During a “State of the South Ward” address last night, Councilman Ras Baraka issued a call to action to his constituents and also laid out an ambitious agenda that includes having the city take over control of Newark Liberty International Airport from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
“We have to stop looking at ourselves through the eyes of people who despise us,” Baraka said during a speech that seemed designed to inspire as much as inform his audience of his plans for the coming year.
Attending last night’s event, held at the George Washington Carver school, were fellow council members Donald Payne and Mildred Crump, state Sen. Ron Rice and a slate of candidates for the school advisory board, the Children’s First Team, whom Baraka is endorsing.
Baraka, who was critical of the state’s involvement in city governance without local input, said two schools -- Dayton Street and Miller Street -- are slated to be shuttered even though residents were never consulted.
Baraka addressed a range of other issues last night, everything from illegal dumping in the ward -- a crime which Baraka said has been aggressively investigated in the past year -- to street violence. About a third of hte city’s homicides happen in the South Ward, where 111 people, mostly young black men, have been killed between 2008 and 2011.
Baraka said he supported a resolution declaring homicide a “public health issue,” but the initiative was rebuffed by the administration of Mayor Cory Booker, with whom the council has frequently feuded on a variety of issues.
Homicide has been designated a public health issue in other cities, Baraka said.
“If this is not a public health issue nothing is. The rate at which we’re dying and killing each other is a disease …. this should be treated like a doctor would treat cancer,” Baraka said.
He also called on the Essex County government to assign sheriff’s officers to patrol county roads, freeing up city police to do more extensive patrolling on cross-streets.
“We need them to put police in our neighborhoods. Take ‘em out of Millburn and send them down Lyons Avenue …. we pay taxes too,” Baraka said, a statement that, like many last night, drew enthusiastic cheers from the crowd.
Baraka also called on city police to “park their patrol cars and walk, talk to people” in order to get a better handle on conditions in the ward.
Illustrating the human toll of violence, Baraka mentioned a number of victims by name, including schoolteacher Dawn Reddick who was gunned down over the summer, and Mikhy Robinson, a toddler shot and killed by his mother’s boyfriend late last year.
Stating that “literacy is the number one deterrent to crime,” Baraka proposed creating “centers of hope,” neighborhood facilities where after-school programs would be set up for neighborhood youth. Baraka asked for all “able-bodied” residents to volunteer.
On the economic front, Baraka called for measures that would make the South Ward self-sufficient, which he said was a logical response to cutbacks in aid from the state and federal governments. He said he also is urging businesses on Bergen Street to contribute towards a police officer to patrol the area.
Also among his proposals is the creation of a South Ward business district and tweaking an existing requirement that businesses hire Newarkers by adding a clause stating that city residents be hired for all phases of construction projects, including “plumbers and carpenters.”
Abandoned buildings, he also said, should be taken over by ward residents through a “homesteading” program that Baraka compared to the white settlement of the American West in the 19th century. Homesteading in the South Ward, Baraka said, would be more legitimate than what happened when the US government took land from Native Americans at the point of a gun.
Residents “would be able to acquire abandoned properties so long as they commit to improving them and staying at least five years,” Baraka said, adding that interested residents should first make sure to “get their credit together” before availing themselves of the program. A number of city agencies help residents with sufficient credit acquire low-cost loans or subsidize the purchase price of abandoned homes and businesses.
Last night Baraka also took on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the powerful bi-state agency that runs the region’s three major airports, including Newark Liberty. Baraka, who said the Port Authority pays just $70 million annually in taxes but is involved in “36 billion in economic activity,” said the city should run the airport instead.
“We live five minutes from that airport. We’re dealing with the noise pollution, those planes dropping fuel into your backyards. We have to begin to brainstorm …. we need to run the airport ourselves.”
Baraka suggested imposing environmental fines on the Port Authority at first, and called on his constituents to support only those gubernatorial candidates who would favor handing control of the airport over to the city. The measure, which has also been supported publicly by West Ward Councilman Ron Rice, would make Newark “economically self-sufficient.”
Baraka, who repeatedly referred to the area as “the mighty South Ward,” urged his constituents to hold himself and other politicians accountable by making a reference to the science fiction classic “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” In that film, aliens take over people in their sleep and alter their personalities.
“We need some thorns in our side so we don’t fall asleep....whatever you do, don’t go to sleep”
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