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India Walton: Democrats Have “Gotten Very Comfortable Doing Nothing”

An interview with India Walton, the socialist who could soon be Buffalo’s next mayor.

India Walton speaks to a crowd in Buffalo, New York. Walton's all-volunteer campaign for mayor defeated a four-term incumbent the in Democratic primary.

Buffalo, New York, was alive and buzzing when this reporter visited in July. Summer festivals were underway, pandemic restrictions had eased, and India Walton had just defeated four-term incumbent Mayor Byron Brown in a Democratic primary bid a month earlier.

It wasn’t just the multiplying yard signs bearing the name of a nurse and community organizer that suggested change was afoot in the Queen City. Brown and his entrenched allies have occupied Buffalo’s majestic city hall for nearly 16 years, and the excitement around Walton’s primary victory was the talk of the town, rattling the Democratic Party establishment in Buffalo and beyond. If elected, Walton would be the first Black woman to serve as mayor of Buffalo and the first socialist to lead a major city in decades.

Brown launched a write-in campaign after losing the primary in June and received support from business interests and representatives of the city’s political status quo, including Republicans. Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer endorsed Walton this week, and Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York is campaigning for Walton in Buffalo. Brown and Walton will face off at the polls again on November 2, and if the race is close, it could take weeks to determine a winner due to the number of write-in ballots.

For activists in Buffalo — Walton says her campaign “is the activists” — the election represents a major turning point for a proud Rust Belt city where economic revitalization has failed to conceal deep inequities. Truthout spoke to Walton on Thursday to learn more about her perspectives on housing, gentrification and racist policing — and why these challenges have voters in Buffalo clamoring for change.

Mike Ludwig: I want to ask you first about housing, because when I first came to Buffalo in 2007, the West Side had maybe a 60 percent occupancy rate. And obviously that’s not the case anymore. It’s a very different city, at least in parts of the city, but economic recovery has not been equal everywhere. I know you have a background in housing activism, is that correct?

India Walton: I kind of [got] into it accidentally, but that’s an accurate assessment.

I’m curious about how housing laid the groundwork for your campaign or inspired you to run?

You know, I was executive director of the Fruit Belt Community Land Trust and that happened because the community demanded it, right? We saw the growth of the Buffalo Niagara medical campus on the heels of a billion-dollar investment from the State of New York, and it didn’t translate into any improvement in the quality of life for the folks who live in the neighborhood.

In fact, it had many negative effects. One of which was parking, and I helped work to put a parking permit system put in place, and the other was the speculation and the rapid increase in property values and rents. So, the genesis of the Fruit Belt Community Land Trust was really an effort by neighborhood groups to maintain their space in their own community and not be driven out by the rising housing costs.

Working as executive director and trying to work with the city to have some of those 200 lots that they own in the neighborhood dedicated toward affordable housing and have the city be the barrier to progress, that really did motivate me to run and informed a lot of the decisions about why my housing policy and my platform looks the way it does it. It prioritizes people over profits and neighborhoods over corporate developers.

Buffalo has experienced what some people might call a “Rust Belt revitalization.” There are more houses occupied now than when I first went there. I’ve always taken a nuanced view of gentrification in Buffalo because when I first came there, I would go down, for instance, Grant Street, and a lot of businesses were not open. Now Grant Street is bustling, but also the West Side has experienced rising housing costs. What are your thoughts on gentrification and what do your policies do about any inequities that come out of gentrification?

There is a saying, you know, in the activist community: “Change is inevitable, but justice is not,” right? I think that the neighborhood change is cyclical, but poverty is a policy decision, and the problem with gentrification is that, those who are the most vulnerable in neighborhoods and communities are often the ones who suffer the negative consequences. The renters who now can’t afford a [home] in the neighborhood that they live in; the homeowners, the legacy homeowners who own homes for decades, who their reassessments now are not conducive to being able to keep up with their tax bills. Not only that, but you know, the increase in policing and the style of policing, right? You see a lot of the policing of culture. We see a lot of folks who come from different communities move into diverse neighborhoods like the West Side and who are calling me complaining because they hear drumming in the evening. And that’s been happening for a number of decades on the West Side, but now because we have new folks moving into the community who haven’t integrated themselves into the culture, you know, it’s offensive to them … and they want it to stop.

So, a lot of my policies just center on community building, right, on getting to know our neighbors, and so that we can have a relationship that prevents us from having this adversarial relationship, but also that honors the culture of existing neighborhoods. Buffalo has so many neighborhoods with their own character and their own charm and their own cultural subsets.

Folks moving into the neighborhood should be able to add to it, but not take from it. So, it’s about protecting renters. It’s about opening up capital for homeowners to make improvements to their homes. It’s about development without this displacement. It’s about, when you want to build a building, you don’t build it on top of the people that are currently there, you don’t build it without the consent of the majority of the folks that live there, you don’t build it and it doesn’t fit into the character and charm of the existing fabric of that neighborhood, you do in consideration of all of those things.

I saw the community land trust model in your platform. How does that model come out of city hall? I can imagine a nonprofit running a community land trust, but how can city hall help with something like establishing community land trust?

So, you know, that is how our policy platform is centered, is around the people that currently exist, and in the spirit of lifting all boats, and hoping all folks have boats to begin with, and not allowing a rising tide to cast some folks away.

That’s a great question. I mean, there are municipally supported land trusts all over the country. There’s one in Austin, Texas, and to a lesser extent in places like Boston at Dudley Street. You know, in Boston, Massachusetts, the City of Boston actually invoked eminent domain to allow Dudley Street to acquire land, to put in something into their land trust, right? And the city of Buffalo being one of the largest land owners in the city has a responsibility to have a disposition policy that prioritizes groups that are going to build affordable housing.

So, the city of Buffalo definitely has a role to play in supporting the proliferation and success of community land trusts.

And what about the East Side? Traditionally a majority-Black area, also Polish, but also has not seen the same kind of investment in development as the rest of the city. What are your thoughts about the East Side moving forward?

Yeah, East Side’s going to be a priority economic development area for the Walton administration. We are going to prioritize mixed-use buildings on commercial corridors, like Michigan Avenue, Fillmore, Bailey; traditionally, those are our arteries that cross through the East Side of the city from north to south. And we’re also going to be focusing on affordable infill housing for ownership opportunities in our neighborhoods and, you know, coupling that with a very thoughtful strategic neighborhood plans that bring the amenities to the neighborhood. You know, taking better care of our public spaces, our parks, simple things like the environmental design, making sure that street lights are functioning, making sure that streets are paved, sidewalks are paved, that there’s crosswalks and grocery stores and just things that the East Side of Buffalo has been wanting but missing for a very long time.

That’s so powerful because, for people who have not been to Buffalo, to hear that crosswalks and streetlights that work are what people have been wanting for a while, I think that paints a powerful picture. You said “infill housing,” is that correct?

Yes, infill housing. So, on the East Side of Buffalo for a long time, the policy of the current administration to fight blight and vacancy was to demolish homes. So, you know, we have lots and lots of streets on the East Side where there’s… just a sprinkling of housing, and you can walk for several blocks and maybe only see two or three houses. They’re calling it now an “urban prairie.” The deer have come back into the city because there’s so much vacancy.

There’s just all of these vacant lots and fields. You know, some folks have put them to productive use as community gardens, but we know there is a housing crisis. There’s a lack of affordable housing, both for renters and first-time homeowners. But there’s just really the availability of quality housing in Buffalo is pretty much nonexistent at this point.

A couple years ago I was on the West Side and a group of African immigrant youth asked me if I would just walk around with them at night. And the point of them doing this (they were friends of friends) was to show me that they were being consistently harassed by the police. I walked around with them, and this is what was happening to them on a nightly basis.

You have a strong police reform platform, but you seem to stop short of defunding the police and taking police funds and putting them into other areas of community development. What is your thinking on police and defunding the police, since defunding the police was such a strong call during the Black Lives Matter protests in the past year and a half?

Yeah, I think using such simple terms to describe such complicated problems is just a general challenge, especially when we’re talking about electoral politics, right? “Defund” is the language of protest, and right now I need to be speaking the language of governance, the language of a mayor. You know, everyone doesn’t understand what that means in the same way that everyone doesn’t completely understand what gentrification means.

Buffalo has a couple of things going on, right? Our police are not accountable. Our police practice racist and broken windows policing strategies that do not work to reduce crime. And at the same time, we have an uptick in violent crimes. A 17-year-old girl was murdered last night.

So, we not only have to address our police transparency and accountability issue, but we also have to get to the root causes of crime, which at the foundation, at the very foundation, of it is concentrated poverty. It’s kind of a created disadvantage, and it’s community historical trauma that has gone unaddressed and unhealed for too long.

Our young people shouldn’t be out in the streets at night and there should be something productive for them to do. Our young people and young adults shouldn’t have to resort to dangerous, underground methods of supporting themselves. They should have the availability of good quality jobs. And if they’re not equipped to work that job, there should be job training available to them in their neighborhood. We know that transportation is a barrier to accessing a lot of job training. We know that our literacy rates are, you know, pretty shameful here in the City of Buffalo.

So, the answer should not be encapsulated in a single word, right? And that is why our public safety policy is very robust, but, you know, there is always room to reconsider how we spend our money. We have positions that are vacant and unfilled, and the money that we’re saving from positions that we’re probably never going to fill in the police department can be reallocated to make sure that we’re getting preventative mental health services and an improved homelessness outreach, and improved youth outreach services.

The police budget has ballooned, and our youth services and community services budget has dwindled over the years. So, I’m not as interested in defunding the police as I am in refunding our community and making sure that services exist to keep our children off the streets and keep our community safe.

With your campaign, you’ve definitely shaken up the Democratic Party in Buffalo, actually maybe across the country, shaken up what people think is possible in a local race within the Democratic Party. I’ve always thought that perhaps this reflects the deeply-rooted activist scene that exists in Buffalo. And I wonder how that has been part of your campaign. Has it been a grassroots campaign? Who has been supporting you in the streets, really, in the organizing to get out the vote?

Yeah. The India Walton for Mayor Campaign is the activists, right? It is the protestors. It is the thinkers, the progressive thinkers and doers in the City of Buffalo. It is a grassroots campaign. You know, we won the primary without a single paid staff member, all volunteers. These are folks who are showing up for me and showing up for us because they believe in what we’re trying to do. They’ve seen the failures of our city leadership and are craving change.

It’s funny because a friend of mine just posted a memory of his from 2017 when we had our first “State of Our City” address. And I was saying in 2017 a lot of the same things that I’m saying right now that I’m running for mayor, but this is years and years of building coalition and policy platforms. Now we finally have a chance to bring a lot of those policies into the light and into the forefront. And I don’t think there’s any person who lives in the city who will be disappointed when they see us implement a lot of these smart ideas that we’ve been trying to convince the leadership of this city for almost a decade are good policy.

That’s interesting, right, that there has been a Democratic mayor for such a long time, but some of these policies that came out of community organizing were not picked up by city hall. Do you have any idea why that is? Why is it that you needed to challenge the existing Democrat?

The feeling that I get being a lifelong Buffalonian is that they don’t care about us. They care about one another. You know, the power structure cares about folks who are powerful, folks who are wealthy, folks who are influential and have largely ignored the fact the power really rests in the hands of community members and of voters and residents of the City of Buffalo. And because we’ve allowed Democrats to coast for so long, largely going unchallenged, they’ve gotten very comfortable doing nothing, even when the people have placed a demand upon them. And I think that this campaign is a really significant signal that those days of the feet-warming, three-piece suit Democrats are over in Buffalo.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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