Robert Gangi, a longtime criminal justice reform advocate now launching a longshot mayoral campaign, has had the words of the novelist Chester Himes on his mind recently.
Himes, upon learning of the acquittal of the men tried in the lynching of Mississippi teenager Emmett Till in 1955, reflected on the nature of racial injustice in America. “The real horror comes when your dead brain must face the fact that we as a nation don’t want it to stop,” he wrote in a letter to the New York Post. “If we wanted to, we would.”
According to Gangi, one only has to look as far as the New York City Police Department to find evidence that the country has yet to grapple with the legacy Himes wrote of more than 60 years ago. The Police Reform Organizing Project, the advocacy group that Gangi established in 2011, found in a recent analysis of NYPD arrest statistics that in 2016, more than 86 percent of misdemeanor arrests involved New Yorkers of color, and that certain arrest categories — marijuana possession, trespassing, and theft of service, which is the charge for fare-evasion — involved New Yorkers of color at a rate upwards of 90 percent. PROP’s analysis is based on data from the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services. The NYPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment on PROP’s findings.
“Broken-windows policing targets low-income people of color for engaging in minor infractions that have largely been decriminalized in white communities,” Gangi says. “I used to say that’s our view or our opinion. Now I just say, that’s it. It’s a fact.”
Gangi’s bid for the mayor’s office will rest on a platform of broad and radical police reform. Among other proposals, he says he will overhaul the handling of 911 calls involving the mentally ill to reduce the incidence of police violence in such cases and establish a “truly independent” agency to investigate every alleged case of physically abusive policing.
“We’re making the case that although the immediate beneficiaries of the policy changes we’re promoting would be low-income people of color, these changes will benefit the entire city because they will effectively address the ‘tale of two cities’ narrative that de Blasio talked about during his first campaign but has failed to address in many significant ways,” Gangi says.
In 2013, Bill de Blasio’s call for an end to stop-and-frisk policing became a central plank of his mayoral campaign and helped propel him to victory. But as the mayor seeks reelection this fall, Gangi will attempt to demonstrate that de Blasio’s actions in office show that his popular position on stop-and-frisk was a “political calculation” rather than a genuine effort at fundamental reform. “Specifically, he did follow through on the pledge to reduce the use of stop-and-frisk,” Gangi says. “He has not followed through, I think, on the spirit of his promises, which was significant reform and change in police practices.”
The mission of protecting New York’s most vulnerable residents has become more urgent in light of President Donald Trump’s executive order directing federal officials to deport undocumented immigrants charged with crimes, Gangi says. According to Gangi, de Blasio’s stance on policing is fundamentally at odds with his opposition to Trump’s order. “He can’t credibly champion both immigrants’ rights and broken-windows policing, which he is attempting to do,” Gangi says. “There’s an internal conflict between the two of them.”
Gangi plans to run as a Democrat and challenge de Blasio directly on these issues during the mayoral primary campaign. He has yet to formally launch his campaign and file with the Campaign Finance Board, but plans to do so in the coming weeks.
“Some people said, ‘You’re not well known outside of the criminal justice reform world, so why don’t you back a candidate who is more mainstream and well known who will take these positions?’ The obvious answer is that there aren’t any,” he says.
Gangi, who will turn 73 by Election Day, grew up in Brooklyn, but has lived on Manhattan’s West Side ever since attending Columbia as an undergraduate. Before founding PROP, he worked for 29 years with the Correctional Association of New York advocating for prison reform. He plans to run his campaign from the West 86th Street apartment where he has lived with his wife Barbara for 42 years.
Though criminal justice reform is his life’s work, Gangi says he won’t be a single-issue candidate. He plans to advocate for an array of progressive policies, including reduced MTA fares for low-income residents and free college education in the CUNY system for New Yorkers.
No odds-maker would peg him as a favorite to win the mayor’s office, but Gangi believes he can have an impact even if he doesn’t emerge victorious. He brings up Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid as an example of a campaign that shifted the mainstream of acceptable thought to include policy proposals that in years past were seen as politically perilous.
Gangi says, “Maybe we can significantly shift the political climate so that we could talk to the ghost of Chester Himes and say, ‘Things have changed to such a significant degree in our society that the nation has shown that it is prepared to make the changes that will stop these kinds of things from happening.’”