Of Newark and Somerset, and the Politics of New Jersey Violence

As one more season grinds down, so too collapses another summer of New Jersey gun play and murderous violence, the state’s long abiding islands of isolation arguably making it easier for people to dismiss the killing as disconnected or unrelated or – in some cases - unimportant. But in Newark, a very hoarse-sounding Mayor Ras Baraka yelled repeatedly into a microphone that his entire community continues to suffer a public health crisis, speaking those words over and over again, the brutal bifurcation of his home state obvious in the urgency of his words.

The arrival downtown of "The Mighty South Ward" led by the Mayor.
The arrival downtown of “The Mighty South Ward” led by the Mayor.

As one more season grinds down, so too collapses another summer of New Jersey gun play and murderous violence, the state’s long abiding islands of isolation arguably making it easier for people to dismiss the killing as disconnected or unrelated or – in some cases – unimportant. But in Newark, a very hoarse-sounding Mayor Ras Baraka yelled repeatedly into a microphone that his entire community continues to suffer a public health crisis, speaking those words over and over again, the brutal bifurcation of his home state obvious in the urgency of his words.

“If there were 100 kids in Millburn killed, people would think there was a public health crisis,” said the mayor. But not in Newark. He wants desperately to change that perception and he wants his constituents to assume control.

More to the point, he wants to change the reality.

As the mayor tries to concentrate his city on a specific conflagration dominated by drugs and gangs – so too, at longer intervals and in muted surroundings, the suburbs explode here and there in violence, some of it urban spillover, the consequence of overpopulation, as in other cases domestic troubles flare up with murderous results; New Jersey repeatedly thrown back on the contradiction of itself: at once the split personality of urban and suburban, and the sprawling oversized city-state artificially cut off from itself amid 600 manifestations of parochial power. Speaking on condition of anonymity over the weekend, a one-time high-level federal official voiced aloud his worry in squeezed-together circumstances about a greater capacity for societal lawlessness.

Lawless gangs in the cities and isolated loners in the suburbs.

“I deeply believe that people have fewer interpersonal connections than ever before,” said Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-21), who grew up in Plainfield and raised his family in Westfield.

“You don’t see people getting together out on the stoop,” he added. “When you have interpersonal relationships, bonds are built. When people are on their computers inside and watching television, the more likely it is that tension and isolation develop and the more likely it is that you are going to see violence in suburban and rural areas. The instant you don’t find comfort in human relationships, you lose your humanity. The computer is no substitute.

“People think they have real relationships on Facebook, but what it reveals is the lack of community and isolation. That creates an opportunity for violence.”

Roselle Park and Roselle Park – at least by design – are more livable and walkable than Warren and Watchung. If Bridgewater isolates owing to no downtown, in certain urban areas designed around public plazas and parks, people can’t go outside without fear of treading into the middle of a gang war. In Elizabeth, it’s Bloods versus Latin Kings, stark lines of all-out race war, a veteran off-duty cop told PolitickerNJ. It’s routine business.

“In capitalism, you protect your business by killing the other guy,” said Bramnick, unhappily.

Bramnick, right, with Assemblyman Chris Brown (R-2).
Bramnick, right, with Assemblyman Chris Brown (R-2).

A pipeline of Trenton legislation contains elements of crisis management, even as most people express their doubts about the system, and deride politicians as opportunists content to indulge in self-aggrandizing legislation sooner than squarely hit injustice.

Two years ago, state Senator Ray Lesniak (D-20) sponsored an act declaring violence a public health crisis, and establishing the “Study Commission on Violence.”

“We’re waiting for the recommendations from the commission,” said the veteran senator, volunteering his own views ahead of the report finished but yet delivered by Chair Camelia M. Valdez, the Passaic County prosecutor.

“It is the same crisis over and over again,” Lesniak added. “We’re not doing much to prevent it. The criminal justice system has to be rebuilt from top to bottom. We’re not paying enough attention to the divide in communities, starting with child care. Body cameras for police are important but there are core issues there. A lot of America is being left behind.”


From Newark to Trenton

The most hardened might call it a trudge of futility.

Baraka led his anti-violence march on August 8th, and two weeks later, Newark absorbed five killings in the span of 24 hours. Murders are down overall but shootings are on the rise as the city tries to cope with fewer uniformed police officers on the streets. That mayor’s office had staged the march as a specific exhortation to ward residents to assume responsibility for their own neighborhoods and city blocks, and to crack down on the pervasion of acquiescent silence amid a criminal scourge.

It occurred after a demonstration organized by People’s Organization for Progress (POP) Founder Larry Hamm rallied in opposition to police brutality as a show of solidarity with similar anti-violence expressions nationwide. Baraka lent his voice to that rally too, but pointedly wanted to emphasize the responsibility invested in the people themselves to express zero tolerance for violent crime in their streets.

“I agree with Mayor Baraka, violence is a public health crisis,” said Plainfield Mayor Adrian Mapp. “To the extent that blacks and other minorities have suffered at the hands of law enforcement we are fortunate in New Jersey that we have not had the same issues.”

But the day before Baraka’s rally, organized as a counterweight to Hamm’s, law enforcement authorities shot a 14-year old boy in


Trenton, an incident that received scattered news play at best and which, in the words of Trenton Councilwoman Marge Caldwell-Wilson, the mayor’s office smothered in concert with the state Attorney General’s Office.

“The community is still up in arms regarding the lack of information,” said Caldwell-Wilson, a retired labor leader who serves the city’s north ward. “The AG shut it down. The mayor couldn’t get information, but you’re the mayor, mobilize the city and get the information.”

Representatives from the AG’s Office met with the mayor and U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-12) at Shiloh Baptist Church meeting but the councilwoman says city representatives still don’t know exactly what went down at that meeting.

“We’re getting a song and dance from the AG’s office,” said Caldwell-Wilson. “None of our council is involved. That’s the difference between here and Newark. The mayor of Newark is taking a stand and bringing everyone to the table. That’s not happening here, and it’s part of a pattern. You need to have a backbone and you need to have an attitude of no tolerance out there.”

Mayor Eric Jackson replaced Mayor Tony Mack, who went to prison on federal corruption charges, leaving his city in shambles and squalor, with a nattily dressed church minister stepping up last year to take over and hopefully change course from the Mack debacle. For Caldwell-Wilson, Jackson might as well be Mack on the public relations front. “I don’t think the politics has changed,” said the councilwoman, reflecting on both administrations. “This administration is not transparent. It’s like déjà vu all over again. Tensions are really high.”

Whatever the administration in charge, Newark and Trenton both share the crisis of urban New Jersey, which includes – for many – the expectation, dreaded or otherwise, of violence.


“With high unemployment and poor schools comes crime,” said Assemblywoman L. Grace Spencer (D-29), a prosecutor by trade who serves Newark’s South Ward. “It happens. It’s not unique to this mayor or to this city. It is the reality in which we live. Crime is a pandemic issue. There are mass killings in rural, suburban and urban areas. It’s a national problem. Ras Baraka called this a public health crisis before he was elevated to mayor. He said it when he was councilman.

“It is a public health crisis because what happens plays on the emotional and mental side of the community,” the assemblywoman added. “People are afraid to go outside. They can’t enjoy their neighborhoods. My mother used to tell me, ‘You need to be home before the street lights come on.’ You want to be home when it’s dark. Kids are thinking how long will I live.”

Spencer herself has a baby girl whom she carried in Baraka’s peace march. But walking in that march and walking down the street in the neighborhood are two different things.

“It makes me very cautious,” the assemblywoman said of the environment now – and always – in her city. “I was on Lyons Avenue in Newark the other day walking with my daughter. Then I thought to myself, ‘What am I doing?’ and decided to go home. But until the violence moves to the level of Ebola, people will just say it is an urban problem. People see it as routine, but it’s so not normal.”

The brutality of crime forces reactive or preemptive action on the legislative side, as the national storyline of police abuse creates room for elected officials like Paterson Mayor Jose “Joey’ Torres and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop to advance requisite body cameras for police officers, and for Gov. Chris Christie to follow suit at the state level. Former Governor James McGreevey works on a prisoner reentry program in Jersey City that he hopes will be a national model. But listen long enough and the other part of the debate in a state divided between Abbott and non-Abbott schools and dependent on property taxes to pay for them, goes to how we educate our young people. And therein persists a tragic divide.

Origins and Education

When Christie won the governorship in 2009, he undertook a dramatic departure from the man he vanquished in the area of schools maintenance, and he started in Newark on the day after his victory. His presence at Steve Adubato’s charter school in the North Ward signified the direction he planned: more school alternatives to what he saw as the public union-dominated public institutions.

Over five years later, with Baraka’s election at ground zero in Newark exhibit A of a reversal of educational trends, the Christie-era debate in New Jersey has reached an apparent impasse, even as separate but unequal conditions permeate statewide, walling whole populations into educational oblivion. Not without irony did the former schools principal turned mayor facing a $19 million budget deficit stand as a counterpoint to the overhaul effort undertaken by former Schools Superintendent Cami Anderson with the support of the Republican governor.

Anderson’s attempts to reform the Newark schools clinched Baraka for mayor as he used the perception of a force-fed plan to generate grassroots power and put down the Christie-affiliated establishment that backed his rival, Shavar Jeffries.

Both candidates harbored a personal history scarred by violence and a public will to break from the past.

Baraka lost his sister. Jeffries lost his mother.

To hear New Jerseyans talk on the street is to again be made aware – beyond the personal histories and stories of the politicians themselves – of the cynical contempt much of the public has for the system, and the enduring belief of many that politicians hurt instead of help communities of need. School financing in New Jersey as implemented pits the weakest against each other: old against young, as retirees struggle to remain in state while saddled with tax burdens to foot the bill for schools; suburban against urban; middle class against poor; black against white; homeowners against renters.

Patrick Murray, political scientist and pollster at Monmouth University, said it’s difficult to ascertain the level of disaffection. “Lack of leadership in the governor’s office while he’s out campaigning for president is mostly driving public perception right now,” Murray said.

At the local heart of the Christie-Booker reform effort infused with $100 million from Facebook maven Mark Zuckerberg to improve Newark’s schools abided a distrust with top-down policies. That distrust boiled over earlier this year at a committee hearing in Trenton, when Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver (D-34) cross-examined Cami Anderson. “Never in my life have I seen a leader of a public institution adopt an attitude that they do not have to engage [with the people served by the school system],” said Oliver, a former assembly speaker.

It was Anderson’s last appearance before the governor’s office supplanted her with former Education Commissioner Chris Cerf and acknowledged – with Baraka’s reinforcement – a pathway to local schools control.

“I knew a lot about it [Newark public education] before you were even born it disturbs me that you have negated the wisdom and life experiences of people in your school district,” said a riled Oliver, the most animated of a wave of Essex legislators frustrated and angered by the state-appointed super and her One Newark Plan.

“You make assumptions that you’re the smartest tool in the shed,” said Oliver, infuriated by what she identified as Anderson’s arrogance and a history built under Anderson’s leadership. She cited salary increments, people on the state-appointed super’s staff jumping from $140,000 to $175,000, and an underlying attitude of private sector power brokering supplanting public service.

The deep dive crime debate went to the education debate and the education debate led to a public rejection of the One Newark Plan and that rejection circled back to band aid crime-fighting and pre-Christie political conditions. Baraka’s win reasserted the will of the public sector unions and those activists committed to undoing the Christie-Cami Anderson overhaul championed by Baraka’s predecessor, Mayor-turned Senator Cory Booker.

In agreement with Oliver, embedded in the failure of One Newark is a lack of trust, says state Senator Ronald L. Rice (D-28), who describes constituent fear of a system rigged by the powerful to strip away the input of those on the ground.

“Unless you discuss education you will continue to have crime,” said the veteran senator, a former Newark detective. “These problems are impacting outside urban areas. It’s an epidemic. But you come down to it, we’ve been lost in the wrong debate. The debate shouldn’t be charter versus public schools. It should be about how we fix the public schools. Too much corruption and impropriety in government. You want to talk about crime? The majority of criminal activity in New Jersey is white collar crime.”

The Politics of Paterson

joeyswear[1]After getting sworn-in by Gov. Christie outside City Hall where both men stood under a hail of teachers deriding the governor as an enemy of teachers’ unions, Torres, the newly mayor of the Silk City, brought the city’s $252,613,000 budget within the Christie initiated, state-required two-percent cap.

But the swapping of budget help on the city side came accompanied by deep school aid cuts as Paterson laid off over 200 staff at the schools, a public sector tsunami that Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-35) and Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-35) tried to reverse in the budget process, restoring money that Christie subsequently vetoed.

Sumter has supported numerous bills designed to help combat crime, including legislation to improve trade schools authored by Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-32), and assisting law enforcement agencies that need state support to constitutionally seize vehicles used to convey drugs, and to create local opportunities for McGreevey’s re-entry program.

2012-12-31 23.00.00-728The loss of education dollars hurts worse than the gains made elsewhere, she maintains, because it hits those most vulnerable. But under Torres’ storied police director, violent crime in Paterson is down.

Is that the choice, the assemblywoman wonders aloud – tools to fight crime on the streets at the expense of schools.

“It’s frustrating,” Sumter told PolitickerNJ. “If I had to express it with an emotion, it’s almost as though it’s the politics of forked tongue. We’re right on the cusp of change, then the rug is pulled from under us. You want to see your urban towns do their best, but it’s not by coming up with a balanced budget that essentially holds education hostage.”

Last week, NorthJersey.com reporter Joe Malinconico noted that City of Paterson education officials awarded a $200,000, one-year contract to the Antares Group of Montclair to “work on the computer systems for Paterson Public Schools’ human resources, payroll, and finance offices.”

Baraka at the march.
Baraka at the march.

On the Streets

In foreclosure-besieged Newark, with the example of Paterson to the north and the political dynamics altered in the aftermath of the Cami catastrophe, Baraka the public school agitator-educator fights the way he knows how, starting on the streets of the South Ward, exhorting those who elected him to join in the fight against violent crime.

Others don’t warmly embrace the mayor’s street presence and what it does to add or detract to the crisis. In the words of one Newark insider, the problem has to do with the breakup of the family and the fact that single mothers must slave at two jobs while being unable to care for their children, who wander the streets with guns at younger and younger ages.

Then there are those like Irvington Councilman David Lyons, who first got into local elected politics after being held up at gunpoint, who remain simply fed up. “At some point we have to stop marching against crime and do something about crime,” Lyons told PolitickerNJ. “First of all, there are too many guns out there, and as long as there are Republicans controlling Congress there will continue to be guns out there. At some point we need a full-fledged effort to go after crime killings. Marching is not going to stop it.”

Newark South Ward Councilman John Sharpe James was among those local elected officials who joined Baraka in the streets on August 8th. “There are some people committed to doing violence to others,” James said. “I think it’s a step in the right direction when you have 5,000 people in the streets demonstrating against violence.”

For his part, Hamm, ever the diagnostician, goes way back with Baraka. The mayor and his own late father, the poet Amiri Baraka, both claimed membership in POP. To the grassroots, Princeton-educated activist, Baraka represents a commitment bred on the ground level.

“I agree with the mayor 100%,” Hamm said. “This is a public health crisis. We’ve regressed since 1968. Remember, Nixon was elected on a law and order platform. What we’re looking at today is the byproduct of a lack of an urban policy for the last 40 years. This country turned its back on the war on poverty. We fought in Iraq and Afghanistan instead of the streets here. We bailed out banks that crashed the economy as corporations awarded bonuses and increased salaries. Whole cities are going into bankruptcy because of high rates of foreclosure, and through all of this, black people are moral failures, or so we are to believe.

“People just don’t want to face the fact that people do desperate things when they’re in a desperate situation,” Hamm added. “The mayor is doing all he can possibly do. More than any other mayor I can remember, and I go back to [Mayor Hugh] Addonizio.”

Hamm’s not the only one who agrees with Baraka.

So does Christie.

He signed that act authored by Lesniak declaring violence as a public health crisis. That was two years ago. Of course, Christie’s proffered remedies at the origins of the crisis proved contradictory to Baraka’s – and unsustainable.

Moreover, not only those urban others feel the sting of the system and the weight of what even the apparently most established suburbanites come to see as its injustices.

A Street in Somerset

It was colder. It was March.

Nationally, almost every week brought another black fatality caused by a cop as African-American activists mobilized anew with a longstanding case that law enforcement didn’t serve underprivileged communities and instead targeted their young black men. Such a narrative hardly appeared fitting in the genteel suburban setting of Somerset County, New Jersey, one of the wealthiest per capita areas in America, largely white, and known mostly as the riding country crib of former Republican Governor Christie Todd Whitman, one of the most austere personalities in Garden State politics.

But the place had a unique history.

October of 2014 brought with it the strange and shocking case of John and Joyce Sheridan, a husband and wife first reported lost in a fire in their Skilman home, just north of Princeton Township. Undertaken by Somerset County Prosecutor Geoffrey Soriano, the investigation adjudged early that fire did not cause the deaths of the couple. As months dragged on, news dribbled out that the body of John Sheridan, a universally respected attorney and staunch upper echelon player in the Republican Party, contained stab wounds. So did the body of Joyce Sheridan.

In March, Soriano, with the support of the state Attorney General’s Office, released the official findings of his office’s investigation that John Sheridan murdered his wife Joyce and then killed himself. The news caused the Sheridans’ four sons to immediately release a statement condemning the findings, and sent Mark Sheridan, a powerful and respected attorney in his own right and the most politically connected of the brothers, into overdrive.

“The conclusion announced today fails to provide those answers. It is nothing more than an expedient way for the Prosecutor’s Office to close its file and put an end to its embarrassing bungling of this murder investigation in the hope that our family, the citizens of Somerset County and the press will stop inquiring about what actually happened,” said the brothers.

The Sheridans noted the absence of a murder weapon that would have caused the wounds in question, the confounding absence of


numerous pertinent interviews with people connected to the case, and the absence of a motive. Why would John Sheridan – pater familias and revered public servant – kill his wife and then kill himself?

Nothing in the investigation’s conclusions provided an answer.

Given the fact that Soriano emerged from Somerset County as the hand-selected choice of state Senator Christopher “Kip” Bateman, the prosecutor’s findings would put Mark Sheridan on a collision course with Somerset’s Republican establishment. That divide would lead straight to Gov. Chris Christie, tasked this year with reaffirming Soriano’s tenure as prosecutor.

Bateman’s pressing hard for Soriano to stay. Sheridan and his brothers want him gone.

Unanimously backed by the senate for the job, Soriano carried into his work a reputation as a diplomat, a quality lacking for years in the chief occupant of the Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office. Nick Bissell had been a flamboyant attention seeker who racked more seized assets than any other county prosecutor until he himself got jammed up on embezzlement and tax fraud charges. On the lam, he killed himself in a hotel room in Nevada.

Wayne Forrest replaced Bissell. An ex military man and a registered independent, Forrest’s perfect public posture to some was exactly what the county needed after the incredible plummet from power and crackup of Bissell: a cop’s cop and former U.S. Army paratrooper. Others saw the ramrod Forrest as an overcorrection from the preposterous Bissell.

Soriano, his critics maintain, had the politics down, perhaps too much, as he became emblematic in those circles of Sheridan supporters of the politicization of the process itself and now finds himself in the crosshairs of politics.

“It’s excruciating. I had a huge amount of faith in the system,” Sheridan told reporters on a conference call after the release of the prosecutor’s findings in the deaths of his parents. “I can tell you I no longer have that faith. If you’re not a family with resources, education and the wherewithal to fight…I’m not sure how you get a fair shake.”

That was a matter separate from the deeper consideration of the roots of violence and ongoing anxiety everywhere.0822152000c

But a street in North Plainfield on Saturday night set the scene for a block party of longtime residents, some of them slowed by illness and age but nonetheless still gathered in the street, outside, blacks and whites; some of them playing volleyball and basketball, dancing hip hop and Greek folk and American fusions of other worlds concentrated finally in the same place, local politicians circulating in thoughtful discussion with young and old, Democrats and Republicans, firefighters and cops, mechanics and a handful of corporate types, purveyors of local, street level politics, which on this late summer night in the hard collision of New Jersey’s otherwise irreconcilable, alienated parts, felt at last like the politics of peace.

“I’ve got to get out,” an old-timer under a baseball cap and nursing a beer told PolitickerNJ.

It seemed an odd moment to talk of departure, but at the edge of the dancing the man nodded with sad resolve, his eyes looking past New Jersey to Delaware.

“I can’t afford the property taxes here,” he said. Of Newark and Somerset, and the Politics of New Jersey Violence