Black Excellence Has Arrived on The Real Housewives of New York City

Originally published for The Cut on May 19, 2021

In the premiere of The Real Housewives of New York City’s 13th season, cast member Leah McSweeney waits patiently in Central Park as a petite Black woman strides into view sporting a mask adorned with the phrase “Black Lives Matter” and a hooded sweatshirt emblazoned with the names Yusef, Kevin, Antron, Korey, and Raymond, also known as the Exonerated Five, who were convicted and later vacated of the aggravated assault and rape of a young white woman in Central Park. McSweeney would later go on to introduce the woman from the scene to Sonja Morgan as “Black-girl magic personified” and proceed to request her presence at the infamously anachronistic Morgan townhouse for brunch. Eboni K. Williams has made her grand entrance into the Real Housewives franchise, and true to the messaging in her debut book, Pretty Powerful, she is using all of the available tools at her disposal to make her mark.

“Everything I seek is owed to me,” Williams states unabashedly. “I also make it my first business to be worthy of everything — to show up in a capacity of unadulterated, unimpeachable excellence.” That conviction has brought her to a place where she feels she can set her own terms, introducing the New York Housewives to someone else’s experiences for the first time, as opposed to merely having them endure a culture shock.

Being the first to accomplish something is not an unfamiliar feeling for Williams: Her life and career have been punctuated by firsts, from being the first Black woman at her law firm to the first to host an early prime-time show on Fox News. “We all start connections, start conversations, and start developing ideas about one another before we utter a word,” Williams points out, doubling down on the ethos of Pretty Powerful, which emphasizes that the choice between substance and appearance is a false one. “I had a lot of intentionality around what I was trying to convey to this new group of friends and women, from the Central Park scene where I wear the Exonerated Five on my chest to the bold pink blazer-dress in Sonja Morgan’s townhouse, where I’m conveying femininity but also strength.” Her sartorial references are all crafted with an objective in mind, down to her donning a Howard sweatshirt in the distinctive pink-and-green color scheme associated with her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, a nod to the historically Black organization’s founding chapter as well as a subtle acknowledgment of Vice-President Kamala Harris, all reinforcing the central theme in her book: “an awareness and leveraging of how we package and present our femininity as an aesthetic that is uniquely authentic and impactful.”

Continue reading

Tarana Burke Is Just Trying to Do Her Work

Originally published for The Cut on May 10, 2021.

In October of 2017, the actress Alyssa Milano tweeted, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” Since then, the term Me Too has taken on many forms: a viral hashtag, shorthand for a Hollywood reckoning, and a tongue-in-cheek barb. When she tweeted those words nearly four years ago, Milano didn’t know that a woman from the South Bronx had already invited survivors of sexual abuse to say “Me Too.”

Back then, Tarana Burke, a survivor herself, was working as an organizer and nonprofit leader in Selma, Alabama. In 2006, she’d founded the organization Just Be Inc., which focuses primarily on helping young girls of color who have experienced sexual abuse, assault, or exploitation. It was in 2006 that she wrote “me too” on a MySpace page, emphasizing the notion that mass healing, particularly for Black girls, is a radical act of love, empathy, and community care.

Despite Me Too’s origins, many have wondered when Black women’s experiences would receive the same level of attention as high-profile exposés. #MuteRKelly was the culmination of a decade-long effort; and despite testimony from Beverly JohnsonBill Cosby’s reckoning was positioned as a response to white women’s accusations. The initial open letter from the Hollywood-led initiative Time’s Up was overwhelmingly signed by white women.

In recent years, however, multiple Black women have chosen to bravely come into the spotlight and share their stories. Drew Dixon, Sil Lai Abrams, Sheri Sher, Jenny Lumet, and others boldly detailed their traumatic experiences with alleged serial predator Russell Simmons in interviews, reported exposés, and the award-nominated On the RecordFKA Twigs alleged that Shia LaBeouf abused her during their relationship, setting a new precedent by filing a tort claim with the intent of donating any damages to domestic violence charities. Rapper T.I. and wife Tameka “Tiny” Harris are facing allegations of sexual assault and facilitating abuse after dozens of messages surfaced on Instagram (the two have not been charged with any crime, and have denied all wrongdoing). Alleah Taylor was introduced to the world while fighting for her life after she was allegedly brutally assaulted by her ex-boyfriend, former Seattle Seahawks offensive tackle Chad Wheeler. Despite these horrors making it into the mainstream, there’s still a lack of intersectional analysis and acknowledgment of the nuanced differences for nonwhite survivors. And meanwhile, the public awaits a magical watershed moment for Black survivors.

As the movement continues to confront the harm exacted on Black lives, the question lingers: How do we establish a framework to protect Black survivors, particularly those who aren’t established public figures? The Cut spoke with Tarana Burke about the current state of Me Too, recent headlines about gendered violence in the Black community, and the effort to create anti-carceral community tools and networks of support for working-class Black women.

Continue reading

HOW DJ KITTY CA$H IS CREATING SPACE FOR BLACK WOMEN THROUGH ANIMATION

Originally published for Nylon on December 14th, 2020

Kitty Ca$h is an artist, producer, DJ, and universe all unto her own, having worked with everyone from SZA to Rihanna. In the midst of one of the most destabilizing pandemics of the modern era, Ca$h worked to find and reclaim a happy space for herself and others, combing through the archives of her text messages and the routines that have long brought her comfort.

Through that excavation arrived Kitty’s World, a new IGTV series, and digital reinvigoration of the feeling of running home to watch the BET classic talk show Cita’s World from the early aughts. Reprising the titular role through a contemporary lens, and pushing the vanguard of couture, digital collation, vulnerability, and community, Ca$h created a bridge between generations through the purview of an avatar — each episode a reflection of the different layers of a Black woman’s experience, anchored by contemporary music. From challenging gender norms to honoring the Black Lives Matter movement through music, the cultural innovator worked to bring prescient conversations to the forefront of her animated series through a combination of uninhibited creativity, sharpness, and trust in a collective vision of voices.

NYLON recently spoke with Kitty Ca$h about the series and her hopes for the next season.

Continue reading

The Fight for $15 Is More Important Than Ever

Originally published for Complex on Oct 20, 2020.


In 2012, 200 fast food workers went on strike outside of a McDonald’s on 40th and Madison in Manhattan, demanding fair wages and a union. 

In the almost eight years since, much has changed—the flagship Times Square location shuttered in June of 2020, and what was once dismissed as a fringe idea is now a popular national platform, for both Democratic and Republican voters. Seven states (and the District of Columbia), along with 15 cities and counties, passed legislation to gradually increase the wage to $15 an hour—resulting in $78 billion in raises for more than 24 million workers—and the Raise the Wage Act was successfully passed in the House.

Continue reading

Julian Castro on the 2020 Election: ‘President Trump Is Trying to Stoke White Fear’

Originally posted on Complex October 8th 2020.


2020 has been a year plagued by a lack of clarity and direction, with great loss exacerbated by deep systemic inequalities. The troubling conditions, in America, have been buttressed with recent audio confirming that the executive office knew about the ruinous potential of COVID-19, and willfully misled the public. So far, the death toll from the virus has crossed 200,000.  Deep fissures in the country’s fabric have been exposed, revealing the urgence of policy around healthcare, immigration, housing, and policing. Amongst all of the noise, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro has been at the vanguard, facilitating these conversations on the national stage. 

Despite not being a front-runner during primary season, Castro has made waves for framing the immigration conversation around policies such as Section 1325 and 287(g), which criminalizes illegal entry and enforces compulsory collaboration with local law enforcement. Castro focuses on repositioning the narrative of the “American Dream” as one that should be reformed and enabled rather than obstructed, considering the amount of national investment in the flawed precept that we are a country built on the backs of immigrants.

Continue reading

Sil Lai Abrams Talks Russell Simmons & ‘On the Record’ Doc

This originally published on July 16th 2020 in The Cut.


For years, Sil Lai Abrams has maintained that she was sexually assaulted by one of the music industry’s elite in 1994 when she was a young model during a visit to New York. The writer and domestic-violence activist first wrote about it in her 2007 book No More Drama, but didn’t she name hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons directly until two years ago in a piece for the Hollywood ReporterAbrams and Simmons’s yearslong friendship — which included a fleeting intimate relationship and Abrams’s brief stint as an executive assistant at Def Jam — came careening to a halt after the alleged rape.Abrams says that thetrauma of such a harrowing event triggered a suicide attempt that she almost didn’t survive. But people are finally listening.

Continue reading

Bree Newsome is Knocking You Off Your Pedestal

Originally published for Complex on. August 28th, 2020


A little over five years have passed since Bree Newsome commanded the nation’s newsfeeds with the insurgent act of stripping the South Carolina State House of its Confederate adornments. Despite a shift in administration, a viral pandemic and media cycles that have wildly accelerated in the wake of record unemployment and quarantine, as Newsome herself does not hesitate to point out, the more things have changed, the more they stay the same. “The system itself is the problem,” she explains. “I don’t think that the existing system can bring solutions because it’s not broken.”

In the time since her arrest, Newsome has remain unbowed, committing to coalition work in her current residence of North Carolina—such as the Housing Justice Coalition in Charlotte and its state-level campaigns such as #NeedAHome2StayAtHome. She continues to use her social and digital platforms to try to effect grassroots disruption. Simultaneously, monuments around the country—Stonewall Jackson in Richmond, Virginia, and Christopher Columbus in Boston, for example—are toppling at a much higher rate than when Newsome initially made headlines. For some, this was a harbinger of an uprising that has yet to fully materialize, while the ever-looming conversation around the November 2020 election casts its shadow over daily protests and steadily increasing unemployment numbers.

Continue reading

Yara Shahidi Is a New Kind of Young Hollywood Mogul

This story originally published on August 12, 2020 in WSJ. Mag


Ask Yara Shahidi how she self-identifies and she will reply that she is not an activist but “a creative and socially engaged human.” The 20-year-old polymath has been in the entertainment industry since first appearing in TV commercials at the age of 6, and she made her big-screen debut alongside Eddie Murphy in the 2009 comedy Imagine That. Since then, starring roles on Kenya Barris’s series black-ish and grown-ish—playing cool older sister Zoey Johnson—have placed her among the vanguard of young Hollywood. Shahidi has also been a brand ambassador for Chanel and Bobbi Brown Cosmetics and was featured in several ad campaigns for Coach. For her young fans, she’s served as a voice on social justice in the arts and more. Her personal social media channels put her politics into practice: One day, she’s leading a back-and-forth with her fans about the works of James Baldwin via Instagram, and the next, creating a TikTok urging teens to register to vote. She’s also currently enrolled as a full-time student at Harvard University.

Now the actress, alongside her mother, Keri Shahidi, aims to take her reformist energy behind the camera. The two Shahidis are the co-presidents of the newly formed 7th Sun Productions, part of a overall deal with ABC Studios, announced last month. Her mother is an actress herself, and her father, Afshin Shahidi, is a cinematographer who was formerly Prince’s personal photographer. Shahidi views this new endeavor as one for her whole family, and she says that “the goal at the end of the day is to make powerful media but to also push the door wide open.”

The day of WSJ.’s conversation with Shahidi happens to be the one-year anniversary of her idol Toni Morrison’s death. “Toni Morrison set the foundation for these conversations,” she says, referring to the Nobel Prize winner’s efforts to prioritize Black life and stories. “Pushing back on the sentiments of Blackness having to be universalized in a way that isn’t expected of a Pride and Prejudice,” says Shahidi. “Those worlds did not have us in mind when they were being created.” Indebted gratitude, as Shahidi calls it, is a guiding principle of hers as she looks to Morrison and Baldwin for guidance on how to stay authentic to her artistic passions.

For the past few years, Shahidi headed a youth vote initiative called Eighteen x 18 and worked alongside progressive news site NowThis. They hosted an in-person summit for youth activists in 2018 with over 120 young activists in attendance. For the 2020 election, she and the initiative, now going by WeVoteNext, are working to provide accurate candidate information to first-time voters.

Here, in her own words, Shahidi explains the formation of 7th Sun Productions, imagining new worlds in media and her voting initiatives. 

Versace dress, price upon request, select Versace stores, Shahidi’s own bracelets. Styling by Jason Bolden, Hair by Keri Shahidi, Makeup Direction by Emily Cheng. 
PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHED BY TEXAS ISAIAH

It took months to find a name for 7th Sun. We wanted to make sure that the first touchpoint with us was very clear as to what we represented. Funny enough, I was in conversation with [philosopher and public intellectual] Dr. Cornel West, and he was talking about W.E.B. Du Bois. Having read The Souls of Black Folk, I noted that Du Bois says that the Black person is the seventh son, s-o-n. We’d wanted to find a way to use that but also subvert it, to degender it, which was how we arrived at seventh sun, s-u-n

I’ve always viewed our family as being all-around creative. It was never a conversation of Well, I really want to do this and them saying no. It was Dream bigger and dream more. Production has been a field that our family has been passionate about for years. As an actor, I find it’s exciting because for once, the stories we get to tell are in no way confined by roles that I can play. It’s not about servicing me as an actor—to be like, Let’s create the dream role for me. As a storyteller, I have more freedom than ever because our company is either telling stories that are authentic to us, or we have the ability to partner with people and tell stories pertaining to other communities. That’s been the most exciting part about it; it really expands creative potential. 

At 20, I’m working on honoring all of my desires, honoring what I’m passionate about. The lesson that my mother taught me at a really young age is the fact that my voice belongs in these spaces. At the same time, I feel like I’ve been unintentionally trained to be an amenable person. Being amenable has oftentimes been weaponized against [Black artists], because we operate in the binary of either you’re amenable or you’re aggressive. As we create things that haven’t been seen before, we’re also saying, OK, let’s redefine the concept of risk when you’re bringing in a young writer of color or a young writer of any [race, sexuality, gender, etc.]. 

The art of storytelling is something that I still admire in every form, whether it’s Barry Jenkins or Issa Rae—and the fact that we’ve seen Issa go from YouTube to her own show to her own label to owning her own coffee shop speaks to the depth of vision. The first season of [Rae’s HBO show] Insecure came with a soundtrack featuring a ton of incredible Black artists. I remember watching Donald Glover in season one of [Atlanta, his show on FX]. It was the episode that was like a fake C-Span episode, with fake commercials. It was so genre-bending. What it affirmed to me is that we have the opportunity to train our audience. That episode was just a reminder that Black artists get to lead the way as creatives and trust that we are in a world of smart consumers, and that they’re either gonna get it or they’re gonna move on to a show that they do resonate with. 

Many creators inspire me, especially young ones, like [20-year-old] Phillip Youmans, who did [the 2019 critically acclaimed drama] Burning Cane. I feel like we’re really seeing the uptick in incredibly young filmmakers because Hollywood is becoming more accessible in terms of the ability to produce and distribute content. But we know that the digital space, especially for Black and brown creators, is extremely divisive. When you put content out into the world [on social media], based on those terms and agreements that we all clickthrough, the content isn’t ours. It ends up being co-opted, and it ends up being taken and not credited. 

Alberta Ferretti polo, $695, shirt,$495, and pants, $525, saks.com, Christian Louboutin heels, $895, christianlouboutin.com, Shahidi’s own bracelets. Styling by Jason Bolden, Hair by Keri Shahidi, Makeup Direction by Emily Cheng. 
PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHED BY TEXAS ISAIAH

The way that I’m trying to use my platform has been: How can I be a conduit for voter education as a young person who’s similarly developing my opinion in the world? One thing that most of my generation knows is that policy is personal. In the past couple of months, we’ve seen it more clearly than ever. 

In times when it’s hard to figure out what my purpose is, I often turn back and think about how many of our great leaders had to watch their peers die. They knew the stakes of the work they were doing, and they were doing it for a future that wasn’t guaranteed. They were doing it for a future that they couldn’t imagine. Congressman John Lewis being 17 when he started civil action,19 when he became a civil-rights leader, in his 20s when he was speaking at the March on Washington—he knew that he was risking his life. It’s remiss to say that we don’t reap the benefits of their progress every day. Their work had to be driven in a deep sense of hope. The most radical leaders are the most hopeful, because that radicalism stems from a deep belief that some sort of change, extreme change, is possible. 

I constantly am trying to figure out—what is my role, how can I be of service to the best of my abilities? It’s something that I’m tweaking and refining daily. It’s a thrilling time to be in media right now. We’re actively talking about the fact that it has to be restructured to prioritize new voices. And with that comes the opportunity to—in the kindest way possible—burn down the traditional infrastructure that has kept us out for so long and present something completely new. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Netflix’s ‘Strong Black Lead’ Marketing Team Shows the Power (and Business Benefit) of Amplifying Black Voices

This originally published on August 6th 2020 in The Hollywood Reporter.


On June 28, 3.7 million people watched as the BET Awards went virtual amid not only the COVID-19 pandemic but also uprisings for racial justice happening daily across the country. The show (largely) successfully closed in around a tagline — “Our culture can’t be canceled” — and struck a harmonious balance between the gravitas of the Movement for Black Lives and the need for celebratory entertainment.

Two years prior, in that very awards ceremony, Netflix’s Strong Black Lead marketing team premiered its “A Great Day in Hollywood” commercial, tying the current wave of reinvigorated interest in Black stories to an iconic 1958 photograph by Art Kane, which captured jazz greats from Thelonious Monk to Dizzy Gillespie, in Harlem during the genre’s golden era. With 47 Black actors, writers, showrunners and producers across 20 shows, the spot aimed to bring a message into sharp focus: “This is not a moment, this is a movement.” It wasn’t merely a response to hashtags like #OscarsSoWhite, but rather a harbinger of what was to come as SBL worked to establish a cultural resonance, combining marketing and editorial in a concerted effort to shift the ethos and culture within the Netflix brand.

“You know it was special when you started going out to talent, and everybody was like, ‘I’ll drop everything, just tell me when,’ ” says Maya Watson, Netflix’s director of editorial and publishing. Reflecting on “A Great Day,” she says it was almost like they sensed today’s zeitgeist coming, “It was like a little whisper that I feel people felt: It’s our time. It’s time to shift the narratives in Hollywood. It’s time to have more representation.”

Strong Black Lead is a sub-brand of Netflix that amplifies content specifically targeted to various slices of the Black experience. While it has its own vertical on Netflix, boasting the deepest bench of Black programming among the top streaming services, it has also become a popular brand outside the platform at the cross-section of technology, culture and community-building.

“A few Black [staffers] were like, ‘Hey, we want to start prioritizing and talking to the Black audience,’ ” says Watson, who, before moving to Netflix, worked for Oprah Winfrey and former President Barack Obama. “Our colleagues were like, ‘Cool, what do you need from us to get it done?’

Since then, the team has worked to establish SBL as an integral part of Netflix through editorial content and original programming created exclusively for the brand. With almost a half-million followers on Instagram and 163,000 and counting on Twitter, successful initiatives include the #HeyQueen shortform video series featuring such celebrated Black women as former first lady Michelle Obama and Angela Bassett reciting affirmations, the Strong Black Legends podcast and video series where stars of classic Black movies are interviewed, and #BetweenTwoFaves, which highlights conversations among icons across the Black diaspora in entertainment. (One of the most popular was a chat between Phylicia Rashad and Cicely Tyson timed to their latest film, Tyler Perry’s A Fall From Grace.)

Myles Worthington, who worked for Netflix PR before joining the SBL team as a director, says one standout has been the biweekly podcast Okay, Now Listen with Sylvia Obell and Scottie Beam. Close friends, the two Black women discuss what they’re dealing with at any given moment — from belting out gospel to speaking candidly about sex — with a firmly Black cultural frame of reference (Nora Ephron, in one episode, is referred to as “the white Terry McMillan”).

Obell says working with SBL gave her the budget to do Okay, Now Listen properly and an all-Black team supporting her on a day-to-day basis. “It’s empowering,” she said, adding that it’s a “safe space for Black women to create something dope.”

Jasmyn Lawson, a manager on the team who also produces its podcasts, says that at the beginning of SBL they weren’t sure what to post. Netflix had original series like critical darlings Dear White People and She’s Gotta Have It, but their programming needed a broader voice, so they turned to data to find out what else resonates with viewers.

“Ninety percent of the time the things that would perform well and things people were responding to were things where we were celebrating Black culture,” Lawson recalls. “We homed in on what we were great at.”

Strong Black Leads -HOLLYWOOD Portrait -Netflix - EMBED - 2020
Courtesy of Kwaku Alston/NetflixNetflix’s Strong Black Lead team and dozens of Hollywood talent re-created Art Kane’s iconic 1958 photograph “A Great Day in Harlem.”

In the broadcast TV eras of the ’90s and early aughts, entire programming blocks were built around shows with majority Black casts. UPN evenings were anchored by Girlfriends and Everybody Hates Chris. Fox’s North Star was In Living Color. But when the rubber met the road, consistent marketing dollars were not given to shows with majority Black casts and audiences. Now, with Netflix’s marketing budget growing to $2.6 billion in 2019, the opportunities are plentiful for a team like SBL and its sister verticals (NetflixIsaJoke, theMost and Con Todo) to build out their content and reach.

“Being able to aggregate content, voice, style and design toward any particular demographic, in this case people of color, is just smart online community-building,” says Richard Lachman, associate professor of digital media at Ryerson University in Toronto. “These sub-brands can be empowered to build relationships with press, creators and audiences on their own.”

Defining “Black content,” however, can be a bit nebulous. For example, does Shonda Rhimes’ programming count, even when she has majority white casts? The answer may come down to how the consumer engages with it.

While some Netflix titles like Dear White People are no-brainers, Lawson notes that what the SBL audience sometimes wants to talk about isn’t so obvious. “One of my favorite shows on Netflix is Sex Education, which isn’t a Black show. It isn’t even a U.S. show,” she says. “But there’s a character named Eric played by Ncuti [Gatwa] that the audience has loved and is obsessed with. I think it’s something really rare. He’s not just like the Black best friend. You get to explore his queer identity, his religious identity, his African [identity] as well as his Britishness in the show.”

Celebrating legacies is also a priority for the brand, especially through the Strong Black Legends podcast. The series aims to give beloved performers their flowers while they can still share in the moment, and one of those moments went viral in a very bittersweet way. Just a few months before his death, actor John Witherspoon was interviewed by host Tracy Clayton. A Netflix promotional photo of the Friday star was widely shared upon news of his passing, and was even displayed at his funeral. 

“People only really see the final output, you only see that wicker chair photo, you only hear that interview,” says Netflix community manager Dani Howe of the image. “But. in my head, I thought, ‘Wow. Jasmyn worked her ass off and a Black woman did that. A Black woman gave us that final moment.’ “

These moves have not inoculated Netflix from growing pains when it comes to addressing diversity and inclusion. In 2018, former communications chief Jonathan Friedland was fired over his repeated use of the N-word. In November 2019, comedian and Oscar-winning actress Mo’Nique sued the company, alleging race- and gender-based discrimination over the pay she was offered for a stand-up special. Most recently, British multihyphenate Michaela Coel revealed that her critically acclaimed series I May Destroy You didn’t land at Netflix, despite a $1 million offer, because of the company’s unwillingness to allow her to retain a share of the copyright.

The streamer’s public U.S. workforce demographics also show there’s still work to be done: Only 7 percent of the staff is Black (although that is almost double the reported figures from 2018).

Lachman says it’s important that offering inclusive content doesn’t distract from fixing those underlying issues. “Inclusion can’t only be marketing,” he says. “It needs to reach the level of the senior executive and the key decision-maker.” (Tendo Nagendo is vp original film and in July, Netflix hired Bozoma Saint John as chief marketing officer.)

Adds TimeJump Media CEO Larissa Lowthorp, “A market vertical, or niche focus, will backfire if the audience perceives that it’s been done solely to capitalize on current trends, consumer sentiment or tragedy. In order to be successful, and also ethical, the marketing niche must be driven by a genuine need to serve and represent a specific audience, use their core data, test viewership and [use] feedback to better the brand.”

The SBL team isn’t shying away from those tough conversations. “We’re at a time now where people are being very critical and should be very critical of the companies that are creating our content,” says Lawson. “I want our audience to respect us for listening to them, [and know] that we are giving opportunities to Black directors and Black folks behind the scenes.”

That Black content is currently trending isn’t good enough for SBL’s team. They want it to be sustainable. With Netflix’s marketing machine at its back, and direct, authentic interaction with their audience, they’re able to understand what people want.

“We have super insights sitting there in the comments,” says Worthington. “Here’s the storylines, the characters, the creators that really resonate. They can use this as a way to deeper understand the audience and they can make better choices on product content decisions.”

Investments of this sort recently paid off in a significant way. After Netflix acquired seven classic Black UPN shows, including Girlfriends and Moesha, SBL turned the news into a viral moment for the company with a tweet that nabbed 170,000 likes and prompted the approving hashtag #okaynetflix to trend.

“You can’t make a campaign like this,” Watson remarks. “It comes from a deep place of understanding the void in the marketplace. And then saying, ‘This needs to exist.’ “

Five New Yorkers Describe How Michael Bloomberg’s Era of Stop-and-Frisk Changed New York City

Originally published for OkayPlayer in March 2020.


Michael Bloomberg’s support of stop-and-frisk during his time as New York City mayor continues to follow him in his 2020 presidential campaign. We talked to five New Yorkers about how the policy impacted the city. 

The recent and rapid elevation of Michael Bloomberg‘s Presidential campaign into the national discourse is reminiscent, in many ways, of his original mayoral run in New York City in 2002. Forgoing fundraising from the public, he has nonetheless outspent his opponents multiple times over, having made FEC filings detailing $460 million in expenditures since announcing his bid in November of 2019. Both then and now, the largesse-via-electioneering nullified the opportunity for many opposing candidates to be comparably competitive or resonant as they were drowned out by a blank check and name recognition. Bloomberg’s presidential campaign has also resurfaced three words that leave an acrid taste in the majority of New Yorkers’ mouths — stop-and-frisk. A longstanding policing practice that disproportionately targeted Black and Brown communities in NYC, stop-and-frisk was defended by Bloomberg’s administration during — and well after — his departure from office.  

The phraseology behind the policy has taken on many forms as the decades have progressed, shapeshifting in language as administrations have waded in and out of Gracie Mansion. When former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani lorded over the five boroughs with former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton flanking him, the terminology that was used was known as broken windows policing. But New Yorkers’ lips have also formed other words over the years that trigger responses that are just as polarizing: Terry stops, stop-question-and-frisk, and the shorthand stop-and-frisk itself. Imagine, for example, the daily fanfare for “New York’s Finest,” and consider the protracted dissonance felt within communities of color after the tragic events of September 11. Spending night after night expressing gratitude for a group of men and women who, at a moment’s notice, could exact unspeakable horrors on the communities they were praised for protecting. The incidents that did make it into the national consciousness — Amadou DialloEric Garner, and Kalief Browder — may have shocked the country, but it simply laid bare wounds that New Yorkers had been carrying for years. Those traumas have been pulled back into the foreground with the fear of a competitive Bloomberg campaign. As it was recently written in an impassioned open letter to communities of color by New York organizers and officials in advance of Super Tuesday, “the extent of harm, humiliation and terror that the Bloomberg administration’s daily racial profiling and police violence caused in Black, Latinx and other communities of color cannot be overstated.”

The figures have been parsed through ad-nauseam in recent years, proving the failure of the program to successfully meet its stated objectives throughout Bloomberg’s mayoral tenure. An exegesis of the program, however, will show that it was actually quite successful, and worked exactly as designed. With every stop, New York’s gilded class was able to imprint a painful reminder that no matter how hard you may fight, the city does not — and will never — actually belong to you. You can see it in nearly every tweet that cascades down the #mybloombergstory hashtag which, as described by Dr. Jacob Remes of New York University, is “filled with stories of harassment and worse from Muslim, Black, and Brown New Yorkers who lived through Bloomberg’s racist authoritarianism.”

In speaking to fellow New Yorkers who lived through the Bloomberg era, it’s apparent that this pain is still very much tangible for many of us, with deep, multigenerational harms that we are still recovering from and enduring. It has laid waste to our siblings, our friends and ourselves. 


Tiffany Caban, 32, Astoria, Queens

Photo Credit: Polly Irungu for Okayplayer.com

It was in early 2002 when I was politicized and became more aware of differences in our communities. My parents grew up in the projects and my dad got a union gig, and we were able to move in a small home in Richmond Hill. I went to public school in a low-income neighborhood for elementary and junior high, but went to a private Catholic High School in Fresh Meadows in an entirely different neighborhood. That is where I could see the jarring different signs on what neighborhood looks like, and specifically what overpoliced neighborhoods look like as opposed to other neighborhoods. My best friends were constantly getting harassed or roughed up by the police, or had police officers in school and getting suspended. There’s a palpable difference to walking into a school where people feel free to move, free to exist, and don’t have those kinds of other stressors in their life.

When you look at places where we’re overpoliced and over surveilled, what we’re also talking about is a lack of resources to allow people to deal with their trauma and heal. So, trauma begets change, which begets instability, which begets violence. We’re quick to draw these surface-level conclusions about what happens in certain neighborhoods and not talk about what the root causes of violence are, and how we can tie that to trauma caused by state-sanctioned violence.

[As a public defender] you also see an overwhelming amount of young Black and brown men. But when we pick up those cases, you know who’s sitting in the courtroom? It’s the girlfriends and their wives and their children, and that disrupts and affects their lives in very significant ways. Whether it’s people that are scrounging up their last dollars for bail, people that are risking losing their housing or their job. A lot of times when we’re dealing with cases, people think that our biggest concern or fear is like, “Oh, God, I gotta make sure that I don’t end up with criminal records on this case,” or “I want the best legal outcome.” When, in reality, the lawyers are doing more social work or other services. Because the real purpose of the person that’s directly affected is something else that has to do with their living situation or their family, in terms of how destabilizing the arrest and the court appearances are for their lives. 

Photo Credit: Polly Irungu for Okayplayer.com

I had a client who was charged with a misdemeanor, and he had been arrested a handful of times. So, the prosecutor was offering jail or probation on this misdemeanor sentence. We had this very real conversation where [the client] was like, “Ms. Caban, I don’t know. I think I might take the 45 days in jail because I will never last on probation, because these same cops are roughing me up every other day.”

It still happens every single day. A really easy place to see it happening is here in Queens with the loitering for the purpose of prostitution. Predominantly trans women of color are being stopped and arrested for existing and walking down the street. That is another iteration of stop-and-frisk. Nobody has ruled that statute unconstitutional, because we’re talking about people who are on the margins of the margin. Unfortunately, there is not enough political will behind it to have the organizing and movement that it took to get to where we were on stop-and-frisk, and being able to get it to the courts and have it ruled unconstitutional. 

We have consistently taken these stances without centering or allowing survivors or victims to lead, and instead said, “Hey, we’re going to do these really harmful things to our Black and brown communities that create the optics of safety for white wealthy folks, at the expense of actual safety of the hands of state-sanctioned violence for Black and brown people.”

Ryan Anderson, 34, Cambria Heights, Queens

Photo Credit: Polly Irungu for Okayplayer.com

Until this day — whether I’m driving or whether I’m walking — when I see a NYPD officer my heart specifically skips a beat. I’m terrified. I usually move over and brake, no matter how fast I’m going.

The presence wasn’t as there as much where I grew up. But when I would go to 40 Projects [South Jamaica Houses] or certain parts…when you’re playing basketball, and the cops will just roll into the park and put everybody up against the fence and start asking you questions.

Photo Credit: Polly Irungu for Okayplayer.com

We were walking down Jamaica Avenue [once] — this was senior year of high school. I was walking back from work. I would go to McDonald’s and then come home after work. Walking down the avenue myself — maybe two blocks away from Jamaica — two cops stopped me and asked me “where I was going.” “Sir, I just left work. I’m headed to the bus station. I’m headed home.” “Well, we’ve heard that there’s been some noises and some issues in the area. So we want to just check to make sure that you’re good.” They pushed me up against the wall and proceeded to search and, of course, I don’t have anything on me. The worst part about it is that there’s never an apology. You have to take it or you know what happens if you kick back. That’s when you end up going to holding [detention center], that’s when you may end up being folded — even if you are 100% clean.

It’s scary to say but I’ve hit double digits [in stops] — I’ll leave it at that.

Civil, [Age Not Disclosed] Bushwick, Brooklyn

Photo Credit: Polly Irungu for Okayplayer.com

When you think about Harlem and Bedford–Stuyvesant, gentrification is clearly occurring in these areas. but you still see a semblance of the culture. Whereas like Bushwick, the culture was ate up within the span of that police presence. Just use the Puerto Rican Day parade as an example. It would go on until maybe 10, 11 [PM]. Now you won’t even hear nothing. Like, you will hear one horn beep. Block parties are not the same.

Photo Credit: Polly Irungu for Okayplayer.com

One of my close friends’ son was born one day, and we went to celebrate around the corner at this Chinese restaurant-bar. There was a group of girls that my friend knew from the block…he’s just saying, “What up” or whatever. The cops come out — they’ve been tailing them — and then just start pressing us. They push all of us against the wall, start frisking us. One of the cops is like, shook. I can see he’s scared. I’m like, “This is how shit happens.” This guy has his hand on his gun, and they’re trying to tell them to leave the young girls alone. We were there for like, 20, 30 minutes.

[I’ve been in] uncomfortable situations where it’s me by myself being pressed by five cops. I’m late to go somewhere…and the line of question is like, they’re asking me about shit in the Bronx, even though I’m deep in Brooklyn. They took my ID, walked off for 20 minutes, and just seemed like they were trying to place me somewhere.

Candace Simpson, [Age Not Disclosed] Flatbush, Brooklyn

Photo Credit: Polly Irungu for Okayplayer.com

I actually went to the same [high school] Bernie Sanders went to — [James] Madison. Madison was the kind of school where people came from all over. I was coming from Flatbush; my boyfriend at the time was coming from Canarsie; people were coming from East New York. So there’s this bus stop where the B7 and the B82 meet. We would all hang out and congregate right there. We would take the bus to like Utica-ish — where like the Wendy’s and the McDonald’s was — or we would take the B6 to the Junction.

One time we were coming from Madison and we ended up near Midwood High School. These cops — I don’t know if they were NYPD cops or if they were school safety agents because they wore the same uniforms — stopped us, and I was the only girl. There was like six of us. Then the cop was like, “Oh, can I see your student ID?” and we’re what — 15,16. This was before my understanding that interactions like that could become deadly. So, I was like, very bratty and very, you know, “I know my rights, my momma’s gonna call my lawyer.” In my mind, I’m thinking that I’m good, but the guys around me were kind of shook. Eventually, we showed the ID, and the cop was like, “You guys just match the description of someone we’re looking for.”

Multiple things are happening at once with the uptick of stop and frisk. That happens at the same time as major landscape changes for socializing for Black and brown youth. Empire [rolling rink in Brooklyn] doesn’t exist anymore, the movie theater at Kings Plaza doesn’t exist anymore. There are very few places where Black children can go and not be policed. What stop-and-frisk did to us over time, was it helped people to see groups of Black children out and wonder, “What y’all doin’?”…the places where we would go are being demolished, resold…our owners are being bought out. There are so many spaces that meant a lot to me as a teenager that don’t exist anymore. 

Photo Credit: Polly Irungu for Okayplayer.com

[Ending stop-and-frisk?] That’s like asking people who were enslaved before and after the proclamation went out. Like, it’s not on the books anymore, but if we were to carry that analogy, people are still sharecropping. There’s still a disproportionate force of oppression on Black and brown communities. People say that stop-and-frisk ended as an official policy in 2017. I don’t feel a difference. If I feel a difference it’s because neighborhoods are changing.

My hope, is that we can really get to a place where all Black lives matter, and we don’t negotiate or sacrifice the most vulnerable among us. Because once we surrender and sacrifice someone, then the logic just becomes open, and it’s just a matter of time before it gets to you. So, just because you don’t have somebody who’s locked up doesn’t mean that you should not care.

Gregory Herrera, 30, Washington Heights, NY

[In the Early 2000s] cops stopping kids who were not in school for “truancy” was still a thing…I was absent a lot from school — pretty much most of my academic life for a variety of reasons like taking care of my younger siblings if we couldn’t get a babysitter, helping my mom do shit, or just because I didn’t want to go to school. My mom was like, “Fine, whatever, your grades are good, I don’t have to worry about that.” So if I had to go to the store or something it was very much like, “I’m going to run down to the store real quick and come back up fast, because if a cop stops you they have the right to come up to you.”…my sense was just like, “I don’t really want to come across cops. They stop kids for being truants and they’ll stick you in the back of a van.”

It must have been ’04, ’05. We had this, like, big bulky Hewlett-Packard computer and it had a virus. A [Puerto Rican] friend of mine from church was like, “Yeah, bring it over to my house. I’ll wipe it clean, delete the hard drive whatever, reinstall it fresh.” I was like, “Cool.” So I put it in a trash bag and just took it over to him…by J Hood Wright Park…like West of Broadway, a little bit past Fort Washington which, if you’re born or raised in the Heights, that’s the white people side of the Heights.

A couple days go by, I go get it. I must have made it like a block and a half…I noticed this like, pudgy, middle-aged, nondescript white guy. Then I hear, “Oh, what’s that?” and I’m so caught off on the question that I answered it. The next thing I know, he catches up to me and goes like, “Police, stop right there” and shoved me up against the wall. I’m so thrown off by everything that’s happening that I dropped the computer and it lands on my foot a little bit. I had some form of ID — eventually, he was like, “It’s just, you know, we’ve got reports of people stealing computers around here,” and then he walks away.

It was just terrifying, fast as hell. And it just made me just be like, “I got to be on guard for all types of motherfuckers,” because this guy was dressed regularly and he wasn’t dressed like a cop or anything. If I see [cops] somewhere I’m clocking where they are and paying attention to where they’re moving to, because I don’t want to be near them. I don’t want them to be near me.

There are still people that are being stopped, questioned and then frisked. So it affects my actual job [as a public defender] immensely. Several of my clients — the reason that they have criminal charges — are based on stop-and-frisk type interactions.

Check out 2020 primary election dates here.