Charles Barron Brings a Combative Campaign to Liberate Brooklyn

On the morning of Sunday, Aug. 20, Charles Barron and Roger Green had breakfast at the Galaxy Diner in East New York. Mr. Barron, the former Black Panther and the neighborhood’s City Councilman, had two eggs over medium, with salmon and onions, and maybe a bit of Mr. Green.

Both politicians are gunning for Edolphus Towns, a 72-year-old Baptist minister and Army veteran who, for 12 terms now, has held the U.S. House of Representatives seat for the 10th District.

“I can beat the Towns machine,” Mr. Barron said, prior to the meeting. Of Mr. Green, he said, “I can’t fathom why he’s still in this! I’ve thought of everything! He can’t believe he’s going to win. So what else could it be? It makes you think: Is he in this to help Towns?”

“Does he owe somebody something?” he asked. “I don’t know what the hell to think.”

It was the second formal meeting in a week and a half between Mr. Barron and Mr. Green, who serves as the State Assemblyman for Brooklyn’s 57th District. One of them, they both seem to think, needs to drop out before the Sept. 12 primary.

But after Sunday’s breakfast, Mr. Barron said that it “went very well. I thought it was very productive. It could lead to—the most I could say—it could lead to a settlement in our conflict, in another week or so. We could come to some kind of agreement.”

Mr. Green was unable to get to the phone to clarify.

To unseat a well-financed, long-term incumbent isn’t easy—it’s way less easy if the challengers are splitting votes.

So what if both weren’t? What if Mr. Green, say, threw his support behind Mr. Barron?

Before Charles and After Charles

Brooklyn’s 10th Congressional District looks like the bottom half of a cartoon cowboy, in chaps and boots, being flung toward Nassau County. One foot points toward Wall Street, the other down to Coney Island. Prospect Park is somewhere between the calves. It contains many largely black neighborhoods, but also neighborhoods like Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, where one or the other tectonic plates of white and black Brooklyn are subducting to make something new.

Mr. Barron’s City Council District, the 42nd, comprises about 25 percent of the Congressional slot that he wants. He was first elected in 2001, and was reelected in 2005 with 85 percent of the vote. As for his neighborhoods, “There’s B.C. and A.C.,” Mr. Barron said. “Before Charles and After Charles.” He was joking. “I won’t mess with that.”

His district office is a storefront at Pennsylvania and Hegeman avenues, not too far from the end of the No. 3 train. A smoke detector in the office wants a new battery. He has a plaque on its busy far wall, beyond the African-fabric benches. It was presented by “the people of Brownsville/East New York” and declares that “he speaks for us and we have his back.”

On the evening of Friday, Aug. 18, Mr. Barron stepped out from work. He was in black slacks and a slick gray shirt, not as shiny as his silver hair.

A young boy crossing the street said, “Hi, Charles Barron,” and a friendly woman in a Lexus said, “My sister was looking for you.”

He went south to Linden Avenue. “This is the part of my work,” he said, “people don’t write about,” meaning the renovation of public spaces. “Then they all report: Political prisoners! Reparations! Mugabe!”

He has advocated for all three of those, the latter being the president of Zimbabwe. “You know what really bothers me?” he asked. “The white-left progressives that hit Mugabe. Couldn’t be more ignorant as to Africa and African policy.”

One of their objections is that Robert Mugabe did away with the “willing buyer, willing seller” laws and allowed the forced seizure of land from whites. Among others, there is also his criminalization of “unnatural sex acts,” a policy with which Mr. Barron doesn’t agree. Still, he brought Mr. Mugabe to New York City a while back and was disappointed that The Village Voice’s Nat Hentoff—one critic—didn’t show. Mr. Barron wonders what people expect will happen in Namibia and in South Africa, where only 16 percent of land is owned by blacks.

Last week, the South African government reported a success: White farmers who were dragging their feet on sales were threatened with seizure of their property. Numerous land sales materialized instantaneously.

On Linden Avenue, a crowded multilane road, posters advertised two different women candidates for judge. “They play dirty out here,” he said. “A crew that puts ’em up and a crew that puts ’em down.” He would wait until closer to the primary to put up his own posters.

Past the Bethlehem Baptist Church is Linden Park. Its fence has a sign that gives thanks to Charles Barron for raising $3.6 million. “I said I want credit for what I’ve done here,” he said, “so they made this weatherproof sign. I didn’t do all this work for someone to look and say, ‘Charles who?’”

The park has a big new running track, eight tennis courts, six basketball nets, a huge old jungle gym. Kids were being taught boxing; a football was being kicked; a fat plane floated east, down over the projects and toward J.F.K.; older folks played dominos, some of them embossed with snazzy Puerto Rican flags. A man was teaching a boy to ride a bicycle; he pushed him lightly down a strip toward a sandy long-jump pit. “It’s good to see you out here again,” a woman said. “One day you need to sit down and get your butt whipped at dominos.”

South of the park, some guys were camped out in lawn chairs, someone’s Lexus RX200 blasting soul. The sky was wide, the evening sun and the breeze coming in through the trees from the same corner. “Where’s the food?” asked Mr. Barron. Across the street, between the buildings of the Linden Houses, a two-story community center was going to be built, with $10 million of NYCHA funding. Down the corner, at Van Siclen and Stanley, a kid came up—swear to God—and said, “What are you putting up now?” He meant the opposite corner, where there was a horrible parking lot with a maze of chain-link fences. There will go, Mr. Barron said, 60 two-story townhouses, with a senior center and housing on the back end—NYCHA, H.U.D., H.P.D. and City Council money.

“They’ll never give me a feature on this,” Mr. Barron said, his good mood enhanced by the park and the stroll. “Mugabe! Pictures of white men!” The latter was about his inauguration at the City Council, when he said it was time to “redecorate” the room, which was all hung with portraits of white men.

“The whole machine out here is against me. They always are,” he said, of Mr. Towns’ spendy outfit. “He’s been mailing for 24 years and he has a million dollars.”

“But just like David and Goliath, I will slay Towns,” he said, jolly, before adding: “Politically! Politically.” He crossed Linden, but the light changed and he got stuck in the median. An S.U.V. was waiting to turn. “Hi, Mr. Barron,” said the guy behind the wheel.

Congressman Towns didn’t “have time” to answer questions, according to his spokeswoman. “I’m sorry,” she said, “he was just not available.”

“Forget him,” Mr. Barron said, after discussing Mr. Towns’ tight last race—the incumbent had won with just 57 percent last election. “The times are critical. We live in critical times. The whole world could be up in smoke because of these wars.”

Mr. Barron has a reputation as a fierce speaker. But he was talking in quite the opposite manner. “I’m always interested in two words that they give black leadership,” he said. “One is controversial, and the other is defiant. To me, those are insults. What does ‘controversial’ really mean? Defiant! Like you’re a little child. Defying authority! That’s for teenagers. We’re not defying anybody. We’re asserting ourselves as leaders.”

“People don’t like to talk about black and white,” he said. “They say I’m divisive, like I drew the lines to make Harlem black and Howard Beach white.” He is not a racist, he said. He would not like for white people to have had the American experience that black people have had.

Mayor Bloomberg, he said, “is kind of a gentleman Giuliani. His policies aren’t different, but his personality is. That’s how he disarms you. He’ll meet with Sharpton. I met with some black leaders, and they said the tone is different. But not the allocation! I didn’t get in office to deal with no tone. I’d rather have budget priorities coming to my neighborhood.”

How do you have a city, he wondered, the No. 1 city in the world, a $53 billion budget, and the No. 1 impoverished district in the nation? That would be the South Bronx, with a $19,000 median income. “Poverty has increased under Bloomberg,” he said. “Forty-six percent of blacks voted for Bloomberg. They bought the commercial.”

“Joel Klein is incompetent,” he said, speaking of the New York City schools chancellor. “Bloomberg knows nothing about education. Klein isn’t an educator.”

Mr. Barron ran for Mayor himself a little bit in 2004. He meant it, too—it wasn’t a prank. He said that Mr. Green was a little more in favor with the unions than he was, as he’d voted against some big development projects with lots of jobs attached. He said he’d raised $115,000, much more than Mr. Green; he compared Mr. Green’s cash on hand to his son’s walking-around money.

Still, his donors are nickel-and-diming. “We didn’t have no corporate money,” he said, and he drives his treasurer crazy. Now he’s paying for a 70,000- household mailing.

A Demonstration, Late Nights

Later on Friday night, Mr. Barron went with a car caravan to the 73rd Precinct for a protest.

A few days before, one of the Panther Youth Football coaches had been in a public park after 9 p.m., when it shuts down. New York City parks are open until 1 a.m., except where they’re not. A police officer had approached and asked the coach for identification; the coach had refused, and he was arrested.

Mr. Barron had talked to the precinct captain in advance of the march, saying that this was not an event that would require a massive police presence. These were people who had gone to the police stations at times like after the shooting of Amadou Diallo.

To the demonstrators’ surprise, there were no police at all outside the precinct house. A community liaison came out, and then the captain himself. He brought them in, and said he was doing everything he could to expedite the coach’s release. “This is a change!” Mr. Barron said. “I was very impressed. And I’m not the easiest man for the police to impress.”

Another late night.

In the weeks to come, he has block party after block party to attend, and more places to go, like senior centers, and supermarkets, hair salons, train stations.

He has been married for 20-some years, but how often can he see her now, with the primary breathing down his neck? “When I married my wife,” he said, “I said, ‘Inez, before you say yes, you need to know that God has called me to be a catalyst for the liberation of my people. Can you handle it?’” Charles Barron Brings a Combative Campaign to Liberate Brooklyn