J. Pharoah Doss: Rep. Jamaal Bowman faced the firing squad

Politics is the art of compromise. Activists, on the other hand, are uncompromising. What happens when an activist wins a seat in Congress but decides to stay an activist rather than become a politician?

They do not survive long.

In 2020, the Justice Democrats recruited Jamaal Bowman, a 44-year-old Black man and former middle school principal who self-identified as a democratic-socialist, to run for Congress in New York’s 16th district against a 16-term incumbent whom the Justice Democrats viewed as disconnected from working-class issues.

The Justice Democrats, a progressive political action organization and caucus created in 2017, seeks to elect a “new type of democratic majority” to Congress. In 2018, the Justice Democrats fielded 79 progressive candidates in local, state, and federal elections, winning seven congressional seats. Four of the seven winners were Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib, who became known as the “squad.”

Bowman had never held public office before, but he established a reputation as a charismatic grassroots activist who concentrated on issues that disproportionately impacted poor students of color.

Bowman’s defeat of the 16-term incumbent was an upset victory for the Democratic Party’s progressive wing. Bowman did not defeat the incumbent on key democratic issues. He didn’t need to. He simply rode a wave of outrage to Congress.

The Atlantic’s Elaine Godfrey put it best: Bowman’s victory occurred amid an unprecedented backdrop with little precedent. The police’s treatment of Black Americans triggered historic weeks of civil unrest, and Black Americans suffered and died at a disproportionate rate during the pandemic. The uprising directly fueled Bowman’s victory and generated significant enthusiasm, subsequently leading to the election of several other Black progressives. Their victories were the first electoral successes of the current protest movement.

During his victory speech, Bowman said, “Tonight, as we celebrate, we just don’t celebrate me as an individual. We celebrate this movement, a movement designed to push back against a system that is literally killing us.” Bowman said his opponent used to call himself a thorn in Donald Trump’s side, but Trump’s biggest fear was a “Black man with power.”

Bowman soon attracted national recognition as a new member of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, which publicly opposed President Biden’s moderate policy ideas.

After President Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress in 2021, Bowman gave “the progressive response.” Bowman argued for a more equitable American society. Bowman acknowledged that Biden’s economic policies were a start, but they weren’t beneficial enough.

Bowman made numerous appearances on national news programs, attacking both Republicans and moderate Democrats. He gained notoriety after getting into heated disagreements with colleagues in the legislative lobby, and in 2022, he was arrested at the Capitol for taking part in a voting rights demonstration.


Following Hamas’ terrorist attack on Israel on October 7, 2023, in which Hamas murdered citizens and took hostages, the United States House of Representatives passed a bipartisan resolution denouncing Hamas by a vote of 412-10. Bowman and the rest of the “squad” voted against the resolution.

Instead of voting like a pragmatic politician who understood he could condemn Hamas and support Palestine’s right to self-determination, Bowman voted as an activist who conflated Hamas’s terrorist attack with the Palestinian right to “resist occupation.”

Pro-Palestine and anti-Zionist progressives across the United States praised Bowman’s uncompromising stance, but the 9 percent of Jews in Bowman’s district, who accounted for 20 percent of the vote, found it deeply disturbing.

Bowman later blasted Israel’s military reaction as “genocide” and dismissed Israel’s claim that Hamas terrorists sexually assaulted Israeli women on October 7th as Zionist propaganda. These activist stances garnered the attention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a lobbying group whose mission is to encourage and persuade the United States government to enact specific policies that benefit Israel. AIPAC decided to use all of its financial resources to run campaign ads against Bowman.

After AIPAC’s negative ads aired, Bowman stopped running against his primary opponent and launched a campaign against the “Zionist lobby group” that was attempting to unseat a “Black man in power” who was critical of Israel.

AIPAC spent more than $14 million in ads against Bowman, the most they’ve ever spent on a congressional election. However, the majority of the ads AIPAC endorsed were not about Bowman’s criticism of Israel; rather, they demonstrated how frequently Bowman’s congressional vote differed from the Biden Administration, proving Bowman was on the activist left.

Bowman, as expected, lost the Democratic primary to George Latimer. During his concession speech, Bowman blamed his defeat on AIPAC and urged his supporters to be outraged.

According to journalist Jonathan S. Tobin, Bowman did not lose his race due to AIPAC. The pro-Israel lobby did not invest any funds in the race until a March poll revealed Bowman trailing [his opponent] by the same 17 percent margin—52 percent to 35 percent—that he ultimately lost in the election. The congressman’s problems stemmed from a basic conundrum: he was out of sync with the sentiments of his own constituents. 

During a debate with Bowman, Latimer said, “When you work in a legislative body, you need to form coalitions with people … You can’t preach and scream at them on the steps of the Capitol.”

Bowman took Latimer’s criticism personally, accusing him of perpetuating stereotypes of the “angry Black man” and insisting that voters understood his passion.

Bowman was wrong.

The voters understood that passion doesn’t get bills passed, and activists are ineffective congressmen.



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