I sit across from Bill Batson in the bedroom of his apartment which, for the moment, doubles as the conference room of his fledgling campaign for State Assembly. There is an original Keith Haring almost as tall as the room framed against the far wall, its thick primary white lines drawn over a black surface. Batson actually found the piece on the sidewalk in the East Village during the 1980s. “The Haring reminds me of a time in New York when art and activism was everywhere,” he recalls, remembering the New York of that era as a bastion of robust discussion where artists still challenged our values and ideas.
“I’d like to see that kind of activism and that kind of creativity in the streets again,” he says, gazing at the painting and letting his mind reach back. Over a decade and a half later, running for the 57th Assembly district, which encompasses Fort Greene and Prospect Heights, Batson sees the creative tension of artists and activists being essential to tackling the issues faced by Brooklyn today. He also believes its absence can account for the tone of what currently passes for governance in Albany.
Batson moved into a building in Greenpoint in 1984 as an artist. He describes the occupants as “twenty-five percent hipster artists and seventy-five percent people stuck there.” There was no lock on the front door and residents encountered syringes in the hallway, people urinating in the hallway, trash, and concern for personal safety. One day, someone knocked on his door and asked if he wanted to get involved with a tenant organizing drive.
“My first political act was to join the tenant association with my neighbors,” Batson recalls. The residents began a two-year rent strike, “which is something you can’t really do anymore,” he notes. The tenants won a 43% rent abatement and got the doors locked. He credits this as the moment that he became an activist.
Batson’s introduction to mainstream politics came soon afterwards, when he founded Artists for Jackson, as in Jesse, which got him invited to the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. Here Batson met some big names in New York City politics, like Dennis Rivera of Local 1199, who would be his first boss, as well as David Dinkins and Charlie Rangel.
Despite being involved with politics since the 1980s, Batson did not work for an elected official until 2001, when he began working for State Senator David Paterson. ”Up until then, I’d always been with the insurgents,” he quips.
Batson explains, “You have an establishment and you have the insurgents. It’s a boundary that has to be pushing back and forth.” This boundary has become static in recent years, with little room left for ideas emanating from outside of the establishment.
“There is a dependence on comfort,” Batson notes. “Politics sometimes takes you out of your comfort zone where you have to debate or experience a moment of tension. We’ve confused silence with peace. Silence is nothingness, it’s stasis, it’s stagnation.”
Confronting this stagnation is what motivates Batson. “These seats don’t open but every quarter century.” he explains. “One doesn’t have a choice [but to run] if one believes that the current debate in Albany is being conducted behind closed doors where community board representatives, citizens, and poor disenfranchised people are not welcome. There is a contempt for citizens that are trying to have their rights protected.” Turning specifically to the main issues in his district, he worries that government has turned a blind eye to concerns over crime, over-development, and eminent domain. “Now is the moment and I had to act,” he says.
Recently, there has been a spate of arsons in Crown Heights that have caused families to lose their homes as well as four deaths in one fire on Pacific Street. Batson is chairman of the Fire Safety Committee for Community Board 8, where the fires have occurred. He maintains that budget cutbacks that leave only 100 fire marshals to defend the entire city, a quarter of the number on the job in 2001, are a large part of the problem. “If a person has the feeling that no one is watching them, no one is standing guard, no one is rushing to investigate, it becomes very easy for them to commit the crime of arson,” he says.
Although Batson thinks it dangerous to speculate on the origin of these fires, he does say that “the combined result is the blighting of a neighborhood that can now be preyed upon by speculating real estate interests.” To confront the problem, Batson and members of the neighborhood have decided to take a grassroots approach. “Rather than wait for the government to react to our protests, we’ve decided to perform some of the roles in the absence. For the last three weeks from midnight until 6am we’ve stood out in front of 1033 Pacific Street looking at the condition of the properties.”
The neighbors, meanwhile, are on the lookout for open doors, reporting street lights that have burned out and call boxes that don’t work. Out of necessity, Batson thinks “Brooklynites have to start taking care of ourselves because nobody is going to take care of us. Elected officials aren’t, corporations aren’t, so what do we have left but each other. Neighbor to neighbor.”
The most important issue that the 57th district currently faces is the Atlantic Yards proposal pushed by Forest City Ratner. Like many in the community, Batson has strong reservations about this massive complex of skyscrapers and wants to ensure that a dissenting voice will be heard in the State Assembly race. The proposal, he says, “has got everything that’s wrong about overdevelopment in it. It has eminent domain, it has a bogus parallel structure called a Community Benefits Agreement. It’s a three-card monte proposal that changes every time you look down.”
As a member of the Community Board, Batson has seen developer Bruce Ratner’s approach to community involvement firsthand. In Batson’s view, the developer has preferred the tactic of divide and conquer as opposed to uniting and collaborating with the community. He also sees the strategy showing its weakness: “I don’t think anybody is feeling good about this project. If [Ratner] wins, it is a catastrophic victory. The way it is going there could be rings of protest around this forever. It could be something that, once built, people will want to tear down.”
The solution, he says, would be a truly public process. “We’ve learned from mistakes that are written as scars across this country what bad urban planning can do. New York knows this more than any other city.” Batson hopes that the wounds of this battle can yield to more fruitful discussion. “There is a lot of pointing back and forth among powerless people in this process, while there are many players in this game who have extraordinary wealth and power but who are left unscathed. It reminds me of the African expression, ‘When the elephants fight, only the grass gets hurt.’”
Batson recently took a trip to Nairobi, Kenya. A child of adoption, he had discovered in adulthood that his biological father, now deceased, was Kenyan. The trip, while connecting him with his paternal roots, also refreshed his view of humanity. “The kids in Kenya have nothing but the clothes on their back and their dignity and they seem happier, more focused, and more energetic than a similar grouping of children here in Brooklyn. I see more freedom in many ways in village life in Africa than I do in parts of Brooklyn.”
“We have so much in this city, we have so much in our bank accounts compared to the rest of the world. The only reason we can’t do what we need with it is because we keep it to ourselves and we don’t share it,” Batson laments. He hopes to make it the job of government to share with children and make them feel part of the fabric of community. “During my first term I want to do a census of 18 to 25-year-olds and all I want to know is where they’re at.” He wants to know what they are doing and what he can do to help. “We have urgent problems and we’re not waiting to be drafted into anybody else’s war. We’ve got our own war right here and we need our own army of organizers and volunteers.”
As illustrated by the city’s anemic response to recent fires, Batson believes that “dialing 911 and 311 and 411 is not the solution to almost any problem. Eventually you have to put down the phone and deal with any matter if its a serious matter yourself. That’s another thing I learned from Africa, too.” He feels that civic organizations such as food co-ops, church groups, and tenant associations “have to be revived and I think readied because no one is looking out for us.” Batson hopes that the community can find reserves of strength in the doing.
As we draw our discussion to a close, we notice that it is 10:10. “An auspicious time,” Batson reacts. I look again at the Keith Haring that he found lying unwanted on a sidewalk. Artists know that their creation is encouraged by their community and so attempt to encourage it in turn. The powerful destroy community because they see it as an impediment to their interests. Brooklyn is encountering the force of this destructive cycle with arson and overdevelopment. It is at these dark moments that we are reminded that community is a force of creation, and that through it can come a balance. An auspicious time, indeed.