Newark’s Mayor Meets One-on-One With Gangs to Forge Peace

With less than six months in office, Mayor Ras Baraka is trying some nontraditional methods to stop the violence in his city.

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Mayor Ras Baraka in 2014

Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for Brooklyn Academy of Music

With his first-100-days marker past, Newark, N.J.’s new mayor, Ras Baraka, is trying a variety of actions to keep crime down in his bullet-riddled city. And variety means not just within the range of conventional, public-official thinking: Last week he had a secret meeting with gang leaders in a city church, with inside security provided by the Nation of Islam, while members of the Newark Police Department remained outside.

Although that idea may seem strange to outsiders, to Newark - largely populated by poor black and brown people raised in the residue of the 1970s “Power to the people” era—it’s innovative and traditional. Baraka, a former city councilman and high school principal, is no stranger to this street-corner-organizing philosophy.

The Root spoke to Baraka about his motivation and his methods.

The Root: Why was the Bethany Baptist Church meeting private, and what has been the public reaction to it?

Ras Baraka: It’s been limited, the public reaction. But it’s been positive in a sense, that people are happy we are trying alternative ways and methods to reduce crime in the city. I would imagine that there are some people who probably would not agree with us going in this direction. But I think this is the right direction to go in. It’s what’s been going on in cities around the country.

We’re trying to engage them in city services. We’re trying to let them know that they are either a positive part of the growth of the city or a negative part. We are using the restorative-justice model, where we let them know the effect they are having on the community and the neighborhood. We talked about what we felt about it, not just from a criminal-justice standpoint but a personal standpoint: how to reject the negative model and connect with real services in the city—GED, school, training. And we had all the police outside to let them know that we also have a police force that is ready to do what they need to do, but we don’t want to go in that direction.

TR: What was the role of the Nation of Islam at the meeting?

RB: We were able to ease the concerns of the police by having the Nation search people before coming in. People (in the community) have respect for the Nation of Islam security force, the Fruit of Islam, in general: We knew that, one, we were going to be secure, and two, that no one would be antagonistic to anyone. So it killed two birds with one stone.

TR: And I guess with your background and you particularly being mayor now, the idea of trust on the streets is more significant than normal.

RB: I don’t think just anybody could come and say, “All you guys come to this meeting.” We have to leverage our brand to be able to reach out to the community and tell folks to come to a meeting. If I say my word is my bond, if I say you’re going to be OK while you’re in here and I’m in here at the same time, they will come. And when we provided services—helped them get their driver’s license back, their Social Security cards, their birth certificates, all these things that they need to get their health care; getting them ready when the ACA, the Affordable Care Act, drops in about a month—when all of those things happen ... they see that we are very serious, and ... word gets out that we are actually reaching out and bringing people in.

In the meantime, we need people not to be shooting, not to be hurting each other in the community. That’s what we are trying to do.

TR: One of your sisters died from gun violence, and one of your younger brothers was shot in the head but survived. So this has got to be a personal issue for you.

RB: I have lived in Newark my entire life. Access to guns and violence and mental illness, and all these other things that affected the community, have affected me, my family, my mother, everybody; it’s affected us deeply. The work we do around violence is very real to us. That’s why we have to have strategies other than putting flak-jacketed police officers on every corner.

TR: But you’ve been moving forward in getting officers on the corner, actually. How hard is it to mix and match those priorities?

RB: You need balance. You need a holistic and comprehensive approach (pdf). There’s no cookie-cutter [solution] or magic bullet that’s going to reduce the kind of crime in our neighborhoods. Some of it has to be the police support that you need. Like [when] you’re dealing with a disease, you have to have all kinds of levels of approaches: prevention, intervention and straight care.

We are doing many things on the traditional side, but on the nontraditional side we are spending our energy and time and support [to] beef up ... that side—one missing in the city in Newark. But it has existed for decades in Chicago, in Boston, in L.A. and Watts. We are way behind.

Mayor Ras Baraka was selected to The Root 100 for 2014. Read his profile here.

Todd Steven Burroughs, an independent researcher and writer based in Newark, N.J., is the author of Son-Shine on Cracked Sidewalks, an audiobook on Amiri Baraka and Ras Baraka through the eyes of the 2014 Newark mayoral campaign. He is the co-editor, along with Jared Ball, of A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X and the co-author, with Herb Boyd, of Civil Rights: Yesterday & Today.

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