The summer of 2016 in and around New York City, I found myself co-organizing many a protest against the gun industry. I was among the early members of Gays Against Guns (GAG), which we launched quickly and furiously only days after a mass shooter, on June 12, killed 49 people at the Pulse LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Only a few weeks later, nearly 1,000 people marched with GAG in the city’s annual Pride March, absorbing raucous cheers as we chanted, “Fuck the NRA!”
Often, in those heady weeks of steamy sidewalk protests outside businesses affiliated with the gun industry, such as CrossFit (which was giving away a Glock handgun as a contest prize) and BlackRock (the investment company whose holdings included gun makers and sellers), we were joined by Letitia “Tish” James, then the first woman of color to serve as New York City’s public advocate—a job that carries a big bullhorn but not much teeth—after having served a full decade as a City Council member.
We didn’t invite her; she simply showed up, because she felt fiercely about pressuring businesses to cut their ties with the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the gun industry overall. “You bring to this fight the energy … and radicalism that we need,” she shouted to us at our CrossFit protest. “It’s really all about divesting in this gun culture.”
She then pointed across the street at a branch of TD Bank, where she said she’d recently led a protest against the bank’s lending money to a gunmaker. “We need to raise our voices and not accept this,” she declared. “Congress is in the pockets of the NRA!”
We in GAG loved James. When she came to one of our early meetings that summer at the LGBT Community Center, we declared her GAG’s first honorary “Feeus Kaween” (that’s silly gayspeak for “fierce queen”), an honor she gladly accepted to whoops and hollers.
But she also earned our amusement—and mild irritation—by insisting on calling us, at public rallies, “Gays Against Gun Violence”—even after we asked her staff to ask her to get our name right.
“I don’t think it was calculated,” says GAG organizer Jay W. Walker, who has known James for years in his role as a coordinator for various activist groups, of James’ repeated misnaming of us. “I think it was a mental block.”
But many of us felt as though the misnaming was deliberate—to oh, so subtly narrow our focus from the perhaps too extreme “against guns” writ large to the more politically palatable “against gun violence.” At the same time, few among us could get that mad at James over it; if she was somewhat using us to further burnish her activist and community bona fides, we were more than happy to capitalize on some of the added gravitas and media attention her participation brought us.
In 2018, James was elected New York State’s first Black female attorney general, via a political gambit in which she cut ties with the progressive Working Families Party, on whose line she was first voted onto the City Council in 2003, and aligned herself with Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose corporation-friendly politics were often at odds with the Working Families Party. Since then, in the aggressive tradition of the New York State attorney general’s office, she has taken on—and often won—some gutsy fights, particularly against the Trump administration’s attacks and restrictions on immigrants and asylum seekers.
But on Aug. 6, her national profile hit an all-time high when she announced that she was suing the NRA, calling for its dissolution after years of alleged corruption and financial mismanagement that included longtime NRA head Wayne LaPierre spending NRA money lavishly on himself and his family, for everything from Caribbean trips to luxury hotels to expensive gifts.
It was the fulfillment of a promise James had made, during her 2018 campaign, to investigate the NRA, which she then called a “terrorist organization.”
I was among countless New York City activists watching James closely as she made this boldest-yet of career moves, the latest in an upward trajectory that has always seemed to balance both passionate activism and shrewd opportunism. And yes, that includes the kind of savvy that might induce one to, say, tweak the name of a grassroots activist group to something that plays better to the public.
“She’s a force of nature,” says Walker, who kissed and hugged James at her January 2019 attorney general swearing-in ceremony. “She’s been one of GAG’s staunchest allies in the political class. She walks the walk.”
Says Kevin Hertzog, one of GAG’s cofounders, “She’s the fierce queen of GAG, an amazing advocate for GVP” (that’s shorthand for gun violence prevention.) He says that James’ tendency to misname GAG caused him “amusement and admiration, because I viewed it as being part of her commitment to reducing gun violence. From my understanding, that came from her having spent so much time meeting with the loved ones of victims of gun violence, which is a very human place. She’s also a very powerful speaker.”
And a ubiquitous one, going back years. “She’d always come to the tiniest LGBT demonstrations, including any time a transgender person was killed,” says longtime LGBT activist and indie journalist Andy Humm.
Indeed, my first recollection of James was back when she was a City Council member in the mid-2000s, in a heated town hall debate over loosening HIV testing consent laws. She sat quietly up toward the front, eyeglasses perched on her nose, wrapped in a wool plaid shawl and taking copious notes as the sometimes tedious forum, bloated with rambling commentary from audience members, dragged on.
That was a long time ago, well before James attained her current stature. “She toiled and did the grunt work for many years,” says longtime community activist Bertha Lewis, formerly of ACORN and now the president of “action tank” The Black Institute. “Even when she was a lawyer for Legal Aid, you knew she was going to be something.”
“She’s come into her own as the attorney general,” says Duncan Osborne, longtime writer for the weekly Gay City News. “She’s finally in a place where she has great ability to make a difference. Her intelligence and her patience have really paid off. I could see her running for mayor or governor next. She’s always understood what her constituencies were—Black voters, the LGBTQ community, women.”
One aspect of James is her ability to connect with people in a manner that feels authentic. “She’s tenacious and charismatic, and she really listens,” says Sonni Mun, M.D., a member of GAG and Moms Demand Action, a longer-established gun violence prevention group. “I met her six years ago at an event when she was public advocate and was blown away because she took the time to say hello to us. She probably didn’t know me from a hole in the wall, but she didn’t make me feel that way. I thought, ‘Finally, I’ve met a politician who’s just as passionate about GVP and disgusted by the way things are as I am.’”
For some, their admiration for James was marred when she broke ranks with the Working Families Party, on whose ballot line she first attained office, to join Gov. Andrew Cuomo on the Democratic Party line in what many saw as a quid-pro-quo in return for his robust support for her attorney general run. She beat three other candidates for the slot in the Democratic primary race, including Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the first openly gay person from New York elected to Congress, and, to her left, the law professor Zephyr Teachout; she then handily beat her Republican rival—no surprise in blue New York.
That defection was “part of the various forces aligning with Cuomo to protect him from a very righteous [2018 gubernatorial challenger from the left, former Sex and the City star] Cynthia Nixon,” says attorney Natalie James (no relation to Letitia), a former GAG member and now an organizer with the city’s LGBTQ anti-corporate and anti-police Reclaim Pride Coalition.
“Cuomo’s an expert at covering his alignment with Wall Street with a window-dressing of progressivism, like supporting the LGBT community or appointing various minorities in high-profile positions,” says Natalie James. “It helps plaster over his brutal and corrupt austerity politics.” (Cuomo has recently been criticized for not trying to raise taxes on New York’s ultrawealthy, despite the COVID-19 pandemic having plunged the state into a fiscal crisis.)
But other activists don’t hold Letitia James’ political calculation against her. “If she has to play the political game so she can wield the power of her office, that’s fine with me,” says Mun. “I want somebody who gets the job done, and she’s doing that.” Says Walker, “Whatever compromises she’s made are not about gaining personal power but being able to influence law in a way that helps people. You can toss Molotov cocktails outside the fortress all you want, but in our current situation, it’s better to be fighting from inside the fortress.”
And Lewis, herself a longtime Working Families Party honcho, disputes the notion that James betrayed Working Families Party by aligning with Cuomo. “I told her, ‘You have the possibility of being the first Black and female attorney general of the State of New York, so keep your eyes on the prize,’” she says.
Fight of Her Life
Now, of course, James is trying to fry her biggest fish yet—taking down the NRA, which has already been hobbled the past few years by infighting over finances and management. But Natalie James questions how much Letitia James’ volley will actually stop gun violence.
“The problems facing the U.S. with guns are far more profound than the NRA,” she says. “The Second Amendment Foundation is a national network that will still exist even if the NRA meets its demise, and there’s a more informal network of gun dealers, collectors, and clubs everywhere in the country. It’s not just about the NRA’s money and lobbying—it’s a grassroots phenomenon.”
But Walker disagrees. “Even if other groups come into play, they’re not going to have the successful pedigree of the NRA. Taking down the NRA is a very big deal.”
Of course, it remains to be seen if James will do it; the suit could take years to play out, and it may not present enough evidence to support the case for the NRA’s total demise. And as Attorney General James’ attack raises her profile to an all-time high, it also dials up the gun lobby’s preexisting antipathy toward her, with many responding to her Twitter announcement of the lawsuit by cautioning that she guard against death threats.
Turns out, longtime New York City activists who’ve followed James for years have since had the same thoughts.
“In this day and age, where so many people who have anger management issues also have access to guns, I’m worried for her,” says Mun. “But I’m still grateful to her, because we all knew the NRA was corrupt, and we were just waiting for someone to actually do something about it.”
Plus, adds Mun, “The fact that it’s a Black woman going after the NRA, which has used racist code language for so long, just makes it even more delicious to me.”