Eddie Gibbs killed someone when he was 17 years old.
In 1987, Gibbs, one of four siblings being raised by a single mom, was living in the James Weldon Johnson public housing complex. Like many young people growing up in East Harlem during the crack epidemic, he sold drugs. One day, as Gibbs tells it, his friend Otis Frazier tried to rob him, stabbing him in the knee. Gibbs shot him and Frazier was taken to the hospital where he was pronounced dead.
“All kinds of things are going on in the back of your head, and the first thing you think about is, I want to live,” he said during a recent interview. “I want to get out of this situation.”
Gibbs went with his mom to the police precinct and turned himself in. He spent a year-and-a-half on Rikers Island, took a plea deal for manslaughter, and served another three years in state prison.
This month, Gibbs became the first formerly incarcerated state lawmaker to be elected to a full term in New York — and one of just a few nationwide. He was re-elected to represent East Harlem’s 68th District with nearly 80% of the vote, after first winning a special election earlier this year.
“I knew people wanted me to fail, so that was motivation for me,” he said. “Keep going. Stay straight.”
Gibbs’ election comes at an inflection point for criminal justice policy in New York. Several major reform bills have passed in recent years, including the elimination of cash bail for most crimes. More proposals will be considered in the upcoming legislative session that would expand access to parole and allow some people to seal their criminal histories.
But the state is also one of many that experienced a crime surge during the pandemic. While shootings and homicides are down in New York City, reports of other major crimes are still up, according to police data. Some blame bail reform, though researchers have attempted to dispel claims that the two are related.
As someone who has lived in the notorious Rikers Island jail complex and now represents a community where many of his constituents worry about daily acts of crime, Gibbs brings a perspective unlike many of his peers in Albany. He wants to push through legislation that will help his constituents feel safe, but also hopes to provide a voice for the thousands of people in jails and prisons across the state.
“There's a bunch of men and women who are relying on my experience,” Gibbs said. “I wake up every day thinking, 'What can I do to share this experience? What can I do to show them that, you know, they also can do this?'”
Gibbs’ election demonstrates the powers — and the limits — of second chances and forgiveness.
‘Everyone’s a victim’
By the time Gibbs came home from prison in 1991, he was in his early 20s. He had earned a GED and associate’s degree while in prison, but still had trouble finding a job with a felony conviction.
Then the prominent defense attorney Murray Richman — whose famous former clients include the late rapper DMX — hired Gibbs as his driver. Gibbs credits Richman and his daughter, Stacey Richman, with “getting my life together” after his release. They helped Gibbs secure his certificate of good conduct, which allowed him to apply for work licenses and seek public office.
For years, Gibbs spent his free time organizing clothing drives, Thanksgiving dinners and Christmas toy giveaways for the community. In 2017, he was elected to the volunteer role of district leader for East Harlem. He held that position until this January, when he won a special election for the 68th District in the state Assembly.
Gibbs said he went into politics to keep him on a straight path — in part, for Otis Frazier’s mother, Ola Williams, whom he said he thinks about every day.
“I believe I owe it to her to not come home and participate in activities that got me involved into this act in the first place,” Gibbs said.
But While Gibbs’s election is a powerful symbol of redemption for some, for Frazier’s sister, Janice Murrell, it is a reminder that her brother can never have a second chance. She doesn’t believe Gibbs is truly sorry.
“He never apologized. He never came to me or my mother, never,” she said. “So for him, to state that he does, it bothers me. OK. And it bothers my mom.”
Nearly four decades later, they’re still grieving the teenager who loved listening to music with his mom, who used to play pranks on his older sister and would do anything to protect her.
Even if Gibbs were to apologize now, all these years later, they don’t know if they would be able to accept it. Or if they could ever trust him.
“It would've been much easier if he would've did it years ago — not to do it because you’re running for office,” Murrell said. “Do it because you're sincere and it's coming from your heart, and you're really sorry for what you did — not just to make you look good.”
Gibbs said he feels for the family and that he prays for them. But he said he did what he needed to do to survive. If his family could have afforded a better attorney, he doesn’t think he would have been charged at all.
“It could have gone either way,” he said. “I could have been the guy on the other end, and he would have been to prison for killing me.”
Especially in communities that are traumatized by generations of violence, sociologist and trained social worker Lewis Zuchman said people can be both victims and perpetrators of violence. And he thinks that's true in this case.
“To see Eddie as a villain or this other young man as a villain, is a real mistake,” said Zuchman, who chairs Gibbs’ community advisory committee and is the executive director of SCAN-Harbor, a nonprofit that supports children and teens in East Harlem.
“Everyone’s a victim, and how we heal, of course, is the challenge,” he said. “But we can't heal if we start calling each other murderers and bad guys.”
Zuchman said violence stems from big, societal failures. Trauma. Young brains that aren’t fully developed. While he doesn’t think that should excuse Gibbs’ or anyone else’s actions, he believes people deserve the opportunity to learn from even their worst mistakes.
“The storyline is, as I see it, a young man who's no different than the young men I work with every day – murdered somebody, was put in prison.” Zuchman said. “The chances that he would be [an] elected official in the state of New York was one in a million. He's one in a million. I think we should celebrate that.”
Balancing reform with accountability
Gibbs’s empathy for both people living in communities affected by crime, and for people who have committed crimes is a duality that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, a fellow Harlemite, also knows well. Bragg said it’s possible to look for ways to improve the system while also making sure that people feel safe. He thinks Gibbs is the right person to do it.
“People often say the people closest to the problem are the closest to the solution,” Bragg said. “He's the epitome of that.”
Gibbs hopes his perspective can help shape laws that hold people accountable while also giving them another chance, just like he was given.
“Right is right, wrong is wrong,” he said. “If you did something wrong, you should be in prison. If you’re in prison and you got yourself together and you’re rehabilitated and you want to do service for your community, then you should come home, and I think you should get an opportunity.”
Gibbs has supported bills that would make it easier for people to get parole and to seal their criminal records. But he also thinks some recent reforms ought to be scaled back, like changes to the state’s bail laws that barred judges from setting cash bail for nonviolent crimes in most cases. He thinks a new law that limits the use of solitary confinement should be tweaked, too.
“Most of the members voted not knowing how dangerous it could be for some correction officers, how dangerous it could be for some incarcerated individuals,” he said.
Gibbs has asked all his fellow lawmakers to start visiting prisons, which he still does on a regular basis. He may be the only legislator who’s been incarcerated, but he thinks everyone writing laws should have an inside perspective on the system they’re creating.
‘Luckiest man in the world’
On a recent Monday afternoon just a couple weeks before Election Day, Gibbs wasn’t thinking about bail reform or parole policy. Dozens of East Harlem’s oldest public housing residents were packed into a sunny ballroom in the Taino Towers on 123rd Street. Oldies blared on the loudspeaker as people munched on rice and beans and macaroni and cheese.
Gibbs was hosting a senior appreciation luncheon, where he spent three hours hugging and chatting and dancing. Sweat dripped from his shiny, bald head as he danced salsa music with a floor full of elderly women. When one popular song ended, he begged the DJ to play it again.
After the party, Gibbs said celebrating the seniors in his community is one of his favorite parts of the job.
“You put on some good music and give them a glass of wine and watch them be themselves. That’s what it’s all about,” he said. “They just have a good time and go home. And knowing that I've accomplished just that, I'm the luckiest man in the world.”
This story has been updated to fix a typo in one of Gibbs' quotes.