At a recent breakfast of New York City’s faith leaders, New York City Mayor Eric Adams shared a perspective on gun violence and religion that would be profoundly disturbing if uttered by a talk radio host, let alone the leader of the country’s largest city.
“Don’t tell me about no separation of church and state,” Adams said, with no apparent irony. “When we took prayers out of schools, guns came into schools.”
He backed away from his dismissal of the Constitution’s establishment clause when pressed by CNN in a follow-up interview, but the gall of these statements stands out, even in the context of a mayoralty characterized by gaffes and off-the-cuff policy riffing. Remember him blaming “low-skilled workers” for not being rich? His commentary seems better suited to off-brand sketch comedy than policy making. While it's tempting to dismiss this latest round of pronouncements as just another instance of Eric being Eric, New Yorkers – not to mention the national pundits who continue to give this man the benefit of the doubt – need to realize that he’s serious about his reckless ideas.
The rhetorical linkage of school prayer and gun violence is not an Adams invention. In the wake of last year’s devastating shooting in Uvalde, Texas, House Republican leaders trotted out this exact talking point. Rep. Steve Scalise, then Minority Whip, now ensconced as House Majority Leader, said, “We had AR-15s in the 1960s. We didn’t have those mass school shootings – we actually had prayer in school during those days.”
It’s one thing for Adams to be out of step with regular New Yorkers; it’s another thing entirely for him to parrot the violence-perpetuating claptrap of national Republicans. Unfortunately, we shouldn’t be surprised. Adams himself was once a member of the GOP, and his policy positions – like defunding schools and reinstating the NYPD’s violently reckless SRG – put him in closer company with national Republicans than with the progressive base of New York City Democrats.
The problems don’t stop at bad policy, though. In the same breath as deploying his prayers for guns pablum, he described his political achievements as “divinely ordained,” a narcissistic proclamation that landed poorly with clergy, most of whom are more interested in providing services to vulnerable New Yorkers than feeding Adams’ ego. In positioning himself as an appointee of “God,” and not of the people of New York, Adams sidesteps the sort of terrestrial accountability that ought to bind public officials to their jobs. We’ve all seen what happens when larger-than-life leaders try to evade public scrutiny, and Adams is deploying much of the same playbook that characterizes the rule of other would-be autocrats. His administration routinely ducks City Council oversight, while blurring the lines between what constitutes personal enrichment and public service. Meanwhile, his personal entourage attracts a rotating cast of fraudsters and con men.
Through New York’s first outing with ranked-choice voting, we ended up with Eric Adams as our mayor. Close to 70% of New Yorkers, including the two of us, picked someone other than him as our first choice in that primary. Each day his words and decisions validate the instincts of this large, and likely growing, supermajority. His approach to public communications and governance is reminiscent of other one-trick executives who we’d prefer to leave in the past, only in this case the mantra seems to be “noun, verb, more police presence.”
Most of a modern city’s challenges, though, especially those rooted in gun violence, cannot be solved using undertrained government employees with a license to kill. Despite promising to act as savior for our city’s various ills, under Adams the NYPD and Department of Correction have only doubled down on perpetuating the violence they purport to be curbing. With the number of pedestrian deaths higher than pre-pandemic levels, not to mention the embarrassingly slow arrest of the subway shooter – who was finally cornered by a concerned bodega employee and not the police – siphoning more money from the schools Adams claims need more prayer, in order to finance the administration’s failed policies, is cruel and backwards.
New York is a serious, important city that deserves a thoughtful, informed chief executive who governs from the heart and mind, not from the hip and the GOP playbook. When it comes to the Adams administration, we’ve seen enough. The progressive wing of the local Democratic party needs to start planning now to mount a credible challenge to Adams when he comes up for reelection in two years. The recent success of Brandon Johnson in Chicago – who won a spot in a runoff as one of two top challengers while vanquishing that city’s incumbent Democrat – offers a compelling playbook. The outdated conventional wisdom is that the left can’t win when crime is an issue, but Johnson is galvanizing a multiracial coalition of progressives and his city’s working class populations – who are the people most affected by both street and police violence.
Those are the issues most important to us too, as progressive Democrats with little kids in our houses. Our children’s lives literally depend on this city getting its act together on public safety in general, and on gun violence specifically. New York City is a beautiful, exciting, strange, enormous, complicated place, with the kinds of challenges that come from being one of history’s great cities. Those challenges require the complex coordination of government agencies, private sector resources and our neighbors. Unfortunately, our mayor’s actual response to those challenges is the same toothless “thoughts and prayers” we’ve come to expect from the least honest brokers in our country’s politics.
As parents of young children who will someday attend the city’s public schools, we are scared. Not only of the school shootings we hear about in the news (which thankfully are less common here than elsewhere), but also of a system that is not just perpetuating further violence, but untethered from the reality of actual New York families. Whether tongue-in-cheek or sincere, offering prayers as a solution to gun violence in schools, while you’re simultaneously cutting funding from our children’s future, is callous and out of touch. We are calling on our fellow New Yorkers to help us replace Mayor Adams with someone who has our best interests at heart. We’ll pray Adams is better at his next job.
Lauren Ashcraft is a Democratic Socialist and former Congressional candidate. Justin Cohen is a Brooklyn-based activist and community organizer.