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On his way back to his car, Barron recounts a memory that comes to mind whenever a young person recognizes him: Two girls, maybe nine or 10 years old, passed him on a sidewalk a few years back. "Hey, Charles Barron," the first girl said. "Who's Charles Barron?" the second girl asked. The first girl responded, "You don't know Charles Barron? He fights for black people."
Charles Barron was hawking the Black Panther newspaper on the Lower East Side when he heard the news that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated.
"My first thought was if they killed Dr. King, who's talking nonviolence and peace, then we're really in trouble," he recalls.
Revolution was brewing, the teenage Barron believed. Leaders murdered, uprisings in major cities, cops in riot gear, skittish politicians pleading for calm. Barron sensed the world changing, and he was at the center of it.
He wasn't predisposed to radicalism. His father, a World War II artilleryman, made a living as a merchant marine, then as an interior decorator, and his mother did administrative office work. Neither was especially political. During Barron's adolescence in the Lillian Wald projects on Manhattan's Lower East Side, free time meant parties or basketball. Then he read Patrice Lumumba's Congo: My Country, which detailed the author's political philosophy shortly before he liberated his nation from Belgian colonialism. More books followed, and by the time Barron was in high school, he'd targeted a life path, harboring a goal as vague as it was ambitious. "I dreamed of lifting my people up," he says. "Of being the catalyst in the liberation of my people."
One day, two young men in black berets strolled into Lillian Wald with pamphlets and spirited pitches. Barron leaped into the movement. He spent his evenings in Harlem, listening to Eldridge Cleaver speeches on a friend's record player and attending political education classes at the Panthers' headquarters. There he studied the revolutionary efforts shaking up the Third World. He read about how his own government had opposed the liberators. He learned of J. Edgar Hoover's aim to stifle the Panthers. "All of my heroes were America's enemies," Barron says.
He joined his community's Area Policy Board, tasked with linking city resources to neighborhood groups. The youngest member on the panel and its only Black Panther, Barron quickly caused a stir. The board, as he remembers it, was primarily split between a coalition of 14 whites and Asians and a coalition of 10 Latinos and blacks. "They'd 14-10 us out of everything," says Barron.
At one meeting, he was so frustrated that he swept all the papers from the conference table onto the floor, shouting for his cause until police showed up to escort him out. Soon after, he orchestrated a boycott: Without his coalition, the board didn't have a quorum.
The other side's leader agreed to send more resources to black and Latino neighborhoods.
Barron's true political schooling, however, came when he met Reverend Herbert Daughtry, the Brooklyn-based community activist and chairman of the National Black United Front. Barron had invited Daughtry to speak at Hunter College, where he was a sociology major, and Daughtry came away so impressed that he took in his host as a protégé. Within a few years, Barron became Daughtry's chief of staff, sitting in on meetings with city officials and making trips to Angola, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe to support anticolonial resistances.
"What attracted me to him was his assertiveness," says Daughtry, who remains a Barron fan. "If you see him angry, it ain't just that he's angry in isolation. He expresses the anger, the frustration, the despair of the people he represents."
By the mid-1980s, Barron was subsidizing his activism by teaching a leadership seminar through a company he and his wife founded (Andre Mitchell was one of his first graduates). The arrangement left him ample time to demonstrate, and he organized rallies against apartheid in South Africa, police brutality in his hometown, and dozens of other social-justice issues.
In 1997, Barron protested the proposed construction of a movie theater in East New York. He argued that a supermarket or youth center better suited the area. The city councilwoman who represented the district, Priscilla Wooten, supported the multiplex project. She was a powerful foe. She'd held the seat since 1982 and had become one of then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani's top allies. When Barron returned to the construction site a day after the protest, he found that workers had erected a portion of the structure's wall. Just like that, Wooten had won. "That's the job I want," Barron thought.
He'd adopted the blend of radical idealism and pragmatism at the core of the movement that shaped him: that revolution can topple an institution from the outside, but also purify it from within. "A ballot is like a bullet," Malcolm X proclaimed.
"We can't leave the power in the hands of those who sell us out," says Barron. "I call them neocolonial puppets in the hands of our oppressors."
Barron lost to incumbent Wooten in that first election but took 40 percent of votes. Four years later, with Wooten ineligible because of newly instituted term limits, Barron ran against her son. "Somebody needs to tell Donald and his mother that this is a democracy, not a monarchy," he told the Voice a few months before winning the election.