News & Politics

For Rikers Activist Akeem Browder, Green Party Mayoral Bid Isn’t Just About the Votes

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As Akeem Browder sits in his busy Harlem office, talking about his veganism between bites of a late tofu lunch, he dismisses concerns that as a third-party candidate, he faces insurmountable odds in defeating incumbent mayor Bill de Blasio. “The goal is not just to win,” he says. “Or even to win, period.” The goal of his running for mayor on the Green Party ticket, he says, is to “spark the mind of that person who’s going to change the system.”

The 34-year-old Bronx native is navigating a crowded mayoral race, though August has already seen the number of candidates dwindle from 28 to 7. With until recently rising approval numbers and $10 million in campaign contributions — primarily from the real estate industry — securing him a comfortable financial advantage over each of his opponents, de Blasio is the prohibitive favorite to win re-election.

When Browder was tapped by the Green Party in early June as its mayoral candidate, he says, he didn’t hesitate to accept. “We have seen corruption, scandal, bribery, extortion, neglect, no accountability, and the list goes on,” he says of the city’s Democratic leadership. “I decided to run for mayor as a Green Party candidate because it is my belief that the people should be represented by a party that best fits all citizens.”

The Green Party platform includes prison reform, universal healthcare, better serving the homeless, and many other issues Browder has long focused on as a community organizer. By refusing all donations from big business or associated political action committees, Browder says, he can “ continue [grassroots work] because that’s all I know how to do.”

Raised in foster care in the Belmont neighborhood of the Bronx, Akeem Browder today has a name recognition that is a bitter advantage. Browder’s younger brother Kalief was arrested in 2010 for allegedly stealing a backpack, and ended up spending three years on Rikers Island without trial, much of it in solitary. Two years after his release, Kalief took his own life, and Akeem began organizing to have the jail closed.

Kalief never faced a trial, much less a speedy one. The institutional failures preceding Kalief’s death came to light in a 2014 New Yorker story that detailed racial profiling by police, an unscrupulous bail bond industry, backlogged criminal courts, and a jail so steeped in violence that corrections officers have been know to facilitate fights among inmates.

Kalief’s suicide brought criminal justice reformers and a diversity of other activists into the streets. Less than a month after the 22-year-old was buried, some five hundred people tried to march on Rikers Island, but were thwarted by police with attack dogs. Holding pictures of Kalief, community activists have since held countless memorials and direct actions in his memory. Another attempt to blockade the jail’s entrance in October 2015 resulted in a dozen arrests.

But popular outrage over Kalief’s story has not been confined to activist circles. Then-president Barack Obama cited Kalief when he banned juvenile solitary confinement by executive order; hip-hop mogul Jay-Z aired a six-part documentary on Spike TV about Kalief’s story.

Soon after his younger brother’s death, Browder founded the grassroots Shut Down Rikers campaign and was active with the Black Lives Matter chapter of Greater New York. He serves as president of the Kalief Browder Foundation, which will launch in September at a “Gala of Hope.” The foundation aims to stop reincarceration, advocate for expanded mental health services, and change perceptions of the formerly incarcerated.

On June 22 of this year, Mayor de Blasio proffered his ten-year plan to shutter Rikers called “Smaller, Safer, Fairer: A Roadmap to Closing Rikers Island”; Browder was unimpressed, however, calling the plan an election-year “publicity stunt.”

Browder has also worked with the City Council and state legislature. Prompted by popular anger that grew as a result of his unrelenting scrutiny of Rikers, Browder joined lawmakers in Albany as they passed the long-stalled “Raise the Age” bill in April. The law raises the age of adult criminal responsibility for nonviolent offenses to 18, keeping 16- and 17-year-olds from incarceration in adult facilities.

Yet problems like the school-to-prison pipeline, mass incarceration, homelessness, and gentrification cannot meaningfully be addressed, Browder cautions, without first recognizing their intersections.

Picture, he says, Bronx parents who have to work two jobs. When real estate speculation inflates neighborhood rents, it pushes them further into poverty. Their teenager acts out under the mounting stress but, lacking adequate mental health resources to help him, the parents out of desperation eventually hand their teen over to the police. The teen, unable to afford bail, waits in jail to see a judge. A judge issues an order of protection barring the teen from entering the parents’ house. The teen, now homeless, is turned away from an overcrowded shelter. When he sleeps on the subway, he is roused and arrested by an officer on trespassing charges. He returns to jail, and the cycle begins anew.

Despite his high activist profile, Browder remains on the political fringe. Most of the Greens’ electoral success thus far in New York has come upstate, where fewer total votes are needed to turn an election. Jason West gained much progressive credibility in his first term as mayor of New Paltz, most notably for officiating the marriages of 24 same-sex couples before same-sex marriage was legal in the state; after losing a 2007 re-election bid, he returned as mayor from 2011 to 2015. When Jim Sullivan, another Green candidate, became mayor of the tiny upstate New York town of Victory, it was with 71 votes to his opponent’s 59.

Nationally, the Greens are coming off one million votes nationwide in the 2016 presidential election, helped along by support from Bernie Sanders supporters who’d soured on the Democratic party.

Debra Rosario of the Bronx, who is now a Green Party canvasser, says she finally abandoned the Democrats after decades of support when Sanders lost the primary. “I didn’t want to be a member of an organization in which my voice is not heard,” she says. “If you’re a real estate guy or a developer, things get done [in my district]. Otherwise nothing.”

Still, third-party candidates like Browder face long odds. Without access to corporate or PAC money, Browder has raised only $661 from nine small donors, according to the New York City Campaign Finance Board. Since the NYCCFB bases debate participation on candidate fundraising, Browder has been excluded from mayoral debates and forums thus far. (He showed up to some events anyway, pressing candidates and reporters alike on the exclusion of third-party candidates in these forums and other campaign issues.)

And a party without a large political base doesn’t often get the media’s attention.

“The major organs of mass communication are seeking to reach the broadest possible audience,” says John Mollenkopf, director of the CUNY Graduate Center’s Center for Urban Research. “[They] are not going to throw open their doors to segments of the electorate and the political spectrum that have such small followings.”

And voters’ overwhelming adherence to the political duopoly only compounds the problems third parties face.

“The system that we have is deeply embedded in our political DNA and I don’t honestly see it changing,” says Mollenkopf. In the 2013 mayoral race, the Green Party’s Anthony Gronowicz received only five thousand votes, in a race that also saw the lowest voter turnout in memory.

Even if the Green Party can’t win city elections, Mollenkopf concedes that its outsider participation still affords it opportunities to push establishment politicians like de Blasio on issues he has largely ignored.

“By running, [the Green Party will] get a broader platform than if they were just writing letters to the editor,” Mollenkopf says. “It’s a more sound strategy than just setting up a table at the local green market and passing out leaflets.”

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