“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.”
Seven months into his first term, he invited Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe to speak at city hall. Thirty-six councilmembers boycotted the event, to protest Mugabe’s wretched human-rights record. Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city’s public advocate at the time, said in 2008 that his decision to attend was “a mistake. . . . I feel ashamed of it.”
Barron calls Mugabe one of his heroes, alongside Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Kwame Nkrumah, Muammar Qaddafi, and other 20th-century revolutionaries. He has less respect for the men considered heroes to most other American politicians. When he discovered his seat in the chamber placed him beside a towering bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson, he unsuccessfully lobbied Speaker Christine Quinn for a move away from a monument to, as he phrased it for reporters, a “slave-holding pedophile.”
In his ninth month in office, during a speech proposing reparations for descendants of slaves, Barron declared, “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.” Barron is not the type to slip into political blunders. He does not back down; he doubles down. So when he defends the line by calling it “hyperbole,” he adds, “They’re lucky we’re talking about a verbal slap. They murder us, lynch us, still shooting us down, and you’re talking about me saying some damn rhetoric about a ‘slap’?”
His stubbornness has left him isolated. He stopped going to meetings of the Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus several years ago because he didn’t feel his colleagues adequately represented the city’s minorities. In 2010, Quinn, with the council’s support, removed Barron from his chairmanship of the Committee on Higher Education, reasoning that the panel needed a “unifying force.” In an editorial applauding the speaker’s move, the New York Daily News deemed Barron’s rhetoric “far out of step in a country struggling to get past race as a defining characteristic in the age of President Obama.”
Barron’s constituents have paid for his antics. Though the 42nd District has one of the highest poverty rates in the city, Quinn consistently allotted Barron little more than the bare minimum in discretionary funding. From 2009 to 2012, for instance, the speaker granted Barron a total of $11.2 million, third least among the 51 districts; the councilmember at the top of the heap brought home more than $60 million.
Not surprisingly, Barron has been in a poor position to climb the political ladder. Twice, he challenged Quinn for speakership. He lost 48-1 and 50-1, winning no vote other than his own. He launched similarly impossible runs for mayor and governor, protesting that “white men have too much power in this city.”
His strongest bid for higher office came in 2006, when he took on 24-year incumbent U.S. Congressman Edolphus Towns. Barron lost by just 8 percent, so when he ran to replace the retiring Towns six years later, the city was on notice, particularly when the departing congressman lent his endorsement. Weeks before Barron’s Democratic primary contest against state Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, a group of city leaders held a press conference to denounce the councilman. They reminded voters that Barron had called Israel “the biggest terrorist in the world” and had described the Gaza Strip, which he’d visited with the Free Palestine Movement, as “a virtual death camp, the same kind of conditions the Nazis imposed on the Jews.”
Former New York mayor Ed Koch attended the event and described Barron’s rhetoric as vile and vicious. Councilman David Greenfield called Barron an anti-Semite, a hatemonger, and a bigot. Congressman Jerry Nadler said anyone who does what Barron did “has no right to be in civilized society, never mind in Congress.” In the month leading up to the election, Jeffries’s campaign received $470,000 in contributions, 60 percent of which came from donors outside the city. Barron’s war chest contained a paltry $50,000. He lost in a landslide.
So he returned to city hall, and after the council extended term limits in 2008, Barron won the 42nd District election for the third time. His neighborhood still loved him. The bulk of the city knew Charles Barron best for his headline-grabbing quotes, but the residents of East New York knew him for all those photo ops.
‘Capitalism is a failure!” says Barron, pacing through his district office. “The elites have enjoyed it and everybody else, the 99 percent, has struggled to say the least. Some have suffered severely in the most powerful, richest country that the planet Earth has ever had.”
The décor is minimalist, but the furnishings have been carefully selected. On the wall behind his desk hangs a framed photo of Malcolm X. A poster on another wall shows before-and-after shots of Linden Park: patchy dirt swath in 2002; green turf with football goalposts in 2005. A similar one features Robert E. Venable Park: empty concrete lot in 2002; jungle gyms in 2010. On the desk sits a scale model of the Spring Creek Community School campus, which opened in 2012.
“I’m not in this to be careful,” Barron says. “There’s a lot of politicians — when they talk, they talk all slow and hesitantly, ’cause they’re always thinking about who they might help or hurt or offend. I try to speak truth to power. Oftentimes, people aren’t ready for that. I didn’t come here to be a coward or a political punk.”
At 63, Barron speaks smoothly, with a force tempered by the proud grin that accompanies his sermons. He has short white hair and hazel eyes that lock on his audience like those of a salesman shy of his quota.
He hustles out the front door and pulls down the metal grate behind him. His wife has just arrived. The couple shares a single vehicle, a black Honda Accord, and they must execute a swap. Organizing their itineraries around this isn’t as complicated as it might seem. The two hold joint staff meetings, operate as a single unit. When Inez is councilwoman, Charles will have no less say in city hall, and if Charles wins her assembly seat, he’ll effectively arrive in Albany with five years’ experience.
A retired public school teacher and principal, Inez never intended to get into politics. Charles pushed her into it, she says as she maneuvers the car down a residential block. Though the two “are of one mind,” according to Charles, Inez is of a cooler temperament, far more delicate in her approach.
The car stops in front of a modest, well-kept house on Bradford Street. Inez slides out and Charles takes the wheel. The couple purchased the home in 1983 for $26,000 and raised their two sons here. That was a different East New York, one reeling on the back end of a two-decade slide into ruin.
During the urban-renewal era of the 1960s, city officials tore down private properties across the boroughs to build housing projects. People of color, flushed out of Harlem, Brownsville, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and elsewhere and redlined out of most other neighborhoods, poured into East New York. In 1960, the neighborhood was 80 percent white. A scant six years later, it was 85 percent black and Puerto Rican.
Neglect followed the demographic shift. A 1971 New York Times feature noted the area’s “bombed-out appearance,” owing to landlords who allowed their buildings to deteriorate, milking rents before abandoning the properties. So much of the neighborhood was vacant — an estimated 1,000 buildings — that the police department assigned an “empty building patrol” to the barren landscape.
East New York’s eventual upward trend followed the city’s as a whole through the ’90s. Crime dropped and property values rose everywhere. By the time Barron took office, the Brooklyn boom was underway. As the wave of development swept east across the borough, investors seeking cheap acreage and residents seeking affordable housing were left with fewer and fewer options. East New York offered value.
“Only thing God isn’t making more of is land,” says Bill Wilkins, director of East New York’s Local Development Corporation. Over the past decade or so, developers have bought up 7 million square feet of empty lots in East New York, cutting the vacancy rate by 29 percent. No community board district in the city has issued more building permits, Wilkins says.
The fruits of this land rush are evident as Barron cruises around the neighborhood. There’s the Fountains development, finished in 2003, a pristine white apartment complex with red archways at each entrance, the sort of structure you’d expect to see in the suburbs. Behind it are rows of brick houses lined with white fences. And there’s the Elton Street Corridor, a new commercial strip adjacent to the Gateway Mall, which opened in 2002. And up the street, the Spring Creek Nehemiah houses, neat rows of more than 200 single-family homes finished in 2012, with 1,500 more units scheduled for completion in 2016. Three new bus lines and two new schools sprang up to serve areas that a generation ago were dirt lots and swampland.
“It has been euphoric,” says Reverend Tyrone Stevenson, pastor of the Hope Christian Church and an East New York native. “I was driving down New Lots Avenue, trying to explain to my daughter what used to be here. There were burning cars, crime, drug dealers. It was out of control. Now you see people cutting grass, planting gardens.”
From 2000 to 2010, according to U.S. Census data, East New York’s population grew by about 7,000. In 2000, 36 percent of residents earned more than $35,000 a year; by 2012, 48 percent did. Over that stretch, median home value increased from $169,200 to $427,600, and the number of homeowners rose by 18 percent — 3 percent higher than the overall rate in Brooklyn (where median home value rose to $562,600 from $229,200).
Barron has overseen much of this improvement. But locals debate how much of the credit he deserves. While development proposals must pass through him to get council approval, other actors carry a hefty portion of the workload. East Brooklyn Congregations, a coalition of local churches, spearheaded the first successful efforts to draw housing developers in the 1980s and has orchestrated the construction of more than 3,000 units since. The mayor’s office, meanwhile, distributes the tax-exempt bonds that lure builders, funding more than 5,000 homes in the neighborhood over the 12 years of Michael Bloomberg’s administration.
Perhaps most instrumental, of course, are the market forces. There’s no question Barron rode a wave he didn’t create. During the decade preceding his first term, the district’s vacancy rate had already dropped by 26 percent.
“East New York is one of the few neighborhoods left with a lot of open land,” says Dennis Taylor, executive director of the Sabaoth Group, a nonprofit social services organization. “Economic development is going to take place. Whoever’s in that seat gets the credit oftentimes, even when they had nothing to do with it. Most of the things that are happening here now were planned before Councilman Barron even took his seat.”
But the nature of East New York’s development has been unlike the rest of the borough’s. Even among Barron’s critics, there’s near consensus about his drive to ward off gentrification. For a building proposal to get past Barron and into the chamber, it must meet his standard for affordable housing, which he sets at 60 percent of the borough’s area median income — significantly lower than the city’s official 80 percent bar. Since 2002, no district in Brooklyn has gained as many affordable housing units as Barron’s. Here folks can rent a studio for $800, a two-bedroom for $1,000.
Consequently, the residents moving into the new apartments and houses are a mix of locals seeking an upgrade and outsiders displaced by gentrification. Over the past decade, while the black population dropped by 2 percent across the city — including in Harlem, Bed-Stuy, and Brooklyn as a whole — it has increased by 13 percent in East New York.
“You see an area that was dilapidated come up, but nobody you remember was there when it came up,” says Stevenson. “East New York was different. The people that I played with as kids, they still live here. These are people who stayed when the crime was worst; they held onto their properties, and now they can reap the benefits.”
If there is a crown jewel of what city housing officials call the “renaissance under way in East New York,” it is the Gateway Mall, a brick complex just off the Belt Parkway that houses an Olive Garden and a Home Depot, among other vendors, as well as generous parking.
Shortly after the mall opened, Related Companies won the contract to build an expansion, along with 2,200 units of affordable housing on adjacent land. Barron and the community board required that Related sign a Community Benefits Agreement, which included stipulations that unemployed locals make up at least a quarter of the construction workforce and that the developer grant $3 million to a “coalition of community-based organizations.”
The project looked like a glorious achievement for Barron. Instead it would serve as a sprawling, multimillion-dollar reminder of the political machine some community leaders say Barron built with the power that comes with presiding over a development surge. A majority of the community board did not see a draft of the agreement until 2011, two years after it was signed in Barron’s office. The only signature representing Barron’s “coalition,” the board learned, was that of Andre Mitchell, founder of the anti-violence nonprofit Man Up! and Barron’s former chief of staff. Barron had designated Man Up! as the job-training organization that supplied workers to Related. This the board knew. But many members were surprised to learn that no other group had taken part in the negotiations.
“This has been his means of operation in his entire tenure as councilperson,” says Taylor. “He has neglected certain social services and only deals with one agency.”
In fact, over the past four years, of the roughly $3 million in grants Barron was free to disperse to community organizations, Man Up! received $500,000, dwarfing every other agency’s take.
“I supported Charles at first, because he was an outsider and he proclaimed inclusion,” says one community board member who requested anonymity so as not to damage his relationship with the Barrons. “But then, as he stayed longer, he turned into a machine. Promoted exclusion, favored only his closest allies, and locked out the rest.”
The Daily News called out Barron on this favoritism in a series of articles in July 2011. “Steered $3 million from a big developer to a community group run by a longtime political aide,” read one. “Pumped $350,000 in taxpayer money into a nonprofit run by a longtime political aide,” read another.
Barron stood his ground, declaring that Man Up! deserved every penny. “I told them, ‘Get another article ready, ’cause I’ma give him more money next year!'” he recalls. (Mitchell praises Barron as “the biggest supporter we’ve had.”)
Two years after the Daily News series, Man Up! once again made headlines, but in a more favorable light. A July 2013 New York Times story explained that Mitchell and a team of young men patrolled a 20-square-block high-crime area “to figure out where the violence was going next so they could hit the pause button” through conflict mediation. There’d been three homicides, wrote author Jim Dwyer, “in the days before the group began.” In the 363 days since, there had been none.
The Times story did not mention Barron.
“Ironic, huh?” the councilman says, parking in front of Linden Park and stepping into the chilly night.
He walks briskly through the gate and up a concrete pathway. He looks across the park grounds. A woman in a pink windbreaker jogs around the track. A half-dozen teenage boys play touch football on the regulation-size field, bright from the stadium lights encircling the premises. Barron stretches his arms wide.
“This is my pride and joy!” he says, posing beneath the gleaming goalposts.
“That’s Charles Barron!” shouts a voice in the distance.
Barron sees the boys on the field pointing at him. He waves, meets them at the 50-yard line.
“Wassup, how y’all doin’?”
“All right,” the boy holding the football says. “I’m tryna get a job. They say you got jobs. Can you get me a job?”
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.
Barron recognizes the height of his platform: City Council of the biggest city in the most powerful country in the world. To him, that stage comes with a responsibility to keep alive a voice that has all but disappeared from American discourse, one that believes colonialism did not end the moment white men packed up and left the Third World, nor when a black man stepped into the Oval Office.
He watched his heroes fall, one after the other, during or after their fights against their Western conquerors. Cameroon’s Félix-Roland Moumié, assassinated in 1960; the Congo’s Lumumba, executed by firing squad in ’61; Togo’s Sylvanus Olympio, assassinated in ’63; Morocco’s Mehdi Ben Barka, abducted in ’65 and never seen again; Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, ousted in a Western-backed coup in ’66; Mozambique’s Eduardo Mondlane, killed in ’69; Guinea’s Amílcar Cabral, assassinated in ’73.
Barron feels a duty to honor the liberators still standing. By doing so, he holds up a mirror showing that no hands are without blood. “How could you talk to me about Qaddafi and Mugabe when you supported Pinochet in Chile, Marcos in the Philippines, Duvalier in Haiti, Somoza in Nicaragua,” Barron argues. “The most bloody, brutal, murderous dictators the world has ever known, America supported. What hypocrisy!”
He has taken on the role of counterweight against what he sees as a nation’s selective memory, the double standard of history. This is a country, after all, that stamps the faces of slaveholders onto its currency, names schools and buildings after them.
Street signs, too. As Barron walks past African Burial Ground Square along New Lots Avenue, he lists the names hoisted on poles in his own district: Van Siclen, Schenck, Barbey, Hegeman, Blake, Van Sinderen, Snediker. “All slaveholders!”
This selective memory, he believes, enables the oppression he sees today. It may seem that the battle he fights ended long ago. But to Barron, it lives, through him if nowhere else. “East New York is a liberation zone,” he declares. So he keeps the torch lit, no matter how faint the flame.
“When I first got elected, people asked, ‘Are you upset that the revolution didn’t happen when you were in the Panthers?'” he says. “Revolution is a process. It’s still going on. And even though there are setbacks, it’s inevitable that this must change. See, I’m a patriot. You don’t love America when you allow for this false sense of security to exist, when you allow racism, classism, sexism to permeate every institution and say that’s just how it is. If we want to get fundamental change in this country, we got to tell it how it is.”
The City Council chamber is packed like Easter service for the term’s final meeting. Staffers, reporters, lobbyists, and civilians stand shoulder to shoulder to pay respects or take in the spectacle.
The councilmembers are restless, stuck in their seats as a photographer climbs a ladder at the front of the chamber to take a group portrait. “Charles!” shouts James Oddo, one of three Republicans on the council. Barron turns behind him to see Oddo raising a Black Power fist. “Let’s go, Charles!”
Barron elevates his own fist. The men chuckle. Oddo brings his arm down, but as the camera flashes, Barron keeps his raised.
The afternoon is filled with kind words and war stories. Councilmembers hug one another like prizefighters after a 12-round brawl. Constituents approach and thank their representatives.
Then Speaker Quinn opens the session by individually praising each of her 22 departing colleagues. When she gets to her bitter rival from the 42nd District, she introduces him as “the shrinking violet of the New York City Council, Councilmember Charles Barron! You are somebody who is true to your convictions, has the courage of your convictions, certainly not afraid to stand alone, and is loud and strong and clear for the issues, the communities, and the things that you believe in.”
Once Quinn finishes, each departing member, in order of district number, delivers their own farewell address. Barron, 18th in line, has plenty of time to polish his thoughts.
Among those preceding him is Oddo. The recently elected Staten Island borough president declares that when he enters post-council life, “I hope I have someone who challenges how I think, like Charles Barron.” Barron nods graciously. The two men will later embrace.
A few hours in, speech fatigue has overcome much of the crowd. Some browse Twitter on their phones, others compose emails on their laptops.
The presiding officer announces Barron’s name.
“Uh-oh!” Manhattan councilman Robert Jackson exclaims with a smirk. Knowing chuckles ripple through the crowd.
“To my colleagues,” Barron begins. “In my 12 tumultuous years with you, you’ve been very controversial and I’ve tried to keep you in line, but it was very difficult. I voted ‘no’ for so many of your projects, and I will be voting ‘no’ on some more today. However, I do appreciate that when my projects came before you” — he holds for the punch line — “you voted ‘yes’!”
The chamber convulses with laughter.
“I have an assignment for those who are still here,” he says. “On the real side, we shouldn’t just have white men’s pictures up on the wall. They’re not the only ones in this town.”
“Right on!” a spectator yells.
“Diversify the artwork at city hall, because when our children come here, when black and Latino children come here, they should see images of their heroes as well.”
A smattering of applause. All eyes are now on Barron.
“As I depart, I will leave you with a better half,” he says. “You think I was something — when she finishes with you, you’re gonna ask me to come back! I’m sure that Governor Cuomo and [Assembly Speaker] Shelly Silver can’t wait till I get to Albany. I’ll try not to disappoint them and get there as soon as I can.”
Just how soon he gets there is in Cuomo’s hands. If the governor calls for a special election, a Barron victory is guaranteed: Brooklyn’s Democratic Committee selects the nominee in a special election, and nearly every member representing the 42nd District is a Barron ally. Charles and Inez serve as the party’s two district leaders.
But if Cuomo slates the race for the normal election cycle, leaving the seat vacant through the end of the year, Barron will have to get past Banks in the primary. That’s no sure thing. Banks has already secured the endorsement of Hakeem Jeffries, who vanquished Barron en route to Congress.
“Finally, I wanna leave y’all with something special,” Barron says. “I have written a pledge for you that you can use to replace the pledge here.”
Nervous giggles and chatter sweep the room.
“Ready? Repeat after me. I pledge allegiance . . .”
Few voices speak up.
“Look at you, you scared! You can’t even play with me. Y’all are scared! I pledge allegiance to rid this nation of racism, sexism, classism.”
The crowd echoes the line.
“And all forms of discrimination for which this nation stands.”
Just laughs this time.
“I pledge to fight for the eradication of poverty.”
Everyone proudly recites.
“And equitable distribution of wealth, income, and opportunity.”
“Finally,” he says, allowing the buzz to die down. “I pledge to unite this nation under human rights until there’s liberty and justice for all.”
The ovation begins before he finishes.