Committee for an Independent New York
Statement by Lenora Fulani
Steps of City Hall
New York, NY
August 9, 2007
In 2001, the people of this city inaugurated a new era of nonpartisan government. With Michael Bloomberg as mayor and with a new sense of independence, the city began to move beyond years of petty politics and clubhouse control. As an early supporter of Bloomberg’s and as a member of the Independence Party which gave him his margin of victory in 2001, I am proud that I campaigned for him.
I am one of many New Yorkers who feel that the city is heading in a positive direction. And, at the same time, I am one of many New Yorkers concerned about the issue of where we go from here. In 2009, the city will have to make a decision about whether we return to the days of clubhouse control, of parties and partisans calling the shots, or whether we move ahead and build off of the independent foundation of the last six years. We’ve come here today out of a concern with that issue.
Though I am well known – even somewhat notorious – in political circles, I am not a politician. I am a developmental psychologist and a community organizer. Yes, I have previously run for office. I have been a candidate nationally and in New York, though not for 13 years. During that time, I’ve focused my energies on three things: Building an independent movement – like the Independence Party – for the express purpose of opening the door to new reform-oriented leaders like Mike Bloomberg; Encouraging the black community to be more free-thinking and to partner with white independents, as occurred in 2005 when 47% of black voters broke with the Democrats and voted for Bloomberg; And I have worked to create new youth programs and projects for all New Yorkers designed to overcome divisions that keep the people of this city and this country apart.
Most recently, my energies have gone to a project called “Operation Conversation.” After the fatal shooting of Sean Bell by police officers at the end of 2006, there were marches and protests and legislative hearings which many New Yorkers, including me, participated in. At the same time though, it appeared to me to be important to respond to this situation in new ways. As someone with close connections to inner city black youth and to police officers, I felt that the lack of communication, the total lack of understanding and the inability to see each other as human beings were contributing in dangerous ways to the tensions between cops and young black males, tensions that aggravated the events that led to Sean Bell’s tragic death, and to the deaths of so many others.
My approach was to go directly at that problem, to set up “sit-downs” between ordinary kids and cops on the beat. No press. No observers. Just an unmediated conversation where they could look each other in the eye and speak frankly, and uncensored, about their experiences of the other. There have been 25 of these dialogues – Operation Conversation – also known as “Cops and Kids” – involving more than 500 police officers and young people of color in all five boroughs. What have they learned from this experience? They learned they could create a different way of speaking to and seeing each other. How did that affect the scene on the streets?
The kids report to me that they now say hello to police officers when they see them, rather than steer as clear as possible and that they point out to their friends some of the cops they’ve been in workshops with. They say “you know, they’re OK.” Their friends are impressed. And cops tell me they make a point of smiling at young people now, to signal to them that they know they are community members who deserve respect.
Much has been accomplished at the level of bringing politicians and policy makers together under Mayor Bloomberg’s stewardship. But lasting solutions come about when regular people come together in their lives and in their neighborhoods. “Operation Conversation” is one example of the kind of initiative in which the people of this city can more directly take responsibility for public safety. Yes, we have a good police commissioner and his officers have been very responsive to this program. But communication and collaboration among groups that are alienated from one another has to be created “from the bottom up.”
This is also true in education where the successful reform of the schools rests ultimately on our young people developing as learners. That is not a bureaucratic issue. It’s a developmental issue. Mayor Bloomberg fought for and won mayoral control of the school system, eliminating a Board of Education that was rife with patronage and politics. That was a critical first step – that and getting the schools out of the partisan crossfire that animates Albany and into a zone where good management and accountability could prevail.
But that was only a beginning. Next come the issues of the achievement gap and the learning model and the extreme underdevelopment of young people in inner city communities. Bloomberg has made some limited progress in chipping away at these problems and creating goal-oriented reforms to drive up test scores and overall performance. But the backwardness of the school system combined with the parochialism and poverty of the most disadvantaged communities have to be grappled with from the bottom up, as it were.
Supplementary education, better known as “after-school,” has a central role to play in this redevelopment process. Where innovative after-school programs are supported, they produce results and communities flourish. Some of those efforts have been hamstrung by politics. Sadly, some elected officials attempted to block an IDA bond on purely political grounds for one of the city’s most successful after-school programs, the All Stars Project, which I co-founded. The mayor stood up to that partisan pressure on behalf of the thousands of kids served by the All Stars. But what happens after 2009? Do special interests regain their control over the school system, over the IDA, over the after-school system and turn back the clock on the innovations and developmental approaches that are just now taking root? That would be unconscionable. Because, in the final analysis, it’s the young people of this city who are going to turn the school system around. We have to give them the tools, the innovations, the love and the discipline to become more worldly and developed, to become, in the words of the Princeton philosopher, K. Anthony Appiah, more cosmopolitan.
Public safety, education, political reform – these are all important areas where we must continue to move ahead. Electoral reform is key. Together, the Independence Party and Mayor Bloomberg tried to pass nonpartisan elections in 2003. The Democratic Party responded with a mobilization to defeat this reform – now in place in 75 percent of American cities – that was more furious and aggressive than any of its recent mayoral campaigns. Still, we got 30% of the vote. We need 21% more. We need to keep going til we get there.
New York City can be a difficult place to openly engage controversial issues. I know that as well as anyone, having been the subject of much controversy. This is particularly true in connection with certain remarks I wrote in 1989 on the subject of Israel and what I took to be the role of the Israeli government in handling its relationship to people of color and to the Palestinians. I want to speak openly about those 1989 remarks today.
The situation in the Middle East at that time was extremely tense and polarized. Thousands of lives had already been lost on both sides. Few imagined that it could have gotten worse. But it has. At the time, the Israelis were, to my eyes, intransigent with respect to recognition of the Palestinians and support for a two-state solution. I viewed the Israelis as the aggressors and the Palestinians as a colonized people subject to outside authority and occupation. My comments reflected my feelings about the situation during that time. I felt it important to stand up for the people I thought were singularly oppressed. The language I used was harsh and today I would call it excessive. But, even at the time, I never intended to be hurtful to anyone, and never intended to express anything demeaning or derogatory to Jewish people here or in Israel.
Much has happened since the time I wrote those words. Much killing and murder has taken place on both sides. The situation has become increasingly unstable and dangerous for all involved – whether Palestinian or Israeli. The stand-off has given way to more violence, more disillusionment and more disintegration. My views have changed as part of that process. I do not view Israel as an aggressor. The tragedy is a tragedy for Jew and Arab alike.
In light of that, I am repudiating my remarks of 18 years ago. They do not express my feelings and deep concerns about the situation in the Middle East. I disassociate myself from them.
Here in New York, we have made some genuine progress in creating a new culture that is more oriented to people than to political gain. Obviously, there is much more to do. This administration has just scratched the surface on affordable housing, public health, and environmental concerns. I want to see that work continue and I believe that a nonpartisan political approach is key to that happening. Whether and how we move forward, whether and how we build on the experience of the Bloomberg years, must be the subject of the 2009 municipal elections. I intend to play a role in shaping that debate.
Consequently, this morning I filed papers with the New York City Campaign Finance Board authorizing an exploratory committee for a run for citywide office in 2009. I have already spoken with dozens of community leaders, elected officials, clergy, independents, Democrats and Republicans about my intentions and my concerns. I will continue to reach out and to expand the public conversation about a nonpartisan future for our city.
Contact: Committee for an Independent New York
646-417-6438 / 917-658-9885