When you picture New York politicians, a stylish 22-year-old Black man more than likely doesn’t come to mind.
For Chi Ossé, that’s exactly the point—and the problem. After joining in the Black Lives Matter protests that swept America last summer, Ossé found himself connecting with lots of like-minded young New Yorkers. Soon they were organising protests, spreading information together, and ultimately forming the collective that would come to be known as Warriors in the Garden. These experiences awoke a passion in Ossé to help change the course of the country from within. He’s eyeing the City Council race, where his district is especially open to new blood due to term limits. With nearly a year until the vote—on November 2, 2021—Ossé would be the youngest councilman in history. And if the hype surrounding his campaign is any indicator, he likely will be.
How did growing up in NYC impact you culturally and lay the foundation for your activism?
New York, and Brooklyn, is a cultural hub of the world. As a third-generation Brooklynite, I’ve grown up with a multitude of cultures, especially in Crown Heights. There are many West Indian families that live around here; I myself come from a multicultural background: my dad was Haitian, my mom was Black and Chinese, and being in this New York melting pot created who I am. I’ve seen that translate into my activism, and my candidacy as well. I’m not only running to preserve Black lives, I’m running to preserve New York and New York’s culture. Part of my platform is standing up against the gentrification that’s happening in my neighborhood, my district. Fighting against gentrification is a fight to preserve New York and the culture that made me who I am today.
Being from New York, how do you see what seems to be the obvious need for progressive and inclusive policy spreading to the rest of the country? How do we take that and push it beyond the borders of our major cities?
Well, we’re not even up to code in our cities. Talking on a political level, we may be a diverse city, and LA may be a diverse city as well, however, when it comes to our politics—especially our local politics—we’re not putting progressives in leadership roles. That’s why we’re trying to have a dynamic shift with this primary in New York City next year. We may be a diverse city and have diverse thinkers in terms of progressive ideas, but when it comes to voting in local elections we don’t live up to the progressive code that we should. What I’m trying to do, and what New York is trying to do, and what we’re seeing in this current movement from 2020 to 2021, is this cultural shift in candidates and ideas. We’re pushing what the precedent of NYC politics has looked like and creating the one that should be.
There’s been a spike in young people becoming politically active, do you think this trend will continue? How do we as a society continue to motivate and engage younger people to stay involved?
Well, in order to engage younger people to step up and at least participate in democracy, we need candidates that represent them. Whether it’s their personality, whether it’s their values, whether it’s their ideas. For too long, we’ve seen the same boring archetype of a candidate and it’s this older, wealthy white man. That doesn’t represent what the United States looks like, nor does it represent what New York City looks like, nor does it represent what Brooklyn looks like.
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Is there a single moment or event you can tie your activism to?
I mean, being Black in America is activism, so I guess throughout my entire life I’ve been an activist. Me being alive, being happy, me living my life as it is is activism. I guess this year I started to find my voice, and then realised where I could add that voice in this grand conversation of criminal injustice, racism, and Black Lives Matter. Then I took it a step further in jumping into the City Council race.
How did Warriors in the Garden start, and how has that evolved the foundation of where you are now?
Warriors in the Garden was the organisation I founded a week and a half into protesting. We all organically met throughout the streets of chaos that existed during those first couple of weeks here in New York City. We shared a similar message, and realised that our voices would be amplified if we were unified together. Since that first week and a half, we’ve been organising together: protests, children’s marches, and putting out educational content about what it feels like not only to be a protestor here in New York City, but what its like to be young and Black in the United States.
I appreciate the fact you’re very overt about the role fashion plays in your life and how you use it as part of your public conversation. Can you explain that?
It’s who I am, overall. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t dress in the way that I usually do. Again, we’re trying to get younger people engaged in politics. Too many men in suits, you know? We need people we can rally behind who are like us. For crying out loud, this is New York City! I’m not that out of the box when it comes to my fashion. But we’re trying to make this as exciting and as loud as this race can possibly be. I was talking to a former city councilman and he was like, ‘I’ve never seen a race like this before, you’re really making a lot of noise,’ and that’s what we’re trying to do. So even if I don’t win—which won’t happen—I’m drawing attention to local politics, which is very important. People need to be engaged on what’s happening on the local level. I’m doing what I can to what I can to engage people and make it as exciting as it can possibly be, even though bureaucracy can tend to be boring.
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Do you feel the BLM momentum nationally or internationally is slowing? Do you think real change has been cemented in, and do you think it will continue to push forward?
Real change doesn’t happen overnight, and it also doesn’t happen over the span of four months. What this movement has done this summer is awakened this drive in individuals that they’ll bring real change in our future. For me, if this movement and protests and action didn’t happen, I don’t know if I could say I would be running for office. I think real change happens when we bring pen to paper, and that’s what I’m running to do when I win my city council seat and can actually present legislation that saves my people.
Whether you win or not, you’re obviously extremely motivated and ambitious. What else does the future hold for you?
I’d like to keep that as a surprise.
Your dad, Combat Jack, was a legendary hip hop journalist and historian. Do you channel that legacy with your activism? What did you learn growing up with him?
I mean, his voice was powerful and influential and people listened to it, and in a sense so is mine now. I am who my dad was, and his teachings resonate throughout me every single day. I’m hopefully carrying the mantle and pushing it forward and living his legacy.
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How do you feel about the pushback on the Black Lives Matter protests and ensuing mobilization of nationalism?
It represents America. America is a white supremacist state. It has been and always will be, until we continue to stand up and exhibit these movements like we did this summer. Obviously the pushback is expected, as this country is built off of the oppression of Black and Brown people.
How do you see that ultimately being overthrown in a non-violent manner? Can democracy be utilized, even though it’s totally under attack by partisan gerrymandering? Is it still a viable tool for broad change?
I think it is, that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing. When I win, and Black leaders win, we have to prioritise the importance of succession and be conduits for people like us to enter those places of power as well. That’s the option that I’m taking. I do not condemn anyone else’s approach in terms of dismantling white supremacy, however I think it’s a multi-faceted push and this is the facet I’m participating in.