"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."