Posted on 01 April 2016 Return
Charles Barron is an inspiring anomaly. A former Black Panther who crossed over into electoral politics but stayed true to his roots. A New York Assemblyman who is as comfortable in the streets with a megaphone as he is in the congressional chamber standing up to anyone who tries to take liberties with the truth. He delights in bucking the system because, as he’ll tell you time and time again, the system doesn’t work in favor of the people. He’s not too concerned about rules and conventions, only justice and equality. Barron is a self-proclaimed “elected activist” and revolutionary, and we owe him a debt for his courage, tenacity, and victories on behalf of the disenfranchised.
You used to be a member of the Black Panther Party and it was known for some very worthwhile community programs. Tell us a bit about your involvement in those programs.
Well I was with the New York Black Panther Party based in Harlem and two members, Mark Holder and Tony Martin, recruited me. I lived on the Lower East Side in a public housing development called Lillian Wald. I wasn’t in the leadership or anything like that. They had a free breakfast program, and they had a clothing drive where they gave out free clothing, and also survival packages – food packages. And then in New York City there was also some acupuncture help and some concerns about sickle-cell anemia; they led the charge in getting the nation to pay more attention to sickle-cell anemia. So: the survival program, the free breakfast program, the clothing program, and we also provided legal assistance. Brothers and sisters who were arrested by police, we often bailed them out and got some legal assistance as well. And I’d like to say that the free breakfast program, the Panthers made it popular in America and over 22 states passed laws to get free breakfasts out to children. So we had quite an impact.
You are very much a direct-action type of activist and unabashed radical. I noticed on your Congressional webpage you have a quote from Martin Luther King, as well as the famous “by any means necessary” quote of Malcolm X. In 2015, in terms of Black America, what do you believe “by any means necessary” should include.
“By any means necessary” means just that. The tactics and strategies of Africans who are oppressed by capitalism and racism in America, means they have to do whatever is necessary – and sometimes it goes beyond peaceful means. As you see in some of the situations with our police – the abuse of power and terrorizing our people – that when we march peacefully and protest peacefully they’re rejected or ignored. The minute some place engages in violence, or responds in a more aggressive way, then the whole world pays attention to it – like Ferguson and now Baltimore. But we had in New York City 41 bullets for Amadou Diallo. We were peaceful.
We marched. No justice. Then 41 bullets weren’t enough to kill an African immigrant in New York City; they went and used 50 bullets right after that on Sean Bell. He was innocent. We didn’t tear up anything. No marches, no violence, no nothing. No justice. There was no CNN, there was no president speaking out, there was no UN general secretary speaking out, there was no world paying attention to those issues. We were peaceful and got not justice. But when Ferguson went up in flames, and Baltimore went up in flames, or capitalism and its properties are in danger, then it seems that they pay attention. So we’re going to do what is necessary to get the yoke of oppression off our backs. And we don’t take anything out of our arsenal to fight. Peaceful demonstration and any kind of resistance that we must take, is, I think, what we must do.
Dovetailing that can you tell me a little bit about the differences between working outside of “the system” – for example when you were a Black Panther – and your current role as an assemblyperson “within the system.”
Well there’s no “outside of the system” as far as I’m concerned. Electoral politics is another strategy within the system, protests and demonstrating is a strategy within the system, holding forums and having plebiscites and having people’s tribunals are all within the system, a workers strike is within the system, and not paying taxes is within the system. There is no “outside the system.” We’re all fighting within the system and there are different kinds of strategies and tactics you’re using. I’m still a Black Panther to my heart.
I still demonstrate and protest and will do whatever’s necessary for our liberation. And electoral strategy was something that the Black Panther party used! They ran [Black Panther co-founder] Bobby Seale in 1973 for mayor of Oakland. And he did very well – he had over 40 percent of the vote. And at the same time, they ran [Black Panther Chairwoman] Elaine Brown for city council in Oakland and she got 35,000 votes, although she didn’t win it. Then there was Eldridge Cleaver for president on the Peace and Freedom Party line. So electoral strategy was always a part of the Black Panther Party strategy. Because you have to engage state power. You cannot ignore state power. There’s no revolution in the world that has ignored state power and been successful. So we are engaging state power and we’re all within the system.
I don’t see myself as outside with the Panthers, then inside with the [New York State] Assembly. I’m still a Black Panther to my heart, still believe in [the Panthers’] 10-Point Program. When you think of the Black Panther Party’s 10-Point Program, what did we call for? We called for decent housing, a relevant education, we called for health care, we called for food, clothing and shelter, we called for an end to police brutality, we called for an exemption from military service, we called for justice, and we called for self-determination in the black community in terms of economics. I still believe in every one of those platform issues. And I continue to fight for that using the strategy of the electoral arena, where I do have access to more resources, and I have greater contact and confrontation with the powers, because we have to continue to engage state power.
Going by your photograph on the New York Assembly’s website [giving a version of the power salute], to your personal tactics and the uncompromisingly radical things you say, you’re hardly the typical politician. How are you received by other Assembly members?
Well, I’m respected highly. People know that there’s a certain amount of respect that you have to have for someone who is courageous enough and is strong in this body to say openly that I am a black, radical, revolutionary elected official – openly that I am anti-capitalist, I am anti-imperialist. I say openly that I believe in socialism and that these are things I’m fighting for. And to be able to actually win an election saying that…! I don’t wear shirts and ties, I wear a Nehru suit. I don’t salute the Pledge of Allegiance – I sit down when my colleagues are doing that, because my momma told me never pledge to a lie: There is no freedom and justice for all.
So I do all of those things and still get elected. Not only did I get elected for 12 years on the [New York] city council, I was able to bring in and support 6,000 units of real affordable housing – as I define “affordability.” The AMI [area median income] for my area is from $25,000 to $50,000 – and we have 100 percent affordability, with a 13.2 percent increase in the black population in East New York. More than any other black community in New York City – whereas in Harlem and Bed Stuy and Crown Heights they’re losing black population to gentrification. That’s not happening in East New York, and that’s why it’s important to be engaged in the electoral arena, because you have a greater influence in terms of state power and the power to have the developers come to you, even though they know you’re a Black Panther. Because I have to sign off on some of the projects that come in. What are called the ULURP projects or the Uniform Land Use Review Projects? So there’s a little semblance of power. We brought in two $80 million grants for two new schools. I was able to get millions of dollars from the city council to renovate parks in my district.
I was involved in a community organization that created jobs for youth. And the Man Up! Program in East Brooklyn. Then there’s the East New York Restoration program, which brought in businesses that hired people in the community. And scholarships for kids. So I was able to do all of that as a black, radical revolutionary socialist, nationalist, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist. That is quite an accomplishment.
What, in your opinion, is the most effective way for grassroots activists to achieve security for black people in police custody, and to have police who infringe upon their rights dealt with effectively?
We have to have a multi-strategic approach. We do have to rise up and get our asses mobilized and organized around the question of police terror in our community. That’s number one. Number two: We have to begin to engage big power! And I would really encourage black youth and black activists and black radicals to consider running for electoral seats. But stay black! Be revolutionary! Stay radical! Put on the shirt and tie but stay radical. But don’t put it on and then change your strategy like some of the Panthers that got elected into office, and civil rights leaders that got elected into office. They wound up not being as radical as when they were out of office. I didn’t change a bit. I would encourage them to use the electoral arena. For instance, what I’m trying to do about controlling the police in our community; we have police precinct councils in our community. So I want to pass some legislation that gives them some teeth. Give them some teeth, some power, instead of what they are now: controlled by police precincts.
I want them to be community councils that can determine the policing policy for that area that can have influence over who is going to be the commander for that precinct, and things like that where they actually have some power. Always have the discretion of power. I would say we have to get into economic development. Self-determined. Collective work and responsibility cooperatives; so that we now can own some of the businesses, own some of the land in our neighborhoods. You see, we live in a domestic colony of American capitalism; in that my beloved East New York is 70 percent black, 20 percent Latino, but 100 percent of the businesses and the land are owned by people outside of our community. The hospital is run by people outside of our community. The police precinct is run by people outside of our community. The education system is run by people outside of our community.
We are a domestic colony of American capitalism! Once we understand that, then your struggle is not just against police brutality, the struggle is for power and economic justice. And political power. Take over the local political seats! Black radical revolutionaries. Even city council members should be the district leaders, should be the assemblypersons. And don’t go for these neo-colonial black puppets. That’s what they’re putting up: The Democratic Party is giving us neo-colonial black puppets, elected in the black communities that continue to allow white male supremacy and capitalism to control the area. And they espouse the same policies that the white politician espouses, except they have a black face on it. We don’t just want black faces in high places.
Even the presidency that is the custodian of an imperialistic foreign policy, an exploitive capitalist and domestic policy. We don’t want a change in the complexion of the police commissioner, we want a change in direction of the police department. These are the things I would encourage black activists to do: Deal with the question of power; structural for change. Anti-capitalist structural change.
I’m also a believer in structural, institutional, radical change. But there’s a paradox I’d like to get your thoughts on. Built into our system and our society – and for understandable reasons – we do things to ameliorate the harm caused by the way society is structured. We have charities and nonprofits, etc. and we take part in certain altruistic activities. So, paradoxically, do we help to prolong the current status quo by patching up some of the wounds it causes?
That is a brilliant question. That is the real challenge of dealing in electoral politics. I wrestled with that one for a long time when I got involved in the electoral arena. It’s not like when we don’t get engaged in it we highlight the contradictions and make apparent the contradictions of patching it up.
It’s not like some radical structural change happens, because we’re not involved. I think it’s critical that black radical revolutionaries get involved. But you know what? When you don’t get involved, the neoliberal blacks and the conservative blacks, are going to get those resources; have that SESTA [Sisters Empowering Sisters Towards Achievement] program; and deliver that to the black community and you will be isolated on the sideline by yourself preaching revolution to the choir. But when you are the one who’s delivering the jobs…When I deliver jobs, and I deliver housing, and I deliver someone from the clutches of police terror, I also deliver the message to those people that the system is a fatally flawed system that will never work for us.
So now that you’ve got this apartment, and now that you’ve got this job, join the struggle for liberation. Amilcar Cabral, the radical revolutionary from Guinea-Bissau [Africa], said something brilliant: “Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone’s head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children.” So if you can’t address the material needs of the people…That’s what the Black Panther Party was doing. That’s why they engaged in the electoral arena, because they needed to address the material needs of our people. If you have a hungry people, a starving people, homeless people, and your movement is not providing any of that, only rhetoric, the likelihood of you getting them to rise up and fight, join you, is slim to none. The paradoxical situation that you expressed is correct. That’s why I don’t wear a shirt and tie.
That’s why I talk radical. That’s why I don’t salute the American flag. That’s why I have political education and leadership training classes and cultural awareness classes, to go along with delivering the material benefits. That’s why I have in my group Operation P.O.W.E.R. (People Organizing & Working for Empowerment & Respect), 10 young, dynamic, black, radical activists, that are in the process of being trained and organized to take my place, and my wife’s place, to deliver some black radical politics. Along with materialism, you have to deliver the radical message.
You have been arrested and you’ve been jailed. For young black activists starting out now, that might be a part of their future. Do you have any advice for them, in terms of dealing with the police?
We always say we’re all in jail. There’s maximum security out here, and there’s minimum security behind bars. There’s no way that you can avoid that. You can go to jail, get shot and killed by police, just by being black. And if you notice, most of the people that we are fighting for, who were killed by police, weren’t black activists! Sean Bell wasn’t an activist. Amadou Diallo wasn’t an activist. [Michael] Brown wasn’t an activist. [Freddie] Gray wasn’t an activist.
Yusef Hawkins wasn’t an activist. Nobody that I ever organized around police killings was an activist. So fear not! You don’t want to do unnecessary foolish stuff to prove anything, to get arrested so that we waste resources in that direction, but fear not being arrested. Fear not dying. Because the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed. That’s Steve Biko. We’ve got to get to the minds of our people, and we can’t get to our people by having fear of prison or death.