Since taking office in January of 2002, City Councilman Charles Barron—a Democrat from the 42nd Council District, representing East New York, Brownsville, and small portions of Canarsie and East Flatbush—has constantly been at the center of controversy for his outspoken views. In mid-May, I sat down with Barron at his office across from City Hall, which is decorated by a large portrait of Malcolm X and a flag from the Black Liberation Front, a Black Nationalist symbol from the 1960s.
Theodore Hamm (Rail): Recently in City Journal, the Manhattan Institute’s publication, there was a long diatribe against the liberal City Council, in which the writer identifies you as the council’s most radical member. I found it interesting that the piece constantly refers to you, derisively, as “ex-Black Panther Charles Barron.” What’s your take on the Black Panthers and their legacy?
Charles Barron: My immediate response is “take off the ex,” because I’m still a Panther at heart. And I’m proud to be a Panther because the Black Panther Party fed children breakfast. It had a clothing drive for struggling people in our communities. It led the research drive around sickle cell anemia, a rare blood disease peculiar to black people. As far as the guns and the actions with the police, that wasn’t even a major part of our program. That was for self-defense against police brutality.
Rail: Were you active with the Black Panthers here in New York?
Barron: I was a teenager, so I wasn’t in the leadership. But we had a breakfast program; we had a clothing drive. And then when the police started attacking the Black Panthers, there was the New York 21, the New Haven 8, so we had to raise a lot of money for defense funds, particularly for the New York 21. Afeni Shakur, Tupac Shakur’s mother, was a part of that; I got to meet her and know her. The Panthers in New York mostly did the same kinds of things as they did in Oakland. We didn’t patrol the police with weapons but we did have the breakfast program, the “free Angela Davis” rallies and so on.
Rail: Do you connect any of your positions today to those of the Black Panthers?
Barron: I tell everybody that the 10-point program for the Black Panther Party is the same thing we’re fighting for in City Hall: food, clothing, shelter, quality education, and an end to police brutality—in short, stopping the capitalistic exploitation of our communities, the regentrification and so on. If you look at the 10-point program of the Black Panther Party, it talked about housing and health care and education and a U.N. plebiscite; bringing the United States to the U.N. to talk about its oppression of its most populous so-called “minority group.” All of this is why I say I’m still a Black Panther to my heart. Nothing has changed a whole lot in terms of my agenda—only the vehicle has changed.
Rail: Okay, let’s go back a little further in terms of American history and talk about reparations. I went to a tribute to W.E.B DuBois last month at the New School, where two leading left-wing scholars agreed that reparations may be a good idea, but that in practice it would be too divisive a political issue.
Barron: That’s ridiculous. Left-wing scholars say that? We’re in trouble. [Laughs.] Divisive? What does that mean, that everybody doesn’t agree? You name me an issue that everyone agrees on. That’s anti-intellectual. That’s anti-common sense. What we’re saying is that we came here in 1619, and from 1619 – 1865, there were 246 years of legal chattel slavery. And from the 13th Amendment in 1865 to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there were 100 years more of Jim Crow. We’ve been here for just over 383 years, and we’re talking about 345 years of racist discrimination. Collateral damage has been done. From generation to generation, the psychological and economic oppression of that experience lingers with us today.
Let’s say you can’t handle slavery because it happened so long ago. Then fine. How about the fact that through the 1960s, we paid taxes for schools that we couldn’t attend? Or that we paid taxes for hospitals—public hospitals—that we couldn’t be treated in because of racism? Then give us back our taxes. The reparations movement is saying that there’s a debt owed, which is not the same as calling for civil rights, which we fought for and won.
Rail: Moving back to the present, how would you respond to Nat Hentoff, who’s been relentlessly attacking you for your position on Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe?
Barron: I think that he woke up one day and said “Hmm, the budget’s not important, the war on Iraq’s not important, I’m gonna pick on Charles Barron and Zimbabwe.” [Laughs.] But first of all, he’s disingenuous. At the end of one article he said that he wished he could have been invited to question Mugabe when I brought him to City Hall. My response is “Nat, don’t you have the wire service?”New York 1 was there. The Times was there. We didn’t personally call anybody. And secondly, if you’re going do an article on me, interview me. Isn’t it interesting that he took quotes out of a 13-page report but never called me up? I was shocked that the articles even came out.
Rail: Fair enough, but why bring Mugabe to City Hall?
Barron: Councilman Bill Perkins and I said that we wanted to bring African and Caribbean leadership to City Hall. I thought Zimbabwe was important because of all the criticism of Mugabe of late. They’re calling him a dictator, homophobic, saying he’s violent, he’s this, he’s that, he’s starving his people, he’s never had elections in the last 20 years. This is all the stuff I was hearing. So my idea was to let him come and let the people criticizing him meet him and ask him all those critical questions. And I then went on a fact-finding trip to Zimbabwe.
Rail: What were your conclusions regarding Mugabe’s crackdown on dissent and freedom of the press?
Barron: We found that Mugabe has tried to squash some dissent, especially from the newspapers he thought were being funded from Britain and America. He didn’t see that as real dissent, but instead as sabotage. Have some journalists been arrested? Yes, and we put it in our report, we didn’t hide anything. Yes, Mugabe said “We don’t want homosexuality here,” but we disagreed with that. But 312,000 families did get land back because of his land policies. And how do you become a brutal dictator who wants no opposition when the opposition party gets 57 seats and you get 60-something? So what’s Hentoff talking about? He took two or three quotes from my 13-page report. I said this is one of the most stabilized countries in Africa. It is, although they do have drought, a major problem, and their currency is in trouble because America is coming down on them via the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. And when America doesn’t like you, you’re in trouble. Ask Iraq, ask Afghanistan.
Rail: Speaking of Iraq, Hentoff did not oppose the war. What’s your view of the relationship between spending on the war and New York City’s financial situation?
Barron: I read a study that said all the states have a deficit and that when you add up the total amount of the national deficit for each state, it’s $74.5 billion, which is $5.5 billion less than the $80 billion Bush got as a down payment on the illegal act of aggression in Iraq, and the illegal occupation of Iraq. That’s already absurd, and they say it’s going to go up from anywhere to $150 billion to $750 billion. We would have no deficits whatsoever if that money was used to build America and not to destroy Baghdad. So I think it was a sin before God for him to do something like that; there was no economic justification for it. Iraq was no threat to America.
Rail: The other day at the conference sponsored by Fernando Ferrer’s Drum Major Institute, you introduced yourself as the “the next mayor, Charles Barron.” Let’s say you were mayor right now. How would you handle the current fiscal crisis differently from Bloomberg?
Barron: Oh man, I would do it real differently. [Laughs.] First of all, I would have a much better relationship with the unions and the City Council. I would have joined the City Council and the unions in their call for a revenue package from the state that would include issues like the stock transfer tax, which is critical. The State Senate—the conservative, Republican Senate—was open to the stock transfer tax. It was (Assembly Speaker and Democrat) Shelly Silver who said no because it was in his district. But if pushed by the mayor, the City Council and the unions—which I’ll be able to unite as mayor—it would have a different kind of pressure upstate. Bloomberg also doesn’t want to tax the corporations. Before you go to service cuts and layoffs, management efficiency cuts would be my priority and the City Council showed him how he could do that, but he wouldn’t listen. For people of color, of course, I’d definitely be a better mayor. This guy’s out of touch.
Rail: What happens if another candidate of color is in the race? Do you fear that you will play the role of spoiler?
Barron: I will not run if another person of color is in the race. I will offer to William Thompson or Freddy Ferrer or Virginia Fields, or whomever, that we need to have a people’s convention. And if I have a better shot at it than you, then y’all join me, and if you have a better shot at it than me, then I’ll join you. I think that I can excite the masses more than those three, because I can get out the church congregations and the union vote. To win this seat, you can’t match Gifford Miller and Bloomberg money-wise. But take a message to the masses through the media, develop a movement, and you’ll get the money.
Rail: What would the message be?
Barron: It’s our turn now.