clarke’s skepticism. “Once you run for office you’re now a politician,” he told me on the basketball court. “The attitude is like, ‘Fuck politicians,” and I get that. I was on the other side before. That’s why I’m running. I’m running because I’m the kind of person who can listen to him, absorb him, love him, and say that I come from the same place, man. … Everybody has a story. That story bridges the gap between culture and religion and even class. But you have to be a listener and a learner and you have to have empathy. You have to approach every relationship with empathy first. We work for the people. We have to connect with the people.”

I made sure not to take up too much of Bowman’s time. A group of potential constituents were waiting to tell him their stories. Now that he appears headed for Washington, it’s going to be on him to bridge the gap — from them, across the basketball court to Clarke, over to Co-Op City in the Bronx, down to Washington, D.C., and throughout America’s marginalized communities, the voices of which may have grown a little louder on Tuesday night.

But as Clarke stressed to me over the phone, having a voice is only the beginning. “Voting is where it starts,” he said. “But the vote don’t count for nothing. It’s what you do after you’re elected that’s important.”

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