SUNSET PARK/RED HOOK – Whitney Hu, 29, announced her run for District 38 in City Council in March. A week later, the pandemic shut down the city.
She put her campaign on pause and thought about stopping it right there. But these past few months made her angry. People were desperate and the city wasn’t doing much to help them. So, this week, she brought her campaign back. She decided she was going to run and win and make a difference.
“I made an internal promise to myself that I was going to play the game by being me. I wasn’t going to let the game play me,” she said. “As somebody who has worked on campaigns, I know what it sounds like when somebody is saying things to win and not saying things because they mean it; or they’re too afraid to say the things they need to say. I am not afraid.”
Hu was born in Los Angeles, California. She is the eldest of four and her family moved around a lot. She has lived in Shanghai, California, and Texas. The longest she has lived in one place is New York. And now she is looking to represent the district she loves the most. District 38, which includes Red Hook, Sunset Park, Greenwood Heights, portions of Windsor Terrace, Dyker Heights, and Boro Park, is currently represented by Council Member Carlos Menchaca, who is term-limited.
During these past few months, Hu has done everything except quarantine with her two cats (who were fighting in the background during our phone call this morning). She has been working with the South Brooklyn Mutual Aid– a group of over 500 volunteers bringing aid to South Brooklyn during the pandemic. Her role has been mass distribution. The group puts together about 400 free grocery boxes for people, and Hu drives around in giant white cargo van dealing with food supplies and working out of the warehouse.
“My big joke has been that during quarantine I’ve gotten really strong,” she laughed. “I used to joke that I have T-Rex arms. And now I carry 50-pound bags of potatoes like it’s nothing and I feel kind of good about that.”
During her drives and walks, she found the streets of Sunset Park to be very quiet. “Any time Sunset Park is quiet is uncomfortable,” she said. People were scrambling to find resources, she explained.
“I came across so many small vigils, small memorials, as I was walking or delivering food,” she said. “It was hard because it was like we were grieving so many layers of Sunset Park at the same time; the loss of our community and the loss of the people in our community.”
With the coronavirus, comes coronavirus recovery. Hu believes the city needs to rethink the way undocumented and immigrant families are supported in the community.
“At the moment, there has been little to no assistance. The state and federal levels have completely bypassed those who are undocumented. And on the city level, you’re dealing with cash assistance grants coming out of non-profits who quickly tap out the moment they open up their applications,” she said. “It’s not enough.”
She explained that it’s all about keeping people at home and keeping people safe. It’s about making sure the food that is being provided by the city is culturally sensitive. It’s making sure that people who need help are being provided with free groceries.
“It’s making sure people have the food they can live on,” she said. “A lot of my frustration stems from people in the city saying there’s food, but you wouldn’t feed that food to your family, so why do you expect the bare minimum for ours?”
One of the many things Hu would work on in City Council would be redefining what sanctuary really means. In February, an unarmed man was shot on the face by an ICE agent. Hu remembers rallying for that man afterward. She remembers questioning how the city can call itself a sanctuary place if they couldn’t protect an unarmed man.
“We need to build a safe city. It means protecting queer and trans lives, protecting Black lives, protecting the lives of undocumented people, protecting womxn and domestic survivors,” she said.
Yesterday, City Council members voted to approve a $1 billion budget to shift from the NYPD. Only nine Council Members voted no. Hu said she would have voted no as well.
“I think something that I want to bring in my brand of politics is an abolitionist view. I think folks who quickly think of abolition, think of getting rid of prison and jails, which yes, I’m very much about that. But it’s also about reducing harm and about reinvesting within our communities,” she said. “When we are still removing fundings from schools, when we are still keeping cops in schools, when we are still putting hiring freezes on teachers but not NYPD officers… We’re in this moment of clear demand for reinvestment in our community.”
Yesterday, Hu attended the funeral of Jamel Floyd. Floyd was an inmate at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC), who died of a heart attack after correctional officers pepper-sprayed him in his cell. He had been in prison for 14 years and had just 120 days left to complete his sentence. Hu remembered two photos of Floyd. One is one that his parents shared of him as a young kid holding a lizard that he had brought home from school over the summer. Another is a photo of him incarcerated. He’s kissing his mom and holding his dad.
“I think about how much his family loved him. They stayed in touch with him and made sure he knew he was loved and that he had a future outside. He had a fiance. He had nephews and nieces,” she said. “I think of the fact that they had asked for his early release because he had asthma during the COVID pandemic. And our federal prison system wouldn’t even give a man 120 days of his life after serving 14 years. I think about how they brutally murdered him. I think about how they pepper-sprayed someone who was unarmed, locked up, and detained.”
Social justice is important for Hu. It’s important because it impacts her community and her loved ones, she explained.
“I am a woman of color. I am perceived in many different ways and will also say that there’s some privilege. I am not Black. I am not Brown. But it’s important for me to uphold Black Lives Matter & organizing for black & Brown New Yorkers,” she said. “It’s about recognizing that if those who are most vulnerable are not protected and free, then we are all not free.”
Hu has officially started her run for City Council now. And she’s excited to see where it goes. She’s excited to represent the district she loves so dearly.
“The system doesn’t value my community and makes me wonder if working in the system or out of the system would be better,” she said. “During these last few weeks of protest, I saw that I wasn’t alone in my anger. That there were people who were matching and protesting who are just as angry and in grief as I am. And to know if there was ever a time to run, it might be now. So I decided let’s do it. And now I am running.”