Jamaal Bowman: ‘The police literally beat the crap out of me’

When the New York Democrat comes to the Hill, he’ll bring these memories

Jamaal Bowman wears his Wu-Tang mask as he campaigns in New York’s 16th District in June. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images file photo)
Jamaal Bowman wears his Wu-Tang mask as he campaigns in New York’s 16th District in June. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images file photo)
Posted July 23, 2020 at 6:00am

When Jamaal Bowman says he wants to end police brutality and overhaul law enforcement procedures in America, it’s not just an abstract policy position. 

The 44-year-old New York Democrat has a long history with police officers treating him roughly. 

He was just 11 years old the first time it happened. “The police literally beat the crap out of me,” he says.

“Just because I was playing with my friends, loud and boisterous, and didn’t acquiesce to what they were asking us to do,” he recalls. “I gave a little back talk when they told us to settle down and keep it down. The next thing you know, I was thrown against the wall, thrown to the floor, night stick to the back, face scraped across the floor, and handcuffed.”

Bowman says he was taken to the precinct, only to be released to his mother, without any charges. Accepting the incident as just the way things worked, his mother sought no recourse. “We just kept it moving,” he says.

That personal connection to the issues of racial justice and policing is part of what helped Bowman pull a stunning upset over a 16-term congressman in the Democratic primary this June. Critics accused incumbent Eliot L. Engel, the powerful 73-year-old chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, of being out of touch with a majority-minority district that includes parts of Westchester County and the Bronx. And as more people took to the streets in protest after George Floyd was killed in police custody, Bowman noticed his own message was resonating.

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He was able to tap into the anxiety many Black parents feel about raising their children in this environment.

“I was slapped around by police,” he says. “I’ve been arrested for ‘stealing’ my own car, only to be released. I’ve been locked up for not having insurance, only to be released. I mean, this sort of thing is just par for the course when you’re Black or brown in America.”

The father of three gives the same instructions to his kids (particularly to his 19-year-old son) that Black parents have passed down for generations. 

“Keep your hands visible at all times,” he tells them. “No sudden or quick gestures. Answer ‘Yes, sir. No, sir.’ Do whatever you’re told so you can get out of there alive.”

But Bowman wants things to be different for his children. Like many Black households in America, he and his wife have talked with them about race and policing “more in the last several months than we did over their entire lifetime.” 

He teaches them their rights and how to interact with officers so they can “not just maintain their dignity, but not get themselves hurt or killed.” Still, he recognizes the “power of fear.”

“I’m trying my best not to raise my children with fear of the police,” he says. 

Winning the Democratic primary is pretty much tantamount to winning the general in a district where President Donald Trump had a dismal showing four years ago, finishing almost 53 points down. As Bowman gets in the mindset of a lawmaker, he insists he bears no grudge against the future colleagues, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who backed Engel over him.

“I’m a sponge, man,” says Bowman, a former middle school principal. “I’m a learner. I know that our politics quote-unquote [don’t] always align. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from each other.”

Since his win, he’s heard from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the few sitting members to endorse him in the primary. Her district sits next to his, and she pulled off a similar upset in 2018.

Several other progressive House members have contacted him too, he says, like Reps. Pramila Jayapal and Barbara Lee.

While his ultimate margin over Engel was in the double digits, Bowman didn’t always feel like he had the race in the bag.

“Absolutely there was self doubt, periodically, that would creep in,” he says. A friend involved in New York politics told him, “Jamaal, there are days where you’re going to feel like you’re on top of the world and you’re the best thing since sliced bread, and days where you’re going to feel unworthy for what you’re trying to do.”

“Neither one of those things is true,” the friend reminded him.

As protests against police violence surged earlier this year, it was a “tipping point” for both the country and his campaign.

“We had the murder of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, followed by the Amy Cooper Central Park video, followed by the murder of George Floyd,” Bowman says. “In terms of endorsements, in terms of fundraising, in terms of positive ideas, there was just this explosion.”

Even with the wind at your back, campaign life can be a drag. Bowman says his wife and staff kept him going, but also cites another source of inspiration: the Wu-Tang Clan, or at least their groundbreaking album “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).”

“I mean, ‘36 Chambers’ was quintessential,” says Bowman, an avid hip hop fan. During the primary, the candidate was photographed wearing a Wu-Tang face mask while out on the trail. The Gen X-er also keeps in rotation staples of ’80s and ’90s rap like Nas’ “Illmatic” and albums by Rakim and KRS-One.

Should he win in November (as is likely), he’s aware that he will be just one of 535 voices in Congress. But Bowman, who supports Medicare for All and once told Jacobin magazine, “If you want to call me a socialist then call me a socialist,” says he’s anxious to work with people who have “diverse experiences and ideas.”

“Those closest to the pain should be closest to the power,” he says, echoing the words of Rep. Ayanna Pressley, another member who backed his long-shot bid (and knows herself what it’s like to unseat an incumbent).

“When we talk about communities that have gone through the most pain in this country’s history, we’re talking about the Black community and the Latinx community and poor whites,” says Bowman. “[They’ve] been politically, economically and psychologically disenfranchised and haven’t been a part of the democratic process.”

Bowman has visited the nation’s capital multiple times, sometimes as a dad showing his children the Martin Luther King Jr. monument and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and sometimes as a principal doing the same with his students.

There’s still a lot he hasn’t seen in D.C., but hopefully he’ll have an easier time finding a breakfast sandwich than his ally and fellow New York native AOC, who waded into controversy this year when she claimed there wasn’t a decent bacon, egg and cheese to be had in Washington.

He says he hasn’t asked her where to go yet. “Haha, not yet. But I definitely will.”