WASHINGTON, D.C. — Capitol Hill is abuzz with whispers about a legislative correspondent Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) fired last month.
The former staffer’s name is Jamarcus Purley, a Black man with degrees from Harvard and Stanford where he studied abroad at Oxford.
Purley’s story does not begin in the hallowed halls of academia or government, however, but humbly in a violent hamlet in Arkansas.
“I’m from a city called Pine Bluff, Arkansas, a dangerous city with a lotta heart,” Purley tells Latino Rebels. “Mine’s a predominantly Black city, overtly impoverished, but proud as hell.”
Purley speaks quickly, lyrically even.
“I went to Stanford because when I grew up my favorite rapper was 2Pac,” says Purley. “Where I went to church, it was on a dirt road in front of a cotton field. I knew no one gave a f–k about us. The president didn’t give a f–k about us. No one in government gave a f–k about us. But 2Pac gave a f–k about us. So I knew I had to go to California because 2Pac was from California. So I picked the best school there: Stanford.”
At Stanford, Purley studied English literature and African and African American studies.
“That’s when I really learned what’s going on,” Purley recalls. “Like, I had never heard of apartheid in South Africa before. I was like how the f–k did no one ever teach me about apartheid in South Africa before?”
During his junior year at Stanford, Purley studied abroad at Oxford University in England. While there, he was denied admittance to the library because, as he was told, he didn’t look like a student. The incident prompted a letter from Stanford Provost Harry Elam admonishing Oxford’s racist culture.
“When I graduated, it struck me how far away from my community I was,” says Purley. “Nobody gave a f–k about my community. I was on student council at Stanford arguing about what poor people in the South were going through and nobody took it seriously. Nobody knew what they were talking about.”
After Stanford, Purley returned to Arkansas where he worked for a year tutoring algebra at J.A. Fair High School in Little Rock as part of City Year, an AmeriCorps program Bill Clinton helped establish as president.
“That’s when I realized policy was the thing I needed to do,” remembers Purley. “I really wanted to be a teacher, I thought. … But working with the kids I realized that school wasn’t the fix. It wasn’t addressing what the students were going through in their communities. Conceptually, I knew I had to get to the bottom about how these schools are even created. That’s when I went to Harvard and got my master’s in education policy and management.”
At Harvard, Purley earned high praise from Karen Mapp, the director of the Education Policy and Management program.
“Jamarcus is among the most intellectually curious and engaged students I’ve met,” Mapp said in 2016. “Whether it’s during class or in casual discussion, he always brings a uniquely insightful perspective to the conversation. His classmates describe him as intelligent, passionate, humble, caring, and empathetic. His ability to be an active and compassionate listener while pushing others to think more critically has made the reach of his impact on the community so broad, positive, and an affirmation of [Harvard Graduate School of Education’s] values.”
That same year, Purley’s classmates at Harvard nominated him for the prestigious Intellectual Contribution/Faculty Tribute Award, given to students whose “”dedication to scholarship enhanced the academic life of the community and positively impacted their fellow students.”
“The award gave me $5,000,” says Purley. “So I took a trip to South Africa for six weeks where one of my white Harvard classmates invited me to stay with her family, where I witnessed a few rich white people and a vast majority of Black poor people. Her family wanted me to see what the racial inequities in their country were really like. I was like, this is South Africa? It made no sense. It was literally a more vivid portrait of the inequality I saw in the U.S.”
Upon returning to the United States, Purley applied for an entry-level job as a staff assistant in Sen. Feinstein’s office, where he says right away he realized he would have to be accommodating to a white workplace if he wanted to survive as a Hill staffer.
“The first time I met Sen. Feinstein, there were two Black dudes in the meeting and she called me the other Black guy’s name,” says Purley. “She called me his name. We look nothing alike. We are two different shades. He wears a beard.”
“I didn’t correct it,” he continues. “I laughed it off because I didn’t even process it until later … that after all I’ve done to get here, you’re gonna call me another guy’s name? But I was like, okay, we’re gonna work within the system to try and figure this s–t out. It’s amazing to me how many people don’t consider me Black. They consider me Jamarcus: that n—a that went to all them schools.”
Being mistaken by Feinstein for another Black coworker on his first day became an inside joke amongst his white coworkers, a joke that he would endure for the next five years in her office.
Sometimes his white coworkers crossed other boundaries, as well.
“Multiple white coworkers in my office touched my hair without my permission,” Purley tells Latino Rebels, his voice cracking with indignation, his speech slowing as he lets out an audible sigh.
“My coworkers touched my motherf—in’ hair,” he says, enunciating each syllable. “My mom’s a beautician. She used to do my braids. My hair was the one thing I loved when I was looking in the mirror in a suit that I hate, in a look that I hate. Why the f–k did my coworkers touch my hair? I never said anything because I knew that if I told them not to touch my hair, I might risk not getting a promotion.”
Despite accommodating Feinstein’s white staffers, Purley says he was passed over for promotion twice because, according to his supervisors, he didn’t write well enough.
“I had gone to the chief of staff twice because I told them that the way they write alienates black people,” says Purley. “I mean, I studied English and African American studies—I know what the f–k I’m talking about. They said it’s not my role to tell us what or how to write. It’s my role to reflect the Senator’s voice. They kept telling me I work at the pleasure of the Senator.”
Purley says things really started going downhill in terms of representation of people of color in Feinsteins’s office when she hired David Grannis as chief of staff.
“The staff turnover got insane,” recalls Purley, “especially for Black and Brown staffers. The big conference room in our office became the place I hated most because it was there that I could literally see just how few Black people worked in our office.”
Everything changed for Purley when his father died of COVID in December 2020. He had finally been promoted from staff assistant to legislative correspondent, where his job was to read and write mail to constituents.
“Working as a legislative correspondent, that’s when it hit me just how little resources Black people in California have,” says Purley. “The Senator wouldn’t allow us to help people directly. People on the Hill are scared of losing their jobs. What made me fearless was this moment: my father was dead. Other Black and Brown families were losing their loved ones as well and Feinstein didn’t give a f–k. It was on our Monday afternoon staff call that I finally decided to raise the issue. I’ll never forget the date: January 17th.”
Weeks before, Purley had survived his own severe case of COVID.
“I almost died over Christmas alone on my couch in NoMa,” says Purley, referring to the trendy Washington neighborhood where he lives. “So when that next Monday staff meeting came around I said, ‘Hey, (Senator Feinstein’s director of constituent correspondence) Candace (Hull), people are having trouble getting help from us.’ I told her in front of 15 people on the call. I told her Black people are dying because they don’t have access to the resources we can provide them. She said she’d check in with the Senator.”
On the next week’s call, January 24, Purley says he followed up with Hull, again telling the team:,”‘We need to help people so they don’t die like my father died. Y’all sent me a card when my father died.’ That’s when Candice said, ‘We have other priorities.’ I said, ‘You have the f–king gall to tell me we have other priorities?’ That’s when I gave a 10 to 15-minute speech about how the Senator doesn’t care about Black people. Then when other staffers finally chimed in, they totally whitewashed my words. Finally Candice told me I had 30 seconds to speak. I repeated that the Senator cares more about Kirby, her f–kin’ dog, than Black people. I said, ‘You gotta be f–king kidding me. I’ve been working here five years; the Senator has never walked by my desk. That’s why every Black and Brown person is leaving this office.'”
Purley says that when he stopped talking, the staff call was completely silent.
“That’s when I told them: ‘The Senator cares more about her dog than Black people.'”
Again, Purley says, no one responded for what seemed like forever.
Latino Rebels has reviewed multiple text messages Purley received from his coworkers after the call.
“I wanted to say something in the moment but couldn’t,” reads one text. “I just can’t react to something like that in the moment. But now that I’ve had time to process it I want you to know that you can come to me for support on this issue. I’m just not good with things that catch me off guard, and I’m really sorry about that.”
Another text message from a coworker on the call reads: “I’m going to talk to [Feinstein Chief of Staff] David [Grannis] about this and make sure they know where I stand. Thinking of you and want you to know I care about you so much.”
“If my voice mattered at all in this office you know I would be [speaking up]” texted another coworker. “[T]his office is f–ked on so many different levels. But I hear you man.”
Feinstein terminated Purley’s employment on February 8. The letter from Feinstein’s office said he was being fired for performance issues.
Unwilling to go down without a fight, Purley posted his termination letter to Instagram, then paid to promote it. But Instagram shut the promotion down after it had reached just over 7,000 users.
“We’ve determined that this ad is about social issues, elections, or politics,” read the message from Instagram. “Your ad may have been rejected if it mentions politicians or sensitive social issues that could influence public opinion, how people vote, and may impact the outcome of an election or pending legislation.”
Instagram’s note sent Purley into a funk, but he quickly devised a plan.
“I had come so far, I thought, and now Feinstein won,” he says. “That’s when I ate some shrooms thinking they had won. While I was on the shrooms I came to the realization of what I had to do. I put on a suit because the walls in Congress aren’t real if you wear a suit. I had just bought some Jordans the day before. I was happy as f–k. When Instagram (banned) my post I was angry. But I knew what I had to do. I had one last thing I had to do. So I took off my Jordans, took off my hoodie. I ironed my suit. I felt like I was in a f—king movie. I walked to the Hill. I was standing in front of the Capitol. My heart is racing. I had a joint in my pocket. I’m talking to cops. It made no sense to anyone but me, on shrooms. I put on some trap music. I thought of my family. I looked at my sister—she’s my screensaver on my phone. She puts up with so much s–t as a Black woman. I knew no one would ever know the s–t Feinstein does to Black people if I didn’t make it impossible to ignore.”
Purley made it past security and into the Capitol complex.
“I was so scared,” he recalls. “I knew I had been fired but there I was, in the f–king Capitol on shrooms. I walked around for like two hours, having mental conversations about whether this was something I wanted to do. Then I kept looking at my screen saver, at my sister, and walked from the Capitol, through the tunnels, to the Senate. My hands were straight sweat. I cannot breathe. I get to the Senate, the building where I worked for five years. I still had the keys to my office. I get in there. I get into the office and I can’t breathe. I’m on shrooms in an office where white people touch my hair and do racist s–t. I put on my mom’s favorite song because I knew it would calm me down and make me comfortable. The euphoria-slash-panic keeps kicking in that I’m not supposed to be there. Then I started thinking again about all the things I had to do to get there in the first place. I went into the conference room which was the worst room for me because that’s the room where I knew what it meant to be Black in a white office.
“So I walk in her office, Feinstein’s office, which triggered a screaming white noise sound. I had only been in her actual office like twice in five years and I couldn’t figure out how to turn off the white noise sound. It was giving me so much anxiety because it sounded like when the cops show up. So then I was like, f–k it. I just gotta do something for 10 minutes and I can finally leave. So I’d brought my Bose speaker. I used her bathroom, then I go sit at her desk. I turn on my speaker and start the music. I start smoking that joint, an afghani, a heavy indica, because I knew I needed to be calm. I thought about how special my mom and Black women would feel seeing me dance to that song in particular, in a space where they aren’t welcome at all. Then I started the video.”
“That was the best night of my motherf—ing life,” says Purley.
Sen. Feinstein’s office did not reply to a request for comment about this story.
Pablo Manríquez is the Washington correspondent for Latino Rebels. Twitter: @PabloReports