An account of an encounter with George and Jamaal

Date:

To the editor:

The Democratic Party primary in Westchester County between George Latimer and Jamaal Bowman may not be a race about race, but it is certainly a race about restorative justice. It’s about achieving comparable outcomes for all people, regardless of race, class, status, or privilege, by taking responsibility, caring for those victimized, working to heal harms, and rebuilding communities torn apart by violence and inequity, rather than simply punishing, so that all people can flourish.

I know both George and Jamaal — I’ve campaigned/canvassed for both, and have enjoyed multiple conversations and even shared meals with each of them over the last half dozen years, including having had a private hour-and-a-half breakfast with George in January of 2023.

George and I met that morning to have a conversation — one that we’d been trying to arrange ever since he was first elected — about restorative justice. It was a friendly encounter (I felt let into some secret, as he reflected on his intention of going into public service after his term ended.) And when I gave him some deeply disturbing data — according to the Vera Institute of Justice, over 90% (90.6%, to be precise) of the people convicted in Westchester County, serving time in NY State prisons, were people of color — he seemed like somebody we could count on, an ally in the corridors of power. He promised to appoint an office liaison, to which we could bring the names of three or four impacted people so he could start talking about this troubling legacy in the county of which he was the Chief Executive.

In the last year and a half, to my disappointment and dismay, there has only been a resounding silence.

Most pointedly, precisely a year ago, at the 2023 Memorial Day Parade in Hastings-on-Hudson, I had personal conversations with both George and Jamaal about the urgency of speaking out for restorative justice in Westchester, handing both of them an identical letter asking for their support. George told me he would read the letter that evening and get back to me. Instead, only silence. (He’s not talked to me since; within a few days, his office, even down to the lowest-level staffer, entirely ghosted me; I was even turned away when I went to the County Executive’s White Plains office, being told that I needed an appointment, the proverbial Catch-22 since nobody would even return calls to arrange that.) It was an entirely different story with Jamaal, who issued a statement about how restorative justice was vital for public safety, and the only way we could all flourish.

An unedited version of the original May 29, 2023 letter given to both George and Jamaal can be viewed below Read it, and tell me how it is even imaginable that the Chief Executive of the county in which this troubling legacy persisted would say nothing.

Restorative Justice by BLACK WESTCHESTER MAGAZINE on Scribd

Upon reflection, it started to look — after years of encouragement from George to have these kinds of conversations — that we had been played. It became harder to ignore other silences. George had never spoken publicly on behalf of justice for Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr., the army veteran killed in 2013 by White Plains police who broke into his apartment after his emergency alert system went off by mistake. (Jamaal, for his part, even showed up at some of the annual vigils organized by his remarkable son, Kenneth Chamberlain, Jr.) And we are still waiting — in a process mandated, in response to the murder of George Floyd (four years ago when these words were first penned), by then governor Cuomo that all towns in the state set up Police Reform and Reinvention committees — for the establishment of a county-wide Office of Police Accountability. While George did support setting up Project Alliance, a mental-health response line, on this other similarly vital matter, four years later there still seems to be only an extended game of ping-pong back and forth with the Board of Legislators.

To use George’s own slogan, here the lack of results — the failure to make the substantive changes that would make us all safer, and let us all flourish — is due to the total absence of rhetoric. Instead of leadership, only a deafening silence.

So I ask you, my neighbors and fellow county residents, this: how could we in good conscience choose a man who could simply be silent about such an appalling reality over one who fearlessly speaks out for restorative justice, at possible political risk to himself, because he believes that such justice makes us all safer, and lets us all flourish?

I say this perhaps most explicitly to my Jewish friends who have long been in a profoundly — even the most — supportive alliance with communities of color on behalf of racial justice. I know that many of you wish that Jamaal had said some things differently (as do I, coming from a Christian tradition of total non-violence), but you know that he believes in Israel’s right to exist; he simply called, before others, for the position now espoused by President Biden and Senator Schumer, and other important Jewish voices, including Senator Bernie Sanders, to say nothing of thousands of young Jewish activists. A voice for all humanity, and for our children — always Jamaal’s emphasis — emphatically includes a commitment to Jewish flourishing, alongside that of Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, Asians, Indigenous Americans, all of the diverse communities of our world.

If you — Jewish, Muslim, Christian, or entirely unaffiliated — believe that restorative justice is essential to healing our world (yes, tikkun olam), as I believe most of us do, it’s urgent that we side with real justice by voting for Jamaal Bowman in the June 25th Democratic Primary. And — since our collective well-being depends on re-imaging our world, with justice-driven results — vote for William Wagstaff for Westchester County District Attorney. I’ve sometimes called both Jamaal and William “generational” candidates. But the truth is, they are more than that — I’ve not seen anybody like them in my lifetime. Everybody is better off, everybody is safer, all our children have a better future, in a more just world.

– Steven Siebert

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