NEW YORK

Social Justice and the City: Citizen Action of New York Seeks Progressives

Can everyday New Yorkers come together to better the city, the state, and the planet?

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Are progressives, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder? If you see yourself as politically progressive, Citizen Action of New York wants you to join them in Albany—COVID-permitting—on February 16 for a Lobby Day, contacting assembly members on social justice legislation, and on March 15 for a Day of Action to demonstrate public support following Citizen Action’s January 20 statewide virtual rollout of its 2022 Social Justice Agenda. This focuses on ending mass incarceration and improving gender, worker, housing, climate, education, and health care justice, among other issues. (Updates on these actions and dates will be posted on citizenactionny.org.)

Affiliated with national umbrella group People’s Action, Citizen Action is one of 40 organizations in 30 states pursuing progressive advocacy in order to build “the power of poor and working people in rural, suburban, and urban areas to win change through issue campaigns and elections.” There are eight Citizen Action chapters spread across NYC and New York State; membership is offered on a sliding scale (starting at $10) and includes workshops on issues and community organizing. Regardless of how someone defines themselves politically, what’s more important is deciding if they can “support the main legislative and policy issues” around which the justice campaign is focused, Citizen Action’s media strategist, Timothy Hunter, tells the Voice during a phone call.

“Our legislative goals formally represent our statement of what we think New Yorkers need, especially working-class people dealing with COVID and its aftermath,” Hunter says. He adds, “New York saw its eviction ban expire January 15 with little hope for renewal by New York governor Kathy Hochul. Without a renewal, there is a great deal of misery ahead for so many New Yorkers.” In other words, Hunter is more interested in reaching people who are affected by social justice issues or those who support his organization’s policies and proposed legislation than in how they may label themselves.

Each of the Social Justice Agenda items translates into a piece of legislation. For example, the Good Cause Eviction bill, if passed, will alleviate some of the hardships caused by the state’s nonrenewal of its eviction ban. Another Senate bill involves “elder parole,” which relates to parole eligibility for certain incarcerated persons age 55 or older. The measure calls for the Board of Parole to review a prisoner’s sentence who is “55 or older who has served at least 15 years … to determine whether they should be released to community supervision.”

“Our audience is everyday New Yorkers that are impacted by the inequities of housing, mass incarceration, healthcare, education, and climate change,” Rebecca Garrard, Citizen Action’s legislative director, tells the Voice in an email. “Our organization connects with its audience via newsletter, email, and social media platforms.” To achieve justice, Garrard says, the proposed social justice agenda must be looked at as a whole—especially the interrelatedness of the issues involved. “For New Yorkers to get real justice, our agenda has to be passed in its entirety,” Garrard notes. “Issues like housing insecurity and mass incarceration are connected, as one can lead to another.” This happens because “when people serve time in our criminal justice system, there are sometimes little to no resources that help to reduce recidivism. Providing safe, low-cost housing is one way that we can address that issue.” Garrard is hoping that the New York State Assembly and the governor will “do everything in their power to prioritize the best interest of the working-class people in our state.”

Who makes up the various “camps” that Citizen Action hopes to draw into their lobbying efforts? There are three primary groups of voters who might be attracted to Citizen Action’s focus, according to Susan Kang, associate professor of political science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and member of the Democratic Socialists of America. She tells the Voice that she sees individuals who may have been attracted to former Ohio congressman and Cleveland mayor Dennis Kucinich’s progressive opposition to the Patriot Act and the Iraq War right through to followers of Senator Bernie Sanders’s populist presidential runs in 2016 and 2020 as one potential pool of progressive voters. Kang says, “These are voters we can describe as ‘economic Populists’ or similar to Democratic Socialists in Western Europe.” Historically, this group represents, Kang explains, “the limited wing of the Democratic party that wanted to keep the New Deal coalition alive even after it was out of vogue,” adding, “this group also includes the ‘anti-globalization’ crowd in the 1990s that challenged free-trade orthodoxy.”

A second pool of actual or potential supporters of progressive policies is what Kang calls “the diversity crowd.” She further clarifies, “These are people inspired by the politics of the social justice movements of the 1960s, like the Black civil rights movement, and more recently today’s BLM, LGBTQ rights, and Dreamers.” She says she would argue that folks who loved former president Barack Obama unconditionally because of his achievements as our first Black president fall into this camp as well. “BLM and Dreamers have economic justice agendas, but many identity-politics progressives focus on the diversity and non-discrimination part of the message, and the economic justice and redistributive message gets lost.” This camp, Kang says, “believes in the importance of meritocracy and that economic policies only need to ensure ‘equality of opportunity.’ For lack of a better term, this group includes what I call ‘woke’ sentiments. These are individuals who are mostly upwardly mobile, metro-region professionals.”

Kang also sees a third group, which she describes as the “newly emerging corps of volunteers—men, women, and youth not traditionally involved in local Democratic parties—who lump together as anti-Trump in their overall sentiments.” This group “is an amalgam of climate change activists, ‘Indivisible’ activists [a group dedicated to resisting Trump’s ongoing agenda], people who may have attended the first Women’s March upon Trump’s inauguration, and resistance groups who organize one-off and/or sustained activity.” This third camp, Kang says,” is not necessarily unified on its stance toward economic redistribution and universal social democratic policies.” Some members care about it more than others, and some tend to be agnostic about it. “But in general,” she explains, “most of the ‘anti-Trump’ crowd is more economically progressive than Democratic party leadership. This group is heavily women-oriented.” Kang notes as evidence of a shift in voter behavior, “We saw the largest number of women elected to Congress in 2018.”

If it can combine these potential pools of supporters, defined by Kang using the Cambridge English Dictionary’s current definition of progressivism as “a social or political movement that aims to represent the interests of ordinary people through political change and the support of government actions,” Citizen Action might find what it is looking for: a broader, motivated spectrum of activists who can effect real change.   ❖

Frank Pizzoli is a journalist who has been covering politics, queer issues, healthcare, and literary celebrities for the past 25 years.

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