“We Animate the Dream”: A Poet’s Run for Public Office
Note: On July 3rd, 2020, extraordinary poet Patty Gone reached out to me with the opportunity to compose a piece for Mount Analogue’s Political Pamphlet Series II. The pamphlets, printed on a gorgeous pink on slate-blue paper, sold out immediately, Mount Analog donated the proceeds to Apogee Journal‘s Inside Out, and I’ve given away my copies to campaign volunteers. I’ve since been wanting to make this piece widely accessible, so I’m posting it as it was published, although the poems appear as rotapoems in the original:
“We Animate the Dream”: A Poet’s Run for Public Office
Joey De Jesus
“You deserve to celebrate not only who you’ve become, but who you could’ve become but fought not to.” JonJon Moore, Twitter handle @incivilitea
~ This piece is dedicated to everyone who made my campaign for public office possible, especially Leo Fines, the best campaign manager and confidante I could ever hope for as a candidate.
A Poetics of Abolition
Something about the phrasing of a “poetics of abolition” staggers me; I’ve always thought “capital P” Poetics an ethereal network of institutions and institutionally-sanctioned behavior financed and otherwise deeply implicated in ongoing geocidal projects of settler-colonialism, capitalism, and white supremacy. What is the work of this lowercase “p”? What might the poetics of abolition be? Is the poetics of abolition a practice or model of care or caring for social others as we work to eradicate prisons from the land? What does abolition work require of listening and decentering oneself? In a roundtable on poetry and prison abolition published in The Poetry Project Fall 2020 newsletter, Canadian writer Mercedes Eng offers, “I think poetry is a way to think about how the carceral continuum pervades so many aspects of life that can be more effective in convincing people that we need to tear down these systems than other types of texts on prison abolition because poetry can access emotion, can be effective.” Perhaps poetry offers tools to parse space sensing askance the appendages and vestiges of systemic violence that haunt this entire land? In the same roundtable, Poet Justin Rovillos Monson, incarcerated by the Michigan Department of Corrections, advocates that poetry teaches us how to tell our stories and how to evaluate our lives through the lens of our language. Monson emphasizes the possessive and the power of having the language to— What might I have the language to—?
Between the Augusts of 2019 and 2020, I ran for New York State Assembly District 38 on the premise that there is no finer venue for poetry than the People’s House, ultimately tying the 11-year incumbent and losing to the third candidate. Despite the loss, I take great pride in my candidacy—it was the best choice I could have made. My campaign was characterized in local media as the farthest left in the state and celebrated for a platform shaped by activists that named and made clear policy solutions to issues that plague our reality. I am immensely proud to have fought to re-enfranchise voters (mostly of color) disqualified by the Board of Election’s administrative obstacle course, in addition to embodying a litany of firsts: the first candidate to campaign on defunding the NYPD, and the first genderqueer Latinx poet to ever run for NY State Office. I write this in the hope that I am not the last, and that you, reader, consider what language you might have to—.
An Elegy for Krystal
Twelve years ago, before I left to study for several months in Botswana, I told my mother, she would attest, of a dream in which a silhouette stands over me asleep in her basement whispering a frequency I couldn’t quite assimilate in my gut. In one regard, I was anxious about moving to the other side of the world; in another, I couldn’t shake the thought of her brother, tio Cuqui. Tio (meaning ‘Uncle’) led a generally unhealthy life. He lived in the Lower East Side, but he was at the time, collecting unemployment and disability after a career in physical rehabilitation on Rikers Island. Three weeks after I left, a gangrenous issue recalled something erroneous about him and he died, bereaving a wife and three children—a funeral I knew I’d miss that I might saunter with the wild hyenas, and I did.
My uncle didn’t raise his children, each birthed to separate mothers, only his youngest, a daughter, Krystal and Krystal was amazing. Brawny, young, queer, hood—she loved playing football and boxing. At 22, Krystal was named GRID Alternatives Construction Fellow where she advocated for solar energy and trained formerly-incarcerated people to install solar panels, her work drawing the attention, philanthropy, and friendship of actor Mark Ruffalo—who to my understanding helped pay for her funeral.
Almost a decade after Tio Cuqui’s passing, sometime in the summer of 2018, Krystal was involved in a violent incident, in which, on video, it appears she assaulted a man in the hallway of a neighboring building, leaving him with multiple stab wounds. She was charged with attempted murder and spent over four months being shamed and traumatized on Rikers Island, unable to post an exorbitant bail. In truth, however, Krystal was a victim of mistaken identity, which is not to propel this narrative or binary that exalts the innocent over the other, but is to state a fact. The victim of the crime testified on Krystal’s behalf his relation to the actual assailant who’d been arrested separately with the weapon connected to the incident. Krystal was a victim to the proverbial “wrong place at the wrong time.”
Upon hearing the testimony of the victim, the judge released Krystal, jobless and verging on homelessness into winter. This truth, however, didn’t prevent Daily News writer Shayna Jacobs from running a hit piece on my beloved queer baby cousin. Instead of framing the incident as “community advocate incarcerated over a crime she did not commit released,” the headline reads, “Solar energy advocate once praised by actor busted for attempted murder” and, as if to predict her suicide, Jacobs begins the piece, “A pair of starkly different videos bookend the sad, strange tale of Krystal Ruiz.” Krystal cited Jacob’s article in advance of suicide on the eve of Father’s Day, 2019, as a document that haunted and shamed her. What is justice?
I felt guilty about the barriers that prevented me from helping Krystal when she needed and for missing the distress signals. The last I’d seen her I was dropping her off beneath the 4 train near Woodlawn, I’d given her a bus ticket and $60 to travel to and stay with our family matriarchs in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. For days following her funeral I couldn’t shake the sound—even now, recalling it, piercing from the ear to the throat like a spear—of when they opened Krystal’s casket—to imagine me holding my mother, sisters, grandmother, all small enough to fit within the breadth of my arms wincing as we all looked away. I wanted everyone to hear that sound and I committed to doing everything within my power to shutter Rikers Island forever.
The month after Krystal’s funeral I attended an action organized by the abolitionist advocacy group No New Jails in opposition of New York City’s plan to construct new borough-based jails without committing to the immediate closure of Rikers. NNJ built an altar to honor the recently-deceased Layleen Polanco, Khalief Browder, Akai Gurley, and many other victims of carceral violence and spoke for the need to immediately vote Nay on the forthcoming proposal. They advocated the need to end cash bail, which had caused Krystal and her mother such grief, and a moratorium on the investment in and construction of new jails, motivating me to contact my City Councilmember, Antonio Reynoso, a weasel-like man, to speak of divesting from incarceration. After that call, I decided to look into all of my representatives in the chance I encounter what I thought to be filth, and behold—Michael Miller, his primary slated for June 23rd, 2020.
While I had a particular disdain for my city councilperson for parroting language used by activists “in the streets”, State Assemblyperson Michael Miller, a machine Democrat and 11-year incumbent, who voted against marriage and workplace equality, decorated his office in copaganda, inside and out, and ultimately left office disgraced for vile misogynist, threatening and illegal goon-like misconduct. He’d initially been handpicked without contest to replace Anthony S. Semenario, a crook who died in a Federal Correctional Facility for abusing his office to steal exorbitant funds from state hospitals. The only time he’d been primaried, only 2000 voters in the district showed up to vote—if only because people across the district had been disenfranchised and disconnected from a mystified process for forty years. It was the way he exalted the police that resolved me to do it.
Had you told me I would run for office prior to this moment, “I would tell you there’s a greater likelihood of me perishing, or a meteor strike, than me doing so, let alone winning and that the day I run for office should signal a beginning to the end.” It’s true, my closest friends would attest. But in that moment, I thought of Krystal, ending cash bail, the fight to close Rikers, the Blue Lives Matter Flags (plural) outside, and as if in an instant all the doubt vacuumed out then and thenceforth and I decided to run.
A Possible, Local, Durational Poetics
I felt encouraged in conversations with friends to think of speechwriting, and public and personal performances of servitude to diverse communities of people as a durational poetics, from durus, “hard”, an ongoing performance of practicing poetry with others in the world. I needed to learn more about mechanisms of capitalism and anti-Blackness destroying our people. That summer, I spent a great deal of time studying Sam Stein’s Capital City, and Zoned Out! Race, Displacement, and City Planning in New York City, edited by my college friend and confidante Sylvia Morse, Thomas Angotti and Maria Cecilia Fagel,and theorist and poet’s Jackie Wang Carceral Capitalism for language and context to discuss process and impacts of gentrification.If I was to run for office, I knew the prescient issue of our community to be gentrification and displacement and that I would need to speak first with those on the frontlines of this fight, especially as a New Yorker who moved to this neighborhood. Thankfully, our community has several champions who’ve been doing revolutionary mutual aid work in the fallout of Covid-19.
Before I decided to formally run, I contacted the Ridgewood Tenant Union, a volunteer-run organization of tenant’s rights activists in my community and asked their thoughts about my possible candidacy. Raquel Namuche, one of the group’s founders admitted she’d been working with someone who was thinking to do it, but hesitant. I explained my hope was for activists to shape the platform. She introduced me to the New York Homes Guarantee, which would end homelessness with housing first policies, fully-fund public housing, refuse privatization of public property, close loopholes landlords exploit for profits, introduce protections for tenants, invest in community land trusts, and ultimately create a pathway for the decommodification of land through a state buyback program—the whole of which I adapted into my housing platform when I, as a candidate, signed the pledge.
When I joined the Ridgewood Tenant Union, they were involved in multiple campaigns, the first to prevent a high-rise of luxury condo from being built “as-of-right” in the neighborhood by Avery Hall, organizing rallies. In a neighborhood struggling with a rising homeless population due to gentrification and lack of permanently-affordable housing, it is unfathomable that new housing units would not be completely affordable for those displaced by the influx of artists and craft breweries to this very neighborhood. Additionally, our neighborhood was the location of mob violence, when a local demagogue on City Council, racist Robert Holden, held a series of Community Board Meetings, official and not, to protest forthcoming shelters to the district. He stoked fears regurgitating Trump’s language about rapists, pedophiles and murderers. At one of these CB-5 meetings, in Glendale, a resident from outside the district called for firebombing local homeless shelters to the Council Members and audience’s applause. I thought how can we expect dignity of a people denied it? Wild to think, that should I win, I’d represent this crowded thousand who many of whom spewed racist, homophobic epithets that tickled the way a breeze must a mountain.
If I was to run for New York State Assembly District 38, extending from Ridgewood through Glendale and Woodhaven all the way to Ozone Park and Richmond Hill, Queens, nearly 130,000 New Yorkers, I couldn’t do it alone. The district is large and peculiarly-shaped. Bisected by the Jackie Robinson Parkway, the geographic heart of the district lies in the cemeteries. Ridgewood, a neighborhood diverse in population: many Polish and Eastern European immigrant homeowners with longstanding ties to the neighborhood, many Puerto Ricans as well, a large population of immigrants from Central and South America (New Yorkers severed from Federal and State-issued Covid-relief) and an influx of artists and young professionals constituting the wave of gentrification inundating the neighborhood in displacement, mostly tenants, makes for the westernmost area of AD-38. Ridgewood is bordered by Glendale to its east, a neighborhood very difficult to access by anything but car or bus, mostly homes owned, although many apartment buildings throughout, notoriously conservative, and deeply red in the part where people have yards. Crossing the highway and cemeteries, we arrive in Woodhaven, the J train, a commercial area much like Ridgewood. The district extends east and south into predominantly South Asian and Indo-Caribbean community in Richmond Hill and Ozone Park, the latter of which is also home to Ozone Park Civilian Operation Patrol (OPCOP), a vigilante patrol sanctioned by local community board members and leaders, which is to say, another deeply conservative, “Back-the-Blue” neighborhood. I have friends throughout, mostly concentrated in Ridgewood, and a collegiality to leverage among a community of writers toward spreading the wor(l)d of my campaign. I thought, why not run as a poet? The Martinican poet and philosopher Aimé Césaire held office. Might I be so bold?
I’d taken a hiatus volunteering as co-editor at Apogee Journal, a literary journal com a literary non-profit committed to uplifting writers of the margins of visibility and support in the literary sphere to national acclaim, but my comrades did everything in their capacity to lift up the campaign from fundraising, to communicating newsletters, petitioning for signatures and generating camaraderie among writers getting involved in my campaign with special gratitude for Zefyr Lisowski, Marie Hinson, REL Goldberg, Gustavo Rivera, Leila Ortiz, Sara Jane Stoner, Jimena Lucero, Montana Ray, Sonya Guimet, Michael Morse, Ricky Maldonado, who translated literature, among many others. However, there is one person to whom every success of the campaign is indebted: Leo Fines, my campaign manager.
My sister introduced me to a friend of hers from college who’d just moved to New York after working on a successful political campaign out in Arizona. They were disenchanted from electoral work due to ethical compromises made by their candidate, and scarred by the prerequisite to present as a normative dominant gender in the work environment. After we met, Leo offered to volunteer as my treasurer, until I hired them as my campaign manager. I am so grateful for Leo’s dedication to cause and the countless hours they committed to our vision for a livable present.
I filed the appropriate form creating the nonprofit that would legally raise funds toward the campaign, naming Leo the accountant, for if you have my sister’s confidence, you have my confidence. We quickly registered with the Board of Elections. After I was escorted out of a CitiBank near City Hall downtown when I explained to the accountant I wanted to open a political account, Leo and I opened one with Carver Bank, “the largest Black-owned financial institution”, which does not absolve it accountability for past and present dealings, but was the only institution to treat me with any respect. And thus, the campaign began.
I was a bad student
of blanquitx tongue, the threat
beyond compare, a child
the similitude of magma
claiming interest in soot
& gum rearguard
I was kindling engineered
into smoke column, the far-off fires
raised into bronchial clog
the perfect poison
to shatter fortitudes
They said, cloister a moment,
quiet-sit awaiting quaesita in subordinate condition
I said, soul-eater openly wants what it hates
like smelling onions in another’s sweat
I hid in the prefixes of English gatecrashing
the threshold between violence & the episteme
where experience & knowledge take place
no nine swords to stop my speech act
because I refuse
to listen to a society responsible for my orphaned condition.
Throughout the fall I spent most afternoons canvassing the L and M train stations after work, introducing myself to neighbors and distributing business and palm cards we’d printed from a A&J Printing in-district. One Friday midnight in late October, I received what my friend Riley characterized as a “full-media assault”, direct messages via every social media platform, from Jenifer Rajkumar and her assistant, who introduced themselves as recent Democratic Socialists of America members living in the district. I received Jenifer’s call and she disclosed she’d decided to run for office in the district. We agreed to meet the following Tuesday.
In one regard, I felt relieved at the thought of someone “more qualified” or “better-suited” running with my support, especially a woman of color. But in the days leading up to our meeting I discovered some troubling facts, that she’d plagiarized a lawsuit, to best represent herself in a case, actually, ethically grey but I can get with it if it means seizing power from white men. I discovered a video in which she openly avows a militant Zionism to the denial of the state’s settler-colonial history. She also ran for State Assembly in the 65th District against the only NY Assemblyperson to receive endorsements from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Yuh-Line Niou, who is celebrated by many as a champion of the people’s needs. When I decided I would run, I thought my greatest challenge would be the provincial racist who held the seat, Mike Miller; I had no idea it would be Jenifer Rajkumar.
I arrived fifteen minutes early to our meeting at the Queens Brewery to find Jenifer already there. She introduced herself, immediately announced her love for poetry, and began reciting Yeats, striking me as oddly-timed and competitive. When I asked about her run for the Assembly seat in lower Manhattan and her (non)commitments to the community there, she made it clear she’d only moved to our district to run for office. When I asked how long she lived in the district, she said, “long enough,” immediately rendering her character clear, though I believed in affording her the benefit of the doubt. We were to each vie for the same endorsements—a process I was learning on the fly—and she introduced herself as a socialist so I imagined our politics mostly aligned. But Jenifer Rajkumar is not a socialist and that messaging was always a ruse. In the course of the conversation she offered support in my future political ventures, inviting me into her campaign, in the event I drop out. She affirmed my concerns, at one point asking me if I agreed with censuring Ilhan Omar (of no relation to Queens, NY to the best of my knowledge) for her statements against Israel, asking me outright if I thought it had a right to exist, to which I responded, “The settler-colonial state of America doesn’t have a right to exist, but it does, so what is the point of such a question?” Was I convinced Jenifer would fight for all gender affirmative healthcare fully-funded by a Medicare-for-all program? No. Did she believe in raising taxes on the billionaire class of New Yorkers to restore full-funding for tuition free public education? No. Did she lie to constituents about why she wouldn’t affirm activist and organizational pledges? Yes, she most certainly did. Did she believe in prison and police abolition? No. Universal suffrage? Absolutely not. All of which is to say, after meeting, I felt affirmed in my campaign.
I would later learn that she’d rallied alongside City Councilmember Bob Holden and the woman who called for firebombing local homeless shelters, pandering to local racists by arguing concerns over devaluing property. It should be said, that within five minutes, this same community and community board voted to build a massive no-kill animal shelter in the district, which is to say, they feel more comfortable affording dignity to animals than humans, which Jenifer would’ve known had she lived in the neighborhood longer than the minimum required to run for office.
And despite vying for (and receiving) endorsements from progressive groups throughout the city including Queens United Independent Progressives, the Stonewall Democrats and Jim Owles political club, Rajkumar had received campaign funds from unacceptable sources. Her campaign finance report revealed she’d donated $100,000 to her own campaign, that she received over $20,000 from the real estate industry, including max contributions from directors of MONPAT, the roofers of correctional facilities all across the state, as well as from Castellan Real Estate, who deported rent-stabilized tenants in New York in order to deregulate units and were forced to pay restitution to victims of their abusive practices. She received max contributions from RSS ideologues vetted by members of NoHindutvaNYC, an interfaith coalition of activists concerned with the growing sympathies in the neighborhood for PM Narendra Modi’s regime. They reached out to me about Rajkumar’s far-right ties including billionaire executive at Raytheon, Dinesh Paliwal, executives in the oil industry, and several financiers of Hindutva schools—that’s right, individuals responsible for the persecution of religious minorities in India. Jenifer would ultimately earn endorsements from local LGBTQ political clubs unconcerned with her politics-in-practice, however QUIP formally confirmed and announced her funds and publicly explained her selection would be contingent upon returning several tens of thousands of dollars.
Political organizations that orient toward neoliberal assuaging of white guilt, or exalt white sensibilities of political prestige, viability, propriety etc… were and still are ill-equipped to grapple with the nuance of candidates like my opponent, and, in general, limits to the politics of representation, or as the adage goes, not all skinfolk are kinfolk; yes, she’s a woman of color, she’s also a candidate accepting campaign donations from war profiteers, slumlords, and prison builders, and when confronted about it, despite the stone cold evidence of her campaign finance reports, denied any wrongdoing by her supporters, instead expressing pride in all her supporters, when challenged to denounce racism at candidate forums. Simultaneously, she claims the To many people, issues in places such as Kashmir seem alien to us here, but they are very much in play in the politics of South Queens, and this anxiety, seemed to embolden a politic of respectability from an audience unaware they were platforming a fascist, one adept at deriving advantage from the benefit of the doubt.
Regardless, we each pursued the endorsements from several of the same organizing bodies, including the Working Families Party and the DSA. Here is my speech from the Queens DSA Candidate Forum in late fall 2019:
The Stump Speech
I am a Bronx-born gender-queer Puerto Rican poet and part-time adjunct lecturer in English at Borough of Manhattan Community College. I direly seek your endorsement in my campaign for State Assembly District 38 against an incumbent who voted against equal pay for women and otherwise squanders power. And that’s all I’ll say about him.
I am very excited to present my candidacy before you in the hopes that we might mobilize a sea-change of socialist policy and together address urgent matters affecting our most afflicted and oppressed communities. I’m honored you’d receive me on this stolen Lenne-Lenape land.
I’m running for NY State Assembly in Ridgewood because I feel the gravity of lethal presumption, law and policy; I feel it in the burning of my cells. I am running to demonstrate thoughtful, ethical leadership. I am running to assert the fact that full understanding of American imperialism could only be achieved post mortem. We survive the brutal wake of the other side. I am running because I believe we Queer people of color must represent ourselves and I do not believe poetry excludes commitments to political and social life. Our representatives must disable by any means necessary mechanisms of state violence that seeks to inter our bodies in the ground. Too many have been ruined, murdered and maimed. I am sick at the thought of having to plead for accountability and another Go-Fund-Me account. Not while queer revolutionary colleagues of mine were out there, reciting poetry to music and getting pepper sprayed during the ouster of Ricardo Rosello in Puerto Rico. They inspire me to step my shit up.
I left Soundview prior to the river-cleaning and the shooting of Amadou Diallo, went to Fieldston, a private school in Riverdale, on scholarship from a young age. My family experienced a series of traumas in my teens. I’m so amazingly inspired by my mom, an assistant principal in the Yonkers Public Schools and single mom of three—just beat colon cancer, after grandma beat breast cancer. I am the eldest of two younger sisters and two wonderful step-sisters and I come from amazing, tight knit, matriarchal extended families.
I went to Oberlin College in Ohio, where I studied poetry and environmental policy; I had the opportunity to study human-wildlife conflict and land use policies in Kenya and later Botswana. I got my MFA in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College to come back and be with my sisters, with the hopes of teaching poetry. It took years to find the most exhausting of adjunct gigs at ASA College, a predatory for-profit nightmare. Every semester over the past several years I wonder if I’ll have a job or can find something to sustain me over the summer.
All the while I was involved in cultural programming and literary arts. I have learned to work the word to build communities under the banner of the literary arts and engagement. I volunteered for several years at Apogee Journal, a literary non-profit committed to uplifting writers of the margins of visibility and support in the literary sphere to national acclaim. I’ve developed and led cultural programs in the city in the past decade at the Queens Public Library, Newtown Literary Review, The New York Writers Coalition, The Poetry Project and elsewhere. My early activism focused on naming dominant biases in literary editorial practices. I sit on the Advisory Board No, Dear Magazine, a literary non-profit and small press and am deeply involved in QTPOC-literary community.
NYU offered me a fellowship to get a second masters in Performance Theory, which I took to study performativity of Law, ontology, Critical Race Theory, Caribbean philosophy, Black studies—my interests were in redaction, and tangentially WEB DuBois’ relationship to Einstein’s theory of relativity: double-consciousness and particle-wave duality in the study of light, and HR.4900 PROMESA. While I love teaching, I believe the world of academia in its current state stifles our potential. It starves its students. And I refuse to be so institutionalized.
I come to you exhausted. I have been committed entirely to this campaign over the past several months. And I’m not sure if you all know what’s been going on in Glendale and Ridgewood over homeless shelters, but I have joined with my neighbors and placed myself on the frontlines against bigotry and racist hatred. Several members of the Community Board 5 and City Councilmember Bob Holden tacitly monger around fear instead of organizing around principle, and encourage neighbors to violence such that constituents called for firebombing homeless shelters and locking up the homeless forever to unfettered cheers.
Meanwhile, our taxes and government continue to subsidize capitalist housing such that developers get to produce value with a pen-stroke. They conscript us to build high-rise machines for their money laundering while the homeless starve below. They increase supply at the top of the market with materials thieved from those at the bottom. Private equity firms and bad policymakers displace us from our homes then criminalize us for our inability to keep up with the rising rents. They construct convoluted metrics and sink money into land coffers, coffins; they criminally underfund public housing while criminalizing its inhabitants. They create barriers to work—fares on dilapidated, bureaucratized transit. They police us from place to place. They gentrify, feed bigotry, displace families, and build prisons robbing us of our children and ourselves—financing abomination, such as the Vernon C. Bain prison barge, a slave ship in operation today. They demolish our homes. They weaponize the sky to demolish our homes and kill our elders. They starve us. They poison us. They cage us. They shoot us. They push us. They smash us.
Our bodies and minds may be brutalized in the gears but when we remember this Lenape land is stolen, we ourselves are remembered. And there is faith in that. I believe in reparations, decolonization, restitution and recuperating a sense of retribution—can’t spell redistribution without it. One hundred and twenty years ago, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled Puerto Ricans unentitled to the Constitution’s full protections because we are “uncivilized”—a racist precedent that remains in place today. And so I openly wonder how anyone can expect me to be other than— Experience as a poet teaches me, that the dominant turn to my ilk for some sort of neoliberal assuagement of their guilt for the murder of my people. I am not here for that.
We must enact a Statewide Homes Guarantee for housing is a human right. With 89,000 homeless New Yorkers, and over 250,000 vacant units in New York City alone, New York State must enact emergency measures to immediately provide dignified, supportive housing for its homeless inhabitants. I will fight for a litany of taxes on the rich to house the poor and support the “Good Cause Eviction Bill”, a Right to Sell and Tenant’s Right to Buy, buyback programs to enable tenants and/or the state first passes at purchasing property for sale toward permanent and social housing that’s tenant-owned, organized, unionized, or community land trusts. I will fight to see a fully-funded and retrofitted NYCHA, investing in our most segregated schools, our libraries, housing for LGBTQ elders, tuition-free public education and investing in CUNY’s state budget to meet the demands of the 7KorStrike movement after over a decade of fighting against adjunctification and poverty wages. We must also repeal the Taylor Law which prevents public employees from legally striking.
I support our sex workers, and believe in complete decriminalization they should have the freedom to cooperatively-own and unionize their business, which is otherwise, none of my business. I believe in State-mandated paid parental leave and State-mandated paid leave for gender-affirmative healthcare for our Trans community and gender minorities. I believe in Unsafe Temperatures and Common Sense Heat Protections Laws for our postal workers and couriers and a statewide jobs guarantee. I call for a radical reduction in NYPD funding and enrollment—happy to speak to that—the abolition of ICE, protections for immigrants, and for legalization of recreational marijuana and the expunging of marijuana-related criminal records. I support the Boycott and Divestment Movement. I pledge as a candidate to the mission of the No New Jails, and am appalled by the sinking of 11 billion dollars into new prisons, without even committing to closure of Rikers. I called Reynoso’s office, raged and then went before and after work to City Hall on Thursday and wept over Krystal—who is here—and Pedro who needs us now.
My candidacy is about lifting up the missions our champions have fought over for so long: our tenant unionizers, our fellow prison abolitionists, our teachers, social workers, healers, our makers committed to recuperating a livable present. I am tired of having to rely on charity for my food and roof, my poetry. I am tired of commiserating with my fellow adjuncts about our unlivable wages. I am modeling something for all of my students. I refuse to tell my students that affecting a shift toward the horizon is up to them; not while regular ass people with histories canoodling the moneyed continued to politrick about willy-nilly while we lose our homes and bury our people.
This is the vision; thank you comrades, for receiving me. I hope we may collaborate toward making our reality. Those of us gathered in this room, we have all been complicit in financing the gears of capital in some form or another—taxpayers or whatever. I plead that we listen to the victims of our errors, of our metrics and our habits, the habitats we’ve built. I’ve been plagued by a terrible thought: that to forget an idea, a thought, anything, is to be touched by death so I remember and recall these forbidden ones to move about freely in the room, in their denim jackets and windbreakers, in their jean shorts and baseball caps, in an oversized Carrhart jacket and matching boots. We shiver together.
Artwork donated to the campaign by Mariah Bermeo
All winter, friends of mine and I would collect information from neighbors throughout the district operating out of local breweries, cafes and bars. Serendipitously, my performance collaborator and old friend B Taylor was attending CUNY Law alongside a former opponent of Jenifer Rajkumar’s in her previous race for State Assembly, Paul Newell, who trained me and about six or seven friends who’d volunteered on how to canvass for signatures to petition my place on the ballot. Paul would later submit my signed petitions to the Board of Election on my behalf. My friends and neighbors, Diya, Paul, Allison, OK, Anna, Cordelia, Elizabeth, Sookie, Walter, Noah, Caitlin, Rosie, her Mom, Susan—petitioning was an amazing experience in that it affirmed my dearest relationships bringing us together in the united purpose of ensuring my place on the ballot. And I got to practice my Spanish.
Aside from the voter data Leo purchased, the majority of the funds we’d spent in the winter—ours was a frugal campaign—was at the local bars out of which we’d coordinate daily field operation. We used Google Forms to confirm commitments from volunteers and buy rounds for all (of age) who’d spent hours in the field collecting signatures and informing voters of the platform, and because of my relationship with many of the establishment owners, we were always treated so wonderfully. It is hard not to look back on this time with rose-tinted glasses, because campaigning was social, fun, loud and collegial, face-to-face—which, reflecting upon in now the first anniversary of the outbreak, is really quite heavenly and far.
I also built relationships in the more conservative areas of the district. In my neighborhood, an amazing organizer named Andrea Guinn, with the DSA Ecosocialists, approached me to pledge to support three pieces of legislation drafted by an upstate-downstate coalition to decarbonize, decommodify and democratize our energy grid. When I found myself in Glendale and Ozone Park, speaking with homeowners far more likely to support my opponents, I mentioned adopting publicly-owned utilities for higher quality eco-friendly power and toppling private utility monopolies like ConEd, National Grid, as well as internet providers like Spectrum—never a bill to them again, can you imagine? I found tremendous support from across party lines so long as I didn’t mention this as a “socialist” scheme.
The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted petitioning and endangered my volunteers, its arrival [I thought] fruition of the thought that a meteor strike or I, a doomy, pot-smoking Boricua, brujx faggot, perish before being to elected public office. Before the Governor, a loathsome murderer and Jenifer’s former employer, rightly reduced the quota for signatures and called for an end to petitioning, our strategy was to collect signatures while wearing masks and gloves from individuals another team had we’d called 15-30 minutes prior using our voter data. Relations having degenerated, we anticipated Jenifer would deploy her wealth to slog me down in the courts, threatening the validity of the signatures we’d collected—that they all be registered Democrats at addresses in-district. Regardless, we collected three-times what we needed and were able to shut down petitioning before the Governor issued a stay-at-home order.
In retrospect, I wish I had someone to help with filing endorsement questionnaires, each a daunting exercise to juggle while attending the field. I’d been told that the outcome of the petition process would be one of many determining factors in my “viability” as a candidate, it certainly didn’t nor did it help that I had no preexisting relationships to other candidates or political clubs. I immediately located my revulsion to the concept of viability in the etymology of the word, vita, ‘capable of life.’ I couldn’t but hear a shrieking echo of eugenics, genetics, breeding, and the zygote—queerphobia, ableism—the very notion of being “nonviable” as reason to alienate our campaign infuriated me. I detested it and the limits it placed on possibilities for discourse in electoral politics; the reality is campaigns cost money, true, and we didn’t have much, but with certain supports I believe we could have won.
An envoy of the Working Families Party called me, for instance, to communicate that while impressed with my endorsement interview, they wanted to refrain from endorsing in our race due to my staggering odds and what I presumed to be Jenifer’s propensity for political retribution, though they “hoped” that I win. I learned then that hope is a funny thing—an agent—or rather that hope possesses its own autonomous agency, insofar as this man “hoped” I win, whereas his “hopes” hoped I die.
even the shining one
of a hundred victories
might be bested
even the stars in their multiplicities
might universally signal
what animals catalogued
in the bestiary your plexus
detested revenant widely
-spoken as secret among the birds
a bearded conciliator
lying to their faces
think to name what
latest storm wants
envoy in the call
avow neither home
nor destination except there
that pyrrhic victory
in the camel’s cluster
where no crystals fall
in the after-noise
Straying from Victory
Despite our precautions, Leo and I each contracted Covid-19, Leo in early March and me in the first days of April. Thankfully, Leo recovered within three weeks. Unfortunately, the virus tasked my body in disasters, and I was wrecked for weeks. On what may have been the second evening of April, lying in bed with a headache coming on, like sinusitis, I felt what I can only describe as a match burning tissue paper, I heard a sizzle-pop, and just like that I lost my senses of taste and smell—which have since returned, albeit differently.
I spent all of April and most of May bedridden, campaigning digitally when able. It was truly horrific, at times like my innards were being warped about, like they were swollen and movement caused a tender ache. It worsened at night. I hosted phone-banking events, a digital performance event, and performed at fundraisers for activists and activist-candidates. We shifted all field efforts to cold calling voters in the district plugging residents into the local Mutual Aid Network developed by the Ridgewood Mutual Aid Network and The Hungry Monk. Campaigning shifted to this checking in with thousands of neighbors over basic necessities. We approached it as an opportunity to connect with voters, to let them know that we were suffering alongside them, and that we had an opportunity for change. We asked and assisted with requesting absentee ballots for those most concerned about physically going to the poll.
I honestly believed my experience with Covid was the state’s attempt at assassinating me in such a way that it could easily avoid accountability or credit. I’d spend several hours a day massaging the base of my ribs along my spine with a back massager at the doctor’s request, to prevent mucus from building up in the base of my lungs, about which we were, at that time, all very concerned.
To worsen matters, my mother and grandmother each contracted Covid-19 independently from the other. My grandmother lives in a building populated by the elderly, and her neighbors didn’t all make it, for it must have made its way down the hall. My mother contracted it while forced to work in the school where she serves as Assistant Principal. Both matriarchs are immunocompromised. My mother was diagnosed with and defeated colon cancer in the fall, I missed one candidate forum, in fact, to attend her surgery. My grandmother finally beat breast cancer after a mastectomy and chemo, and was missing half the lymph nodes in her torso. I was beside myself, but both made it through relatively unaffected.
Jenifer indeed threatened the petitions for my candidacy while I was ill with Covid-19. However, in order to do so, she needed to campaign door-to-door at the height of the pandemic, in outright defiance of the Governor’s stay-at-home order and order to end campaign petitioning, which she did, to the immediate scrutiny of local press. She knocked on the doors of those who had signed to see me on the ballot telling them I’d committed fraud while insisting they vote for her. Those residents characterized her visit to the press as threatening and retributional.
I’d been struggling in certain personal relationships due to the demands of the campaign and saw excitement for my opponent blossoming in the community she found in Richmond Hill, areas where voters had felt disenfranchised for decades. It was then when I finally worried I’d lost the way with one month until the election.
That morning, my friend Elizabeth scaled the fire escape three flights at 6am to wake me and activate her caravan. I had planned on waking earlier to prep her car, but I couldn’t sleep. In the dark, I heard birds, a banging on my window, her hand, then her face. I launched out of bed.
Spirits changed in June. My campaign had formed wonderful relationships with two socialist congressional candidates in districts overlapping our own, Mel Gagarin and Shaniyat Chowdhury, who each believed in our fight, and I in theirs. They were running insurgent campaigns against Grace Meng and Gregory Meeks, two neoliberal corporate capitalist war profiteers with support from a network of progressive and democratic clubs across Queens. We’d met several times at candidate forums and ultimately cross-endorsed coordinating our efforts in the last month. And after May 25th, the date of George Floyd’s murder, the air shifted around my campaign because up until this moment, I had been the only candidate calling for the defunding of the NYPD. I’d even been tokenized for the stance in a City & State publication. We had dozens of volunteers galvanized and seeking to ride a righteous wave to victory.
What we did right: We dispatched separate caravans throughout the district, cars strapped with campaign banners and megaphones each, announcing the day and the need to hit the polls. I did not want to be accountable for the health of volunteers in the field mid-pandemic, so we hired volunteers, with a particular care to employ almost-exclusively transgender people, quite frankly, to call voters throughout GOTV weekend and on the day. It was amazing; we had friends on bikes with literature, my high school English teacher, an incredible poet, rolled through, strapped up his car, said hi to mom and family.
This is what I would have done differently on June 23rd—hindsight, 20/20 had we the additional funds or a State-matching program*: with an additional $5000, I could have paid two-dozen former volunteers $25/hr to brave the conditions and retrieve palm cards, folding chairs (optional), masks, sanitizer, and gloves from our base of operations, my stoop, and depart to one of the fourteen polling locations where they post up for the day. Had I an additional thousand, I’d have dispatched to each polling location a megaphone to blast truths about my campaign and my opponents, each of whom illegally electioneering within 100 feet of every polling location throughout the course of the day. I, in my foolishness, did not, out of respect for a nebulous nothing. I thought the police would, of course, uphold election law, and my rights—obviously not. By the third phone call, the Board of Elections was fed up with me and I had to spend precious time filing complaints that never amounted to anything. In retrospect, had people been chilling in lawn chairs nearby all day, comfortably denouncing the slumlords and war profiteers looking to benefit from this election, I know now would have made for the best strategy.
It took several weeks before the final tally was announced, due to the historic quantity of mailed-in absentee ballots. I held out hope at first, that I might stage a miraculous comeback, as several fellow insurgent candidates had, surging to victory on the wave of absentee ballots. I spent hours calculating what we’d need to win and the path was extremely slim, narrower still, when the Board of Elections disqualified 14% of the total vote, 31% of all votes mailed in and received, over a litany of bullshit excuses concocted to disenfranchise people of color. Postmarked late despite being mailed in time due to USPS error? Disqualified. Missing a signature affirming the affidavit, despite a signature being signed on another part of the envelope where the word “signature” had been typed and designated, (despite serving no official filing purpose)? Disqualified. Extraneous materials, such as a voter ID card, which a couple people included in their ballot’s envelopes to attest to their personhood, disqualified votes. Many voters did not receive their ballots in the mail until the day of the election, or afterward, they too were disenfranchised.
Ultimately, I learned that it was within my right to personally review each disqualified envelope, ignorant of the outcome cast, when I attended the first day of counting absentee ballots. So I did. Honestly, I marched right into the Board of Elections mail office building on a Saturday at 9am and asked that they wipe down the table and bust them out, which they immediately did. BoE employees presented me with about sixteen large trays of envelopes organized by Electoral District, and I had the horrific honor, as someone with unique privilege of access to this data, of going through all 1084 disqualified votes, to record and cross-reference them with our spreadsheets, in order to, later that evening, contact the voter to inform them their vote had been disqualified, the reason, and the contact for a lawyer I knew to be working on this case on behalf of other candidates. Leo joined me every day afterward to continue the count. A full five days of cross-referencing voters from our database and informing our voters they’d been disenfranchised late into the evening. The lawsuit, Emily Gallagher, Suraj Patel, Jillian Santella, et al.v. New York State Board of Elections and Governor Andrew Cuomo cited my Twitter spat with the Board of Election, in which the BoE revealed they’d known about particular discrepancies at the USPS, and their own shortcomings to address these issues, of which they were claiming ignorance. Ultimately, our most devoted voters, among the Plaintiffs, succeeded in their lawsuit, re-enfranchising (in theory) what I approximate to be about four hundred of the votes that had been disqualified in our district, though these votes were never officially tallied.
Save for in the legend,
the clouds of my world never parted
so we had no sense of the stars
we sleuthed for a truth about them
I was like a cherub straddling
a flightless dragon leading bullet
cabal to serpent’s treasure
for the chance to chalk an eternity
otherwise absent of our heroes.
we wandered until finally a crow
crowned Merak’s fiery address—
immense oasis—who’d known
the sword goddess the sunbeam
stilettoing my silhouette, remelting
my helmet’s metaphor, my flaming
corpse in a copse of many
Thoughts On Loss
If victory reinscribes the Other ‘loser,’ your enemy was always you.
In the final tally, I received just shy of 24% of the votes, while Mike Miller, the 11-year incumbent, whose campaign received an influx of over $50,000 in the final weeks from several of his fellow committee members in the Assembly, received 25%. The remaining 50% voted for Jenifer. Her team was exceptional about making calls in advance of the election—they certainly must have made well-over 100,000. Of course, there are a great many experiences and people to thank that I leave out of this piece of writing: the opportunity to perform alongside Bowen Yang, Jaboukie Young-White, Sarah Silverman and many extraordinary talents thanks, meeting the local imam, who moved with reverence, was so excited to meet and discuss a political campaign with a candidate for the first time—it was truly the best choice I could have made. I’ve tried to outline some of the lessons I learned in this piece, but surely fall short.
The campaign practiced me in the struggle of campaigning, making me empathetic to the efforts of comrades. There are campaigns that give me hope, but hope is like an incipient motion verging on visibility, so since my loss, I’ve involved myself to the max of my capacities, supporting candidates for City Council (Aleda Gagarin, Felicia Singh, Jaslin Kaur Sandy Nurse …) who share my abolitionist and harm reductionist values. A City Council featuring this caucus makes for the best chance at accomplishing the extraordinary feat of issuing a moratorium on the new jails otherwise slated for construction and closing Rikers Island and Vernon C Bain Prison Barge.
I opened a workshop I recently led through Liminal Lab with a free-write response to the questions, “How do you define abolition? What does the word mean to you? What are your anxieties about the word or the word in call to action? What role do you think poetry plays in the work of abolition?” The workshop was titled, “unsettling the wor(l)d” and ours was to imagine such an undertaking. I encouraged participants to think and write toward abolition considering poetics as practice of the former, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore explains, “Abolition is life in rehearsal.”
Might we think of abolition as a name for a set of imaginings in the call for complete and total eradication of systems (carceral, capitalist, imperial, militaristic, etc…) that perpetuate collective harms. The abolitionist assumes tasks toward totally unsettling the World, and the word’s role in the World’s legislation. In the call for abolition, we not only call for the end of policing and mass incarceration; we seek to abolish ontology and a brutal metaphysics our oppressors assume about themselves, things in the world, and us as things, and how these assumed predeterminations result in our shared obliteration. In other words, I, like many, work and falter toward the abolition of a metaphysics that situates a paradigmatic figure at the center of all things, a figure that has historically been overrepresented by the cis-hetero-white male, conferred his attendant privileges, for whom the status of the Whole is reserved to the exclusion of the subaltern, the non-human, the Black, the Indigenous, the Immigrant, those without shelter, and all the other categories by which we cleave ourselves from ourselves. Might an abolitionist poetics practice the skill of imagining a world in the aftermath of this one?
I am writing this piece from unceded Lenape and Canarsie Territory, in what I am calling the Tenth March, or the tenth month since Covid-19 struck New York City. Since that time, over 40,000 New Yorkers have needlessly died due to the virus, over 400,000 American have perished for not heeding the crisis that unfolded here—criminal negligence at every level of government. The days are monotonous and difficult, the routines and confinement demoralizing, but I write this piece heartened at the thought that a queer BIPOC feminist might read this and think, “You know what? I’m going to run.”