REMARKS: Public Advocate Williams Delivers the 2024 State of the People Address

May 22nd, 2024

Press Release

New York City Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams delivered his annual ‘State of the People’ Address this afternoon in Jamaica, Queens. In the address, he gave voice to the fears New Yorkers are facing and proposed several policy solutions to overcome them, encouraging New Yorkers to name their fears and be motivated to action through hope. He urged New Yorkers not to give in to fear-mongering, but to respond with concerns with compassion and conviction.  The Public Advocate’s full remarks as prepared are below. Video of the full program is available here.

Good afternoon,

Peace and blessings to everyone joining us here in Queens, everyone watching at home.

Thank you to the many elected officials and other leaders who have joined us today.

It’s great to be here— I’m a Brooklyn boy, but my wife is from Queens, so I married into the Queen family.

And it’s an honor to be speaking to you from the Jamaica Performing Arts Center, a venue with over five decades of rich history, in a neighborhood with centuries more.

I’ve previously spoken from this stage many times, including to deliver the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, so I guess I’ve set the bar pretty high — I’ll do my best.

Every year, I have the opportunity to speak about the State of the People – to elevate the concerns and calls of New Yorkers in my role as Public Advocate, the Peoples’ voice. It’s a role I take seriously and with pride, and it was five years ago at this event that I was sworn into office.

Four years ago, our city was enduring the height of the pandemic, and three years ago, I spoke about the need for a Renewed Deal to secure the state of the people – recalling the words of former New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who proposed a New Deal in the wake of tragedy and turmoil.

This year, I return again to the words of FDR, who said that the “only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” and I come to that phrase, which has echoed across history, because in both my conversations with New Yorkers and in the broad and ongoing conversation the city is constantly engaged in, the people are afraid. 

There is a tapestry of fears that blankets the five boroughs – fears we hold in our homes and hearts, fears we magnify in our headlines.

And I have to confess, in contradiction to that famous quote, that there is more to fear than fear itself. 

Many of the concerns New Yorkers carry are not only understandable but warranted. It is not the place of an elected official, certainly not one of my position, to deny or dismiss fears.

Fears of hatred and violence, of lost jobs and housing, of lack of opportunity or recourse – these are real. They plague us through the day and keep us up at night. As a parent, I also have fears on behalf of my family.

But I’d ask that we look beyond FDR’s famous phrase, to the second half of the sentence. What FDR feared for his nation was “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror” which halts “efforts to convert retreat into advance.” 

Think about that for a moment.

The problem is the idea that fears prevent us from taking courageous action to address them. That we will shrink in the face of a challenge or a threat, rather than overcome it. That we will be debilitated by inaction or overreaction, instead of boldly stepping forward.

And just as important – that these anxieties are nameless. An unnamed fear is a boogeyman or a shadow, impossible to conceive or combat. We have to name our fears, name their cause, if we are to take them on.

So today, I want to speak to some of these fears. But not alone. I’ve always tried to make my office a megaphone, to amplify the needs of New Yorkers, to give voice to the people. I want everyone to hear those voices directly, and come together to confront our neighbor’s fears with courage and action.

In this particular moment for our city, I think we can all understand the importance of being able to share one’s pain and fear and outrage through speech and action.

If voices rise to a volume that cuts through the calm, that’s a tool to disrupt the status quo. It’s evidence that calm does not equate to peace, just as disruption does not equate to violence.

We all have interconnected fears, and shining a spotlight on a few shows the need to address them all, to send a ripple across the seeming stillness, and to channel the churning anxieties beneath into action. 

At the risk of again drawing the comparison, Dr. King said that we can harness and master our fears only by facing and understanding them. 

The voices I want to amplify today should focus our attention on understanding what’s at the core of the concerns of our city - and what our mandate is to address them.

Fear inherently implies a threat to safety, and public safety is paramount among the concerns of New Yorkers. Unfortunately, it’s also an issue that has been mischaracterized and misunderstood by many leaders trying to look tough on crime without being serious about safety. 

We can’t overreact to attention-grabbing incidents or narratives, but we also can’t ignore the simple truth – every New Yorker is entitled to both be and feel safe, and many do not. 

But that fear is not as one-dimensional as headlines make it seem, with communities trapped between the realities of street violence, of over-policing and over-incarceration. In our streets and systems, too many people are simply “afraid of being a victim.”

The fear of falling victim to violence — from the street or the state — is real, especially in low income communities of more color. It’s easy to be a victim of the system when that system sees you as a threat. When you’re someone to be surveilled rather than served, not someone to be protected, but someone to be protected from. 

Well they’re right, in a way. I am a threat to that system. I think we should build a new one. 

As I’ve always said — this is not a system failing. It’s a system creating exactly what it’s meant to. We push our communities through a machine that produces primarily handcuffs and handguns.

That’s no surprise when you look at what the system is built on, when at its core it runs on policing and punishment. When its primary exports go to an island in the East River. 

So let’s start at that core. Our young people need a place to go — not just to get off the streets, but to get into programming, into passions, into conversations. Young people aren’t a nuisance to clear from the corner, and it’s not about where we’re kicking them out of – it’s where we’re pointing them toward.

In my time as a Council Member, I worked with multiple administrations and multitudes of constituents toward creating the Shirley Chisholm Community Center, which I’m honored that my successor brought to a groundbreaking moment. 

This is what we need in every neighborhood in our city -- spaces for emergency housing, mental health support, art and music, mentorship. A space that isn’t home for living, or school for learning — a third place, for connection.

Let’s see what happens when we rebuild the system with community at its center. 

Because from there, we build out an entire infrastructure of involvement and opportunity. An empowerment infrastructure that shows we have control over our lives, our futures, our fears. 

An infrastructure that starts from these centers and moves out into the streets, where we need to expand on the work of the Crisis Management System, not let it stagnate. We need to move from interrupting violence to producing peace.

Producing peace means focusing on restoration and mediation when conflict arises. We can connect vulnerable youth directly with workforce development, employment, and resolution resources. These are all a part of our new system, one that allows accountability for acts of violence, while changing the structures which drive that violence.

And what do we do with the existing infrastructure? Law enforcement are critical partners in public safety. With proper accountability and transparency, they can serve a key purpose as problem solvers.

But our officers can’t do everything, and can’t do it alone, and we shouldn’t ask them to — law enforcement is best in acute moments of need, and we acknowledge the human beings behind the badge who answer when we call.

Precinct councils already act as a guide for shifting into community solutions. My colleagues in the Council have legislation to go a step further — to instruct officers, where possible, to divert young people from arrest and toward relevant community services. 

And as for the harm that the old system has wrought — we can reduce it by redoubling our commitment to close Rikers on time, and to ensure that people who do have contact with the system don’t see it define their future by passing the Youth Justice and Opportunities Act.

I know that with this bill and many of the proposals I’ve put forth, we’ll hear the old arguments — phrases like “bail reform” so overused as to lose their meaning. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned in past fights – in opposition to our work that created a decade of declining violence – it’s that there will always be people trying to uphold the old approach, scared of a new system. 

We just have to make them face that fear. 

Housing costs and conditions are maybe the greatest fears for New Yorkers, and the greatest obstacle to affordability. We’ve heard a lot about housing in the state budget, undercut by policies written by real estate and underwritten by that same industry. 

We have seen some advancement toward housing justice for all, but there is a fear of complacency that sometimes comes from incremental progress. The fear that partly addressing an issue will let it perpetuate, out of the spotlight. We can’t stop the pressure for progressive change when even the gains we make are constantly under threat of revision or repeal. When so many New Yorkers, seniors and young people alike, face the urgent, visceral “fear of losing their homes.” 

Housing is a crisis — expensive and segregated. But home — home means safety, security, sanctuary — and it’s something that is becoming increasingly inaccessible. In all the conversation of what was in the state budget, we should acknowledge what was left out, including the Housing Access Voucher Program.

Housing vouchers are among the most effective, efficient ways to help get New Yorkers into homes, but there continues to be aggressive resistance to passing this legislation, or ensuring the value of existing vouchers keeps up with skyrocketing rents.

Rents in New York City are the highest in the nation and in our history. Even New Yorkers with the privilege of owning their homes are struggling with unjust property taxes, facing foreclosure  in an unaffordable housing crisis. And the truth is, we are not getting what we’re paying for. 

The worst landlords in our city continue to egregiously, dangerously neglect their properties and their tenants’ safety, relentlessly pursuing profit at the expense of the people.

While some small landlords struggle with no state support, large corporations are using them as a shield. A harsh reality for real estate — Housing should not be an industry you go into to get rich, while tenants are getting evicted. 

You can’t get more money from people who simply don’t have it. Whether in market rate buildings or rent regulated units, if owners continue to press for profits, they won’t see more money —  just empty apartments and full shelters.

Each year, my office finds, spotlights, and shames the worst landlords in our city — those whose rampant violations threaten the health and safety of tenants as they decide their buildings are more valuable vacant. We passed the worst landlord law to prevent self-certification, a process where bad landlords who have not earned any trust promise their properties are back up to code.

But while the numbers of violations are a clear indicator of shady practices, they do not tell the whole story. 

That’s why in the coming weeks, my office is launching a new platform for tenants to tell their own stories — a partnership with the organization ‘Who’s Your Landlord’ to survey New Yorkers living in buildings on our watchlist, to hear and share the truth behind the locked doors and scaffolding.

By gathering these experiences, we can connect tenants with one other — going to buildings and blocks across the boroughs, and helping give tenants the tools to unite. I’m excited to unveil this new tool – Mine is an office of organizers, and organization is among the strongest tactics we have against corporatization.

If the worst landlords won’t improve, we have to move to take their buildings away. We need to enact systems to put housing in the hands of people who live there. By passing the Community Land Act, we’d empower nonprofits to purchase and preserve buildings on behalf of tenants, removing profit and price-gouging from the cost of living in New York. We can also require the city to prioritize these nonprofit entities when selling city-owned property, so that public land is used for public good. 

While investing to reverse decades of decline in New York’s public housing, the state and city should also be making efforts to acquire, preserve, and develop properties that can be owned by tenants across the income spectrum. 

Community-owned social housing has to be the future, and we have to start now, before fears and costs compound. 

Fears when it comes to housing are often misdirected to instill panic and stall progress. Neighbors who know that deeply affordable, income targeted housing is the only real solution to the housing crisis are still often driven by individual opposition to it happening on their block or in their backyard. Working with communities to determine the best spaces to build or mitigate oversaturation of shelter sites can be legitimate — irrational opposition is not.

Whether it’s shelter or a slightly taller building next door, we can’t build policy or housing based on manufactured fears. 

Often fears arise as a result of exploitation. For delivery workers, this fear is urgent and widespread. Exploitation by the apps – mandating certain speeds of service without providing the proper equipment or wages to pay for it. 

Exploitation by the city that too often leads with punitive enforcement of drivers, and too rarely takes action to protect vulnerable people on the road. 

And inadvertently, exploitation by us, the customers – who want faster and faster deliveries, but often hesitate at supporting the infrastructure needed to do so safely. 

As the need increases for faster speeds and more expensive tools, many deliveristas are saying – “I’m afraid I won’t be able to keep up and keep safe.”

These fears are driven by a perceived lack of options or alternatives. When e-bike delivery drivers are left with little choice but to purchase the cheapest batteries, we sacrifice safety, not only for riders but the public, as uncertified, unsafe devices have led to deadly fires across the city. 

The answer cannot be to place the burden on riders, to simply take away the tools they need to feed their families, not to mention people around the city. Instead, there are common-sense actions the city can take.

Most immediately, the administration can use the purchasing power of the city to buy and distribute fireproof battery storage cases to each delivery driver. We are responding far too slowly to the alarms that have been sounding for over a year, and the longer we delay action, the more we’re playing with fire.

But this fear extends far beyond storage and into the streets themselves, where 89 lives have already been lost to traffic violence this year – a record loss. That tragedy is compounded by how preventable this loss is – and how much resistance there is to simple solutions.

Maybe the best way to address fears on our roadways is to shed a little daylight on them. Daylighting intersections involves physically altering streets to remove a blind spot and allow vehicles and pedestrians more clear visibility at corners and crosswalks – increasing safety for all.

I call on this administration to implement universal daylighting citywide, working with communities. There are neighborhoods where parking is at a premium – at the same time, lives must be the priority. This initiative also comes at the intersection of street safety and climate justice, as many daylighted areas have been repurposed for climate sustainability, with planters and stormwater retention spaces. 

The vision here is clear, as is our mandate to act.

I think many New Yorkers place our fears in the same place we place our aspirations – the future. The generation to come. The reality is that they’re already here – a generation of new leaders in every classroom and corridor of our school system.

But our students, each a unique voice, each one in a million, fear being seen as nothing more than a number, one in a system of a million students moving through its halls each year. With so many peers, so many pressures, and not enough resources, students “face the fear of being crowded out.“

Youth voices are maybe the most important that we should hear as a government, yet they’re also often the most easily devalued or ignored by people in power. That’s plainly visible on our college campuses, but even more so in our high schools. Students are not yet voters, they can’t write big checks, most aren’t close to political power brokers – and so too often their voices go unheard and fears under-addressed. 

That’s especially alarming on issues our young people are closest to, and will feel the effects of for the longest. In classrooms across the city, students are underserved and teachers are overburdened.

Almost two years ago, New York State passed a law to finally bring class sizes down, helping to ensure each student is better served and that those schools are more equitably funded across neighborhoods. 

But as that law gradually takes effect, the city is being reactive at best, instead of making the proactive funding and infrastructure changes needed to comply with the law in the long term. For each school and student to get the attention and funding they need, for the benefits to apply regardless of zip code – we need to get ahead, not let our students fall behind.

To meet the individual needs of diverse students, to meet them where they are, we need to acknowledge that the purpose of schools today goes far beyond textbooks and tests. Schools are spaces for community, places to grow up – and face all of the fears and challenges involved.

Equipping our kids for school and for life means we need to fully fund the pillars of healing-centered schools such as nurses, social workers, and counselors. We can create a network of support professionals, an ecosystem of care. With an influx of federal funding during the height of the pandemic, we were able to invest in some of these strategies, and now we need to baseline them in the budget – to recognize them as necessities, not luxuries.

There’s a reason that young people are the driving force behind nearly every movement for change throughout our history. Young people can hold us to our highest ideals and most urgent promises. Their vision for justice is not clouded by cynicism or limitations – and it’s vital that we celebrate, not scorn, that spirit.

In the Public Advocate’s office, we know the importance of fighting for change using our presence, our voices, our experiences – and connecting with others in that same work. I’m excited to announce that our office is partnering with the NYC Youth Civic Coalition and YVote to launch the first-ever Youth Civic Hub, a web platform built by young people to help further their civic identity, to connect and get engaged in the change they demand and deserve, in the moment rather than in the future. 

Young people are perhaps the best model for harnessing fears and turning them into action. We have an obligation to work as partners, not patronizers, and I’m eager to see the organizers and agitators that come out of this space. 

I’m a first generation New Yorker, the son of Grenadian immigrants, and I think taking the journey to a new nation, under any circumstances, is among the bravest things one can do. Ask anyone who’s migrated to our city, and they have a story of what obstacles they overcame to get within sight of the Statue of Liberty. But after coming in search of security and stability, as so many families have across generations, new New Yorkers are “afraid of being excluded from opportunity.”

Coming to our city in search of opportunity is an incredibly bold decision — one often born of desperation and aspiration in equal measure. But I think that the many barriers  that stand in the way of that success have led many to a question, to a fear — that they were wrong about the so-called land of opportunity. We have seen many waves of migration over centuries, yet we aren’t living up to the moment or our history. 

So much of the current conversation around immigration has focused on feeding fears rather than empathizing with them, on opposition rather than understanding, and this deliberate division has prevented solutions.

I understand the frustrations of longtime New Yorkers, particularly Black and Brown ones, who have never seen the focus or funding that they deserve. And we don’t ask them to forget their frustrations – only to aim them at who is truly to blame – a government which only responds to acute crises, rather than addressing longstanding harms that make those crises worse.

But both the people seeking asylum and longtime New Yorkers seeking services echo the same message. “We are hurting, we’ve been hurting for a long time.” We can’t pit people who have little against people who have less.

It is absolutely true that the strain on the city is real— that our infrastructure was not built for this moment. But we can’t pass blame to one another, nor can we solely blame the lack of federal resources – there are things we can do in the city right now. 

This administration’s policy means that we are rescinding the right to shelter every sixty days, displacing and uprooting people in dire need of stability. To pull people from their communities, children from their schools, cannot be the way to manage the moment. This policy was not executed or communicated in a way that worked for migrants or for the dedicated teams working to provide aid.

It should be no surprise that communication has been difficult, as one of the greatest barriers to support has been language access. The diversity of immigrants in New York is as wide as in the city itself, and we must invest the resources to prioritize translation services in all necessary languages, including for Black and indigenous migrants. One of the most important resources we can provide is clear, actionable, valuable information.

Federal regulations have made it nearly impossible for many migrants to have the opportunity to work. This is a massive and multi-talented workforce, and it would benefit our entire city’s economy to provide pathways to employment. Even with current limitations, the city should help train migrants to form co-ops, building on one another’s skills as interpreters, nurses, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and more. People come to our city with a lifetime of skills and experiences, and we can all be learning and benefiting from that expertise. 

Legal blockades do persist, and a lack of sufficient representation both slows the time in which claims of asylum are processed and the likelihood of their approval. On the state level — where the governor has been far too late and limited in creating supportive infrastructure for migrants — we must pass the Access to Representation Act, so that no one has to face the system without support. 

This is not an impossible problem, and we must stand by our commitment to being a place of possibility. 

I want to be clear – amplifying a trembling voice does not inherently mean feeding the fear at its core. Fear should be neither stoked nor suppressed, but spoken to.

Yet we know that there are people in our city and beyond it who would rather fuel these flames for their own purposes. Opportunistic arsonists who light a match beneath resentments, then scream “Fire,” and declare themselves heroes for highlighting a blaze which casts shadows on enemies and out-groups.

There are two responses we often see from leaders in the city in response to real fear from the people they represent. The first is dismissing those fears behind stats or slogans – telling people that jobs are up, that crime is down, to hide the heat individuals are feeling amid the smoke.

The second is to fan the flames – to amplify and incite fears in a way that presents only one proposed solution, one person who can save us from the fire – but that’s how we end up burned.

Fear mongering is central to cynical politics, but it’s deeply damaging to the work of government, and to the health of communities across our city. As we have heard – there are more than enough real concerns in our city without creating more, sparking division and inflaming resentment. If there is a fire, leaders are too often causing us to fight one other instead of the flames.

To return to Franklin Roosevelt – he urged that we not retreat, but advance – and we cannot advance if we crowd one another out at the door. He declared, in words inscribed on Roosevelt Island today, that we are all deserving of freedom from fear. Freedom from fear.

That freedom is what would let us walk the streets without the dangers of violence – from guns or police or vehicles. It’s what would let us learn and shape the city that grows with us, let us pursue economic opportunities to afford to stay in that city. Freedom from the fears of being a victim, of being crowded out, of losing one's home, of being barred from opportunity, of keeping up and keeping safe.

It’s what we have to strive toward, and work for. 

Achieving that freedom from fear is going to take courage. 

Courage to take action based on the needs of the people, not political polling.  

Courage to do the hard work – to know that not everything can be reduced to a sound byte or a slogan, and that we may be building systems we don’t personally benefit from.

 

Courage to admit mistakes and missteps, to course correct, to take responsibility rather than redirect blame.

And in my office, it’s my job to have the courage to be undeterred in our work to push City Hall and unequivocal in our defense of what is right and responsible. You have entrusted me to be that loudest voice amplifying what New Yorkers need, without being muffled by fear of political retribution.

Courage to be what even the mayor has called the “social conscience” of our city. 

I can’t be afraid of the mayor or the headlines, I can’t be afraid to speak out against inaction or bad actions, or to stand up when this administration stands by amid injustices. 

What I’m afraid of is failure. I’m afraid that the administration will fail to meet the moment for New Yorkers. I’m afraid that the city will retreat into the safe ground of political posturing, instead of taking on the challenges that are making New Yorkers afraid.

That’s not courage – that’s cowardice. 

I’m afraid that our leaders will take advantage of New Yorkers’ resilience, instead of taking action on their behalf.

Because the state of the people is strong in our city. It always has been. But that doesn’t mean our strength should continue to be tested, again and again, by weak leadership. There will always be challenges that arise which strain the capacity of our city. But the ability of eight million New Yorkers to adapt and overcome in the face of truly frightening circumstances makes it all the more enraging when these challenges are exacerbated, not alleviated, by our leadership.

When people we elect as leaders stand by bad decisions, they compound the struggles of New Yorkers, adding unnecessary burden – raising rents, cutting services, redirecting resources from what we need, to what sounds good in a press conference or political ad.

And those difficulties give way to fears, then to leaders exploiting those fears instead of addressing them, in a cycle which means for all of the work I’m proud that our office has taken on in the last five years, today we’re discussing many of the same issues as when I stood onstage five years ago.

Win Rozario calling 911 for help during a mental health crisis has just as much to fear as Kawaski Trawick did five years ago, as Deborah Danner did three years before that. Kalief Browder in solitary confinement faced the same harm as Layleen Polanco five years later. The diversity in leadership has changed, but the impact on diverse communities has not. 

I don’t mention these cycles to say that fear is futile or failure pre-determined. I don’t believe that. 

Because when we have the courage to step up and the conviction to see it through, we can change systems. We can replace concerns with confidence.

 

We’ve done it in the last five months – enacting transformative public safety laws. We’ve done it in the last five years, pushing through a pandemic, passing legislation and shifting conversations in a way that is real and tangible on our streets.

We can take what people are feeling, and we work to create systemic solutions that show up in people’s individual lives. We marshal the expertise and energy of public servants toward taking on a problem. We become a partner – not a panacea, not an unseen entity, but a trusted support system.

You have fears? We have your back. That's what government should be for. 

Instead, far too often, trust is broken, and government becomes just another fear. And that makes it easier to leave agencies understaffed, to eliminate vital programs, and to hope that no one will notice or care, because they no longer expect any better of their elected officials, of their public servants. 

New Yorkers can accomplish great things, but government needs to be trusted for that progress to happen – and leaders need to earn back that trust, by telling the truth and actually delivering on promises, instead of promising that they already have. 

With that loss of trust, I fear we could enter a space of apathy, where our obstacles become permanent, our limits become fixed, our fears become realities. Too often, I see it happening – people checking out, accepting things the way they are, instead of pushing for the way they could and should be. Leaders offering excuses, and decrying the people who do agitate for change – it’s enough to make anyone check out.

But we can’t stop caring. I know that ‘numb’ is an easier feeling than fear. But we can’t create progress with passivity. We need to be passionate, to be active. 

Dr. King said that “Fear is a powerfully creative force.” That every great advance is partly motivated by “the desire to escape some dreaded thing.” 

We have to hear the fears of New Yorkers for what they are – urgent calls t do what needs to be done – not what’s been done before. To escape injustice, inequity, and inaction. We have to take creative, courageous approaches to each of the issues I’ve discussed today, and many more. 

Because every New Yorker has their own individual fears. I do. As your Public Advocate, I’m working on systemic fears – as a dad, I have the same personal, deeply held worries we all do.

But we also all have hope. Hope is the opposite of fear, and it’s the first step toward overcoming it. Across our city, we have eight million hopes. That’s a lot of first steps, and it starts to look a lot like a march. Fear may be a motivator, but hope is what keeps us moving, what drives us forward to action. We all have fears - but we’re not frightened of them.

We’re not retreating, but advancing. We’re not running from anything – we’re running toward something. Toward freedom from fear and the systems that perpetuate it. Toward a government that sees our strength and courage as a reason to do more, not an excuse to do less. Toward new ideas and new voices. Toward the transformational change we hope and work for.

I know – it’s daunting. But the people are speaking up, and what they’re saying, what I’m proud to echo across the city  and into City Hall – 

We’re not afraid. We’re activated.

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