Toward A Moral Agenda for New York City

At a time when people of color, immigrants, women, and religious minorities are under attack from our federal government, we need local officials — our mayor, our district attorney, city councilors, and others — to act as a barrier against the worst of what Washington, D.C. rains down on us.

In the face of immoral policies at the federal level, a multi-faith, citywide coalition of 30 faith-based social justice organizations and 90 congregations came together in the “Faith Over Fear” campaign to move a moral agenda at the local level. A moral agenda is rooted in the belief that every human being is made in the image of the divine and deserves the same access to opportunity, safety, and full participation in civic life.

By everyone, we mean everyone — without exceptions. It means standing with the Dreamer who is the valedictorian of her class in equal parts with the undocumented immigrant who never graduated from high school. It means showing up for people who are shot by police, whether they have been arrested before or never had a scrape with the law. A moral agenda means no one is beyond the help or hope of our communities.

In the 2013 mayoral election, only eight percent of New Yorkers voted. We found that disenfranchisement unacceptable. For the 2017 primary elections, we undertook a bold initiative to look for the people who have been overlooked, who haven’t traditionally voted, with a focus on young people of color. We made 121,851 attempts to reach people through door-to-door canvassing, phone calls, and texting. Our texting campaign had an unusually high engagement rate — almost 10 percent of those contacted by text responded to our message. By election day, we had secured pledges from 12,001 people that they would turn out at the polls.

Too often, it’s been the case that candidates do not speak to the issues that could really make life better for people, especially those who have been left behind. The Faith Over Fear campaign helped change the conversation by holding forums where candidates were asked to commit to a moral agenda, including police accountability, religious freedom, immigrant justice, affordable housing, and the other issues that matter most to our communities.

Like a growing number of counties across the United States who have rejected “law and order” incumbents and replaced them with reform-minded district attorneys, we recognized the pivotal role that prosecutors can play in addressing excessive police force, mass incarceration, the criminalization of poverty, and other issues that affect people on the margins. Five out of six candidates for Brooklyn District Attorney responded to the survey for our voter guide, which pressed them on issues such as dropping cash bail, reducing the number of people who are sent to jail, and protecting immigrants from being deported for minor offenses.

Three hundred people attended our D.A. candidates’ forum and every candidate was present. The question that was at the top of many people’s minds was how the next D.A. was going to prevent and respond to police brutality. I grew up in the Pink Houses, where Akai Gurley, an innocent black man was shot and killed by a New York City police officer in 2014. His killer was convicted of manslaughter and official misconduct, but the prior Brooklyn District Attorney recommended that he be sentenced to community service, and the judge accepted the D.A.’s recommendation. Akai Gurley cannot get his life back, but we can, as a community, work to try to reduce the chances that other families will have the same experiences.

Acting D.A. Eric Gonzalez, who won the Democratic primary and does not face a challenger in November, has agreed to meet with us within his first 100 days. We must hold him and other officials accountable for making sure that the policies of the past — broken windows policing, stop and frisk, racial profiling, and other practices — stay in the past. D.A. Gonzalez has begun a number of promising initiatives, such as collecting data to identify disparities in the criminal justice system and hiring full-time immigration attorneys to decrease the chances that low-level offenses lead to deportations, and this progress should be supported.

Nationwide, only about 30 percent of people born in the 1980s believe it’s essential to live in a democracy. In contrast, about 75 percent of those born in the 1930s thought so. If those figures are accurate, it means that we have to fight much harder to give everyone a stake in our city and our country’s future. The work is ours to do and it begins in our own neighborhoods.