Black Power: Brooklyn Represents?
In the second of a three-part series on Brooklyn, The Root explores who’s holding the political cards in New York City’s most populous borough.
Once upon a time, the ultimate concentration of black political power in Brooklyn lay in Weeksville, a strategically planned village of free black property holders that began in 1838 in what is now Bedford-Stuyvesant.
"Weeksville was created to be a political base," says Jennifer Scott, director of research at the Weeksville Heritage Center. The settlement (sometimes referred to as a colony) played a critical role in the abolitionist movement, including stops along the Underground Railroad; and it became a haven for blacks fleeing racial violence in Manhattan in the 1860s during the Civil War. Businesses, churches and a school thrived there. Eventually as the new Brooklyn Bridge made this part of Brooklyn accessible to Manhattanites and others, and as blacks spread throughout greater Brooklyn -- a city separate from New York until 1898 -- Weeksville ceased being a separate community and, ultimately, was forgotten.
But in the late 1960s, amid an unprecedented period of activism spurred in part by anti-poverty programs and urban-renewal plans, Weeksville was rediscovered, becoming in its own way a spur to activism.
Nearly half a century later, Charles Barron -- a self-described radical, onetime Black Panther Party member and now an outspoken representative of eastern Brooklyn on the New York City Council -- pronounces the state of black politics in Brooklyn as dire. "We are in a state of powerlessness. We have power within our hands; we just won't collectively use it." Rep. Edolphus "Ed" Towns, the dean of the Brooklyn congressional delegation, echoes that sentiment, noting that from city council to state legislature to Congress, black Brooklyn is present, but not necessarily potent. "We have a tremendous amount of potential, and in many instances we are not utilizing it. But it's there," he said, adding: "We do not talk to each other enough to come up with an agenda we all can rally around."
Kevin Powell, a writer and activist who is challenging Towns in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary, says blacks in Brooklyn are ridiculously disempowered when compared with their ranks of elected officials. There is, indeed, potential, he says, but too many office-holders have formed "little ghetto monarchies" where "they think they own a political seat and think they own a piece of Brooklyn." Their main interest, he says, is in keeping themselves, their relatives and their friends in power. Powell and others say they have turned off younger middle-class entrepreneurs, professionals and homeowners who have found alternative means of addressing black Brooklyn's socioeconomic needs and perhaps of ultimately displacing entrenched political power.
From the sidelines, Al Sharpton, a Brooklyn scion whose sights have long spread beyond local black politics but whose Godfather-like seal of approval is coveted by prospective candidates, says that even with the evolving spheres of influence, "the bad news is none of it is coordinated."
Welcome to Brooklyn 2010, home to about 954,960 blacks, more than any other county in the United States. Whites of the non-Hispanic variety number about 944,690; Hispanics about 492,880. Harlem in Manhattan has the name and the cultural icons, but Brooklyn has the numbers, and its politics are if not drama-filled. A member of the city council was assassinated -- yes, assassinated -- in the council chamber by a rival in 2003. There's a reason Brooklyn has been immortalized in rap lyrics, a Mike Tyson tattoo and with the "Bed-Stuy Do or Die" antics of Spike Lee's film Do The Right Thing. In Brooklyn, known for its political pageantry, the streets speak to the suites.