From Brooklyn to DC: Kevin Powell with Theodore Hamm
I first met Kevin Powell during his first campaign for Congress two years ago, when he briefly ran against Ed Towns in Brooklyn’s 10th Congressional District, which extends from Brooklyn Heights through Fort Greene and Bed Stuy to East New York. An author, community activist, and former original cast member of MTV’s The Real World, Powell is now running a full-fledged campaign for Towns’ seat. The following conversation took place in late May, at Powell’s home across from the Fort Greene Projects.
Hamm: Everyone says that this year is a change election. What needs to change in the tenth congressional district?
Powell: We’re talking about an incumbent who’s been in for twenty-five years and who has missed nearly a thousand votes since 1993; who has taken money from big tobacco, who has taken money from nuclear energy; who had actually agreed to bring nuclear waste through the district. We’re talking about someone who has been very quiet around the war in Iraq; someone who has been missing in action around an economic empowerment in the district. In fact, he had promised it and never delivered. And so we’re saying that there are two types of Democrats—there are good Democrats, there are bad Democrats. There’s the old guard liberal way of being a Democrat, and there is what we feel like we represent, which is the progressive Democrat. We’re about not just talking, but trying to deliver constituent services to the community.
Hamm: On which issues?
Powell: Affordable housing, for example. We work with FUREE (Families United for Racial and Economic Equality) over here in the Fort Greene Projects. We just had a big rally and march. You see what’s going on. I bought this condo from a friend of mine two years ago. In two years all these buildings have gone up and I didn’t move here with the intent of being a part of this madness. This is crazy to me. Brooklyn is for all people. New York City should be for all people. This city was built, as you know, on the backs of immigrants from all over the world. And to see working class people, of all different backgrounds, being pushed out in Fort Greene, Williamsburg, and across the borough, is unacceptable.
Hamm: How can a congressman deliver on affordable housing?
Powell: Back in the 1960s, when Lyndon Johnson was president, his FAIR housing act created mixed-income housing. One result here in Brooklyn in the 1970s was Starrett City. Now the same working class folks of different backgrounds who have been living there 25, 35 years are being displaced for the sake of development, and that’s unacceptable. All the folks who are laborers in this city, who drive the buses, run the trains, are crossing guards, etc., they should be able to afford to live in the city that they service and that’s the bottom line.
Hamm: And you don’t think that Towns is taking an active position on affordable housing issues?
Powell: I think Mr. Towns showed up at Starrett City because he has to. Because people know that he’s not been around in a lot of issues and so all of a sudden he popped up. That’s what politicians do—they show up when it’s time for an election, when they think they’re going to have a challenge. And I think that if he didn’t think he was going to have a challenge, he wouldn’t even be doing this kind of stuff, to be honest with you.
Hamm: Let’s talk about criminal justice issues. What would you do to keep young people from getting caught up in the system?
Powell: Well, that’s a big one to me. I was recently up at Highland Youth Center, outside of Albany. It’s a youth prison for boys, ages eight to 18. Most of them are from Brooklyn. And I spent the day there, and I do a lot of prison visits, a lot of visits to foster care programs, a lot of work with young people who have been in and out of the criminal justice system. Instead of just putting more money into law enforcement and locking folks up, where are the programs? When I was growing up in Jersey City, inner city environment, we had the YMCA and the Police Athletic League and after school places that aggressively reached out to us. That doesn’t exist for a lot of these kids, so what happens is that kids are joining gangs, and the next thing you know they are in the Tombs, then they’re upstate somewhere. So one of the things I’m saying that I will do as a congressman is really fight to bring money back to the community that will really build real community centers. What I’d like to replicate throughout Brooklyn is the Groundwork program out in East New York, or what Geoffrey Canada has done in Harlem with the Harlem’s Children’s Zone—we need that in Brooklyn. The community center, right on the corner there of Myrtle and Prince, has been sitting there for six years and has yet to be opened. It was built, supposedly, for these people. As it gets warmer, you’re going to hear all of the gunshots around here; you’re going to see kids lined up outside the 24-hour bodega. There’s nothing for them to do. I feel that part of the job of a congressperson is to create safe zones for young people because young people are our future. One of the things that we’ll also be doing soon is pushing for summer jobs. Just like last summer, Ryan Mack, some other community leaders, and I will go down Myrtle Avenue to all of the fancy restaurants that have opened up, and we’ll say “As you’re here serving wealthier folks, what about hiring some of the young people who have actually grown up in the community, whose families have been in the communities, for summer jobs?” But we shouldn’t be the ones doing that. That should be the work of elected officials, who have access to a lot more resources and networks than we do.
Hamm: Can you explain your position regarding Atlantic Yards, and why you’ve criticized Towns for supporting it?
Powell: I’m opposed to Atlantic Yards. As for Towns, he gets money from a lot of different places—tobacco, pharmaceuticals—and we believe he is getting money from the Atlantic Yards folks, from Ratner. Over the last few years I’ve had a chance to really study this issue. If you remember two years ago, I said that I had to get back to you about my position. Now I can say unequivocally that I do not support the use of eminent domain in a private project. I made it a point to educate myself thoroughly about that issue. I don’t support Atlantic Yards in its present form. I can’t support a project that is dividing a community racially and along class lines. Working class folks in this community have been taking money from Ratner—they have been getting money for t-shirts and bus rides to casinos and Nets games and stuff like that. They are being exploited. I come from poverty, so I understand. When I was growing up and someone said, “Hey, you get free Nets tickets,” then you’re gonna support someone that is giving you the free Nets tickets. But we’re not seeing the larger effects of the project, one of which is that we’re about to lose eleven acres of land where the Fort Greene Projects are located. If you walk around, you’ll see a lot of vacancies there. As the residents will tell you, one of the things that’s been going on is that if you have a son that lives in the projects, and he happens to get arrested outside for standing on the corner, you lose your lease automatically. Meanwhile, while that’s happening, money is being thrown at folks who are in tenants groups—“we’ll give you money for this, we’ll give you money for that,” and so you’re actually supporting Atlantic Yards while you’re being gentrified out of your own home. We’re not seeing the connection between the two. Luckily an organization like FUREE sees that connection and they are fighting back.
Hamm: Based on your experience as a community activist, do you feel that people see any connection between what is happening on the streets of Brooklyn and what is going on in Washington?
Powell: There is always a connection between what’s happening in the community and the government. But the fact is that people don’t know who represents them, and that’s a disconnect. If I look at my own life, I see plenty of connections to the government. I was born in a single-mother household. We were on Welfare, and Medicaid—our single-payer system—was our health care system. I went to Rutgers on a financial aid program, another government connection. Our lives are shaped and formed by our relationship with the government, and in some ways there is too much dependence on the government. Right across the street from me is the Fort Greene Projects, which are dependent on the New York City Housing Authority, a governmental agency, so we are deeply connected. As community activists, we are trying to help people to become self-empowered in this country, so there’s not a dependency on the government. And I’m saying this as a progressive activist. I don’t want to be that kind of person. I’m proud to say that my mother’s objective was to get off of welfare, to get out of the kind of poverty that we lived in. Part of the challenge that we have as elected officials, people running for office—and this is what I say when I’m campaigning—is that, you as citizens, we’ve got to make a deal here: this is what I can do for you, and this is what I can’t do for you. I can tell you what kind of government programs exist; I will fight for legislation. I can’t promise that all legislation is going to get passed, but I can fight for it. But at the same time, if I’m going to point you to prison reentry programs, or to G.E.D programs, or to information about affordable housing or how you can get a better loan than the sub-prime loan that you have—you’ve got to be the one that takes the initiative and makes that happen. I cannot do that for you.
Hamm: Do you feel like Towns is even concerned about making that information available to the people?
Powell: No, most elected officials are not concerned about making that information available. Because the last thing an elected official wants is an informed and self-empowered constituency, because that means that those folks may actually vote them out of office one day. What Mr. Towns wants, and what has been going on for years, is that only two percent of the electorate in the district has actually been voting every two years. Therefore, he only has to focus on a small segment of the community. For example, with the older black church crowd, he rolls around to the ministers—they’re his boys, because Towns is a minister. He’ll get that vote. People don’t even realize that it’s illegal for a minister to endorse a candidate from the pulpit. But that goes on with Mr. Towns and many churches out there. That’s how politicians like Towns get over; they go for a small group of people. That’s not democracy, that’s an oligarchy.
Hamm: In terms of the Iraq War, what’s your position, and what would you do in terms of community education
Powell: I favor swift and immediate withdrawal from Iraq. It’s unfortunate that there’s not the mass amount of protest around Iraq as there was around the Vietnam War. It seems like there are a few of us that are constantly out there protesting. For example, I belong to MoveOn.org and we’ve had a loud voice about the Iraq War. We also have Brooklyn for Peace. But a lot of folks in the district are not even thinking about Iraq. In fact, Brooklyn is Iraq to a lot of folks, given the level of violence. We do a monthly black male workshop the first Monday of every month at Grand Memorial Baptist Church. Every month we drive home the point about there’s no money for social programs here because all the money is going to the war in Iraq. People do get that connection, but this is another reason why Mr. Towns has been ineffective. He has not shown up for every single anti-war rally or program that I’ve been at in Brooklyn. But he should be there explaining why spending on Iraq is hurting the community.
Hamm: So it’s not sufficient that he voted against recent war spending resolution?
Powell: No. A bad Democrat will just go ahead and vote along with the Democratic line. A good Democrat will vote with the Democratic line but will also say why the money is not there. And he or she will say, “You know what, I support Congressman McGovern from Massachusetts; we need a swift and immediate withdrawal within six months. This legislation has been sitting there—I am going to vote for it…period.”
Hamm: So why did you drop out of the race against Towns in 2006?
Powell: For a couple of very significant reasons. One, I had spent about six or seven months doing Katrina relief work, from September 2005, to March or April 2006. It culminated with us sending about 700 young people to work on the Gulf Coast, into New Orleans into Biloxi, Mississippi, into Mobile, Alabama. It was foolish of me to think that I could go from that kind of stressful work into a successful campaign without building a proper infrastructure—especially in terms of a campaign team and in terms of raising money.
Hamm: And there were also more candidates in the race, too.
Powell: That was the other issue. [City Councilman] Charles Barron actually won the 40th Assembly District in the Congressional election that year, and [State Assemblyman] Roger Green also was in the race. Part of the reason I decided to run again this year is that I had a conversation with Mr. Barron, and he said he would support me 150% [Ed.’s note: Barron is running for Brooklyn Borough President]; Barron said he would put his resources behind me, to make sure we win East New York. People have their own opinions about Mr. Barron, but the fact that he felt he believed in me enough to support me, that meant a lot. We purposely waited to announce my candidacy until late April because we wanted to see if anyone else was going to jump in the race. We’d been hearing rumors about a whole bunch of people, but no one stepped up. Already we have a staff of over thirty people, mostly volunteers. My campaign manager, Erica Perkins, just got her master’s degree from Columbia—and she’s a brilliant woman. We’re also blessed to have Arthur Leopold and Arthur Schwartz, who have been huge Obama supporters, leading our fundraising team. And many folks from Brooklyn for Barack have been coming through, too.
Hamm: As your campaign grows, are you worried about hit pieces, like the one by Errol Louis in 2006, which bring up incidents of violence toward women in your past?
Powell: Oh, I have no problem talking about that. I’m very proud to say that 2008 marks the twentieth year of me going to counseling. How many elected officials are you going to hear say that? My issue of violence against women happened between 1987-1991, which is now seventeen years ago. I’ve written about it very prominently in Essence, Ms. Magazine, and just last October, I wrote a piece called “Ending Violence Against Women and Girls” for HuffingtonPost.com, which got an amazing amount of response. Why did I become that kind of person who talks about it? Because when I pushed that ex-girlfriend into a bathroom door in 1991, I immediately knew that it was wrong. Luckily, there were some serious feminist women in this area, and around the country, who saw my potential as a young up-and-coming leader and challenged me on my sexism. And one of the things they said to me was that you’ve got to own it. That’s why a year later I wrote the piece in Essence, that’s why over the course of these seventeen years I’ve gone from that person who was violent and destructive in a lot of different ways, to someone who has now become a very pro-feminist, anti-sexist male, who does work around these issues on a regular basis, both here in NYC and around the country. And if I was still that person in 2008, why do we have a committee called Women for Kevin Powell, and folks like Susan Taylor from Essence, and Gloria Steinem, and a whole bunch of other incredible women—why have they signed on to it? Why is 85% of my staff, including my campaign manager, women? What Mr. Towns and other people will do is take stuff that I put out there myself and try to use it against me. Literally, I outed myself. I think if you’re going to be a public servant, regardless if you’re an elected official—and I’m very rarely going to call myself a politician, even once I’m elected, but a public servant—you have a responsibility to be transparent and accountable for everything you do. Which is why I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I’m not a philanderer, there aren’t a whole bunch of women in my life—none of that stuff. Because the downfall of most male leaders has either been violence, sex, or money. And one of the things that my mentors said to me is that if you’re going to make mistakes, Kevin Powell, going forward, then you need to make new mistakes, not old ones.
Hamm: How has being part of the hip-hop generation shaped your political perspective?
Powell: Well, I’ve been an active participant in hip hop culture since I was a child. I was a B-boy, a graffiti writer, a hip-hop journalist at Vibe Magazine, and I curated the first exhibit on hip-hop in this country, at the Brooklyn Museum. Hip-hop culture is something very beautiful and powerful, a culture that was created by the working class people that I am trying to represent. No one knew it was going to become a multi-billion dollar industry, or could foresee the commodification of hip hop—in terms of the racism, the sexism, the materialism, or all of the violence that you see around it. That’s not what I represent. I represent the culture, which is very different.
Hamm: Can you define what that culture is all about?
Powell: Oh absolutely. There are five core elements to hip-hop culture: there’s the DJ, the MC, the graffiti writing, the dance element, and the fifth element, which is the foundation of it all, is knowledge. We have to know where we came from. That’s important to Afrika Bambaataa, one of the founding fathers of hip-hop. Hip-hop is about non-violence, contrary to popular belief. In fact, in 1974, when Bambaataa created Universal Zulu Nation, it was created as a way to keep young people from joining gangs and becoming violent towards each other. I was one of those boys who used to be at the clubs in the early ’80s, battling [a freestyle rapping contest]. That was a way to for us to display our very American hyper-masculinity, but in a way that wasn’t violent. Those are the basic values. Hip-hop values include making something out of nothing, winning on your own terms. That’s why I’m running for Congress. Many people say that you shouldn’t run, you should wait your turn—or that you have no chance in the world. If we would have listened to that 35, 40 years ago, there would be no hip-hop. That’s what hip-hop values are to us: you feel something, you just do it. You don’t wait for someone to give you permission.