Kristin Richardson Jordan wasn’t supposed to win.
In her June primary for a City Council seat in Harlem’s District 9, she faced a well-established incumbent. She was a lesbian and a socialist, and she campaigned openly on a “defund the police” platform at a time when an alarming spike in murders in New York and other cities was leading some progressives to back away from such ideas. According to conventional wisdom, the political moment in 2021 belonged to big-city politicians in the mold of Eric Adams, the conservative, pro-cop Democrat who is now the presumptive next mayor of New York, having performed especially well in working-class black neighborhoods where people sometimes demand more cops rather than fewer.
Yet Jordan did win.
In late July, I met Jordan, thirty-four, outdoors at Lenox Coffee Roasters, a relaxed neighborhood spot where people linger, over laptops or deep in conversation. The café advertises its politics through its window signs (not only the ubiquitous “Black Lives Matter” but the more controversial “Free Palestine”) and offers free books. Jordan is a third-generation denizen of Harlem; her father’s parents married at Abyssinian Baptist Church, a legendary neighborhood institution (though Jordan herself is a congregant at Salem United Methodist, on Adam Clayton Powell Jr Boulevard).
Jordan, who identifies as a police abolitionist, won not by avoiding discussion of crime but by having serious conversations with voters on the subject. “Telling people, ‘Well, don’t worry about murder,’” she says, is an obvious nonstarter. “I love my fellow abolitionists, but sometimes we don’t make the full case for our cause, because we’re so busy talking about the police that we don’t talk enough about the presence of the social safety net that is supposed to help us move toward a nonviolent world.”
Before a person is “standing there with a gun killing another person,” she continues, “there were so many points along the way where intervention was needed.” That perpetrator may not have had the chance to attend a well-funded preschool where kids learn social and emotional skills, participate in sports after school and on weekends, get mental health care, find tutoring help to succeed in school, attend college, or find a job. “That is the conversation,” Jordan says, that she and her trained volunteers had with her neighbors.
Jordan says even people who don’t share her vision of a world without prisons or cops — which she admits is a “faith-based vision, since we haven’t seen it” — respond to the argument that crime prevention deserves more resources, and perhaps even agree that it should take priority over punishment. “We validate people’s concerns,” she emphasizes, then discuss “the root causes of violence in our community.” Those “root causes” mostly involve a lack of money — specifically, poverty plus austerity. Jordan’s message, she says, was “not just ‘Defund the Police.’ It’s ‘Fund the People.’”
Asked how she became a socialist, Jordan, who will face a Republican and a third-party candidate in November’s general election, reveals that she is the daytime embodiment of a conservative’s most persistent night terrors. She went to Brown University, where, she says, laughing, that black studies made her a socialist. “It’s not that the books convinced me,” she clarifies. Reading Frantz Fanon and Angela Davis, she recalls, “helped me name things that I already saw and felt. I always felt like it didn’t make sense in our world for there to be a small group of people who had so much money and then have people who are hungry and homeless and without health care. It never made sense. I couldn’t make it make sense even as a small child.”
Jordan sought and did not get NYC-DSA’s endorsement this time, but it’s clear (from her public statements and my conversations with DSA members close to the process) that both sides hope for a future relationship. (An encouraging precedent is Emily Gallagher, who didn’t get DSA’s endorsement for state assembly but went on to win her race and now works closely with the NYC-DSA slate of state elected officials and with the organization itself.)
Now divorced, Jordan experienced domestic violence in her marriage. I tell her I’m sorry to hear that. “I’m sorry, too,” she muses quietly, but it’s a pensive moment that passes quickly, like a small cloud on the sunny day. “What I’m grateful for, coming out of that experience,” she says, “is a new love of myself and a greater perspective on what love looks like and means.” “Radical love” has been a slogan of her campaign. “So when I say ‘radical love,’ I mean it not with love as sacrifice, which is what we often think of love as, and certainly the trap I fell into in my previous relationship. Where, to help you, I’m going to take something away from me. I see [love] as a true alignment and taking someone else as part of yourself. And then you’re one entity.” It’s a political philosophy as well as a guide to life.
Jordan knows public service isn’t just about big ideas. “I am a proud democratic socialist and abolitionist, and there’s a lot of really radical political ideas that I have,” she says. “And I want to give new ways of thinking a shot. At the same time, on a very basic constituent services level, we’re going to have a big change.” Constituent services is the work of helping people in the district get access to the services and resources of the existing government: getting the landlord to fix the toilet, helping people find vaccines or food, fixing potholes. (Jordan is not alone here: this has been a huge emphasis for Brooklyn’s state assemblywoman Phara Souffrant Forrest and other recently elected socialist officials.)
“I am looking at revolutionizing that for this district,” says Jordan. “Because we have not had that level of service, and we deserve it. When I talk to older Harlemites, in my family and in the community, people have been telling me that they don’t feel like there’s been hands-on service in that way since Adam Clayton Powell.” (Elected in 1941, Powell was New York City’s first black City Council member — Ben Davis, a leader of the Communist Party, was the second — and he went on to represent the neighborhood in Congress a few years later.)
Like any New York City socialist, Jordan knows her biggest foe is the real estate industry. Speaking about the displacement of longtime black and brown residents of her district, she emphasizes, “The displacement is unacceptable. And it’s very avoidable. And that’s the piece that I love to bring up as a socialist. It’s not that we need to pit the new against the old or the black against the white. We need to keep our eyes on the true enemy of the people: landlords and developers who have taken advantage of all of us in this community and pitted folks against each other to their own personal financial gain.”
Those elites in her district aren’t thrilled by her ascendancy. “When I say, ‘Disrupt the District’ [one of her campaign slogans], some people do get scared, because even though it’s ‘Disrupt the district with radical love,’ what we are disrupting are these old systems of oppression. And yes, I intend to fight for a different type of Harlem that is really for the people of Harlem, which means that a small group of folks who have had a lot of power and a lot of money will not have either anymore.”
She laughs gently and says, with light irony, “And that’s going to be okay.”