STORY / EVE SIMONSEN ILLLUSTRATIONS / JULIETTE TOMA
As more minds are opening to the truths that throughout history America has worked so hard to keep from its people, the gap between “ignorance is bliss” and “knowledge is power” is quickly narrowing. While some eyes have always been open to the political landscape, thanks to the last four years all anyone has had to do to have an oh-shit-our-country-is-trash-and-what-can-I-do-to-help-fix-it moment is wake up in the morning. But where does one start? With information more immediately at hand than ever, and outspoken beliefs ranging from complete abolition to “we’ve just gotta get Trump out,” it’s hard to see what the most obvious jumping-off point is. For Deesha Dyer, CEO and founder of social impact consulting firm Hook and Fasten and former Social Secretary at the Obama White House, this means we should focus on the full political spectrum. “We need to completely dismantle systems and start over again, but one of the ways to get there is to get the current president out of office. The damage he continues to cause daily, like hourly at this point — we can’t afford that anymore.”
While yes, Trump needs to GTFO and literally every-one needs to get out the vote for Biden/Harris on November 3rd, there also lies a recognizable truth that he’s not the entire problem. In fact, it feels right to say that if it weren’t for Trump’s presidency, the great unveiling of 2020 would probably not be happening — at least not in the way that it is. As painful as the realities of racism, capitalism and the division of American people are, this is where the most important work comes from — the most real, raw, and transformational time period that has maybe ever occurred. “People, who stick to the same model and system of operating a country are not thinking outside the box of, What other world is possible, knowing that this one was made without everybody in mind?” Deesha continues, “How do you fix an entire system with the foundation so cracked? At this point, it just needs to be torn down and built back up. It seems hard… but I’m learning how to imagine that.”
Thinking about hitting a compassionate reset button on the entire government might feel a little far-reaching. But a lesser-known area of the political system where real change just actually might be possible is coming into the limelight: local offices. Local government, Deesha believes, is “more important than what people give credit for. People don’t see the trickle-down effect, how the Senate, House, City Council, the school board — they don’t see the direct correlation to the community. These are the people that represent you in the halls of Congress, speaking on behalf of constituents. We don’t even know who they are, what they stand for, yet this is how people [in office] stay accountable. If residents have no idea who their City Council is, how can they be held accountable? We need to do a better job of educating people about how local politics directly affects the community and then I think people will be like, Oh I need to care about this.”
There’s a magnitude of an impact having the likes of AOC in Congress, following activists who stand up for justice for marginalized people or the current uprising sparking interest in looking deeper at how many tax dollars are, say, funding a city’s corrupt and brutal police department. Local politicians actually have the power to tear down the toxic layers of bureaucracy and focus on the things that make towns and cities stronger — education, healthcare, community.
Enter a surge of young, radical voices inserting themselves into the political game. Like many people, 22-year-old Crown Heights, Brooklyn native Chi (pronounced Chee) Osse (son of the late Reggie Osse, known professionally as Combat Jack), used the solitude that came with the COVID-19 shutdown as a time to work on himself. A young, gifted, Black, queer man with a background in the creative world, he was at the beginning stages of launching a fashion brand, but instead found himself coming out of quarantine protesting the murder of George Floyd.
“I was definitely a rookie protester. I showed up in shorts and I had a bag with water and chapstick. It was a nonviolent protest yet the response from law enforcement was… they were pepper spraying people, knocking people over with barricades, being very violent. Instead of it scaring me, it gave me a fire and a passion to continue going out. So I went out the next day, and the day after that and after that. And then I started to find my voice.”
Marching and getting loud in the streets of NYC led Chi to his next chapter: organically forming what has become one of NYC’s most-followed activist organizations. “Those initial days… it’s kind of a blur: wake up, protest, eat, sleep. None of us knew each other prior. We started seeing each other at protests and recognizing each other as leaders. We knew our voices would be louder if they were amplified together. And that’s when we became Warriors in the Garden. We needed each other, that solidarity, we needed that family in order to get through what is going on.”
Timing is everything: Amid the protests and calls to defund police departments in cities like Minneapolis, Portland and Seattle, NYC was facing a budget vote. Something that had historically been overlooked by the average person was now in the spotlight, and outreach to City Council members was at an all-time high — and it became a pivotal moment for Chi’s future. “Realizing the power that councilmembers have really made me do more research into who they were and their voting records, especially when it came to police reform. What is also online is who is funding these campaigns. And when you take a deeper look, it’s coming from large corporations, real estate companies, police unions. It gave me another push to do something about it. It’s another branch in the Black Lives Matter movement.”
Chi’s “do something” was made public in early June, when he announced his candidacy for City Council in NYC’s District 36, which, if he wins, will make him the youngest member ever. “Too often, individuals like myself are dissuaded from running for these positions of power. And I’m trying to engage people in politics because they need to be engaged. We can no longer be angry and dissatisfied with politicians that aren’t listening to us and chant that we should vote them out — we need to be talking about who we’re going to vote in. We can use our voice to change what’s happening. I’m hoping that I — no, I WILL BE — that source of inspiration to not only be a pariah for people to vote for but someone that they themselves feel like they can run campaigns as I do, progressives of all ages — for people to feel like they can run for public office.”
If one thing is becoming clearer, it’s that politics needs representation not only across race and gender but sexuality and age as well. People are realizing the power of having a voice in the office that matches theirs. What voters want are “people like them, that they can relate to,” says Paperboy Love Prince, who is on November’s ballot in NY’s District 7 for a seat in Congress. “A big part of [getting people to vote] is having interesting candidates. That’s why Trump is in office. People have given up on career politicians … people don’t want that anymore.”
For years Paperboy has not only been a student of the political field — they once interned for a congressman and was a delegate for former presidential candidate Andrew Wang — but also has used their voice as a rapper and performer, noting that their shows would double as voter registration sites and rallies. They’ve made platform issues into songs, such as “Cancel Rent,” as a way of connecting with new constituents through music first, then politics. They ran in the June primary as a Democrat and lost to incumbent Nydia Velasquez (who has held the seat for 27 years — term limits, anyone?!). But they succeeded in the very daunting process of petitioning enough signatures to make it on the general election ballot anyway. “One of the reasons we didn’t give up,” says Paper, “was the people. It was overwhelming to me how many people at the polls would tell me they were an immigrant or had just turned 18 and were voting for the first time because they believed in my message. By putting out love, I got so much of it back. I can’t quit.”
Paper’s platform calls for Medicare for all, universal basic income and a unique initiative called Democracy Dollars, which offers a $500 stipend paid from the federal and state governments that can only be used for citizens to donate to political campaigns. Taking absolutely no big money or corporate campaign donations has been both rewarding and challenging. Promoting family, community and unity, Paper’s team is 100% volunteer. They’ve gone head to head with campaigns that are fully staffed, who employ attorneys to do things like scouring petitions to find errors to validate throwing them out (small things like an illegible letter or a missing or incorrect apartment number can disqualify a signature). But running against a career politician has only fueled Paper with more of the heart and passion that they began with. “I want to help people, to do the best I can, and inspire others to pick up that mantle.”
Put simply, love is Paper’s platform and is actually the name of their newly minted independent party. “The Love Party is a way to show love to everyone. The other parties like to divide people; we use all those same reasons [of difference] to bring people together. It’s not easy, but people see me as a young Black man. And as a young Black man in New York, the last thing they think that I’m here to do is spread, love…”
We already have everything we need to create effective change: fresh voices with progressive ideas, plentiful city and state budgets that need reallocating, police departments that need defunding — as Chi points out, to put money “into things that matter more than police helicopters, armored vehicles, and riot gear.” A growing number of people are ready for this change and are willing to get a little uncomfortable in conversations while learning to unlearn, to fight against systems of oppression, and step into individual and community power.
Part of the path of this movement, as Deesha puts it, is that “people need to learn how the government works, how their votes work. We need to talk about race, Black lives, police force, economic and disability justice, and all these things at every level of government. It needs to be a regular part of the conversation to push toward equality and equity.”
To begin the painful yet transformational process of realizing that instead of lifting its people up, America the beautiful and its governing entities have always been about control and keeping people down, Paper believes that “we have to do more things to hold the system accountable, not just the individuals.” When asked for an impromptu freestyle with the inspiration being resilience, Paper quickly dropped the following bars:
When they think about Paperboy
They think about resilience
We spreading so much love so I know they gonna feel this
Ideas so great so the politicians steal them
The people been hurtin’ so we came through to heal ‘em
So much fake it’s hard to tell what real is…
I said so much fake it’s hard to tell what real is
2020 has already been a year for the books, and the rest of its outcome lies greatly in the hands and hearts of the collective us. This is a moment for narratives to be written, or rewritten. This is a time to awaken. To rise up together, for the greater good, for the children who we pave the way for, to vote like our lives depend on it, because… they do.