Seize the Seat

Poet-Activist Ras Baraka Runs for Newark City Council

Thirty-two-year-old Ras Baraka's run for city councilman at large in Newark is a rhythmic blend of a mission that mirrors the title of Bobby Seale's autobiography, an enlightened understanding of the established power structure both macro and micro, and a campaign slogan straight from a classic hip-hop CD.

On May 14, Newark residents will have a chance to use one of their four votes for council at-large posts to harmonize with Baraka's rhythm by utilizing the ballot as a drumroll to signify a changing of the political guard. On that day, Baraka will face four incumbents and at least one well-connected challenger whose song of agenda follows a similar score.

Behind the carjacking headlines, the troubled relationships with police, and socioeconomic conditions endemic to an urban center beats the heart of a majority African American population tracing its roots to the great northern migration of the early 20th century, when Newark was a booming industrial city.

Baraka's family was among these southern Black migrants who came seeking the promise of economic opportunity in the North. It was a promise that went largely unfulfilled and was revoked when Newark's industry fizzled. But now increasing development has fostered an economic renaissance in Newark that includes proposed waterfront development and a sports arena complex.

"[Newark] is experiencing development now through the renaissance," says Baraka. "They see that Newark is the communication and transportation hub of New Jersey. It's so close to New York and every other place, so they're willing to develop downtown Newark and the areas immediately around downtown Newark; they just don't want to do it for the people that live here."

It is within this framework that Baraka's struggle to make sure that working people get their just due emerges. When development dollars pour in, he wants to ensure that someone is seated at the table of power whose interests do not supersede those of the people.

"The thing we're trying to do," Baraka says, "is make sure that when this renaissance comes and billions of dollars come into the city, the people who've been living and dying here for 60, 70 years, and some longer, have a say-so in what's developed, how it's developed, and they benefit from that."

Baraka's roots also extend to the cornerstones of Newark's activist community. The son of revolutionary Black Arts movement pioneers Amina and Amiri Baraka, he is a published poet and performer in his own right. His work has appeared on multi-platinum albums such as the Grammy-winning Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Baraka grew up witnessing firsthand the promise of the Black Nationalist movement. Unfortunately for many, the movement was yet another promise left unfulfilled.

Baraka talks of the resolutions of the Gary convention in 1972, when a national Black agenda was set, alliances forged, and a plan of action mapped out for Black political empowerment. "All this stuff they came up with, the people betrayed it. From the Congressional Black Caucus to Jesse Jackson and all those people—they didn't do the stuff they was supposed to do. You know why? Because it became about them individually and that's what it's about now.

"You got to look at people's character. A fatal mistake that happened in the beginning, when Black Power turned into Black politics, a fatal mistake was made that people who were qualified to represent us were not prepared and the people who were prepared to represent us wasn't qualified.

"Look at [former Newark mayor] Kenneth Gibson. He wasn't no community leader. He didn't come from the ranks of the people. He was just prepared and the mistake that they made is that they thought the Black skin was it and because this Negro jumped up and he was prepared to run, they pushed him to run."

To Baraka, Newark's Black political establishment is in a situation akin to the final scene of George Orwell's Animal Farm. "It's like now it's even hard to decipher or determine them between people who you thought were your open enemies," he says, "because they have done or are doing the same things these people [our open enemies] do to us.

"People are confused. It's hard for me to organize in this city because people are confused," he continues. "They've been confused for 30 years by politicians who've tricked them, lied to them, who have said that they was going to do all this stuff for Black people and have done nothing; they've done nothing but lie."

For that reason Baraka has taken up the torch of the struggle, not content to wait for the Black political establishment to pass the baton. "They don't want to get out," says Baraka. "You know what their thing is: Wait your turn. And the problem is, people were waiting their turn. We're taking what we want."

In 1994 Baraka ran for mayor, and in 1998 he ran for the same office that he is currently seeking. He sees this campaign as different from his priors. This year, as his campaign slogan promises, it's time to "Take It Personal." Says Baraka: "We're more informed. We're a lot smarter. We understand what we're doing. We know exactly what we have to do to win and who we're up against."

Among Baraka's opponents are Donald Tucker, a longtime political player who was first elected to an at-large council seat in 1974, and Ron Rice Jr., son of a state senator, who is running on a platform similar to Baraka's. But to Baraka, the real challenge is the powerful behind-the-scenes forces—"multinational corporations, big developers, finance capitalists, basically people who look at you and see an enemy."

Of course, one person cannot guarantee the reversal of the political misfortunes that Newark has faced, and Baraka doesn't see his election as the solution to the city's problems. "No one individual can change the whole system," he says. "It will be a concerted effort between the people and the elected officials that represent them."

Currently in Newark, access to city government is limited, if not restricted, and residents have little say in policy changes that affect their lives. Baraka speaks of community planning occurring without the community having a voice in the process; city council meetings are held in executive session. After 10 years of fighting on the streets of Newark, he feels that it is his time to infiltrate and work from the inside.

Ultimately, Baraka is running to continue the "protracted struggle" that was begun by the civil rights movement. The time has come, he says, for the next generation to do its part. Although as the son of artist-activists Baraka had a stronger foundation than most, it is because of his own sense of duty that he has decided to get into the trenches, and he urges others to do so.

"Our generation has to further that struggle. [The movement leaders] didn't just fail. They was murdered. King didn't quit. He was killed on a balcony in Memphis, gunned down. Malcolm ain't say, 'Fuck these people, I'm out.' He was shot in his chest at the Audubon Ballroom. That's what happened.

"It is our time to push for the struggle for democracy. . . . We have a responsibility to forward the struggle or force the ideas, and ourselves, into history and onto the pages of history right now. We have to stop reading about historical events and make history ourselves."

For Baraka, the objective is clear. "Seize power for the people. That's what it's about. It's not grand or huge or some academic diatribe. It's simple as hell."

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