In the summer of 1997, two years after co-founding the advocacy group 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, then-NYPD Lt. Eric Adams found himself caught up in the outcry over a heinous case of police brutality ‒ one of the most grievous cases New York City has ever seen.
Responding to the beating and sodomizing of Abner Louima in Flatbush, Adams pled for the officers involved to face charges, while organizing marches in partnership with Haitian leaders. More than 20 years later, he stood with Haitian leaders again as Brooklyn borough president, this time at a designation ceremony for the Little Haiti business and commercial district, in Flatbush.
“I’m not new to you, I’ve been true to you,” Adams, 60, proclaimed in an interview with The Haitian Times, directly addressing Haitian New Yorkers.
Now, the retired police officer and four-term New York State senator who has served as Brooklyn borough president since 2014, wants Haitian-American voters to stand with him in this year’s elections for mayor of New York City. Although he faces stiff competition in a field with dozens of candidates, Adams has raised the third-highest amount in private contributions and finished second to entrepreneur Andrew Yang in an early public opinion poll.
If elected, Adams pledges to expand language accessibility, access to public benefits and improve police-community relations, among other policies that stand to benefit Haitian New Yorkers.
“In my policies, it’s really about how we look at communities that have historically been marginalized,” Adams said. “And at the heart of that is that the city’s dysfunctional, like so many cities across America.”
Roots in law enforcement
A native son of Brooklyn, Adams was born in the borough’s Brownsville neighborhood to Dorothy and Leroy Adams, who worked as a house cleaner and butcher, respectively. At 15 years old, he was badly beaten by police himself. The beating would lead him to join the NYPD to fight for reform from the inside.
When the Aug. 9, 1997 Louima assault occurred, Adams was midway through his 22-year law enforcement career. That year, his advocacy work put him into close collaboration with Haitian-American activists and police.
Claude Pierre, a member of the Haitian American Law Enforcement Fraternal Organization (HALEFO) and NYPD detective, began his career at the 70th precinct, where the crime against Louima occurred. Protests in front of the precinct headquarters, he said, took place on a weekly basis through the fall of that year.
During this time, he became acquainted with Adams, who was a vocal critic of police and the way they interacted with the community, Pierre said.
“[Adams has] always been an individual who seeks to tie social justice to police functions,” said Pierre. “Having been a police officer … he sees what the discrepancies are, he sees what the positives are in terms of how to effectively address the power divide between the police and communities of color.”
Despite being a Republican in a Democratic stronghold through 1999, Adams won an election for state senate in 2006, as a Democrat. While there, he earned praise for his workshops on police interaction, which later became a nationwide model for showing young people how to deal with law enforcement.
Now as a mayoral candidate, his proposals involve increasing police recruitment in minority neighborhoods to improve police-community relations. Changing the duties of law enforcement is also on his radar.
“We need to change the ecosystem of public safety, and that includes having police do the law enforcement for serious crimes,” Adams said, in a phone interview. “We need to take them away from non-serious crimes and build a more restorative justice and community model.”
Supporting the Haitian community
As borough president, Adams’ celebration of Haitian culture has not gone unnoticed. During his seven years in office, Adams has held annual Haitian Flag Day celebrations at Borough Hall.
In the spring of 2018, he stood with Haitian leaders, including District 42 Assembly Member Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn and Haitian American Business Network (HABNET) President Jackson Rockingster to officially designate the Little Haiti business district.
“Making borough hall available to us every year, recognizing Haitian Independence Day and Haitian flag day, that counts for a lot,” Pierre said. “He has always welcomed us.”
Little Haiti has the potential to provide a sense of place and belonging for thousands of Haitian-Americans. But community integration work also takes place in spaces that rarely draw the attention of news cameras and reporters, like the classroom.
During a Jan. 28 candidates’ forum, Adams criticized the city for its inadequate education of Black students, saying, “if you don’t educate, you incarcerate.” The city further fails immigrant communities, he went on to say, by not providing support in their native languages.
In an interview, Adams said Creole-speaking students deserve more academic and emotional support in New York City’s public schools. He pledged to collaborate with Haitian-led groups, as mayor.
“We’re going to partner with local Haitian and other English-as a-second-language communities and groups to build out those support systems within the Department of Education,” Adams said.
Adams has also proposed expanding on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s IDNYC program, which provides access to an identification card for all New York City residents, regardless of immigration status.
The program can be modernized, Adams said, by storing cardholders’ income and demographic data on a microchip. Having this information stored on the card, he said, could streamline the complicated process of applying for benefits through different agencies.
One question critics have raised during Adams’ tenure as borough president is his aggressive fundraising from the real estate industry, which has been blamed by activists and some residents for rising rents and displacement in neighborhoods like Flatbush. Adams denounced the idea of refusing donations as “silly.”
But as borough president, Adams launched an initiative to advise faith-based institutions on land development, contributing $1 million to construction of the Bishop Philius and Helene Nicolas Senior Residence, in 2019. The affordable housing development, due to open this spring, was spearheaded by Evangelical Crusade Christian Church, in East Flatbush.
His housing plan, if elected to lead City Hall, involves rezoning wealthier areas of the city, to allow for construction of affordable housing units, for low- and middle-income New Yorkers.
Leading the city out of crisis
Since announcing his candidacy in November 2020, Adams has garnered the endorsement of key Haitian-American political leaders, including Bichotte Hermelyn and District 45 city Council Member Farah Louis.
Brooklyn Democratic Party Chair and Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn, today, March 15, endorsed Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams for mayor becoming the first 2021 mayoral endorsement by a county party leader. https://t.co/fQwtQYcP9r— amNewYork (@amNewYork) March 15, 2021
Louis cited Adams’ commitment to addressing Black maternal health and his ability to lead in a time of crisis.
“During the COVID crisis specifically he led while others fled,” said Louis, in an email. “He led by providing Brooklynites with essential services and hand-delivering thousands of PPE and meals to lower-income communities hardest hit by COVID.”
For Adams, bringing the great melting pot of New York City out of its biggest crisis since the 1970s must involve empowering community-based organizations.
Haitian-led nonprofits have played a critical role educating their communities about COVID-19 prevention and vaccines. Yet, applications to host the vaccine in a trusted setting have gone unanswered, and some organizations have complained about lack of funding for educational outreach.
“We don’t give them the financial resources to make sure that they can do their job to prevent some of the crises that we are seeing,” Adams said. “And that is what must change.”