“New York City’s Working Class Has Been Left Out”
Jaslin Kaur is a socialist running for New York City Council. In an interview with Jacobin, she talks about the desperate need for debt relief for New York taxi drivers, cutting the New York Police Department’s massive budget, and the spurious attacks on socialists as “white gentrifiers.”
- Interview by
- Karma Samtani
After recent victories at the state level with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) for the Many slate, New York City democratic socialists are now turning to city hall, having announced the DSA for the City slate of six democratic socialists running for New York City Council. One of these six is Jaslin Kaur, an organizer, activist, and, if elected, the first woman, person of color, and Sikh to represent her city council district in Eastern Queens.
Running to replace retiring city council member Barry Grodenchik, Kaur has garnered support from organized labor, community organizations, and progressive elected officials and has surpassed most of her competition in fundraising and organizational strength.
An organizer and advocate on a wide range of issues from taxi drivers victimized by predatory lending schemes to victims of gender discrimination and sexual violence on college campuses, Kaur is the daughter of a taxi driver and a unionized grocery store worker, and a lifelong Queens resident. Her campaign has been endorsed by the New York City DSA.
Karma Samtani spoke with Kaur recently for Jacobin. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
What led you to decide to run for city council?
I never saw myself as someone who would be an electoral candidate. What’s happened during the pandemic and seeing my family struggle without a solution from our city for years, especially on the taxi medallion crisis, drove me to change my mind.
We’re a taxi family, a working Indian family from Punjab. My dad has been a taxi driver for almost thirty years. The taxi medallion crisis emerged about seven years ago, and we haven’t seen a significant material solution from city council that includes desperately needed debt relief.
As the daughter of immigrants, the struggles of my parents are now my burden as well. I want my parents to have a chance to rest. I want people in my community to have the right to basic things like housing, health care, and education. It’s time that we get not only representation but also policy that will shift the material conditions of people’s lives.
You’ve been an organizer advocating for victims of gender discrimination as well as immigrants in your Eastern Queens district. How has your past experience with community organizing affected the way you’re running your campaign for city council?
I think of those two project trajectories, organizing and running for office, as parallel. An organizer is somebody who knows how to build community, somebody who knows how to do direct action and bring direct services to their community and knows how to bring a coalition of diverse people together.
My district is one of the most diverse in the city. So this is exactly the nexus of organizing work that we need to bring to city council.
As we’ve charted a path forward with many of our DSA candidates in particular, it’s clear that organizers are the ones who can actually build consensus, build power, and be the ones to effect long-term change. We’re fighting for the kind of power that can last beyond our own generation. We’re fighting for the kinds of changes that might not even happen in our lifetime, but we’re organizing as if they could happen tomorrow.
I’m a Sikh leftist myself, so I wanted to ask about how your identities as a Sikh person and as a socialist are intertwined, as well as the general sentiment you’ve received from the Sikh and South Asian community in your district.
With Sikhism, especially as an American-born Punjabi woman, I always come back to the story of Guru Hargobind Singh, who was freed from incarceration but refused to leave unless the fifty-two political prisoners who were caught with him were freed together. That has been such a north star for me, because it’s entirely tied to how we think about political persecution, incarceration, and collective power — the idea that “I can’t be free unless all of us are free.” That’s what we have to fight for in every single level of government and in every single part of our communities. That’s why we celebrate Bandi Chhor Divas, which means day of liberation or day of release.
I want my people to get free. And I look at how our gurdwaras, our temples, have organized around the months-long farmers’ protests right now in India. It’s happening right in the places where my family grew up. Before my dad was a taxi driver, he was a farmer. My campaign is an opportunity to bring this fight from Punjab to this district.
We want multiracial, multiethnic coalitions, but we also want multigenerational coalitions — youth who have been coming together with their elders — to fight for something that is felt so deeply and reverberates so deeply across the ocean and across the other side of the world. And it’s been so heartwarming to see when we knock on people’s doors, they say things like, “I know you support the farmers. That’s something that’s so important to me.” This is what people are talking about on WhatsApp or watching livestreams of. They want to know what’s happening to their families.
After a mass movement this summer in defense of black lives and in support of police accountability, are you incorporating calls for racial justice and accountability into your campaign platform? And how do you plan to hold the NYPD accountable if elected?
The mindset of “broken windows” policing has been around for longer than I’ve been alive. Generations of people have been subject to brutality, policing, and surveillance. It’s a culture of surveilling people from communities like ours — South Asian, Sikhs, and Muslims across New York City — in a coordinated effort after 9/11.
When we think about accountability within New York City around the police department, we have to think about the bloated NYPD budget. It’s over $6 billion — sometimes more than the entire operating budget of entire US cities.
We need a massive recalibration of what our priorities are and how we actually use a $92 billion budget as a moral compass for legislating in our city.
When we think about accountability, it goes back to who has the decision-making power over what the NYPD does. We can hold the NYPD accountable by democratically electing a citizen complaint review board, having more city council oversight, and actually releasing the data that currently isn’t released for public monitoring.
We need to put some teeth behind the word “accountability” and actually use our powers in the city council to make that happen. That’s how we’ll build a more just city. That’s also how we’ll see more just schools, because right now we have some of the most racially segregated schools in the entire country — schools embedded in the school-to-prison pipeline.
I want a future where our city is effectively decarcerated, one where we actually invest in mental health care responses and permanently housing people and invest more in resources that give people opportunities to live dignified lives.
You’re running in a district that has been previously unfriendly to socialists and progressive insurgents and one with a substantial majority of homeowners. How do you see your path to victory running as a socialist on tenant protections and taxing the rich in a district where around two-thirds of homes are owned rather than rented?
I live in a home with my parents. This is where I grew up, too. There’s often a narrative of socialists or DSA members who are outsiders and “infiltrating” parts of our city. But this is my home. It’s the circumstances of where I grew up, and how the city has failed me and my family, that brought me to politics. It’s why I’m running for council in the first place.
So many people I’ve met have asked me, “Okay, you’re running for city council. But what does a city council member actually do?” Because no one has ever talked to them about local politics or what exactly these elections mean tangibly. So we’ve been doing a lot of work with political education to help our youth understand what a council member does.
I think this is opening up an immense avenue for us to expand the electorate in a district that has very low voter turnout. We have a little over fifty thousand registered Democrats in District 23, but only about seven to eight thousand actually show up for Democratic primaries. People will show up if you give them something to show up for.
Nobody knows policy better than the people who have been failed by it. It’s our black and brown communities who have been categorically ignored in our district. Our path to victory is going to be deeply organizing in so many of these marginalized communities.
You’re a strong supporter of taxi drivers as well as rideshare drivers. And, as you mentioned, you’re the daughter of a yellow taxicab driver. A key plank of your platform is support for gig economy workers and unprotected laborers. Could you expand on some policies you support to protect these workers and how your identity as a socialist and daughter of a taxicab driver has shaped these views?
New York City’s working class has been left out and tossed aside, whether by the city or state government. This taxi medallion debt crisis is an example of manufactured negligence by our city council and the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission. Our people are on a pathway to bankruptcy, hunger, and homelessness. Anytime you go to a New York Taxi Workers Alliance protest, the chant is always “no more suicide, no more bankruptcy.” But as many times as we will yell in front of Gracie Mansion [the mayor’s house], it doesn’t seem like they’re hearing us.
There’s an excellent proposal on the table that would only cost $70-$75 million over twenty years to decrease the amount of monthly debt repayments for taxi drivers from well over $2,000 a month to as little as $800 a month.
This is charting a pathway to a massive debt relief that immigrant workers need.
We can also extend citywide COVID-19 relief to our immigrant delivery workers, street vendors, and small business owners, because they’ve been devastated by this pandemic. They don’t qualify for federal pandemic relief because of their immigration status.
We need massive rent relief for our small business owners. Along Hillside and Jamaica Avenue, where we have a higher population of black and brown constituents, are the blocks where you see small businesses that have closed down, shuttered up, and may never reopen.
If we don’t implement policies that bail out our people and protect them from predatory landlords and surging rent costs, then we can’t actually support the commerce of our city that actually keeps it running. We can revitalize our workforce and actually put working people first, instead of the billionaires who refuse to pay their fair share.
What are your top policy priorities if you are elected to city council?
One of them is fully funding our public housing. Even though we don’t have any NYCHA [New York City Housing Authority] buildings in my district, these are some of the lifesaving housing infrastructures to actually keep people permanently housed and prevent homelessness.
That’s something essential to me, as somebody who was scared about losing my own home because of the taxi medallion crisis, who had to take loans against the house just to finance an education and to pay the bills. Guaranteeing the right to free housing is something that’s especially important given the eviction, foreclosure, and affordability crises we’re up against.
It’s exciting to see so many of our new state legislators charting that path forward and fighting for good-cause eviction laws at the state level. We can extend that at the city level with a right to legal counsel for many of our tenants, who otherwise would lack the protections that they need to keep themselves housed because they can’t afford a lawyer.
Another key issue is closing [the city jail] Rikers Island, which the city has hemmed and hawed on for the past few years. There has been a bit of an uproar in my district around people who were formerly incarcerated at Rikers being held at a hotel at Fresh Meadows over the summer. There was a lot of hurtful rhetoric that residents used at the time — that these people are dangerous and bringing violence and crime to our communities. But these folks would otherwise have been homeless. These people are our neighbors. They deserve basic protections from our city.
If we can invest in actual mental health care services, crisis counseling, and pathways to employment, so people can actually regenerate their lives and get back to the kind of lifestyle that they used to know, we’ll get to a better city.
Talk about NYC DSA and your relationship to the “DSA for the Many” slate — how have they helped you navigate this campaign for city council?
One of the first people in DSA that I talked to about running for office in the first place was Zohran Mamdani, who’s now a state legislator and also one of the first South Asians in the assembly. We don’t have any South Asians in our city council yet.
Zohran’s been such an important mentor for me personally. The whole DSA for the Many slate held a number of Zoom calls between the DSA for the City slate and the DSA for the Many slate, where they shared experiences from running for office. They’re invested in making sure we’re touching so many different corners of our city, from the Bronx to Brooklyn to Queens. That is something that is special to me, because I know that there are people that I can rely on when things are tough.
Recently Governor Cuomo has been under fire for both his handling of nursing home deaths during the pandemic as well as multiple allegations of sexual harassment over his time as governor. NYC DSA officially has called for his resignation. Do you echo that call?
Cuomo absolutely needs to resign. We need an independent investigation into his conduct. But he has absolutely ravaged our city and is responsible for preventable deaths. I take this especially personally, because my district is over 20 percent seniors. Once that data of nursing home deaths was released to the public, we found that the Parker Jewish Institute in my district had the highest number of COVID-19 deaths in a senior home across the entire city, which were initially undercounted to fall short of the 119 total. That is absolutely disgraceful.
And as someone who comes from a background of working and advocating for survivors of sexual harassment and sexual violence, these accusations are especially gruesome. I want real accountability. It’s absolutely disgraceful that this governor is continuing to be in power and isn’t actually being challenged.
There’s a common accusation made, nationwide but especially in New York, that DSA candidates are mostly white “gentrifiers.” How do you respond to this attack?
I mean, look at me. I’m a child of immigrants and a Punjabi woman. That accusation is absolutely not true. DSA is building working-class black and brown power, for people who have been left out.