More Booker Bashing

by Dax-Devlon Ross

Newark should be officially deemed a part of the Third World. From former Mayor Sharpe James’s shenanigans while in office to the current movement to skewer Cory Booker before he even finishes the first half of his first term, Newark politics  is as seedy (and utterly fascinating in a backwards sort of way) as anything Chinua Achebe wrote about  post-colonial Nigeria  a half-century ago. Meanwhile, the people of Newark exhibit the symptoms of a citizenry that’s been  so utterly abused by their government for so long that anyone who tries to heal them is regarded with a suspicious eye. The latest article on Cory Booker in the New York Times series chronicling his first year in office is Exhibit A )or Z, depending on how closely you’ve been following his tenure in Newark). For Booker it has been an unceasing battle with entrenched myopia and skin cynicism. Every move he makes is met with finger pointing and name calling. He’s not black. He doesn’t care about the city. He’s a sell-out. Now, apparently, there’s a burgeoning recall movement. Exactly what Newarkers hope to accomplish by ousting the mayor mid-term is woefully uncertain. Precisely how getting rid of him is going to benefit the city, the schools, the redevelopment projects already underway in the long run is equally unspecified. The one thing that is clear is that the idea of ousting a mayor in his first term when he has not committed any illegal act is  an insane waste of time. But, again, this is why I say Newark should be deemed part of the Third World.


Understandably, people are impatient. Their children are being undereducated. Their streets are still rampant with drugs and violence. But residents seem unwilling to accept or acknowledge is that the previous mayor(s) Kenneth Gibson and Sharpe James bear the responsibility for the current disaster, and that no single administration can undo the damage that’s been done in one year. What residents also seem unwilling to accept is the limited power any mayor of a major city has in the first place, let alone one where the leading employer is the city. Mayors are beholden to business interests. They need profitable enterprises to come to their city, and yet Newark residents seem to think Booker is a comprador because he is encouraging business to come to the city.


My biggest beef is probably with poet/activist Amiri Baraka, a personal hero of mine. He is one of the main voices calling for Booker’s head, and he is doing so on the grounds that Booker is simply bringing in white faces to encumber black spaces. Mr. Baraka is an avowed Marxist-Leninist, has been since the mid-70s. Before that he was a radical black nationalist.  He is fundamentally opposed to the “system” on principled grounds, and I respect and even admire that. He believes capitalism is doomed and that race and class are inextricably linked under the banner of American (indeed Western) hegemony. His opposition to Booker is purely symbolic in that he knows the mayor (if we believe Baraka’s suspicions, that is) is merely a front for a much larger and more pernicious insurgency, just as he knows Sharpe James was also a front for behind-the-scenes interested parties. In fact, the only salient difference between Baraka’s critique of Booker and of James (and Gibson before that) is that the James’ beneficiaries were black. In the 70’s Baraka once wrote of post-civil rights urban America,


“those of us who were still determined to serve the people began to understand that merely putting blackfaces in high places, without changing the fundamental nature of the system itself, simply served to make that system more flexible and dangerous…Increasingly also we found especially in places like Newark-where we have wall to wall black bureaucrats, with Mercedes Benzes, Afros, hip sideburns, cardin suits, humpback high heels, Lincolns who are mayors, superintendents of schools, police chiefs…–that it was these very blacks who were now in charge of oppression and exploitation. “


Mr. Baraka and others of his generation and bent know that the problems facing Newark are systemic and yet his outspoken stance  leads people to believe that simply removing Booker from office will somehow alleviate the issues. He fans the  race flames by attacking Booker personally when he  knows that his own gripe is systemic and that Booker is merely a symbol. Meanwhile, the people who are truly suffering – Newarkers that is – hold steadfast to the illusion (another function of the battered psyche) that somehow it is the mayor’s job to feed, clothe, protect and shelter them.  


To his credit Sharpe James was keenly aware of his own limitations and focused his energies on providing the people with symbolic victories-hirings of key blacks in particular. By hiring key local blacks to esteemed positions he propped up the illusion of black power and assured himself a grassroots base come election season. It was a marvelous tactic and even though it is all unraveling now, it served him well for twenty years. But it also created a culture of expectation. For instance, the Newark Star-Ledger recently reported that James provided dozens and dozens of ‘sweetheart’ land deals to supporters throughout his tenure. The former mayor, under the city’s auspices, sold land at cut-rate costs to “developers” who often a) sat on the land or b) sold it for enormous profits. According to the Star-Ledger story (which is only the latest, as this is really old news) one James supporter bought several parcels of land for $46,000 and resold it a month later for $700,000!


Given these (and other) revelations about the James administration it is not coincidental that many of Booker’s main critics are former James acolytes and supplicants. These people were effectively left out in the cold after last year’s election. They lost cushy, self-aggrandizing positions that allowed them to call upon the mayor personally. They lost their power by association.


If the criticism Mayor Booker has been receiving thus far speaks to anything it is his naiveté. By hiring a white fire chief and police commissioner and bringing in several of his Stanford and Yale classmates, he seems to have underestimated the extent to which the people of Newark have been damaged by the culture of expectation and to have idealistically believed that his good intentions alone should speak for themselves. There are still thousands of Newarkers who bear the scars of the ’67 riots and the black power movement that followed and thousands more for whom racism is still more than just an institutional impediment that can be overcome by hard work. These are folks who can’t forget what they witnessed or what they fought for, and they certainly can’t stomach the idea of their city being turned over to ‘outsiders’ even if they are, as Booker sees it, the most qualified to carry out the task at hand. Furthermore, Booker explains his hiring practices as a matter of looking out for the city’s best interests; however, he makes a common (particularly among conservatives) mistake in assuming institutional pedigrees automatically equate to job preparedness and performance. In defense of his critics, he should caution against undervaluing constituents with established and deeply-rooted ties to the old guard and the city itself, and look within for people who may not have Ivy League degrees but who know in the city intimately.


Ultimately, this whole controversy speaks to the question of what a mayor’s role is. Booker seems to see his position from a purely administrative perspective. Newark is a job to him and he takes that job seriously. But a mayor is also more than that. A mayor, especially a black one in a black city, is a symbol of the people’s aspirations, a link to the alienating and distressing annals of power. He or she is a leader who not only makes his people feel safe and secure, but provides them with an intangible sense of beingness in the face of total anonymity. Perhaps in this one regard, Mayor Booker would do well to take a cue from his predecessor.