‘How Do We Continue to Organize?’ Defeat and Defiance at Eon Tyrell Huntley’s Election Party
Eon Tyrell Huntley in the backyard of The Holler. (Hell Gate)

‘How Do We Continue to Organize?’ Defeat and Defiance at Eon Tyrell Huntley’s Election Party

"We need to make sure that we stay engaged."

In the backyard of the Bedford-Stuyvesant gay bar The Holler last night, patrons were cringing away from the glare of a News 12 camera light. "We're supposed to be supporting Eon, I just don't want to be caught on camera," one patron said to another. "I owe too many people money."

As the volunteers from Eon Tyrell Huntley's campaign for State Assembly filtered into the bar, the first thing I thought was that the whiteness of Huntley's campaign team had been much exaggerated—the group seemed mostly young and multiracial, with some graying white socialists peppering the mix. At 9:00 p.m., the volunteers and campaign staff came directly from canvassing the streets of Bed-Stuy. "Don't hug me, I smell terrible," one sweaty volunteer warned another. Huntley is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and was endorsed by the organization, and they had run the campaign by the Democratic Socialists of America playbook: doors, doors, doors. 

By the time they all arrived, I saw it—the DSA-dominated crowd was indeed kind of white, and pretty liberal arts college-coded, as detractors of Huntley's campaign have been pointing out. Could that have alienated some longtime residents of the district? Sure, maybe. Supporters of Huntley's opponent, the incumbent Democrat Stefani Zinerman, have used this fact to deploy a common form of racialized political jiu jitsu, painting Huntley as a vector of "gentrification," and insisting that Zinerman's staunch opposition to forcing landlords to have "good cause" before evicting renters is actually a representation of the interests of the "traditional Bed-Stuy community" because it supports "Black homeownership," despite the fact that the majority of residents in the district are renters. But seeing that the total number of voters was unlikely to break 9,000 of the district's 74,000 registered Democrats, it seemed like the DSA's biggest obstacle wasn't some massive Black voting bloc with "traditional values," but the decades of political apathy most Democrats have embedded into Brooklyn through failure to serve their constituents.

Marlon Rice, an events director at Bed-Stuy's Restoration Plaza and a political barnacle to Zinerman's campaign, had taken to using Kendrick Lamar's "Not Like Us" diss track as a de facto Zinerman theme song, calling Huntley a "puppet" of the DSA and questioning Huntley's authenticity as a Black man. The Vanguard Democrats, or VIDA, the dynastic political club of which Zinerman is a member, and which has endorsed everyone who has held the seat since the '70s, accused Huntley's campaign of "racial bullying." 

At the bar, I saw local State Senator Jabari Brisport in the backyard and asked him what he thought of all that. Brisport called these tactics "disgusting," adding, "There are still a lot of members of the Black establishment that cozy up with Wall Street and real estate, and then use racial smears to hide the fact that they're not progressive." He was presumably referring to the fact that, despite her insistence that she wanted to protect "community-based landlords",  Zinerman's campaign got PAC support from Michael Bloomberg and companies like the Brodsky Organization (maybe that's just what it takes to be "like us"). 

Zinerman’s campaign didn’t respond to multiple attempts to talk. When I went to the office of the Vanguard Democrats last week during a phone-banking event advertised by the Brooklyn Democrats, there was one older guy there who was unaware of the supposed event. Given the amount of outside support Zinerman had received, including from Hakeem Jeffries, the Democratic House Minority Leader who had called the DSA "virtue signalers on Twitter," I was wondering whether I would see evidence of a thriving and authentic political community that was, you know, really engaging real Brooklynites in real life. But the VIDA staffer who was there engaged me in a long conversation about impartial media, which I nodded along to, despite that not really being my style. My fault, OG.

As the results began to trickle in, Zinerman was maintaining a winning margin of about 500 votes, but the city's most popular style of political participation—not voting at all—was running away with the election. "It'll be more fun if we win, but it'll be fun either way," one Huntley campaign official told me. "We saw some late-stage activation." Even with the results not yet called, Huntley supporters seemed steeled for a loss, but pretty resilient, as if by dint of being millennials, they were accustomed to losing. 

At about 11:00 p.m., Huntley arrived, wearing camo-print pants and a T-shirt that said "Brooklyn for people not profit." It was already clear that Squad member Jamaal Bowman had been ousted from the House, and the margin Zinerman had was not thinning by much. The race still hadn't been called by any official sources, but Huntley called it himself, and gave his concession speech as the News 12 camera light blared. He held up a Palestinian flag, and a chant of "free free Palestine" rang out. A campaign staffer told me they had been targeting houses with ceasefire stickers on them, because Zinerman, who also had received support from Solidarity PAC, which New York Focus describes as "a state-level analog to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee," had yet to make a comment about Palestine.

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Afterwards, a joint was passed around, and campaign staff discussed whether there would be a "reckoning" in DSA about tactics, having faced losses in the area for three election cycles in a row now—was all the doorknocking worth it? It seemed like it was: The race was probably a lot closer than Zinerman would have wanted. It was hard not to imagine what they could have done with all the funding their opponents had. The News 12 crew rushed outside, and I kind of admired the way they seemed to move sociopathically through the organizers as if they weren't there. They knocked over a chair on their way out, and didn't bother pausing to pick it up. "Security!" one patron called, eliciting a bar-wide laugh.

Then it was last call at The Holler. The race still hadn't been called, the margin was that small. But for all the racial rancor of the race, neither the Black old guard nor the rainbow coalition behind Huntley had fully activated the district—only about 8,000 people voted. Doorknocking might not have turned the district out, but neither had Zinerman's tactic of insisting that running against her was racist. 

As for Huntley, he didn't seem to view his loss as the end of the work that was needed. "Clap once if you can hear me," Huntley called from an elevated platform at the back of the bar. With an Aerosmith pinball machine behind him, he called his erstwhile staff to attention. "We need to make sure that we stay engaged with these people. Stuyvesant Gardens, these are people that in a NYCHA building don't have working elevators. Go to Tompkins. Go to Marcy projects. They were very happy to be engaged in a way that they were not engaged before," Huntley said. "How do we continue to organize these people? We can't just let them feel like we only come around when there's elections." 

"That's not us!" one supporter called. "We have to think about how we keep them engaged," Huntley said. "We can't let them down."

As another campaign volunteer said, seemingly only half-joking, "Are we canvassing tomorrow?"

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