Chi Ossé: Warrior In The Garden Of Democracy
Chi Ossé, co-founder of New York City activist collective Warriors in the Garden and son of hip-hop podcast pioneer Reginald "Combat Jack" Ossé, has launched an ambitious, audacious campaign for City Council at the age of 22. Cell Vision correspondent Kali Holloway spoke with Ossé about his campaign, his political awakening following the police murder of George Floyd, and how he is trying to redefine the image of a public advocate for Gen Z.
photos by Kenny Rodriguez
“If you are a New Yorker and you are dissatisfied with everything that you've been seeing, you really have the power to change the tides in New York City,” Chi Ossé told me when we spoke. “Please look into who your City Council member is. Keep an eye out for the City Council election next year. If there's a politician that represents you and your ideas, vote for them. If there isn't, jump in the race. Run a campaign like mine and let's win together.”
Ossé, a 22-year-old third-generation Brooklynite, wasn’t just spinning pie-in-the-sky political idealism. Last summer, on the heels of the brutal police murder of George Floyd—and Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, David McAtee and far too many other names to list here—Ossé took to the streets, joining the protests that surged in New York City and across the country. He co-founded the activist collective Warriors in the Garden with organizers Derrick Ingram, Kiara Williams and Olivia Johnson. And recognizing the way the same systemic racism and inequities that plague the country were impacting his own Crown Heights community, he decided to run for City Council in the 36th District, which also covers Bed-Stuy.
Ossé has mounted a grassroots campaign that eschews big-money donations from groups with vested interests in maintaining the city’s status quo. And he has a platform that demands substantive progressive change, particularly in terms how city funds are allocated—shifting dollars away from law enforcement and real estate interests, among others, back into a community that has long been overpoliced and rapidly gentrifying. The seat he hopes to fill is currently occupied by Councilman Robert E. Cornegy, Jr., whose term limit will be up by the time of next year’s election. Ossé plans to use his tenure in office to be a true representative of folks in his New York City neighborhood, serving as a voice that has often been woefully absent from, and shut out of the city’s decision-making body.
“This is the most diverse city in the country, if not the world,” Ossé said. “Our politics need to represent that. Our ideas need to represent that. If we can set the precedent in New York City politics of being a progressive haven, then we can do so for the rest of the country.”
I reached out to Ossé to discuss his ambition vision for this town, the influence of his father—the hip-hop and podcasting legend Reginald “Combat Jack” Ossé—and where fashion and his campaign meet.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
CELL VISION: It's been really astounding to see the way that you’ve become a vital voice in a really short amount of time. I've read that your first protest was in June, which launched what I'm going to label your “political awakening.” Can you talk a little bit about that experience and why it moved you to really dig in and get involved?
CHI OSSÉ: On May 29th, I really felt inclined to go out and protest after the murder of George Floyd. I come from the generation where I saw Trayvon Martin murdered, and saw George Zimmerman walk free. But I was a young teenager at the time, so I wasn’t able to react in the way that I was able to after the murder of George Floyd. I think also, it being quarantine, no matter how hard I tried to look away from the white supremacy running rampant in our country, that video of him being killed by the officers was all over my phone, over my TV screen, all over my social media. On top of that, I wasn't able to leave my home. So, that first day that I was taking in all of this information—all of these images and all of these videos—it was very saddening to see, and it angered me as well.
It angered me to the point that I felt like it was time to go out and be heard in any way that I possibly could. I went out that first day with a friend of mine to my first protest. The actions that were enacted upon us by the police that first day were atrocious. It didn't surprise me the way that they were acting because my parents have always taught me the ways of the police and the NYPD and how they treat black people and how they treat non-violent protesters. But what surprised me was that it was actually happening to me and that I wasn't seeing it on a screen. Those actions I was seeing that day, and the day after that, gave me the passion to continue going out and protesting.
"No matter how hard I tried to look away from the white supremacy running rampant in our country, that video of [George Floyd] being killed by the officers was all over my phone, over my TV screen, all over my social media... It angered me to the point that I felt like it was time to go out and be heard in any way that I possibly could. I went out that first day with a friend of mine to my first protest."
CELL VISION:: So just seeing how the NYPD functions up close was motivated you in a lot of ways?
CHI OSSÉ: Yes. On top of that, it was all over social media in other cities. I think social media and the people on the streets that were narrating what was happening really gave me that energy and provided me that strength to continue going out to take a stand against injustice within this country.
CELL VISION: It’s interesting that you mention social media, because I think one of the things that galvanized people in a way I hadn't seen previously is every single day, waking up to a full-on bingeable amount of footage of the police beating the crap out of protestors. I think that drove police violence home in a way that maybe white people weren't aware of. I mean, obviously the black community and folks of color, we've always been aware of this. But there's this idea that somehow we were delusional. I think those videos really changed that.
CELL VISION: Your dad was Reggie Ossé, more widely known as Combat Jack. That's a name that should ring a bell for a bunch of hip-hop heads and podcasters. I wanted to talk about his influence on you. He's known as this outsized personality, but how has that dovetailed with the person that you've become in organizing a political outlook. Is his influence present in the actions you're taking now?
CHI OSSÉ: I mean, I think that everyone acts with some of the intent their parents taught them, whether good or bad. My dad was someone that used his voice. He had a very influential voice to talk about everything. And of course, he did that with us at home. He is one of the greatest influences in my life in terms of how I gauge through this world, how I live as a black person, how I live as a black man. So yes, he is definitely a huge influence in who I am, what I do and what I'll always do. I think he's had that effect on a lot of people.
My family, as a whole—whether it's my mom, or my dad, or my grandparents—I've always been taught to use my voice and to stand up against injustice and to always speak up and take action whenever I've been dissatisfied with something. That was a reason why I jumped into the City Council race. A lot of people are shocked about my age and my history in terms of work, because it maybe doesn’t seem to align with jumping into politics. But it is a direct result of my parents—my dad, my mom, my grandparents—to always take action whenever you’re dissatisfied with something that you are encountering in life.
CELL VISION: So let's talk about Warriors in the Garden, which has gotten so much attention. You guys have been doing large scale actions that folks who care about these issues have been watching, but you’ve also been covered by mainstream news outlets that aren't necessarily always paying attention to grassroots activism. We have a pretty informed readership, but who maybe don't know exactly what Warriors in the Garden does. Can you describe what you are doing, to give people a picture of what that work looks like?
CHI OSSÉ: We met organically within that first week and a half of protesting, and we realized that our individual voices that were chanting on the streets would be amplified if we organized together. So we founded Warriors in the Garden. Since then, we've been organizing protests and marches and putting out educational content to change the narrative around black people and nonviolent protesting here in New York City. We are a collective of nonviolent protestors dedicated to nonviolent protests for legislative change.
We just got officiated to be a nonprofit a couple of weeks ago. So, we are now focused on continuing to educate people about the black experience in the United States. We're doing that through technology and social media, and through organizing with a lot of Gen Z, which has been an active demographic—definitely the most active demographic within this movement as a whole.
"The issue is, there is enough money, it's just being allocated to the wrong agencies... A large part of the waste is the NYPD. I don't see the point of our city's police force having armored vehicles. I don't see a point in our city’s law enforcement having machine guns... I mean, public school teachers have to pay for their own school supplies at the beginning of the school year."
CELL VISION: So let's dig into your run for the City Council. You're running in the 36th District. Can you talk about your campaign and the central tenets of your platform, and why that's so important to the community that you're looking to serve?
CHI OSSÉ: Yeah, well, I jumped into the race on Juneteenth. And I jumped in because I was doing a lot of research on our local politics here in New York City, and I was finding out a bunch of nasty stuff in terms of a lot of the donors funding a lot of our local politicians—them being police unions and real estate companies. And realizing that the politicians who represent us here in New York aren't representative of the actual people that live within our neighborhoods.
I was just doing that general dive of understanding local politics and power. And I found out that our City Council delegates the entire New York City budget. And New York City is the wealthiest city in this country. Yet a lot of funds that should be going to public education, that should be going to public transportation, that should be going to infrastructure, there's a lack of money in a lot of those fields. You're always told as a native New Yorker growing up in a predominantly black neighborhood that there isn't enough money for some of those public sectors.
The issue is, there is enough money, it's just being allocated to the wrong agencies. I had to dive in to look at what our money is being wasted on. A large part of the waste is the NYPD. I don't see the point of our city's police force having armored vehicles. I don't see a point in our city’s law enforcement having machine guns. I don't see a point in there being multiple police helicopters. How much is that police helicopter? How much is the gas for the police helicopter? How much is the maintenance for the police helicopter? How much is the training for that police helicopter? I mean, public school teachers have to pay for their own school supplies at the beginning of the school year.
CHI OSSÉ: Especially in my community, which is the predominantly black community of Bed-Stuy, North Crown Heights, we need funding and we need funding from the city. That funding is taxpayer dollars. We need funding for public housing. New Yorkers need to live in a healthier environment. We need to be funding green spaces within New York City and that money comes from somewhere. That money comes from us, it's just being used for the wrong reasons. I'm running to reimagine New York City. I'm running to reinvest in our communities that need help and to renew the relationship that people not only have with law enforcement, but that people have with their local elected officials. We need to hold people that work for us accountable and I will do that next year.
"it's more of a reimagining—more of a cultural shift in what not just law enforcement looks like, but what protection looks like within our neighborhoods. That reallocation of funds that comes from the NYPD needs to go to social interventions. We need mental health professionals and people that can handle situations. We don't always need someone who is armed to show up at the door."
CELL VISION: Is defunding critical to your platform? I was just reading something today about how we actually spend about 10 billion on policing in this city. How does that play into the ongoing conversation that we're having?
CHI OSSÉ: A couple of things. It's more about $11 billion. The “budget cut”—and I say “cut” in quotation marks with my fingers—was just moving around money within the police budget, from one sector to another. It was more of a performative cut. I'm not really calling for a defunding of the NYPD. I think that's a headline term that a lot of people like to use, but it's more of a conversation of reimagining what law enforcement and criminal justice looks like within New York City. Part of that is just taking a look at the funding for our law enforcement.
I think when people hear defunding, they immediately think that there will not be law enforcement in New York City. Criminality exists within New York, it's one of the biggest cities in this country. Defunding scares a lot of people that are constituents within my neighborhood, a lot of black people that are in my constituency.
I would like to say, it's more of a reimagining—more of a cultural shift in what not just law enforcement looks like, but what protection looks like within our neighborhoods. That reallocation of funds that comes from the NYPD needs to go to social interventions. We need mental health professionals and people that can handle situations. We don't always need someone who is armed to show up at the door. I think defunding can be some dangerous language to be used within the journey to reimagine a broken police system within New York City.
CELL VISION: So more of a divest, re-invest model.
CHI OSSÉ: Yeah. Reinvest is definitely something that I triumph and something that I am trying to push. It gives people a sense of hope about the direction we need to go in to create the New York that ought to be.
"A lot of critics of the Black Lives Matter movement love to reference black-on-black crime. Gun violence is something that is apparent in New York City, it even rose this summer. But we have to look at the roots of those issues and the systemic problems that lead to gun violence. We need to invest in programs within our communities that give youth something to do. We need proper representation and local elected officials who call for the reinvestment in all those sectors."
CELL VISION: Can we talk a little bit more expansively about what else you're focused on? Your site touches on education, and housing—it presents a holistic view of what needs to be addressed in this.
CHI OSSÉ: New York City is the wealthiest city in the country. We pull in about $96 billion a year in taxpayer dollars, and that money is in the City Council's hands to distribute amongst most of our public sectors within the city. I'm fighting to make housing a human right. I'm fighting to make public education, especially in black communities, something that is more focused on. And the way that we do that is with money. It's not just the reallocation of funds from the NYPD—we need a considerable tax on the wealthy, especially for relief for small businesses and renters after COVID-19 in this city.
A lot of City Council members are calling for this. A lot of City Council candidates are calling for it as well. Money and reinvestment is the place to start in order to rebuild our city, which is being immensely hit by this pandemic. We need to create funding for NYCHA (public housing) improvement. I want more investments within green spaces. We need to create initiatives that yield more jobs for people. We need to reinvest in public schools, especially in predominantly black neighborhoods, to create programs that give children more access to extracurricular activities, like white schools have on the Upper West Side and the Upper East Side.
CHI OSSÉ: Back to public safety again. A lot of critics of the Black Lives Matter movement love to reference black-on-black crime. Gun violence is something that is apparent in New York City, it even rose this summer. But we have to look at the roots of those issues and the systemic problems that lead to gun violence. We need to invest in programs within our communities that give youth something to do. We need to invest in mutual aid programs. We need proper representation and local elected officials who call for the reinvestment in all those sectors.
It is unfortunately a money game when it comes to getting things done within this city. It's just about taking a look at where that money's going and putting it in the right places.
CELL VISION: You mentioned earlier how Warriors in the Garden is really activating Gen Z. But one problem that we've seen in elections at every level is that it's difficult to get young folks out, and you have the added issue of low voter turnout in so many local races. It's really hard to get people to get engaged with down-ballot stuff. So I just wondered, what are you doing to get voters in your district out?
CHI OSSÉ: I always say that we're trying to make this the loudest local election ever. We're trying to do that in the design, the look, and the character that I am to get people engaged and interested in local politics. I think my message is unique and my story is unique within local New York City politics. I think that's necessary for getting people engaged with local politics. It's a different story that's being told, and it's a necessary story being told within New York City and within central Brooklyn.
We're trying to reach that demographic that only votes in the general election. We're trying to enforce the notion of importance—that local government is where we actually have the power to control what happens in our reality. We can complain about the general election and what's happening on a federal level, but we can only do that if we have our ducks in a row in our own backyard. The power is in our hands in these local elections and we’re trying to register young voters, and to register progressives in general who aren't aware of the importance of our local elections.
Next June is a significant year in New York City local politics. There are 35 open City Council seats, 51 total up for election, and there's a mayoral race. Depending on what happens next June, we can really change the tide in how New York will be for the next decade.
"Everyone on my team is relatively creative and we're taking advantage of that to make this loud and as bright and powerful as it possibly can be, whether it's the graphic design, or what I'm wearing to a speaking engagement. People are so tired of being lied to by the man in the suit and tie. So we're trying to shake that up and redefine what a public advocate looks like."
CELL VISION: And last but not least, can we talk a little bit about your fashion and [stylist] Brandon Tan?
CHI OSSÉ: Sure, yeah. What about it?
CELL VISION: What that collaboration looks like, what it means, how it’s evolved, why it exists? There are tons of people who run for politics who don't give a thought to fashion beyond a very traditional, conservative sense. How is fashion enveloped in your campaign?
CHI OSSÉ: It just goes back to us attempting to get people more interested in local politics. Politics is theater, and theater is art, and that's something that we're very cognizant about with this campaign. Everyone on my team is relatively creative and we're taking advantage of that to make this loud and as bright and powerful as it possibly can be, whether it's the graphic design, or what I'm wearing to a speaking engagement. People are so tired of being lied to by the man in the suit and tie. So we're trying to shake that up and redefine what a public advocate looks like.
You can learn more about Chi Ossé and his campaign for City Council on his website or Instagram via the links below.
Kali Holloway is Senior Director of the Make it Right Project, a national initiative dedicated to taking down Confederate monuments and telling the truth about history. She is also a monthly columnist for The Nation, and a frequent contributor to The Daily Beast. Her writings have also appeared in The Guardian, Salon, TIME, Huffington Post, The National Memo and numerous other outlets.