NEW YORK — Twenty-three years ago, New York City Council candidate Anthony Beckford faced long odds when he spoke out as a precocious preteen against a school redistricting plan in central Brooklyn.
From what he understood at age 12, the plan would split the district into two — one for the rich, the other for the poor. He gave an impassioned speech at a school board meeting and members voted against the plan. The message he took from that experience was simple: If he just spoke passionately and eloquently enough, he could accomplish anything.
“I’ve always had this strength within me but it was from the things that I was taught as a child and from the power that I realized that even as a child I had,” he said in an interview. “With me being older, I’m bigger. I’m louder now.”
The longtime activist is hoping he can prevail against Democratic incumbent Jumaane Williams, a rising star in local politics who won election four years ago with nearly 100 percent of the vote. But these facts haven’t kept Beckford from waging a $1,500 electoral insurgency as passionately as he can against an opponent with almost 20 times more money.
Beckford shares stories on social media about his work leading the Copwatch Patrol Unit in Brooklyn. The group is known for its aggressive monitoring of police officers. “Complacency is the slave mentality of those who choose to be slaves,” reads its recent recruitment, an approach Beckford has deployed in his campaign.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has steered the Justice Department away from Obama-era reforms to criminal justice. But in central Brooklyn, these ideas are seen as not far-reaching enough to many activists at the grassroots level. These are the people who pack the courts when police go on trial for shooting civilians. Or they are the activists who challenge the authority of police officers to curtail protests. Sometimes they run for elected office with popular ideas that eventually can gain the support of more centrist politicians.
Beckford wants to fire police officers who kill civilians, legalize marijuana rather than decriminalize it and end “broken windows” style policing. His lack of money and name recognition and his sometimes radical views may not win him a city council seat, but the message appealed to passersby as he canvassed alongside a busy intersection in the district on a Saturday afternoon in October.
An elderly woman stopped to hear Beckford describe his platform. Another woman turned back to the curb from the crosswalk to grab a leaflet. A 30-something man appeared surprised moments later to see the brochure’s photo matched the barreled-bodied man in front of him.
The dangers of policing were nothing new to one man who talked to Beckford about the school-to-prison pipeline.
“It’s a setup since Creation,” the man said.
“Mass incarceration is the new slavery. Broken windows is the new Jim Crow era laws,” Beckford replied.
His opponent Williams is not militant enough, Beckford said.
Williams, who did not respond to a request for comment, embodies a more pragmatic style of politics that has resulted in reforms to the city’s criminal justice system.
One bill he sponsored would eventually divert tens of thousands of people away from the criminal justice system; another was “ban the box” legislation that now prohibits city employers from asking job applicants about their criminal histories until after they’ve been offered a job.
These are still radical ideas in many cities within Middle America, but in Brooklyn they are the mainstream. A city council where only three out of 51 seats are Republican leaves plenty of space for incumbents to face challenges from the far left.
And that’s where Beckford continues to operate. He lives in the same apartment he did when he began his activism long ago. A degree from “Grunt University” — earned through his completion of Marine Corps basic training — hangs on the wall a few feet away from a 23-year-old letter.
That came from a school administrator who heard Beckford speak out against that rezoning plan 23 years ago. A single voice had stopped an unjust plan, wrote Harvey Garner, the community superintendent.
Beckford said in an interview that the recognition he received from this authority figure inspired him throughout the years that followed.
“It meant a lot to me,” he said.
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NEW YORK — Leyla Martinez didn’t expect to be accepted to Columbia University. She applied to demonstrate a lesson — not to limit himself — to her then-16-year-old son. She was 40, a single mother and formerly incarcerated, not the typical Columbia applicant.
“So, I started the application process and when I got to page five, here was the question — it was devastating to me,” Martinez said. She was asked if she had a previous criminal record.
“How did that have anything to do with my ability to perform well in this school?” Martinez asked. “Why did I have to bring that up when I was so much more than just that — that does not define who I am.”
She answered honestly and then something she never expected happened — she got in.
Now she works to ban the question and to encourage other formerly incarcerated people — especially youth — to never give up.
Martinez was one of several panelists at Justice 4 All, a summit convened by young leaders in New York City to address issues of inequality within the justice system. Held Tuesday at the Columbia University School of Social Work, it brought together more than 100 youth, youth advocates, community members and funders. Sponsored by the Ford Foundation, the Center for Justice at Columbia University and the Fortune Society, the summit covered steps young community members can take to help build safer communities, improve police accountability and increase transparency within the justice system.
Martinez, now a junior majoring in human rights, has petitioned Columbia’s administration to stop asking about prior criminal records during the application process. She hopes her story will inspire young people to never give up.
“My whole thing is so the kids can know whatever mistake they made, it was not the end, it is not who they are,” she said.
Khalil Cumberbatch, 35, also a panelist, agrees. Incarcerated in his early 20s, he served 6½ years in the New York state prison system. He was released in 2010, found a job, started a family and was enrolled in college when he learned he was being targeted for deportation.
Like Martinez, Cumberbatch was persistent in his commitment to succeed. He also credits help from the Fortune Society and others with helping him survive both the criminal justice and the immigration system.
“I am not exceptional, the outcomes that I received are exceptional, but the reality is I am the outcome of exceptional opportunities,” he said.
“We should be giving those same opportunities ... to people who have similar stories to mine,” he added.
Cumberbatch now works with JustLeadershipUSA, a nonprofit dedicated to halving the U.S. correctional population by 2030.
“It should be easier for sure to give someone a job, but also it should be easier to give someone access to education than it should be to put them in a jail cell,” he said.
To illustrate systemic racism, young people from the Fortune Society, directed by performers from the Theatre of the Oppressed NYC, performed “Profiled & Exiled.” In the performance, a young man with minor convictions on his record experiences discriminatory hiring practices, racial profiling by police and an overwhelmed and inefficient justice system.
Audience members were then invited re-enact scenes showing how young people can empower themselves by knowing their rights.
“In the end, what’s really needed is youth empowerment,” said Cumberbatch, adding that empowerment includes accepting that people make mistakes.
Stanley Richards, executive vice president for the Fortune Society, said it is that acceptance that gives those in attendance the power to change lives.
“Our job is to see the beauty in people before they see it in themselves,” said Richards, who served as the master of ceremonies for the summit.
Martinez said she wants others to see that beauty as well. Deciding to accept Columbia’s offer of admission was the best decision of her life, she said, in part because she can educate the academic community about the challenges facing those with prior involvement in the justice system.
“I have a lot of people who never even considered formerly incarcerated persons who are now rooting for me,” she said, adding that she hopes that translates into more opportunities for those who are formerly incarcerated.
“These are future leaders of corporations and the country,” she said, referring to Columbia students. “They now have a different view of what formerly incarcerated is and when they’re about to hire someone, they’ll think ‘Oh, wait — this is what Leyla was talking about.’”
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