It was a chilly April day when I visited, but the daffodils and sunflowers were blooming at the 400 Montauk Avenue Block Association Community Garden, at the corner of New Lots and Montauk Avenues in East New York. Rosemary, strawberry plants, and a variety of hardy sage were also thriving.
I didn’t have to wait long before garden comanager, thirty-one-year-old Keron Alleyne, appeared with his son, Khari, an inquisitive and bespectacled kindergartner. As Khari scrambled about, Alleyne, wearing dreads and a light green dress shirt, explained that neighborhood elders have ran the garden for decades, but he has been officially comanaging it for the past six years. Then again, Alleyne’s relationship to the garden goes back a lot further than that: when he was Khari’s age, he used to help his grandfather tend it. Alleyne invited me to try the peppermint, which I did. He showed me the beds where, some years, they plant kale and even enormous pumpkins. The community garden at 400 Montauk Avenue is one of fifty-seven in East New York, which is one of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods. But the garden isn’t the only gift to the community that Alleyne has inherited from his grandparents’ generation.
The neighborhood elders’ commitment to the common good went even beyond the hard work of tending their gardens and includes a rich history of socialist political education and organizing. Alleyne, a candidate for New York State’s 60th assembly district this year, recently endorsed by New York City Democratic Socialists of America (NYC-DSA), seeks to carry on that tradition.
As we talked, Khari came over often to check in, climb onto his dad’s lap, or complain that he’s bored. Alleyne was patient. “There’s a whole lot of weeds,” he suggested. “You gotta pull all those out, man. But if you wanna just sit down, you could do that too. Or you could look for worms and snails.” Khari got a shovel. “But don’t dig up my garlic, please,” his father begged.
Alleyne, who grew up and went to public elementary school just a few blocks from the garden, learned collectivism from the elders in the garden. He grew up amid the uproar over the 1999 murder of Amadou Diallo — an unarmed Guinean student who was shot forty-one times — by New York City police officers, when stop and frisk was official policy. “I can tell you corner after corner where I was stopped by the police,” he said, “for nothing but walking in the neighborhood, riding my bike in the neighborhood.”
Alleyne’s education — Boys and Girls High School, then Utica College — opened his eyes, he said, to the way capitalism entrenches deprivation in black communities and perpetuates a relationship with the police in which the latter are “not controlled by us, but are like an occupying force.” But it’s one thing to encounter such analyses, and another to stay focused on them. Coming back home after college, he said, “kept my eyes on” these larger forces.
As we talked, Alleyne interrupted himself frequently to greet neighbors by name as they walked by, and inquire about their families and their birthdays. His mom, a nurse, drove by on her way back from work. His brother-in-law, Sean, dropped into the garden to chat.
Alleyne became involved in East New York politics after graduating from college and meeting the neighborhood’s longtime socialist assemblyman, Charles Barron, a former Black Panther, who gave the aspiring political activist two pieces of advice, Alleyne remembers. The first was: “Start on your block.”
Alleyne did just that, reviving the block association, the block parties, which, like the garden, had been organized by the elders in the past but had petered out as they aged.
Barron’s second piece of advice to the young Alleyne was to join Operation P.O.W.E.R. (People Organizing and Working for Empowerment and Respect), a socialist organization founded in 1997 by Charles and Inez Barron, among others in the neighborhood. Barron invited Alleyne to an Operation P.O.W.E.R. meeting, and he has been involved ever since, becoming a cochair of the organization.
Operation P.O.W.E. R. began organizing in the 1990s, when the national US socialist movement was tiny and mired in a depressing post–Cold War daze. The East New York organization held political education seminars every weekend about capitalism, and how its institutions deepen the exploitation of black people. As well, they studied the black radical tradition, including the Black Panther Party and its “socialist foundations,” said Alleyne. The organization has also had an electoral project, contesting for power at every level: block associations, tenants’ associations, community boards, district governance, and school boards. Alleyne became part of this project, joining Community Board Five and serving as a district leader.
Charles Barron, age seventy-one, and his wife, Inez, age seventy-six, have been the most visible faces of radicalism in East New York. They have together held significant political power in the district since 2001, when Charles Barron was first elected to City Council. In fact, they have traded positions back and forth. Inez was elected to the assembly in 2008. When term limits forced Charles to vacate his Council seat, Inez ran and was elected in 2013. That year, Charles was elected to the assembly seat that Inez had held. With Inez obliged to give up the Council seat last year (term limits again), Charles returned to it. This time, however, instead of taking the assembly seat back, Inez decided to retire from politics, and the Barrons have endorsed Alleyne as her successor.
Through their organizing and officeholding, the Barrons and Operation P.O.W.E.R. can point to many achievements. They have brought the neighborhood more than sixteen thousand units of true — that is, compatible with the income of the residents — affordable housing, raised millions to renovate parks and playgrounds, millions for workforce development and jobs, as well as two $80 million schools. Before the latter allocation, Alleyne said, one high school was “just trailers. Can you imagine? Now we’ll have what literally everyone outside the community has.”
As a candidate for New York State Assembly, Alleyne’s platform is like those of any socialist candidate vying to represent an urban neighborhood in 2022: affordable housing, education equity, affordable higher education, universal health care, criminal justice reform, transportation equity, food security, and environmental justice. “Socialism is health care for all, free CUNY and SUNY,” said Alleyne. “Why wouldn’t you want that?”
Because Barron left the assembly to take a position on the City Council before his term was over, there was a special election for the seat in February, which Alleyne’s opponent, Nikki Lucas, won. But this only gave Lucas the seat for a few months: in June, she and Alleyne will face off in a primary. Whoever wins will likely hold the seat as it’s a strongly Democratic district and a credible Republican challenger is almost unimaginable.
To win, Alleyne must beat the Brooklyn Democratic machine and its associated corporate interests, which, thanks to the Barrons and Operation P.O.W.E.R., has been on the back foot in East New York for decades. His opponent, Nikki Lucas, is supported by all kinds of private businesses including real estate. So Alleyne’s message to the community is that those business interests “are the ones that are going to be in control of your elected official.”
“We are unbought and unbossed,” he said, evoking seven-term Brooklyn congresswoman Shirley Chisholm’s campaign slogan, which has also been a rallying cry for fellow Brooklyn socialist Phara Souffrant Forrest, who was elected to the assembly in 2020. Of his opposition, he said, “They are bought and bossed.”
Of course Alleyne’s loss was bad news, but his optimism is infectious. The good news, he said, smiling, is that “we know what they’re going to throw at us.” Super PACs are spending big on mailers to defeat Alleyne, and, in his words, “black faces in high places” endorsing his opponent. Alleyne, having already run in the special, will have more name recognition, as well as more organized grassroots support. Another shift in his favor is that while his opponent had the Democratic Party line in the special election (Alleyne ran on the Working Families line) — a huge advantage in a district where most voters are registered Democrats and feel loyal to the party — in the primary, that advantage disappears. As well, in addition to Operation P.O.W.E.R., he now has the endorsement of NYC-DSA.
He’s pleased that Operation P.O.W.E.R. can team up with another socialist organization. “It hasn’t been done before,” he enthused, his excitement obvious. While Operation P.O.W.E.R. has deep roots in the community and experience running socialist campaigns here, NYC-DSA brings an exciting slate, the momentum of a citywide and statewide movement, and a motivated volunteer base outside the neighborhood.
We also chat about his further plans for the garden; maybe this summer they can build some birdhouses out of old wineboxes, adding more “wildness” to the space. At the end of our conversation, Alleyne gave me some sunflower seeds to take home. I’m planting them, and looking forward to the blooms, but I suspect something much bigger will grow out of his campaign.