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Outgoing NY City Council Speaker on Her Work to Close Rikers, Expand Living Wage, Protect Immigrants

StoryDecember 27, 2017
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We look at one of the most progressive city councils in New York City’s history and the woman who helped lead the agenda: Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who occupies the second most powerful post in city government. Mark-Viverito was first elected to the New York City Council in 2005 and was named speaker in 2014. During her time as speaker, the council expanded living wage requirements, expanded paid sick leave, established a city bail fund and a municipal identification card for undocumented immigrants, limited cooperation between immigration authorities and the city’s police and jails, also funded free legal advice for immigrants in detention who face deportation. During her tenure, she also got Mayor Bill de Blasio to agree to close the city’s notorious Rikers Island jail. We speak with Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, whose term winds down at the end of this year due to term limits.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to what some have called one of the most progressive city councils in New York City’s history and the woman who helped lead the agenda, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, the second most powerful post in city government. Her term winds down at the end of this year due to term limits. She gave her farewell address last week.

SPEAKER MELISSA MARK-VIVERITO: Twelve years ago, when I was first sworn in, as the first Latina, the first puertorriqueña, to represent my district of El Barrio, East Harlem, and the Bronx, I tried to process what that all meant. I was a labor organizer, a community activist, a mujer del barrio, not a politician. But I knew, as a councilmember, I had a real chance to be a voice for all those in our city, for—who for too long have been cast aside and silenced—the poor, the undocumented, nuestros viejitos and every single New Yorker who felt that there was more to be done to make our great city more responsive, fair and just for our people.

AMY GOODMAN: Melissa Mark-Viverito was first elected to the New York City Council in 2005, was named speaker 2014. During her time as City Council speaker, the council expanded living wage requirements, expanded paid sick leave, established a city bail fund and a municipal identification card for undocumented immigrants, limited cooperation between immigration authorities and the city’s police and jails, also funded free legal advice for immigrants in detention who face deportation. During her tenure, she also got Mayor Bill de Blasio to agree to close New York’s notorious Rikers Island jail.

To talk more about this and where she plans to go next, we’re joined here in studio by New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, whose term ends at the end of the year.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!

SPEAKER MELISSA MARK-VIVERITO: Thank you for inviting me. It’s a pleasure.

AMY GOODMAN: What are you most proud of right now in this last slew of bills? Was this the largest number of laws that have been passed in any city council in the country in one fell swoop?

SPEAKER MELISSA MARK-VIVERITO: Well, in the four years that I served as speaker, we passed about 700 pieces of legislation. And I think that, you know, some people have been critical of that number, but I think what it demonstrates is the kind of leadership style that I have. Right? I always said, when I came into the council, that I want it to be a member-focused body, that before, it had been very speaker-driven, very speaker-focused, that my interest was to be more collaborative with my colleagues and let them define what their priorities were, and work with them to facilitate that. So, I’m very proud.

In terms of the scope of work, I mean, we’ve done so much. And obviously, it’s been incredibly humbling to lead this body and be in this position. But the work that I’ve done on immigration and the work that I’ve done with regards to criminal justice reform would be the two areas that I would say I’m most proud, in terms of the legacy and the amount of work that we’ve done in each of those areas.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I wanted to ask you specifically about criminal justice reform, because, clearly, there were a slew of different bills that were passed during your time as speaker.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But I would think that the most important was the commission that you established—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —to review the situation with Rikers Island and its stunning report. And I’ve always said to people, “Read the actual Lippman commission report,” which is really an analysis of the mass incarceration system in this country, but specifically in terms of New York City.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I was stunned by the power of the report, and then that you were able to get the mayor, who was not willing at first to go along with this, to move. So, if you could talk about that?

SPEAKER MELISSA MARK-VIVERITO: Sure. I mean, you know, we cannot govern in a vacuum. The way that—again, part of my leadership style is that we’ve got to really have voices, diverse voices, at the table, on any given issue, and really figure out what is the best path. So the independent commission was led by Judge Lippman, but it had and convened of a wide range of voices on the issue of incarceration and the issue of reforming our jail system or reforming our criminal justice system. And that commission worked for about a year and really deliberated on what—if there was a way to get to a point where we could close Rikers Island down and do a more community-based approach of a jail system.

And that is what, basically, the commission said. The commission said that there is a path and there is a way to close Rikers Island down, and therefore I supported that. Right? I’ve convened the commission and supported that and, actually, was able to then facilitate a point where everybody basically is around that position. And I want to thank the advocates. The advocates really are the ones that raised their voice about this. But we have a path, and that commission really does lay out the path of how we can arrive at that point.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you share with us some of the conversations you had the mayor to get him to go along with this?

SPEAKER MELISSA MARK-VIVERITO: I mean, I think it’s hard when you have people with such experience and understanding of this issue, that there is a way to do it. Now the issue is the timeline. How quickly can we get it shut down? Ten years? There’s a way of possibly maybe shortening that timeline. But definitely, it was just—

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what Rikers is, for people who don’t understand. What is this island? And what is this—it’s not one jail.

SPEAKER MELISSA MARK-VIVERITO: No, it’s about nine jails. It’s a jail system. And the vast majority who are there are people who are awaiting their trial dates. They are—the vast majority, about 80 to 85 percent of the people in Rikers. There are people who cannot pay bail, because they’re too poor to pay bail, and therefore they stay in Rikers longer than they need to. I think the example that we unfortunately use as to how—what’s wrong with the system is Kalief Browder, who was a young man accused of having stolen a backpack—accused—and for having not been able to pay bail, was in Rikers for three years. And the horror of living that—it’s a violent place. It’s an inhumane place. It’s very removed and isolated from your family and your networks. That young man, once he left Rikers Island, because of that experience, it broke him down, and he committed suicide. So—

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, he was beaten by guards.


AMY GOODMAN: He was beaten by other prisoners.


AMY GOODMAN: And he just kept saying, “I can’t say that I stole this backpack in a plea agreement, because I didn’t.”

SPEAKER MELISSA MARK-VIVERITO: Exactly, exactly. So that’s the, you know, example of what’s wrong with this system, which, again, is made up of multiple jails. So the approach of the independent commission is that, first, we have to reform laws. We have to change laws. We have to change our approach to policing and incarceration in general. But we can get the population to a point where we can then go to the community-based facility models, where people should be able to await their trial dates, or if you’re in jail for a year or less, if you have some sort of time that you have to spend in jail, that you can do it closer to your networks. Your family can visit you. You can talk about other ways of having people complete their time. You know, we have to really look and re-envision the way that we do incarceration in the city and how we approach criminal justice in general. And so, the commission is something that I’m very proud of.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how did you get Bill de Blasio to do it?

SPEAKER MELISSA MARK-VIVERITO: Listen, my style is just, you know, engage in conversation. Judge Lippman and I had several, multiple conversations with the mayor, and we arrived at a point, you know, where I was happy that he’s also come on board, and so has the governor and everybody else. And we can now really focus on making sure that we implement whatever policies we have to, to make sure that we can fast-track that and get to a point where we can go to this community-based approach and not have Rikers Island, which is so symbolic of everything that’s wrong with our criminal justice system.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you mentioned that Judge Lippman participated in some of the conversations. For people outside New York, they don’t realize he’s not just an ordinary judge. He’s the former chief judge—

SPEAKER MELISSA MARK-VIVERITO: Chief judge of the state of New York, mm-hmm.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —of New York state, of the court of appeals, New York state’s highest court. And I’m wondering if we—I think we have a selection of the quote from the report that we might be able to get on, that Judge—in the closing of Rikers Island, Judge Lippman wrote, quote, “Closing Rikers Island is far more than a symbolic gesture. It is an essential step toward a more effective and more humane criminal justice system. We must replace our current model of mass incarceration with something that is more effective and more humane—state-of-the-art facilities located closer to where the courts are operated in civic centers in each borough.”


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Because one of the complaints you heard from many communities is that Rikers Island, because it was an island, isolated, with only one road coming in, it was very difficult for family members, even in the city, to visit their relatives who were incarcerated.

SPEAKER MELISSA MARK-VIVERITO: It can take—exactly. It can take—I went—I’ve gone to Rikers. It can take you a full day, because it’s not only—it’s once you get there—getting there is difficult. But once you get there, having to wait to be able to see the person. I mean, it’s just—so, it ends up, you know, that people sometimes do not get visited, because it’s so difficult and onerous. And plus, people can’t take time off work. It would literally take your whole day. So this is—this is what is wrong, right? And we’ve done video visitation programs. We’ve funded video visitation programs. We’ve done things as a city council and invested in policies and initiatives to try to bring more humanity into an inhumane system. Right?

But at the end of the day, we will be closing Rikers Island down. The issue now is the political will to try to really try to fast-track this, try to get this to happen before 10 years, to really look at how—who gets arrested, who is held, and the issue of bail. You mentioned the bail fund, you know, for people that are too poor to pay bail, the access to a fund, so that they can leave and be able to wait for their court date. We have to dwindle the population down to a point where we can go to a community-based approach. But the community facilities is also—like, we already have the support of the councilmembers where these facilities would be. And some of the facilities already exist, but they just have to be renovated, and talk about a new state-of-the-art jail system. So, there have—there is support that we’ve been able to garner in order to get to a point where we can maybe move this on a quicker track.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s go to some of the other legislation, the City Council voting for a slew of bills in these waning days of your city speakership, almost 40 pieces of legislation. This is our guest, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, speaking about one of those bills last week.

SPEAKER MELISSA MARK-VIVERITO: And finally, the council will vote on what is commonly known the Right to Know Act. Introduction 182-D, sponsored by Councilmember Ritchie Torres, would require that all sworn police officers employed by the NYPD offer a business card to an individual during certain police interactions and give reason for the law enforcement activity.

AMY GOODMAN: So that was Melissa Mark-Viverito speaking ahead of the vote on the Right to Know Act last week. I also want to play a comment from Councilmember Jumaane Williams, who noted concerns raised by criminal justice reform advocates about its limitations.

COUNCILMEMBER JUMAANE WILLIAMS: If a police officer asks me for my ID and asks where I am going, that is not an investigatory—I’m sorry, that is not a criminal stop. And my ID will—they will not give me a card, under this bill. That is a majority of stops that are included.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the Right to Know Act also drawing opposition from the police’ largest union. Talk about what exactly it said.

SPEAKER MELISSA MARK-VIVERITO: I mean, look, you know, this has been an issue that we’ve been discussing for many years. And it was two bills. And so, basically, it is—as indicated in the clip, that it is about giving identification, giving a card to people that have an interaction with police officers. So, we believe this is a major step forward. Councilmember Ritchie Torres, who is a sponsor of the bill, has held the bill for four years, extensive negotiations that included the advocates. It included the police department. It included the administration. It included us, obviously. And a lot of back and forth on it. He arrived at a point where he felt he’s comfortable with. He felt that it was a step forward. He felt that it was a way of really moving the police department in a direction that they originally had not wanted to go in. And so, it is a big step forward. And I really give praise to Ritchie for how he worked on this bill.

Now, the advocates—some of the advocates are not pleased with it. And that’s their right, to be unhappy if they choose to be. But I believe, as the leader, that we worked with Ritchie and that he was able to move something forward and advance a reform that we’ve been discussing for many, many years, this ID. Right? That any—that interactions with police, they will have to give an ID card that has their name, it has their number, it has the precinct that they’re affiliated with. It’s something, again, that is not been—is not being done.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I wanted to ask you about another issue. In March, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that cities applying for grants will have to certify that they are not providing sanctuary to undocumented immigrants.

ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS: Today, I am urging states and local jurisdictions to comply with these federal laws, including 8 U.S.C. Section 1373. Moreover, the Department of Justice will require that jurisdictions seeking or applying for Department of Justice grants to certify compliance with 1373 as a condition of receiving those awards.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Obviously, this issue of sanctuary cities is one, what I’ve said repeatedly, that it seems that the local governments, like New York City and others around the country, are on a collision course with the federal government over how you deal with undocumented immigrants. And I’m wondering your response to how you see the—what you’ve crafted in the City Council and with the mayor in terms of responding to the Trump administration on this issue?

SPEAKER MELISSA MARK-VIVERITO: You know, it’s very disturbing. I mean, you were talking to the judge earlier, whom I respect greatly. But, you know, when we talk about whole cloth, how certain communities are being described by this administration—the immigrants are all takers, or immigrants are all criminals—reporting that we have the lowest crime rates historically in the city of New York, that says something in terms of the way that we—right?—interact with our communities. We need everyone to participate to make our city safe. And we know that the vast majority of immigrants are contributing positively to our economy and to our society here in the city of New York.

We’ve been a welcoming city. Every policy we have in place, every law that we have in place, those are things that we have the ability to do as a city. We’re not breaking any laws. Right? Just because you choose, AG Sessions and Trump, to, whole cloth, say that immigrants don’t belong here and you are racist and you want to implement those policies, doesn’t mean that we as a city are going to enforce those policies. We have a different approach. And we believe that we are a welcoming city, and we support those who want to help us build this city.

So, we have the lowest crime rates, and we are proving, you know, them wrong in terms of the facts. And so, if they choose to take a course which is punitive, you know, then they choose it, you know, choose to go that route. They may not be allowed to do what they are threatening to do. Again, everything that we have in place is making us a safe city. You know, people can step out of the shadows and help us, inform us of crimes or anything that they have any knowledge of. And so, I—you know, I’m very proud of the work that this council has done. I’m very proud of my stance in defending the city of New York to do what it needs to do.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You’ve even created a bail fund for undocumented immigrants that are facing deportation.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you talk about that?


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Because I know the Daily News has criticized it as saying, well, you would even—you would even provide bail support for terrorists. But the reality is, if someone’s accused of terrorism at the national level, they don’t have money. The government has to supply—pay for an attorney anyway.

SPEAKER MELISSA MARK-VIVERITO: Anyway. No, right. So, this is, basically, people have the ability to just have representation. And we’ve had an evaluation of that program and demonstrated that there are people that can, you know, have the right to ask for—you know, to be represented, and that the results are—in some cases, people even have status and don’t even know it. Right? So that when they go to court, they’re able to really find out whether or not they have status. They’re able to just make a case. And it’s up to the courts to decide whether or not it’s granted. But at least people have representation and have the ability to have and make a case, right? So, this bail fund, actually, has now been modeled, and other cities have looked to really replicate it. I’m very proud that—it was a pilot program the year before I became speaker, and I fully funded it, in the first year I was speaker, to really allow everybody an opportunity to have representation. And—

AMY GOODMAN: You were also arrested under—well, this year, weren’t you? Protesting around DACA with a number of other congressmembers outside Trump’s residence?

SPEAKER MELISSA MARK-VIVERITO: Yes, Grijalva, Congressman Gutiérrez, myself, Espaillat. Yes, we definitely, you know, did that. We are against all the policies that are being presented. DACA, we know, continues to be a conversation. We have these young people that are losing their status, in terms of the protection that DACA provides. And they’re teachers, and they are, you know, service workers, in some ways. This is really atrocious, what’s happening to our city—to our country. And so, we are going to protest it. I will continue to protest it, you know, as I leave office. It’s an issue that I feel very passionate about and I will continue to advocate.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about Puerto Rico, where you were born. More than three months after Hurricane Maria battered Puerto Rico, about a third of the island remains without power, in what’s by far the longest blackout in modern U.S. history, officials saying that won’t be restored—power—in some cases ’til the end of May, many Puerto Ricans celebrating Christmas in the dark.

JENNIE MUÑIZ PARDO: [translated] We still don’t have power, even three months after the hurricane. We’re living without light. We’re living off a generator. And when we don’t have money for gasoline, we’re making due with batteries, with little battery-powered decorations for the tree, because us Puerto Ricans are very family-oriented, and we like to celebrate everything.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve also—went home since the storm.


AMY GOODMAN: What do you think needs to be done? Have you considered running for governor of Puerto Rico or New York?

SPEAKER MELISSA MARK-VIVERITO: So, my mother just got power yesterday. So, it’s almost four months.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: My sister still doesn’t have power.



SPEAKER MELISSA MARK-VIVERITO: So, what’s happening to Puerto Rico is just terrible. And this tax bill is going to make it worse. An economy that was already fragile because of the emergency and the fiscal crisis now is going to be made worse, when you have a 12.5 percent tax on products that are coming in; products that are manufactured on the island, that are being brought mainland, are going to be taxed. Potentially, we could lose 200,000 jobs.

The issue of Puerto Rico is definitely not a priority on anyone’s—it’s not on anyone’s agenda. And this Congress is demonstrating it’s turning its back. So, there is serious work to be done. I want to help. I want to be a voice. I want to continue to give of my time and leadership on this issue. I think I can best do that on the mainland here, so I don’t see myself running for office on the island. But I will definitely, with all the effort—there’s a lot of support coming from philanthropy and other entities. You know, I want to figure out a way that I can best serve and be able to help build an agenda to help Puerto Rico get back on track. It has to be an agenda that is defined by the people of Puerto Rico. We have to have the voices and people on the ground being able to help define what that future looks like. And so, I want to—I want to figure out what that is. I don’t know right now. It is such an overwhelming task, and there’s so much work to do. We have to advocate in the Congress. We still—we have great leadership in some of our representatives, but obviously the Republicans are not listening. But there’s a lot of work to do, and I have to figure out the best way to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you considered running for governor of New York?



SPEAKER MELISSA MARK-VIVERITO: I have—you know, I have four years to figure out what I’m going to do. There are going to be positions available, I’m not going to close the door on maybe exploring.

AMY GOODMAN: Congress? Senate?

SPEAKER MELISSA MARK-VIVERITO: I will explore options as they come. I’m not closing any doors. I think I’ve done a great job. I have a great track record. And I think that I would definitely like to continue to serve this city in whatever capacity I can best do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Melissa Mark-Viverito, speaker of the New York City Council.

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