Kristin Richardson Jordan doesn’t have the background of most city politicians.
Before Richardson Jordan won her city council seat representing Harlem last year, she was a poet, protestor, copwatcher and founder of a political-activist publishing company. She was deeply involved in mutual aid efforts in Harlem during the pandemic and is also an avowed socialist and a police and prison abolitionist.
Her one-point victory over Harlem political legend Bill Perkins in the Democratic primary shocked the neighborhood’s insular political establishment. She now represents Manhattan’s 9th District, the only Black plurality district in the borough. Her tenure on city council can be seen as a test case for what is possible when a radical community activist wins elected office and tries to fight for change from within the system while maintaining a movement sensibility.
Now in her fourth month on the job, Richardson Jordan recently spoke with The Indypendent about the issues she’s fighting for, how the new city council sees Mayor Eric Adams and how she’s navigating the contradictions of being in her position.
“I’m still grappling with how to be an advocate and navigate the system in a way that could help my community,” she said, before musing about how to “blow up the system” so that there is “actually more community engagement and involvement in the overall process itself.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Indypendent: What’s the big issue you’re dealing with at this time?
Kristin Richardson Jordan: The biggest thing we’re talking about right now is budget. We’re formulating our response as a council to the mayor’s preliminary budget which calls for a 3% cut across the board to all agencies. We’re really looking at austerity measures at a time when they are unneeded, at a time when we have a surplus.
And what’s even more alarming is the cuts would apply to all these agencies except the NYPD, therefore giving the NYPD a greater percentage of our budget. And at a time when not just the mayor, but all of us are concerned in talking about safety, we really need to be having a deeper conversation about what does safety actually mean, what does safety really look like. And in our communities, especially my community of Central Harlem, that’s going to look like deep investments in education and in mental health, and in social services, all the things that are currently being cut in this current budget including Sanitation.
People may not see the link between sanitation and mental health, but I promise you it is there. There have been studies done on how the environment is impacting our well-being and our psychological health. And to be cutting sanitation when we need to restore the sanitation budget, really, to pre-pandemic levels is just really unacceptable.
The Indypendent: Sanitation is something that you’ve been pretty vocal about for your district and very specific about — for example, the need for rat control, the need for more garbage cans in your district. So what do you worry that a reduced sanitation budget will look like in Harlem?
KRJ: The effects of it will be devastating, because we are already disadvantaged in this space of sanitation. There was the removal of 223 trash cans from our district, which means more litter on the streets. The remaining cans are these open wire baskets that allow the rats to climb in. I asked about how we could work to replace all the wire baskets in a sanitation hearing. And it was very interesting to actually hear from leaders in DSNY. They said that because we have the baskets [that] are ready, we must use them. And simply because the city owns the baskets, we are going to use them, even though they’re not an effective means of actually containing trash.
The Indypendent: The disparity between the wire trash baskets and the more modern trash containers in other neighborhoods is striking.
KRJ: Absolutely. We lobbied the Sanitation Department, and we were able to secure 32 new rat protected trash cans for our district, which was great. However, 223 trash cans were previously removed. So we still have 191 left to go, in terms of missing trash cans. And, it’s not going to be fixed with small-level negotiations. It is incumbent upon the city to restore the sanitation budget and to not only get us the new cans, but also do the trash pickups and have the trash pickups be equitable. And to have the street cleanings be equitable as well.
The Indypendent: In general, how strong do you feel the resistance is across the whole council to the proposed budget that Mayor Adams just put forth?
KRJ: I think that this first round of the budget will not stand. There’s been such deep cuts to so many things that New Yorkers care about, and the council cares about that. They are going to have to roll back some of these cuts. It’s just unacceptable even for mainstream Democrats and those who are not nearly as vocally left or vocally socialist as I am.
It’s fairly clever of the Mayor to start with these proposed cuts, because now what so many people are fighting for is literally the status quo. What we need to be fighting for is additional funding, but because of the proposed cuts, there are so many of us that are even just stuck in this place of trying to get back to where the funding levels were.
Will we get to a place we need to go? Where we’re actually giving additional funding to social services and creating a safety net and actually building safety in the form of community care and service and mental health. I don’t think we have the strength in the council for that. And for that I look to the people, I think we need to organize. We need the people to help push this council to take on a more radical agenda. And I wouldn’t even call it fully socialist, I would say, even just humanitarian, in terms of funding these basic services. For that reason, I have signed on to the People’s Plan.
The Indypendent: It’s a classic negotiating tactic: Ask for the absolute extreme, and then if you meet in the middle, you’ve already won. So that’s what Adams is doing here.
KRJ: That’s why I like the People’s Plan, because the People’s Plan actually talks about a deeper and longer-term vision of investing in our communities.
The Indypendent: New York is an infamously Democratic-machine city. You’re coming from a background of being an author, a poet and activist completely outside of the establishment. And what was it like for you to then first of all, to run against this machine? And now second of all to be on the city council?
KRJ: It’s absolutely a culture shock. It’s wild. It’s navigating this machinery, to use some of that language, which is correct. I’ve only been on the job for three months. I’m still grappling with how to be an advocate and navigate the system in a way that could help my community. And also at the same time, attempting to blow up the system, where I can disrupt the system so there is actually more community engagement and involvement in the overall process itself. For all that we say about being a democracy, my experience in government so far has shown me that in a lot of significant ways we are not actually democratic.
We have come some ways. It used to be that if you didn’t vote for the council speaker, you didn’t get any of the committees you wanted. You didn’t get any funding for your community. That is not the case. So let’s give credit where credit’s due, that we have progressed to a point where I could express my feelings on political matters, and I still get the same funding slice, the same piece of the pie, that my colleagues get.
The Indypendent: I write a column for The Indypendent that basically tracks the Eric Adams administration. It’s like being Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill. Every other day, there’s something new that I have to rewrite. Recently, we were treated to videos of homeless people’s belongings and shelters being thrown into garbage compactors while Mayor Adams was at a club for a Wells Fargo-sponsored party for a credit card that you can pay rent with. It almost feels a little bit absurd. How do you feel about the Adams administration so far? What’s going on with this guy?
KRJ: It’s been a toxic administration. And I understand that, as a politician, I’m not supposed to say these things. But as an organizer, I really do feel we have to be honest with people about this.
We have for the first time a majority-female city council. And there have been some very ways of working together in the council that tend to be more collaborative, more about consensus building and more around collective input. That’s not what we’re seeing from the Adams administration and the executive branch of government.
As the city council, now more than ever we have to be loud and bold and really be that check on the mayor, especially when we have a mayor who has openly said, “Well, I’m the mayor,” when he’s been challenged about issues in his administration, a mayor who has openly said, “I’m going to ignore them,” when confronted with socialists and progressives like me in the council. You don’t lead by ignoring people and being egocentric. That is not leadership. So I think it’s been toxic to have someone who’s not engaging in a collaborative way, and not taking feedback and at quite a few significant moments, not even listening.
The Indypendent: You mentioned that the council does need to be loud and bold and be a check on this mayor. I do see that some councilmembers, yourself included, Tiffany Cabán has been great about it, Charles Barron, of course, are really speaking out. But how deep do you feel support runs generally for Mayor Adams in this council?
KRJ: I don’t think support for Mayor Adams runs that deep in this council, particularly among those of us who like me are newer members, more progressive members of the council. What I do think runs deep and is somewhat more difficult to navigate is the nature of the political machine and the nature of politics. People who are elected very often want to stay elected. In many cases, elected officials want to move up politically. This is not an issue that I particularly have, because that’s not a big ambition of mine. I really am focused on being an organizer. There are times when I’ll speak out in bolder or harsher terms than some of my colleagues simply because I don’t have that same political ambition. So I’m just going to call it what it is.
The Indypendent: What, if anything, can we expect the city council to put forward to try to put a check on this NYPD?
KRJ: I’m a co-sponsor for legislation that would create an Elected Civilian Review Board for the police, which is going to be introduced in this council. There would be firing and suspension power for this ECRB. So there would actually be some teeth, and it would also be representative of the community. We’re still ironing out some of the details, but we are pushing for it to be as much of the community as possible and to have the power to make binding decisions around firing and suspensions. This was needed even before what is now feeling like a new era of more intense policing.
The Indypendent: You have been involved in the past with copwatch teams and in organizing copwatching. What’s your reaction to Mayor Adams’ comments that he basically doesn’t want to allow people to be able to film officers in any meaningful way? And what do you think about copwatching now and its importance?
KRJ: I think copwatching is more important now than ever. I think we should absolutely all be pulling out our phones and filming police activity. So that we can be a check and balance on police activity, especially in this moment where we do not have an elected civilian review board. And we do not actually have much balance in the system at all, except for the potential of catching brutality on video, in which case you may not be guaranteed but may see some form of repercussion or justice.
I was very disgusted by the mayor’s comments about discouraging people from filming police. It’s our right to film police. It’s completely legal to do it. And if someone is acting appropriately I don’t see any reason why officers should feel threatened by filming either.
The Indypendent: I’ll let you get back to the budget stuff. I have one more question for you. But it’s a fun one. What is your favorite thing about Harlem?
KRJ: Oh, wow.
The Indypendent: I know, it’s big.
KRJ: Yeah, it’s big. It is big, because I love so much about Harlem! But I absolutely have to say the people — I think we have a neighborhood feel that you don’t find in many parts of the city. In Harlem, it’s very much a familial and kindred network, which is a beautiful thing. There was actually a survey done of New York in general and Harlem led the way on a survey question about, “Do I feel like my neighbors would help me?” So that was very cool, because in all kinds of stats and places, and in all kinds of statistics, Harlem is leading in a negative context. But here we see how we are leading the way in saying “Yeah, we actually feel like our neighbors would help us,” and I think that just speaks to how connected we are as a community.