"It matters who sits in these seats": an interview with Maya Wiley

A conversation with the lawyer, professor, former city official, and current New York mayoral candidate

New York City will elect a new mayor this year. It is already a crowded field, with Andrew Yang, the former presidential candidate, recently throwing his hat in. And running as well is the lawyer, professor, and former city official Maya Wiley, whom I spoke to about her vision the other day.

Maya worked in the administration of the current mayor, Bill de Blasio, and has some pointed things to say about his tenure. And she also has an ambitious vision for reining in the NYPD, one of the most powerful and independent-minded police forces on earth, and making it clear to the force that it works for the mayor.

I was particularly struck by the story she told about absorbing the lessons of her activist parents, and then going her own way. I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I enjoyed having it with her.

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“It is incumbent upon the mayor to say, ‘No. You don't get to do that. You work for me’”: a conversation with Maya Wiley

ANAND: I'll begin by fast-forwarding to the end. Let's imagine you are leaving office after two terms as mayor. How does the city look different? How is it different because of your tenure?

MAYA: The entire way in which we do policing is different. We have significantly more investment and support for things like mental health services. Much more vibrant, community-based organization — that is, solving problems at the neighborhood level in partnership with the government. Obviously, we have recovered from Covid, but we've done it in a way where we have more permanently affordable housing and smart services. Instead of having street homeless — who were really the evicted, who need support for mental health, rehabilitation services, drug addictions — they are getting support and thriving in homes they can call their own.

We'll have more public transportation, more open streets. We will have seen small businesses proliferating. And, frankly, we'll see a city that's much more responsive to its people. And we will certainly have seen a closing of Rikers Island.

ANAND:  Who does New York work for right now?

MAYA: New York works for those who have resources to navigate a city that is so incredibly unaffordable. That is the unfortunate, sad reality because, as we know, even if you're middle class in this city — not even low-income or very low-income — if you’re middle class, you're struggling to navigate this city, even if your income might be quite good by standards in other cities. As we know, and as we saw with Covid, if you're a person of color in this city, you're far too likely to be struggling not just to make ends meet, but to have basic dignity on your own streets.

That's concerning both police violence and city services like getting your trash picked up. This is just unacceptable and where we have to shift the balance of power away from those with resources, to have a much more equitable way of governing and respecting our people. Seeing every one of our people as people who deserve dignity, our investment, attention, and time.

ANAND: What's striking listening to you is that when the current mayor, Bill de Blasio, came in, his rhetoric was as populist as you're used to hearing in an American election. It was about the people versus the powerful. And yet, all these years later, it's still what you describe. What went wrong?

MAYA: First of all, I want to say in some respects it did work, in the sense that we have universal Pre-K now and an expansion into trying to build 3-K, and those are important to recognize. We got things done, like the first sanctuary city legislation that I'm very proud to have participated in. 

But I think what went wrong, frankly, was that we have to recognize that city government can be transformational and then call people to partner in making that real. Siloing becomes transactional. Partnering becomes transformational. And that partnering includes people in communities, it includes unions, it includes the private sector even.

There are ways in which the responsibility of the job is to pull people together, but to insist on principles being met and to navigate those partnerships.

ANAND:  You've had students in your time and have had to grade them. I wonder how you'd grade Mayor de Blasio on his tenure.

MAYA: It's easy to forget that government can be transformational because of the past seven years, but we shouldn't forget that we learned that it is possible. 

When I was in city government, I was doing everything from getting our women- and minority-owned business contracts up from $500 million a year to $1.6 billion to showing the government how you could get free broadband to every single unit of public housing in Queensbridge, something that the city government hadn't considered doing before. 

When I left, that fell off. I thought it was all set up and all ready to go, and I left city government and it didn't happen. And it wasn't because there weren't folks trying. It's because it is critically important to have leadership that holds on to the promises, commitments, and vision.

ANAND: I wonder which other cities in America or around the world you most want to steal ideas from. Where have you traveled and said, “The way they do that is much better than what New York does”?

MAYA: Barcelona has been an interesting place in thinking about everything from data privacy and digital access to really thinking about governance and governing in very open ways. I think mapping out plans and strategies for the city to be a more democratic place, but democratic in the sense of innovation and problem-solving. 

If you go to Paris, it's full of open streets, and there's a street culture in terms of outdoor dining. We've learned with Covid that we should be trying to take more advantage of what we've seen in some European cities. Something that has been happening more in New York City, like paid family leave, is doing a better job creating a social safety net for our folks. I am interested in learning from all the other ways cities are trying to figure things out, like protecting workers in a gig economy.

ANAND: You chaired the city’s police oversight agency. So I wanted to ask you: this summer, when the protests were happening, you saw some disgusting behavior from NYPD officers toward peaceful protestors. Then, as the presidential campaign wore on, it emerged that these police unions were not only pro-Trump, but vociferously pro-Trump, trollingly pro-Trump. To a lot of New Yorkers, it can feel that the NYPD is an occupying force more than serving and protecting. Is that a concern you share, and how would you address it?

MAYA: I definitely share the concern that we have, for far too long, had a political leadership held hostage by fear of police unions and the power of the police department. That is something we must change, because we’ve got to put the “public” back in public safety. Our people have to be able to say what the policies and priorities of policing are. Frankly, the policies and priorities of policing cannot be excessive force.

You get to get away with it and, in fact, be praised for it and be told you did a great job when you swung those batons or rolled those police vehicles into protesters or went and showed up with a siege-level force of two dozen police officers in riot gear to the apartment building of a Black Lives Matter activist without an arrest warrant because that activist used a bullhorn at a peaceful demonstration. That is simply outrageous and can't be defended.

It is incumbent upon the mayor to say, "No. You don't get to do that. You work for me, as the elected representative of the people of the City of New York." We have to transform policing. And I mean a soup-to-nuts transformation of the police department. I mean right-sizing it. I mean pulling out functions that shouldn’t be accomplished with someone with a badge and a gun, like mental-health crisis response, like fender benders that require someone to keep the street clear. We have a man up in northern Manhattan who was killed because he wasn't wearing a seatbelt. I mean, this is outrageous. It is not public safety.

As you and I both know, we couldn't be in a job getting complaint after complaint after complaint and hold onto that job, and the police shouldn’t either. It's just that simple. One of the things that I will do as mayor is create a participatory justice fund, using savings from policing when we cut the fat and focus on the investments that communities need to be safe from crime and violence, including gun violence. The participatory justice fund will enable communities to build up the interventions that create more public safety, because I hear from communities that they want investment in education. They want investment in youth job programs. They want investment in trauma-informed care as a way of keeping them safe.

ANAND: That leads very nicely to this notion of defunding the police and the thorny politics and policy of it. You've had, as you know, everyone from activists to President Obama to Democratic messaging experts to moderates in Congress weighing in on this — about whether it's helpful, whether it's the right idea, whether it's the right phrase. How do you see that whole debate?

MAYA: I think that whole debate is ignoring the primary point. The primary point is restoring human dignity in our streets, particularly in overpoliced communities that want investment rather than containment and control. That's what the demonstrations were asking for and demanding. I was marching in them. I know what folks were asking for. 

I'm going to talk about what I will do and how I will partner with people to be responsive to what they are asking for. That is investment, seeing how there is a different way to do public safety that produces dignity and produces real safety. Frankly, that means having and confronting this conversation in a way that is about the demand and not getting sidetracked into the language.

ANAND: I want to ask you about billionaires. This city has a lot of them. In many ways, culturally, socially, philanthropically, otherwise, it revolves around them. 

There's this delicate balance when you're mayor. You might have a political orientation in favor of a more egalitarian city, but mayors, invariably, end up worrying about driving those folks away — to Florida, to Singapore, or wherever. I wonder how you've thought about your own sense of fighting for a more egalitarian city. Do you feel a need to keep those people feeling safe and on board? Are you fine if they go away?

MAYA: One, we have to ask everyone to put on the table what they can put on the table not just to recover this city, but recover us in a way that makes us more fair and more just.

I am talking to everyone, because that is incumbent upon a mayor. It is required in good governance. I will tell you that in those conversations, there are people who are saying to me, "Look, we'll pay more. We will. We get it." And some of them will pay more because they want the vibrancy of our diversity and they're willing to pay. They want to know that it's going to produce better public schools, better public transit.

Then there are some folks who say, "Oh my god, you're just going to drive wealthy people to Florida, and we can't survive that."

ANAND: I want to briefly go all the way back to the origins of your political consciousness. Your father, George Wiley, was an organizer and a civil rights leader. I wonder how would you trace your dawning awareness politically.

MAYA: I am my parents' daughter, proudly. Growing up, my mother was also an activist and stayed active in third-party politics after my father's death. So I get it from both sides. After my father died, even my stepfather was an ordained minister, but worked in the National Council of Churches and the Center for Community Change. He was a part of the National Farm Worker Ministry, and he also helped Bob Moses organize the training programs for Freedom Summer. So my whole upbringing was around adults who were deeply active in racial justice and in economic justice, in multiple ways.

It's the personal experiences that are the most impactful, right? The one that I think was part of what led me to law school, in a very indirect, circuitous route, was with my father's organization, the National Welfare Rights Organization, which was really at the forefront of intersectionality before that was a word.

These women who were Black and on welfare were also the chairs. They ran the board. They were the board of directors. They were the bosses. They were people like Johnnie Tillmon and Beulah Sanders. The fact that they were on welfare was meaningless in my house. They were leaders. They weren't women on welfare. They were leaders, and they were powerful to me.

But here's the thing. One day, my brother and I — we were probably five and six. There were always meetings in our house, and picket signs lining the walls of our house. The family activities were going to a rally or a march. But this one night, not atypical at all, we were in bed, and we heard noises downstairs. You always wanted to be the little kid who climbs out of the bed to see what the adults are doing, but you always just get sent back up to bed, right? 

This particular night, they didn't send us back to bed. They were too caught up in what they were talking about. I was quite young to follow the conversation. Everybody was sitting on the floor, and we just sat down on the floor with them. But what emerged was that they had done what they always did: they had a demonstration, civil disobedience, demanding dignity in the welfare office, and got arrested. And the judge that they got, a white man they were brought before, was angry at them. He didn't like what they had done.

He used his power to call out each woman individually and humiliate her in open court by asking humiliating questions. As they were in my house describing what had happened in the courtroom, I didn't understand all the words they were saying. But I understood the emotion of that incredible abuse of power and disrespect for these women who, in my world, were standing on very tall pedestals. And I remember, like all conversations with adults at a certain point, they calmed down and they start realizing you're sitting there. And then the inevitable, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" question comes. I said, "I want to be a judge," and they all gasped. You have to remember, if you grow up in an activist house, they literally had buttons that said, "I am not a lawyer," because that was the worst thing you could be, because lawyers told you what not to do.

They were like, "Why on earth do you want to be a judge?" And I just said, "Because they have all the power." And what I meant by that wasn't that I just wanted to lord power over people. It was the idea that, unless people like us were sitting in those seats, people who deserved respect were not going to get it. I just understood that somehow as a little kid. 

It took me a long time, because I grew up in a family where being a lawyer was not the greatest thing in the world. It took me a while to come back to it. But it really was that sense that it does matter who sits in these seats. It matters who sits in these seats, because if you don't have the lived experience of what it means to be the victim of the abuse of power, whether that's abuse by a police officer, a judge, a regular old bureaucrat, or a person who's a boss on a job — unless you have that experience, you can't serve everybody in a way that recognizes everybody.

ANAND: Can we do a quick lightning round of New York City stuff? First thing that pops into your head.


ANAND: Favorite New York City sports team?

MAYA: I wish I could say the Knicks, but I'll say the Knicks.

ANAND: New York City snack?

MAYA: Hot dogs.

ANAND: Subway stop?

MAYA: My neighborhood subway stop — Church Avenue.

ANAND: Street that you don't live on?

MAYA: Wall Street.

ANAND: Restaurant?

MAYA: What immediately popped into my mind is this restaurant that's in St. Albans in Queens — a guy named Carmine owned it for decades, he immigrated from Italy, and I'm actually blanking on the name right now. But it's just the kind of place you go and sit down and his eyes gleam with joy to see you and his arms just spread out open, big and broad, and then he tells you what to eat.

ANAND: Best book about New York City?

MAYA: I was going to say “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” but I never read it. I will go with “Gotham.”

ANAND: Favorite New York City newspaper?

MAYA: I mean, this won't endear me to anyone, but The New York Times is the one I read the most.

ANAND: Bodega sandwich order?

MAYA: Bacon, egg, and cheese.

ANAND: Simple enough. Best billionaire in New York?

MAYA: Best billionaire in New York? Shit. Is it bad that I draw a blank?

ANAND: Nope, that's a perfect answer. Favorite building in New York?

MAYA: I do love the Chrysler Building.

ANAND: Favorite living citizen and favorite historical citizen?

MAYA: Well, the historic jumped in my mind first, which is Shirley Chisholm. Living citizen — oh my god. That's another one where there's a problem of riches, but I'll just say Beyoncé.

ANAND: When in doubt.

MAYA: As always, Queen Bey.

ANAND: From Shirley to Bey. That's a good arc. 

Maya Wiley is a lawyer, professor, and former city official. She is running for mayor of New York.

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Photo Credit: Slaven Vlasic/Getty