Democrats Have “Gotten Very Comfortable Doing Nothing”

The reporter visited Buffalo, New York, in July. Summer festivals were underway, pandemic restrictions had eased and India Walton had just defeated Byron Brown, the incumbent four-term Mayor, in a Democratic primary bid a few months earlier.

It wasn’t just the multiplying yard signs bearing the name of a nurse and community organizer that suggested change was afoot in the Queen City. Brown and his entrenched allies have occupied Buffalo’s majestic city hall for nearly 16 years, and the excitement around Walton’s primary victory was the talk of the town, rattling the Democratic Party establishment in Buffalo and beyond. Walton, who if elected, will be the first Black woman to become mayor of Buffalo in decades and the first socialist to lead major cities.

After losing the primary in June, Brown launched a writein campaign and received support from business interests and representatives of the city’s political status-quo, including Republicans. Chuck Schumer, Senate Majority leader, is stepping in. endorsed Walton this week, and Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York is campaigningWalton in BuffaloOn November 2, Brown and Walton will be back at the polls. If the race is close it could take. weeks to determine a winner Due to the high number of write-in votes

For activists in Buffalo — Walton says her campaign “is the activists” — the election represents a major turning point for a proud rust belt city where economic revitalization has failed to conceal deep inequities. Truthout spoke to Walton on Thursday to learn more about her perspectives on housing, gentrification and racist policing — and why these challenges have voters in Buffalo clamoring for change.

Mike Ludwig: Mike, I’m interested in your first question about housing. In 2007, when I first arrived in Buffalo, the West Side had a 60% occupancy rate. And obviously that’s not the case anymore. It’s a very different city, at least in parts of the city, but economic recovery has not been equal everywhere. I understand that you have a background as a housing activist.

India WaltonI have a feeling of [got] into it accidentally, but that’s an accurate assessment.

I’m curious about how housing laid the groundwork for your campaign or inspired you to run?

You know that I was the executive Director of the Fruit Belt Community Land Trust That was because the community wanted it. We saw the growth of the Buffalo Niagara medical campus on the heels of a billion-dollar investment from the State of New York, and it didn’t translate into any improvement in the quality of life for the folks who live in the neighborhood.

In reality, it had many adverse effects. One was parking. I worked to establish a parking permit system. Another was speculation and rapid increases in rents and property values. The Fruit Belt Community Land Trust was founded by neighborhood groups in an effort to preserve their community and not be displaced by rising housing costs.

As executive director, I tried to get some of the 200 lots they own in the area to be dedicated to affordable housing. The city was the obstacle to progress. That really motivated me to run. It also informed many of the decisions that led to my housing policy and platform. It places people above profits and neighborhoods before corporate developers.

Buffalo has experienced what some people might call a “rust belt revitalization.” There are more houses occupied now than when I first went there. I’ve always taken a nuanced view of gentrification in Buffalo because when I first came there, I would go down, for instance, Grant Street, and a lot of businesses were not open. Grant Street is bustling now, but the West Side has seen rising housing costs. What are your thoughts about gentrification, and what are your policies regarding inequities resulting from gentrification?

There is a saying, you know, in the activist community : “Change is inevitable, but justice is not,” right? I believe that neighborhood change is cyclical. But poverty is a policy decision. The problem with gentrification, however, is that those most in need in communities and neighborhoods are often the ones who are suffering the negative consequences. The renters who now can’t afford a [home]In the neighborhood they live in, the homeowners, the legacy homeowners who have owned homes for decades, now find that their reassessments are not favorable to being able keep up with their tax bills. The increase in policing as well as the style of policing is another factor. You see a lot more of the policing culture. We see many people who come from diverse communities moving into neighborhoods like West Side. They call me complaining about the drumming at night. And that’s been happening for a number of decades on the West Side, but now because we have new folks moving into the community who haven’t integrated themselves into the culture, you know, it’s offensive to them…and they want it to stop.

My policies are centered on community building. I mean, getting to know your neighbors so that we can have a relationship which is not adversarial but also respects the culture of our existing neighborhoods. Buffalo is home to many neighborhoods that each have their own character, charm, and cultural subsets.

Residents moving into the neighbourhood should be able add to it but not take away. So, it’s about protecting renters. It’s about opening up capital for homeowners to make improvements to their homes. It’s about development without this displacement. It’s about, when you want to build a building, you don’t build it on top of the people that currently there, you don’t build it without the consent of the majority of the folks that live there, you don’t build it and it doesn’t fit into the character and charm of the existing fabric of that neighborhood, you do in consideration of all of those things.

You see, our policy platform is focused on the people that are currently there, and in a spirit of lifting all boats and hoping all people have boats to begin with and not allowing rising tides to sweep away some people.

I saw the community land trust model In your platform. How does City Hall come up with this model? I can picture a non profit running a community trust. But how can City Hall help me with something like establishing a community trust?

That’s a great question. There are many municipally supported land trusts across the country. There’s one in Austin, Texas, and to a lesser extent in places like Boston at Dudley Street. In Boston, Massachusetts, Dudley Street was granted permission to acquire land by the City of Boston. They also had to give something to their land trust. The city of Buffalo, as one of the largest landowners in the city, has a responsibility for a disposition policy that prioritizes affordable housing builders.

Buffalo can certainly play a part in supporting the success and proliferation of community land trusts.

What about the East Side? Although it has been a predominantly black area, the East Side has not received the same amount of investment as the rest. What are your thoughts on the East Side moving forward

Yeah, East Side’s going to be a priority economic development area for the Walton administration. Mixed-use buildings along commercial corridors like Fillmore, Bailey, Michigan Avenue will be given priority. These are the traditional arteries that run through the East Side from north to south. And we’re also going to be focusing on affordable infill housing You know, bringing the amenities to the neighborhood with thoughtful strategic neighborhood plans and ownership opportunities. You know, taking better care of our public spaces, our parks, simple things like the environmental design, making sure that street lights are functioning, making sure that streets are paved, sidewalks are paved, that there’s crosswalks and grocery stores and just things that the East Side of Buffalo has been wanting but missing for a very long time.

That’s so powerful because, for people who have not been to Buffalo, to hear that crosswalks and streetlights that work are what people have been wanting for a while, I think that paints a powerful picture. You said “infill housing,” is that correct?

Yes, infill housing. The policy of the current administration to combat blight and vacant homes on the East Side was to demolish houses for a long period. So, you know, we have lots and lots of streets on the East Side where there’s… just a sprinkling of housing, and you can walk for several blocks and maybe only see two or three houses. They’re calling it now an “urban prairie.” The deer have come back into the city because there’s so much vacancy.

There’s just all of these vacant lots and fields. Although some people have used them for community gardens, we know there is a housing shortage. There’s a lack of affordable housing, both for renters and first-time homeowners. But there’s just really the availability of quality housing in Buffalo is pretty much nonexistent at this point.

Last summer, I was on West Side when a group of young African immigrant youth approached me and asked if I would walk with them at night. They did this because they were friends and wanted to show me that they were being harassed by police. I walked with them and saw what was happening every night.

Although you have a strong platform for police reform, you seem to be hesitant about defunding the police or taking police funds and putting them in other areas of community development. How do you think about police and defunding police? This was a strong call during the Black Lives Matter protests of the past year and half.

Yeah, I think using such simple terms to describe such complicated problems is just a general challenge, especially when we’re talking about electoral politics, right? “Defund” is the language of protest, and right now I need to be speaking the language of governance, the language of a mayor. You know, everyone doesn’t understand what that means in the same way that everyone doesn’t completely understand what gentrification means.

You might be surprised to learn that Buffalo has several things going on. Our police are not accountable. Our police use racist and broken windows policing strategies that don’t reduce crime. We also see an increase in violent crimes. Last night, a 17 year-old girl was shot to death.

We must not only address the issue of police transparency and accountability, but also get to the root causes, which is concentrated poverty. It’s kind of a created disadvantage, and it’s community historical trauma that has gone unaddressed and unhealed for too long.

Our young people shouldn’t be out in the streets at night and there should be something productive for them to do. Our young people and young adults shouldn’t have to resort to dangerous, underground methods of supporting themselves. They should have access and be able to find good-paying jobs. And if they’re not equipped to work that job, there should be job training available to them in their neighborhood. We know that transportation is a barrier for many job training programs. We know that our literacy rates in Buffalo are quite shameful.

The answer should not be contained in one word. Our public safety policy is robust. However, there are always opportunities to reevaluate how our money is spent. We have positions that are vacant and unfilled, and the money that we’re saving from positions that we’re probably never going to fill in the police department can be reallocated to make sure that we’re getting preventative mental health services and an improved homelessness outreach, and improved youth outreach services.

The police budget has increased and our budget for youth services and community services has decreased over the years. So, I’m not as interested in defunding the police as I am in refunding our community and making sure that services exist to keep our children off the streets and keep our community safe.

With your campaign, you’ve definitely shaken up the Democratic Party in Buffalo, actually maybe across the country, shaken up what people think is possible in a local race within the Democratic Party. I’ve always thought that perhaps this reflects the deeply-rooted activist scene that exists in Buffalo. It makes me wonder if this has been part your campaign. Is it a grassroots campaign? Who supported you in the streets?

Yes. Right. It is the protestors. It is the thinkers, the progressive thinkers, and doers in Buffalo. It is a grassroots effort. We won the primary without any paid staff members, all volunteers. These are folks who are showing up for me and showing up for us because they believe in what we’re trying to do. They’ve seen the failures of our city leadership and are craving change.

It’s funny because a friend of mine just posted a memory of his from 2017 when we had our first “state of our city” address. And I was saying in 2017 a lot of the same things that I’m saying right now that I’m running for mayor, but this is years and years of building coalition and policy platforms. Now is the time to bring a lot more of these policies to the forefront. And I don’t think there’s any person who lives in the city who will be disappointed when they see us implement a lot of these smart ideas that we’ve been trying to convince the leadership of this city for almost a decade are good policy.

That’s interesting, right, that there has been a Democratic mayor for such a long time, but some of these policies that came out of community organizing were not picked up by city hall. Do you have any ideas why this is? Why was it necessary to challenge the current Democrat?

The feeling that I get being a lifelong Buffalonian is that they don’t care about us. They care about each other. The power structure cares about people who are powerful, wealthy, influential, and has largely ignored that the power rests in the hands community members, voters, and residents of Buffalo. And because we’ve allowed Democrats to coast for so long, largely going unchallenged, they’ve gotten very comfortable doing nothing, even when the people have placed a demand upon them. This campaign is a clear signal that the days of three-piece, feet-warming Democrats are gone in Buffalo.

This interview has been edited to be brief and clear.