The Wheels of Joey

Jess Barbagallo on Joey De Jesus’s run for New York State Assembly District 38

Photo: Jess Barbagallo.

AS I WAS BIKING TO MY FRIEND REL’S to retrieve a needle and some fresh material to read during quarantine, I saw an ominous calling card casually hanging from a door on Onderdonk Street. It read ROMAN EMPIRE LOGISTICS LLC, conjuring in my mind the image of flimsy gladiator breastplates being fed to lions. I presumed it was a realtor’s moniker, but later discovered it was a “fleet logistics company” contracted by Amazon to deliver packages during the pandemic. I even learned that this small enterprise was ahead of the socially responsible curve, requiring employees to wear face masks as early as March. Still, their delivery vehicles resemble hearses. Their name jars. This is good advertising? Do people want to live and buy in this linguistic graveyard? An acolyte of semiotics, I tend to glean the world’s truths through the so-called “casual” language of the mundane, although this strategy is becoming as mundane as mundanity itself. The “mundane” in my neighborhood is poorly spaced lines around the block leading to the Bank of America (now boarded for “riot” protection), City Web MD, and the check-cashing spot on Myrtle Avenue. Like others on the periphery of devastation, I am confused about where to focus my attention spatially, temporally, and philosophically.

Anyway, I’m on my way to pick up Rel’s issue eight of Apogee—a literary journal founded in 2011 “as a space to pay tribute to oppressed identities in a literary landscape dominated by white, cis-heteronormative, patriarchal voices”—because poet Joey De Jesus coedited it, and I’m trying to learn about De Jesus because in addition to being a poet and an adjunct professor of English at BMCC, they are also a 2020 candidate for New York State Assembly District 38. When I first heard De Jesus’s campaign described as an art project, I almost relegated it to the annals of conceptualism, jaded to the possibility of “art project” as a substantial mode for inducing systemic rehabilitation. Yet the more I learn, the more I find my initial wariness off-base. Last June, De Jesus lost their formerly incarcerated queer cousin to suicide. De Jesus traces the cause of death to the brutal dominoes that fell after their release from prison: depression, joblessness, and life on the brink of houselessness. As an activist and prison abolitionist, De Jesus believes that grief is neither neutral nor an exclusively personal rite of passage to be suffered in silence. As expressed in their speeches, collaborative performances, and recently published collection Noct—The Threshold of Madness (The Atlas Review), it is a sorrow willing to make trouble by naming the conditions and consequences of programmatic sociopolitical abjection as experienced daily by themself and their QTPOC kin.

De Jesus is one of a slew of other young progressives running for office across the country. What sets De Jesus apart is their sheer raw scrappiness as well as their singular gift to speak lyrically in cadences of rage and protest. They are unapologetically intellectual.

I, unlike my opponents, live one paycheck or medical emergency away from disaster. I, unlike the incumbent, am avowedly pro-choice, pro-Immigrant, pro-Black and pro-Trans. I, unlike my other opponent, do not have the means to look at a map, move wherever I think I might win an election, and pump $100,000 into my own campaign. I am the only anti-settler-colonial and anti-imperialist candidate in this race.

The opponents they refer to include incumbent Democrat Michael Miller, who has held the post since 2009, and Jennifer Rajkumar, a first-generation Indian American lawyer. Both Miller and Rajkumar invoke the “American Dream” to describe their civic-mindedness, while De Jesus describes themself as “a queer nightmare to the political establishment of New York State.” In his bid for reelection, Miller cites accomplishments including the installation of NYPD police cameras in Forest Park after a series of sexual assaults was reported there in 2013 as well as efforts to clean up the graffiti on the Long Island Railroad, which runs through Glendale and Ridgewood. Graffiti has been a misdemeanor under New York State Penal Law since 1992. For a fun Sunday afternoon read, go to, where you can find the public document “Combating Graffiti: ‘Reclaiming the Public Spaces of New York’” bearing the seal of the NYPD and the stamps of former Honorable Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and police commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, who worked in tandem to accelerate “stop-and-frisk” policies which disproportionately profiled Blacks and Latinos in New York City during their respective tenures. Choice phrases in this citizens’ guide frame tagging as a “quality of life” offense and a “national epidemic costing billions of dollars a year.” There are no footnotes in the document to account for these “facts.”

Photo: Jess Barbagallo.

As De Jesus points out: “Thanks to its goliath budget, the NYPD arrests over 160,000 people each year on low-level misdemeanor charges (80 percent total arrests), half of which are eventually dismissed, further wasting taxpayer resources. Communities of color continue to be the targets of increased policing, who are used by municipal governments to extract fees (wealth) and occupy the time of people of color.” This is pedagogical work: to connect the dots between bogus law and a broader strategy of disenfranchisement that keeps people of color on a juridical hamster wheel. De Jesus applies this method to analyze all areas of city life. Seated in front of overflowing bookshelves in a campaign video posted on May 29, they explain that there is enough money residing in private coffers to fund public education, the MTA, urban agricultural spaces, and other endeavors labeled fantastical pipe dreams by those who mistake ownership for happiness. De Jesus’s patient rigor is a quality more likely to be found in a classroom than in public office. Former presidential candidate (and public school educator) Elizabeth Warren certainly made an argument for the virtues of a diagrammatic epistemology. Curiously, or not, while her signature “plans” garnered her a large degree of popular respect, they just as often made her a target of derision, ultimately failing to captivate the public’s id, referred to in its sanitized version as “the public imagination.” Make no mistake: Politics are a form of erotics, but it can be a challenge to find the heat in wonkery, maybe because the finer points of ethical solution-making that attempt to fill the highly orchestrated gap between reality and justice squash those pervasive fantasies of white colonial domination that still grip those desperate to maintain power. Vaguery is a rhetorical tool of calculated deferral, leaving politicians the wiggle room to fall short of substantial change while using tricks of legalese to remain within the polite bounds of promise.

For example: On the issue of housing, Rajkumar—who has been endorsed by an array of liberal Democrats and progressives such as US congressman Ro Khanna, cochair of Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign—speaks in generalizations, promising to “always be vigilant and active on issues to protect the affordability and character of our neighborhoods against inappropriate development,” and “organize and forcefully advocate for reforms to NYCHA funding, repairs, and services.” De Jesus, on the other hand, explains that they were the first candidate in their assembly race to sign the New York State Homes Guarantee Pledge, vowing to protect vulnerable populations from the gentrification that drives up rents as buildings are converted into luxury playpens: “My opponent Jenifer Rajkumar adamantly refuses [to sign this pledge]. Why? Because it would mean returning money to the developers that she’s taken campaign contributions from, developers who threaten Spanish-speaking rent-stabilized tenants with deportation.” It’s ironic that seven years ago, in a race for a seat on the Manhattan City Council in District 1, Rajkumar leveled a similar attack on opponent Margaret Chin, accusing Chin, who ultimately won the race, of being the beneficiary of contributions from an “outside real estate PAC.” I don’t know who to believe, but I tend to trust poets. As cultural figures, they may sometimes suffer accusations of naivete, but never have they gotten filthy rich off their ambitions.

De Jesus has raised a modest nine thousand dollars or so from around one hundred and seventy individual donors. As the June 23 primary looms, as does the possibility of a weak voter turnout, I ask them to describe the organization of their campaign in light of the current conditions, and how they determine the efficacy of their outreach. De Jesus cites the efforts of their campaign manager Leo Fines, and also radically shifts the terms of their political strategizing: “A couple years ago, Fred Moten contributed this poem to a book-object I’d coordinated with several peers. The first line goes: “The wheels of Joey are diffused and this intensifies.” Later, they add: “Fundraising is important but we’re resourceful and funding isn’t my priority—I believe the word and will forever more valuable than the dollar, so I mobilized a whisper network . . . to send information and to receive information creating an echo-chamber; so it is honestly a matter of putting out a note and listening for it in another’s voice.”

The sentiment is gorgeous, but the question remains: Will this faith in underground networking ultimately relegate De Jesus to political obscurity?

Millie Kapp, a performance artist who works as the education coordinator of Abrons Art Center on the Lower East Side, is part of the De Jesus “whisper network.” Kapp has made calls on behalf of their campaign, and while she has never met Joey in person, she recalls watching them perform at the Poetry Project. Kapp tells me: “I’m an artist who’s always been interested in politics, and Joey embodies a possibility for these two worlds to overlap and hybridize into something not yet known. I mean, politics and art share some crucial qualities: the craft of meaning making, techniques of representation and interpretation, and questions around possibility . . . Both good politics and good art try to make invisible forces become perceptible and draw on the imagination for world-making . . . what Joey is doing makes a lot of sense to me, both poetically and logically.”

Joey De Jesus.

If fate led De Jesus to electoral politics, poetry gave them the tools to rearrange the syntax of faulty dictums, and to refocus our language to create a new world. I contemplate this logic from Rel’s stoop as they hand me that copy of Apogee. The pale pink cover reads: SANDRA BLAND IS NOT ALIVE AND SOMEONE IS RESPONSIBLE. I turn to De Jesus’s forward, in which they introduce the collection with transcriptions of missives Bland uploaded to her YouTube account from January 25 to April 28, 2015, three months before she died in jail at the age of twenty-eight in what officials deemed a suicide after being questionably apprehended and arrested by Texas police. De Jesus suggests that readers recite these prescient fragments aloud. Bland, a Black woman, says in one of her videos: “. . . There are uneducated people who are hell-bent on self-extermination; I am not one of them. I am into building up my kings and queens.” She invoked the pursuit of knowledge as the path to preservation; she named what is most terrifying to those who wish to maintain the violently hierarchical and racist status quo: learning.

If De Jesus is the nightmare they promise to be, they are the kind who awakens one into action. Forget the mundane: As I write this story that cannot keep apace with the fever pitch of national unrest, protestors are rioting at the 88th Precinct in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill tonight—and in Minneapolis and Los Angeles and Dallas and Atlanta. George Floyd is dead. Sandra Bland is dead. Joey De Jesus’s beloved cousin is dead. The pain is almost too diffuse to map, yet the clarity with which we see this falling empire only continues to intensify.

The New York primary is on June 23. The application to vote by mail is due on June 16; New Yorkers can order their absentee ballots here.