If you’re involved in criminal justice reform in NYC, then Darren Mack won’t be a new name to you. I met Darren as part of the New York Civil Liberties Union Community Organizing Institute. He’s a powerful advocate and abolitionist with an unwavering commitment to liberation and Black joy.
Darren was born and raised in Brooklyn in a community battling a lack of investment from its own city. At the age of 17, Darren was arrested and sentenced to up to 40 years. His first time in the prison system, Darren served 20 years. Since then, Darren has actively engaged in dismantling New Jim Crow practices with a strong focus on closing Riker’s Island. Darren is also a member of JustLeadershipUSA and was awarded the very first Lawrence “Larry” Gelber Award for Justice in 2017. You can catch Darren speaking out on criminal justice issues regularly, such as his recent talk at the Beyond the Gates conference at Harvard University.
I sat down with Darren to talk Brooklyn and his work as an activist. He shared so much BK wisdom, resources and borough history, that I couldn’t fit it all into the interview! If you want to learn more, don’t miss the Darren Mack exclusive reading list at the end of our conversation.
There’s a lot of conversation about how Brooklyn has changed, and I know you’ve had roots here for a while. What was it like back in the day?
Well my grandmother on my father’s side came to Brooklyn in 1950s. She was a live-in domestic worker for a white family, and every two weeks, on the weekends, she would come home to her own apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant. My father came up too after having been sharecropping with my grandfather in South Carolina for a while. Once he got a job, my mother and older brother came up to Brooklyn too. Then, in 1974 or ’75, something like that, we were living in Bushwick and the housing project, Borinquen Plaza Houses, was built. That’s where I was born and raised. It was primarily Latino and we were the first Black family in there.
There was a lot of love. Every mother was like your mother. You could go to their house and eat dinner, and they had the authority to discipline you. It was all love. People looked out for each other a bit more. It’s different now. I think things have become more individualized.
What, in your mind, really caused the neighborhood to shift?
For me, it goes back to ‘77 and the big blackout. People were burning out buildings and Bushwick was demolished, especially Broadway, and there was no reinvestment back in rebuilding the communities. There was an investment in one thing though- policing and law enforcement. There was a lot of investment in that. The same thing with Brownsville and Bedstuy. Now, Bushwick has one of the highest rent prices in the country. There’s a lot of investment by the city now.
These things like hyper-policing, redlining, and the War on Drugs, paved the way for what Brooklyn is today. Another thing that changed the neighborhood was the public housing ban. When you got a criminal record, you couldn’t move back to where you were from, where you grew up, so a lot of families moved out because of that.
As much as the city invested in the War on Drugs, they need to make an equal amount or even more of an investment in communities that are directly impacted by mass incarceration through investment in affordable housing, education, substance abuse treatment, and employment for youth. That’s what it will take, also ending practices like broken windows policing. They need to end broken windows policing, man because it’s racialized.
Definitely, what’s your view on how broken windows policing impacts the Black community?
They don’t practice broken windows policing in Park Slope, they practice it in Brownsville and East New York, so that’s a big issue. It’s a tool to crack down on poor people. The theory is that if you arrest people for quality of life crimes like public urination and jumping the turnstile, it will prevent larger crimes like robbery and assault. That’s the theory, and the theory is flawed. The number one arrest in New York City is fare evasion-jumping the turnstile. Thousands of New Yorkers, especially young people of color, are getting arrested for $2.75 and getting sent to Riker’s Island. That’s all part of broken windows policing and it’s continuing today funneling people of color into the criminal justice system.
What do you think people can do to push back on that?
Well, I participate in resistance tactics with organizations like BYP100 and their Swipe It Forward campaign. With that, they swipe people, especially poor Black and Brown people onto the subway and they educate people that it’s totally legal to swipe somebody on the subway station, as long as you don’t take money for it. They are alleviating people from jumping the turnstile and getting involved with the criminal justice system in that way.
So, I know you do a lot of work with closing Riker’s Island and it’s been getting more and more attention lately. What’s going on with the campaign to close?
This jail is actually, literally destroying people’s lives and needs to be shutdown. The #Closerikers Campaign launched in 2016 on the steps of city hall with about 40 organizations, advocates, and directly impacted people. I was there from the beginning going to actions, attending meetings, sharing my ideas. At the time, the Mayor said closing Riker’s was unrealistic and other people were calling it a fantasy, but directly impacted people and concerned New Yorkers came together and a year later there’s a plan to close Riker’s. He said ten years and that’s a big success but we’re still fighting because that’s too long. Ten more years means over 400,000 New Yorkers going to Riker’s Island, ten more years means billions of dollars into the failed jail system. We can’t afford ten more years, so we’re still fighting to move the Mayor to close Riker’s sooner rather than later. And you know, I do this work voluntarily because I am directly impacted by Riker’s, and it’s just a place that no human being should experience, so I’ve been advocating for a shutdown.
Can you talk a bit about the link of Closing Riker’s with black liberation and abundance?
The history of police, prisons, and incarceration in the country is a history of controlling and terrorizing Black people. I think that’s why people like me become abolitionists, you know, then and now. They had the overseer and today we have the officer. It’s evolved over the years, actually, KRS One made a rap song about that and played on the role overseer, officer – they play the same role-social control of Black and Brown bodies.
Once you get into the system and get a felony you are legally discriminated against for a thousand different things. In certain states you lose the right to vote for the rest of your life. In other states, like New York, you can’t vote until you get off parole or on probation. There are also job controls. In some states you aren’t allowed to get certain licenses. In California, they have women that are fighting fires while incarcerated, but those same women can’t get a job as a firefighter when they get out of prison because they have a felony. That’s slave labor.
Bringing it back to BK, what are some places that give you that community vibe you mentioned earlier?
My favorite spot that I go to all the time is Starr Bar on Starr St in Bushwick. It’s the only social justice bar in New York. It’s a place and space for fundraisers, they have a stage and film screenings there. It came out of this other space called the Mayday space which is a space for organizations to do retreats and stuff like that. One night they had Sasheer Zamata. She came through one night. Roy Wood from the Daily show came through one night. It’s a dope spot, man. They also have this event called Queer Abstract focused on queer people- poetry, music, partying. It always crowded and always live.
People should also check out the vegan spot Sol-Sips. They opened up on April 5. Started by a young Black sister and her mother as a pop-up shop, and now it’s a full-fledged restaurant. Also, Sweet Science, which is Black-owned.
Who are some Brooklyn activists or movements you think people should know about?
Samantha Johnson is an organizer and New York City chapter leader from Million Hoodies that was founded by Dante Barry. They do work around police brutality, immigration, freedom cities and stuff like that. Samantha has also been a big supporter and advocate for the #Closerikers Campaign. Also, people should know about Mariame Kaba.
Oh, Mariame Kaba is from Brooklyn?! I sat down with her awhile back when I was in Chicago doing school-to-prison pipeline work. She is SUCH a force.
Absolutely, yup born and raised in Brooklyn, but in Chicago for 20 years. She’s brilliant, man. She is a powerful educator and organizer- the Ella Baker of the 21stcentury. She’s on twitter @prisonculture and you’ll learn a lot just by following her.
I’ve experienced and talked to people about the tokenism and other false expectations put on Black people in various work environments. Is that something you’ve experienced in your work?
You know, generally, things are good. When it comes to criminal justice reform, people of color are disproportionately impacted so I think it’s inevitable that those voices are the ones that need to heard, and people are speaking out and becoming advocates themselves for criminal justice reform. Sometimes people, though there’s you know trauma porn. They want to hear your story and the trauma you’ve been through, and it makes them feel, sad or guilty or whatever and then they donate to your organization. If it’s going to get people to put money to the organization to do social justice work, then it’s a good thing, but if it’s triggering for the person telling their story then it’s a bad thing.
Since you speak up a lot, what advice would you give to help someone decide whether or not to share their story?
If you’re not comfortable with telling your story, then don’t. You can still do the work. Also, some people also need to see a therapist, and that’s where they need to talk about their experiences.
On this point, you do so much work and also have such a peace in presence. I’m curious how you maintain that for yourself.
It’s probably because I’m an introvert and because of my experience. Incarcerated 20 years, you have to be patient with a lot. You gotta wait for this, you gotta wait for that. You gotta wait for everything. I think it’s that and my hope that things will get better.
Also, I’m a student of history. People are fighting for their freedom and equality. Knowing where we came from and the struggles, shows that things change. You just have to keep on working to make that change. That’s what keeps me hopeful in a nutshell. Even if I don’t see the fruits of my labor now, I know that the pendulum is swinging the other way because I’m pulling it that way, and the next generation will see the benefits of it, so I’m cool with that.
What does Black Abundance mean to you?
Blackness is not homogenous or a monolith. That idea comes from institutions and the media. In the Black community, sometimes you can hear that critique of ‘he’s not Black enough.’ It’s complicated. Those discussions have been around for generations-colorism and who isn’t Black enough. People don’t even know that they’ve sometimes internalized and are perpetuating white supremacy or anti-Blackness. It’s an educational thing. I’m still learning. I just started learning about patriarchy, and I got a lot to learn and a lot to unlearn as well. It’s complex. We’re human beings. We’re flawed. We’re going to make mistakes, but we have to learn from those mistakes and keep it moving. Those mistakes don’t define us.
Black Abundance means seeing and recognizing the wide variety of Black cultures, creativity, and magical brilliance that has always existed will always exist. For instance, Black Panther is Black Abundance. There were Black directors, Black co-writers, Black leading characters, Black costume designers. That’s Black Abundance and it’s breaking records.
Darren Mack Reading List on Criminal Justice Reform