- Interview by
Last summer, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pulled off a stunning upset over Congressman Joe Crowley of New York. Crowley was a longtime stalwart of the Democratic Party establishment and member of the New Democratic Coalition, a caucus of centrist Democrats affiliated with the neoliberal Democratic Leadership Council.
In 2020, another longtime “New Democrat” is facing a primary challenge in New York: Representative Eliot Engel of New York’s 16th congressional district in the Bronx and southern Westchester County. Engel is being challenged by Jamaal Bowman, an education justice advocate and Bronx middle school principal.
Bowman has spent in his career in New York’s public schools where he participated in organizing against austerity budgets by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor Andrew Cuomo. He has also been in a leader in the opt-out movement against the overuse of standardized testing. And now he’s being backed by Justice Democrats, the same organization that recruited and helped elect Ocasio-Cortez.
Engel, on the other hand, is most known for being one of the most hawkish Democrats. He infamously voted for the Iraq War, against the Iranian nuclear deal, and attempted to stall growing movement in Congress to end the United States’ support for the war in Yemen. Engel has also received donations from the corporate PACs of weapons manufacturers like Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and Boeing.
We talked to Bowman to get a sense of the type of change he’d like to see in Washington, and whether he represents a real break with mainstream Democratic politics.
You say that Rep. Eliot Engel hasn’t represented the interests of the district for years, and that’s why you’re challenging him. In your mind, how has Rep. Engel gone wrong?
He’s been there thirty years, so when I see only 7 percent of the electorate voting in the previous primary and numbers similar to that in primaries of years past, that lets me know that the people of the district are not as engaged in the democratic process as they need to be. When I look at data related to poverty rates in certain parts of the district, in the Eastchester section for example, you know, you have poverty rates of over 20 percent.
In other parts of the district you have an obesity epidemic, an asthma epidemic caused by pollution and environmental racism while Engel sits on the Energy Committee in Congress. We have addiction issues and an opioid crisis in Yonkers, Rye, and elsewhere in the district. I see these issues as an educator inside our school. The students and families I work with struggle with these issues every single day.
I think our district deserves leadership that truly understands the needs of our communities rather than someone who is taking corporate money and seems so focused on foreign affairs.
What’s your plan to win? And how does that plan anticipate the establishment of the Democratic Party being more prepared for progressive challengers, in a post-AOC world?
Before I even decided to run I was having conversations with people throughout the district and I kept hearing that people wanted change. I’ve come across so many grassroots groups and brilliant individuals over the past few years who have been building up our communities across the district. One of the major problems that many of them say is that they haven’t been engaged by Eliot Engel and they haven’t bridged the gap between the common struggles people are facing in both Westchester and the Bronx.
You have amazing groups like Indivisible, the Democratic Socialists of America, and many other local groups here in the Bronx, and Westchester, who haven’t had the opportunity to work alongside their representative to build a movement for transformative change. There’s a huge opportunity opened up by that neglect to build that movement with the grassroots groups already doing the work — not just for the campaign, but for the issues.
What do you anticipate your relationship being with the growing democratic-socialist movement in New York?
I see it as a dual-power relationship, where we are consistently working together to create policies that serve for all working people. We’re consistently working together to engage everyone within the district and everyone across the country in the democratic process. It’s not about me, it’s about the movement.
When I talk about Medicare for All, when I talk about housing as a human right, investing in public education and a federal jobs guarantee, people call me a democratic socialist. I’m fine with that. There’s some stigma associated with the word “socialism” even though the current capitalist model we have isn’t working for the majority of Americans.
We have a system where we have three Americans that own more wealth than the bottom 50 percent of the country. We have 40 million people living in poverty. We have 15.5 million children living in poverty. What we have now is not working for the masses. If you want to call me a socialist then call me a socialist.
I remember when I was a kid, I often didn’t think that America worked for me, and I didn’t think this country was for me as a young black male growing up. I didn’t see elected officials or candidates speaking to me or my issues. So I relate on a personal level to people who are in the struggles that have been put upon them by bad policy and bad actors in government. I can relate to how disconnected people feel from the democratic process. My work as an educator, as a principal, as a candidate is about bringing people together across our differences for a common purpose.
What’s running for office been like for you?
People sometimes ask if I have the experience for the job. I challenge any congressperson to run a middle school in the Bronx effectively. Let’s see how well they do. As the founding principal of a public school, I spent a lot of time being stressed out about finding the best teachers and staff in the area to come and work in the school. That involved reviewing thousands of resumes, making thousands of phone calls, talking to hundreds of people, making hard asks just trying to find the right people to come into this building. Being a principal also means putting forth a vision and mission to use the school as a place of community transformation.
Throughout the campaign, we’ve knocked on thousands of doors and made thousands of phone calls to learn about people and their struggles and bring those into our platform and message. As an educator for the past twenty years, I always took a community empowerment approach, and I see that being the same thing as building up a campaign.
One of the things that you’ve highlighted in your campaign is taking on the school-to-prison pipeline. What are the policies that you’ve tried to implement in your own school to deal with how schools can often perpetuate mass incarceration?
Every educator needs to love the work that they do and love the children that they serve as if they are their own children. I’ve always been very clear-eyed and level-headed about working in a historically oppressed, low-income black and Latino community. Our children and their families are running up the traumas and wounds of our collective history as Americans. I came into the work understanding the impact of mass incarceration in their lives and the impact of racism and class exploitation in their lives. As a black man, I took that job very seriously in terms of not just serving as a teacher but serving as a role model.
Ending the school-to-prison starts with the values and culture and mindset that leaders in a school bring to the families they’re serving. In addition, we don’t suspend students for minor offenses that will disenfranchise them within the school setting. We use a restorative justice approach. Which is about building a sense of community and having love and compassion for the fellow members of this community we’re creating.
So if a student does something that’s against our collective school culture and it’s harmful to the community, we have a conversation about it. We sit in a circle and discuss what happened. Why did it happen? What impact did it have on an individual or the community? How can we move forward? How can we repair the harm? And when you treat children with dignity and respect, you see a dramatic decrease in incidents and a dramatic decrease in suspensions.
One last thing. When you implement an interdisciplinary curriculum that takes into account social and emotional needs and the arts — rather than focusing on standardized test scores — students are more emotionally engaged and more excited to be in the learning environment. All of this together helps address the school-to-prison pipeline issue within a classroom but it requires resources and leadership and helps grow all of us — teachers, students, parents — in our collective humanity.
Your school is actually lauded for having some of the biggest gains on standardized test scores, but you’ve been a community organizer in the opt-out movement. Can you talk about how your school ended up getting these good test scores with a principal who opposes standardized testing?
Because good teaching is good teaching, right? When we teach and focus on learning, critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity that translates into good results on whatever kind of test our students take. We’ve gotten good results by taking that approach.
Other schools, in contrast, are focused on a test prep approach, especially charter schools. That’s in part because they get threatened with closure if they don’t get high test scores. So it’s a totally corrupt, classist, racist, and distorted way of looking at learning that doesn’t serve historically oppressed communities. We’re a Title I school where we serve kids who live in public housing and I’m proud to have kids graduate from our schools and go onto trade school, great public colleges like CUNY, and also some of the top schools like MIT and Cornell.
You’ve been involved in the fight for fiscal equity in New York’s public schools for a long time. That fight has taken on Mayor Bloomberg and Mayor de Blasio as well as Governor Cuomo. Can you talk about why there’s such a lack of investment in public schools in such a blue state like New York?
I think they’ve been brainwashed by an ideology that believes in market-based solutions to public sector spaces: schools, housing, health care. Obviously they’re wrong. When you look at the data over the last twenty years since No Child Left Behind, you see charter schools and traditional district schools performing about the same, but you see the achievement gap remain or grow in many parts of the country. Too many Democrats have been co-opted by corporate donors who are driven by profit and want to destroy the public sector to lower taxes on the rich. We’ve got to transform the Democratic Party away from these people who are trying to bamboozle us into false solutions to real problems.
I’ve worked with amazing students who have unlimited potential. But because of bad policy, a lack of resources, a lack of opportunities in their communities — they don’t get a chance to realize that potential. That’s why I support Bernie Sanders’s plan to quadruple Title I funding to our highest-need public schools across America.
You’ve made repealing the 1994 crime bill a central part of your campaign. Engel voted for it and championed it. Why is this an important plank of your campaign?
That crime bill incentivized states to build more prisons and incarcerate more and more people from low-income communities that had been neglected by our federal government. It was another false solution to address the issue of poverty and systemic racism in housing and employment.
We saw black and brown families torn apart because of minor offenses and longer jail sentences. I still have friends I grew up with who are in prison to this very day. To me, repealing the crime bill is an acknowledgment of wrong and a commitment to completely change directions by eliminating cash bail, reducing lengthy sentencing, and much more. Prisons and jails don’t keep communities as much as jobs, schools, and a strong social safety net.
If Eliot Engel is known for anything, it’s for his hawkish foreign policy views. He’s the chairman of the Foreign Affairs committee. He voted for the war in Iraq, he voted against President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, he tried to stop the growing opposition last year to US involvement with the Saudi-led war in Yemen. How does your campaign see itself in part of that conversation about where the Democratic Party should go on foreign policy?
I think our current representative has focused on his hawkish foreign policy views over the needs of our community. How can you vote to spend trillions of dollars on endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at a time when so many of our communities are in need? That said, my vision is a Marshall Plan approach so we can rebuild what we have destroyed and dismantle our military-industrial complex. The United States has too often played a destabilizing role in many parts of the world that has led to civil wars and authoritarianism. We have to lead with diplomacy and building relationships across the world to lift people up after poverty, transition the world to green energy, and help participate in a project for our collective humanity.
I don’t understand why my opponent accepts donations from weapons manufacturers. I don’t know how someone can call themselves a progressive and vote for the war in Iraq. I’m fighting to end the forever wars and make sure we invest in education, community development, and health care, as opposed to investing in weapons and war that hurt people in this country and across the world.
There’s been some movement within the Democratic Party in recent years on holding Israel more accountable. What do you see as what your approach would be on Israel and how it would be different than Eliot Engel?
We have to have honest conversations about the humanitarian crisis taking place through the occupation of the Palestinian people. It’s a crisis that America has been complicit in through bolstering Netanyahu and his far-right government while doing next-to-nothing in terms of holding him accountable. He’s a mini-Trump who warned of “Arab turnout” at the polls and brags about building a wall.
As Netanyahu calls for expanding settlements and annexing the West Bank, we should seriously consider placing conditions on the billions of dollars of military aid our government provides him in order to make sure that the rights and dignity of both the Israeli and Palestinian people are respected. I just don’t understand why American taxpayers are subsidizing the detention of Palestinian children while Democrats are criticizing child detention at the Mexican border. The principles of the Leahy Law should be upheld.
But we have to think about this in the bigger picture. We need to stand up to far-right authoritarian leaders rising across the world, not cozy up to them, whether that’s in Saudi Arabia, Europe, India, or Israel. It’s a fight between leaders who are dividing people up and leaders who are bringing people together around a common purpose.
Why do you support Medicare for All?
Because no human being should not have health care. If you’re sick, you should be able to go to the doctor, regardless of how much money you have. Period. If private insurance corporations are stopping that from happening, then private insurance needs to be transitioned out. We have thousands of people dying every year because of lack of health care. That’s inhumane and unacceptable.
In my community, we have elders who are not able to get long-term care and services. As a result, their children have to exhaust their savings and quit their jobs in order to take care of an elderly parent or grandparent. This is unacceptable in a country that boasts to be the wealthiest country in the world. There are other nations like Canada and others who have figured this out already through single-payer health care. It just seems like common sense.