New York’s Samelys López Has a Radical Proposal: Poverty Shouldn’t Be a Death Sentence

López, a left-wing challenger running for Congress, discusses disaster capitalism, defunding police and how she’s taking on the Democratic establishment.

Malaika Jabali

Samelys López is running in a crowded field to succeed Rep. José Serrano in New York’s 15th District. (via Facebook / Samelys López)

In New York’s 15th District, which covers the West and South Bronx, progressive Samelys López is running in a crowded field to succeed incumbent Democratic Rep. José Serrano.

"This district needs representation that’s going to unapologetically be on the side of workers."

López — who was born in Puerto Rico and raised in the South Bronx — has navigated many worlds within New York City, from living in the city’s shelter system after her Afro-Dominican mother endured domestic violence, to working as a staffer at Serrano’s office, receiving a Master’s degree in Urban Planning at New York University, volunteering for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign and later co-founding the grassroots group Bronx Progressives.

With civil unrest growing in the wake of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of the police, along with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, it’s a tumultuous time for Americans all over the country, but perhaps even more so in New York’s 15th Congressional District, which is the poorest in the country and whose constituents are almost entirely people of color.

To combat the inequities facing the district, López is running on a broad left-wing platform, including Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, expansive labor rights and a Homes Guarantee to vastly increase affordable and public housing. And she’s been endorsed by a string of progressive heavyweights including Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Working Families Party and the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. She faces a wide field of opponents in the June 23 primary.

I spoke to López as protests over Floyd’s killing were still taking place in New York City. With sirens echoing on the call, we talked about disaster capitalism, defunding police and her challenge to the Democratic Party establishment. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In what ways has Covid-19 changed what we think is politically possible?

Right now people understand more than ever before that the current system that we have needs to change because it is definitely not working for us. The voters that we speak to understand that, and a lot of them want single-payer healthcare. They understand that healthcare should not be tied to whether you have a job or not. And this moment offers a perfect explanation for fighting for these things. Because people are dying.

People are being saddled with debt because they don’t have proper access to healthcare. And when they go to the hospital, it’s a death sentence in a way, because if you’re poor and don’t have access to healthcare and you go to the hospital, you’re probably going to be paying that bill for a long time. And that’s going to impact your food on the table, your ability to pay the rent. So people understand intrinsically that the system that we have now is not working for them — and that it puts profit over people’s pain. So now is a good time to fight for transformative change.

Can you talk a bit about the issues facing your district?

The 15th is known to be the poorest urban congressional district in the entire country. It’s [primarily] black and brown people that live here. There’s a very big immigrant population. Right here in the district, we’re at the center of the coronavirus epidemic. I happen to live near a hospital, and I hear sirens every other day.

There are a lot of people here without jobs, and coronavirus has accelerated a loss of jobs. There have been issues in this community for a long time, there have been dire economic challenges that we’ve experienced historically. There has been environmental racism and injustice here going on for decades. That stems back from the time of Robert Moses, who was an urban planner from the 1950s and 60s that basically cut up the Bronx. And as a result of that, a lot of our black and brown communities in the Bronx live by highways, and that’s why we have some of the highest levels of asthma and respiratory illnesses in the country. So it’s a whole host of issues that are going on in this district, and that’s just a sliver.

Even though this congressional district is the poorest, it’s the one most heavily dominated by Tammany Hall machine-style politics that stems back over 100 years ago. The establishment comes in with more resources and more money because they’re not thinking about rejecting real estate contributions or PAC money. A lot of people feel that’s not democratic.

This district needs representation that’s going to unapologetically be on the side of workers. And a way I plan to ensure that is by continuing to reject real estate developer funding, corporate PAC funding and pharmaceutical funding. I can fight for our collective goods and spaces in the form of them being universal human rights in the community and in the country. When you look at our opponents and you look at how they’re raising money, they don’t necessarily represent transformative change.

How do these issues relate to New York City’s criminal justice system?

You have corporate Democrats running in this race promoting jails in our community. There are some people in their role in the City Council, for instance, who voted for $11 billion for jail building [as part of the city’s plan to close Rikers Island, which had been reduced to about $9 billion] when that money could have been reinvested in reparations for black communities, education, housing, parks and our collective goods and spaces.

I feel like a lot of the people running in this race, especially corporate Democrats, do not have the moral authority to represent this district, especially in light of what’s happening all over the country with the unrest that we’re seeing over our racist and inept criminal justice system. A lot of [those candidates] promoted more cops being on the street and aren’t taking firm positions on the importance of defunding police departments across the country, defunding the NYPD in particular, and demilitarizing the police. All of those things can create savings that we can use to reinvest in our communities and prevent people from ending up in [police encounters] to begin with.

I think that as a movement, we need to redefine what progressivism means. Because right now, that term has been whitewashed, and it’s been co-opted by capitalistic forces that are pushing our working-class communities away from our neighborhoods.

You have mentioned some challenges that would typically hinder a woman of color from entering a political race. What encouraged you to run anyway?

It was really people in the grassroots space that reached out and they’re like listen, you have been fighting alongside the trenches with us. You’ve been with us when we all took on the Independent Democratic Conference [a conservative Democratic coalition that formed in the NY State Senate].’ Or they’d mention my organizing for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez when she was first running for Congress and getting signatures and knocking on doors in the face of the entire political establishment being against her at that time. We were also able to organize for pro-tenant legislation that hadn’t been seen in New York State for decades.

So I think that in terms of organizing and electoral politics, it’s really important to have both — to have the movement that’s pushing for the demands and steering us morally and also having the right political conditions where you have leaders in politics that are going to be receptive to the demands of the movement.

You mentioned the grassroots organizing that encouraged you to get involved in politics. It’s often the other way around, where there’s some sort of designated leadership that assigns people, and they pick and choose who should run and where. But yours is a more ground-up approach.

Oh yeah, definitely. And we’ve been educating people about the structure of the Bronx Democratic Party, and we’ve been trying to democratize the local political process. These things have historically been kept hidden. Like, how do you get on the ballot? What is a county committee? What is a district leader? What is the structure? How can you plug yourself in if you want to express yourself politically in your local party?

Given your urban planning background, what are some ways the built environment is exposing New York City’s systemic racism, especially in light of the coronavirus?

There’s a lot of disaster capitalism that’s happening all over. As it relates to education, housing, and all these storefronts being closed. It’s creating conditions of blight to justify the privatization of our housing stock, to justify buying up all these properties, and to eventually kick us out and bring in big box retailers.

We can fight for things like universal housing as a human right to make sure that it’s built with people in mind, and that we target speculative land practices that artificially increase the cost of rent, and have a national tenant Bill of Rights to give tenants more of a sense of ownership and agency, whether they’re renters or small property owners struggling to get by.

Right now, we need to fight to make sure that we organize our economy in a way that centers people and not lobbyists and corporate interests, because disaster capitalism always rears its ugly head in moments of crisis. And we’ve seen this cycle before. But we still have a shot to reverse it.

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Malaika Jabali is a public policy attorney, writer and activist. Her writing on politics, culture and race has appeared in Essence, Jacobin, The Intercept, Glamour and Current Affairs.
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