New York’s City Hall, a marble oasis in the middle of some of the busiest real estate on Earth, is a chummy place. On nice afternoons, staffers amble about on the steps, while their bosses hustle in and out of meetings and appointments. Council members and other officials hang out in the East Wing, debating what to order for lunch. Tourists look up and pause, stopping at the marble rotunda, even though it is under renovation, to gawk and take pictures. The men are freshly shaven, with suits fitted and pressed, the women have hair that bounces just right. Friends, enemies, and political rivals trade cordial greetings; firm handshakes lead the way.
When Jumaane Williams walks through the old building, he sings. He greets other leaders, politicians, and staffers with loud exclamations, like “Big dog’s in the house!” and “Hey now!” The freshman councilman doesn’t so much shake hands as shake bodies, giving the kind of big handshake hugs you might find at a barbeque in Brooklyn.
And he’s the only guy singing R&B in City Hall. Williams’ renditions of songs like Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely” or Frank Ocean’s “Thinking About You” are a far cry from the arias or sonatas that the architects of the regal edifice may have listened to for inspiration, but his falsetto, reverberating off the marble floors, doesn’t sound half bad.
Williams, who represents East Flatbush, likes to play up the fact that he doesn’t completely fit in these halls of power. He wears his hair in dreadlocks — he prefers just “locks” because dread implies fear — pulled tight behind his head. He emphasizes that he has only two “suit days” a month and is embarrassed to be photographed on them. He is also quick to share that he is still filled with a childlike awe when he enters the building, as if it’s his first time there, every time.
But all of this masks the fact that Williams is very much in his element in and around City Hall, where he smoothly transitions from the podium at rallies, to greetings in the courtyard, to meetings inside the building.
On a Wednesday in May, Williams was in fine form. Entering the City Council wing, he talked Knicks with the security guards, one of whom exclaimed that “Melo” — underachieving star Carmelo Anthony — was “the man.” Anthony was coming off a 32-point performance in a playoff win over the Indiana Pacers, but Williams had his doubts. “Well, if you’re scoring, you’re the man. If you’re not scoring, pass it,” he offered, shuffling through the security gate. (A few days later, Anthony shot poorly and doled out only one assist in a do-or-die game six; the Knicks lost and were sent packing back to New York for the summer.)
This particular morning, Williams was in the middle of intense negotiations over potential floor votes for two bills of which he is the lead sponsor, both related to police reform. One would create an inspector general to monitor the New York Police Department; the other would prohibit the police department from profiling based on race, religion, or gender.
Williams kept disappearing to make phone calls or pull colleagues aside for private chats. He spent a long time with Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson, after running into Wolfson in the courtyard in front of City Hall in between one of the day’s many rain showers. “Can I borrow your dad for two minutes?” Williams asked the deputy mayor’s daughter, who trotted along next to Wolfson. The young girl nodded to Williams and the two men walked about ten yards away to speak, out of a reporter’s earshot.
The day had already been a busy one; Williams began with a rally held by SEIU 32BJ, a major property service workers’ union, in front of the Department of Education. The union had just released a report on poor school conditions in low-income neighborhoods, and Williams was there to protest alongside them. He fired up the crowd with a quick speech, in which he blasted Mayor Bloomberg’s education policies and compared them to segregation. “The education mayor has had this system for over a decade,” he said. “If you still have to close schools at an alarming rate, if you still have to shove co-location down people’s throats, if you still have schools that look like this and are dilapidated, it is your fault!”
On his way back around the block to City Hall, Williams bumped into Councilman Brad Lander, who is co-sponsoring the two police reform bills. “Now, is it true that for the second time in two weeks, a light bulb blew up in the public half of a school shared with a Success Academy charter?” Lander asked, after Williams mentioned the rally. “In both cases, Success charter paid to replace their own fixtures but public school kids —”
Williams interrupted Lander, turning to face Stefan Ringel, his 26-year-old press secretary. “Why didn’t you tell me that shit? That’s some shit I want to say,” he said. Ringel said he hadn’t heard the anecdote, and hustled the councilman to City Hall’s steps to snap some photos with his interns.
After the photo shoot, Williams walked up to a microphone and addressed a group of a hundred or so senior citizens protesting potential budget cuts to senior centers. “They play a game with us,” he said. “What they do is they cut it every year, and then restore it. But what we really need is more than we had last year. So let’s not fall for the okey-doke. It’s not enough to begin with. We need more!”
Soon after he spoke, Mayor Bloomberg turned up, hustling up the steps with his bodyguards. The group of seniors turned towards the mayor — at 71, no spring chicken himself — and Williams joined them in shouting, “We want more!” until Bloomberg slipped inside the building. Later, as Williams headed for the floor of the City Council to vote yes on a major paid sick leave bill, he greeted a group of men in fire and police department uniforms. Williams has made a name for himself by lambasting the police department and Commissioner Ray Kelly’s policies, but that didn’t stop him from bounding up to the group. “Thank you for keeping us safe!” he exclaimed. Williams is, after all, still a politician, although he bristles at the term. “Elected official,” he corrected me, repeatedly.
Growing up in Starrett City (now called the Spring Creek Towers), Williams had little interest in politics. Then the largest federally subsidized housing complex in the country at around 20,000 people, Starrett City was a place with bike paths and ball fields that, as one home-grown writer recalled in the Village Voice, offered “a middle class lifestyle to the working class.” Williams’ parents, both immigrants from Grenada, worked in health care — his mother was a pharmacist, his father a physician. They split when he was young.
A bit of a rascal growing up, Williams admits he was not a good student. “I was always a mischievous and in-trouble kid,” said Williams. “I stayed in the dean’s office. I stayed in the principal’s office. And they were about to kick me out of every school I went to!”
When he was fourteen, Williams was diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome, a neurological disorder that causes involuntary tics, and in some people, verbal outbursts. In Williams’ case, it leads to vocal tics that sound like loud hiccups and shake his whole body at times, spasms that would be distracting if Williams ever paid attention to them. He rarely breaks his speech or movements, or even seems to notice the tics, even when they pick up at certain moments.
Williams struggled academically, but developed a passion for acting and performing. He played piano, guitar, and the drums as a young child, and started tooling around on viola and bass in middle school. By the time he started at Brooklyn Technical High School, though, he had found that his reputation as disruptive student was a barrier to his interest in the arts.
“I would audition and pass, but they wouldn’t take me in because they said I was going to cause too much trouble,” said Williams. “I wasn’t able to advance where I probably would have.”
Still, Williams remained committed to performing. He enrolled in after-school classes at the Harlem School of the Arts, commuting uptown to practice before making the long trek back to Starrett City. One of the first times Williams visited City Hall was on a trip with the All-City High School Chorus.
In 1994, Williams graduated from Brooklyn Tech and enrolled at Brooklyn College, an outpost of the City University of New York system in Flatbush. When it came time to choose a major, Williams elected to study film. But his interest in the arts did not translate to academic success. “They were about to kick me out of Brooklyn College,” he said. “I was doing bad at my academics, they brought me back in on probationary status.” Five years into his studies, he still hadn’t graduated, and his mother threatened to stop paying for school. “I was like, ‘It’s time,’” he said. By 2001, he had finished his degree.
Meanwhile, Williams had some modest successes working as an actor. He was in two music videos, one for the legendary hip-hop group EPMD, the other for the R&B outfit Solo. But as a tall black man, he quickly found himself boxed into auditions for certain types of roles. The last straw came when he was cast in a video for dancehall star Bounty Killer.
“Wherever you were auditioning you were typecast, you know, drug dealers and stuff,” Williams told me. “The last video I was on, they said, ‘We want you to throw this body off the roof,’ and I was like, ‘For what man? I’m tired of this kind of thing.’”
If Williams tired of acting, he found other pursuits to occupy his restless energy at Brooklyn College. He got involved with student government, leading protests on the budget cuts — and ensuing tuition increases — perennially faced by students at public colleges. By the end of his time as an undergraduate, Williams eventually settled down into academics and he chose to return to Brooklyn College for a master’s in urban policy and administration.
He was even elected president of the graduate student body. “He was a very political, loud person, with a bunch of signs everywhere you go, running for offices, locked in buildings, that kind of crazy militant person,” said K. Bain, who met Williams as an undergraduate at Brooklyn College and now serves as his budget director. “I would see him and be like, ‘I’m not going over there.’ He was crazy, man. He used to have a big rock on his neck. Dude was super-duper charged up, like ‘BWAHHH’ everywhere he went, always handing out shit.”
A self-proclaimed “street dude” who grew up hustling on corners in the city, Bain transferred to Brooklyn College after getting kicked out of Long Island University. He connected with Williams later on in his college career, after deciding to give up his own hustle, and hew more closely to Williams’s path; he followed Williams into the same master’s program in urban policy at the school. Sitting in a suit in the councilman’s legislative office at 250 Broadway, he was careful when I asked him what he meant by hustling. “What do you mean by hustling?” he repeated back to me.
Bain is a rapper when he’s not working City Hall. His 2009 single “Came a Long Way” describes the hustle in a little more depth: moving pounds, running from the cops, surviving in the dangerous world of the projects. He said he and Williams share some fundamental understandings, despite their different upbringings. “With the background that I had, integrity is very important. Even though we were very different in our experiences, he’s somebody whose word has always been true,” Bain said. “That’s what our brotherhood is built on, the fact that his word is always good. That’s worth more than any salary I could ever pick up here.”
Bain may be expected to talk his boss up, but there’s no shortage of people outside Williams’ office who shower him with superlatives. “Jumaane has incredible presence,” said Katy Bordonaro, who hired Williams as the executive director of New York State Tenants & Neighbors, a housing nonprofit, in 2005.
Williams asks questions when people talk to him and appears to legitimately listen; he has a big, slow laugh. “If there’s a congeniality ranking in the City Council, he would be up there,” said Lander.
Though the demographics in their respective districts are drastically different — Lander’s district, including parts of Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, Windsor Terrace and Kensington, is wealthier and white; Williams’ district is less affluent, with pockets of poverty and a sizable West Indian population — the two have sought each other out as political allies and found a surprising area of common ground, including the police reform bills they’re co-sponsoring.
Williams has focused his career in politics on issues that affect communities of color, like his district in Flatbush: public education, housing issues, gun violence, and police accountability. “It’s unfair that you can look at someone, figure out their race, figure out where they grew up, guess probably the kind of education they had, and the opportunities they had,” he said. “It’s unfair that I can do that. You shouldn’t be able to. And those are the imbalances I would love to affect.”
Williams is some ways the political child of the recession, which has thrown inequality in New York into even starker relief. As part of a new crop of progressive politicians who have prospered in the City Council by critiquing the status quo — particularly Bloomberg’s successful push for a third term — he is a player in what could be a more left-leaning future for the city’s politics. (The city will elect a new mayor this year, and it’s likely to send the first Democrat to Gracie Mansion in 20 years. Williams himself is up for re-election for a second term, and is expected to win.)
Like many prominent progressives before him, he’s built a reputation as a bit of a firebrand. He is a powerful orator, capable of whipping a room into a frenzy with a potent mix of righteous anger and cautious optimism. Take a recent night in Flatbush, for example. The Department of Education was hosting a hearing at Andries Hudde Junior High School on a proposal to co-locate a charter elementary school at Hudde’s regal post-World War II building. A hallmark of the Bloomberg administration’s approach to education, co-location involves placing multiple schools in the same building. To parents, teachers, and students at a public school, sharing facilities with a charter school is at best an inconvenience, and at worst a sign that their school could be next on the Department of Education’s chopping block.
The hearing had already started and several teachers and sixth graders had already gotten up to speak, all against the plan, when the freshman councilman arrived wearing jeans and a sport coat, his braids pulled tightly back. Immediately, he headed for the microphone up front.
“This is the best button I’ve ever received in my three years of council,” he said, voice booming over the PA system, as he pointed to a button he’d been handed by event organizers. It read “12/31/13” — Bloomberg’s last day as mayor of New York City. “That day cannot come soon enough. I wish it were today. The whole city wishes it was today!”
The packed auditorium, a predominantly black audience, cheered and clapped. Williams continued. “His arrogance is amazing! It is wide-reaching! But I know that one person’s arrogance cannot defeat the people of a community! One person’s arrogance cannot make something right that is wrong. And what he’s doing to this school system is wrong!”
The cheers picked up.
“I may make a lot of noise, but I’m ready to get down for the fight! So I hope you guys are ready to get down for the fight! Because it’s going to be a long fight, and I can’t do this by myself. I want to look behind me and see all the Brooklyn parents behind me! I want to look behind and see all of the students behind me,” he cried. “I want to see the entire community behind me, so when I say, ‘No, we’re not going to take this,’ it’s not just Jumaane Williams, it’s this entire school!”
By the time Williams ended his speech with a loud “Thank you!” the audience was in a fit. Parents jumped up and down holding homemade signs that said, “Save Hudde.” Children shouted and stomped in the aisles. And the audience was still roaring by the time he left the auditorium, pausing to shake a few hands outside before slipping out.
Later, people in the audience whispered of the speech. A staffer from State Senator Kevin Parker’s office said he came down specifically because he heard Williams “went revival” on everybody.
A couple weeks after the hubbub at Hudde, the co-location proposal was withdrawn by Brooklyn Prospect. The potential charter school tenants had pulled their proposal at the last minute, before the city-appointed Panel for Educational Policy, which controls school closures and co-locations, could even vote on it. The charter claimed it had found a better home at a private location. Williams championed the news as a “victory” for the Hudde community in a celebratory press release, though he cautioned that more battles over co-location lay on the horizon.
For all his geniality, Williams’ political career and persona have been characterized by this kind of agitation, and at times, outright conflict. Council members in New York City are largely local figures, easily forgotten in a metropolis with no shortage of big personalities, and in a system dominated by a strong mayor and a powerful City Council speaker, one member’s power is largely confined to the district he or she represents. But Williams has channeled his charisma in front of a crowd and knack for the theatrics of protest into an unusually high-profile first term for a lawmaker. By thrusting himself into the center of many of the most controversial issues in recent memory in the city — the Occupy movement, the effort to reform the NYPD, and most recently, rallies against the police shooting of the teenager Kimani Gray — Williams has become a citywide figure.
But before all of these things, Williams was catapulted into the larger consciousness of the city by events mostly out of his control. It was Labor Day in 2011 and Williams was doing what he does every Labor Day: “jumping up” in the annual West Indian Day Parade, a tradition in which participants dance behind a truck playing music.
The event is one of the city’s largest public events, and also one of its most chaotic; that year’s parade was shaping up to be one of the most violent in recent memory, with three shootings, including one that resulted in the death of a 56-year-old woman sitting on her stoop.
As the parade wound down Eastern Parkway, Williams and a friend, Kirsten John Foy, an aide to Public Advocate and current mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, peeled off near the end of the route and (with permission from an officer) entered a barricaded area around Grand Army Plaza to head back to a private event at the Brooklyn Museum.
The two quickly found themselves surrounded by police, who asked why they were behind the barricades and ordered them to leave. Williams was wearing his City Council pin, but soon found himself handcuffed. John Foy was thrown to the ground, pinned and handcuffed by three cops, a moment captured in a jarring video that went viral. Both were taken to the nearby Union Temple, where they were held until de Blasio showed up.
The story of the arrest — the police department maintains it was just a “detainment” — ran in all the city’s major papers, and on many television stations. Even the New York Post wrote a tersely worded brief on the incident. The next day, Williams and John Foy held a press conference on the steps of City Hall, flanked by more than two dozen lawmakers, where they argued that race (both are black) had been the primary factor in their detainment.
Williams now says he was shocked by the turnout at the press conference and attention the story generated. “Having to deal with police in a negative way when you shouldn’t already feels like part of the black experience here,” he offered.
Though the arrest of the two officials was not related to the police’s controversial stop-and-frisk program, it gave fuel to the idea that the NYPD targets individuals based on their race — and gave the growing movement to reform the police department a new ally: Councilman Williams.
The event is now immortalized in a blown-up photograph displayed prominently on the wall of Williams’ office near City Hall. Williams is in the middle, dressed in black linen and holding a Grenadian flag, surrounded by cops outside the Brooklyn Public Library. John Foy stands across from him conversing with an officer. It’s a surprisingly still scene, one that raises the question: what did these men do to deserve the arrest?
Less than a month after the incident at the parade, Williams found himself in the middle of another controversy involving the NYPD, though this time by choice. He was one of the first elected officials to visit the rag-tag Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park, mingling with activists ten days after the protest over economic inequality began on September 17, 2011. The councilman wears his early support of Occupy as a badge of pride (not just metaphorically — there’s always an “Occupy” pin on his lapel) and he continues to assert that he was the first elected official to publicly endorse the movement. He visited Zuccotti Park a couple of times a week, and he was eventually arrested, this time intentionally, blocking a road to the Brooklyn Bridge along with a cadre of officials and organizers on the day of protests that marked the movement’s two-month anniversary.
The early days of Occupy also saw Williams beginning to use social media, particularly Twitter, to speak to the public, a strategy that has come to define Williams’ involvement in big stories. During the police raid that broke up the Zuccotti Park encampment in the early hours of November 15, 2011, Williams was one of the first people to publicize the arrest of fellow councilman Ydanis Rodriguez. “I can report that @ydanis, a #NYC Council Member, has been #arrested at #OccupyWallStreet & is bleeding from the head thanks to the #NYPD,” he wrote in one of his 29 tweets during the raid and its aftermath. The arrest was widely cited in news stories, many of which quoted Williams the next morning. After apparently staying up the whole night, Williams landed himself on NY1 that morning, talking with anchor Pat Kiernan; later he was on host Mark Riley’s WWRL 1600 AM show.
It seemed Williams had settled into a perfect expression of his politics, mixing it up in the middle of another contentious event while drawing attention from around the globe.
Yet while Williams had challenged the police and positioned himself as a crusader against economic injustice, he didn’t necessarily win over all the activists in the park, who were skeptical of political involvement with — and the co-optation of — their decidedly anti-political movement.
“Jumaane is certainly an energetic elected official and deserves credit for wading into these issues,” said Bill Dobbs, a veteran of the gay rights and anti-war movements who has been involved with Occupy since the Zuccotti occupation began. “But despite the fact that Jumaane and Ydanis experienced the blight of NYPD controlled behavior, the City Council has done virtually nothing in terms of stopping the police abuse of excess force and stopping them from interfering with constitutional rights to protest.”
Dobbs pointed to the uproar over the NYPD crackdown on Iraq war protests in February 2003. Within weeks, the City Council had scheduled a hearing to examine problems with the policing, something it did not do in the aftermath of the aggressive policing of Occupy.
Still, Williams has undeniably been a relentless advocate for police reform in the City Council, particularly around the department’s controversial stop-and-frisk program. In addition to the bills he’s sponsoring, he has served as a de facto spokesman for the movement, attending rallies, showing up in federal court to check on one of the major lawsuits over stop-and-frisk, and consistently sparring with Commissioner Kelly. It’s hard to find him anywhere without his anti-stop-and-frisk button, pinned to his lapel. (Yes, he’s fond of buttons.)
The practice of stopping and searching individuals on the street is not new. New York state legalized it in 1964, and the practice was upheld in the Supreme Court four years later. But it has surged to unprecedented levels under the Bloomberg administration. Police stopped and frisked about 97,300 people in 2002; by 2011, that number had ballooned to more than 685,700, though it declined to 533,000 last year. Nearly 90 percent of stops yield no criminal evidence; more than 85 percent of those stopped are black or Latino.
The most current iteration of the stop-and-frisk struggle includes a pending class action lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights in 2008, Floyd v. City of New York, which accuses the city of violating the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures, and the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. Darius Charney, the lead counsel from the CCR, says Williams is part of a crew of city politicians — including council members Letitia James, Brad Lander, and Melissa Mark-Viverito, Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, and State Senator Eric Adams — who’ve worked hard for the cause. But Charney believes Williams offers some things the others cannot. “I think Jumaane, more so than a lot of them, is really always going to be out on the street rallying folks, getting boots on the ground. He’ll be at every rally. If you need people to come to court, he’ll get people there … He’s asked several times if he can testify,” he said. “As a young black man, what he says resonates.”
Due to his advocacy on policing issues, as well as issues such as education and housing, Williams has become a bit of a liberal darling; featured in media outlets like The Nation, a frequent guest on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, and regularly quoted in the pages of the New York Times. (Williams has been mentioned in more than 55 Times articles; for context, that’s double the number of neighboring councilman Mathieu Eugene, who has been in office almost twice as long as him.)
Williams is not shy about wearing his political ambitions on his sleeve. “Everyone around here wants to be king of Zamunda. You come in here and say you want to be king of Zamunda,” he said on a sunny afternoon at his district office. “I love citywide office, I love statewide office, I love borough-wide office, I love federal stuff. I think all those things have pluses and minuses. It’s about what’s available, what can you do with it.”
Williams can get arrested as many times as he wants, rail against the injustices of the school system, the police, and other city developments, and chances are the people of East Flatbush will stand by him. He can keep his locks, rock his earrings, continue to interrupt people of power greater than his, and continue to thrust himself head over feet into whatever political fray moves him, punching up with the righteous indignation of a legitimate underdog — but I asked him, how would he keep that up if he became the favorite? And what if he had to run for more of a citywide position — would he ever tone it down?
“I ask myself this all the time — to go higher, how much do you have to dig in to your principles?” he said. “That’s something I get worried about and I think about a lot. There are people, without naming names, that haven’t remained true to themselves. But I don’t know that that happened purposely; it’s like people came in with the best of intentions, but something happens in this place, something happens in this arena, where slowly it starts to get chipped away. People say that I may not go as far as I want because I’m not willing — at least of yet — I’m not willing to give up my principles.”
The perils of navigating the dual worlds of politics and activism were resoundingly clear earlier this year. Two leaders of a movement critical of Israel — pioneering gender theorist and activist Judith Butler and Palestinian rights activist Omar Barghouti — were scheduled to speak at Brooklyn College in an event billed as a lecture on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which advocates for economic protests against Israel. The event was sponsored by a student group, Brooklyn College Students for Justice in Palestine, but the college’s political science department had signed on as a co-sponsor.
A couple weeks before the event, another student organization, the college’s United4Israel chapter, posted a petition online that expressed “deep concern” over the school’s co-sponsorship of the lecture. By the time Harvard law professor and Brooklyn College alum Alan Dershowitz weighed in a week before the event with a Daily News op-ed that called it a “propaganda hate orgy,” the story had bloomed into a full-blown controversy.
Local politicians like assemblymen Dov Hikind and Steven Cymbrowitz, who both hail from heavily Jewish districts near Brooklyn College, organized a press conference to denounce the college. Much of the city’s political establishment soon weighed in on the controversy, with nearly everyone coming down heavily against the school.
A self-proclaimed “progressive” coalition of officials sent a letter to college President Karen Gould, signed by a who’s who of politicians in the city — including four of the top Democratic candidates for mayor — expressing “concern” that the college had signed onto the event and accusing it of stifling academic freedom. A group of ten council members, led by Lew Fidler, penned a letter to Gould asking her to cancel the event entirely, and hinted that the CUNY school’s funding, some of which passes through the City Council each year, could be affected by the decision.
For a couple of days, as the event spiraled into a larger and larger story, Williams and his office were quiet on the issue. It was a notable silence given both Williams’ strong connections to the school and its political science department, as well as the simple fact that its 26-acre campus lies squarely in his district.
But on February 1, Williams’ office released a copy of a letter the councilman had sent Gould. “I have concerns regarding the sponsorship by the Political Science Department of this event,” Williams wrote. “I am asking for your intervention with Chair Paisley Currah in an effort to allow both sides of this hot-button matter to be discussed with equity, preferably in the same forum. If that cannot be accomplished, I urge the removal of the department’s sponsorship of this event.”
The chorus of voices was getting louder for the department to cancel the event; media across the globe picked up the story, with articles in the Jerusalem Post and Al Jazeera in addition to the city’s major news sources. Glenn Greenwald weighed in on the pages of The Guardian, calling the liberal politicians a “lynch mob.”
For a moment, it seemed Brooklyn College would have to buckle. But it stood its ground and, at the last minute, received some support from an unlikely ally. At a press conference on Hurricane Sandy relief, Mayor Bloomberg, prompted by a reporter’s question, forcefully defended the college’s right to hold the event.
“If you want to go to a university where the government decides what kind of subjects are fit for discussion, I suggest you apply to a school in North Korea,” he said. “The last thing we need is for members of our City Council or state legislature to be micromanaging the kinds of programs that our public universities run.”
In two minutes, any steam left behind the movement to get the college to cancel or change the event was gone. The idea of the mayor, the most powerful official in New York City and an avid supporter of Israel, announcing his support for the school caught the rest of the establishment off guard.
Most of the city’s politicians who had so loudly protested the event released statements in support of it. The so-called progressive group of politicians sent a follow-up letter to Gould, thanking her for her “leadership on the issue,” and expressing support for the college and its forum. Council members Steve Levin and Letitia James revoked their support for the letter they had inked earlier in the week, claiming they “unsigned” it. And Williams released another statement expressing support for the forum and “confidence” in the state of academic freedom at Brooklyn College.
“No institution of learning should stifle voices in a debate, no matter how controversial or problematic they may be,” he wrote.
But the damage had already been done.
“The gr8 progressive @JumaaneWilliams ‘supports views expressed by my fellow alumnus Alan Dershowitz’ on #BDS event … SMH,” remarked Alex Kane, an editor at progressive sites AlterNate and Mondoweiss, on Twitter. Soon Williams’ feed and Facebook page were ablaze with comments from academics, progressive journalists, and enraged commenters.
Corey Robin, a political science professor at Brooklyn College who served as the department’s unofficial spokesman during the controversy and a former professor of Williams', entered into the most heated debate with him, in a lengthy exchange that Robin published online.
By the end of the hour-long debate, during which Williams was thoroughly chided by Robin, the councilman conceded numerous points to the academic and had assumed the role of a chastened student, referring to Robin as “professor,” and admitting that he would definitely “do more homework,” in the future.
“What I was trying to get across was correct. I don’t think that got across in my first letter,” Williams said recently. “I had not spoken to the chairperson, which I should have done. So my intention with the first letter was basically to say that there needs to be some rules about how sponsorship happens, and that everybody should have access to that sponsorship.”
Still, if you believe people like Robin, the event may yet come back to haunt him.
“He’s the pride and joy of the department, but people were surprised and are not going to forget that easily,” said Robin. “Everyone expected that Christine Quinn would do what she did, but I think we all expected more of him. I expected more of him.”
Williams has made a career out of calling it like he sees it, cultivating the image that he is the rare politician who will speak the truth without regard for the consequences. But part of that veneer was lost with the week’s events.
“It takes a Republican mayor who is horrible on many issues that progressives care about to explain that politicians do not meddle with curriculum or extracurricular discussions to people like Christine Quinn, Jumaane Williams, and Brad Lander?” said Robin. “It shows there are real constraints on liberalism and leftism in New York.”
Dobbs said the dust-up demonstrated the fundamental conflict between Williams’ identity as an activist and as a politician. “They’re incompatible,” said Dobbs. “Most people believe that politicians and elected officials are leaders, but actually they follow much more than they lead.”
Perhaps most damaging for Williams’ reputation was the perception of him as weak and susceptible, vulnerable in the game of politics.
“The media misunderstands liberals and thinks they want someone who is pure, but what the left really wants is politicos who are shrewd about power and use it to achieve progressive goals,” said Robin. “He got played on this one; the moral reasons are very troubling, but it’s also very troubling politically. He should have been shrewder about this. He went to Brooklyn College, he should have called the damn school, found out the facts first and spoken as an alum, to say ‘I understand the issues around this, I understand the department. Let me tell you about what I learned.’ It would have been a very moving statement. Instead he comes out looking like a chump.”
Since the Brooklyn College debacle, Williams has worked to repair his reputation by focusing on the issues he’s had the most success with, particularly police reform. He’s continued to push the two bills he is sponsoring and he hopes to have both on the floor by the end of the month.
He has also continued to throw himself into the fray. In mid-February, as Bloomberg defended stop-and-frisk at his final State of the City address, a voice could be heard from the audience — and on the live broadcast — yelling things like “Wrong information” from the back of the room. Williams had interrupted the mayor, though he later apologized for the Joe Wilson-like outburst.
In March, after 16-year-old Kimani Gray was shot by police in Williams’ district, the councilman was again out in the streets. He attended the vigils and protests on Church Avenue, two of which turned violent, tweeting his location, descriptions of the arrests and destruction unfolding around him. He had another heated back-and-forth with Commissioner Kelly at a City Council hearing. But he again incurred the wrath of the activist class when he wrote, “Furious at adults from OUTSIDE the community who incite our angry young people!!! You do not help and not wanted if you bring destruction!” The tweet was taken by many activists, a good deal of whom did come from outside East Flatbush to march in solidarity, as an affront to their work. “Depending who you spoke to, I was either the person inciting the riots or I was an agent of the police,” said Williams. “That was typical me.”
Late in the afternoon of the paid sick day vote, Williams left City Hall and drove his black BMW uptown, en route to a panel on stop-and-frisk at the Museum of the City of New York.
The mayoral race, which was heating up, had finally wrested the headlines back again from the recent spate of corruption cases filtering through New York politics: 1010 WINS was abuzz with the news of the candidate who had just pissed everyone off by referring to the Port Authority cops as “mall cops.” “Who was it? Lhota?” Williams said, referring to Republican Joseph Lhota, who committed the verbal slight. “Yes!”
After the voice on the radio brought up traffic on the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, Williams said, “I’m just mad that I can’t remove his name from it. I was hoping he was still alive, so I could try to rename it.” Done with the news, he turned on some music. He scanned through a few stations on the radio — pausing on channels playing Justin Timberlake, the rapper B.o.B, and some dancehall reggae — before he ultimately decided what he was looking for.
“I’ve got my girl in here,” he said, putting on a CD. His press guy, Ringel, had convinced Williams to skip the train and drive uptown — ostensibly for speed’s sake, maybe just to show me his ride — and was talking up the councilman’s musical preferences: a lot of hip-hop, some reggae, a bit of R&B. But here, stuck in traffic he had wanted to avoid, Williams was not eager to be boxed in any more.
The slow chords of a piano ballad filled the car with sound, followed by the unmistakable sounds of Adele.
Close enough to start a waarrr
All that I have is on the flooooorr…
Williams started singing along, relishing the effect.
So I won’t let you close enough to hurt me.
No, I won’t ask you, you to just desert me.
I can’t give yoooouuuu what you think you gave me.
It’s time to say goodbye to turning tablllleees,
to turning tab-LLLEESS, ooh ooh ooooh, ooh
Half an hour later, Williams was in the middle of a debate with Bloomberg advisor John Feinblatt over the effectiveness of stop-and-frisk, as the panel debated whether the policy had contributed to the precipitous drop in crime in the past twenty years. Fellow panelists Alex Vitale, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College, and Franklin Zimring, an urban crime expert from the University of California, Berkeley, seemed to share Williams’ perspective, pointing out that the statistics don’t demonstrate much correlation between decreased crime and the volume of stop-and-frisks.
As the lone person of color on the panel, Williams brought a certain authority to the discussion. Many of his lines — “I just want to say, I’ve been black for quite some time, I remember the eighties and nineties,” for example — drew loud chuckles and applause from the mostly white audience.
During a question-and-answer session after the event, which most in the audience in the basement of the Upper East Side museum took as an opportunity to offer answers, an older man in a corduroy jacket and boat shoes stood up to point out that white people get stopped and frisked, too. It’s some of these people that Williams might have to win over, should he ever seek a citywide office.
As Williams exited onto East 104th Street after the panel, a kid wearing a Black Power pin with a panther on it was waiting for him outside. A couple of student journalists hovered nearby. The other panelists slipped by one by one into the evening; no one had paused for them outside.
After a day of rain, the sky was clear; the setting sun bled through the leafy trees in Central Park. Williams spoke with the kids for a moment, listening to what they had to say, then walked to his car for the long ride back to Flatbush.
Correction (June 6, 2013): An earlier version of this article misquoted Jumaane Williams on the subject of his political ambitions. Williams used the expression “king of Zamunda,” a reference to the king of the fictional African nation in Eddie Murphy's Coming to America. He did not say “king of the mundo,” a mix of Spanish and English that translates to “king of the world.”