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 June 18, 2020

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.

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.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH