Ras Baraka was not among the figures dubbed the “new black political leadership” by pundits last year. But, to some, he could be considered a precursor. Well over a decade before Obama electrified the American presidency with black youthfulness or Adrian M. Fenty became Washington DC’s youngest mayor, Baraka gave Newark, NJ’s 1994 mayor race a youthful shot when he announced his candidacy at age 24. Although he lost to incumbent Sharpe James, Ras’s gumption, progressive platform and persuasion (winning close to 10,000 votes) clearly announced that a post-civil rights generation of politicians were on their way to the forefront. Like many in the late 1980’s, the poet, writer and community activist had been politicized by rap music’s pro-black conversion. (And he just happened to be the son of poet and Black Arts Movement leader Amiri Baraka.) Since his inspirational run for office, Ras, who his the principal of Newark’s Central High School, has served as deputy mayor and ran unsuccessfully for councilman-at-large. Recently, he has set his sights on Newark’s South Ward council seat, which he plans to run for next year. I sat down with Ras to talk about Newark politics, the city’s rising murder rate, his platform for tackling crime and the current mayor’s handling of violence in the city.
Activists who run for office can be naïve about the rough sport of city politics. What have you learned over the last 15 years about running for office?
Ras Baraka: Well, there’s the amount of money needed to run a campaign. The amount of concern people may have that you may not be familiar with. Like sometimes, as activists, we may think we know what the people are concerned with, but we don’t have the kind of relationship with the people in that community we need in order to be clear on what their concerns are. That’s because we don’t go to the PTA meetings, the block association meetings, the city council meetings. When you’re running for office and you go those meetings you begin to understand the real issues people deal with every day. Then you have to tie those into the bigger issues that you want to talk about as an activist. But you can’t reach the people until you go where they are.
You ran for Mayor in Newark in 1994. Then you ran a couple of times for Councilman-at-Large. Was refocusing your sights apart of that learning process?
Yeah. I ran for mayor because we had some concerns and issues we wanted to raise on the ballot. It was more like an activist trying to agitate and get the word out, organize the people around something they thought couldn’t be done. When I ran for council, it was about a more pragmatic approach of us trying to really win a seat, mapping out how we could do it and get a real voice in city hall to begin to organize the resources in the city to do the things that we needed to do in the community. So we really tried to win those times. And each time we actually came close. We’d win in the general election and lose in the run-off.
Now you’re running for South Ward Council in 2010. What power would you have as a councilman?
The council body is a legislative body just like the Congress is, but on a local level. And any political office can be used as a bully pulpit to represent the people’s issues and concerns on a political level. This is so you can broker resources for some kind of power for your district or your ward. It’s what any member of Congress or the Senate would do.
One of the issues you want to deal with is crime. Over the summer there’s been a rash of murders hitting the city, and the news seems to point to gang activity. As an activist would you say most of the murders in Newark have been gang-related?
No. Some of it is gang-related and some it is not. It’s about problems and other issues. I mean, a lady was shot and killed on Elizabeth Avenue and Meeker because two dudes were having an argument and one came back with a gun, started shooting and she happened to come down stairs at the wrong time. Our people have conflicts and other issues, and they resolve them with guns.
Usually the political answer for crime is more police and prisons…
And now there’s curfews and cameras (laughs) which is a completely ridiculous response. And it’s bankrupt because now people in Newark are getting killed in the afternoon. So the curfews are worthless. Just recently, a guy was killed in broad daylight, stabbed to death in downtown Newark, with cameras stationed around and before the curfew. So none of that stuff even matters. Using police and prisons as the answer, that sounds good and makes people believe you have some kind of plan. But most of these politicians don’t have a comprehensive plan to deal with crime because the premise of what they believe is the root cause of crime is different. If you believe crime is a result of people being wild and savage then, of course, your response would be cameras and curfews and more law enforcement. But if you understand crime to be the result of a social ailment, a public health issue, then you’ll address it as such. Deal with mental health issues, broken families, unemployment, poor education, drop-out rates, etc. Target it like a doctor would a disease.
Within your campaign platform you say you’d like to do studies on violence and then implement programs to fight the issues of crime. For voters looking for immediate results and a problem that needs immediate attention don’t you think that would be moving too slow?
It may be, but there’s been nobody that’s been able to deal with the crime that’s going on in these communities. Like some people get lucky and they have a good year, and then they take credit for a year of low crime that they really had nothing to with. It’s not deliberate. It’s not conscious. They make it up and they go and say they had something to do with it. But the only people really addressing crime are community activists, people in these neighborhoods trying to deal with folk’s pain. I think once we get it started there will be immediate effects, not long term. People know we need a coordinated solution.
The research and study is there to validate what we’re trying to do. To give an example, the Kerner Commission did a report on why there were rebellions in the neighborhoods. People already knew why there were rebellions, and politicians could have addressed it. But what the Kerner Commission did was validate what you already know and allow you to get the resources and the money to support the things you think should happen. So my commission on violence would do the same thing: identify the causes and the ailments and the problems that exist—that we already know—and prove it scientifically so we can get resources to fix the problem. This will help people to not just look at it as a political move that you make, but look at it as more from a scientific approach to fighting crime.
How do you feel Mayor Cory Booker is handling this summer’s murder streak in Newark?
I think he was completely caught off guard because his diagnosis was wrong from the beginning. He thought crime existed in Newark because the police department was understaffed, the mayor was corrupt and people were incompetent. He didn’t know we had some systemic problems in our communities. That’s because he’s not from these communities. He’s from Harrington Park, NJ. And there’s very serious and very obvious class difference between the mayor and the people of this town. So he’s not clear on why these issues take place. When the crime went down for a short time, he credited that to his ingenuity rather than realize he was just lucky. But when his luck ran out this summer, it exposed the fact that he had no real strategy. So he gets on Twitter and says this won’t happen in our town. Now he’s had about 15 or 20 press conferences saying these things won’t happen. But they keep happening, and he doesn’t know how to address it.
Even though you’re running for Councilman in 2010, do you think you’d like to run for mayor again?
Man, I’m just being the principal of Central High School, and I’m going to run for South Ward Councilman because I think it needs to be done. I think someone needs to have a strong voice in city hall that’s going to oppose the direction in which this city is going. I don’t agree with the direction we’re headed. And I think the only way to address it or expose it is to have a voice down there. That’s the only reason why I’m running. As far as mayor, I’m supporting Clifford Minor, who is a former prosecutor and judge and Newark police officer, in the next mayoral race. Right now my plate is full.