At first glance, wearing a black tie and pants with a white shirt, Jomo Williams is reminiscent of a lawyer from England. While not a practicing lawyer, Williams did study at John Jay Criminal Justice College in New York City. His time there directed him towards social activism and today he is on the ballot for the District 7 City Council seat on the Upper West Side. What is striking, however, is not his candidacy, but the platform he is campaigning on. Williams is running as a Black Lives Matters Party candidate.
A Black American born in Manhattan and raised in Southside Jamaica, Queens, Williams, 55, is running on the BLM platform because he wants to address the issues of racism and the criminal justice system and believes he can make a difference in politics. Williams said he’s also had his own negative experience with police, which inspired him to run for office.
Born as a response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin case in 2013, the Black Lives Matter movement is now a global network with more than 40 chapters. The death of George Floyd in May 2020 at the hands of a white police officer Derek Chauvin brought increased attention to the movement. BLM has grown from a social movement to a political platform, with candidates campaigning on BLM issues in local elections.
Hawk Newsome co-founded Black Lives Matter of Greater New York. “The work that we do is inherently political, fighting to change policy, fighting to change laws,” he said.
When asked what BLM is fighting for, Newsome does not mince his words. “Black Lives Matter is fighting for the liberation of black people. A life free from oppression, from government and corporations.”
A Political Action Committee under the name Black Lives Matter PAC was filed in October 2020. According to a financial summary filed with the Federal Election Commission, the PAC has raised $1,383,377 dollars since inception. Disbursements receipts show the PAC is primarily used for supporting Democratic candidates and causes.
Despite significant fund-raising, the BLM is not a registered political party in New York. According to a NYS law passed in April 2020, an independent party’s candidate must garner over 130,000 votes in gubernatorial and presidential elections to be defined as a political organization under NY State Electoral laws. However, a candidate may run in an election as an “independent nominee” under an “independent body.”
Newsome is not in favor of the BLM morphing into a political party. “I think there’s too much baggage with BLM for that to ever possibly work,” he said. Still, Newsome says the decentralized structure of the movement functions well.
“All of us are operating under the same modus operandi. We’re still operating under the same premises,” he said. “We share the same beliefs; we just have different strategies.”
Williams is running on a BLM platform because his campaign resonates with the core message of the movement; however, he does not endorse every message related to BLM, he said. Despite his campaign literature - which states Williams is running as a BLM Party candidate - he is not officially affiliated with the movement, he said.
On the “defund the police” slogan, Williams disagrees. “We want law and order. We don’t want the brand that comes with a whole bunch of misconduct, a whole bunch of brutalities, a whole bunch of racial profiling, and sentencing and massive incarceration.”
Elaine Perlman, Director of the Peace Corps Fellows Program at Teachers College, Columbia University, believes the BLM should have a political party. Perlman considers herself a political activist, and has worked on the mayoral campaign of Eric Adams. “It is the ideal progression to go from street activism to focusing more on policymaking, because that’s where change, sustainable change, and more extensive and deeper change can happen,” she said.
Racism in the United States is systemic, Perlman said, and part of the solution is to have a BLM political party so that persons “involved in the movement, then run for office or get positions in policy organizations and really start to infuse their beliefs,” she said. “That is where lives can be profoundly changed.”
Newsome views the work of the BLM movement differently. The BLM Greater New York chapter focuses on empowering the community in order to hold elected public officials accountable. “These politicians get in office, and they forget you. They don’t follow through on their promises,” he said.
When pushed on how Newsome holds politicians accountable, he categorically says “we make their lives very, very, very uncomfortable if they don’t do it, they need to do it for our people.”
Several candidates in New York City’s November 2 election are running under the BLM banner for City Council. In addition to Williams in District 7, they include Tamika Mapp in District 8 and Lutchi Gayot in District 34.
“We want law and order. We don’t want the brand that comes with a whole bunch of misconduct, a whole bunch of brutalities, a whole bunch of racial profiling, and sentencing and massive incarceration.” District 7 candidate Jomo Williams