I want to say I’ve worked on 3 campaigns for Ras; one when he was a 24 year old returning graduate from Howard University and ran against incumbent Sharpe James just because. Because no one else ran against Sharpe James. Two other campaigns when he ran as Councilman-At-Large for the City of Newark. I’ve worked on three campaigns, but I worked 5 election days for Ras, as he has always won, but for some reason or another, there was a run-off and he had to run again.
Working Election Day for an independent campaign is an eternal vacuum of time and space punctuated by a brown paper bag with a sad white bread cold cut sandwich and a can of warm coke. You arrive at a polling place at some ungodly hour in a ridiculously large t-shirt to zealously attack the unfortunate souls who go to vote on their way to work with your literature a designated amount of feet away from the door. Because of course, they left for work half an hour early to vote even though they weren’t sure who they were voting for until you jumped at them armed with a smile, a slogan and a sticker.
After a flurry of 2 or 3 early morning voters, you are left to commune with the facade of a school, the mailman and a tree should there be one. If you get too close to the entrance, someone will come and yell at you to go farther away. Until, around 5 pm, there is another flurry of voters, when the opposing, well-funded candidate’s people show up, in their well-fitting t-shirts, outnumbering you with their arms and hands and door tags, but they cannot outnumber your voice, they cannot shout you down, even though in your boredom you have smoked a pack of cigarettes, your only accomplice for the day, your only witness to the slow passage of time. You can shout louder, because even though you’ve spent the day alone, you are imbued with the power of the people. 8 pm arrives, and you are hopeful and hoarse.
The last campaign I worked on in 2000, I had an idea that I wanted to document the campaign, but I couldn’t stop working on it. I didn’t know then the difference between observing and participating, how you cannot do both. You cannot pick up a phone to call potential voters in one hand and a camera and a notebook in another. But I couldn’t not work on the campaign. I grew up in many ways campaigning for Ras, and in campaigning for Ras, campaigning for the people of Newark, and in campaigning for the people of Newark, campaigning for all of us. Campaigning for me.
I was a 20 year old Rutger’s student the first time I went to Newark and met the Barakas. In my subjective memory, as student organizers from Rutgers, my friends and I were immediately committed to waking up early every Saturday to go door to door and campaign in Newark. it was an easy sell. We liked going to Newark. We liked organizing. We were proud to be a part of this movement.
Six years later, I would move to Newark. I lived on Clinton and Fabian in the South Ward, only a few blocks up the street from the Barakas. The bus stop for the 34 which took me to work at Thirteenth Avenue School was right on the corner. As I waited for the bus in the morning, young men would stand, obviously, shuffling from one foot to the next with their hands stuffed in their pockets on the corner across the street. As cars, nice cars, I suppose from Montclair and other fancy places? Summit? pulled over to talk with the young men, old boys really, they ran over to where I was standing, past me to the doorway of the laundromat where, on the ledge above the door, they grabbed little packets and ran back to the cars, idling across Clinton Ave. We became friendly. “I totally thought you guys made your own hours!” I said, with a sense of wonder.
It was during this time that I would work on two more campaigns for Ras, campaigns born out of that Brick City pulse, campaigns born out of generations of theory and practice.
There is a very fine line between participating and observing, and once you master that line, that is where you find true art. It is the practice of going into real life, head first, emotionally, spiritually, physically, politically and culturally, openly, willing to be completely exposed and vulnerable and then knowing when to pull back for a moment and process everything that has happened. And then recording that experience. That is Picasso’s “Guernica”, that is Ginsberg’s “Howl”, that is the “When I’m the Mayor, We’re the Mayor” campaign for Ras Baraka.
The mastery of this fine line is what makes Amiri, Amina and Ras such great poets, such authentic revolutionaries. Consistently immersed in Newark, specifically, and the lives of black people more generally, and the lives of working people even more generally, they know exactly when to pull back and record the experience either as a poem, or a collection of poems, or a people’s campaign (which is poetry in action if you think about it). (Or the scientific application of love.)
I left Newark after living in three different apartments over a period of three years. I didn’t intend to leave Newark, Newark kind of kicked me out. It was for the best. I continued to teach in Newark, until 2009, after our amazing principal left and was replaced with some knucklehead dummy that the Newark Board of Ed, a visionless collective adorned in cheap suits, put there to carry out “No Child Left Behind” a nationwide educational policy imposed on public schools under a president who had every educational opportunity afforded to him but still could not negotiate proper, basic subject verb agreements.
I had not been back really. Newark was like an ex-lover it would be awkward to see, we would look down at our feet and make small talk not knowing really how to begin or what to say.
When I got to the South Ward HQ at around 1 pm on May 13th with another friend I had cut my activism teeth with, Barbara Horne, it wasn’t long before we ended up on the Baraka bus, splayed with, “When I become Mayor, We Become Mayor”. Gone were the days of the lonely poll worker.
Barb and I got on the bus with some dedicated supporters and drove around, and like renegades of injustice, blasting music and dancing at the polling places. In the streets. At the gas station. Where ever we showed up, volunteers for Baraka danced with us, sometimes even the volunteers from the Jeffries campaign would join in.
I wasn’t surprised at all to see the overwhelming, not support, but collaboration with Ras, his team and the people of Newark. Not only am I personally elated, not just for Ras and Amina, and Bird and Aziz and Juba and Mark and everybody who has been working with Ras to transform Newark for the last 20 years, but I am ecstactic that Chris Christie will have to contend with someone who is smarter and more compassionate, and who has ties with the people that Christie has been stomping all over for the last 5 years. Christie may have been able to buy Corey Booker, but Ras Baraka, and indeed the city of Newark, is not for sale.
That night after Ras gave his acceptance speech at the Robert Treat Hotel, Ras, followed by throngs of people, left the hotel and took to the streets marching toward City Hall. Around 10 pm? 11 pm? Everyone congregated at City Hall, some people assembled on the stairs of City Hall, some people assembled in front. It was that historic moment where the people of Newark stood, at once observing and participating, witnessing their own victory, seeing themselves as governing and governed, recognizing the relation between the two, and became the Mayor of Newark.
More photos on The Election of Ras Baraka here: https://flic.kr/s/aHsjY2JpV5