Open Letter from Kevin Powell to Black Leaders: ‘Stop Ghetto Dictatorships’

NOTE: This statement is also posted at Daily Kos:

Post-Congressional campaign STATEMENT by Kevin Powell

Friday, September 17, 2010

I first want to say thank you to God for giving me an incredible opportunity to run as a Democrat for Congress in 2010. I am so profoundly in love with Brooklyn, New York, with the residents of Brooklyn, because I truly believe in one Brooklyn, and I believe that Brooklyn is America with its great diversity and creativity and magic. Be it Russians in Starrett City, or Chinese immigrants or Puerto Ricans in Williamsburg, or African Americans and West Indians in Canarsie, or my Jewish sisters and brothers in Boerum Hill, I cannot begin to tell you how spiritually and emotionally uplifting this 2010 journey has been for me as a human being and as a man. Thank you, Brooklyn, thank you.

Indeed, I am so glad to have run for Congress, as I believe deeply in public service, in helping people, all people, to help themselves. We did not win the election but we did win in the hearts and minds of many Brooklynites and New Yorkers in general, and folks across America. There has been such a great outpouring of positive and affirming messages via phone, email, Twitter, and Facebook, that it is very very humbling, to say the least. I am invigorated by this love and support from everyday Americans. For we know that together we can make our country the land of opportunity and access for all.

Second, I want to thank my campaign staff, paid and unpaid, the ones who stuck with us to the very end, did not quit or make excuses, did their work and beyond, because they too believe in the power and nobility of public service. And because they really believed in our Congressional campaign from start to finish. I love each and every one of you, and I know I would not have made it across the finish line without your individual and collective strength and determination.

Next, I must say thank you very much to all the donors, voters, and supporters (both public ones and the silent, invisible ones) who helped us along the way. Suffice to say you were godsends to our Congressional campaign. Thank you for believing in me, and for having the courage to invest in a new kind of leadership for Brooklyn, and for America. A leadership that is honest, transparent, about practical solutions, and that puts people first, always.

Additionally, I must say this to my opponent, Congressman Ed Towns, his team, and his supporters: You may have won this time but it is so clear to so many that the days of your reign here in Brooklyn are very close to over. You’ve never had to work so hard to hold on to your seat, you’ve never had your nearly three decades of lazy leadership exposed so much and to so many, and you can no longer be invisible, silent, or otherwise missing in action to the people of Brooklyn’s 10th Congressional district, nor to the American people.

Mr. Towns, we expect you to earn the salary and great benefits our taxpayer dollars cover, and we expect you to think very seriously about your legacy as a Congressman in these final years of your Congressional life. When you and I crossed paths Tuesday night, election night, at that polling site near Starrett City, it was the first and only time we’ve ever had a one-on-one conversation, and I have lived in this community, in your district, for 20 years. You avoided debating me in 2008 (as you have avoided debating all opponents since you were first elected in 1982), and you avoided debating me again this year. And that is fine. It is clear you do not really believe in the very democracy that many sacrificed their lives for to achieve, including those in places like North Carolina where you were born and where some of the great battles of the Civil Rights Movement occurred.

But what was most telling about our conversation, Mr. Towns, is that all you could say is that you had not attacked me as I attacked you, and that you did not know me. First, let me correct you, sir: your team was relentless in attacking me personally, in the media, in the social networks, including many times very disrespectfully coming on to my Facebook page with the personal insults. We never did that a single time to you or your team or family. Never. What we did do was talk about your record. I never stepped into your personal life the way you did mine, although I could have, as there is much there to discuss. But we decided to be bigger than that, to talk about ideas and what we can do to help Brooklyn. Not once during this campaign did you offer any real vision for the future of Brooklyn, sir.

Moreover, Congressman Towns, it is a two-way street: you have to begin to respect and acknowledge the leadership that is not just your son, or your daughter, or your daughter-in-law, or someone you’ve handpicked to be in your Brooklyn circle. As I have stated before, what is most troubling for me and many others in Brooklyn is that within Black Brooklyn (as is the case throughout Black America) we have something I call “ghetto dictatorships.” In other words, you may have had good intentions when you first got into office, Mr. Towns, for I do believe you are, at your core, a good and decent man. But somewhere along the way you lost your way and your Congressional seat has become more about power and influence for yourself than about everyday people. This is particularly disturbing when we look at the poorest and most underdeveloped parts of Brooklyn’s 10th Congressional district: for example, huge sections of East New York and Bedford-Stuyvesant (especially inside the many housing projects in the district). These people need jobs, affordable and decent housing, afterschool programs, quality schools, senior centers,, and they need it now, Congressman Towns. Your job, as an elected official with access to federal dollars and a network you’ve created with nearly three decades in Congress, is to figure out basic solutions for the most vulnerable in the district by all available means. Earn your salary, Congressman Towns, and create a legacy, for it is not too late to do so, if you really care and if you really try.  If you do not, I and many others, locally and nationally, are going to very publicly hold you accountable every single time you fail to be a loud voice for the people of this district. I guarantee that.

So I end this statement by saying that I challenge you, Congressman Towns, and all Black elected officials in Brooklyn and across America, to cease participating in these ghetto dictatorships, to really look yourselves in the mirror and answer the question I asked you, Mr. Towns, which you could not answer on Tuesday night: What is your legacy going to be, what have you really done for the people of your district, not just for a handful of people lucky enough to have gotten a job or favor from you? That is the true mark of leadership, to touch as many lives as possible, to help as many people as possible to become self-empowered, with or without legislation, and in as many creative ways as possible. Anything less means we’ve done a grave disservice to whatever God we claim to believe in, a grave disservice to the history and the people that came before us, and a grave disservice to that sacred space we call public service.

Kevin Powell is an activist, writer, and an author of 10 books based in Brooklyn, NY. His email is

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Breakdown FM on All Day Play Episode #33 ‘Into the Lights We Come’

Click HERE to Listen to This Week's Breakdown FM

one hour

01- KRS-One ‘Ya Slippin’

02-Maestro ‘One man Band’

03-Schoolly D ‘Looking at my Gucci’

04-Queen Latifah ‘Evil that Men Do’

05-Monay ‘Choke on this’

06-Run DMC ‘Rock Box’

07-Lakim Shabbazz ‘One for the Trouble’

08-Dana Dane ‘Cinderfella’

09-YZ ‘Thinkingof a Master Plan’

10-Mark the 45 ‘800 Numbers’ (Public Enemy Davey D rmx)

11-EPMD ‘You Gots to Chill’ (Tone Loc Wild Thing Davey D rmx)

12-Richie Rich ‘Playboy’

13-Easki ‘Manuscript’

14-Eminem ‘Business’

15-Sam Sneed ‘Recognize’

16-Jurassic 5 ‘What’s Golden’

17-Low Profile ‘That’s the Way’

18-Public Enemy ‘Can a Woman Make a Man’

19-KRS-One ‘Why is That’

20-B-Legit ‘

second hour

01-Michael Franti ‘Music and Politics’

02-Gil Scott-Heron ‘Home is Where the Hatred is’

03-Quantic Soul Orchestra ‘The Conspirator’

04-The Roots ‘Dear God’

05-Mos Def ‘Life Time’

06-Mos Def ‘Kalifornia’

07-Dessa ‘Poor Atlas’

08-Dessa ‘Alibi’

09-Psalm One w/ Casual ‘Bitin & Freakin’

Today 1 in 7 Americans Live in Poverty-Let’s Count the Ways this is Impacting You and Me.

Yesterday the Census Bureau presented its annual report that showed how the poverty rate in the US had significantly risen. Today 1 in 7 Americans is living in poverty. Now the report has all sorts of numbers that may be of use to news reporters, but for the average person going about their business day-to-day, whatever numbers the report put out doesn’t even began to tell half the story. To start, we have a number, (1 in 7) that talks about people ‘living in poverty’, that number doesn’t include the folks who are part of the ‘working poor’. That’s where you really likely to hear tales of woe.

Nor does this report reflect those who simply fell off the proverbial grid. In other words, there are folks who been out of work for over a year, who have run out of unemployment benefits, lost their homes and have fallen through the cracks. Many have been led to believe their downfall is their fault and thus they have been too embarrassed to speak out and emerge from the shadows. How they’re making it may be stories onto themselves. I see folks like this everyday.

Many are living in their cars or couch surfing. Many will park their cars in their old neighborhoods where they can no longer afford to live, but know its safe and familiar. They keep their 30 dollar a month gym membership so they can shower and keep themselves up. They take advantage of the free wi-fi at coffee shops where they spend lots of time looking for jobs on trying sell things via E-bay or Craig’s list. Today’s homeless person is not some drunk or crackhead type of ‘undesirable’. He or she may be your next door neighbor trying to put up good appearances so as not to lessen their chances to bounce back.

The sad part is for many there will be no bounce back and thats where we have this major disconnect between the Have and Have Nots. Many who Have  are completely out of touch and hold a fairytale view of what’s going on with folks who are in economic peril. They think this is temporary and with a little more elbow grease things will turn around. Sadly at times this notion seems to be one held by our president.

When this Census Bureau economic report came out, I immediately thought back to a scathing video put out earlier this year by longtime scholar, author and Civil Rights leader Cornel West. On the one year anniversary of President Obama‘s presidency the Princeton professor took him to task for not talking about the plight of poor people. West an early supporter was very pointed in his remarks as he expressed his profound disappointment. He said the President Obama and his cabinet had ‘technocratic’ approaches for dealing with the poor folks and that it was far removed from what is really needed. He noted that the approach much be such where they as political leaders are in the trenches alongside the people, building with them from where they stood and not so detached.

Cornel’s remarks suggested that its one thing to look somberly into a camera and say ‘Many Americans are having a tough time’ as if this is a temporary thing like missing a car payment that could made up next period. It’s another thing to truly understand what its like when a family has run out of options and will be out on the streets with no skill sets on how to navigate and survive. West like many who work on the front lines for change understood that part of this disconnect complicating their challenge to Obama were seemingly high-profile, well to do media pundits and opportunistic politicians who would give lip service to the plight of poor people or use them as political footballs.

We saw this at the start of the summer when GOP Senators held up unemployment benefits for a few weeks as a way to send President Obama a strong message and ‘teach him a lesson’ about spending. It was also a way to get Democrats to cave into lobbying efforts from Wall Street hedge fund managers who wanted to see proposed tax increases included in the spending bill, disappear.

Senator Jim Bunning upheld payment benefits to the unemployed

We saw this play out in the spring when former Major League baseball player turned GOP Senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky did some outlandish procedural maneuvering to hold up benefits. He too wanted to send a strong political message to Obama. Sadly it came at the expense of ordinary folks who were just barely getting by. While Bunning and others tossed these political footballs around, many lost homes. Many had their electricity turned off. Many had their cars repossessed. What we saw on TV was Bunning standing firm and shaking his fist at the camera calling for economic restraint. What we didn’t see or hear too much were from those who were seeing the last of their world crumble.

We didn’t hear from the person who lost their job, lost their home and simply didn’t have enough deposit money for an apartment. We didn’t hear from the person who lost their job, fell behind on their bills and suddenly couldn’t get a job because their credit rating was bad. We didn’t hear from the person who was out of work and had been looking for a year only to discover that because he or she had been out for so long was now deemed undesirable in the job market.

When such viewpoints were brought up in public space, you always had news anchor with a million dollar salary be dismissive or some sort of pundit with lucrative speaking dates lined up telling us times are tough but they’ll soon get better.

Here in California we saw how Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger implement ‘furlough Fridays where all state workers would be required to take a certain number of unpaid days off. This was essentially a 10-15% decrease in salaries in a state notorious for having a still increasing high cost of living. The practice was put on hold and declared wrong. Workers were told they could get back pay and it gave thousands a sense of relief. Sadly that wasn’t good enough for the governor who fought the ruling and eventually got it overturned. So as this census Bureau report comes out showing 1 in 7 Americans are in poverty, Furlough Fridays return to places like California.

We’ve also seen this play out locally in the city of Oakland when last year the entire city council voted to raise parking rates and increase strict enforcement. It was later discovered that this enforcement would only apply to the city’s poor neighborhoods. This was taking place in a city with a 20% unemployment rate where its been estimated to be even higher in those poorer districts.

Oakland City Council member Jean Quan

During a recent mayoral debate the issue of aggressive parking enforcement came up and generated more buzz on outlets like twitter than any other topic brought up that night. When this was brought to one of the city council people who favored this plan, mayoral candidate Jean Quan she seemed oblivious to the hardships this was causing.

She went explained to me, how the city shouldn’t have free parking and seemed impervious as to what happens when an unemployed or under employed person in the city gets their car towed for unpaid parking ticket which many argue shouldn’t have been issued in the first place.

Columnist Zennie Abraham broke this down in a column he penned last year about Oakland’s parking sting operation. For those who don’t know, the city of Oakland like many other municipalities invested in a machine  that reads license plates and so late at night or in the wee hours of the morning parking enforcement officers scour the poor neighborhoods looking for cars to boot or tow.

This is a huge set back for those snared, one that has far-reaching consequences not just for the individual , but also for the small neighborhood businesses that person is likely to patronize. In other words if I own a business and customers suddenly has to scramble to pay 500-1000 for a towed car that’s potential revenue lost from businesses that could’ve circulated that dollar a few more times both in hiring and spending. Quan just didn’t get it.. But her view is reflective of that big disconnect. In her world its a fine. In someone else its a huge set back with far-reaching consequences.

The poverty report just gave us numbers but didn’t tell us about all the increased fees and hidden taxes besieging the poor and being explained away and justified by the rich. In other words, pay your parking tickets or credit car on time and avoid getting hit with exorbitant penalties.. that is of course if you can now afford to pay the bill in the first place.

Lastly this Census Bureau report doesn’t reflect those who are not living in poverty because they prematurely have dipped into their 401ks and have depleted their funds out of desperation.

I had a good friend tell me the other day that she had done everything she could to keep her family above water. She had cut backed, downsized, rented rooms and was working two jobs but none of this was enough with rapidly rising costs. Finally in a last-ditch effort she dipped into her retirement money. She explained it was a hard decision to make, but it was either that or be on the streets.  She said “The person in front of you today at age  40 is relieved, but that same person at age 60 will be miserable“. So 20 years from now we may have another economic crises when folks are holding their hands out having spent their life savings 20 years earlier.

My friend was one of the lucky ones because she actually had a 401k to dip into. Many weren’t as fortunate. Many saw their money disappear overnight at the start of the economic downturn hence that 401k was no longer an option. Many never had a 401k to begin with. It was reported the other week a record number of people were raiding their retirement funds just to survive.

The reports showed that many middle aged people were the ones dipping into their retirements, noting that for those over 35 who lost work, it was going to be extremely difficult to get back in the job market. Some of it was due to changing fields and new technology which made old skill sets un-marketable.

The more pervasive but unspoken reality is that many employers don’t wanna pay someone who earned their keep after trolling for 10-15 years at a job. Their logic is ‘Why pay them their worth, when they can dip into a younger work poll of people who were being urged to ‘work for free’ as interns as a way to get their foot in the door or to take considerably less pay under the guise of ‘paying dues’?

The other story not being spoken about was the fact that today many middle-aged folks are in this precarious position of being both caretaker and caregiver. In other words they are taking care of aging parents, many of whom divorced years ago, so they have mom who needs help on one part of town and a father living in another. At the same time they  are taking care of kids. If they’re middle-aged, they may have kids who are 10-14 which can be incredibly expensive. Those who have kids ready to go to college are looking at increased fees, some as much as 38% which was the case in California.

It was scenarios like this we aren’t hearing being addressed by Obama and many other politicians.  Its not being spoken about by those in mainstream media where the reporters and pundits are doing quite well for themselves. It isreality that with each passing day is rearing its ugly head and will in due time impact us all one way or another

Something to ponder

written by Davey D

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