“I Am Black Lives Matter”: Jamaal Bowman on How He’ll Bring the Movement to the House

Natalie Shure

STEPHANIE KEITH/GETTY IMAGES

A defin­ing moment in the 2020 New York Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry was picked up by a hot mic in the Bronx in ear­ly June. Rep. Eliot Engel — who since 1989 has rep­re­sent­ed the area strad­dling the city’s north­ern­most bor­ough and Westch­ester Coun­ty — begged Black Lives Mat­ter ral­ly orga­niz­ers to squeeze him onto the list of speak­ers. If I didn’t have a pri­ma­ry, I wouldn’t care,” Engel said in what he believed was a pri­vate moment. Engel lat­er tried to spin the remark, but the dam­age was done. The inci­dent was wide­ly regard­ed as evi­dence of Engel’s indif­fer­ence to the lived real­i­ties of his con­stituents, whose neigh­bor­hoods Engel report­ed­ly steered clear of as he rode out the pan­dem­ic in his Mary­land home.

The can­di­date who made Engel so des­per­ate for a pho­to op was Jamaal Bow­man, a 44-year-old pub­lic school prin­ci­pal, com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­er and self-iden­ti­fied demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist. He had nev­er run for office before but had spent years cul­ti­vat­ing a rep­u­ta­tion as a strong grass­roots edu­ca­tion orga­niz­er, cen­ter­ing his activism on issues dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly impact­ing poor stu­dents of col­or, like high-stakes test­ing and the school-to-prison pipeline. The Jus­tice Democ­rats, the pro­gres­sive elec­toral out­fit that famous­ly recruit­ed Rep. Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez (D‑N.Y.), recruit­ed Bow­man to run. (Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­date Cori Bush and Reps. Ilhan Omar [D‑Minn.], Ayan­na Press­ley [D‑Mass.] and Rashi­da Tlaib [D‑Minn.] also received sup­port from Jus­tice Democrats.)

Bow­man also won sup­port from the Work­ing Fam­i­lies Par­ty, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Eliz­a­beth War­ren and the New York Times. Estab­lish­ment-friend­ly politi­cians Gov. Andrew Cuo­mo and Hillary Clin­ton backed Engel.

After the police mur­der of George Floyd in Min­neapo­lis sparked out­rage across the coun­try, Bow­man became a reg­u­lar fix­ture at protests, con­nect­ing with would-be con­stituents over his own expe­ri­ences with police in Black com­mu­ni­ties — being beat­en with a night­stick at age 11 and, much lat­er, being held in lock­up over a missed turn sig­nal while driving.

I am Black Lives Mat­ter,” Bow­man says when I ask what the move­ment means to him. It wasn’t like the move­ment start­ed and all of a sud­den I became part of this move­ment. My life has been one embod­ied by the under­stand­ing that my life mat­ters as a Black man in this coun­try … I con­sis­tent­ly have to embrace the under­stand­ing that my life mat­ters just as much as any­one else’s.”

For sim­i­lar rea­sons, Bow­man is unsur­prised that edu­ca­tors like him have been such promi­nent polit­i­cal actors in the Trump era, as a wave of teacher strikes has swept the coun­try. Teach­ers have always been social jus­tice war­riors in their own right,” Bow­man says. Teach­ers who are con­scious of the social and polit­i­cal dynam­ics in their com­mu­ni­ties bring jus­tice into their class­rooms, and become orga­niz­ers across the coun­try.” In Bowman’s case, they can become mem­bers of Con­gress, too.

As a 501©3 non­prof­it pub­li­ca­tion, In These Times does not oppose or endorse can­di­dates for polit­i­cal office.

Natal­ie Shure is a Los Ange­les-based writer and researcher whose work focus­es on his­to­ry, health, and politics.
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