From Zero to Cuomo’s Desk in Two Weeks

The Full Account of How We Repealed 50A

YKW
YKW
Jun 15, 2020 · 15 min read
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A bold, and necessary, first step.

As some of you may know, Tiffany Le and I have spent the better part of the past two weeks organizing an effort to Repeal 50-A in New York State. What we initially expected to be only a few hundred constituents reaching out to their legislators about criminal justice reform has been no less than a tidal wave of public support. We have been absolutely blown away. Within just about three days, we went from zero to 100,000 and Karlie Kloss and Bella Hadid publicly posting on Instagram stories about this campaign. Within 10 days, a package of reform bills passed the New York Legislature. Within two weeks, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed those bills into law.

A truly blistering pace for institutional change.

This was my first real experience in policy advocacy — my day job is being a data scientist at a healthcare startup — but I wanted to share my experience and learnings as we all push for more policy changes.

Here’s how it happened.

Week 1 — The Momentum

The weekend of Sunday, May 31, 2020 was somber. Nationwide protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death spilled into the national consciousness onto a canvas of coronavirus and economic distress. The Sunday Review for the New York Times declared, in a fallen headline: “The World is Broken.”

It really did feel like it.

Tiffany and I spoke a bit on the phone on Monday. I asked to see her foster kittens, and we spoke a bit about the current events. There was so much ambient energy, I thought — people were sharing all of these stories on Instagram about awareness and understanding, but there were few calls to push for any fast, concrete changes. It was strange, because I felt like people desperately wanted to do something actionable.

As she showed me the kittens, Tiffany brought up that Governor Cuomo had just days earlier gone on record supporting the repeal of 50-A, an anti-transparency law in New York that hides police disciplinary records from the public. At the time, New York was only one of three states that had anything like this.

It was the perfect opportunity.

We decided to spend a few hours of our Monday evening doing some policy research and crafting nice-looking slides on Sketch. Tony DiBlasi, who works with me at Oscar Health, suggested we use ResistBot, which allows folks to text a nifty “RISTUS” to 50409 and sign a petition in favor of repealing 50-A + (more importantly) send a letter to their particular state representatives in less than a minute. We posted at 8pm and saw a bit of traction. I went to bed that night with maybe 250 on the petition. I thought that this campaign would be pretty successful if we ended up with 1000 constituents reaching out by the end.

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A few of the slides on the Insta post

When I woke up: 550+.

Soon, the pace started to pick up. 550 became 1000. 1000 became 2000. Tony — the inimitable data scientist that she is — remarked that our campaign, somehow, has achieved low r_0 virality. Friends of mine across multiple social circles shared it. 5000; 10000; 15000. I call Sasha Friedman, the project manager of my team (and also my very good friend), and tell her that I have to take work off. I respond to every single Instagram DM reaching out to me. Tiffany enlists her roommate Justine Deutsch to help with design; we contemplate creating Twitter accounts, then ultimately settle on creating @votercollective. Frances adroitly DMs insta accounts with significant followings, and we land on @starterpacksofnyc. I jokingly give William Greenlaw, my former roommate now at Harvard Law School, a call and ask him to be our General Counsel. He declines, because he is not a lawyer and he wants you to know that he is not allowed to give legal advice.

We ended the night with nearly 30,000 constituents reaching out to their representatives in a little more than a single day.

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Celebrating the shares

It was tough to go to bed that night. I didn’t want to go to sleep. Just 48 hours ago, everybody was searching for answers; two days later, with a call to action from @barackobama, the constituency was electrified. Everybody wanted to DO something, and we gave people an option to work toward something that could in fact happen in a matter of days. Repealing 50-A was that tangible goal. It was, for the startup folks out there, a legislation-movement fit.

We woke up next morning to a tweet from State Senator Brad Hoylman.

I convene a conference call with Tiffany and Tony. The pace at which this was picking up was remarkable. We needed to add fuel to the fire.

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Traction was already pretty good that morning. Things really picked up when Kourtney Kardashian posted an Instagram story of the Brooklyn NAACP version of the Repeal 50-A campaign. Karlie Kloss and Bella Hadid followed up later in the afternoon. I manage to convince my friend Nikitha Rai — an expert in New York politics — to help us leverage this momentum into institutional pressure. By the end of the day, we were in conversations with political advocacy groups such as Change the NYPD (aka Communities United for Police Reform). Celebrity involvement meant that 50-A was going to reach an entirely new cohort of Instagram users, and we had to take advantage of that immediately. When all was said and done, about 60,000 constituents signed the petition, which meant that over 100,000 letters were sent to representatives (one for Assembly, one for State Senate) in a single day.

Milestone. Repeal 50-A had become the largest state-based campaign on ResistBot, ever.

We got in touch with Jason Putorti, the founder of Resistbot, and told him we’d continue to coordinate in the next few days.

By the end of the week, various elected officials have tweeted out their support for Repealing 50-A, and even Governor Cuomo, on Friday, tweeted out his support for an entire package of police reform bills.

Friends started sending photos and videos of “Repeal 50-A!” chants at protests and rallies. We began to receive word that the music industry might be coming up with something as early next week. This is when we concluded that, though more work needed to be done to end police brutality, at the very least ”Repeal 50-A” had become the well-defined, household measure that everybody thought of when they thought of police reform.

Week 2 — The Politics

With a week of hype-building behind us, it was time to turn public pressure into votes. Let’s first take a look at the legislative (& historical) backdrop. (You can read a more detailed version on the Queens Eagle here.)

  • 2014: Eric Garner. The NYPD repeatedly cited 50-A in its refusal to disclose the disciplinary history of Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who choked Eric Garner to death on Staten Island and was fired five years later. New York sees, perhaps for the first time, 50-A being used to shield police from accountability in a major case.
  • 2015 to early 2018: coalitions of activists and progressive politicians attempt to start pushing for a repeal of 50-A. Assembly member Danny O’Donnell was one of them. Repeal efforts consistently run into opposition in the Republican-controlled NY State Senate.
  • November 2018: Democrats take the NY State Senate, thereby establishing Democratic majorities in both the Assembly and Senate.
  • 2019: first major campaign to repeal 50-A with Democratic majorities makes headway, but ultimately does not repeal 50-A. The spotlight grows brighter on the NY SAFER Act, a package of police reform bills pushed by advocacy groups such as Communities United for Police Reform.
  • 2020: George Floyd is killed. NY legislature, as well as Cuomo, signal that they are open to police reforms.

What’s clear is that the idea of repealing 50-A — and, for that matter, broader efforts to take up police reforms — is not new. The framework was already there, and we were able to apply pressure to a set of changes that had already been well-thought out. This is a testament to all the organizations out there — aptly summarized in this list of voting & supporting member organizations at Communities United for Police Reform — that have been at the forefront of this area for the longest time, often unacknowledged. They deserve our utmost appreciation for doing this work.

Heading into the weekend, we knew that the legislature was likely to take up police reforms in the week after our campaign started. Upon Nikitha’s counsel, we began identifying the swing voters critical for the passage of a repeal bill: the 6 Long Island Democrats who tend to vote as a block, and other senators out in the mid-Hudson Valley, north of New York City.

Just one of many. I have a whole playlist.

At this point, we knew we were good on the publicity front: the music industry was set to go public with their support of #Repeal50A on Monday afternoon, and entire marches in New York City were being planned on the basis of Repealing 50-A (in one particular scenario, involving State Senator Jackson himself). A particular contact informed us that the bill was passing through the Codes Committee on Monday. Nikitha assured us that, with Sen. Jamaal Bailey — the cosponsor of the repeal bill in the Senate — chairing the Codes Committee, the bill was likely to go to a floor vote on Tuesday. Now was the time to make a final push as legislators take center stage in the coming days.

Earlier in the week, Jason at ResistBot told us that it was possible to send a single follow-up text to everyone who had previously signed a petition in swing districts. Tiffany sent a list of the districts that we wanted targeting, and we dropped the text on Sunday night. I followed up with leadership at Oscar Health, where I was personally trying to push for a public statement in support of repealing 50-A. If we can get constituents, businesses, public figures, and elected officials all pushing for legislative action on the eve of the floor vote, the pressure might get us across the finish line.

Of course, plenty was already going on in (virtual) Albany that weekend. Ever since email inboxes started flooding on the previous Tuesday, senators (and swing senators in particular) have probably been in a thicket of negotiations — who ends up with a committee seat in exchange for a vote? Who gets something in return to justify to their moderate constituents that it was worth voting for repeal? It’s easier to justify voting for repeal when there’s massive public pressure, so we were hoping to make the calculus more favorable in the final minutes. Nikitha managed to pull, seemingly from a magic hat, a call with a prominent figure in the Assembly — and confirmed that we were on the right track.

Monday, June 8, 2020. I thought I’d be going back to normal work, but we were glued to our screens by the afternoon. Sen. Jamaal Bailey announces that the bill made it through the committee and will be put up to a vote on the Senate floor the very next day. The moment that so many organizers have been waiting for since Election Day 2018 was finally happening.

Here’s how Danny O’Donnell put it:

Ok, this tweet was epic.

This guy has been trying to do this for years. Before that, this Assembly member took 5 years to pass marriage equality through the legislature. I can’t imagine how he felt at that point.

Just in time, Mario — Oscar Health’s CEO — publishes an open letter on LinkedIn, addressed to leaders of the Legislature and Governor Cuomo, forcefully pushing for repeal as a matter of public health. I was heartened to see that Oscar Health is actually willing to put its reputation on the line as a New York company to actually weigh in on something that would lead to institutional change.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020. I attend some morning meetings, then quickly pivot to the Senate live-stream on nysenate.gov. It’s time.

After some time when Senator Bailey yielded the floor for cross-examination, senators present in Albany rose in turn to explain their vote. It’s worth watching some of them in full:

  • Senator Bailey, who sponsored this bill, casting the final vote: 2:25:31. If you watch no other speech, watch this one.
  • Senator Hoylman, who first posted that tweet about the emails: 1:03:40
  • Senator Ramos, a Latina voice representing Elmhurst: 1:11:50
  • Senator Harckham, representing Westchester, in the Hudson Valley: 1:16:13
  • Senator Sepulveda, a Latino voice representing the Bronx: 1:42:09
  • Senator John Liu, representing Queens (incl. Flushing), with a forceful defense of the moment. 1:52:43
  • Senator Myrie, who was pepper sprayed the previous week at a protest in Brooklyn: 2:16:06

You can tell that many of these senators have been waiting for a long time to give a speech like this.

A moment years in the making — and just like that, the NY Senate approves the repeal. The Assembly follows suit. The biggest hurdle had been overcome. The repeal bill — and two other major police reform bills — was heading to Governor Cuomo’s desk.

It’s worth mentioning the impact of the other bills: the chokehold ban is fairly straightforward, and the STAT Act is cool, but the special prosecutor bill is actually very important because it allows the Attorney General to investigate and prosecute police killings and misconduct. As per Nikitha & Will — New York has a history of electing really gutsy attorney generals who aren’t afraid to hold the powerful accountable. The current attorney general happens to be the first African-American ever elected to the position, Letitia James. I can’t think of a better person in a position to hold the NYPD accountable going forward.

Governor Cuomo signed the bill Friday, June 12, 2020.

Congratulations, New York — we are the first state in the nation to pass substantial changes in police reform in the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. It’s only a first step, for sure, but it’s a major step forward for basic transparency and accountability in the state.

How Movement Politics & Pragmatic Negotiations Interact

I had a conversation with my good friend Justin Szasz about a week into this project. The screenshots are on the left hand side below.

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I think he’s right.

Our experience in the past two weeks was an account of how popular pressure translates into institutional decisions. The wave of momentum from the first week gave leeway for elected officials to take a stronger stance than they otherwise might have — and nowhere is that more critical than the decision makers in moderate districts such as Long Island and Hudson Valley. For local representatives, having a thousand constituents from your suburban district reach out is a big deal — and to know that they represent a group of people who will stand with you as you make that controversial decision is absolutely necessary. You know the PBA (police union) is going to attack you for your upcoming election. You’ve seen the protests in New York City, and you know that the general sentiment is there. But the outreach is the confirmation of that sentiment, and our campaign, that confirmation came directly from folks inside your district. That matters.

One implication for this dynamic is that electoral strategy must play a larger role in these protest movements. There must be a clearer connection made to the dynamics of protests changing policy. This year, the protests represented a broad swath of people, which is more likely to translate into a broad swath of voters. If the protest movement is broad and cross-demographic, then you might worry a lot more about your re-election chances or primaries from the left.

Another implication is that we have a great opportunity to expand the coalitions that can play into those electoral strategies. Right now, a supermajority of Americans support the protests. This means that we have the opportunity to engage with folks who aren’t familiar with the movement, but are inclined to support its policy aims. We must ensure that, as we approach these potential supporters, we lay out our arguments in an inclusive (i.e. not sanctimonious) manner. I find digestible policy to be one such manner in which we can clearly communicate our goals, without excessive judgement.

A final takeaway is that we need strategists as well as activists. As our good friend Barack acknowledged, there is so much energy out here right now in America — but that energy won’t do anything by itself. This means that when people at the nexus of policy, activism, and media see a legislation-movement fit (usually in the form of a policy framework that smart advocacy groups have spent years thinking about), you need to speak up. What we’ve shown here is that you don’t necessarily need to run for office to change policy (though I encourage you to do so if you’d like, because we need fresh voices in electoral politics) — sometimes, a shareable Instagram post can lead to change. Long-term momentum, in the form of concrete policy changes, is what will fundamentally improve the lives of disenfranchised Americans in this nation.

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Protests work, but they don’t work alone.

Just as the activists of the Civil Rights Movement produced the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, we each have an opportunity to engage our fellow citizens online to channel our frustration into lasting political change. I invite you to join us, and together — with the organizers in the streets, and the elected officials across the country — we will build a better, more just nation for all of us.

I’d like to thank a few people who organized with and supported me through this campaign. The final count of constituents who sent an email to their state legislator was close to 146,000, and we wouldn’t have been anywhere close to that were it not for your efforts.

First and foremost, ResistBot. This campaign would not be possible without ResistBot. You could use ResistBot to kick start your own campaign; please consider giving them a donation.

To my fellow organizers: Tiffany, Tony, Nikitha — thank you. I cannot thank you enough.

To the folks who helped us out on our campaign: Justine & design crew, thank you. William Greenlaw, I’m still a bit salty you didn’t accept our offer of general counsel, but thank you too. Linda, you are amazing and we definitely owe you Japanese treats. Joel is a real one, and so is Ian.

To the editors that made this article better: thank you Evan, and thank you Jessica!!

To everyone who listened or signed our petition early on: Frances, Cindy, Emily, Kate B, Kate Cavell, Selin, Jake (Pennypacker rise up), Zeeshan, Katie, Shirley, Cassie, Sasha, everyone in a meeting that I somehow attended in the past two weeks, and more people than I can name — thank you, thank you, thank you.

We’ve taken a very important first step here, and I’m hoping it’s going to be one of many more to come. I hope you will join us on the next one.

August Update

Institutional changes have impact. They matter because the impact continues even after the activities on social media and in public spaces stop. Here’s what we’ve seen — we’re hoping that such transparency will set us on a path to greater accountability, and in the future, better public safety.

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The ProPublica Database, published shortly after 50A was repealed.

Visible Hands

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YKW

Written by

YKW

Yeah, it’s my personal one.

Visible Hands

Visible Hands grew out of our impatience with the sentiment of “business as usual.” We share business news and a call to action that includes our multiple stakeholder roles in society: consumer, investor, employee, and citizen.

YKW

Written by

YKW

Yeah, it’s my personal one.

Visible Hands

Visible Hands grew out of our impatience with the sentiment of “business as usual.” We share business news and a call to action that includes our multiple stakeholder roles in society: consumer, investor, employee, and citizen.

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