Photo by Anna Gianfrate

Q&A: City Councilmen Brad Lander and Jumaane Williams

Q&A: City Councilmen Brad Lander and Jumaane Williams

In June of 2013, New York’s City Council passed the Community Safety Act, a landmark bill that set out to reform the New York Police Department. After overriding a mayoral veto, the bill was signed into law, placing restrictions on the use of stop-and-frisk searches and creating the Office of the Inspector General. It also catapulted its co-authors — City Councilmen Brad Lander and Jumaane Williams — into the spotlight as two of the most vocal elected officials from Brooklyn.

Since then, the two have witnessed the resurgence of a progressive, activism-driven form of politics. They’ve also seen their respective neighborhoods — Lander represents Gowanus and Carroll Gardens; Williams, East Flatbush and the Flatlands — confront mounting challenges: hyperdevelopment, out-of-control housing prices, and other issues that rack the borough at large.

Bklynr’s been around for two years. In that time, what changes have you two seen in your own backyards? What’s the most concerning? The most hopeful?

brad: It really is a best of times and a worst of times, period. Some extraordinary things have happened. There’s so much creativity, and the level of energy of the whole world focused on it. That is, by the standards of America, very diverse: the set of artists and businesses and entrepreneurs and activists that are coming out of Brooklyn has really been tremendous. Certainly the more progressive energy has a base in this; this is where it finds support, whether we work on the Community Safety Act or participatory budgeting, with a lot of the energy coming from the Progressive Caucus in the council. That’s the good side.

And the bad side is the escalation of housing prices, the gentrification and displacement made over what still is a very unequal economy, which is, therefore, driving people out of the economy at a pace that is just unbelievable. It’s funny, because I represent Park Slope, and that happened a while ago. It was less rapid in Park Slope then it’s been in Crown Heights. But yes, writ large, it’s a terrifying pace.

jumaane: I think we’ve seen a huge power shift based on the power of progressive organizing. That happened, obviously with the change of government in New York City, and, first of all, that’s amazing. The 2013 city-wide elections were based on ideals that the progressive world believes in. The direction we’re going in, and the discussions we’re having, are based off of that. That’s amazing.

On the downside, gentrification is happening rapidly. The more the brand of Brooklyn is growing, the faster gentrification is happening, and the more stark differences you see in the people who are benefitting from it and the people who are not. That’s very problematic. It’s coming south, so it hasn’t really hit where I represent. But I see it. I see it coming down the block. The district right before mine has started to change, and I see that a lot. My constituents don’t say, “We’re going to be next”; they say, “We are next.” I already have pieces of my district that have changed. It’s a huge problem, and it’s a scary one. But it’s hard because people want their streets to be clean, have nice places to eat and places to shop. So how do you get that without displacement?

When you speak to your constituents, then, do these sudden shifts trouble them?

brad: My district has different anxieties about development. There’s the displacement element of it, and then there are people’s feelings about what they perceive as overdevelopment. So people don’t want the towers at Pier 6 or LICH. That makes things complicated. We’ve worked hard to organize around the Gowanus Canal area, so we can shape growth to get the things and the values that people have rather than just say no. But yes, in terms of change, there are issues along what development looks and feels like.

There’s certainly the big, passionate issues in the district, with the two hospitals, LICH and Methodist, Pier 6, and Gowanus. It’s funny: they put a brand new condo on top of an old parking garage, and then all of a sudden, there’s “Save the parking garage!” I’ve never heard that one before. Now people are making arguments on why we need it, because they don’t want another tall tower. But, on education, Carmen Fariña was the superintendent for District 15, so there’s a general relief in the schools with her as chancellor compared to former chancellor Joel Klein. The schools are definitely breathing easier in this way that you can kind of feel on the ground.

jumaane: I think there’s a general sense of hope on a variety of issues. Faith in it actually happening sometimes wavers, depending on what issue you’re talking about. I kind of feel the same way. But the hope is generally there. I think I feel that when people are talking, because people still speak about what was bad under Bloomberg and what we can do to fix that now. I think there’s some hope from that. Again, the faith is a different question. The current mayor has very much expanded the gun violence task force, so that’s hit my district. We’ve gone from five areas to fifteen. So how we’re looking at it, I think, people are hopeful.

On policing, Kimani Gray was shot in 2013, and I was on Church Avenue, dodging bottles and trying to make sure people could be constructive with some of the rightful aims that they had. And then, last year, the whole country seemed in uproar and marching. And now we’re back at having discussions, but I think at any point, we can go back to that point. But I do think people feel like there’s an administration that will at least listen to what we have to say, and it’s trying to get the route that we feel is a little bit better, as opposed to the past. We had to take a hammer to knock down the wall. Now there’s still a wall there, but it’s malleable. You can push it around a little bit; you don’t have to swing your hammer every time. The administration can at least hear us. There’s still frustration in there, but it feels different. Bringing it to where we want to go is a different concept.

It’s also been almost two years now since the bill you both created, the Community Safety Act, was signed into law. Since then, how have you seen law enforcement in New York change?

jumaane: I just want to make clear: we always knew that wasn’t the answer, and that wasn’t going to fix the problem. I also want to get in people’s mind that we should never stop talking about better policing. Because I think people are like, “Alright, you got this now. Be quiet.” Just talking about it doesn’t make it a bad thing. I think if we thought of it as a conversation and an opportunity that had to happen, you wouldn’t have as much of the sting when it gets the loudest.

Again, I think the conversation is at least a little better now in terms of how you should police and in terms of that policing can’t just be all arrests. That should not be the only thing, and city agencies should be there to provide other services. I think there’s some commonality in that belief now. I think that’s something that’s at least espoused by the Police Department. They do certain things to show that. I know we haven’t reached it yet. I’m not sure how long it’ll take us. And I’m not sure the combination of what we’re doing is correct yet. So we’ll have to wait and see.

brad: I don’t think there’s any doubt, in New York City, that some progress has been made. Some of that goes back to the election. Stops are dramatically down, and that’s largely a result of the larger combination of organizing, the politics, Floyd v. New York, the Community Safety Act, and the election of the mayor has had a real, meaningful impact. There’s a dialogue now about community policing. The inspector general put out that report on the use of chokeholds, and we’re going to have a change in policy. It’s about time that the commissioner has to listen to what the Civilian Complaint Review Board says. All of that is in the right direction. It’s up against such a big, broader national problem of racial, discriminatory policing. There’s things we can do about it, to counter 400 years of racism and its complicated relationship with law enforcement, as the president’s Task Force on 21st-Century Policing has shown exists.

jumaane: I support community policing as I know it, but I have concern about this adoption of community policing because it means different things to different people. And I’m concerned that if we don’t get to the heart of how race and economics play a role, then that’s a problem. So the abuse of stop-question-and-frisk: of course, the stops are low, but the percentage amongst blacks and Latinos is still the same. We went to broken windows, and now we may be complaining about community policing later. Because if we don’t get to the root of the problem and we pass over it, it’s going to be problematic. I’m still concerned that we haven’t honestly admitted it. I think we’re going around it, without saying, “Okay, race is a problem in how we police communities.” Without that, I’m concerned about the conversation.

In terms of those shortcomings, what do you two see as major mistakes made by City Council in your time there?

jumaane: Shit … I’ll put it this way: I think the thing that surprises me the most in this career is how difficult it is to do the right thing, just because it is the right thing to do. I don’t know if that’s a mistake. How easily people change their mind, and for how little. Those two things surprise me. I’m not sure about mistakes. I’m going to have to think about that … I’m sure there’s quite a few, and I need to figure out how to phrase them in a way that makes sense. Sometimes I think we don’t exercise our oversight as much as we should. I think we should’ve done that a lot more the past few years, and hopefully we do that going forward. We did pass the Community Safety Act, but we should’ve passed all four parts of it.

brad: I think that, at the moment, we’re still grappling at what the relationship should be with the de Blasio administration. On the one hand, I’m proud, like Jumaane, to be an early primary supporter of the mayor. I think the direction the city is moving in, in terms of income inequality and a lot of his initiatives, are right. I’m proud to be associated with them, and, a lot of times, we come to the administration’s support on some things. But, on the other hand, it’s our chartered mandate and rule to have oversight and to be a check and balance on the administration. I don’t know if it’s a mistake, though, because it’s in progress. Certainly in the first year, you want to give them a lot of deference to get started. How we’re going to combine those roles and continue to be allies in pushing progressive policies is incomplete. I don’t think you can give us a grade yet, but that’s the most interesting challenge.

What value do you see in Brooklyn’s ascension?

brad: There’s definitely value, and I don’t think anyone would want to go back to the Brooklyn of the late 1970s and early 80s. That wasn’t better because the housing was more affordable, for the most part. It was dangerous; there were no places to shop or eat; the schools weren’t good; you couldn’t go to the parks. All of that sort of transformed, and that generated a lot of value and opportunity for a lot of people.

Now it’s very disproportionately distributed, however. It’s much more a value for people who are richer and whiter. That’s not to say no value, though. I think one of the most interesting nights of the last decade in Brooklyn was the opening night of Barclays Center, which was a Jay Z concert. He bought out half the tickets and sold them for $30 each. It seemed like that was mostly African-American kids from public housing. The DJ was playing and giving shout-outs. There was something about this moment of elevation in Brooklyn that was not just diverse but, at that moment, centering on the public housing experience at the moment of Brooklyn’s elevation. But, big picture, who owns it, who benefits, who is getting most of the income, and who gets displaced … it’s very disproportionate. And then a lot of the things we love, regardless of race, class and income, are hard to keep as a result of rising housing prices. We’re losing things people love in the wealthiest neighborhoods because the almighty dollar rules over the artists, the mom and pop stores, the manufacturers. And that’s real.

jumaane: So if I went back in time, would I not have Barclays? Yes, I don’t think it should be here. I think we should have done a lot more to save the neighborhood, get better housing, and things like that. The neighborhood was good to save, and I don’t think Barclays should’ve been there. Is there value in having Barclays here? Yes. Was I at the Jay Z concert? Yes. I’ve been to subsequent events there, too. So there’s definitely value, and it’s here to stay. But we have to make sure the housing that was promised comes, though. Williamsburg is a great place to have, but I’m more about who’s benefitting and who’s not.

So we have Williamsburg, great, but what’s going on in East New York and parts of East Flatbush? We can’t just forget about those places. That’s more of my concern: that the brand was benefitted from, but not from the people who watched the brand start. Those people coming in are not the ones who created it and stayed and made it what it is. Now they’re displacing the people who created this brand of Brooklyn and made it so popular. That’s what the problem is, right? We have issues of transportation. You can get to Williamsburg easily, but you can’t get to East Flatbush that easily. They’re very real issues, and we need to make sure every part’s benefitting. That’s not the case now. As we’re about to build 200,000 units, and East New York has been pointed out, we can just create another Williamsburg over here. But where are the people in East New York going to go? We’re running out of places for poorer people to live. They’d have to come out here to work, and live in New Jersey, I guess?

John Surico is Bklynr’s interviews editor. His work has appeared in the New York Times, VICE, and elsewhere. He also runs Potluck Magazine with his friends.

Anna Gianfrate is a freelance photographer. Originally from Italy, she now lives in Williamsburg.

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Capturing the faces of strangers on the streets of New York. Photos by Benedict Evans

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A Brownsville native uses architecture and design to help locals take ownership of their neighborhood. It started with a t-shirt. Interview by Maggie Astor