Before deciding to run for the 36th District in Brooklyn, 23-year-old Chi Ossé was working nights in the service industry. And then he lost his job. Like many of us, COVID-19 forced him to slow down in real time and acknowledge it was time to rest. It would also be the first time he would take a break since his father, beloved podcast host and hip-hop historian Reggie “Combat Jack” Ossé, had passed in 2017.
However, after George Floyd’s death and the social uprising that came after, something clicked in him. He immediately wanted to use his voice to enact change so he began leading peaceful protests in New York City. “I took to the streets,” Ossé said. “I couldn’t sit in my home.” After co-founding Warriors in the Garden, an activist collective, he realized running for city council was the next step for pushing for change in his community in Brooklyn.
“Throughout this entire race, we’ve been underestimated because of my age,” Ossé, who would be the youngest NYC council member in history, said. “And that’s a reason I jumped into this because young people, if you put your mind to something, if you care about your community, if you care about the work that you’re doing, just do it. Ignore what the naysayers will say.”
Growing up as a third-generation Brooklynite, Ossé, who is openly gay, was immersed in a free-thinking, creative household. Raised as a Nichiren Buddhist, he was always conscious of the complexities of the African diaspora. From a young age, Ossé was proud to be Black and picked up an affinity for music and playing chess. He was always drawn to history, politics, and debating.
He announced his candidacy on Juneteenth 2020 with a message centered around divesting from the city’s police force — hoping to reroute their cut of the city’s budget to social programs that benefit communities of color — and ending qualified immunity protections for officers. Despite a skeleton campaign, Ossé’s progressive agenda saw him pick up endorsements from the Working Families Part, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, actor Michael K. Williams, and Bernie Bro Killer Mike.
And it’s looking like Ossé will win. The election occurred on June 22, 2021, but because of ranked voting counting isn’t over. As of now, Ossé is up by a large margin, beating out Henry L. Butler and Tahirah Moore.
We recently sat down with Chi Ossé to speak about his Brooklyn roots, his thoughts on reimagining public safety and how the COVID-19 pandemic pushed him to run for public office.
I loved it. It’s definitely changed throughout the years, but it’s a neighborhood that has just amazing and dense culture from the African diaspora. I was always raised to be proud of my blackness and there are a lot of proud Black people in Crown Heights and in [Bedford–Stuyvesant.] It’s a creative neighborhood and I grew up hanging out with my friend’s parents who were creatives as well, and it was a very freeing experience and you grow up around so many different types of people in Brooklyn in general, but I think Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy is just a prime space for that to happen.
I feel like Bed-Stuy is a quintessential Brooklyn. When you think of Brooklyn, it’s the stoops and the parks and the rap music playing on the streets. I was actually talking to my campaign manager the other day ever since he brought it up. I’ve lived in many places and in this neighborhood, every single car that drives by is playing good music, whether it’s reggae or it’s hip-hop, whether it’s soul or R&B. There’s a soul to the community, again, culture and it’s just an amazing place to be.
I was working at night at the time, so that entire industry was flipped on its head and it was the first time in my life where the world finally paused after my father passed away, which was, I think, necessary. He passed away and then there was a bunch of other shit that was being thrown my way, work and jobs and money and the complications of life and the pandemic put a lot of that to rest for a second. It really helped me think things through about what was next for me, working on myself, breathing, thinking, reading. I read this book called The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo. [it’s a] really great book.
I think around the time I finished that book, George Floyd was murdered and like many people in this country, I took to the streets and felt this anger, this sadness, this pain. I couldn’t sit in my home. Even though we were in quarantine, I needed to do something and I had this feeling to go out and that feeling flowed into me, leading into me building other people that are around me, organizing with other people that are around me, and it got me to a point where I jumped into [the] race to run for city council.
[Before running I was] energized by the movement, by my generation. There’s boundaries that have been placed in front of us and we’ve broken them down and I want to be an obstacle breaker, not only for myself, but for my community and to finally be someone that isn’t tied to the very institutions that are hurting us, and I think being the age that I am, I’m given an opportunity to do that.
I think the inequalities have always been there within my community, whether it’s gentrification, affordable housing, crime, but also over policing, food injustice, home security, just a plethora of issues that have not been handled in the way that I think they should have been. Those that should be handling those situations aren’t fulfilling the wants and needs of the peoples in the community.
They’re fulfilling the wants and needs of corporations and donors that are putting money in their pockets and policing and fossil fuel interests, and if we have someone in office that is tied to the people rather than tied to profits, I think those inequalities will be mitigated and minimized, and that’s something that I’m passionate about and it’s something that I would want to change within the community.
So about 40% of small Black businesses went out of business during the pandemic. We’ve seen the toll that’s taken on our small businesses in this community, and I’m proposing the first small business council within our community that is a collection of small business owners, of women, minority-owned businesses that provide resources, whether it comes to grants, whether it comes from loans to provide internships. They can also be there to help people start businesses within the community.
I want to make sure from the $212 billion budget deal that was passing the state Senate — as well as the recovery plan being sent to us from Joe Biden — That a large portion of that relief goes to our small business owners to pay the backend stuff that has piled up throughout the pandemic. I want to make sure that we are also protecting our freelancers who are small businesses as well. Over 30% of Brooklyn is freelance workers. Those are young entrepreneurs, whether it’s creatives, whether it’s artists, musicians.
So first and foremost, I would be calling on the federal government to lower the average median income, which is a yearly income that when a development is built in a community, it’s supposed to have X amount of affordable units. However, the affordability in those units are too damn high for people within our community. It needs to be lowered to more of the working class annual income that our people survive off of, and then we also need low income housing as well too to take a look at some of the vacant lots within our community and [propose] that we have a vacancy tax on those lots.
The money from those taxes will subsidize those vacancies and turn them into affordable housing for people in the community, for people that are unsheltered, people that are low income, and people that are middle-class. I think when we think about [affordable housing] and what that means, many people are tired of hearing those two words and I understand that because, again, the people that have been in power are tied to the very developers that only want to expand their wallets. But I will be a council member that will mitigate that. Land development will be approaching my office and one, I’ll be demanding that they’re including true affordable housing and if they’re not, then we’ll look for someone else that will.
Food justice is racial justice. For every supermarket in our community, there are about 57 delis. That’s absurd. I mean, the food at our delis, they try to be healthy sometimes, but most of the food is not healthy. There is a program called Vital Brooklyn that I will be funding with some of my discretionary funds in the city council. And what it does is it creates food hubs within the community such as ours, and food hubs are a more sustainable system. We’re paying workers from the community to work at these food hubs. We’re sourcing healthy and also affordable produce from local farms in New York state and we’re putting them in communities — such as ours — where those foods aren’t accessible. These are the types of systems that we need to be implementing within our communities rather than just handing out turkeys on Thanksgiving.
I’m also looking forward to working with the Bed-Stuy food co-op organization program. That needs to be explored as well. There’s a Fort Greene food co-op, but we definitely need one in Bed-Stuy. These are just more sustainable food justice structures that have not taken into effect yet, but it’s all contingent on everything else that we deal with within our community, whether it’s poverty, whether it’s crime, food, healthy food being in the stomachs of our community is a way to heal our community.
On reimagining public safety.
If we look at the statistics, crime has risen a bit and the police budget continues to grow, and that’s weird to see because their excuse for increasing the police budget is that it will reduce crime. But clearly it’s not working. Let’s think about why people commit crimes. Either they don’t have food on the table, money in their pockets, or a roof over their head. Now we’re criminalizing poverty. So if we’re criminalizing poverty, let’s fix poverty so we do not need to criminalize our people. Instead of having a bloated police budget that we do, which comes out to about $6 billion, I’m proposing to divest from the NYPD.
That does not mean that we’re taking all the police off the streets. It means that we’re canceling contracts that they have to purchase military grade weapons from the Pentagon. It means that we’re canceling contracts for them to have and purchase those helicopters that pollute our skies every day. How much is the cost for that helicopter, the training, the maintenance, the gas?
We need to take a look at the various agencies within our city that create thriving communities. It’s education, it’s housing, it’s jobs, and we need to make sure that when we’re looking at where our taxpayer dollars are going, I want to make sure it’s going to things that are actually helping people. In terms of looking at a different solution for crime, I think we need to explore some of the gun violence intervention organizations that have done work within our communities.
Photographer: Geoffrey Levy, Stylists: Mateo Palacio & Cy An, Stylist Assistant: Jazmine Bowen, Makeup: DD Smith, Producers: Ketia Jeune, Livia Rose Johnson.
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