Kirsten John Foy: Policing reforms are just the start

Arc of Justice founder Kirsten John Foy at a rally marking the anniversary of Eric Garner's death in 2015.
Arc of Justice founder Kirsten John Foy at a rally marking the anniversary of Eric Garner's death in 2015.
a katz/Shutterstock
Arc of Justice founder Kirsten John Foy at a rally marking the anniversary of Eric Garner's death in 2015.

Kirsten John Foy: Policing reforms are just the start

The Arc of Justice founder tackles education, public housing and economic justice.
October 19, 2020

Long before this year’s Black Lives Matter protests, Kirsten John Foy was demanding changes to policing practices in New York City. And now, following the passage of several recent city and state laws that aim to address police brutality, the activist is pushing for more – and not just changes dealing with law enforcement. The founder of Arc of Justice spoke with City & State recently about what’s next for the Black Lives Matter movement, what’s at stake in the upcoming presidential election, and why he’s so focused on education reform. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

What’s next for the Black Lives Matter movement? 

We have to push forward the implementation of systemic changes, the institutionalization of accountability and transparency. It has to be vertical. We’ve got to focus on federal, state and local legislation to really address what is a national problem of lack of accountability, lack of transparency with respect to policing and criminal justice writ large. What we saw in Kentucky was an egregious abortion of justice, with the attorney general misleading and misguiding a jury, and then the jury themselves wanting to bring to light the grand jury proceeding, and then having the attorney general fight that. It shows that there are deep-rooted, systemic obstructions to transparency. 

So we’ve got to have a holistic approach, and a fully integrated strategy for accountability. We need police departments around the country to institute systems of accountability and transparency. We need to have sunshine laws put in place that will both protect the integrity of a grand jury but also assert the right of the public to be able to hold attorneys general accountable, to hold prosecutors accountable for how they execute and manage the grand jury process. We need to see a return to the Obama-era policies of the dismantling of private prisons. We need to see a ban on the use of certain tactics by police to subdue and take individuals into custody. 

We need to see national standards for training for use of force. We need to see national standards for accountability for police officers. We need to prevent what we have been seeing across the country, which is bad cops hopping from department to department. Police department hopping by bad cops has got to be one of the issues that is dealt with on the national level. 

There’s an election in several weeks, and the implication of having a president who on the one hand espouses that rhetoric of the ultra-right, which reflects disdain for constitutional protections, and on the other hand a candidate who has put forth a plan to address many – not all – but many of the institutional policies and practices. 

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have been criticized by some reformers for their records. If elected, would they go as far as you want them to? 

Will they go far enough? Probably not. Will they move us in the direction that we need to be going? Yes. They will diverge from the current administration’s policies and philosophies of rough ’em up and of denial of civil rights, to an administration that regards and respects the Constitution and the civil rights and protections afforded by it. So will they be a panacea? Absolutely not. Will it be a required and necessary step to change the trajectory of the nation, especially with regards to criminal justice reform and policing? Absolutely. No one is expecting that Joe Biden, who wrote the crime bill, and Kamala Harris, who was a district attorney and then an attorney general, are going to go as far as many of us believe is necessary to restructure policing in America. But what they will do is open the conversation, change the rhetoric, and provide leadership that says the Constitution is supreme and everyone needs and is entitled to equal protection under law. 

That is the fundamental debate that we’re having in this election: Do we abide by the rule of law, or the rule of man? And Biden-Harris will provide a clear contrast with their regard and respect for the rule of law, vs. the president, who believes that he is an autocrat and that there is no higher authority than him. So that is the start of a transformation. We can’t begin to have a conversation about how we transform a criminal justice system with a criminal president who believes that people of color do not and should not enjoy equal protection under law. We know for a fact that Biden and Harris believe in the principles of equal protection under law and the supremacy of the Constitution. And I’ll take that over a white nationalist agenda any day. 

Closer to home in New York City, the 2021 mayoral race is already underway. Some reformers would like to see your ally, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, jump into the race, and we just saw Maya Wiley, who’s also Black, announce her candidacy. Meanwhile, City Comptroller Scott Stringer, a progressive, and the more moderate Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams appear to be the early frontrunners. How do you see the race shaping up? Are there any candidates you’re looking at closely or leaning toward? 

I’m looking closely at the policy and the records. It’s a question of whether you have a vision and whether or not you have a record to support the vision. All of the candidates have a story to tell, all of the candidates have a perspective that should be shared, but they all have questions that need to be answered. 

I’m leaning toward supporting our agenda. The agenda is how do we transform the New York City Police Department, make it more accountable, make it more transparent, make it more equitable. How do we invest in the infrastructure in our communities that would mitigate against the need for slowing police budgets? How do we invest in alternatives to policing that will act as a deterrent, as a paradigm shifter, so that communities and individuals aren’t having to resort to crime in order to satisfy the needs of their families? We’re looking for individuals that are going to identify how we prevent communities of color from bearing the full burdens of global pandemics. How do we invest in our public health infrastructure so we are not seeing the kind of destruction and death from disease, whether it’s the coronavirus or comorbidities that have contributed to the deaths related to the coronavirus that we are seeing in communities of color? How are we going to invest in communities across the city so we can rebuild a more diverse and a more resilient economy, so that we’re not totally dependent on certain sectors of our economy to fund our budgetary priorities? 

I’m looking for someone who is going to speak to our progressive agenda of economic justice, of criminal justice reform, of public health infrastructure, and finally with respect to education and public housing, which have not elevated themselves as of yet to the fore of the conversation – how we prioritize educating the largest school system in the country in a way that does not alienate certain populations or disempower certain populations or further marginalize certain populations, but take this crisis and use it as an opportunity to restructure and revamp our educational system, retool it for the 21st century. Not to go back to what we had, but take what we do have today and and improve upon it and build upon it and make it better and create an adequate and an excellent educational system utilizing technology, realizing we can’t go back to putting thousands of people in buildings any more. We must have a more robust utilization of technology as we educate our children. And then what we do to invest in the city of NYCHA, which is a city within the city, how we invest in the people, how we invest in the infrastructure, how we build not just the physical building but how we rebuild lives decimated by a whole host of social ills, from gun violence to public health deficiencies and so forth and so on. Really, this is not about who as a person I like, but who is addressing the agenda of the majority of New York, which is how do we build going forward to prevent the things that have overtaken us and brought us to our knees from ever being able to do so again.

On the education front, you’ve teamed up with Ronald Lauder on an effort to keep the entrance exam in place for admission into New York City’s elite public high schools. 

With respect to education, I have partnered with Ronald Lauder, who has demonstrated himself to be a leader in the space of educational equity, making sure that children in communities of color are not disadvantaged by the lack of investment in supplemental education. So with respect to the specialized high school exam, the question isn’t just about whether or not the exam itself has some efficacy. The real question is whether or not the children are prepared, the children have received adequate training and adequate investment, so they have an equal opportunity to take the test and then succeed at the test. The system that we have now is the result of decades of divestment – divestment from gifted and talented programs, divestment from supplemental education in some of our most poor and marginalized communities and school districts. So we’re seeing the result of that in the outcome of some of our tests, where certain communities are receiving the lion’s share of seats in our most elite schools, while other communities are locked out. And that’s not because of a natural disparity in ability, it’s because there has been an intentional and systemic effort to divest from what we know has provided these communities with the opportunity to succeed and advance. And what Ronald Lauder has done is he has stepped into the gap and said if the city and the state won’t provide the investment and the resources to invest in these communities, I’m going to do so. And I’m going to provide these children with the supplemental education that is needed to excel on these exams, realizing that they have the same capacity, that they have the same genius in them that other communities possess as well. 

COVID, once again, has highlighted and amplified the disparities – not only the disparity of outcome, but the disparity in the system, the systemic infrastructure and impact. If you have students who have access to supplemental education, you are going to see those students succeed, vs. other students who are reliant on basic education. So communities of color have not had the investment to build out their educational portfolios to include supplemental education like test prep. We’ve seen COVID now saying to us, not only do we need to invest in these communities for the purpose of succeeding on a test, but for the purpose of succeeding in life. Our new educational paradigm, our new educational reality, requires that we use supplemental education, that we expand access to technology, that we expand access to the expertise, to the teachers and those who are proficient in other areas beside basic education, in order to help them navigate the future and the reality that we live in today. So it’s not just about test prep. What COVID did was take the movement of educational equity and amplified it, so that it’s not just about succeeding on a test, it’s about how do we incorporate supplemental education into our educational portfolio in a way that is no longer supplemental but now that it is structural. And that structural transformation would then further empower traditionally marginalized communities. 

But I’ve also partnered with the UFT, and the UFT and the Arc of Justice have walked hand in hand, in lockstep in challenging this administration’s rollout of remote learning, and challenged this administration’s approach to reopening of schools, and how we need to prioritize safety, and we need to prioritize technology, and we need to prioritize support. So this administration has been deficient in that regard. We have partnered with the UFT to hold the administration accountable for lack of prioritization of safety for the students and the teachers and administrators, lack of prioritization of investment in technology, so many of our kids who are homeless, who are suffering under economic pressures, are not locked out of receiving an education. If you’ve got a household with four kids, and you only have two cell phones in that house, your kids are not going to receive an education that they are deserving of. But our Department of Education has not prioritized equitable distribution and access to technology in order to make sure those disparities are not exacerbated. So I’ve not only partnered with Ron Lauder on the issue of prioritizing supplemental education, but we’ve also partnered with the UFT on the issue of educational excellence. This is what it’s going to take to transform the largest school system and retool it for the future. 

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