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Ras Baraka elected mayor of Newark

By David Hungerford |
May 14, 2014
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Newark, NJ - The May 13 election of Ras J. Baraka as mayor of Newark is nationwide news, like the 1970 election of Kenneth Gibson. It arouses many expectations.

Gibson was the first African American mayor of a major northeastern city. The Democratic Party bosses had their own candidate. A homegrown alliance upset the machine’s applecart. A historic Black and Puerto Rican Political Convention was held in 1969. It nominated Gibson and pulled off a major upset of the machine. The architect of the alliance was Amiri Baraka, the father of Ras Baraka.

Gibson’s election came at time of social upheaval. The defeat abroad of the U.S. wars of aggression in Southeast Asia, the Civil Rights Movement and the succeeding Black Power Movement at home all combined to bring a time of political and ideological crisis. Amiri Baraka later said it was only the time of crisis that allowed for the defeat of the machine.

There are many parallels today. U.S. imperialism is bogged down in stalemate and disaster in its many wars of aggression, all of which will sooner or later end in defeat. War weariness, worsening abuses of oppressed peoples, the growth of incredible wealth for a few while the majority face depression conditions and loss of constitutional rights have bred a climate of rebelliousness.

Newark is the scene of a huge parental rebellion against the closing of schools by a state-imposed superintendent. Small children will have to travel around a large city due to the loss of neighborhood schools and district schools are being stripped of resources in favor of charter schools, etc. Youth unemployment, gang violence and imprisonment are acute problems that have gone on for years with nothing being done beyond a little lip service here and there.

Baraka’s opponent, Shavar Jeffries, was lavishly funded, with at least $2 million to spend. He had the support of two Democratic Party bosses. Joseph D. Vincenzo (“Joey D” to those he likes) can sway any election in the northern part of the state and George Norcross runs things in the southern part. Democrat or Republican, it doesn’t much matter, one or the other of them can pretty much set you up. Both are close to Governor Chris Christie, who also supported Jeffries. Like previous Newark mayor Cory Booker, Jeffries got a totally artificial national media buildup. Jeffries’ big weak point is that he has no real history in Newark.

In contrast, the Newark-born Ras Baraka, formerly a high school principal and city councilman, has been locally prominent in his own right for decades. He has long spoken out against police brutality, in defense of regular district public schools and on many other issues of immediate interest to the community. Thus the election was a notable test of people’s demands that their needs be met, versus Democratic Party routine. Baraka did not have as much money as Jeffries, but he benefited from a real popular enthusiasm among Newark’s large community of active and aware citizens. That more than made up the difference. The election returns showed him getting 54% of the vote. Just as in 1970, it was an outcome of a time of crisis.

His written platform statements are much more extensive and detailed than usual - on jobs, education, economic development, etc. There are things that can and must be done. The schools have been controlled by the state since 1995 and the results are disastrous. The school system must be returned to local control, even if it takes a pitched people’s political battle to drive the state out.

But no bones can be made about it: the possibilities of real benefit to the masses are limited. The city’s problems are the problems of capitalism itself. cannosult of the country having become too rich, or "es are limited. the many other issues of immediaIts finances are firmly in the grip of Wall Street and no election can change or 'democratize' that.

Kenneth Gibson fell back into the Democratic Party mold within a few years. A small sector of middle income and moderately wealthy people benefited. Most did not. The way Gibson’s administration played out was a great lesson to many people, Amiri Baraka not least among them. The challenge before Ras Baraka is to continue to rely on the people and their struggle. More struggle, more active people, more aware people—that is the real criterion of progress.

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