On December 9th, 2021, the New York City Council voted on the historic bill, 1867-A, granting non-US citizens the right to vote in New York City’s municipal elections after establishing residency for 30 days. On the day of the vote, after seeing the demographic breakdown for whom the bill would impact, I wanted to know more specifically how it would impact African American voters who are the most vulnerable in New York City. However, we were in a rush to get to the finish line and to celebrate this huge victory.
As a child, I remember going to the voting booth with my parents who would remind me about how my African American ancestors died for us to have the right to vote. Until I got older and learned more, I didn't understand the struggle that many African Americans made to obtain this right to vote for over a century. We protested, rallied, marched, boycotted, and were, in turn, spit on, beaten, lynched, and murdered. While the tragedy of Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge where African Americans were brutally beaten for wanting to exercise their right to vote is well known, Bloody Sunday atrocities, though not well-documented, were happening all over this country. The African American struggle to vote continues and has opened up the opportunity for ALL people of all races, nationalities, and ethnicities, and should never be forgotten, overlooked, or marginalized. I am proud that the African American struggle has made it possible for us to even be in a place to conceive of a vote on Intro 1867 that will give non-US citizens the right to vote in municipal elections.
Internally within this Council, the process to vote on this bill was rushed and members of the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus (BLAC) never met collectively to discuss the complexities of the bill nor how it would impact our communities. This new bill is going to add an eligible 800,000 to 1,000,000 estimated new voters to New York City and those with a temporary green card or work visa would be granted the right to vote in municipal elections after residing in New York for a minimum of 30 days. I believe it takes more time to learn the political system and the issues to have a true vested interest in a community; or more importantly, to learn about the deep history of how African Americans fought for and died for the right to vote. This isn't just some minor detail. I believe that anytime we are talking about anything regarding voting, African Americans should be at the forefront of the conversation because of our sacrifice.
The City Council is a battleground for power and a bill like this would not have been brought to the floor and voted upon if the prime sponsors of the bill were not clear on how it would benefit their community. This is a power shift. Gentrification has taken root in our historical African American communities and our housing, businesses, schools, houses of worship and cultural institutions are vulnerable. Even the anti-gentrification movement has been gentrified. The undeniable reality is that this bill will dilute African American voting power if we are not intentional about how we implement this bill. We must agree that protecting African Americans who have fought for the right to vote for all people is important. Establishing acronyms like BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and hoping for the best is insufficient for a century-long struggle. Also, talking about the importance of protecting African Americans in this process is not divisive because it's too important of an issue to just hope it works itself out. Talking about it is being responsible. Our community is dealing with a lot of changes such as a redistricting process from the results of the census and the recent implementation of Ranked Choice Voting, which I also did not vote in favor of. RCV was sold to our communities as a process that would empower Black leadership but in our recent Mayoral Election in the 2021 Primary, Eric Adams secured 30.7%, Maya Wiley secured 21.4% and Kathryn Garcia secured 19.6% of the vote. This was a historic night in New York City politics seeing two Black candidates secure the first and second place in a highly competitive mayoral race. However, after Rank Choice Voting tabulations, Maya Wiley was eliminated by Kathryn Garcia and Eric Adams won by 50.4% to 49.6%. Through RCV, the third-place white candidate almost successfully beat the top two Black candidates. I believe if we took more time as a Council, we could figure out ways to improve and expand progressive ideas for improving voter turnout while also protecting African American communities. We are living in the Black Lives Matter Era and Black Votes Matter too.
A good friend of mine whom I've worked with in fighting for cultural equity for our diverse cultural institutions reached out to me when she saw the firestorm on Twitter about my concerns about the Non-Citizen Voting Bill and she sent me this text, "I beg you to publicly clarify that you are not anti-Latino. This is a crucial time for us as a BIPOC community to be united. Your Amiga, Yasmin.” I couldn't agree with her more. But is the BIPOC community truly united? With the recent election of Eric Adams for Mayor and Jumaane Williams for Public Advocate, I'm hearing a lot of legitimate concern from my Latino brothers and sisters who helped in this major victory say "The Blacks are winning" as if to say “The Latinos are losing.” A Council Member from The Bronx even wrote an op-ed about the recent win of Bronx Borough President-Elect Vanessa Gibson as being a loss for the Latino community and that if so many Latinos, who had no chance of winning, would have dropped out then Latino leadership would have continued to flourish (I'm paraphrasing) in the Bronx.
I see Brooklyn Borough President-Elect Antonio Reynoso, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, Mayor-Elect Eric Adams, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson, and Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark as all Black wins because they are all Black. We are all descendants of African people who were colonized by and/or enslaved by different European countries. I remember after the passing of the Late Great District Attorney Kenneth Thompson, there was so much talk in the Black community about how we could not turn over the DA’s seat to a Latino. It is counterproductive to divide these wins into Black or Latino wins. We all won! (DNA tests would also confirm my understanding)!
The current Speakers race has now become centered on finding a Latino Speaker because Latino communities don’t see Latino representation. It is no longer a Speaker’s race to determine who would best represent the Council but an urgency to fill a void. New Council Members that are coming into office often ask why is there an Annual Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Legislative Caucus and also an Annual Somos Legislative Conference in Albany the following month focused on Latino issues. I remember the first year I was elected to the City Council in 2014, the Black Members of the Council decided to have a meeting and Council Member Ritchie Torres was told he couldn't attend because he was seen as Latino and caucusing with both the Latinos and the Blacks would be a conflict of interest. Now Congress Member Torres is facing a similar issue as a Congress Member in having to choose between belonging to either the Congressional Black Caucus or the Hispanic Caucus. I recently organized a trip to Loiza, Puerto Rico during the Somos El Futuro Conference in Puerto Rico because so many Black colleagues and friends wondered why we didn't have a conference similar to Somos in a Caribbean Island where African descendants lived. I organized this trip to show that Puerto Rico’s African ancestry and roots are alive and well in Loiza and throughout the island. At that celebration, I spoke proudly about how the City Council’s Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus (BLAC) bylaws state that the Caucus must be co-chaired by one Black and one Latino Member and that we in the Caucus recommended Council Member Daneek Miller to co-chair the Caucus as a Latino representative because his family is from and resides in Puerto Rico. But later I understood there was a backlash from that decision because Council Member Miller doesn’t wear his Latino heritage on his sleeve.
I believe the reason for all of this conflict is due to the fact that we are all African and a serious degree of confusion is created by some recognizing this reality and others denying this fact and this conflict is coming to a head. It is also a territorial issue. Many African Americans who have been oppressed in this country who have fought for over 400 years to break the chains of oppression feel that they are rightly entitled first to opportunities that their struggle has brought about. And then people who are new to this country and who have also fought similar oppressors in their home country, want to now live the full measure of their dreams in America. These are the issues for which we must contend. These are the conversations that we should be having instead of breaking off into silos. When Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez spoke about the Non-Citizens Voting Bill he asked me with great enthusiasm to imagine how much more powerful communities of color would be with the passage of this bill and this new block of voters. I share in his enthusiasm but I also believe it is critical to have at baseline a commitment to one another from a leadership standpoint; a commitment to stand united in the fight against oppression.
As an African American woman, knowing the history of what Blacks went through to create the right to vote for all people, yes, it is difficult for me to sit back in silence and watch other oppressed people utilize that precious right to vote and partner with those who have openly oppressed us to advance their placement in the world at our demise. According to a December 20, 2020, New York Times article, "But even as Mr. Trump lost ground in white and Republican areas in and around cities — ultimately leading to his election loss — he gained new votes in immigrant neighborhoods.” To be perfectly honest, I am still hurt and deeply in my feelings around that fact because, throughout the Trump administration, I stood on the frontlines with my son in a stroller fighting against the racist policies of Trump who so often attacked our immigrant communities. In the end, hate has no discernment and under a presidency like Trump, the potential to destroy the world under a hate-filled regime is far too real. We all share a common bond of working to reclaim our history and to unravel the oppression that has sent our communities into dysfunctional systems; systems that have impacted us greatly and that we are still looking to heal from so that we can return to our original selves. We can do this by recognizing that only through working together and remaining committed to one another can we truly break the chains of oppression.
Twenty-five years ago, I opened the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA). I could have opened an African Museum or an African American Museum or a Caribbean Museum but I wanted to open an African Diaspora Museum because I wanted to unite all people of African descent to see themselves as one. I wanted Latinos, African Americans, Afro Latinos, Guyanese, Caribbeans, West Indians, Haitians, Brazilians, and all people of the African Diaspora to see themselves as one. I’m not just talking about this idea, I’ve lived it my entire life.
In reality, I could have voted yes on Intro 1867 and gone along with the bill as written although I had legitimate concerns and questions and all of the news outlets would have celebrated a huge victory was had by all and I could have ended my term in peace and on a high note. But in reality, underneath the celebrations are unanswered questions and concerns that can't be asked in cancel culture times that often create silent resentment which later manifests itself in other ways. I utilized my "no vote" as an opportunity to both inspire difficult conversations on issues that have been swept under the rug for far too long but it was also a battle cry to the Nation that we must remember the sacrifice African Americans made for us to get here and to truly tear down the walls of oppression, we must work together. In my dream of dreams, the people of the world that have suffered under oppression by European rule would truly work together to create a more equitable and balanced world for us all. Our future is depending on it and it would be a tragedy for them to inherit these artificially constructed identities based on racial identity and nationality, forced upon us and exploited to keep us separated.
We could put this conversation back into the genie bottle and I could go around and issue all kinds of public apologies and we could go on with our lives. I’ve been in this place before and I regret in the past not utilizing these uncomfortable moments to move us forward. We all know how important communication is to solving issues but we are moving further and further from this important problem-solving tool. But I believe the time is now to have these tough conversations on unity, working together, reclaiming our culture, and owning our collective Africaness.