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The Nation

Radical New York Councilman Aims to Shake City Up

Government: Activist Charles Barron is part of a new and sizable group of minority lawmakers.

January 06, 2002|JEFFREY GETTLEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — He's got a closet full of Nehru suits, an unswerving affection for Mao and Che, and when it comes time to say goodbye, he throws his fist in the air and sometimes shouts, "The struggle continues!"

Charles Barron, once a Black Panther, now a freshly minted city councilman, is something of a time warp--but he's also a hint of what's to come.

"I'm a black revolutionary, a proud radical, an African American militant, all those bad words, " he says. "And I'm ready to kick some butt."

Step into the rotunda at New York's City Hall, and you can hear the drum beat-- actually, a goatskin drum beat--of a new day in Big Apple politics. The exit of former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who despite other successes severely alienated the black community, has created space for a fresh look at African American issues.

Last week a record number of newly elected black politicians were sworn into the New York City Council, and several celebrated with African drums and dance, symbols of a new, defiant agenda.

"There's definitely an openness to consider issues that haven't been looked at in a while," said Columbia University political science professor Steven Cohen. "It's going to get interesting."

There's no overstating how critical a time this is for city leaders with rubble from the World Trade Center still smoldering, a financial crisis looming and the public a bit adrift and jittery about life after Sept. 11.

There's also never been such a sudden transfer of power, with an untested mayor, billionaire businessman Michael R. Bloomberg, succeeding a lionized Giuliani and 38 of the 51 city council members rookies thanks to newly enacted term limits.

Enter Barron, a 51-year-old community activist from one of the city's toughest neighborhoods, East New York in Brooklyn. He's pushing a very Afrocentric set of issues. He wants reparations for slave descendants and for Ebonics to be taught in school to help black children learn English.

And he has his own personal project: diversifying the city's art collection.

Instead of 6-foot-tall portraits of George Washington and Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette, which hang in the City Council chamber, Barron wants to showcase images of black leaders such as Malcolm X.

"Why would I want to look at a picture of a slave owner, someone who thought I was three-fifths of a human being?"

A good chunk of Barron's charisma is his radiant pride in the black experience. His two-hour induction ceremony Wednesday was almost like the coronation of an African king.

There were libations and Swahili blessings, barefoot dancers undulating to the pitter-patter of finely stoked drums and a post-ceremony feast.

Barron's "inaugural address," as he called it, was spirited and very participatory.

After he spoke about reparations ("We were raped. We were murdered. We were burned. And you have the nerve to say forget about it? Not in my lifetime.") a woman in the audience shouted: "Talk about it, yes sir, talk about it!"

Then someone yelled: "Teach, Charles. Teach. Teach!"

Many community leaders praised Barron's commitment to social justice. "In Charles, we're not getting some half-packaged shuffling 'Tom,' " said Rev. Herbert Daughtry, a local activist. "We're getting the real thing, someone who can articulate our cause, someone who will never make us ashamed when he speaks."

Barron's message can be combative, often closer to the militancy of Malcolm X than the nonviolent resistance of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"If you slap my cheek, I'm not going to give you my other cheek," he said. "I'm going to slap you back."

He grew up hard, first in a poor section of Queens and then in the Lillian Wald housing project on Manhattan's lower east side. He joined the Black Panthers at 19.

After a few years he left the Panthers, a group with a mixed legacy of battling police and helping the poor, and went to Hunter College, where he studied sociology. Soon he was working with Pan-African groups and marching with the Rev. Al Sharpton. Barron rallied against police brutality and served as an anti-crime block captain in his neighborhood, formerly the homicide capital of New York.

Barron, the founder of a leadership training group, had run unsuccessfully for City Council in 1997.

Like many other black leaders, he recoils at the mention of the former mayor.

"I can't stand all this crap about what Giuliani did on 9/11," Barron said. "He just did his job. He's mayor, for God's sake. He should have been out there."

Anti-Giuliani feelings have been coursing through the black community for years, but it had been considered unpatriotic to criticize him after the September terrorist attacks. Only now are some of these feelings coming out.

The animus stems from Giuliani's unyielding support for police, even in cases of alleged brutality; his refusal to meet with Sharpton, one of the city's most popular black leaders; and the state of the public schools, which didn't seem to be a focus of his administration.

"Things were so bad before that if Bloomberg now just winks at us, it makes us feel good," Barron said.

Bloomberg appears to be more inclusive and willing to meet with community leaders. And this year more people of color are on the City Council than ever before: 14 blacks, 10 Latinos and one Asian American, a first.

But it's early still, and most of the political energy is on the glaring $3-billion to $5-billion budget gap.

City Hall feels a world away from East New York, a hard-luck neighborhood 10 miles east of Manhattan.

On Friday, Barron stepped out of his district office and began walking home. He passed vacant lots, teenagers idling on street corners, a dimly lighted jerk chicken shop and a burly man with dreadlocks who yelled to him, warmly, "Hey, Charles, I'm organizing the troops!"

"That's right, brother, we're going to shake things up!" Barron yelled back. "This is all about taking the 'hood to the hall."

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