We Are the Mayor: The Election of Ras Baraka

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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.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

It Explodes, An Open Letter to My Students at Thirteenth Avenue

Everyone will tell you “No”. People have been telling me “No” for the last two years. For the last 38 years. And people you would expect to be your allies, aren’t necessarily your allies. Don’t worry about them, they don’t understand what we are doing.

I never intended to become a teacher. In high school, I came equipped with a distinct set of beliefs about myself; that I was ugly, that I was worthless. That I was an outsider. That it was my privilege to be a spectator. But I loved learning.

I didn’t know anything about teaching, I didn’t know anything about children. Which was the same message you got walking into Thirteenth Avenue School in October of 1999. All I knew was that I was going to get dental insurance, so my life’s ambitions had been pretty much met. What else was there?

I had the privilege to teach at Thirteenth Avenue School for 9 years. Because no one at the Board of Education cared about our school or the children who went there, the staff and a new principal, the Mr. Lenny Kopacz, were able to create an educational oasis founded on love and imagination and creativity. We created a learning environment for the children and their families, and I would like to say publicly that I attribute all of my personal successes as a 6th grade teacher to never doing anything required by No Child Left Behind. Why? Because I was teaching them. And I refused to accept public education doctrine from a president who had every educational opportunity at his fingertips and squandered it, emerging as a grown man unable to negotiate the difference between an object and subject pronoun.

I discovered that I loved children. And that the children of Newark are amazing and courageous and loving and resilient. Much like, I imagine, Trayvon Martin was.

And so for 9 years, I would pass out copies of “What Happens to a Dream Deferred?” by Langston Hughes. “Boys and girls, who would like to read this poem out loud?”

What happens to a dream deferred?                                                           Does it dry up                                                                                                         like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore–                                                                                          And then run?                                                                                                    Does it stink like rotten meat?                                                                            Or crust and sugar over–

like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags                                                                                               like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

No one told me to do it. It wasn’t a part of staff development. The poem wasn’t in any curriculum but, when we are fortunate enough to listen, what is beautiful instructs us.

Soon enough, it occurred to me that I had dreams too. I saw myself in the not so distant future wearing a lime green gown, steadying myself with the desk, pearls swaying to and fro, with a martini glass half filled with olives and vodka, “Boys and girls, tell me about your dreams,” I sneered. “I had dreams, I know the answer to the question Langston is posing.” Olives swishing to and fro.

I did want to be a photographer. I lamented the fact I didn’t study photography in college. Somewhere along the way it became embedded in my consciousness that being a photojournalist was something other people did, people who grew up in nice houses and didn’t suffer the constant chaos of being poor. Even afterwards, I allowed myself to shoot as long as it was a hobby. “I can’t imagine where I would be right now,” I told my sister, “if I had gotten some encouragement to do what I wanted to do when I was growing up.” Growing up, the mantra in my home wasn’t, Hold Fast to Dreams! but like most working class families, Make sure you find a job with dental insurance!

Certainly, no one wants you to consider and think about your dreams when you are growing up in Newark, NJ. You aren’t entitled to dreams. The Newark Board of Education is run by empty headed ghouls who lack vision or creativity, or love. (Incidentally, where is the line by line itemization of what happened and is going to happen with the notorious and well choreographed millon trillion dollar donation to Newark via Face Book and if that money is going to Charter Schools where do you go to school if you don’t win the lottery?)

Recently, I sat across my mother, who has worked hard all her life. We were sharing a sundae at a Friendly’s. In a moment that could have been stolen from a depressing and terrifying Joyce Carol Oates novella, she told me she was watching a craft show on television and she almost starting crying. “I could have done that,” she said. “I can’t imagine what I could have done with my life if I had someone encouraging me.”

No one read her Langston Hughes when she was little.

Some truths are irrefutable, smashing you in the face like a well-deserved hang over. Some truths wait for you before they open up, like a flower to a bee. That’s what I’m dealing in now, truth. I am addicted to it. And I don’t believe that those who are in power of controlling access to the truth necessarily have our best interests at heart.

In the two years of production for “They Will Be Heard“, I’ve found myself with all my resources invested in and drained by random footage on a hard drive. I don’t even have dental insurance.

There are times where I wake up and think, I can’t do this anymore, it’s too hard. And I think, just walk away. To this a more terrifying question: what will you do then? Now the question has become an answer. I’m obligated to live my dreams. I’m obligated to finish the film.

Young poets and dreamers of Newark who I had the privilege of teaching: Everyone will tell you no. They will tell you no because you’re not ready yet, or because they don’t know any better. In the pursuit of your dreams you will find yourself discouraged, depressed, elated, anxious, alone, empty. You will give everything you have and then be told it’s not good enough yet. Give more. Give again.

I thought, pursuing the dream would be enough. I thought that the fact that leaving my job to pursue the lucrative field of documentary photography and film making during the worst economic depression since the, well, The Depression, would entitle me to immediate success. Leap! Leap! Buddha said. And the net will appear. The net does appear, but it’s not comfortable. The purpose of the net is just that you almost die but you don’t.

After living in a closet-sized room for a year and a half, which was ironic because I didn’t have a closet, I moved across the street into a crooked apartment with an upstairs neighbor who is constantly puking. This is nice, my friends said. Don’t talk to me like I’m rebuilding my life after a terrible mistake, I told them. I made a documentary, I didn’t burn my babies in a homemade meth lab.

Be tenacious. Remember when the gangs kept spray painting the side of our school and every morning Mr. K would paint over it. And they would come back and tag the school again, and the next morning Mr. K would paint over it. One morning, they just stopped coming.

Remember, it’s all on you. People will help you out along the way, but even, hypothetically speaking, if you have a rock and roll fantasy threesome with an executive producer from MTV who should for all intensive purposes be slightly curious about your rock and roll documentary, it doesn’t mean he’ll like your FaceBook page.

Don’t worry, this only makes you better. It only makes you brighter. And you will always be able to find a decent bottle of tempranillo for $8. You will wake up in the morning and it will still be dark, it will be dark for days, but there is no turning back. You will feel jealous and resentful of those people who pass by you because they have the right contacts or better luck, but don’t worry about them. You will feel grateful for and honored to have those people who stand by you and tell you to keep going. They are out there. They are with me all the time. Keep going. Keep fighting. Ask questions. Find mentors. It’s not easy, but then again, nothing for you has ever been easy. You have always done twice as much with half as much. I know the light you possessed when you were 11, it’s only gotten brighter, stronger. Your time is now, take it.