It’s His Show
By Shane Paul Neil
The year 2014 feels like a lifetime ago. President Barack Obama was in office and Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” played regularly on every radio station. Americans showed cautious concern about the Ebola virus as it bubbled a continent away. Meanwhile, we mourned the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of police officers. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Ras J. Baraka became Mayor of Newark in 2014 and inherited a city at a crossroads with a $93 million budget deficit and the highest crime rate in nearly fifteen years. Many viewed Newark as another Detroit— a city that had lost touch with its remarkable potential.
Seven years later, Newark is a different place partly due to a double-digit drop in the crime rate and efforts to increase the city’s economic outlook with corporations like Audible, Panasonic, Mars, and others now calling Newark home. And while many changes can come at a cost, like over-policing and gentrification, protecting the people of Newark from both, ranks high on Baraka’s list of priorities.
I asked how he worked to include the citizens of Newark in his efforts to raise the city’s economy. “It’s difficult. We put systems in place like inclusionary zoning ordinances that require affordability. We create an equitable growth commission to set guardrails for different things we do in the city. We try to create opportunities for Black and brown businesses . . .” he explained. “We’re trying to build wealth here, raise the standard of living, and give people the opportunity to have access to resources at the same time as the city is developing.”
At a time when the subject of policing has been a polarizing one, Baraka’s efforts to find balanced solutions stand out. A staunch advocate for a Citizen’s Complaint Review Board with subpoena power, he also supports the city’s police force. “I’m from Newark. I know the people in these communities, people’s grandmothers and mothers. They want to feel safe in their own neighborhoods. The notion of we’re not going to have a police department just doesn’t work here.” He continued, “You have to fight crime, so we do that in a two-fold way. We do it by supporting the police department, but also by creating initiatives—community led initiatives that help reduce violence and crime . . . The idea is not to get rid of the police but to control the police. The police should be under the control of the community.”
With religion as an integral part of Newark’s culture, Baraka shared, “While I don’t use it [my faith] to govern, as people believe a myriad of things, what I do understand is that these faith institutions in our community have a great impact. They are organized, and they organize people in our community. These religious leaders are community leaders. They have to be involved in moving the city forward in a way that’s accepting of other people’s beliefs. I believe that we have to have deference to a higher power. I don’t like to mix my personal beliefs with what I’m doing politically, but I do understand there is a power greater than me.”
With less than a year remaining in Baraka’s current term, he didn’t mention the 2022 election in his recent State of the City address. However, according to Insider NJ, “No one appears willing or able to step up in opposition to the popular Baraka,” and hints at a possible gubernatorial run in 2025 have surfaced, so we asked the Mayor about his accomplishments and the city’s future.
“A lot of the problems the city had and were overlooked, we tackled. We’re changing the image of what people think Newark is, who is here, and what it’s about,” he responded. “People always talk about the Black Meccas. People talk about places like Atlanta and Harlem; I think Newark has the opportunity to be that as well, in an expansive way. People from all over the world, especially Black and brown countries, can come here and feel safe and comfortable.”
For the next Mayor of Newark, Baraka has this advice, “There are a lot of pitfalls folks should be aware of. A lot of people like the lights, but when they get here, they don’t understand all the other things that come with them. You should really be prepared when you come and take this seat. Make sure you are furthering what the person before you left. It’s always a baton. You have to own it. It’s your show.”