Sunday, July 22, 2007

Misplaced anger

Some Newark political circles are awash in talk of recalling local elected officials. It’s a curious conversation that springs from a deep well of misplaced anger. Mayor Cory Booker is one supposed target of a recall effort and so we tried to sort out some rational thinking behind the campaign. In the end we have come away convinced that the true reason, though illogical, is the mere fact that Booker was elected in the first place.

In the minds of some Newarkers “Mayor Booker” was simply not supposed to be. And now that he “is,” they cannot get over it. The thin layer of justification that is used to mask the highly personal recall thrust does not hold up to rational scrutiny. Booker has been in office for a single year. He is battling serious problems not of his making and he has not yet had an opportunity to put his entire house in order. So you have to wonder why folks are so angry and eager to get him out. Truth is they are angry at all the intellectual, cultural, social, economic and political abuse that they have been taking for years. Fear, intimidation and complicity husbanded their silence in days gone by. In an almost surreal sense the election of Cory Booker has cut them loose from their tormentors and given them their voice. And even so they cannot speak of the anguish they experience over past leaders not having prepared the way for the ascendancy of “one of their own.” Hence, the anti-Booker fury has been concocted.

The voices are angry and rightly so. Newark leaders allowed the public school system to be taken over—everyone should be angry. Our leaders were co-conspirators in the Port Authority swindle of the citizens—another good reason to be mad. And the Devils got $210 million of taxpayer money while taxpayers had no say in the matter—more justifiable anger. And as we’ve been reminded during this 40th anniversary of the Newark uprising, policies carried out by federal, state and city governments over 40 years ago have emptied urban cities and those people at the bottom were left with no future, dignity or economic means to pull themselves up. And the list goes on. But that anger is sorely misplaced. It is aimed at Cory Booker who was neither architect nor engineer of any of the plots that led to these betrayals. It makes us wonder why these angry people are not angry with themselves for doing little or nothing to prevent or curtail all this abuse from their leadership. Not a single recall that we can recall.

For the last thirty plus years, Newark has elected leaders who refused to cultivate their own. Cory Booker stepped into a vacuum constructed by those whose resistance was so harsh that, but for those elected as a part of Booker’s slate, an entire “next” generation that might normally have been expected to assume the leadership mantle might well be closed out for good. Their time might well have come and gone because those in leadership would not teach, prepare or share. But this leadership has been notorious for its fratricide. It was they who would not elect Donald Payne Essex County Executive and neither would they elect Ken Gibson or Cardell Cooper to that post. They killed off each other’s and our opportunities to expand a powerbase, which should have naturally made room for up and coming leaders. And they stayed in office for decades. As a result of this backward no growth strategy more people wound up competing for the same several spots as time and opportunity was wasted. Folks ought to be angry over this but not at Booker.

When the State of New Jersey took over the Newark public schools they took over and redistributed the largest operating budget in the State of New Jersey second only to the state itself (at the time). Jobs, contracts and all the things over which Booker is now being savaged were firmly in the hands of our leaders. They callously squandered it all. Everyone should be outraged—but with those who are responsible. Being outraged with Booker simply provides a convenient nesting place for our denial. It allows us to temporarily camouflage our own responsibility and missteps by erecting and targeting a conveniently designated enemy. It permits us to rant without reason and deem it rational. Tragically, we have steadily found comfort in escapism. Factual illumination, however, reveals the same old nemesis—the truth. At the end of the day we have a group of mad people focused on the wrong target.

All have watched people get rich on the backs of Newark residents for years with few if any Newarkers among the wealthy. We should be pissed—but not at Booker. Residents have witnessed Newark’s land get gobbled up by greedy developers from everywhere but here. It should make us furious—but with whom? Why not recall those who left us in this muddy rut and ask them to explain their behavior? Would we if we could?

Violent crime, failing schools, land give-away, increasing poverty, over-priced housing, poor planning, diminishing economic opportunity and general despair are Newark realities that steadily grew worse over the years before any of us ever heard of Cory Booker. Now, though, it is all his to handle. Either he can or he can’t but he deserves a fair opportunity. Particularly in the wake of his last two predecessors having four and five terms respectively. The anger is right but the target is wrong.

Now that all the pre-2006 culprits have departed, Booker, though largely blameless, must weather the attack. Cory Booker is one of us. He is the Mayor and the responsibility is his. There is no doubt about that. But imagine the culprits were still here. It is likely that the complaints would be few and faint if at all, excuses and rationalizations would abound and the beat would go on. It is unlikely that a recall would be in the offing. Why? Fear…or maybe even complicity. In any event we are where we are and to us, looking back seems illustrative only for charting a responsible path forward. Blame is useless and debilitating, denial is futile. Taking responsibility is essential for progress.

The road ahead is steep and requires all hands in the push. Those who withhold their best effort yet claim to love Newark should be judged harshly.


jay lassiter said...

Nice to read a thoughtful assessment of what's going on in Newark. i swear it's hard to hear the voice of reason over the chorus of blowharding.

as a South NJ guy, i am woefully ignorant of the underworkings of Newark City Hall. But just the same, I find it fascinating.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I believe that is time that we as the collective body called Newark wrap our capable arms of support around the mayor so that he might have an opportunity to wrap his capable arms of support around us. This should be the starting point , out of which will emerge a legacy for generations to come. Clearly we now have an opportunity to rectify mistakes of the past and reclaim that pure essence of public service, economic, educational, and spiritual growth and development which is the genesis of society!