Class of 2018 alumnus Aaron Fernando advocates for change through “Who’s Taking Cop Money?” spreadsheet

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In the wake of George Floyd’s death, there have been several efforts made to bring light to the justice system in our nation. Through the use of various platforms, many young adults, including those in the Townsend Harris community, join the fight to establish tangible reforms that address systemic racism. Class of 2018 alumnus Aaron Fernando is amongst the many members in the community that champion reform for this ongoing issue. 

Originally inspired by looking into fund contributors for a few of the top candidates he was supporting, Aaron came to a realization that “many of the so-called ‘progressive’ Democrats had been taking money from conservative and anti-criminal justice reform police, correction, and corrupt officer unions.” Therefore, he began to compile data around his findings, creating this spreadsheet.

Titled “Who’s Taking Cop Money? (NYC+ Other Projects),” the spreadsheet highlights which elected officials have accepted police union donations. It also notes the amount that each official has received from each type of officer, and their responses to the spreadsheet, if any.  

Since the death of George Floyd, Aaron has made this spreadsheet public via Twitter. On Tuesday, CNN reported that nine Democratic officials have since then reallocated the donated funds due to the spreadsheet. Aaron recalled, “Astoria Assembly member Aravella Simotas was the first to donate, after her challenger Zohran Mamdani started attacking her on the issue alongside my spreadsheet.”

Initially, Aaron did not think the spreadsheet would gain the audience it did, with his initial Tweet having over 800 likes. Aaron explained, “I seriously underestimated how much people would want to get involved and push their elected officials to give their blood money back to communities and anti-racist causes.” He felt that the response was “overwhelmingly positive” and at first didn’t think that it would go much further than his politically-active friends. 

“Soon legislators started donating their law enforcement money and promising not to take it in the future, especially legislators in districts that will be competitive in the June 23rd primaries,” he added. The responses to the spreadsheet are ongoing. “As of Friday afternoon, 15 legislators who have taken law enforcement contributions this cycle have donated $55,850 of their law enforcement money, and it just keeps going!” 

Sophomore Aaleia Fernando, Aaron’s younger sister, spoke about her family’s response to the spreadsheet saying, “We are so proud of him for acting on his beliefs rather than just sitting still.” She added, “One controversial aspect of all this is where the money is being sent instead. Not everyone believes that it should be given to bail funds and efforts to end solitary confinement. But the most important thing is that politicians are being called out and made aware that they are taking law enforcement union money.”

Aaleia said she didn’t have any knowledge of the spreadsheet before it became public. She explained, “He was busy with finals, work, his internship, and various meetings, and yet so much of his daily life seemed to revolve around politics…I don’t think that any of us expected his retaliation to come in the form of a spreadsheet, but that goes to show that there are so many ways that people can make a difference, even ways that may not seem so obvious.”

As a former Harrisite, Aaron says that he was greatly inspired by Assistant Principal of Humanities, Rafal Olechowski. “He was the most caring teacher I’ve ever had…He made me the person I am today, and I wish I had more people like him throughout my life,” Aaron explained. He added that during his time at Townsend Harris, he learned “to be ambitious in whatever project you take up; for [him] back then it was The Phoenix, and now it’s this.”   

Mr. Olechowski did not respond to request for comment as of Tuesday night. 

Class of 2019 alumna Shivani Persaud succeeded the Editor-in-Chief position for The Phoenix after Aaron. She said, “It is absolutely fitting that Aaron created this spreadsheet because the root of societal and political problems is that we don’t hold those in power accountable… No one would have thought to make a spreadsheet like the one Aaron did, in length and depth. I’m sure he’s editing it as we speak because the numbers are ever-changing.” 

She added, “What I’m the most proud of is that he left no stone unturned and the results said it all. The pressure from the very creation of this spreadsheet paired with people retweeting it countless times led to actual change. If calling out the politicians in this spreadsheet wasn’t important, we would have never seen them redirect their money in the way they did.”  

For Harrisites interested in politics and justice, Aaron advised, “First: find out who your elected officials are. Take note of their recent votes, who they take money from, what they say on social media, who they affiliate themselves with, etc. If they’re awful, maybe they have a challenger you can support and volunteer for! I’d also get involved in local political groups, like your local club or groups like Queens DSA.”

Aaron continues to advocate for his community with various opportunities. He stated, “Right now I’m interning with the Bail Project and continuing to work for the Janos Marton campaign for Manhattan District Attorney.” Looking forward, he added, “[I] might work on some more political campaigns most likely, probably go back to working with Janos Marton for Manhattan DA once my summer internship is over.”

“I’ve learned that we all have power, whether we’re in the streets or stuck at home.” Aaron said. We can all make a difference by using our voice and pushing for progressive change that will upend the establishment and bring about true justice.”