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"The thing about Charles Barron . . .," the barber says, then pauses, eyes focused on the dome he's buzzing. On this bone-cold afternoon, there's not a single empty chair at El & John's Barbershop in East New York. The barber, William Gardner, has the floor; aside from the hum of clippers, the room is silent.
"He has the Black Panther background — OK, he mighta been down," says Gardner. "But I don't really wanna hear that. 'Cause what that's gonna do is stop funds from coming."
Heads nod. Just as many shake. Everyone here has something to say about New York City Councilman Charles Barron, whose 42nd District encompasses this Brooklyn neighborhood along with slices of Brownsville and Canarsie. Barron is, after all, the most polarizing figure in New York City politics. Many consider him a racist, egotistical, thinks-he's-still-living-in-the-'60s madman spouting rhetoric that has no place in civilized society. Yet he has rallied enough support to hold his seat for the maximum 12 years. And his grip on power shows no signs of weakening: His wife of 31 years, state Assemblywoman Inez Barron, recently won the election to replace Charles — and Charles is the clear frontrunner for Inez's vacated seat.
Which isn't to say he has won over the barbershop. Gardner and others lean toward Chris Banks, an anti-poverty activist who intends to challenge Barron for the assembly. Banks came in here a few months back when he was campaigning for City Council. He wound up losing to Inez by 20 percentage points in the Democratic primary, but he won some goodwill along the way.
"Certain people are standoffish and they don't wanna hear that Black Panther stuff," Gardner goes on. "Maybe if he would be quiet about it, it would benefit the community."
"They don't like Barron up there," says another barber, Lloyd Banks (no relation to Chris), head tipped in the estimated direction of city hall.
"They took him off the committee for higher education. 'Member that? For being belligerent. Arguing," says Gardner. "That's not helping nobody in this community."
"With politics" — Gardner's customer jumps in — "they want the black man to be the housemaid. They want him always to be the stepping boy. This is why he argues with them! They want him to fall in line, take the hooch."
"He gotta learn to play the game a little better, though," Gardner shoots back. "Benefit the community he represents."
"If you're gonna play the game, then you have to play the game right," the customer muses.
"See," Lloyd Banks's patron speaks up, "he gon' have to kiss a little tail to get what he wants."
The men rattle off things that need fixing in the neighborhood: too much crime. Too few jobs. Too many homeless shelters clustered here. A familiar refrain.
"But you know what? It's been like that forever," says Steve Watkins, a retired corrections officer sitting down for a cut.
"Well, the man ain't doin' nothin' for me," says Al Dixon, a lanky old-timer in gradient aviators, leaning on a wooden cane. "I'm a social security citizen. For thirtysomething years. Ain't getting the right treatment from anybody. The man just wanna be a movie star, I guess. Always on TV. Shows up at protests. Shows up when a building goes up. Photo ops, that's all he's good at!"
Counting Dixon, about half the room is pro-Chris Banks. Still, they are wary in their support. Over the years, these men have admired many candidates, only to lose respect for them as politicians.
"We supported Charles early into his political career," says Lloyd Banks. "That changed over the course of the years, when he became all Hollywood, being in front of the cameras, and we needed somebody to represent the people."
There have been a lot of cameras, Watkins notes, because there have been a lot of buildings going up. At this, even the anti-Barron folks shrug in acknowledgement: East New York has changed over Barron's reign, vacant lots blooming into gleaming towers and crumbling blacktops transforming into colorful parks.
"All I can say is that he was definitely a voice for a certain change," Watkins says. "He championed things, said things that other politicians were afraid to say: what the reality is for the neighborhood. And as long as New York has been New York, we're still getting the short end of the stick. He was fighting against things like that."
For public appearances, Charles Barron sports a button-up Mao Tse-tung tunic in dark brown, navy blue, or forest green. "I don't wear shirts and ties," Barron likes to say. "This is how I dress, because I'm not a white man."
In word, dress, and deed, Barron has crafted an image in contrast to American convention, a persona based largely on the notion that he is not merely an outsider to the city hall scene, but a downright outlier who has planted his flag far from nearly every other politician in the nation. He entered the City Council chamber in 2002 proclaiming himself a "black radical revolutionary anti-capitalist anti-imperialist elected official." At his first council meeting, as at every one thereafter, he refused to stand as his colleagues recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Why? "Because it's a lie and my mama told me not to lie. One nation? Indivisible? Under God? With liberty and justice for all? That's a damn lie."