Hot Button / Ulysees O. Wingo
A council member speaks out on pledges, protests, and the police
Council member Ulysees O. Wingo
Photo by kc kratt
Most Buffalo residents probably first heard of Ulysees O. Wingo after his Black Power salute during a Common Council Pledge of Allegiance. The Masten District council member drew media attention by raising his fist at a September 2016 meeting in protest of the deaths of black citizens at the hands of police. Last April, the outspoken politician, thirty-seven, who is also Youth Minister at Faith Baptist Church, had to publicly apologize after he described families who use Catholic schools as “affluent.”
Wingo is tall, with a generous smile and confident handshake. He is stylishly attired, with a touch of flash. He speaks in guileless bursts of stream-of-consciousness patter, rather than carefully parsed talking points. His penchant for unguarded communication is also apparent in his frequent live Facebook streams, often shot while traveling by car, on topics ranging from micro-aggression to Easter egg hunts. “What’s up Facebook?” begins one, “This is your council member coming to you live from the 33.” Then there are the evening organ “therapy” recitals, streamed live from his living room.
What follows is a smattering of Wingo wisdom, culled from a recent wide-ranging interview.
What originally prompted the Pledge of Allegiance protest?
Mr. [Terence] Crutcher was the impetus behind that; he was basically gunned down walking back to his vehicle with his hands up. The [officer] said she felt threatened; that was ludicrous; that was preposterous. I felt like that could have been me, walking back from my vehicle, having car trouble. I remember thinking to myself, that man thought he was going home that night, and going to recount the story to his family: “You guys ain’t never gonna believe what happened to me. They pulled guns out!” It could have been any African-American because of the media and various portrayals of people of color. So, I was sitting in council chambers one week, and we were reciting the Pledge, and, at the end of it, we said, ‘with liberty and justice for all,’ and it just hit me like a ton of bricks, justice for who?
You’re a minister; what made you decide to get into politics?
I was a community organizer. I was working with a program called the Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation Grant, through the Department of Justice. I was the coordinator, and my job was primarily to engage the community in initiatives that decreased crime in their area. I remember being asked if I would be interested in running for office. I said which office? They said Masten District. I said nope; I’m not running against Demone Smith. And the response was, what if Demone wasn’t running? And I said, then yes, I’d be interested, only because I wanted to increase my footprint personally, to try to positively impact more people. And, of course, in my naïveté, I eagerly jumped in headfirst.
You frequently say what’s on your mind, popular or not.
When I speak, I do not speak for people to like what I say. I speak truth, and that truth gives me power. If you don’t want it said, don’t do it in front of me. If you don’t want it repeated, don’t say it to me, unless it’s in a counseling setting, and it’s being said in confidence. I don’t say things based on political expediency.
The fact that a lot of people are doing things that are just straight egregious and think that I’m supposed to turn a blind eye to it, that upsets me, because you are now impeding on someone else’s quality of life, because you want to do something that’s ignorant. Throwing trash out the window when I am behind somebody in traffic. Put my car in park, get out, “Here, you dropped something.”
Aren’t you concerned that someone might react poorly to that?
No, you want to know why? Because they know I’m doing it out of love, with a smile: “I know you didn’t mean to do that right in front of my house.” “Oh, my bad, my bad.” I’ve also gotten out of my car with my snow brush and pushed the snow off someone’s car, and said, “You’re welcome. You can’t see me [with snow on the window] and that causes everyone around you to be at risk.”
Your support of Buffalo police has run afoul with the African-American community.
No, you’re talking about a faction this big [he holds his finger and thumb close together]. It’s a vocal faction who knows how to get coverage for issues they bring up. My support of the police is not blind support, and that’s what they kind of think it is. They should know better. My support of the police comes with criticism as well. I’m on the phone talking to Commissioner Beaty when there are constituents telling me there’s a police officer in this area harassing people. At the end of the day, I do support police because we need police, and I need to be able to call the chiefs and know they will send help wherever I need their assistance. However, the people want me to be this police lover, or whatever you want to call it, in a derogatory way, because it’s a denigrating term to be a police lover—but I do love police. Why? Because they are people that wear uniforms, and a lot of them are very, very nice people.
You play a mean organ.
[Loud laughter] I get a lot of people who say, “You’ve got to be careful putting your family on Facebook; people are crazy. You’re just showing your house and they see what you have,” blah, blah, blah. And, I tell my wife—I say this facetiously of course—we have to make sure we keep the house clean. If any robbers come in, we don’t want them to think we keep a nasty house. My mother used to always say, when we went on vacation, “Clean your room up; I don’t want no burglars coming in here thinking we keep a nasty house.” But, I’m just an open person, and I’ve always felt like if I’m transparent, I get to control the narrative.
Did you control the narrative with the controversial Catholic school comments?
As soon as it came out, I immediately felt this weight, and I thought, “Aw man, I’m going to have to deal with this.” Immediately afterwards, I went over to [South District Council Member Christopher] Scanlon and apologized right there, before either of us walked out. I said, “Hey listen, whatever I say on this floor when we are having a heated discussion, that’s my head, not my heart, and I apologize if I offended you in any way.” And he said “OK, no problem, no problem.” Then, the next day, I read the paper and he just [explosion noise].
He turned on you?
He didn’t turn on me; he was just being himself.
You have had a degree of economic success beyond many in your community.
Between my wife and me, we have six jobs. I have three jobs; she has three jobs. We work. We’re in a much more stable position than most people in our community because, number one, we have amassed some serious education debt. We’ve invested in ourselves. People think we are just so wealthy. Nope, we budget.
You’ve experienced criticism?
A lot of people hide behind a subculture, and they get mad when you call them to the carpet on the perceptions of their subculture. I don’t care, because sometime you have to grow up and realize that the rest of the world is not in your little subculture. My father used to tell me all the time, you have to learn to appeal to more than the people on your street. For thirty-eight years, my father wore a bowtie with a blue dickey uniform every day to GM. They used to say to my father: “Hey, bowtie.” Growing up for me and my brother—we used to share clothes all the way down to the underwear—we used to go to school with a tie on. And you know what? That taught me that people treat you differently based on how you look. If you hear me talk on my street, I’ll talk like I’m on my street; if you hear me talk on the council floor, you’re going to hear me talk like a council member; if you hear me talk on the pulpit, you’re going to hear me talk like a preacher. There are so many different dialects and dictions that we use depending on where we are. So, you have to appeal to more than just one particular circle; that’s just myopic to me. Step your game up, partner.
Artist Bruce Adams is a longtime contributor to Spree.