“King of East New York”

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"You
want to
go where?"

It’s just after 6 p.m in Soho, and I’m trying to catch a taxi.
My destination is a club in East New York called the Elite Ark, which tonight
is hosting a fundraiser for the family of Daesean Hill, an 8-year-old killed
last November in a firefight between warring drug dealers. New York City Councilman
Charles Barron, whose district straddles Flatbush, Canarsie and Brownsville,
is sponsoring the event. So far, every taxi has refused to take me there. Say
the words "East New York" and heads shake, windows go up, tires screech
away. I finally flag down a beat-up Lincoln Town Car. "You want to go where?"
The driver asks again. "East New York," I say. "73 Wortman Avenue."
He motions me to get in, but only for 40 bucks, up front.


Thirty minutes
later we’re cruising along Van Sinderen Ave. in Brooklyn, the 3
Train rumbling overhead. We turn onto Pennsylvania Avenue, along a 19-block
stretch known as "The Killing Fields" at the height of the 80s crack
epidemic. While most of the city has since enjoyed a drop in crime and a jump
in property values, the area around Pennsylvania Avenue in East New York is
still hardcore ghetto: graffiti, abandoned buildings, drug dealers working their
corners in the open. In this neighborhood–where AIDS, diabetes and homicide
are the leading causes of death–the "broken windows" cited by
criminologists aren’t metaphors, but as real as the bulletproof glass that
divides owners from patrons in the few scratched-up bodegas that dot the avenue.
Police of the 75th Precinct today refer to the area as "The Dead Zone."


The Elite
Ark is nearly empty tonight. Beneath dim fluorescent lights, crowded into a
corner, sit the family members of Daesean Hill and a small group of local activists.
Before them, whispering to an aide, is Charles Barron.


Barron never
wears ties. He prefers the collarless, button-up Nehru suit still popular among
African leaders and once favored by the Black Panther Party. He sees me and
smiles. "So glad you could make it. The turnout won’t be huge tonight,
but it’s important to do what we can for the Hill family."


Tonight’s
line-up includes a gospel singer, three rappers and a dancer. At the end of
the show, Barron takes the microphone. Given the fact that he’ll announce
his candidacy for mayor the following month, I half expect to hear a stump speech.
Instead, he speaks briefly and directly to Kimberly Hill, Daesean’s mother.


"[You’ve]
been a real trooper, a real soldier," he says. "Let me just say this.
Kimberly, this was all for you. We love you. We support you. Our Peace Patrol
will move ahead. Our Daesean Hill scholarship fund will move ahead. But tonight
was about the Hill family, about all of us celebrating the spirit of Daesean
Hill. Let’s give the Hill family a big round of applause." The small
crowd erupts, and everyone rises to go home.


"He
was great," says Kimberly of Councilman Barron’s handling of her son’s
death. "He came to the hospital after it happened. Mayor Bloomberg didn’t
do that."


"Did
the mayor do anything for you?" I ask.


"He
sent us cookies," she says. "But [Barron] was there from the beginning.
He’s still helping us. He’s a good person. I’ll vote for him."



 


In his
brief
career in city council, Charles Barron has become well acquainted
with controversy. Like his political opposites Rudy Giuliani and John Ashcroft,
one of the councilman’s first public flaps involved the use of art in public
space. Just after his election to city council in January 2002, Barron called
for the removal of all paintings of white men adorning the walls of City Hall,
to be replaced by images of black icons.


"We’re
bringing the ’hood to the Hall!" Barron said at the time. He then
called Thomas Jefferson, whose statue stands in the City Council Chamber, a
"slaveholding pedophile."


Next came
the clemency resolution. In June 2002, Barron called for clemency for all prisoners
"who have been persecuted unjustly for their political beliefs and activities."
Among them was Anthony Bottom, convicted in 1975 for the shooting deaths of
New York police officers Joseph Piagentini and Waverly Jones. Barron’s
resolution, which has yet to see a hearing, has triggered one of the most bitter
and racially divisive debates in council memory.


But not
until his "slap white people" remark did Barron enter the national
spotlight. In August 2002, Barron was in Washington, D.C., speaking at a rally
in support of a slavery reparations bill sponsored by Michigan Democrat John
Conyers Jr., when he told the audience that he often got tired of discussing
the need for reparations with white people. "I want to go up to the closest
white person and say, ‘You can’t understand this, it’s a black
thing’ and then slap him, just for my mental health," he said.


Barron later
asserted his words were merely an instance of "black hyperbole," a
jest even the white camera operators and stagehands at the event laughed at.
But the joke was lost on New York’s local media. The Manhattan Institute’s
Heather MacDonald harshly condemned Barron in the Post, and even Times
columnist Joyce Purnick gave him a gentle reprimand.


Barron responded
by inviting Robert Mugabe, former dictator of Zimbabwe, to speak at City Hall
the following month. Again the censure was swift–this time coming from
a member of the council’s Black and Latino caucus. According to the Gay
City News,
Councilwoman Margarita Lopez, a Democrat representing the Lower
East Side, distanced herself from Barron, referring to Mugabe as the "alleged
president" of Zimbabwe whose anti-gay activities (Mugabe once described
gay people as being "worse than dogs") merited condemnation.


(In his
defense, Barron claimed the meeting was convened for the simple purpose of finding
facts. He also said he would be visiting Zimbabwe to determine whether reports
about Mugabe were true. Barron said such a trip would not be unlike trips other
councilmembers have made to the Dominican Republic or to Israel.)


The 2005
mayoral race should raise Barron’s profile yet higher. On Martin Luther
King Day, Barron became the first city council member to formally enter the
race to unseat Michael Bloomberg. (Gifford Miller, the mild-mannered Speaker
from the Upper East Side, is expected to formally declare his candidacy soon.)


The early
consensus among pundits is that Barron’s effort is yet another doomed quest
by a lone radical. "It’s not a serious mayoral campaign," says
Joseph Mercurio, a Democratic political consultant. "He’s a politician
who’s simply trying to raise his profile in the black community."
What’s more, in post-Giuliani New York, the average voter is less concerned
with political prisoners than with property values or personal safety, forcing
Barron to put aside the issues that put him on the political map. More
crucially, Barron lacks the fundraising potential of Gifford Miller, Fernando
Ferrer or city comptroller Bill Thompson (also expected to run).


But Barron
and his supporters say such dismissals underestimate New York’s rising
tide of minority anger. Across Brooklyn and the Bronx, discontent among poor
and working-class black and Latino voters is swelling, as is a visceral anger
directed at a mayor that doesn’t understand them. Rev. Al Sharpton, the
leader and voice of New York’s black community, is currently in New Hampshire.
Barron, meanwhile, is in Brooklyn, quietly cultivating his base of support,
meeting by meeting, block by block.



 


In person,
Charles Barron doesn’t come across as a firebrand. He looks you in the
eye. He makes jokes. He’s charming, affable and intelligent. You can’t
imagine him slapping anyone.


Members
of the city council have noticed the contrast. They remark that although Barron
might inspire heated debates, Barron himself is a cool customer who never loses
his temper and rarely raises his voice. If Al Sharpton has the fiery demeanor
of a street preacher, Charles Barron has the poise of an executive.


Barron grew
up in the Lillian Wald Houses, a housing project along Avenue D. A high-school
drop-out, he joined the Black Panther Party in 1968 at the age of 17. Three
years later he acquired his high school equivalency diploma and ended up at
Hunter College.


Before graduating
with a degree in sociology, Barron met Rev. Herbert Daughtry, one of the founders
of the Black United Front, an organization whose philosophy, like Barron’s
at the time, blended black nationalism, socialism and Christianity. Barron became
chairman of the Harlem chapter and helped organize protests against police brutality,
hospital closings and apartheid in South Africa.


In the mid-1980s,
Barron joined forces with Rev. Sharpton. On Dec. 21, 1987, Sharpton and Barron
were arrested together when they jumped on the subway tracks at Borough Hall
to protest the death of Michael Griffith, who was hit by a car while fleeing
a gang of white youths in Howard Beach, Queens.


It was a
battle against a waste incinerator that launched Barron’s political career.
In 1995, a company called Atlas Bio-Energy had been granted permission to build
a plant in the middle of East New York. The approved site was within a mile
of a dozen schools and nearly two-dozen day-care centers. Barron spearheaded
a powerful alliance against the plant that included the New York Public Interest
Research Group and successfully kept the facility not just out of Brooklyn,
but out of the entire city.


Barron then
used the victory as a springboard for a 1997 campaign against incumbent City
Councilwoman Priscilla Wooten, who had held the seat since 1981. Supported by
the Brooklyn Democratic machine, Wooten easily won reelection. But opportunity
returned in 2001, after the city enacted strict new term limits laws that barred
Wooten from running again.


The 2001
campaign for District 42 was a six-way race, including the ex-New York Knick
and official Democratic choice Gregory Jackson. But behind Barron were Rev.
Sharpton, David Dinkins, the major unions and Barron’s own network of grassroots
leaders. Barron won the election by 269 votes. The man who’d spent his
life fighting against the system was now a part of it.



 


Charles
Barron’s
Brooklyn office, located in a modest one-story building on
Linden Boulevard, is a busy place. Two receptionists answer phones that rarely
stop ringing. Neighborhood residents wander in and out, mostly to have housing
disputes resolved. (Many of Barron’s constituents live in public housing
and view Barron as the only person who can cut through red tape.)


Television
crews are a common sight. As I waited to speak with Barron last month, three
reporters and their camera crews came by for quotes. The issue that day was
Barron’s opposition to placing city police in public schools. Local tv
producers have apparently caught on to Barron’s talent for delivering a
provocative sound byte.


With me,
Barron was eager to talk about the current mayor, and what Barron sees as his
two major failings.


"Number
one, he balanced the budget on the backs of the poorest, most struggling people
in New York City," he says. "I don’t think his priorities are
working-class families, people of color. His priority is to protect corporations
from leaving New York City. To protect the stock transfer tax, to say no to
a Millionaires’ Tax, to say yes to fees and fines, to say yes to tuition
increase at CUNY, to say yes to a property tax, to side the with MTA against
the TWU [Transit Workers Union], and to get cute and buy a bike.


"Number
two is his personality," Barron continues. "He’s like a cold,
insensitive businessman. He’s running New York like a CEO, not like a public
servant with some compassion. That’s what’s missing with him. I remember
when Alberta Spruill was killed. Remember her? She was the grandmother in Harlem
who was killed when they [police] set off the flash grenade [in her apartment].


"[Bloomberg]
said this in one sentence. ‘I accept full responsibility for her death,
I should have been able to keep her alive, but she’s gone now and we have
to move on.’ Whoa, mayor! Let me feel you! Can we get a tiny bit of compassion?"


I mention
that Barron has a natural rapport with people, and projects a warmth that eludes
the current mayor.


"Well,
there’s a reason why 61 percent of the people when polled didn’t even
want to have Thanksgiving dinner with him," says Barron. "I understand
the 34 percent disapproval rating. The economy’s bad, he had to raise the
property tax…but when 61 percent of hungry people don’t want to have
dinner with a billionaire, there’s a disconnect.


"And
that’s because he bought the mayoralty. We met Bloomberg through the media,
through the mail…I come out of an activist tradition. And we get close,
as you can see. I’m in the barbershops. I’m in the beauty salons.
I walk through the neighborhoods. I go to the public housing. I meet with the
tenants. I walk up and down their buildings; I see how they decorated their
homes for Christmas."


Did Mayor
Bloomberg campaign at all in East New York?


"He
wouldn’t be caught dead in our community! He just doesn’t do it. None
of the candidates do. They’re just more traditional. Me? I ride the subways.
But not just for the publicity. I connect with the people on the trains. I talk
to them. That’s what our campaign is going to ignite in this city: a real
connection with the people."


I ask if
reports are true that he intends to campaign exclusively for votes from people
of color.


"No.
Not all. I make no bones about it. I am proud to be black. I’m going to
look out for black people. We’ve got a raw deal in this society and in
this city and we’re going to get our fair share when I get in. But so are
Latinos. So are Asians. So are women. So are working-class families, black,
white, purple or green. So are white men who are not part of the [few] that
have all the power. Those are the only ones that need to be concerned about
me. I’m going to reach out to everybody."


Has Barron
endorsed a candidate for president?


"Rev.
Al Sharpton," he says. "Unequivocally. Because that’s leverage.
Even if he loses, if he gets 80 or 90 percent of our vote, at least we had the
leverage to move the [Democratic] party from right of center and raise our issues."


Would Howard
Dean or Wesley Clark make a good president?


"If
you took Clark and Dean [after] that ridiculous show they put up in Harlem the
other day, if you put Clark and Dean on 135th Street in front of Harlem Hospital–Schomburg
Library is across the street–and ask them to find the Schomburg, they’d
get lost. They have no clue about what black people want or need."


As someone
who understands those needs, what does Barron consider his proudest accomplishments
in office?


"One,"
he says, "the restoration of the scholarship funds to CUNY students and
the restoration in the budget of the capital funds for CUNY. Securing 2.1 million
dollars to fix up my park here–Linden Park, in 2005 that will be fixed–and
then my reparations legislation, introducing that for the first time in the
history of New York City."


Then he
pauses and smiles.


"And
bringing Robert Mugabe to City Hall. Those are my highlights."

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