Charles, left, & Inez Barron, right, at a ceremony with the Mayor & others (photo: John McCarten/City Council)
Anything short of a revolution won’t satisfy Charles and Inez Barron, the married Brooklynites who hold seats in the State Assembly and City Council, respectively, and the police reforms and city budget passed in the wake of recent widespread Black Lives Matter protests serve merely as a distraction to their radical idea of Black-led politics.
Assemblymember Charles Barron and City Council Member Inez Barron, both Democrats, have a combined 30 years in city and state elected office, and many more in activism. They are two Black elected officials with a long history of fighting racism and representing majority-Black neighborhoods like East New York, East Flatbush, and Canarsie, and they are eyeing the current moment as a new opportunity in their campaign against oppression and vision for a new political party.
“My biggest goal right now, and has been for the last couple of decades, is to build a powerful, independent, Black, radical political movement for the liberation of Black people in communities where we constitute the majority,” said Charles Barron, once a member of the Black Panther Party and now representing the 60th Assembly District encompassing East New York.
For the Barrons, who’ve been civil rights activists for decades whether in or out of elected office, the recent Black Lives Matter protests spurred by police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black people, as well as the city and state government response, are seen in a long, historical context. And, they say, the heated political debates the protests catalyzed in New York still amounted to tinkering at the margins, not properly reinventing a racist society.
While they ignited protests across the country, those recent deaths hit New York nerves still raw from past deaths of unarmed Black people at the hands of police, especially the killing of Eric Garner in 2014, and ongoing complaints of excessive force and disproportionate enforcement by race by the NYPD. The massive wave of protests prompted city and state politicians to pass a very long list of idled police reform bills, as well as a New York City budget that became focused around calls by activists and some elected officials to “defund the police.”
Though many New Yorkers saw the recent sweep of city and state legislation -- which included outlawing police chokeholds, codifying the New York Attorney General as special prosecutor in certain cases of civilian deaths at the hands of police, and much more -- as either too much or major victories in the fight against injustice, the Barrons said the reforms (and the new city budget) fell far short of what they believe is required.
“That is a very pathetic response,” said Charles Barron. “I supported all of it, the activists, the advocates wanted it, the families that were harmed and lost loved ones wanted it. I supported it. But it was a bunch of bogus legislation that was around for years.”
Whether it’s the state budget in Albany or the New York City budget at City Hall, the Barrons -- who swapped seats in 2013/2014 and may do so again in 2021/2022 -- are often among the “no” votes even as most of their fellow Democrats vote “yes.” In separate interviews with Gotham Gazette, Charles and Inez Barron emphasized their own ideas for increasing public safety, like dismantling current models of policing, involving the community in adding or removing officers, establishing a truly independent prosecutor for when police kill unarmed civilians (since they view New York Attorney General Letitia James as not independent enough), abolishing prisons, and increasing Cure Violence programs.
Inez Barron also said she plans to introduce new legislation aimed at replacing the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), a police oversight agency, with an elected body that reviews NYPD misconduct.
The Barrons also described what they call their own Black-led radical political movement, which they currently run through a nonprofit grassroots advocacy organization they founded called Operation P.O.W.E.R, or People Organizing and Working for Empowerment and Respect, and how they eventually want to grow it to a political party that supports Black people running for office.
Inez Barron said the couple’s future political plans remain uncertain as her time in the Council ends at the end of next year due to term limits. There are no term limits in the State Assembly, however, and Council members are allowed more than two terms if they run again after a break, so the possibility of another Barron seat swap remains. While it’s possible Charles Barron may run for City Council and Inez Barron for Assembly again, Inez Barron said elevating youth to positions of power is a priority for her and her husband.
“Well, that’s an interesting idea and we don’t see it as ‘switched,’ because it certainly was not a musical chairs kind of thing, the people voted and we were elected to those positions and we’re very pleased to see that the community appreciates and recognizes our service and wants us to represent them,” said Inez, who represents the 42nd City Council District, which includes East New York, Brownsville, Canarsie, East Flatbush, Spring Creek, and Starrett City. “So what the future holds, I don’t know, my term as you say does end until December of 2021. And we work from a collaborative, a co-operative group Operation P.O.W.E.R. and the decisions about people and positions and elections and campaigns is in fact made collectively, those decisions are made collectively, so we have not in fact made those decisions.”
“We do have several young people that we are grooming and training and making sure they understand the intricacies of how things work,” Inez Barron continued. “And we are preparing them to step into those positions and represent the people.”
History of Activism
According to the biography on his website, Charles Barron joined the Harlem chapter of the Black Panther Party before founding the branch of the National Black United Front, or NBUF, in the same neighborhood. The chairperson at the time made him chief of staff of NBUF and also secretary general of the African Peoples Christian Organization, or APCO.
Charles Barron touts efforts to bring truly affordable housing to the areas he’s represented in the Council and Assembly, and securing millions of dollars in funding for CUNY’s Black Male Initiative.
Inez Barron has highlighted a long history of fighting segregation and discrimination, excluding Africa from school curriculum, police misconduct, and environmental racism. Before being elected to the City Council, Barron authored legislation in the Assembly to preserve affordable housing in Spring Creek and Starrett City. Before being elected to the Assembly in 2008, Barron was a public school teacher for more than three decades.
Operation P.O.W.E.R. and a Public Safety Vision
Inez and Charles Barron offer a similar vision of the community taking control of public safety. Charles said he wants to see the police department, in its current state, dismantled, and for the community to lead in the hiring and firing of police in their neighborhoods. He stressed the importance of having more social workers involved in intervention. The Assembly member also said he wants to abolish the prison system as it exists today and find alternative solutions for people who are mentally challenged or display antisocial behavior.
Both Barrons emphasized preventative measures in public safety. Charles pointed to poverty as the root of crime and that unemployment causes mental distress. Inez praised Cure Violence programs, which take an evidence-based, public health approach to stop the spread of violence through conflict-resolution by authentic messengers, engagement with high-risk individuals, and community mobilization. Inez said nonprofit Man Up! works in her Council district to promote peace in communities, and its work has contributed to the relatively lower increase in gun violence in her district compared to others, who have seen a proportionally larger uptick. The BK Reader recently reported the relatively high shooting numbers in East New York are on par with similar numbers from last year, a stark contrast to other neighborhoods that have experienced spikes.
As for the implementation of their vision, the Barrons said they have been building their Black-led, radical movement for years. Working through Operation P.O.W.E.R., they foresee building a Black-led political party because, as Charles Barron said, the Democratic Party does not fit their vision of Black liberation. The Barrons formed their organization with specific goals in mind, including self-determination, community control of organizations and governmental agencies embedded in the community, land trusts, and worker cooperatives to combat a capitalist society, according to Inez Barron.
Charles Barron said their tactic right now is to use the Democratic Party as a way to win elections until they build a separate party. He disparaged other Black elected officials who he said let their neighborhoods gentrify, saying many of them fall to political ambition or party loyalty. The Assembly member also said political organizations like the New King Democrats or the Democratic Socialists of America or parties like the Working Families Party are not matches for the movement the Barrons spearhead.
“Any Black person looking for liberation, these groups are not viable options,” said Charles Barron. “They’re using us to maintain the status quo. They’re not trying to really change any system of capitalist oppression, they’re trying to reform things and some are just opportunists for themselves.”
Next year, Inez’s time in the Council expires. When Charles, who held her seat before her, reached his consecutive term limit, East New Yorkers voted him into the Assembly seat while Inez ran for City Council. That may be a possibility again, but Operation P.O.W.E.R. will reach a decision on who it wants to support in elections towards the end of this year, according to Inez Barron. She said they have also mentored young people in East New York who they want to help boost into office, though she did not name any names.
“All that’s represented by my Council district are the areas in which we’re looking to make sure we can have strong, radical, independent, decision-making people in those positions,” said Inez Barron. “If you grow too quickly and if you don’t have other areas that adhere to what you say are the principles of your organization it can morph into something that you did not intend.”
The Barrons tend to differentiate the movement they are building as more radical and revolutionary from the one New Yorkers have recently seen a resurgence of in the streets. Charles Barron advised Black Lives Matter advocates to move from the symptoms of racism to root causes.
“There’s a difference between organizing and mobilizing for power,” said Charles Barron. “When you mobilize people around issues like police brutality or some other kinds of issues, you don’t get any power doing that. You’re just responding to issues and they placate you with some empty reform.”
State Police Reform
On the state level, reforms included the Eric Garner Chokehold Act that criminalizes police using chokeholds when it leads to serious injury or death; the repeal of 50-A, which kept law enforcement officers’ disciplinary records from the public eye; the appointment of the Attorney General as a special prosecutor when police kill an unarmed civilian; the “Amy Cooper” bill that makes false, race-based 911 calls illegal; the right for persons not under arrest to record law enforcement; and the Police Statistics and Transparency Act, which directs courts to collect racial and demographic data for low-level offenses and publish it online each month, along with mandating police to report any deaths during arrest to the Department of Criminal Justice Services. The governor also signed laws requiring that officers report discharging their weapons; people in custody are given medical and mental health services as needed; State Police patrol officers wear body cameras; and the state creates a Law Enforcement Misconduct Investigative Office under the Department of Law which will investigate misconduct complaints against any local police department.
Charles and Inez Barron both said the new state laws, as well as those passed at the city level, are not fully responsive to the needs of the people, and that their passage had been long overdue. Charles referred to the history of the chokehold bill and how, although an NYPD ban on chokeholds had been implemented in different forms for decades it had not stopped police from using the maneuver on unarmed, Black civilians (like Eric Garner).
Charles Barron launched into criticism of Attorney General Letitia James, who like the Barrons is a Black Democratic Brooklynite (James was a City Council member, then New York City Public Advocate before being elected Attorney General). By Cuomo executive order going back several years, before James took office in 2019, the Attorney General acts as a special prosecutor in cases where police kill unarmed civilians, a responsibility now codified. James is also currently investigating NYPD interactions with protestors, as requested by Cuomo. Charles Barron said he doesn’t see James’ office as a separate, objective entity because of the attorney general’s connection to Cuomo, who helped James win a crowded 2018 Democratic primary as the Democratic governor and former attorney general won a third gubernatorial term himself.
“She is a disgrace to our people,” Charles Barron said of James. “She is a puppet for the governor and he doesn’t mind showing the strings. An independent office doesn’t need a governor to appoint them to do anything, but she got in there by way of favor from the governor and she’s his puppet.”
Charles Barron said that the attorney general’s office chose not to prosecute instances of police misconduct like the case of Saheed Vassell, an unarmed Black Brooklyn man who was shot by an NYPD officer in 2018, and appealed the case of Jalil Muntaqim, a former member of the Black Panther Party who contracted COVID-19 in prison and was set for temporary release until the state blocked the initial decision.
“Attorney General James has worked tirelessly and independently to investigate the interactions between the NYPD and protesters,” said a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s office in response to the criticism from Charles Barron. “While this investigation remains ongoing, it’s clear that many New Yorkers have lost faith in law enforcement, and Attorney General James is leading the charge for transparency, accountability, and progress. We must all work together to change the system, and we encourage Assemblymember Barron to share his ideas about redesigning the role of public safety with us.”
Governor Cuomo’s office did not respond to requests for comment for this article. These are not Charles Barron’s first critique of the governor’s actions, as seen in 2016 and 2018 when the Assembly member interrupted Cuomo’s annual State of the State addresses to question his commitment to public school funding, especially in low-income neighborhoods.
City Police Reform
The City Council also passed and Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a set of laws aimed at police reform and accountability. It approved its own chokehold bill, which went farther than the state legislation in that it criminalized any use of chokeholds by police, classified the action as a Class A misdemeanor, prohibited officers from compressing someone’s diaphragm during arrest, and criminalized other forms of restraint that put pressure on a person’s neck or back that may prevent breathing or blood flow. The Council also approved the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology, or POST, Act, which requires the police to report on its surveillance technology and how it is used to the public; a disciplinary matrix to track officer misconduct; the right of the public to record law enforcement; and a mandate for police to display their badges at all times.
Inez Barron said she commends her colleagues in the Council on the chokehold bill, but they need to stay resolute in the face of opposition from the police commissioner.
“I encourage them to stand tall and dig in because there’s going to be pushback,” she said. “There’s already talk about, ‘Well we need to amend that and not include the restrictions on other airway passages, we need to not have that in.’”
Otherwise, Inez Barron said the new disciplinary matrix loses some of its footing in reform because the police commissioner has no obligation to act on the findings. To introduce the type of accountability she wants to see in the NYPD, she said she is cosponsoring a bill with Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel, also a Black Brooklynite, to reform the Civilian Complaint Review Board.
The CCRB is an agency that can receive complaints about certain types of alleged NYPD office misconduct, investigate those claims, and make recommendations on disciplinary actions. But Inez Barron said she found fault in the process because the police do not have to execute the recommendations and only a small percent of complaints are substantiated, meaning the CCRB finds enough evidence “to believe that the subject officer committed the alleged act without legal justification.” Jon Darche, the executive director of the CCRB, confirmed that 10 percent of complaints ultimately become substantiated in a June board meeting.
The mayor, City Council, public advocate and police commissioner appoint the members of the CCRB, and that is one of Inez’s primary concerns in replacing the agency. The Barron-Ampry-Samuel legislation would section the city into 17 districts and hold elections in those districts for members of a new civilian review board. In addition, the four districts with the highest incidents of police misconduct complaints would receive an extra representative, for a total of 21 members.
“This is legislation that is not just a knee-jerk response to the most recent conditions that we’re facing of police misconduct and police causing death,” said Inez. “This is legislation that’s been five, six years in the making.”
The Council member said the bill will also address another of her primary concerns, the CCRB’s power in investigating misconduct. She said the proposed new body would be able to hold hearings, have subpoena power, and implement binding decisions the commissioner cannot change but the individual who filed the complaint may appeal.
The last piece of the legislation would create the appointment of an independent prosecutor who is elected by the people and has the authority to prosecute police abuse cases that “rise to the level of a crime.”
Inez Barron said she and Ampry-Samuel will likely introduce the bill in the next several weeks, and have received calls from other Council members who want to support the proposal.
She said that officers who commit certain offenses, especially the shooting of unarmed civilians, should be immediately dismissed. She pointed again to what she said was a police force without adequate repercussions or accountability for their actions.
“Things are not gonna change when they know the consequences for their actions are minimal,” said Inez. “They continue to be on the job, they continue to get increases in salary and rise through the ranks. It’s criminal, it’s really criminal.”
A Divisive City Budget
The city budget that passed for the July 1 start to the new fiscal year served as another piece in the recent and ongoing public safety and police reform debate. Many protestors and elected officials called for an at least $1 billion reduction to the roughly $6 billion NYPD annual operating budget.
Inez Barron was among those officials, and she voted “no” on the budget deal -- as did Council Members Brad Lander, Carlos Menchaca, Jimmy Van Bramer, Ben Kallos, Antonio Reynoso, Carlina Rivera, Donovan Richards, and Helen Rosenthal -- because she said it did not meet those demands, not going far enough to “defund the NYPD” and shift resources to youth and social services.
Both Charles and Inez Barron noted some claims, chiefly by Mayor de Blasio, that the new budget moved $1 billion from the police, but said clearly, as acknowledged by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and others, that it did not in actuality. While explaining her “no” vote during the City Council budget proceedings on June 30, Inez Barron said the mayor did not acknowledge the demands of the protestors in the actions he took, and argued for a “reduction in the ranks” of those officers “killing Black and brown people.”
“We need a hiring freeze, no new academy classes, and a reduction in uniformed officers’ headcount,” Barron said. “And just as the city had to pivot on a dime to address the COVID-19 pandemic, we must do likewise regarding the NYPD. There is, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, quote, ‘the fierce urgency of now’ end quote. I vote no.”
The Barrons’ call for defunding the NYPD and, more broadly, for abolition of the police as it is currently structured, stands in some contrast to several Black City Council members who supported the budget deal reached between the mayor and the Council. Several of those Black elected officials, like Brooklyn’s Laurie Cumbo and Robert Cornegy and the Bronx’s Vanessa Gibson, have argued they while they want fairer policing their communities also want a strong police presence, and that while they favored moving some resources from the NYPD in the recent city budget, they were not supportive of a major “defunding” of the police department. Richards, who is likely to become the next Queens Borough President based on the recent Democratic primary he won, was the only Black Council member aside from Inez Barron who voted against the budget deal.
In particular with the city budget, the Barrons both called attention to school safety agents' planned multi-year move from the NYPD to the Department of Education as a soft reform and accounting gimmick.
“It was, I don’t want to say symbolic,” Inez Barron told Gotham Gazette of the NYPD changes in the budget. “It was, in fact, the act of defunding but it did not affect the officers themselves. I think as long as [Mayor de Blasio] has the commissioner that he has in place there’s going to be a lot of continuation of situations that are not beneficial to Black and brown people, particularly as they get involved in issues with the NYPD.”
Charles’ strong opinions have been recognized by most elected officials, including Mayor de Blasio. In a 2018 ceremony unveiling the Prince Joshua Avitto Community Center, named after a 6-year-old boy who was murdered in East New York, Charles suggested that as much as they were celebrating the new center, a revolution was imminent, and he repeated calls to abolish jails and shelters while investing more in jobs, youth centers, and economic development.
“So I want to say about the Assembly member – what you see is what you get,” de Blasio said after Barron’s remarks. “And that’s a compliment.”
Youth services is also a significant point of contention for the Barrons in this year’s city finances. Charles said people should not consider the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), which the adopted budget partially restored through the Summer Bridge initiative after de Blasio had cut the entire SYEP in his executive budget plan, as a win in the city budget.
“On the youth program alone I wouldn’t have passed this budget, I wouldn’t have voted for it,” Charles Barron said. “How can they feel good about 35,000 youth slots and you got $88 billion [total budget]? You cut it from 70 [thousand slots] and then brag about how you saved it.”
Both Barrons also brought up $450 million the mayor said was being moved from planned NYPD capital spending and reserved for youth and recreation centers and how, in their experience, the bureaucracy around creating those buildings delays plans by three to five years. Inez Barron did say, however, that she saw the restoration of funding for CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) as an accomplishment. ASAP offers special financial and academic resources for students to graduate from associate-degree programs. Both Barrons are CUNY Hunter College alumni; Inez served as teacher, administrator, and principal in education for years before running for office, and she serves as the chair of the Council’s Committee on Higher Education, where she has pushed for making CUNY tuition-free again.
In light of what they considered disappointing reforms and budgeting amid a more widespread reckoning about race and power, their pursuit of a Black-led political movement seems top of mind for both Barrons. They said they will continue to grow their movement until it is strong enough to stand as its own political party without being co-opted by people who do not share their same aims.
“I plan on speaking truth to power no matter what the consequences are,” said Charles Barron. “Inevitably, I believe our struggle may be long, but our victory is certain.”
by Melissa Lent, Gotham Gazette
Note: this article has been updated to list all the correct neighborhoods in Council District 42.