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This Activist Campaigned on Poverty, Gentrification, and Reparations —and Won

Jecorey Arthur, who was active in protests after Breonna Taylor was killed, became the youngest city council member in Louisville by promising radical change.

Louisville Councilmember Jecorey Arthur (Courtesy of Kriech Higdon)

Ahead of the 2022 midterms, Capital B is talking to newsmakers from across the country who want to reshape American politics or galvanize Black voices in government. Our Voices of Change” series will update periodically with insights from the candidates, activists, lawmakers, and political insiders who you should know.

Jecorey Arthur expected much more pushback from other legislators when he assumed office in 2021 as the youngest councilmember in Louisville, Kentucky’s history. The activist, then 28, called for radical solutions to poverty, gentrification and systemic racism in the city where Breonna Taylor had been fatally shot by police the year before.

Buoyed by a wave of voters who were politically activated by the 2020 protests against police brutality, the former music teacher also campaigned on the need for reparations for American descendants of slaves. He told the Courier Journal that we wanted to “fix Black Louisville” when he decided to run.

“To a certain extent they thought I was just going to come in and whip out a flame thrower and burn everything down,” Arthur, now 29, told Capital B. “But I’m not naive enough to believe that I alone, by myself, can burn everything down. It’s going to take community.” 

During his first year in office, Arthur  says he’s been able to push through most of the legislation he sponsored – 38 of 40 bills, resolutions and proposed funds. The council approved a resolution to study and develop a proposal for reparations for descendants of slaves and an ordinance that provides city-funded legal representation to families facing eviction. He’s proud of those accomplishments, but disappointed that so much of the energy for radical change that elected him to office in 2020 has dissipated.

“Now, here I am in office, and sometimes I feel like I’m up there all alone,” he said.

Capital B spoke to Arthur about his first year in office, the legislation he has passed,  and how the political landscape has changed locally since he was elected.  The interview is edited for clarity and length.

Capital B: When we last spoke, you told me that you didn’t want to run for office, in large part because this was not how you saw yourself as most effective. You only ran because others asked you to. How do you feel about that decision now?

Jecorey Arthur: I typically say awful. And then they laugh. And they think that I’m joking, but I’m not. It’s hard to even put into words how complex it is to be a legislator. I’ll just speak from the perspective of a legislator, especially a Black legislator. It’s our job to not only write laws, but to rewrite laws, as in correct them. 

I’m in office, and people look to me as this savior or this superhero that’s supposed to come no matter what the issue is, no matter if it’s within the scope of being a legislator or not. It’s something that I’m supposed to address. And I think that we as a people fail to realize that if you don’t count on that elected official, that legislator, to stay in their lane, they can’t do their job, which is to legislate. The majority of the time when people call me or when people check in with me or when people have any request for me, it’s not anchored in legislation. It’s anchored in a very narrow issue that only impacts them and that they think I have immediate solutions for. The legislative process is not immediate.  

To a certain extent, even I was tricked into believing that without fully understanding the ins and outs of local government. But now I’m realizing how slow it is and how complex it is. And then, when you add elections into the mix, it gets even worse because people are scared to move forward on things. It’s just so much more than people understand. 

You campaigned on pushing against poverty and gentrification. How has that gone so far?

Last year, our first year in office, we sponsored 40 pieces of legislation. I’m proud that 38 of those 40 pieces of legislation passed. I won’t give you the full list of the 38, but [they were] very, very much anchored in abolishing poverty. 

We passed the reparations resolution that went to the desk of President Joseph Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, all of our congressional leadership, as well as our state governor and federal elected officials that are in Washington who represent Kentucky. They received this reparations resolution that really demanded and urged them to pass a federal reparations program for Black American descendants of slavery. 

We also passed a homeless hate crime, so that anyone who is unhoused in our city is a protected class in the same way that race is a protected class, the same way that your sexual orientation is a protected class, the same way that other protected classes work with the federal hate crime law. We added unhoused people to that, because we have had a number of vicious attacks. In some cases, even murder has taken place. But also people burning down encampments, people are throwing bricks at encampments, people harassing folks. And so we added that to our code to protect them.

We also passed, the CROWN Act banning discrimination against natural hair. We passed a safety zone ordinance, so that people could get access to health care. There were a number of women being harassed going in and out of Kentucky’s one and only abortion clinic. We passed a right-to-counsel so that families with children, if they were going through the eviction process, they have free legal representation.

Jecorey Arthur performs at The Players on Gramercy Park on February 22, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Steven Ferdman/WireImage)

How was holding office compared to your expectations? How much change were you able to affect on the issues you campaigned on? 

I actually expected a lot more pushback on some of what I was trying to introduce. I expected a lot more adversity. Now in some cases, like any changes with policing, I’ve gotten pushback all day long, especially considering we’re coming up on midterms. Half of our council districts are up for reelection. Overwhelmingly, most of them are Democrats. So, you know, Democrats are trying to swat away the ‘defund the police’ phrase and [to] signal to their base, both Democrats and Republicans, that we support police.

But other than that, I have gotten overwhelming support with things that we’ve introduced and fought for. I mean, the fact that we passed 38 out of the 40 pieces of legislation that we sponsored, I think that’s kind of surprising because I was almost looked at like this guy coming on the council and he’s loud, he’s an activist. To a certain extent, they thought I was just going to come in and whip out a flame thrower and burn everything down. But I’m not naive enough to believe that I alone, by myself, can burn everything down. It’s going to take community. 

You were part of a progressive blue wave that swept local elections. How has the political landscape changed, if at all? 

I would say I’m shocked that so much of the energy from 2020 has largely died down, largely went back dormant. I’m shocked because I felt like 2020 was such an awakening. [It was] such a moment for people. And now, here I am in office, and sometimes I feel like I’m up there all alone. And I don’t mean all alone, literally. I mean I just feel like there’s a minimal amount of people who are engaged in the work that we do and engaged in the changes that we’re trying to make. Whereas, in 2020, I felt like there was an army. And now it’s very much dwindled down, in our district, in our city, in our state, and our whole country. I think it’s an issue everywhere. 

And it’s, it’s kind of sad for me to hear, because I was just campaigning throughout 2020. I remember very vividly having conversations with voters. [They would say] ‘oh, you’re a Democrat, I’ll vote for you’ or ‘you’re black, I will vote for you.’ And we would say: ‘Absolutely not. Listen to what our campaign says. The skin color in the box next to my name does not matter. Listen to these policies.’

I felt like we had some teachable moments with folks then. And now they’ve kind of like, resorted back to voting blue no matter who. Now, they resorted back to Black politicians, as opposed to Black policies. 

What do you think is needed to energize Black residents to vote? 

I think that people have to have intrinsic motivation. Oftentimes, I hear a politician or a candidate talking about getting people excited and energized and motivated. Absolutely. You need to do your job as a candidate or as a legislator to have policies to pass them, to make people motivated. 

But on the flip side, the citizenry absolutely has to have intrinsic motivation from within. They have to motivate themselves to engage. I think it’s a two way street. And people fail to realize that what I have passed, everything that I just shared with you, was done with community. I would have never passed that all by myself, introducing legislation and just arguing and yelling at other council members. I had to build coalitions of thousands of people across this city to engage in the process somehow, whether that’s calling your elected official, or signing a petition, or doing some sort of direct action. All of that was done with communities. And I think that level of being organized is not something that we’re totally used to. We’re used to just pointing fingers at other people and saying it’s on them when the reality is on all of us.

What do you see as the biggest challenges for progressive politicians going forward?

I think that the biggest hurdle that we will have is to get our people organized so that we can actually pass legislation. And that’s really all it takes, at least locally.

To give an example, all of these ‘critical race theory’ bills that are passing: do you know how much strategy went into getting middle-class and upper-class conservative white folks upset about critical race theory and not even realizing that what you’re upset about is not real and it doesn’t exist in our public school system? That was an intentional strategy. And I’m failing to see some intentional strategy with some of our Democrats across this country [or] with some of our organizing circles across this country. And I think the hardest part for me moving forward, and for any elected official moving forward, is getting people to practice politics. 

Correction: Jecorey Arthur’s district includes the home of Breonna Taylor’s ex-boyfriend, which police also raided in 2020; it does not include the home where Taylor was killed. This story has been updated.