Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Circle of 88

Cities like Newark always have some very unique characteristics and personalities that define them. We are a large country town that often favors gossip over fact. Indeed Newark’s Gossip Mill has become a permanent and relied upon fixture in the local culture, at least in the African American community. Grist for the Gossip Mill is principally produced among a notable quaint society known as the invisible circle of 88. Over a period of years of close observation we have determined that there are exactly 88 people in Newark who circulate low-grade information among themselves (more or less), determine that it is valid and spew it into the broader public as gospel.

They are a relentless gossip subculture made up of cliques that can sometimes be defined by profession, class, political affiliation and even religion. They are purveyors of venom, specialists at character assassination and devoted to devious intention. Sometimes they are effective enough to create a town-wide murmur over something that legitimately does not even deserve a whisper. If you are not careful you could easily be swayed into believing that their mouthings represent popular public opinion. In their heyday they could alter the public agenda and dictate the behavior of the insecure. They once had a unique ability to present themselves as a force but trust us; their sum total is 88.

As already stated the circle of 88 trades mostly in negative, inflammatory and unflattering information. Some of them have even been known to initiate discussions solely to make mischief. And their various expertises have earned them contemptuously admirable titles among their peers. Highest ranked among the 88 are the “Brewglers.” They initiate stories and rumors. They rise to the height of “Brewgler” based on the amount of skill they demonstrate at adding just the appropriate hint of potential credibility to an out and out lie. When an accomplished “Brewgler” skillfully applies their trade, the line between truth and falsehood is almost completely blurred. They have appointed themselves guardians of the city.

And then there is the “Yeast Master.” This able confounder raises the stakes. The “Yeast Master” makes mountains out of molehills. He/she enhances the work of the “Brewgler” by magnifying it tenfold. Once an outrageous or ridiculous scenario is brewed and just the right amount of yeast is added all the ingredients, “Grist” for the Gossip Mill are in place. After an evening or so of marinating in the whisper chamber, the foul mouthed concoction is collected by the “Spreader Drones” to deposit their waste in every receptive vessel.

Amazing is the ability of circle members to convince themselves of their importance and relevance. Most amazing though is that they become infective by their own invective. To them, their madness becomes real and sometimes they go so far as to make it the basis of causes and campaigns. So far as the 88 are concerned, anything that passes through their circle should be taken seriously and reflects the views of the majority of citizens. When you talk to them they confirm their sanity by quoting other crazy people. They gleefully reference people with whom they have spoken that confirm their views or echo the manufactured sentiments that they have validated. Believe it or not, this surreal bunch has actually influenced serious events in our city—and almost always to the detriment of the public.

A new struggle for Newark is underway. Some forces have clear plans to shove poor and underrepresented people aside. We need capable objective advocates and warriors for our causes. So-called leaders who weave untruths and fabricate disinformation have to be exposed and neutered. The time has come to bid all witchdoctors farewell. The circle of 88 has kept us going in circles for far too long. Their influence has helped render us unable to make sustainable progress and continuously grappling with the same issues over and over.

We are moving backwards in the face of a bold shameless push by huge monied interests to control all of Newark’s assets. This is an observation not a complaint. But outmoded leadership cannot confront the new challenges that we face.

So look deeply into the sources of negativity when they try to engage you. Take care not to become captive of the shallow. Do your best to recognize and deflect the influences of the 88. You probably know members of the circle—or their minions. Identify and reject them. They are dangerous. They are “Punkle Toms.”

Punk•le Tom (puhng’-kuhl tom), n. [ME.; U. S. Dial. < Afr. heriter prut], 1. a person who sells services to his or her master for lowly and unworthy purposes; one who is debased, corrupt, poor or bad in quality, a hoodlum, who works solely for his or her slavemaster's whims; 2. a slavish prostitute who is regarded as being humiliatingly subservient or deferential to white people and who unabashedly sells out his or her own people; 3. worse than an Uncle Tom.

November 15, 2007

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

One More Wakeup Call

Once again the electoral politics affecting Newark is heaving change. A new crop of legislative officials is now slated to replace a crop of seasoned incumbents. Teresa Ruiz, Grace Spencer and Albert Coutino are the new Senator and Assemblywoman and Assemblyman representing the 29th Legislative District in New Jersey, which includes a substantial portion of Newark. Even before last Tuesday's election, gone were Senator Sharpe James who chose not to run and Assemblywoman Odaline Truitt who was defeated in the June primary. It took a sound thumping in Tuesday's general election to vanquish former Assemblyman William Payne who sought the Senate seat as an independent.

The future has not been so up in the air in a long time. What's next? Who will emerge as the dominant political forces going forward? How long will Black politics be relevant in Newark? All these questions and more have wafted quietly in the background of Newark's political scene for several years but are now raging naked on "front street."

In a matter of a few months the political fortunes of the Payne dynasty have been cut nearly in half. In May there were four family members holding five elective offices. Now there are just two members holding three offices. So what's next for the Paynes? Will they regroup and try to rebuild or will they reach an accommodation with reality and forge an alliance to protect their remaining holdings? And if so, with whom?

And what of the next generation political insurgents who were left languishing when Sharpe James departed Newark's political arena? Many rallied around Senator Rice in his primary victory, no doubt hoping it would provide sufficient momentum to jump-start a political movement destined to help them regain their status. Will Tuesday's hide tanning tame their enthusiasm? Will they finally stop dabbling with low risk political skirmishes and step up to the real battle? There are a lot of questions to which answers will no doubt reveal themselves in the coming days and weeks.

But here's what we know now. There is a major political transformation underway in Newark. Its face will be largely ethnic as Blacks yield leadership to Latinos, but its root will be economic as the business community seeks the best front-line political partner with which to execute their aggressive agenda. And so long as the community places its focus on the competition for power between Blacks and Latinos, both will be the losers in the economic sweepstakes that is poised to define a new Newark.

Because African American politicians in Newark have primarily viewed and played politics as an enterprise of individual empowerment, we are fast becoming defenseless in the emerging political climate. All the old horses are going or being sent out to pasture. They did not bother to train and ready a new breed. The competition is well heeled, well disciplined and well financed. Newark's next generation of African American political leaders have been held back too long by the old horses and just might be passed over all together.

But will it really matter? We believe it will not so long as Black politicians are unable and unwilling to translate their leadership into opportunity that breeds sustainable political power and creates institutions that transcend politics and strengthen community. Anything less is worthless-except to some individual politicians. By now we should have had our fill of their type of political selfishness.

We see a significant opportunity for Black political maturation on the horizon. True, Black politics is old. But is it mature? We think not. And the obvious very public dissolution that is now underway gives us all a chance to recognize and openly acknowledge that peril is at hand. We can act all grown up. We can accept collective blame. Then we can choose to work together. Yes. Right now we can move to close breaches, heal rifts, span gaps and rebuild badly damaged important relationships. If we refuse and adopt recalcitrance as methodology, we can chalk it all up.

A partnership with Latinos and others is the appropriate course of action. It does not mean giving up aspirations of the Black community. It can mean assuring them. A partnership with the business community is also essential. And a truly equitable relationship will not be possible so long as Blacks and Latinos are engaged in an intractable political struggle over little or nothing. But none of these critical arrangements can emerge if the Black community continues to prove incapable of hammering out the required internal agreements between its vital sectors.

Cory Booker has become a lightening rod of false focus. Truth is, he is a transitional figure. His role is significant and must be acknowledged. Pretending to discount and ignore his significance is folly. He is in place and a transition is taking place. What that transition means for Newark's Black community is murky because we have few collective goals that are driven by clear thinking. Yet our community can still define our future. It will not wait forever though. It is now being defined by events and circumstances not within our reach. This can change only if our behavior changes.

Black politicians have dominated the local scene for too long. And in many ways and for many people they have become irrelevant. Major players in many sectors view them as a nuisance factor. They tend to be engaged only when absolutely necessary or for purely ceremonial purposes. Serious political interaction regularly takes place around them and outside their realm of competency. Members of the African American clergy have even stepped into the void left by ineffective political organization in the Black community. And if you think carefully about it you will be hard pressed to find another community of people where the religious leaders are the political spokespersons. It is an outrage run amuck. But it is our community and if we want to be taken seriously and make real progress we must change it without further delay.

Sharpe James left office at 70 years old, Don Bradley at about 70, Bill Payne around 70. This is amazing. Young political aspirants in the African American community should be livid and determined to end the practice of generational stifling in Black local politics. The election of Grace Spencer as 29th District Assemblywoman is an encouraging sign. But just as soon as one can absorb the positive flavor of the Spencer victory, political talk fast forwards to the notion of a Newark mayoral bid by our good friend Cliff Minor in 2010. At that time Cliff will be around 70. Hard to believe young Newarkers will swallow our man Cliff for the top spot at 70 years old. We are having a hard enough time being taken seriously without behaving stupidly.

Things are changing-moving forward fast. It is no time to entrench ourselves in backwardness or turn aside progress. Forward is where we must go if we don't just plain want to disappear from the political spectrum. History does record people becoming extinct. Let's just grow up before we're gone.

Tuesday was but one more wakeup call. It signals the closing of an era. Perhaps there is still a chapter or two to be played out but by and large it is time to change the subject. We need a new script. It is important that it lean heavily on history but it must portray the present and envision the future. There is no reason that we should not all contribute to its authorship. No good reason. A perfect moment for unity has arrived. Will we take it?

November 7, 2007

Step Up or Step Off

After a weekend of applause celebrating the opening of the new Newark sports arena it is time to look deeper into just what it means to Newark residents. We have been told that hundreds of jobs at the arena have gone to Newarkers. We have not been told how that breaks down into hours to be worked or dollars to be earned. For some, that does not matter...but we think it is crucial.

The New Jersey Devils is a business enterprise. They are concerned with making money. Anyone who tries to convince you otherwise thinks little of your intelligence. As is the case with all businesses, the primary concern of the Devils is their "Bottom Line" (how much money they can put into the pockets of the owners and players. In other words, it is their obligation and intention to look out for themselves. So who will look out for us?

From the way the arena deal was structured in the beginning it is clear that whomever was looking out for us was at best looking through just one eye. It was not the best deal the residents of Newark could have gotten. In fact we would wager that had Devils owner Jeff Vanderbeek been negotiating for the City of Newark he would not have signed the deal that we wound up with. He would have been tougher and gotten more for his side.

Be that as it may, we move on. Just what is the "Bottom Line" for our side? What are we getting out of the arena deal? Jobs. Jobs. Jobs. That is what we are told. There are also a few food concessions in the arena. Not much more. During the construction phase residents got very little and based on what we have seen thus far in the post construction phase, it can be expected that not much will be coming in the future. To whom can we turn to guarantee our fair shake? We must know the answer and be prepared to hold someone accountable.

Remember the discussion and derisive commentary about Newark not having a "Luxury Box" in the arena? By mocking and dismissing the notion, spin masters distracted us all from a serious point. Here it is: Except by extraordinary happenstance, most Newark residents will never savor the delicious lifestyle experience of a "Luxury Box." This fact would not be noteworthy but for the obscenity of what is likely to be "our more than " $310 million contribution to building those boxes when the counting finally stops. We might have built schools, parks or other things that average Newarkers could experience in the normal course of community life.

So let us reframe the "Luxury Box" issue and propose a just course of action. Here's what the Devils could do: Designate a "Luxury Box" for community use. Allow registered Newark voters to place their names in an on-line lottery. Conduct a drawing and allow the winners to sit in the box at arena events. Remove the names of winners from the list of those eligible for future drawings. With an expected 300 events a year and some 20 to 25 people per box, a lot of residents will get in. And it's a small return on our investment. It might even be an incentive for voter registration.

Far more important is who will benefit from the enormous economic swirl that will be created by the arena development. Will residents who have held fast during many years of downward spiral be rewarded for their tenacity and loyalty to Newark? Or will they be callously brushed aside to make way for a favored class? This is the question. It has been the question since the conceptualization of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, which can now be appropriately described as a cultural BETA in a long-term gentrification study. The arena is the next phase. And its development is under girded by the same self-righteous hypocrisy that characterizes most insidious social experimentation. The basic unarticulated critical question surrounding the arena is: Will White people come to Newark in huge numbers for essentially White activities? The events of the past week provide a resounding yes so long as security is extraordinary.

Be sure, the gentrification of Newark now has a full head of steam. Much substantial economic activity and opportunity lies ahead. But future deals must be better than the arena deal. We can never permit a similar economic travesty to take place in our city.

It is a bittersweet irony that Mayor Sharpe James accused candidate Cory Booker of having a strategy to return White people to Newark. Having witnessed the arena opening no one can deny that history will credit Sharpe James with bringing more White people to Newark than Cory Booker could have ever engineered on his own. And it can all work to the benefit of Residents if the leaders display courage and creativity. But who will lead on this critical point? Be sure, it won't be the Devils. And it won't be the business community. They have an astounding record of walking away from critical institutional realities that negatively affect minority Newarkers. Public education tops the list.

African American businesses and business people along with other minorities must be leveraged into the "New Newark" economic game right now. Any talk of "eventually" is an unacceptable stall designed to fake out an entire community. We recommend that the Mayor convene groups of minority economic and business types to help him develop appropriate strategies to insure the parallel development of economic prosperity in Newark. We further recommend that individuals and organizations ready themselves to support and defend the recommendations that come from our economic experts.

Going forward in Newark's immediate future cannot rely upon political leadership alone from the African American community. We desperately need input from our business leadership, a robust entrepreneurial spirit, social and cultural discipline all guided by a steady moral compass. Anything less will breed more dysfunction and hopelessness.

The arena is here and so are the White people. Get over it. We have talked over and over about "Doing for Self," and others are quietly wondering if we will ever get it. Whether political or other leaders act in our behalf or not we are obligated to act on our own. Our moment of decision has arrived. If we are to be a viable sector of Newark's society and economy, we have to get busy. No one is waiting for us and we can no longer wait for each other. Those who are ready must go. We pray that those who are not can catch up or be rescued. In the inimitable words of the hood, it time to "Step Up or Step Off."

October 29, 2007