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Samelys López fights for racial and economic justice in the Bronx

June 16, 2020
tags:#USA, #2020 primaries, #New York City, #The Bronx, #racial injustice, #racism, #environmental justice, #Green New Deal, #The Sunrise Movement, #socialism, #Capitalism
by:Yair Oded
Against the backdrop of a global pandemic and a swelling movement fighting systemic racism and inequality, progressive candidates across the U.S. are mounting vigorous campaigns designed to uplift society’s most vulnerable and end structural injustices. One of them is Samelys López, who is currently running for Congress to represent the South Bronx, New York’s 15th Congressional district, in the upcoming primaries on 23 June.

López’s platform centres around guaranteeing housing as a human right, instituting a Green New Deal in the Bronx, and tackling systemic racism and corrosive capitalism. Over the past few months, she has been backed by a growing number of prominent progressive figures and organisations, including Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, the New York City Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, and The Sunrise Movement.

The reforms proposed by Lopez could open a new chapter for the country’s poorest congressional district, which is home to a large immigrant community and is populated primarily by people of colour. 

From grappling with homelessness to a career in public service

López has experienced first hand the failures of our social and economic infrastructures. Born in Puerto Rico, López was taken as a toddler to Brooklyn, New York, where her mother worked as a seamstress in a sweatshop. When López was ten, her mother, who was pregnant with her second child, had to flee from an abusive relationship. For the next two years their small family had relied on the shelter system in the city, until they finally obtained secure housing in the Bronx. 

López continued to witness the impact of social, economic, and racial inequities in her community as a college graduate, when she interned for her local representative in Congress, José E. Serrano, and later on when she worked for his son, State Senator José M. Serrano. Doing constituent services for Sen. Serrano, López had to work with tenants in the Bronx facing eviction and grappling with compounded economic hardships. “I felt like I wasn’t making a dent,” López told the Intercept, reflecting on her time working for Sen. Serrano. 

López went on to obtain a master’s degree in urban planning and work as a community organiser. Over the course of her career, she collaborated with numerous teams building affordable housing projects in the Bronx and remained closely attuned to the realities of housing insecurity among the local residents. 

In 2016, López got involved with the Sanders campaign, where she had first met Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. Following Sanders’ loss to Clinton in the primaries, López co-founded the Bronx Progressives group, and in 2018, when Ocasio Cortez announced her bid for Congress, López - along with Bronx Progressives - endorsed her campaign and worked tirelessly to garner the support of locals. 

Launching a grassroots campaign

When Congressman Serrano had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and announced he would be stepping down, López decided to launch her own bid for his seat, and has placed housing as a human right at the helm of her campaign. Her experience with housing insecurity as a young child has been instrumental in centering López’s focus on the issue. “My experience made me determined that no other family should live through what we did,” López told FairPlanet, adding that, “our experience of homelessness is all too common for families in this district, and across America. Alongside every other injustice that is stacked against working class people, people of color and poor people in America, this informed my decision to stand for Congress.”

Enshrine housing as a universal human right”

As indicated by López, inter-generational poverty combined with paltry social safety nets and decades of oppressive policies and draconian practices by city planners, developers, and landlords have rendered many in the South Bronx vulnerable to housing insecurity. 

“We need to enshrine housing as a universal human right,” said López. “That means a federal homes guarantee, full re-investment in public housing, building 12 million units of social housing and universal rent controls. We need to de-commodify housing and put an end to land speculation. We need to establish a People’s Housing Commission, a National Tenant’s Bill of Rights and reparations to reverse the impact of generations of redlining.” 

Campaigning for a Green New Deal 

Also notable among López’s policy proposals is the implementation of a Green New Deal in the Bronx. “Nowhere needs a Green New Deal more than the South Bronx”, she said. “Racial, environmental and economic injustices have combined over generations, to oppress our communities. Over the years, this gave us redlining, a freeway cutting through our district, and children left unable to breath by the filthy air they are forced to breathe. The pandemic has left thousands in our communities sick, hungry, unemployed, and — tragically — grieving.”

Enacting a Green New Deal in the Bronx, López explained, would entail, among other provisions, the full backing of the federal government for initiatives to protect the Hunts Point peninsula and the decarbonisation of the New York Housing Authority. “We need to promote multi-modal transportation infrastructure and reverse the environmental racism surrounding interstate highways, whilst re-imagining Federal Right of Ways to reduce personal auto use and prioritise green commerce and transportation,” said López. “Alongside mandatory community hiring requirements, projects like these would mean high quality, well-paid work for our neighbours, building a cleaner, safer community for this generation and those to come.” 

COVID-19 compounds decades of oppression in the Bronx

The Coronavirus pandemic, which, according to scientists from across the country, has no end in sight, has wreaked havoc across the Bronx. “COVID-19 has exposed the effects of generations of economic, environmental and racial oppression in our communities,” López said, highlighting the overcrowdedness, lack of outdoor spaces, and high rates of homelessness in the Bronx. “Many lack health insurance, and many thousands more have lost theirs when they lost their jobs due to the pandemic. Thousands are hungry.”

“Mindful of the pain and hardship the pandemic has brought to this district, we have incorporated a check-in and mutual aid offer to all of our community phone banks,” López added, saying that they derived their inspiration from civil rights organisations and activist groups, such as Young Lords and the Black Panthers, that ran community outreach programs that included free breakfasts for children and clothing drives. Her campaign has also worked to educate local residents, regardless of their immigration status, about their rights during the pandemic and reached out to front-line workers who lost their jobs after protesting unsafe working conditions. 

In addition to sparking a state of emergency in her district, the pandemic has also presented tactical challenges for López and her team, as they could no longer campaign on the ground and had to rapidly shift to alternative methods of reaching out to the community. “We have made thousands upon thousands of calls to our neighbours in the South Bronx, always checking in to see what they might need by way of mutual aid as we do so,” said López.

Her campaign has also expanded its online presence, conducting town halls and various events and information sessions on platforms such as Zoom and Facebook live. “I am also leading weekly bike tours of the community, which give us an opportunity to come together, exercise, appreciate the beauty that exists in our communities and hear about each others’ lives,” she said.

López also emphatically supports Representative Ilhan Omar’s bill proposing to place a moratorium on rent and mortgage during the COVID-19 pandemic. “This bill would institute full payment forgiveness for renters and homeowners, with no negative impact on their credit rating or rental history,” said  López, adding that the bill calls for the creation of a relief fund for landlords and mortgage holders to compensate for the losses sustained during the pandemic, as well as “an optional fund to fully finance the purchase of private rental properties by non-profits, public housing authorities, cooperatives, community land trusts, and states or local governments.”

A pivotal primary ahead

López is competing in the nation’s most crowded primary field, with virtually every local official vying to occupy Serrano’s seat. López’s most significant rival is Rubén Díaz, an openly homophobic conservative who is closely associated with real estate developers and is an abortion rights opponent. “The outgoing Representative, Jose E Serrano, who is retiring for health reasons, has advanced a progressive agenda for this district, and has made our voices heard in Washington. Communities in the 15th district need someone like me who will hear them and speak for them. Not a corporate Democrat, and definitely not a bigot,” said López. 

López’s candidacy, like those of several other progressives across the U.S., is instrumental in raising awareness of issues of racial, economic, and environmental justice. López rightfully and crucially encourages her constituents to view these issues as inextricably linked, and proposes an approach that will address them all simultaneously.

Furthermore, it is campaigns such as López’s that highlight the importance of giving an opportunity for people emerging from marginalised communities to have a seat at the table and act as direct agents of their constituencies, as opposed have them governed by establishment figures who are aligned with capitalistic interests and who virtue-signal their way out of substantial socialist reform.

"We have a lot of work to do in the Bronx, but our strength, resilience and creativity has always allowed us to survive and thrive, despite the harshest economic, environmental and racial oppression,” said López. “It is that strength, resilience and creativity that America needs right now!”

Article written by:
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Yair Oded
Managing Editor, Author
Embed from Getty Images
López’s platform centers around guaranteeing housing as a human right, instituting a Green New Deal in the Bronx, and tackling systemic racism and corrosive capitalism.
Embed from Getty Images
The reforms proposed by Lopez could open a new chapter for the country’s poorest congressional district.
Embed from Getty Images
López has experienced first hand the failures of our social and economic infrastructures. Born in Puerto Rico, López was taken as a toddler to Brooklyn.