In November 2021, Eric Adams won the race to become mayor of the richest city in the United States. He had pledged to help set New York on a recovery course from the economic devastation of Covid-19 and from the longstanding racial and socioeconomic inequalities that the pandemic deepened.
It’s been two years since Adams campaigned for mayor; a year and half since he took office, and just about a year and half since he began straying from the principles he ran on.
I grew up in Jamaica, Queens—a neighborhood that has long been failed by every level of government. While I deeply value voting, especially as someone who was stripped of my right to do so while incarcerated and on parole until 2018, I have a healthy skepticism about politics. Even so, when Adams was elected, I was ready to give him a chance. I saw myself and some of my experience reflected in him. We’re both men of color. Like me, he spent his youth in poor and disenfranchised communities in southeast Queens—communities cited in the Seven Neighborhoods study for the high number of residents sent to New York State prisons.
Given those stats, it’s maybe not surprising that both of us experienced incarceration as young people—like me, Adams was detained at the now-closed Spofford Detention Center in the Bronx at the age 15. When he visited the old Spofford site on the campaign trail, he said, “We’re going to continue to tear down the Spoffords symbolically throughout our entire city and give our young people the opportunities they deserve.” I really hoped he meant it.
That wasn’t the only commitment Adams made to positive change. Although he served as a police captain, he vowed to hold the NYPD accountable for their actions because he knew firsthand as a Black man and an insider how messed up the culture of policing has become.
He promised to invest in communities that need help the most, and talked about going “upstream” to address the root causes of social issues.
And most importantly for me, he said that he understood the threat that Rikers poses to incarcerated people, guards, and our communities, and that he was committed to following through on the plan to close it. He even said he wanted to sink the Boat, a hellish floating jail in the Bronx that most New Yorkers don’t even know exists, but I’ve had the unfortunate experience of being caged in.
In his victory night speech, Adams said, “This campaign was for the person cleaning bathrooms and the dishwasher in the kitchen who feels they are already at the end of their journey. It was for those who feel they were there but forgotten, and they are also those who make the city operate every day. They may right now be at Rikers Island, sitting in a cell or in a precinct sitting in the holding cells. I am speaking to them tonight.”
About 20 months later, I do feel like Eric Adams is speaking to me, but it’s not a message of encouragement. When he tells reporters that you’re a bad person if you’re on Rikers, those words feel personal, and I see how it affects other people, like the members of our organization, Freedom Agenda, who have been incarcerated at Rikers, or have suffered through that experience along with a loved one detained there.
I can only imagine the way it lands with people living through the hell of Rikers now. That includes more than 1,300 young adults ages 18–25; thousands of people battling mental illness, addiction, and homelessness; and people who are at Rikers not because they are a worse person than anyone else, but because they can’t pay their bail.
Mayor Adams is also questioning the plan to close Rikers now, saying that he expects the jail population to increase instead of shrink. With the return to broken windows policing, his massive cuts to social services, and his frequent fear-mongering, he’s worked hard to make his prediction come true. Instead, he should be working with the City Council and affected communities to get back on track with the next steps to close Rikers, as laid out in the Campaign to Close Rikers’s Countdown to Closing Rikers policy brief.
The communities that Adams pledged to help are left to wonder: Does he actually believe that we should be investing in meeting people’s needs instead of punishing them for their struggles? Does he think we need to rein in abusive policing, or does he think everyone the cops decide to stop—overwhelmingly Black, Brown, and poor people—are bad people? Does he want law enforcement to finally be accountable to the people of this city, or does he want to cater to police and corrections unions while they terrorize our communities? I believe his actions have shown the answer, and it’s not the one our city needs.
Back in the day, a good friend of mine and I used to call each other Dirty Politicians whenever we knew the other was lying or scheming on something. Eric Adams tried to sell voters on the idea that he was different—more authentically committed to New York City’s long-neglected communities because he came from them. That seems more and more like a lie he spun to grab some power for himself and his corrupt cronies. But I’m here to tell him that he only gets to fool us once.