Charles Barron: Elected Activist
It is a hot weekday morning in June. The air is humid and the sidewalks are steaming. Most in Lower Manhattan are safe inside air-conditioned offices, but ranks of black activists are out on the steps of City Hall. They are there to support Charles Barron, and they are restless and volatile in the heat. They shout Barron’s name. Cries of “Black Power” echo around the courtyard. Barron, wearing his usual collarless suit, holds up his right arm and clenches his fist in response.
Barron is a two-term New York City Councilman, a former Black Panther and a self-proclaimed “elected activist.” Today he appears furious, imperious and righteous. In front of him are two lines of journalists, some behind cameras, some taking notes. Others are perched on the ground in an attempt to exploit the shade while operating tape recorders, notepads and cameras. Sweat drips into their eyes. It stings. Barron looks down on them with an exaggerated sneer.
Next to Barron is Viola Plummer, Barron’s former chief of staff, who will later be fired from her post for threatening the “assassination” of City Councilman Leroy Comrie after he voted against dedicating a street to the late black community activist, Sonny Carson. This rally is to protest her initial suspension by Council Speaker Christine Quinn. Plummer says that she was misunderstood. Barron is livid.
“The City Council is a racist institution,” he proclaims. “White supremacy is alive and well in the media,” he says. He gathers speed and rhythm and the voices behind him carry him forward. Plummer is a freedom fighter. A revolutionary. This must not continue. This will stop now. Finally, climatic, drinking in deep lungfuls of the acrid summer air, Barron cries out:
“Race rules at City Hall!”
Barron is approaching the end of his time in the City Council. Due to term restrictions he will leave his East New York district office in 2009, and is now running for the Brooklyn Borough Presidency. But Barron is not a Brooklyn native. He was born in Queens, and grew up with his mother in Manhattan’s Lillian Ward housing projects. He was a high school drop-out when, in 1969, Barron joined the Black Panther Party at the age of 17.
Barron describes the Panthers as a kind of community outreach group. His work with them mostly involved soup kitchens, legal aid and coat drives, he says. But Barron admits he was also attracted to the feeling of self-empowerment, of getting-things-done, of solidarity. “We were a very revolutionary organization,” he says. “Most of us believed in socialism. Capitalism was a blood-sucking system that used class oppression, racial oppression and gender oppression to maintain power and wealth for the white male elite.” He does not apologize for their use of violence. “I’m still a Black Panther to my heart. We believed in self-defense. Because of police brutality we have a right to bear arms,” he notes, “to protect ourselves.”
In 1972, Barron completed his high-school equivalency diploma and attended Hunter College. While there, he met Rev. Herbert Daughtry and was attracted to the fierce mixture of socialism and black nationalism Daughtry represented. Barron became head of the Harlem chapter of Daughtry’s organization, the Black United Front, which organized rallies and protests on police brutality and civil rights. In that role, and later as Secretary General of the African Peoples Christian Organization, a religious empowerment protest group, Barron slowly increased his local and national standing. He lost his first run for the City Council in 1997, but later beat ex-New York Knick Gregory Jackson by 269 votes in 2001.
Barron’s priorities in office have been low-key—extra funding for schools and community colleges, new jobs and infrastructure in East New York. But he makes more headlines for what he says than what he does. Just days after his election he called for the removal of all paintings depicting white men from the walls of City Hall and labeled Thomas Jefferson a “slave-owning pedophile.” Later that year, he invited Robert Mugabe, the dictator of Zimbabwe, to New York. At a rally in support of slavery reparations in Washington D.C., in 2002, Barron made headlines when he said, “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.”
In December 2006, Barron was accused of advocating for violence against the police at rallies following the death of Sean Bell, who was shot to death by police in Queens. The criticism culminated in an appearance on Fox News: “You’re a disgrace. You’re a disgraceful human being. You want to slap me to feel better?” Sean Hannity said to Barron, live on the air.
“You’re not even worth a slap,” responded Barron, delighted.
Charles Barron’s district office is located in an old pharmacy storefront on a gray and desolate block in East New York. It is filled with fliers, posters and constantly ringing telephones. Two days a week, the office is crammed with people there to request job references and help on health care, and to relay worries about crime, discrimination and police brutality in the district.
With Barron, the discussion quickly turns to race. Barron’s district has less funding than almost any other, he says, attributing this to “endemic racism” in the Bloomberg administration. “We’re not in an ideal world,” he says, “I can’t spend my life thinking we have some kind of ideal. That’s bogus. When economic conditions hit, and it gets to be a strain on people, racism comes up like it’s never been away.”
He repeats the last part for emphasis: “It never. Went. Away.”
Barron can talk quickly and at length on any topic—political or personal—without missing a step. He seems to genuinely enjoy the process of debate, and is not antagonistic for the sake of it. But his charm feels hollow and learned, and is expressed through rhetoric more than conversation or dialogue. To Barron, City Hall is a “white-dominated dictatorship.” The recent spate of hate crimes is a “distraction.” (“The noose of unemployment is the problem. The noose of the death penalty is the problem.”) When he gets going, Barron is very hard to stop. It’s on these longer, ranting monologues that his eyes sharpen and his fists bang on the table. This is Barron at his most visceral and, to those sitting opposite, his most intimidating.
“Structural racism is alive and well in America,” he begins. “Every president of the United States has been a white man. Every vice president has been a white man. The House of Representatives, 435 members, 43 blacks, 16 Latinos. The rest white. One hundred senators. One black. New York State, the governor—white man. The head of the senate—white man. The head of the assembly—white man. Head of the state board of regents—white man. Head of SUNY—white man. Head of CUNY—white man. Mayor—white man. Head of the city council—white woman. Chief of Police—white man. Come on. That’s structural. White. Supremacy.”
Barron denies the charge that he is a hypocrite or a racist. “Any black leader that stands up and raises race as an issue and does it with non-compromising militancy, the white power structure calls us the racists,” Barron says. “They say we’re divisive. If Bloomberg were honest he’d have to get up and say ‘I’m going to be a mayor for rich white developers.’ But he would never say it.” Barron believes he is speaking a universal truth that everyone is aware of but no one else will discuss. “White politicians never mention race. They will never say ‘I’m going to take care of white people.’ But that’s exactly what they do. You’re supposed to lie. You’re supposed to deceive. I don’t do that.”
There are only two candidates declared for the Brooklyn Borough Presidency so far—Barron and fellow City Council Member Bill De Blasio. Several more names are likely to join them, including numerous other council members and current Deputy BP Yvonne Graham. At this early stage in the race De Blasio refuses to trade insults. “His kind of rhetoric is not at all helpful,” De Blasio said. “Obviously Charles and I disagree on a large number of things. That’s well established. But I don’t want to play up this conflict—I want to concentrate on my own message and what I can do for Brooklyn.”
Instead of attacking his opponent, De Blasio is quietly raising funds. He has roughly half a million dollars already, and Barron has almost nothing. According to some analysts, Barron’s race is already over. “He doesn’t have a chance of finding a base of support. He won’t raise very much money. It’s a symbolic race,” said Joseph Mercurio, a consultant with National Political Services. “There is a difference between getting votes from your constituents and winning. It’s two different things. His part of the constituency isn’t enough to win the Brooklyn Borough Presidency.”
But Barron says he will appeal to white voters as well as blacks, and that his campaign will be progressive and inclusive. “I’m going to be a good president for all the borough and I’m going to take care of the neediest. And that’s blacks and Latinos,” he says. “When people say that’s racist, or that I’m excluding whites—that will not happen with me. I’m not racist. I don’t have a racist bone in my body.”
If Barron loses the Brooklyn race, he says, he will not run for another office. He has already chosen his would-be successor to City Council: former chief of staff Paul Washington. Barron describes Washington as “more intellectual” than himself but committed to many of the same causes. If he does not become Borough President, Barron plans to write a memoir and teach young black men to be successful in politics, an initiative he calls “Operation Power.”
“I’m going to build a political movement to get people in office,” Barron said. “So that we can continue this legacy of speaking truth to power, and not feeling that politics is a dirty word. We can show people how to beat the machine. Beacause I beat the machine.”
On a recent Sunday at the House of the Lord Church in Downtown Brooklyn, Barron renewed his marriage vows with Inez, his wife of 25 years. His two adult sons, family and friends gathered to watch. After an African drum performance, a long succession of people stood up describing how Barron had influenced their lives.
“When I was in a dark place, Charles and Inez put their arms around me,” said Geoffrey Davis, whose brother, former council member James Davis, was gunned down in City Hall in 2003. “And they said, I am going to stay with you. That was four and a half years ago. We’ve been through it since then. And I thank them. I thank them for staying there with me and my family.”
In East New York, too, Barron remains a popular figure. Walking through the neighborhood he stands tall and pulls his shoulders back, and stops to say hello to every single passer-by. They all know his name, and not without reason. Employment rates are rising in East New York, and crime is falling. Barron has funded parks and a new community center, all with one of the lowest capital budgets of any council district. He helped to bring Meals on Wheels back to East New York after a long absence, and secured $10 million in funding for CUNY.
In fact, Barron becomes emotional when he walks through East New York. He points out a row of junk-food restaurants and laments the lack of fresh food markets. He stands in front of pay-by-the-hour hotels and vows to turn them to rubble. He gently lifts a discarded aluminum can from the sidewalk.
“This could take a lifetime to rebuild,” he tells me as we walk along Pennsylvania Avenue on a stretch still known to police as the dead zone. “It could take forever.”
Barron greets a man selling flowers and asks about his health. The man is doing better: “Thank you, Mr. Barron.” I walk with him to Linden Park, which has a new running track and basketball courts, and of which Barron is expressly proud. He tells me that the park was built with $3.6 million dollars that he secured from the council and, just like Gates Avenue, has now been dedicated to Sonny Carson.
Is that an official renaming?
“No,” he laughs. “Let me put it this way, it’s all about who you consider the officials. I am an elected official so I have officially called it that.”
How about Sonny Carson Avenue? “That’s official too,” he says.
He continues on the point, “They have no right to tell us what we can call our park. I mean some streets are named after slaveholders and racists. We have no say in all of that. So why can’t we name our parks after our heroes? Do you have to like it? No. But it’s not about you.”
Barron is right: if you don’t understand, it’s probably not about you. And it’s not about City Hall or the press arrayed on the steps outside. It’s about the high rate of poverty, incarceration, HIV/AIDs and crime in the city’s black and Latino communities. It’s about reduced funding for schools in low income areas, crumbling parks and always-planned, never-built community centers. It’s about something Barron feels when he walks in East New York. Something that cuts to the bone. A vision of a possible future, born out of anger, frustration and hope, and one that is always just out of reach.
That passion has made Charles Barron into a fallible politician. One who has alienated many outsiders and who holds some difficult and mistaken conclusions. But one who is, at least, capable of honesty.
In this city, that is no small achievement.
ContributorMichael Charles Rundle
Michael Charles Rundle is a writer and graphic illustrator living in Brooklyn, NY. He has previously written for Metro New York and BBC News, and now works for asylum.com.