This Year’s A.O.C., Jamaal Bowman, Says He’s Ready to Fight

Julia Ioffe
·14 mins read

Earlier this summer, when middle school principal Jamaal Bowman beat the powerful Democratic representative Eliot Engel in a New York primary fight, the comparisons to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—whose district is next door—were everywhere. Like her, Bowman is a progressive outsider who ousted a heavyweight party leader (Engel chairs the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee and enjoyed support from old guard Democrats like Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and Andrew Cuomo). Bowman, a Justice Democrat who was endorsed by Bernie Sanders, beat Engel by 15 points.

In the days before his primary win, Bowman was in the streets, where he was a prominent participant in New York’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Indeed, as the country grapples again with its racist past and its enduring systemic inequities, Bowman has leaned into the moment. He has spoken frequently about being raised in the projects by a single mother and about his first encounter with police brutality, sharing his story of being handcuffed and dragged, face down, by the police when he was just 11 years old. He has also championed Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and making Election Day a national holiday. His victory in November is all but assured—Democrats outnumber Republicans four to one in his district—which means that he’s already gathering momentum and influence that he’ll use to push the establishment of the party from the left.

GQ’s Julia Ioffe spoke with Bowman about his decisive win; his membership in The Squad; and his belief that the president fits the definition of a fascist. Their conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

GQ: We’ve been reflecting a lot on the legacy of John Lewis, a congressman who, compared to other Black leaders of his generation, was considered more progressive. I wanted to ask you: Where do you see yourself on the spectrum of Black progressives, especially compared to members of the older generation, like Rep. Jim Clyburn, for example, who are not as progressive as your fellow Justice Democrats?

Jamaal Bowman: I want to start by just saying how overwhelmed I am by the passing of John Lewis and everything he represented, everything he stood for, and how important and powerful his voice was in that movement—and he was only in his early 20s. I’m really upset that I never got a chance to meet him and shake his hand. But his legacy is what made me who I am today.

I would never try to fill John Lewis’s shoes. I can only be myself—my authentic self.

When I look at American history, I see how it has been driven by resistance and protest against a system that has been oppressive to not just Black people but to women, to members of the LGBTQ community. We’ve become a nation of xenophobes. Anti-Semitism is rising, Islamophobia is rising. I see myself as a person who is pushing back and fighting against oppression in all its forms, centering racial and economic injustice very explicitly. I have not met Jim Clyburn personally yet. I believe Rep. Clyburn probably has those same beliefs and is fighting for those same things. He may have a different approach as to how they go about doing those things. But for me, when I look at my personal experiences and American history and the legacy of John Lewis, it’s my job, in my opinion, to take the baton and the torch from John Lewis, if you will, and continue to fight for justice in all its forms. For me it’s about meeting the needs of the people who are most neglected. And there’s a lot of work to do there.

You’re a former educator—

Always! Always an educator! Once an educator, always an educator!

Okay, fair! You’re an educator. The president and Republicans are calling for schools to reopen in the fall. What do you think about that? Is that a good idea?

As we sit here today, it will lead to disaster because there are no federal resources being brought to bear to help us open school safely. If you want schools open, you’ve got to bring in the financial resources to make sure that schools have proper PPE, proper ventilation, that we can lower class size while hiring more teachers, that we’re using alternative learning spaces retrofitted as classrooms. If you don’t bring the federal resources to bear, then we are not ready to open school safely. Again, it consistently seems like Republicans will trade human life so that the economy can open again. They’re more driven by that. They’re more driven by generating wealth than the lives of our children. This is unacceptable. And I know children get sicker at lower rates and die at lower rates, but if one child dies, we have failed as a country. That needs to be the north star. That needs to be the standard. We should not put one child at risk. And that’s what the Republicans are doing by trying to open schools too quickly.

Why do you think President Trump is pushing so hard for schools to reopen?

He wants the economy to be open. He wants people to go back to work so the economy can open, so his wealthy friends can continue to get rich and build wealth while the lower economic class continues to suffer and die. He doesn’t care about human life. He cares about making money. That’s the problem with allowing someone like him to become president. He’s also incredibly incompetent. If he were responding appropriately to the virus back in March, we could have saved more lives and been better prepared to reopen the economy in September.

Speaking of Trump’s plans for the fall, many of his opponents are worried of not just the possibility of his reelection but also what might happen if he loses and fails to concede. Given the overwhelming Democratic majority in your district, your own election is no longer in much doubt, but what worries do you have for November?

My initial worry is obviously him winning again and continuing to lead in this racist, fascist, incompetent way. He’s not the leader we want in place as we deal with a global pandemic and racial uprisings. So that’s the first worry. The second worry connected to that is, you know, people actually getting out to vote, organizing in their communities to make sure every single person votes and we take him out of office. And also—this is more of a concern than a worry—if we could flip the Senate and take the White House and keep the House of Representatives, that would be huge entering 2021 in January, and it could help us turn the country around dramatically.

I think there’s now broad consensus that Trump is a racist, but you use the F word, which I think people are still willing to argue about. Why do you think the American president is a fascist, and why do you think there are those who are hesitant to label him that?

Well, he’s dispatched federal troops to Portland to calm peaceful protesters. That’s the move of a fascist. He has federal troops driving tanks down Washington, D.C., streets. This is the move of a fascist and someone who doesn’t care about enacting a police state. He calls himself the law-and-order president and identified Antifa, which is an antifascist organization, as his enemy. He literally said it, in identifying Antifa as an enemy of his, that he’s anti-antifascist. When he does press conferences and makes comments like, and I’m paraphrasing here, the states know the absolute power rests with me. He says these things out of his own mouth. That scares me almost more than him being a racist, because we already have huge levels of wealth inequality. And that combined with a fascist leader is just a recipe for disaster.

As a middle school principal, how do you deal with somebody like Trump?

As a middle school principal or as a member of Congress?

Being a middle school principal, I would argue, really prepares you for Congress.

You’re absolutely right. In my school, I would call him and his parents into my office. And we would have a long, honest conversation about how his behavior is harmful to himself and others. In Congress, we’ll have that conversation not just with him but with other Republicans and with the American people at large. I’m hoping that I don’t have this problem: Hopefully, when we win our general, he loses his general, and we can get past the era of Trump. But if not, we have to hold him accountable and we have to continue to use every resource at our disposal to make sure he doesn’t further harm and kill our democracy from right underneath us. And it’s not just him. I want to emphasize that it’s him as part of a system that is already discriminatory based on race, class, gender, sexuality, and wealth. So it’s not just him, it’s the system overall. We’ve got to fix it, make sure we’re never in a position again where we have another Donald Trump as president.

So let’s say you win in November and you get to Congress and Nancy Pelosi is there waiting for you. At one point, she dismissed “The Squad,” which is a silly name, but she just dismissed the squad as just “four people.” Do you think you would be an addition to The Squad? And what do you do with people in Congress like Nancy Pelosi, like Hakeem Jeffries, like Jim Clyburn, the establishment Democrats? Are they part of the system you’re talking about?

Let me say this: I look forward to working with Congressman Clyburn, Congressman Jeffries, and Speaker Pelosi. I look forward to working with them. I have a lot of respect for them as representatives of our country and representatives of the Democratic Party. I am part of The Squad. I was a part of The Squad even before running for office, because The Squad doesn’t only include members of Congress. The Squad is much larger—as Ayanna Pressley so eloquently informed us: The Squad is big and The Squad is growing. So I was already a part of it. And I expect to continue to be a part of this from inside of Congress.

You know, things shift really quickly. I think our primary election illustrates it: You look and see, “Wow, Jamaal and his team ran an excellent campaign. They beat a 31-year [member of Congress, who is now] chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. They tripled voter turnout, tripled turnout among young people, tripled turnout among people of color.” And this was an election where the whole country was watching. We didn't sneak up on anyone. And we still won by 15 points. How can we continue to build on that as opposed to squashing it? Those who have been in Congress for a long time, if they’re open and willing to work with me, which I hope they are, because I’m willing to work with them, I think we can finally create a country that works for everyone.

President Obama recently called for renewing the Voting Rights Act. Is that something you would try to do if elected to Congress?

Absolutely. We need to cement the Voting Rights Act in stone so it never gets reversed again. What happened after Obama got elected, the level of Republican organizing and gerrymandering and voter suppression that happens at every level of government, was astonishing. I think many of us relaxed when Obama won, especially when he won the second time, thinking that we were now a post-racial country and we were going to pass the baton from our first Black president to our first female president, Hillary Clinton. And I think because of that relaxation, we ended up with Donald Trump. And we have to continue to organize around fighting against voter suppression and fighting to preserve all aspects of preserving our democracy, because right now we’re in a situation where we had voter suppression, we have Russian interference, and now we have Trump calling for a postponement of the election because of mail-in ballots. Republicans will lie, cheat, and steal to continue to remain in power. And they’re organizing around that. That’s what we have to fight against.

You’ve embraced the Green New Deal. How important do you think environmental issues are to your community?

We’re in the largest crisis since the Great Depression. And during the Great Depression, a New Deal was enacted. This is the time for a Green New Deal as we bring people back to work. We need a federal jobs guarantee in alignment with growing the care economy. That's what I'm going to fight for, what I’m most excited about. It’s about providing universal childcare, hiring more nurses and health care professionals, hiring more teachers and care providers for our seniors and people with disabilities.

We’re about to introduce our Green New Deal for Education, which involves retrofitting schools to meet the standards of net-zero carbon emissions, as well as building new schools that meet the standards of net-zero carbon emissions. This is going to create millions of union-paying jobs across the country. This is going to make this school a true learning incubator in alignment with green and environmental technology. This is really exciting stuff.

Finally, I want to ask you about perceptions. This is something that Ayanna Pressley has talked about, this is something Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has talked about in terms of how they’re perceived as women, as minorities, by people like Rep. Ted Yoho. So, you know, you're an impressive Black man.

Whoa, I’m impressive?! Thank you!

You’re very impressive! And I don’t mean that in a condescending way, but you know, if you’re an impressive woman, you have to contend with being perceived as a “fucking bitch.” When you’re an impressive Black man, I imagine it’s a different set of issues. So when you move through the world and you run for office, how do you think about your style, how you present yourself? How do you think about self-presentation and how you’re perceived by people like Ted Yoho?

Number one, I can only be myself and let the chips fall where they may. My mother raised me to be myself, to love myself as a Black man in America, and to never let anyone take that away from me. So, I’m Black in America. That is what it is. But in addition to that, I’m also human. And as a human, we all have similar experiences—not the same but similar. We all experience pain, joy, anger, frustration, love, confusion, learning, both individually and collectively. You know, we all have our experiences of collective trauma and pain and oppression, and we’ve all had our experiences of fighting through that and uplifting ourselves and one another. And what we’ve tried to capture in this campaign is not just our collective struggle but our collective humanity.

What I’m trying to tap into and what I talk a lot about is the unlimited potential and power of our diversity if we’re able to come together in unity against forces that are trying to hurt us and oppress us. I think there’s an unlimited potential there that we haven’t tapped into yet. And that is what I’m interested in tapping into and being a part of as a Black man in America: building diverse coalitions of power to push back against oppressive individuals and oppressive systems. So that’s how I navigate it as a Black man in America. We have more in common than not. And let’s work together to create a better world that works for everyone.

Julia Ioffe is a GQ correspondent.

Originally Appeared on GQ