Meet Mohammed Alam, a member of the 2017-2018 #Fight4AFuture National Leadership Council. The #Fight4AFuture network, led by Generation Progress, focuses on gun violence prevention and criminal justice reform. While a student at City College of New York, Mohammed organized his community to fight back against discriminatory stop-and-frisk policies used by the New York Police Department. Mohammed graduated magna cum laude from the Colin Powell School of City College with a B.A. in political science. He is currently the External Affairs Manager at the Midtown Community Court, a project of the Center for Court Innovation. Previously, he has worked for Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Congressman Charles Rangel, the White House, and Hillary for America.
Generation Progress (GP): Tell me about the state of New York City and Harlem before stop-and-frisk was overturned.
Mohammad Alam (MA): I attended the City College of New York, so most of my involvement was through the college in West Harlem. Historically, it’s been a community with a lot of policing and a lot of aggressive tactics like stop-and-frisk used on residents and college students. It was at police officers’ discretion. We had no say around it. Naturally, it’s extremely disruptive for a community that is already underserved.
GP: Can you walk me through the process of fighting back against stop-and-frisk? What was that political journey like?
MA: The students at the City College organized community events, where we made sure people knew what stop-and-frisk meant, why it was important, and unconstitutional. The events started when a bunch of close friends and I got together, and realized we had been stopped and frisked in Harlem—literally for no reason but an officer’s mood. These were students, immigrants, and both racial and religious minorities. We asked ourselves, how do we go about addressing something that’s institutional?
We were college kids who didn’t really know how to go about it. It started with meetings around the cafe at school [the City College of New York], and then we began organizing a grassroots event around the issue. Coincidentally, the Colin Powell School at the City College reached out to us. The program connected us to well known activists, civil rights attorneys, and stakeholders in the community. We all got together to host a seminar on campus to teach everyone what the rules [surrounding stop-and-frisk] really meant. After that, we did a lot of smaller community events by inviting partner organizations to do lobbying. Our coalition of students and faculty got together and planned events throughout Harlem.
We mainly focused on the Harlem community and getting those people involved. We worked with the City College chapter of the Roosevelt Institute [a progressive think tank] and the City College chapter of the ACLU, and we got together and put on events. We stayed small and local.
GP: What role did young people in particular play in getting stop-and-frisk overturned?
MA: The Millennial population is the main reason why this issue was all over social media. Stop-and-frisk really began around 2000, and only around the end of the Bloomberg administration (2013) did the organizing around the issue become focused. It had been negatively impacting communities for a while. Police didn’t need to arrest you [to ask for a stop-and-frisk], so it was just stopping someone at an officer’s discretion or because race was involved. Because there was a gradual increase in stop-and-frisks in those years, Millennials organized. That was the time when the Black Lives Matter movement surfaced. That, combined with all of the police shootings, led to a perfect storm.
Now we have other things to fight for, like raising the age of criminal responsibility, the incarceration of minors as adults, reforming drug laws, private prisons- there’s still a lot of work to do for the Millennial population.
GP: What advice would you give young community activists who want to make significant change in their community but don’t know where to start?
MA: I think I’m still a new activist, and sometimes you learn what to do exclusively through other people. I still feel I’m learning every day. What made it easier for me was talking to friends about social justice reform. I would talk to friends who think about the issues in a similar light, and get that first piece of action out: go to a protest, an action day, a lobby day. Meet new people. Talk to an organizer. It will cascade and grow from there. All it takes is going out there that very first time and meeting people.
GP: How did you hear about the #Fight4AFuture network, and come to join the National Leadership Council?
MA: During college, a professor of mine introduced me to the Center for American Progress (CAP). I got a summer internship, and Generation Progress always held a lot of events during the summer. I volunteered for events like Make Progress and lobby days.
A few years went by and I would still attend the Make Progress conference. I noticed #Fight4AFuture in a CAP email, read up, and applied to attend the second annual conference. I met [Generation Progress Executive Director] Maggie Thompson, other speakers, and I made amazing friends during that #Fight4AFuture summit in Chicago. I still stay in touch; it’s really powerful to meet people that you’ve never spoken to before, but that you share values with. Every couple of days we’ll text each other, and boost each other when we’re out organizing in our various cities. The following year, I applied for the National Leadership Council.
GP: What does success in the world of activism look like to you?
MA: I feel like there’s realistic success and desired success. Realistic success, on a much smaller scale, would be something like gaining more control in state legislatures; enough to pass progressive policies. Recently, we’ve succeeded in raising the age of incrimination in New York. There’s only one state left that incarcerates minors as adults.
On the other hand, desired success would be to reform the entire nation’s criminal justice system, like reforming mandatory minimums, drug laws, and private prisons. These are really large complicated policy issues that require lots of organizing over long periods of time.
GP: What’s up next for you?
MA: I feel myself changing my mind often. In the immediate future, I plan to go to law school. I work in criminal justice now, and want to understand the structure of criminal justice more. I hope to defend people from a broken and coercive system, in addition to reforming the broken system itself.