Rising from Ashes
The Campaign to Resurrect East New York
ABDALLA F. HASSAN | Everybody’s | November 1997
July 15, 1995 was one of the hottest days of the summer. The temperature peaked over 100 degrees. Filled with jugs of water, soda, and ice, a station wagon on the corner of Stanley Avenue and Essex Street in Brooklyn’s East New York served as a water station. Demonstrators were standing outside a waste-transfer station operated by Atlas Bio-Energy, a Long Island energy company, and the proposed site for a wood-burning incinerator that was sure to pollute the air. The police and an ambulance were also on hand. Two of the demonstrators collapsed from heat exhaustion.
Marching in a large circle, more than a hundred community residents and activists showed up. Demonstrators from St. Paul Community Baptist Church, one of New York City’s largest congregations, marched with a large colorful banner. All chanted in unison, “The people, united, will never be defeated.” Charles Barron, chair of a community coalition against the incinerator, opened up the rally. Other community activists followed.
The demonstrators were protesting what they called “environmental racism”—a term coined by controversial former-head of the NAACP Benjamin Chavis to describe the systematic siting of environmental hazards in poor neighborhoods. According to Eddie Bautista, community liaison for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, a legal advocacy group, within a one-and-a-half mile radius of the site, there are seven hazardous waste facilities, two large hazardous waste landfills, and large chemical and oil storage facilities. During a year’s time, the Department of Environmental Protection documented 50 petroleum or toxic spills. Moreover, there are bus depots and major roadways, and coal burning furnaces in nine local public schools. East New York has higher asthma and respiratory illness hospitalization rates than the Brooklyn and citywide average. The Amsterdam News and Daily News, as well as The Link, a newspaper put out by the United Community Centers, an organization active on community issues, covered the rally.
Physically as well as politically, the landscape of East New York is changing. Like the phoenix rising from the ashes, from the devastation of its past, East New York is witnessing a rebirth. Indeed, the groundwork is slowly being laid for a brighter and more optimistic future.
The publicity generated by the community campaign against the incinerator in East New York has thrust Charles Barron into the limelight as a leading political contender for the modest but still important office of City Councilman. Barron’s activism reaches back to the 1960s, when the Harlem chapter of the Black Panthers recruited him from the projects on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The Black Panther Party, which represented the militant black nationalism of that decade, was the schoolroom of his political education.
Barron subsequently became Harlem chairperson of the Black United Front, an organization of pan-Africanists and activists, and president of the African People’s Christian Organization, a black Christian nationalist group, both led by the activist minister Rev. Herbert Daughtry. In 1993, he spent 45 days in prison with Al Sharpton for an earlier protest against racism in which a black man was chased to his death by a white mob in Howard Beach, Brooklyn.
“I knew the consequences in the ’60s,” he says now. “I could have lost my life being a Black Panther, knowing Panthers were killed left and right. But I’ve always stood on principle and I’ve always followed my spirit and I’ve always followed what I feel God was calling me to do. I would do it again tomorrow. We were right. The system was wrong.”
It is that activist, anti-establishment spirit that is infusing Barron’s City Council bid and challenging the structure of entrenched politics in Brooklyn. The communities represented by the 42nd Councilmanic District—the troubled neighborhoods of East New York, Brownsville, and parts of East Flatbush and Canarsie—have experienced more than their fair share of violence and crime, schools that don’t work, and environmental neglect.
Slowly things are turning around. Homeowner, tenant, and garden associations have, for the first time in recent memory, sprung up. St. Paul Community Baptist Church and its pastor, the Rev. Johnny Ray Youngblood, organized a voter registration drive that enrolled nearly 4,800 new voters in East New York. Various housing initiatives have transformed these sections of Brooklyn. East Brooklyn Congregations (EBC), a coalition of more than 50 church groups (Youngblood is co-chairperson) has built thousands of single-family homes in Brownsville and East New York through a housing initiative known as Nehemiah. Ground was broken last October for the second phase of the plan. EBC is planning the construction of more than a thousand homes on nearby vacant, city-owned land. The East New York Urban Youth Corps, a community development corporation involved in community policing, youth, and housing issues, has renovated 40 abandoned buildings in East New York.
“Come on Board,” Charles Barron’s campaign slogan exhorts. “There’s a Change a Comin’.”
Tall, proud, articulate, and confident, Barron is a self-made entrepreneur who is not afraid to challenge power. He grew up in the projects, the Lillian Wald Houses on the Lower East Side. He got caught up in street life—but got out of it by becoming political aware. African liberation movements inspired him. Nationalists like Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Patrice Lumumba of the Congo became his heroes.
In 1968, at age 17 and a high school dropout, Barron joined the Black Panthers, a Black Power organization formed in Oakland, Calif. following the assassination of civil rights leader Malcolm X. “I was so confused,” he recalled. “I didn’t know which way to go. I was very angry. I needed a vehicle to ventilate that anger and I needed to know who I was and what I needed to be about.”
The Panthers advocated a revolutionary approach to politics. Its goals, outlined in a ten-point platform, included fighting racism, social and political injustice, and police brutality. Political education focussed on the Third World. Members studied the works of Latin American revolutionary leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Cuban premier Fidel Castro, and Vietnamese nationalist Ho Chi Minh. “I was always on the wrong side of American history—or shall I say the right side,” Barron ironically observed. “But America used to always support dictators and I was always supporting revolutionaries.”
Barron passionately embraced the Black Power movement. “Martin Luther King wasn’t exactly one of my heroes at that time,” he mentioned one afternoon in his office. “Now he is. Then we thought they were integrationists and sell-outs.” In cities across America, a debate raged over Martin Luther King’s methods of non-violent resistance versus the militancy of the Black Power movement—and at the same time between integration and separatism.
Barron taped on the wall of his room a poster of the 1968 Olympians John Carlos and Tommie Smith clenching their fists in the Black Power salute during the national anthem. Barron remembers his sixth-grade teacher slapping him when he made fun of the pledge of allegiance. “How dare you disgrace our flag?” she shouted. He also put up posters of Black Panther founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale toting guns, and Angela Davis, a fiery ’60s political black activist involved with the Panthers. The poster his mother could not understand was of Che Guevara. “I get these others,” Barron recalled her saying. “But why do you have that white guy up there?”
“My mother was always fearful for me,” Barron added, “but respected my commitment and conviction.” As a young would-be revolutionary he did not expect to live past his twenty-first birthday. Only one issue plagued him. “I was willing to give my life up for my cause. I was willing to die for it but the question was, Could I kill for it? I hadn’t come to grips with that. That was a major struggle for me.”
J. Edgar Hoover and COINTELPRO, the FBI’s domestic counter-intelligence program, especially targeted the Panthers. In 1968, the FBI identified the party as one of the most dangerous domestic threats to national security. Soon thereafter the party was infiltrated with informers. “Fortunately for me I was a cadre; I wasn’t in the leadership,” said Barron. “I was a young guy. I used to have my 25 papers every Panther had to sell, I had my little black tam, I got my little political education, I attended the rallies. But I wasn’t in the leadership, so I wasn’t targeted. So it was easy for me to ease right on out when things went crazy.”
After his years with the Black Panthers, Barron got his high school equivalency diploma. Attending New York City Community College and then Hunter College where he became involved in student activism, Barron graduated with a B.A. in sociology and a minor in elementary education.
Barron met the Rev. Herbert Daughtry at Hunter and joined his organization, the Black United Front. He became a member of Daughtry’s House of The Lord Pentecostal Church on Atlantic Avenue, just blocks away from the Brooklyn House of Detention where Barron spent time in prison for a political protest. Daughtry’s approach was political as well as cultural. Introduced by Daughtry to the concept of a black messiah, Barron was able to define himself spiritually within the Christian faith without seeing it as a “white man’s” religion.
Barron eventually became Harlem chapter chairperson of the Black United Front and Daughtry’s chief of staff. He took up issues ranging from police brutality and hospital closings to the free-South Africa movement. The House of The Lord Pentecostal Church is also where Barron met his wife of 15 years, Inez.
Following the Black United Front experience, Barron became president of the African People’s Christian Organization, which synthesized black Christian nationalism with political activism. In 1982, he went to Harare, Zimbabwe to attend the All Africa Conference of Churches, bringing together Africa’s leading black clergy.
“I was honored to go back to the motherland for the first time,” Barron said. “I kissed the ground when I got off the plane. I felt a spiritual connection going back to our roots. I just couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if they had never torn us asunder and wrecked our families and brought us to a foreign land and held us captive.”
On Dec. 21, 1987, a Day of Outrage protest was organized in response to what was called the “lynching” of Michael Griffith in Howard Beach. Demanding that racism in New York City be addressed, fully 2,000 protesters jumped on subway tracks at rush hour, halting train service. The Borough Hall train station that Barron took over is right below the site of his current office. Sharpton and Barron were among those arrested. They ended up becoming friends and political allies.
In a proceeding that lasted six years after all appeals were exhausted, the judge in the non-jury trial found Barron and Sharpton guilty and sentenced them to 15 days for obstructing governmental processes, 30 days for criminal trespassing, and 15 days for disorderly conduct. (The two 15-day sentences ran concurrently.)
Serving time was no fun, admitted Barron. “They strip-searched us. They put shackles around our ankles and wrists and waists. We had to walk like we were slaves.” But he has no regrets. “We always said in the Panthers, ‘You can jail a revolutionary but you can’t jail a revolution. You can kill the dreamer, but you can’t kill the dream, and you can jail an activist, but you can’t jail activism.’”
Barron left the House of The Lord Church in 1988 and started Dynamics of Leadership, Inc., a training company that teaches what Barron calls the “science of leadership.” The walls of his office in Downtown Brooklyn could serve as his résumé. There are awards dating back to his days at Hunter College. There are also plaques presented to him by people and organizations he trained. One wall includes newspaper clippings. In December 1984, Barron and his wife Inez got arrested in front of the South African Consulate during a demonstration against apartheid. A newspaper photograph of them hangs on the wall. Beside the picture is a clipping with the headline, “Heaven is Smiling,” following Nelson Mandela’s election as South Africa’s president. The two items side-by-side symbolize for Barron his small contribution to the struggle against apartheid. Another newspaper photograph has him on the stage of the Million Man March organized by the Nation of Islam’s Minister Louis Farrakhan, with Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X’s widow, seated beside him. A citation from Borough President Howard Golden also hangs on the wall.
Barron has traveled all over the country addressing drug and housing problems, conducting leadership training seminars and organizing community residents, workers, and youth. In Rock Island, Ill., a town of 30,000 residents, homes were slated for demolition so the city could make way for gambling casinos. Barron organized residents to march downtown where they took over the city council meeting. The front page of the Rock Island Argus featured a picture of Barron leading the rally. The banner headline read, “Truce Dawns in Rock Island.”
Yet for a decade Barron did nothing in the way of activism in the East New York community where he lived. Three years ago, he resolved to change that.
In the 1950s, mammoth housing projects replaced small dwellings in Brooklyn’s East New York. A community organization called the United Community Centers (UCC) was formed in 1954 in the public housing projects of Boulevard and Glenwood to supervise the recreation areas. Up until the late 1960s, these housing projects were predominantly white (Jewish, German, and Italian) and lower middle class with about a 10 percent minority population.
“What made us unique,” says Mel Grizer, who joined UCC as a youth in 1967 and is now the executive director, “was that we were interracial—militantly so—and non-sectarian.” At the time community programs and events were organized through churches and religious institutions that were segregated along racial, ethnic, and religious lines. The UCC rejected these divisions, making it unpopular with community members. Some critics labeled them communists. Today, UCC is still involved in community issues and operates a day-care center.
The urban riots of 1966 and 1968 fundamentally altered the landscape of East New York. White and black gangs had always been a fixture of community life. In July 1966 a group of young Italian-Americans calling themselves SPONGE (Society for the Prevention of Niggers Getting Everything) rallied. The violence that erupted claimed the life of an 11-year old black boy killed by sniper fire. Looting and rioting ensued. Then-mayor John Lindsay dispatched 1,000 police officers to patrol a 33-block area.
Virtually overnight the neighborhood changed color. During the next decade East New York suffered a sharp population decline. Realtors purchased homes at bargain prices from owners eager to sell and sold them at inflated prices. As many of the new homeowners defaulted, realtors were able to collect from the Federal Housing Administration, a government agency that guaranteed the mortgages. In 1968, there were major riots after Martin Luther King was shot. “A large portion of East New York burned down,” Grizer remembers. “Then the whole face of the neighborhood really changed; its look changed.” Indeed as real estate values fell off precipitously, landlords set fires to collect on insurance. East New York became one of New York City’s most notorious neighborhoods.
As in most inner-city neighborhoods, churches ranging from small storefronts to large cathedrals proliferate in East New York—a counterpoint to the liquor stores and drug centers. The church serves as an island of stability and sanity amid the chaos and despair.
In East New York, there are not many large department stores, supermarkets, or banks. Rather, smaller stores and Dominican and Yemeni-owned bodegas dot the landscape. Alongside the tall housing projects, burned-down cores of former buildings, and schools taken over by squatters and drug addicts coexist vacant lots infested with rats. Recalling a seemingly distant past, broken sidewalks and unpaved streets bear such names as Marcus Garvey, after the Jamaican black nationalist, and Herzl, after the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl.
Situated in one corner of East New York is the city’s first industrial improvement district incorporating 77 small- to medium-sized businesses and employing nearly 2,000 people. Most of the jobs, however, are low-paying factory labor. Indeed, only low-skilled workers would take these jobs. “You’re not going to travel 20 miles, 30 miles, or live in Nassau County and travel all the way out here to work in a factory sewing or stitching lace,” Stan Bonilla, East Brooklyn industrial park business improvement district manager, observes. The limited economic opportunities have not given many young people a way out.
Four years ago, the area’s 75th Precinct logged 129 homicides for the six square miles of East New York—more than the more notorious neighborhoods of Harlem and the South Bronx combined—earning it the title “Crime Capital of the World” and “The Killing Fields.” Playgrounds were the site of gun battles, drug dealing, and prostitution. Even with New York City’s much-publicized reduction in crime, a climate of fear still prevails. Residents seek safety in virtual prisons with locks, gates, fences and guards securing their homes.
The small office of Bee Bee Car Service is located below the permanent shadow cast by the elevated tracks of the IRT number 3 line at New Lots Avenue. Carlos Mejia started working as a dispatcher in 1985 with his father, the owner of the business and a Dominican immigrant. Dominicans are East New York’s largest ethnic group.
“Honestly speaking, it’s not very safe,” says Mejia. Bee Bee requires that all cab drivers work with a bulletproof partition—a thin wall between driver and passenger that could mean the difference between life and death. “It is very dangerous to work out here,” Mejia whispered in between answering calls, speaking to the drivers in Spanish. “You got to be very lucky and you got to be blessed by God in hopes that these certain things don’t happen to you.” He had more than enough stories to tell about his drivers’ brushes with death.
Residents have no difficulty explaining the neighborhood’s decline. “I think we’ve been written off by the powers that be,” alleged Youngblood, the pastor at St. Paul and co-chairperson of East Brooklyn Congregations. In the 1970s the community suffered from “red-lining,” a practice whereby banks refused mortgages to low-income areas. They also fell victim to the political strategy sociologists call “planned shrinkage.”
Youngblood explains planned shrinkage as “the powers-that-be sit together in their ivory tower to say that we are gradually going to withdraw services from certain communities.” The theory behind planned shrinkage was that there were too many people in one area who were not contributing to the tax base but instead were living off it. According to its critics, planned shrinkage left devastation in its wake: absentee landlords, mom-and-pop stores selling goods at inflated prices because of the high costs of insurance, theft, and arson. The withdrawal of services eventually translated into joblessness, abandoned housing, and an inadequate school system.
Consider the 19-block area west of Pennsylvania Avenue known as the “Dead Zone.” In just 1993 it tallied 25 homicides. Referring to the tracts of empty lots overgrown with vegetation, Manuel Burgos, who was born and raised in the neighborhood, wryly comments, “This is a great place to dump a body.” Burgos works as project facilitator for Police and Community Together (PACT) at the East New York Urban Youth Corps, a unique community policing partnership between the East New York’s 75th Precinct and the community development corporation. Noting that this past year there has been only one homicide, Burgos attributes the dramatic decrease in crime to new housing construction. “When you build block after block, it completely changes whole parts of a neighborhood.”
Without real efforts at community revitalization, East New York might have become a harrowing tourist site, a living testimonial to the blight of urban decay and benign neglect.
East Brooklyn Congregations, the initiators of the Nehemiah plan, supplied a vision for East New York and Brownsville. The construction of Nehemiah homes in East New York and Brownsville, beginning in the 1980s, reversed the flight of residents in the ’70s by replacing vacant lots and abandoned buildings with low-cost housing. The plan added a middle-income dimension to the community. EBC began by organizing to install street signs. Then they mobilized to build houses and schools, create jobs, register voters, and work on immigration and welfare reform issues. “We’re organizations that are clearly, unabashedly in search of power,” said Ken Thorbourne, former lead organizer at EBC. “We believe that power has to taken seriously and it has to be developed and that it has to be nurtured and powerlessness corrupts more than power.” They raised their own money, trained their own people, and sometimes became confrontational when dealing with elected officials. “James Brown, the famous father of Soul, used to have a line in one of his songs that said, ‘I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees,’” said Youngblood. “And that’s where we are.”
On a Wednesday morning last October, an array of politicians and clergy gathered on a makeshift stage on Hinsdale Street in East New York between two vacant lots to announce the second phase of the Nehemiah plan. The groundbreaking ceremony was for the construction of the 1,200 homes on mostly vacant land in East New York and nearby Spring Creek. For each new home that will be built, New York City will provide a $20,000 subsidy, reducing the purchase price to about $73,000.
East Brooklyn Congregations was founded in 1980 as one of the member organizations of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), a network established in the 1930s by the late Chicago housing activist, Saul Alinsky. Alinsky pioneered democratic, class-based, and multi-racial organizing.
EBC has turned outrage into activism. “The only way you can make civic life work is to get people involved,” mentioned Sister Kathy Maire, lead organizer. “Without the type of structures we provide, people really do feel powerless. They don’t know how to approach elected officials or to hold them accountable. And by coming together we balance out the power so it doesn’t reside simply in the hands of the politician, but that power resides in the community.”
Starting in 1983, the East Brooklyn Congregations’ Nehemiah plan built 2,200 single-family dwellings in Brooklyn’s inner city. (South Brooklyn Churches organized a similar project in the Bronx.) The project was named after the biblical prophet Nehemiah, who rebuilt Jerusalem in 420 BC after the Babylonians razed the city, killing and imprisoning the Jews. All the homes were built under the administration of Edward I. Koch. During the David Dinkins administration, EBC could not get one home built in Brooklyn. “That hurt me as an African American,” acknowledged Youngblood.
Plaques, medals, degrees, life-time achievement awards, and photographs of Paul Robeson, the entertainer and social activist, and Nelson Mandela, line the walls of David Dinkins’ office in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. As mayor, Dinkins visited Nehemiah housing sites and met with Youngblood and others from EBC. “They put in front of me a one page letter of agreement and asked me to sign it,” Dinkins recalled. “And I said, ‘Rev. Youngblood, it doesn’t happen that way. If there’s going to be a letter of agreement, I’ll draft it, and it isn’t done exactly that way.’”
According to Youngblood, the letter of understanding contained nothing that the mayor had not said before. Yet Youngblood contended, “The memo was not signed because we drafted it and nor were any homes built. That’s the bottom line on history.”
“The fact that it took so long to build the homes,” Felice Michetti, former Housing Preservation and Development commissioner and president of Starrett Development Corp., maintains, “had nothing to do with the Dinkins administration.”
EBC believes that only a “critical mass” of new construction is capable of reversing the deterioration, crime, despair, and abandonment that was festering in Brooklyn’s inner city. The aim is not only to build new homes, but to rebuild and invest in the entire community. EBC has been criticized for its plan to condemn private dwellings as well as church and commercial properties in order to expand the construction of Nehemiah homes for continuous blocks. But scatter-site housing, one planner argued, would be overwhelmed by surrounding decay and not turn the community around.
Along with building new homes, EBC established two alternative high schools and a primary heath care center. It has lobbied for a living-wage bill in the City Council, which was passed over Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani’s veto. The bill insured that businesses contracted by the city pay their workers not a minimum wage but a living wage pegged at $12.10 an hour. Youngblood observed that the new term “working poor” is apt. “Historically you could work yourself out of poverty. Now you have to work almost to stay poor,” he said.
“One of the things that’s wrong with the political philosophy of New York City is that it held people in dependency,” Giuliani told the crowd of reporters at the groundbreaking ceremony. “Nehemiah gives people an opportunity to take control over their lives.”
“The first time we started Nehemiah,” said Youngblood, “the opponents were everybody.” Elected officials “were opposed to it mainly because it didn’t come from them. It wasn’t their idea and it wasn’t business as usual,” he added. And why did the organizers of EBC face such hostile opposition? “Because in many ways they do not pay homage to political figures,” the mayor acknowledged. “They require you to answer their questions and they remind you that you are a public servant and unfortunately—particularly in the Bronx with the level of corruption and political unaccountability—it was a real disaster.”
Among the smaller grassroots organizations are the many block, tenant, homeowner, and garden associations. Community gardens began to transform the neighborhood by building cooperative networks among residents. Public schools and neighborhood and community groups have adopted gardens. “They have a huge impact, if they’re active. They’ve really been responsible for turning blocks around,” explained Clara Porter, director of resident advocacy at the East New York Urban Youth Corps, which operates a garden called Ujima, the Swahili word for collective work. “It not only beautifies but it organizes. It’s a real mobilization tool.”
The Concerned Citizens’ Coalition meets the third Wednesday of the month in the small basement auditorium of the New Lots Public Library. The committee’s funds come from a $1 donation by each of the community residents attending the meeting. Carlos Bristol, a 56-year-old life-long resident of East New York, chairs the meetings. An avid numbers player, Bristol is playing 1731 in the Lottery until he wins. It symbolizes the 14 years he spent in prison. Sent to prison at age 17, he got out at 31. He credibly maintains his innocence of the murder charge. “I wanted to help someone else’s child not go through the experience that I went through in this type of a system,” Bristol said, explaining his active community involvement. In his early teenage years, Bristol got caught up in street life and joined a neighborhood gang called El Quintos. He found a new family in the gang. The gang also served as his baptism in politics. “I became a ‘war counselor of the little people,’” Bristol said, “not because of how bad I was but because of who I knew.”
Among his first organizing efforts in East New York was forming a group called Save Our Homes. The impetus was a notice he received announcing that his house was going to be condemned because East Brooklyn Congregations wanted to build continuous rows of housing. During the struggle, Bristol confronted Youngblood. “That’s where I began to gain a lot of respect for him,” Bristol said, “because he was principled and stood up for what he believed in.” EBC opted to build around the homes whose owners wanted to keep them and Bristol is now an active member of Youngblood’s congregation.
The East New York United Front (ENYUF—pronounced “enough”), a committee that organizes residents around environmental and political issues and chaired by Charles Barron, holds its monthly meetings at the offices of the United Community Centers on 613 New Lots Ave. Folding metal chairs are arranged in a circle. Regular members brave inclement weather and forego prime-time television to attend. Meeting are informal, beginning and ending with a prayer with participants, heads bowed, holding hands in a circle.
Barron’s initiation in East New York activism was joining his block association on Bradford Street. He quickly became president. The association’s first accomplishment was closing down a corner store selling marijuana. Block residents posted signs on the trees announcing, “Drug Free Zone. Under Video Watch.” Armed with home video cameras, neighbors chased away cars entering the community to buy drugs.
Eddie Bautista, community liaison at the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, informed Barron about the incinerator proposal for East New York. Mel Grizer, UCC executive director, called Barron for a meeting. The UCC had already begun a massive petition campaign. A coalition was formed called the East New York Community Committee Against the Incinerator. Barron was named chair.
With the help of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Lawyers for the Public Interest, and the New York Public Interest Research Group, the group rallied the community against the incinerator, charging that the proposal was an act of environmental racism. Atlas Bio-Energy, a Long Island-based company, originally planned to build the furnace in the predominantly white village of Speonk in Southampton, Long Island but dropped its permit application in response to mounting opposition. The company then embarked on siting the incinerator along the path of lesser resistance: predominantly minority Brooklyn.
The plant would have operated within a mile of two dozen schools, a score of daycare facilities, and a number of large housing developments. The incinerator would have had definite environmental costs. According to the records of the State Department of Environmental Conservation, the plant would have emitted 94 tons of carbon monoxide, 47 tons of sulfur dioxide, and 49 tons of other types of exhaust into the air each year. What clinched defeat for Atlas Bio-Energy was a law buried in the administrative code that bars most private companies from incinerating refuge in New York City, which would include waste wood.
Youngblood, St. Paul Community Baptist Church, and East Brooklyn Congregations played a crucial supporting role for ENYUF. The defeat of the incinerator plan was one of the community’s and Barron’s greatest victories. The committee decided to stay together after the victory and address broader concerns, becoming the East New York United Front.
Atlas Bio-Energy returned with a second proposal, a natural gas fired co-generation facility that would convert natural gas into electricity. Learning from past experience, it approached ENYUF for input. This proposal, unlike the incinerator, was environmentally benign. In their meeting, Barron suggested that the company set up a relief fund for residents of the community in order to assist them with their utility bills and home weatherization costs. The company pledged in writing to consider setting up the fund. When Alas Bio-Energy sent Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden a letter outlining ENYUF’s proposal, Golden reacted by dispatching a letter to the New York City Department of Investigation, a city agency which scrutinizes other municipal agencies and companies contracted by the city. Golden called on the Department of Investigation to look into “the propriety of such a proposal.” No deals were struck with the developer, Barron maintains. In its response, ENYUF deemed the request for an investigation as a “thinly-veiled political attack on the non-partisan, community-based coalition struggling to improve the quality of life in East New York, Brooklyn.” No one in Golden’s office could produce any evidence that ENYUF had done anything wrong.
Area residents still opposed the plan and ENYUF eventually voted against it. Atlas Bio-Energy had already obtained all the necessary permits and contracted with Con Edison to sell the energy generated by the plant. Con Edison later decided to buy out of its contract, although Atlas retains the right to build the plant and sell the energy elsewhere.
The publicity around the campaign catapulted Barron into the center of East New York politics. As his forty-sixth birthday neared, Barron resolved to make a run for the City Council against 15-year incumbent Priscilla A. Wooten. “I believe it is time for those of us who are doing the work of elected officials to get seats of power so that we could do it more effectively,” said Barron. A very spiritual person, his wife Inez added, “The Lord spoke to me, preparing me that this was going to happen.” All his life Barron had been an outsider at loggerheads with the system. Now he’s decided to change the system by working within it.
The campaign, he emphasized, would be a “people’s campaign.” “Politics isn’t dirty; people are dirty. They’re too many dirty people in politics,” he asserted. “Politics is neutral.” Barron sees himself as an agent for change, altering the City Council by making it more accountable. Changing the system, he believes, means bringing activism to City Hall by involving the community in the political process. There are 58,000 registered voters in the 42nd Councilmanic District. In the last city council election, Wooten received less than 47 percent of the mere 10,314 votes cast. The remaining vote was split between two other candidates. Barron is not averse to pointing out that more people voted against Wooten than for her. “The only poor thing about East New York,” Barron contends, “is the exploitative economic conditions politics has left it in.”
The Democratic Party machine rules East New York. It is steeped in the quagmire of political patronage. The party is split between City Councilwoman Wooten and DeCosta Headley, the district leader for the Democratic Party. Allied with Headley is Congressman Edolphus Towns, who represents the 10th Congressional District, covering large swathes of Brooklyn and part of Lower Manhattan.
Barron met with Towns early in his campaign. “What does your mother-in-law think?” Towns asked him. Barron’s 72-year-old mother-in-law and Wooten are very close friends. “I told my mother-in-law,” Barron replied, “she’s in a win-win situation—‘Sit back and enjoy the ride. Vote for Priscilla Wooten and then get a new dress and come to my victory celebration.’”
Both factions have a tarnished past. Towns demanded a $1,300 kickback from a contractor and escaped indictment when he returned most of the money. Wooten lived illegally in a middle-income apartment. More than a year ago, Glenn Thrush profiled the political fault line of Brooklyn’s political clubhouse in an exposé in City Limits, an urban affairs news magazine. Widely distributed in East New York among various organizations and civic groups, the front page story was entitled, “Hungry for Power: How Politics Preserves Poverty in East New York.”
Tom Catapano, a former State Assemblyman representing East New York, entertains no illusions about the local political scene. “Coronation might have been good for England 200 years ago, but it’s bad for East New York today.” In a district with historically low voter turnout, whoever controls turnout controls the election. A former boxer, Headley, draws his power from his ability to get out the vote on Election Day and raise money for candidates. He is also well-connected in the construction business and is in a position to secure contracts for his friends and political allies. He is president and CEO of Diversified Flintlock Construction with an office located three floors below Barron’s Dynamics of Leadership office on 26 Court St. Headley refused comment for this article. Wooten’s base of support comes from her influence over the local school boards and the public education system. Organizing senior retreats, Wooten has also made a strong pitch for the elderly, who generally vote in large numbers.
“They don’t want any leadership to emerge that will not be in their pockets and under their control,” Barron speculated. Speaking of Headley’s faction, he added, “Even if they’re not that crazy about Priscilla Wooten, they’re not that crazy about the idea of an insurgent candidate—independent, uncontrolled, unbought by them—emerging in East New York.”
The campaign, Barron emphasizes, is about building a movement. Campaign meetings first convened at his 26 Court St. office in Downtown Brooklyn but then moved into the heart of the community. Dubbed “People’s Organizing Meetings,” campaign volunteers gathered bimonthly in the lower level of the Greater Bright Light Baptist Church on 1320 Sutter Ave. Fundraising and people power are seen as the keys to victory. Barron’s campaign battle strategy incorporates four stages: the winter maneuvers, the spring offensive, the summer invasion, and the fall victory.
Sharon Smith, a caseworker at a Brooklyn family shelter, is campaign manager. Along with a coalition of other students, faculty, and community members, she took over the administration of Medgar Evers College for 110 days in 1982, calling for the president’s resignation, and the creation of child-care facilities as well as a women’s and a black studies departments.
Chair of the Concerned Citizens’ Coalition, Carlos Bristol is the deputy campaign manager. He also heads the small band of volunteers charged with posting flyers in housing developments and on trees, telephone poles, and bus shelters. Large neon posters and campaign letterhead have a headshot of Barron, hand resting on chin. Barron is hoping that these posters will enhance his name recognition with voters.
Bristol told of one postering campaign in the Pink Houses on a frigid winter day. Coming upon a few children playing in the snow after school, he handed them flyers and said, “Mr. Barron is running for the City Council and when he gets elected, he’s going to get y’all some toys.”
“Will he teach me how to read?” one boy wanted to know.
“With tears welling up in his eyes, Bristol replied, “Yeah, he’ll teach you.”
Paul T. Washington, the campaign’s political analyst and a teacher at Intermediate School 55 in Brownsville, originated the concept of a “people’s campaign.” “If it’s not a people’s campaign,” he told Barron, “I don’t want to have anything to do with it.”
Larry Martin handles the campaign’s finances. Barron first met Martin as a student at C. W. Post College at Long Island University. Martin belonged to a Greek fraternity that was also politically engaged. “I was impressed with him,” Barron said, “because that fraternity was beyond partying and they weren’t caught up into Greekism. They were more of an Afrocentric fraternity.”
Another campaign volunteer, Hazel Beekles Young Lao, helped found Women of Steel, the first all-women’s steel orchestra in East Flatbush. An activist from early on, she participated in demonstrations against racism in her native Trinidad. She works at Community Service Society, training community-based organizations and working with parents on education issues.
An actor and former cab driver, Cary Barnes is known to everyone in Linden Houses where he has lived for 27 years as “Brother Cary.” He initiated and administers youth programs and started up more than a dozen gardens. Dedicated to the Linden Houses youth who lost their lives to violence, one of the gardens he helped establish last year is named “In Loving Memory.” Barnes is the Linden Houses tenant association president. He objects, however, to the locutions “tenant” and “housing project.” “Our community is no longer a project and we are no longer tenants in it,” he argues. “Our community is a beautiful ‘urban village’ and that we are God’s children blessed with a multiplicity of talents. Our challenge is to build a community which is the oneness of us. We were not brought here 400 years ago to be destroyed, but to become the people of God and inspire others.” Upon Barnes’s recommendation, the campaign adopted the term “urban village” to denote the tall buildings that look alike. Although he has witnessed the invasion of crack and the outbreak of violence as well as the crystallization of despair, hopelessness, and indifference, Barnes is still committed to the vision of an urban village and, like Hillary Clinton, the belief that it takes a whole village to raise a child.
A retired bus driver, licensed clergyperson and a 33-year community activist, Delphine Peterman has lived in East New York since 1961 and is known in the community as Evangelist Peterman. Knowing that Wooten loved verse, Peterman wrote the councilwoman a poem entitled “It’s Spring.” “I love her dearly as a human being,” Peterman said of Wooten, “but she’s the worst politician that we could have for East New York at this time.”
In his eighties and a great-grandfather, John Carter has never missed voting in a primary or general election since 1935. Like Evangelist Peterman, Carter campaigned for Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. “I believe in activism,” he said, “I don’t believe in waiting around and depending on someone else to do what I have to get out and try to do myself.”
As he builds a local, broad-based constituency for his campaign, Barron anticipates holding office for at least two terms, a total of eight years. Campaign issues center on the three E’s: education, environment, and the economy. Among the education reforms he advocates are local school councils that give more control of the school to parents. Barron has also actively championed an Ebonics bridge program to teach standard English to African American children. “Since coming to the shores of America as enslaved Africans, our oppressors have placed a negative value judgment upon our African-ness. They said our hair was bad, so we straightened it. They said our skin was too dark, so we lightened it. They said we spoke bad or broken English, so we had to learn ‘proper’ or ‘standard English.’”
Although Wooten heads the education committee on the City Council, the East New York school district ranks near the bottom in math and reading scores. “If I’m chairperson of the dogcatchers committee there ought to be no stray dogs in my community,” Barron is quick to point out. School board meetings are sparsely attended. “Poor neighborhoods have low performing kids,” acknowledged Robert Riccobono, superintendent for Community School Board 19 in East New York. “And it’s not the kids, it’s the schools.”
Public education is caught in the vice of local politics. The Rev. John Powis, pastor at St. Barbara Roman Catholic Church in Bushwick and co-chairperson of EBC, has been involved in education issues for more than three decades. Education advocacy began for him in 1963 in the effort to integrate schools in Oceanhill-Brownsville, a school district that suffered from severe overcrowding. What ensued five years later was a devastating, months-long teachers’ strike. The legislators who drafted the subsequent decentralization laws, Powis charged, had patronage in mind: “In this district and in most districts now, all appointments of principals, assistant principals, teachers, paraprofessionals, parent jobs—all go through the local politician who controls the local school board.”
Crime, the environment, and the economy also figure in Barron’s campaign platform. Along with Sharpton, he supports a community residency requirement for New York City police officers and an independent agency to prosecute police officers in brutality cases. He also wants to recruit retired black and Latino police officers to close drug centers in East New York. Once during a town hall meeting in East New York, Barron challenged Mayor Giuliani that if he’s so confident that crime has gone down, why doesn’t he leave his entourage behind and walk through the streets.
Barron has called for the monitoring of air quality in East New York, a campaign to reverse the new federal and state welfare reforms, and a citywide fund to rebuild infrastructure and create jobs. When asked what issues her campaign stood for, Wooten, on the other hand, confidently declared, “My record speaks for itself.”
Recognizing the clergy’s power and influence in the community, Barron’s campaign has focussed on the local churches.
“Thank God we all have one more breath today,” Barron roared in St. Paul Community Baptist Church on Martin Luther King Day one cold Monday in January. “I’m glad to stand in front of you today to say there’s going to be some changes right here in East New York. Isn’t that right? It’s going to be the masses versus the machine. And we are going to win.” Moments later Al Sharpton announced his mayoral candidacy from the same podium.
“In the 1960s radical change in American society seemed possible,” Youngblood later recalled in an interview. “Unfortunately, I was seriously on the outskirts of the civil rights movement. My mother was from rural Louisiana and my father was from ultra-rural Mississippi. They wouldn’t let me be part of the burgeoning protest movement.”
Watching the 1968 March on Washington inspired Youngblood. “I was literally in catatonic awe of Martin King,” he reminisced. Religion, he realized, shouldn’t be confined to the four walls of a church. What took place in the streets was also religion.
The Sunday before the elections, Youngblood recalled for his congregation the biblical story of David and Goliath. “We got a stone,” he shouted. “Everybody in here has got a stone.”
Looking back on his life, Barron doesn’t think he’s changed much since his days with the Panthers. “I think I still got the same fire in my belly. I still got the same boyish enthusiasm about change and activism,” he mused. “If there’s any areas I’ve changed, I think I got a little wiser. I’m not as quick to fly off at the handle. I took no prisoners. I’ve learned how to win people over and be more persuasive than to alienate people with hot rhetoric and attacking kind of language.”
Barron officially announced his candidacy for the City Council on the steps of City Hall in April. As the petition process began, campaign headquarters were set up in the basement of Carlos Bristol’s home on Barbey Street. In gathering signatures one late afternoon, Bristol stood outside Bob’s Place, a soul food restaurant by St. Paul Community Baptist Church. “We’re out here trying to make a change,” he told one registered Democrat, handing her a petition for her signature. “We’re tired of complaining.”
“Can we have you sign our petition for Charles Barron?” he asked another woman he recognized from St. Paul. “That’s the one pastor has been talking about,” he reminded her.
The Barron campaign again gathered on the steps of City Hall in June to accept the endorsement of David Dinkins. Later, in a celebrity tennis tournament, Dinkins came to East New York to support Barron’s candidacy. A strong supporter of an issue-oriented campaign, Barron’s mother-in-law, Margaret R. Smith, not only came to show her support, but contributed $1,000 to the campaign.
At the end of the five-week petition period, campaign volunteers gathered 5,000 signatures, well over the 900 needed to get on the ballot. “I won’t promise you the world,” Barron candidly tells voters, “but I’ll promise you a good fight for everything you need.” Campaign letters end with the slogan synonymous with Barron: “The struggle may be long, but victory is certain.” The campaign raised $15,000 through creative fundraising events and neighborhood house parties called “chat-and-chews.” Qualifying for double-matching funds from the New York City Campaign Finance Board, Barron collected nearly $40,000 for his bid for the City Council.
“I have visions of City Hall,” Barron confidently declared one evening after a long day’s campaigning. “I walk through the district like it’s mine.”
Illustrating the need for campaign reform, the incumbent city councilwoman, filing charges of voter fraud, embarked on a prolonged court battle in an attempt to knock her opponent off the ballot. Court documents went as far as to claim that Barron was not a U.S. citizen. The strategy of battling in court also serves to deplete a challenger’s limited funds. The charges were dismissed, but Wooten appealed. Again, Barron won. However, in defending his right to be on the ballot, he spent more than $10,000.
“In the election process out here in East New York, most incumbents don’t want to have a primary,” Barron observed. “Rather than try and win an election fairly in the streets or at the ballot box, they try to win it in the court by knocking all their challengers off the ballot.”
On the eve of September’s Democratic primary, Barron had the endorsement of the New York Times and the Amsterdam News. The campaign was gearing for the fall victory. But days before the primary, Sharpton had meetings at his home with Ed Towns and DeCosta Headly, agreeing to endorse the judges they supported against those championed by Clarence Norman, leader of Brooklyn’s Democratic Party. A heavy patronage position, judges are the strategic pawns in the game of Brooklyn power politics.
Perhaps better judgement would have dictated caution. “It’s always uncomfortable when your endorser is working with one of your enemies, who’s supporting your opponent,” expressed Barron. Palm cards handed out by Wooten’s supporters listed Sharpton’s name for major, the judges endorsed by Towns, and Wooten’s name for the City Council. On the day of the Democratic primary, Wooten’s campaign organized an army of paid volunteers in the streets and around the polling sites.
In a last-ditch effort to get voters to the polls hours before closing, volunteers from Baron’s campaign, palm cards in hand, went to the Pink Houses, in buildings whose elevators were soaked with urine, frantically knocking on doors, making a final yet unanswered plea for residents to go out and vote. But supported by the might and money of the local political establishment, Wooten won the Democratic primary.
In the process of running for public office, Barron witnessed the fierce nature of politics. “Power is not an easy thing to take. People worked hard to attain it and they’re not going to let it go that easy,” he observed. “They’re going to do everything they can to hold on to that power. So for those of us who are trying to get it, you don’t get it in a flash.” Following a campaign that began more than a year ago, Inez Barron said, “God didn’t intent for us to win at this time.”
But Barron’s political career has just begun. He is eyeing the race for district leader against DeCosta Headley coming up in 1998 and plans another run for the City Council in 2001, when term limits would have retired the veteran incumbent. “There should never be an uncontested race that goes on in our community,” Barron believes.
Nonetheless, the direction and substance of East New York politics have already fundamentally changed. Revolution, Barron likes to say, is a process. While this time victory may not have been on the horizon, the process has begun.