Charles Barron on not being a ‘punk,’ or a mere congressional spoiler

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Charles Barron announcing his run for Congress. (Reid Pillifant)
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On Sunday afternoon, Councilman Charles Barron stood behind a half-dozen reporters on the corner of Linden Boulevard and Vermont Street in East New York, singing along with about 75 supporters to a lilting campaign jingle, which went: "Charles Barron for Congress, Charles Barron for Congress." 

The tune blared from a flatbed truck through the streets of Brooklyn's 10th Congressional district back in 2006,  and now it's being recycled for Barron's second challenge to longtime congressman Ed Towns.

When Barron strode to the microphone, to officially announce his candidacy to a crowd of supporters that included his mother, Daisy, sitting a few feet from the microphone, he was less cheery.

"We are going to be the voice of our people," said Barron, clad in one of his signature collarless suits. "Sick and tired of the Democrats and the Republicans. They should just call it one party, the Republocrats. They're all the same. It doesn't matter who gets in office. We still have a corporate elite running a two-party system and we're still catching it, so we're saying 'no' to that."

That was one of the less controversial lines from Barron, a black nationalist and former Black Panther, who believes his fellow African-Americans—including but not limited to Representative Towns—have been insufficiently combative in the nation's capital.

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"I'm going to put some fire under the Congressional Black Caucus and say, 'Come on, brothers and sisters, our time has come for us to stand up and be the voice for our people.' Even if you don't win the vote, say something. Don't sit there like some political punk. Get up and say something. Say something. Don't try to capitulate to see how much you can give in to the right wing, racist conservatives, stand up to them. Stand up to them, no matter how many votes you have, and be the voice of our people.

"I can't wait. Guess who's coming to dinner! I can't wait. I'm going to sit and meet with everybody. Going in everybody's office. And I don't care what they say, I'm still not saluting the flag!"

That last line appeared to warm Barron up.

"And I'm not going to be afraid," he paused to make sure the reporters were listening. "Y'all can write this one down, you're going to like this one—I'm not going to be afraid to speak out against Israel and what they're doing to the Palestinian people. We're going to tell it like it is."

He went on.

"Y'all are going to like this one too. They should have never bombed Libya and they should have never murdered Khadafy. He's an African hero. I know you like that one," he said.

For Barron, who casts himself as a teller of truths that the white establishment does not want told, the controversial comments aren't off-message moments; they are the message. Barron's pitch to his supporters on Sunday was not that he would necessarily pass legislation to improve their lives, but that he would make sure the frustrations of one of the nation's poorest congressional districts were heard in Washington, who he called the "99 percent of the 99 percent."

"We gotta be the voice of the people and tell it like it is everywhere," Barron said. "So if I do nothing else—I don't know if I'm going to get a single bill passed—don't care. But I tell you one thing, we're going to rock 'em."

Barron's candidacy makes it that much harder to predict the outcome of the congressional primary in the 10th, where another challenger, Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, has already raised $173,810 dollars to unseat Towns, who had just over $11,000 on hand at the end of September.

Jeffries, a soft-spoken legislator who is, in many ways, the anti-Barron, has assembled a broad coalition that spans the borough's political factions and includes some outside groups that see him as a potentially transformative figure in New York politics.

Barron, on the other hand, seemed most eager to reaffirm that he's not a typical politician willing to make conciliatory compromises.

"They told me when I get up here, 'Don't say nothing about foreign policy Charles, they're going to use that against you.' Use it," he said. "Because we're also going to stand up for Robert Mugabe, he's an African hero, taking the land back from white people who stole the land from us in the first place."

Barron once brought Mugabe to City Hall, and he contrasted the reaction to that visit, with the treatment of Ian Smith, the former prime minister of Rhodesia who fought black nationalists in the late 1970s, and, according to Barron, was taken to a Broadway play in New York by President Jimmy Carter, despite being a "murderer."

"They said, 'When you get up there, you got to reach out to all the communities, Charles, you gotta be for everybody,'" he said. "I am. Always have been. But I'm black. And proud. And strong. And I'm going to tell it like it is. I'm going to be here for all the people of the whole district, but I'm taking care of blacks and Latinos, because we get the most hell on the planet."

"They said, 'Charles, calm down.' They said, 'You get too excited. You're too angry.' Yes, and I'm going to stay angry. I'm going to stay excited. I'm not going to calm down. I'm going to pick it up, to another level."

For Barron, it's a political calculation in its own way. He believes the 15,000 votes he received in 2006 are unlikely to return to Towns, or jump into the arms of Jeffries, and that it's simply a matter of motivating his base, and getting a slightly higher turnout in a presidential year than he did last time, in a mid-term election.

And he hopes his new political party, the Freedom Party, will help with organization. On Sunday, he was introduced by (among others) two young Freedom Party members, who called Barron a "hero;" the official poet of the Freedom Party, whose poem extolling Barron still referenced him as a gubernatorial candidate; and Ramon Jimenez, the Freedom Party's attorney general candidate, who said Barron would one day be remembered in the same way as another outspoken black nationalist, Malcolm X. 

How much the party will help Barron in a congressional race is unclear. The party fell well short of the 50,000 votes needed to establish a permanent line, and Jeffries has pointed to Barron's lackluster showing in the gubernatorial race as evidence of Barron's weakness, citing the fact that Jimmy McMillan, the Rent is Too Damn High candidate, got more votes than Barron. But, with 8,741 votes, Barron more than doubled McMillan's tally in Brooklyn, including Jeffries' Assembly district, where Barron received 1,303 votes—or exactly one vote less than he did in the Assembly district of his wife, Assemblymember Inez Barron. But his totals were still well shy of the labor-backed Working Families Party, which is expected to support Jeffries, making it difficult to discern who exactly might be playing spoiler to whom, if neither can successfully topple Towns.

After the announcement, with "Ain't No Stoppin Us Now" blaring from the speakers, I asked Barron why this year would be different.

"I'm more known, more organized, the Freedom Party makes a difference," said Barron. "We have a larger base now. We were just 8 percentage points off in 2006. I have greater name recognition. I have greater accomplishments and I got a larger base now than I've ever had before."