Sunday, February 18, 2024

Bobby In Brooklyn: RFK Jr. Takes Part In Fireside Chat At Gentlemen's Factory


Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Eric B. before the event in Downtown Brooklyn. Photo by Jason Schott.

Independent Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was in Brooklyn on Sunday, taking part in a fireside chat and Q&A session with Hip Hop icon Eric B. in honor of Black History Month at the Gentlemen's Factory.

Kennedy took questions from the panel, and the unique thing is it was not clear who supported him and who does not, which is unique for a candidate to put himself in that position. 

The room was filled with roughly 100 people, and it was intense hour, as Kennedy addressed topics that are key to the Black community, such as on education and building up business.

Kennedy opened the discussion by talking about Bed-Stuy, a neighborhood his father, Robert F. Kennedy, helped evolve into what it is today, when he was a Senator from New York from 1964 until he was assassinated while running for President in 1968.

“Thank you, Eric, thank you for being here, I apologize to everybody for being late, Kennedy said. "We were at Bed-Stuy Restoration this morning, and we ended up hitting bad traffic. I want to say I'm very, very happy to be here, to be in Brooklyn again, my father's favorite project, Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration. He took a tour of Bed-Stuy in 1964, and at that time, Bed-Stuy led every badge of poverty, in terms of unemployment, crime, child infant mortality, and social disintegration, but my father saw something in Bed-Stuy what was very unusual for poor neighborhoods in New York, which was there was a high degree of home ownership. Most of the black neighborhoods in New York, the majority of rental apartments were absentee-owned, so they were owned by people who did not live in the neighborhood, and my father sensed an energy in Bed-Stuy, including entrepreneurial energy that was unfulfilled. He ended up spending a lot of the rest of his life visiting Bed-Stuy from that initial visit.

"That December, I went, for the first time, to the Christmas party in Bed-Stuy, and I went to that Christmas party for the next 40 years. When my Dad died, I went on to the board of Bed-Stuy, so I worked very hard for the next 35 years on completing his work. He saw that there was an entrepreneurial desire, an impulse among the people, but they were lacking a couple of things. One was capital, and the other was an accrued business knowledge. For example, my father never went into business, but he knew that if he did go into business, he was trying to understand issues like inventory, taxes, supply and demand, and he can call a friend of his who went to Harvard Business School. People in Bed-Stuy could not make that call, and their businesses had been specifically targeted for destruction for generations. 

So, my father rounded up some of the top business leaders in New York, and got them to commit one day a month or one day a week to go meet with local entrepreneurs and to help them get started, and he created an Empowerment Zone there; he created a Community Development Corporation. At that time, the closest grocery store to S.I. Restoration, over there at Atlantic and Fulton Street, was 75 blocks, so a mother who wanted to shop for her children would have to take three buses in order to get her groceries home, sometimes with a child in her hand. We moved a PathMark into Restoration Plaza, and then created health care programs there, we created childhood education programs, adult education programs. I worked there for 35 years; when my father first toured the neighborhood, all of those shops on Fulton Street were boarded up. There were no shops in the area, and you know, today, when I drove down it, I saw this thriving business community, and now S.I. is the model for over 2,000 Community Development Corporations across America. 

"Many of the issues remain, particularly the issue of capital, of the flow of capital into those communities, and that to me is the biggest issue that faces those communities. We've got to get an influx of capital in, make those available for home improvements, for house purchases, for business loans in order to restore those communities."

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. amidst the participants at the roundtable, including Eric B., who is to his left behind him. Photo by Jason Schott.

On how he would increase the capital in the Black community: "I would do through the SBA, Small Business Administration, I would do it through tax credits, through what we call Targeted Community Repair. These are communities all over the country, not just black communities, they're Indian communities, Appalachian communities that were targeted for economic destruction, and now we need to rebuild these economies, create economic zones, all the things that worked in Bed-Stuy, and to do those same things elsewhere. And, then, you know, the other issues that are priorities for me, child care is critical, or particularly if you have a single-family home, caring for a child is 37 percent of your income person if you're a working person in this country, and you can't afford it. Forgiveness, certain kinds of forgiveness for student loans, you know, there shouldn't be interest on those loans, you should be able to discharge them in bankruptcy. You should be able to refinance those loans, and those loans hurt black women more than any other community in this country. Black women have the highest education rate in this country, and they have the highest default rate on these loans. 

"Reform of criminal justice system, you know, the school-to-prison pipeline, which punishes black people twice. I don't want to bring up Joe Biden's name, but in 1986, he wrote the War on Drugs bill that was passed in '86 when Reagan was President. The War on Drugs was actually launched by Nixon; John Ehrlichman, who was his aide later confessed that the purpose for the War on Drugs was to take the momentum out of the Civil Right movement, and in 1986, Ronald Reagan, with Joe Biden's help - Joe Biden wrote the bill - passed the Drug Act, and the Drug Act was the Act that made powdered cocaine have 1/100th of the penalty as crack cocaine, so that was specifically targeted to put young Black men in jail because the crack was being smoked, you know, there's no difference in the drugs. So, '86, then '94 was the crime bill, which was mandatory sentencing, "super predators," "three strikes, you're out," (which meant that three times you committed a crime, no matter the severity, automatic prison sentence) and in the eight years after '86, the prison population of Black men doubled. So between the Civil War and 1986, there was a prison population that was pretty stable, between '86 and '96, the prison population doubled directly because of those bills. 

That school-to-prison pipeline punishes Black men twice, the first time when they serve their time in prison, and then when they get out and they're now second-class citizens. They can't vote, they can't participate, it's much more difficult to get jobs, etc., so that needs to be addressed if we want to address the restoration, resurrection of Black communities. We need to have a mechanism for releasing from prison, and treating particularly drug offenses that were non-violent, expunging them from the record, expunging high school disciplinary actions from the criminal record of children, which is what's happening. If you get disciplined in high school, that goes on your criminal record, potential employers get to read that. We should not be punishing non-violent drug offenses, the drug issue is a health issue, that is not a law-enforcement issue. The people who are violent need to be restrained and punished, etc., and people who commit non-violent crime should not be committed, their drug crime should not be treated as permanent pariahs in our society."

Hawk Newsome, the Founder of Black Lives Matter Greater New York, asked Kennedy about why money is flowing to foreign wars and not to Black communities in this country, where problems remain unsolved, and RFK Jr. responded: "I just say, look at my career, look at the way I've spent the past 40 years and those issues have always been a priority for me. With my environmental work, where that was always, environmental justice cases were always at the speartip of what I've done, and I can list you hundreds of cases that I've done for those communities, hundreds of cases I've been involved in, you know, unifying America, making sure people get a fair shot in this country is something that I've always fought. My experience in Bed-Stuy  taught me one important thing, that racism is inherent. We're hard-wired for it, you're never going to talk people out of racism, and what we need to do is equip our kids so that, particularly our Black kids, so they're not affected by it. When I was a kid, my Uncle was the first Irish Catholic President in the United States. There was tremendous anti-Catholic prejudice, and I was called names as a kid because my Uncle's candidacy prompted a resurgence in the Ku Klux Klan, people were burning crosses, etc. I was called "Mackerel snatcher" when I was a kid, I was called "Mick," all of these anti-Catholic slurs. It never affected me, I never internalized it because I had confidence in myself, I had a good education, I had parents who loved me, I had a family who loved me, and I believed in my future. So, when somebody would say that to me, I would think, what's wrong with that guy,' I would not be thinking 'what's wrong with myself,' and I think the remedy for racism is not to tell people 'you can't be racist anymore' because it's not going to work, or to 'cancel' people or whatever. I mean, none of those things make it important.

"What we need to do is make schools work. Success Academy here in New York has 20,000 kids drawn by lottery from the poorest neighborhoods. There is nothing culturally or in any other way that dooms black kids in these neighborhoods to academic non-performance. When you give them good educational opportunities, they outperform anybody. We need to be doing that, and we need to also be flooding these neighborhoods with my Targeted Community Repair Program with capital. There's been an attack on Black equity and Black capital, and it's not just Tulsa and Black Wall Street. What happened in Tulsa (the massacre in 1921) happened all over the country. It happened in Colfax, Louisiana (in 1873), it happened in Rosewood, Florida (in 1923). I fished on Lake Lanier in Georgia, and there's a Black town called Forsyth under Lake Lanier, which was another one they destroyed (in 1912), and it happened in Richmond, Virginia. It happened in Atlanta, it happened in Wilmington, North Carolina. They did the same thing with redlining. Redlining is a way to destroy Black equity and Black business, and when you do redlining, you're saying there's no home loans, there's no money available to buy homes in your neighborhood. The taxes are not collected, and where those taxes go are the schools, so you're destroying a whole school system. We need to give Black families another opportunity, which is charter schools. I believe in the public school system, but right not it's doomed because it's culled with property taxes. Until you de-couple it and give people choice, the market won't allow parents to say 'I'm going to go to this school because it's going to give my kid a better chance.' We need to do that.

"There's a very strong case for reparations. Under the Supreme Court decision with Harvard, I think they're not going to be Constitutional. If they're race-based, they're not going to be Constitutional...If it is lineage-based, you can do it, but you need an act of Congress, and that is a very, very heavy lift, right, so I'm not going to tell anybody I can do that because what I tell people I can do are things I can do through executive order, not things that I have to go to a broken Congress. I think I'm going to be able to fix some of Congress' problems; I'm not going to promise people things that I can't do. There's another issue, though, which is if you make checks payable to everybody, there's no institutions in those neighborhoods to keep that money. There's only 20 Black banks left in this country; they've all been closed or absorbed (into other banks). The problem is there are very few Black businesses, so that money is going to be spent or gone, so you won't have done your job, which is to, you know, to create Black prosperity, which is what we want."

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. with Hawk Newsome. Photo by Jason Schott.

On energizing an electorate that feels left out of the process: "When I declared for President eight months ago, I paused and said, this is what I'm going to, I'm going to avoid the polarization, which is arguably more toxic than at any time since the Civil War, or even more so than when I was a kid when it was very toxic, and my Dad ran for President (in 1968). You know, Bed-Stuy burned that year when Dr. King was killed. There was 127 cities that burned in our country, there were groups that were shooting people, that were killing people, we were in the middle of almost a revolution at that time. I would say we're even worse today, and it's being amplified by social media, which is profiting off the polarization. 

"We need to figure out how to end it, and what I said I'm going to do, I'm going to find the issue, the values that we all have in common instead of focusing on these culture war issues that keep us all at each other's throats because that's what benefits the BlackRocks, State Street, Vanguard, all of these big companies that own the Democratic Party, that own the Republican Party, that run the war machine, that run the pharmaceutical companies, and their job is to keep us at each other's throats because when the King and Queen go out on the balustrades of their castle, and they see all their subjects fighting each other, they go back to the banquet hall and they pop Champagne corks because they know nobody is coming over the wall for them. What I've said I'm going to do is to find the issues that unite Americans and then bring them over the wall and take our country back from these people," which drew a round of applause.

"I have been successful in doing that, and I now am leading both President Biden and President Trump among young people, so people under 45 years of age in the battleground states are overwhelmingly voting for me. Nationally, under 35 years of age, I'm 10 points ahead of President Biden and President Trump. With independent voters, who a lot of them are alienated (to the political system), I'm trouncing them among independent voters - independent voters are now this year the biggest voting group for the first time in history. They're bigger than Democrats, bigger than Republicans, I'm winning in that group" which elicited another round of cheers.

"There's one demographic I don't do well in is Baby Boomers. I should do best with them because they remember Camelot and the Kennedy era, and they loved me until all this. Unfortunately, they have a handicap, which is that they get their news from CNN and MSNBC, (some booing began) and the networks ABC, NBC, CBS, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and that is the ecosystem. If that is the information ecosystem I am living in, I'd have a low opinion of myself as well!," which drew laughter. "The people who we're doing well with are people who get their news from alternative sources, from podcasts, from long-form interviews. I win the election if I can break through the Baby Boomers," to which a woman called out "baby boomers love you!" and cheering began.

On the environment: "I started my environmental career on the Hudson River working for commercial and recreational fishermen who assembled in the early '80s to reclaim the Hudson River from its pollutants. From the beginning, I saw that race and poverty were the major - that the people who were poor and who were of different color shouldered the primary burden of environmental injury. So, my first case on the Hudson River was representing AACP in a lawsuit against the village of Ossining, whichn was trying to put a waste transfer facility into the oldest black neighborhood in the Hudson Valley. People have been in that neighborhood since before the Civil War, blacks had controlled that neighborhood since before the Civil War. It wasn't a poor neighborhood; they were people who lacked political power, so it was an easy place for this to go. During that litigation, it struck me again and again that this was true all over the country. Four out of every five toxic waste dumps in America is in a black neighborhood. The highest concentration of toxic waste dumps in America is the South Side of Chicago. The most contaminated zip code in California is East L.A. 

"The issues of pollution impact black communities probably worse than any other issue. 44 percent of urban black children have high enough lead contamination to cause permanent I.Q. loss and behavioral injury, behavioral aberration, and, you know,  I worked very hard on Flint, Michigan, and the lead contamination on the Flint, Michigan, water supply.

"Many years ago, I assisted New York City to protect its water supply, in the end, we ended up, I ended up siding with Governor (George) Pataki and Mayor (Rudy) Giuliani, a $3 billion package to protect the Upstate water supply. New York's drinking water is the finest drinking water in the world. It accounts for the incomparable taste of New York City pizza, New York City bagel. There are tea companies like Twinings that test their tea on New York City water. It is the largest unfiltered water supply in the Americas. It comes from three big reservoirs, two on the west side of the Hudson and the Catskills, the Delaware and the Catskills systems. You can have it shipped down in pipes into New York City with no filtration, so it's coming right out of those water supplies into your tap. This third system is on the east of the Hudson, the Croton system, which is in Putnam, Dutchess, and in Westchester county. That system is less good; it's the smallest system, it's only 10 percent of the water supply, it has 102 sewage treatment plants in them, and when I started looking into the records of those plants, a third of them were dumping raw sewage into that water supply, or were badly out of compliance with their permits, and we calculated that about two percent of water coming from that supply - if you drank a cup of coffee in the summertime, about two percent of that has come out of a sewage treatment plant. 

"I sued New York City back in the '90s, long before 9/11, I said I want to see the distribution grid, who's getting that water from Croton system. They stonewalled me for two years, or a year-and-a-half, saying that this was national security. Nobody could look at this; I finally on the courthouse steps, they produced the distribution map, and the Catskills and Delaware systems were different colors, and the dark color was the color of the neighborhoods that were getting the Croton water, the bad water. It was Harlem, the South Bronx, the Lower East Side, Hell's Kitchen, and when I looked at the distribution for Harlem, Harlem water distribution came down, from East Harlem, it came down to 59th Street, and there was little tiny white piece in there, like one property in this big sea of dark water, Croton water. It was a single property it looked like that was getting the good water from the Delaware system, and I had to get a magnifying glass out to look at that, what property it was, it turned out to be Gracie Mansion. The Mayor's house was getting the good water, while all the people around him were getting the bad water from the Croton system."

ABOUT THE GENTLEMEN'S FACTORY (provided by Kennedy 24): The Gentlemen's Factory, founded in 2014, has become a pillar for Black & Brown men in all industries and fields. It is a safe space to collaborate, incubate businesses, share resources, and navigate venture capital and the government's multi-billion dollar minority-business enterprise procurement process. Since the pandemic, The Gentlemen's Factory expanded to a global, digital ecosystem of more than 500 Members, helping to connect Black and Brown business owners and professionals throughout the world.

Kennedy's Supporters Were Greeted By This: A truck with a video screening an anti-Kennedy ad - paid for by the Democratic National Committee paid - was parked outside the venue for this event, 81 Willloughby Street, and was still there when the event concluded a few hours later. President Biden and the Democrat party say they're not scared of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his independent bid for the White House, but how else do you explain this? Kennedy became an independent candidate because of the games the DNC was playing with the party's primary, and they are still hindering his bid, including access to the ballot in all 50 states. 

Photos by Jason Schott.

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