The Forging of Ras Baraka: How He Was Made for This Fight

Ian T. Shearn | August 31, 2020 | Politics
From his earliest days of street protest, Newark’s mayor has echoed many of the same themes as his poet-activist father Amiri Baraka, none more so than the necessity for police reform. Part One of a two-part series examines how police reform became a dominating — and inevitable — issue for Baraka.
Credit: (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
April 26, 2014: Weeks before the 2014 mayoral race, then candidate Ras Baraka attended a prayer service for him on the steps of City Hall.

A relentless current of poetry, jazz and spirited discourse swirled throughout Ras Baraka’s childhood home in Newark in the 1970s. This was a house where Nina Simone sang him lullabies, Max Roach played on the family piano and Maya Angelou recited her poems to him. As a young boy, Ras did not see these people as celebrities; they were houseguests. He had yet to grasp how far his father’s fame and influence reached. And he had yet to learn of the historic Newark Riots of 1967, which predated his birth by three years but shaped his destiny.

On June 6, 1979, that would change in one scary New York minute. It would unfold in an unexpected episode that would thrust the 9-year-old boy directly into his father’s orbit. It would mark the end of his innocence and the beginning of his own political awakening.

Young Ras was packed into the back seat of the family car with his four siblings that day for a shopping trip in Manhattan. Baraka recalls his parents, Amiri and Amina Baraka “arguing about shoes.” It was the type of quarrel families have, he said — “who liked them, who didn’t like them, how much they cost — stuff I would probably argue with my wife about now.”

His father pulled over and parked the car on a Greenwich Village street. Their loud voices caught the attention of police, who approached the car. But Amiri Baraka was never one to defer to cops. Heated words were exchanged. Ras Baraka remembers what happened next in snippets, edited and deleted by trauma and time: “Before you know it, the police had opened up the door … and grabbed my father,” he recalls. “My mother was screaming … They began to thump him and wrestle with him. I remember my mother went around and tried to help him.” The young boy was terrified: “I got out of the car and ran.”

The entire family was taken to the police station. His father was charged with assault and resisting arrest. The ensuing trial would be even “more traumatizing than watching my father get beat by the police,” he says. He was forced to take the stand and face questioning from an aggressive prosecutor, who tripped the boy up on his recall of minor details. Amiri Baraka was convicted and served some time in Riker’s Island before the conviction was overturned. Young Baraka was crestfallen. He had blown it, he had let his father down. “I felt like … I did a disservice to the case. … that I got up there and ruined it.”

Run-ins with cops, run-of-the-mill

Ras Baraka, now 50 and mayor of Newark, has spent a lifetime processing that event, along with his own run-ins with Newark cops. “The regular stuff,” as he puts it: “Police putting us up on the wall, making us sit on the sidewalk … berating us, cussing us out … something you put in as regular, along with playing Little League Baseball.”  

In time, he learned about the 1967 Newark Rebellion, as many now call it — “mostly from my mother” — and how it became seared into Newark’s psyche. He learned how his father had been arrested, severely beaten and jailed. And he learned that Newark is still recovering from those five tragic days. “There’s violence that happens in our community, and there’s violence that happens to our community,” Baraka says. “It’s been that way for a long time.”

And he would come to discover who his father was before that — a world-renowned beat poet and playwright, whose given name was LeRoi Jones. Who denounced that world and became Amiri Baraka, a rhythmic and militant voice of the black nationalism movement in the ’60s and ’70s. And who, throughout it all, was a relentless voice for social and political reform in his hometown Newark.

Ras Baraka didn’t realize it then, but that frightening day in Greenwich Village in the summer of 1979 was his unintended introduction to the Baraka family business — a business that traded in poetry, music and shoe leather as its currency; an enterprise of protest that strategically zeroed in on police brutality, the front line in the war  on racial injustice in America. That day, Baraka says, “colored my view until I became an adult and had to deal with these issues seriously,”

Credit: (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
July 1, 2014: Ras Baraka gives his inauguration address after being sworn in a mayor of Newark.

Now, four decades later, Baraka — as the mayor of Newark — must own the police department that he and his father had censured for decades. The Baraka family business has relocated inside the walls of power. How he came to this place makes complete sense.

The presence of poetry 

The first time Ras Baraka was mentioned in The Newark Star-Ledger was on Dec. 2, 1988, a small blurb on page 42, announcing he would be reading his own poetry at Kimako’s Blues People,  a community art space founded by his parents to showcase Newark artists.

Baraka started writing poetry when he was in high school. But “I never felt safe sharing my poetry in the school or in the community,” he said. “I grew up in a household that was different than what was going on … The poetry they was teaching us in school never sounded like the poetry I heard from my Dad.”

Certainly not like this one, entitled Monday in B-Flat:

I can pray 
    all day 
    & God 
    wont come.

But if I call 
            911 
        The Devil 
            Be here

        in a minute!

It wasn’t until he attended Howard University that he started reciting his verse at poetry reading events. It was then he also began to synthesize his father’s militancy and start to define his own brand of activism. He was concerned about the apathy of his generation, that the Black movement his father and others had led in the ’60s and ’70s was foundering. He started a dorm-room meeting group, which in 1987 would provide security for Public Enemy when they visited the campus.

He transformed that group into a formidable student activist organization — Sons and Daughters of Panthers, later renamed Black Nia F.O.R.C.E. (Freedom Organization for Racial and Cultural Enlightenment), which met every Friday night on campus. The group’s philosophy was shaped, they said, by Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan — a wide variety, indeed. The structure and tone of the meetings were influenced by Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers, while at the same time resembled his father’s gatherings in Newark.

It was then Baraka got serious. By his own admission, he was equally dedicated to partying as he was to activism in his freshman year. But after he started Black Nia FO.R.C.E, he was all in. And “I’ve been on Go ever since,” he says.

“These Friday night meetings were also sites of debate, where everyone got the opportunity to speak,” Joshua Myers wrote in his book, “We Are Worth Fighting For.” Myers wrote, “It eventually grew to include “Jazz and Poetry’ nights as well, as many members were practicing artists.”

Baraka also traveled with a group called G.E.T.B.U.S.Y. (General Education in Training Blacks to United and Save our Youth), a group that traveled on Sister Souljah’s college tour circuit, an entourage of rappers and political activists who lectured at jails and schools around the country. In 1988, he attended the National Democratic Convention, which his father was barred from entering.

Protesting Lee Atwater at Howard University

Baraka’s second appearance in The Ledger on March 8, 1989 received much better play. It chronicled another seminal moment — his leap into high-stakes activism.

As a 19-year-old junior at Howard, Baraka led a protest of hundreds of students, which culminated in the takeover of the school’s administration building. Their grievance was the recent appointment of Lee Atwater to the board of trustees of the prominent black university. Atwater, chairman of the Republican National Committee was also George H.W. Bush’s campaign manager for the previous year’s presidential election, and credited with the now infamous Willie Horton ad, which played to white fears of Black criminals.

Credit: The Hilltop, Howard University's student newspaper, courtesy of NYU Press
Ras Baraka, squares off with police, who started storming the administration building students had taken over in the famous 1989 protest at Howard University.

The situation grew tense: With scores of Washington, D.C. police riot and SWAT teams stationed outside the building, Baraka proclaimed to a large crowd they were prepared to “close the whole school down for the entire year … as long as it takes until Atwater is off the board,” according to the Ledger story.

“Those who know him say his activism has come alive only in the past year or so,” according to an account in the Washington Post. “Once he was just a rowdy kid in the freshman dorm spouting some of his Pop’s radical poetry.” On the first day of the protest, the Post story reported, Baraka confided to a fellow protestor: “If we can hold it till tonight, this thing will make national news. Our parents will know.”

The sit-in did last the night, and then two more days after that, and it did become national news. Amiri Baraka, who had dropped out of Howard in the ’50s, came down from Newark to offer his support. Jelani Cobb, who is now a journalism professor at Columbia University, participated in the sit-in and remembers the elder Baraka articulating a bigger picture:

“He encouraged our efforts, reminded us that students have always been key to movements for social reform, and connected our protest to broader historical currents and to older struggles for justice,” Cobb wrote in The New Yorker.

Mayor Marion Barry intervened

It was Baraka’s “first foray into something that serious,” he said. “It was the first and one of the most scary protests I’ve ever been involved in.”

At one point, police were ordered to storm the building. They dropped officers on the roof, who  cut open a hole for entry, and rappelled inside, Baraka recalls. On a side entrance, they used a battering ram while football players on the inside leaned against the door. But then Washington Mayor Marion Barry arrived and called off the attack, aborting what could have been a deadly confrontation.

“From that point on, I was a Marion Barry supporter. I don’t care what he did,” Baraka said.

In the end, it was the university administration who blinked. Atwater resigned from the Howard board. The next month, the university’s president resigned. Foreshadowing his path toward politics, Baraka was elected as vice president of the Howard University Student Association. Amiri Baraka’s son was finding his footing in a new movement, this one propelled by an emerging hip-hop generation. That summer Public Enemy released its game-changing megahit, “Fight the Power.”

“Kids from Howard at that time came from cities that felt the economic depression of the 1980s. They came from tough backgrounds,” said author Myers. “Ras knew that this generation would need a different type of organizing than his father’s. He had appreciation and respect for both the previous generation and this new shock of hip-hop consciousness.”

Father and son arrested in Newark

A few months after the Howard protest, Baraka was back home in Newark on summer break. Soon, he would receive his third headline in The Ledger — “Baraka and sons arrested.”

On Aug. 16, 1989, Ras learned that his kid brother, Ahi, 15, had been arrested with a group of other juveniles by Newark police for “blocking sidewalks and harassing pedestrians.”

His father was out of the city at the time, so Ras and his mother rushed to the South Ward precinct, where Ahi was handcuffed to a radiator. “My mother got boisterous and loud … ‘Where’s my son?’” Baraka recalls. “One of the officers got up from behind the desk and came into my mother’s face and started screaming at her … Obviously, that made me do something,” Baraka said. “I pushed him and said, ‘Get out of my mother’s face.’”

Baraka said he was promptly taken to a back room where they “swept me off my feet while I was handcuffed, so there was no way to protect my fall … and they started punching and kicking me.”

According to a subsequent Ledger story, Amiri Baraka said of that evening’s events: “When I arrived at the precinct, my one son was locked up, the 15-year-old was chained to a radiator and two negroes were wrestling with my wife.” The elder Baraka intervened, leading to his arrest as well.

But Amiri Baraka had reached out to Mayor Sharpe James. Soon, he and his two sons were released. Later, all charges were dropped.

Rite of passage: arrested, beaten

It was another rite of passage for the young activist: his first arrest and first beating by police. The torch was being passed to a new generation. The next year, Ahi would lead student protests of his own, demanding increased funding for public schools. And Ras was clearly not the same person who left for his junior year in college the previous fall. He was now fully engaged in his father’s fight, and he was finding his own voice.

“By that time, I had already solidified what I had thought about police,” Baraka said. “I looked at them as an occupying force.” It would become the central theme of his activism throughout the ’90s.

After graduating from Howard in 1991 and earning a master’s degree from St. Peters University in 1994, Baraka started his career as a schoolteacher in Newark. He also became the city’s most vocal and visible activist. Throughout the ’90s, he organized dozens of protests, mostly concerning police brutality. In 1992, he organized a large demonstration in Manhattan after Los Angeles police officers were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King. And he revived his father’s calls for a civilian review board to hold bad cops accountable.

In 1994, Baraka, then 24, ran for mayor. He preached the same sermon he preaches today — education, employment and equity. And a civilian review board. He was endorsed by the Rev. Al Sharpton; his father was his campaign manager and he was referred to in the press as “the hip-hop candidate.” He lost to incumbent Sharpe James; but in Newark, his voice was getting louder and stronger.

Baraka’s views and politics were now fully formed. But there was still another defining moment to come.

 On June 7, 1997, a friendly backyard card game with his neighbors was interrupted when some friends burst in with news: “They just killed Strawberry.”

Protesting a killing by police

Strawberry was Dannette Daniels, a 31-year-old woman in the neighborhood, well-known and well-liked. The details remain sketchy even today, but the upshot was this: An officer had arrested Daniels in a street drug deal and put her in a patrol car. When she tried to escape, there was a struggle. It ended with a cop shooting her at point-blank range in the neck. When Baraka and friends arrived at the scene, a sizeable crowd had gathered and it felt like a near-riot situation.

Police were loading the car, with Strawberry’s body still inside, onto a flat-bed tow truck, he recalls.

Baraka the activist immediately engaged. He organized a series of protests, marches on City Hall. He was demanding the officer be fired, that there be an investigation, that the city finally create a civilian review board — “the usual stuff,” he recalls. He held these rallies every Monday for weeks. There was one in particular that stood out.

To counter one of his demonstrations, the police union organized its own march on City Hall. Scores of police officers showed up, wearing T-shirts reading “The Blue Crew.” The scene was tense and it was hostile. When Mayor Sharpe James came out to address the crowd, the police officers turned their backs on the mayor in unison. The officer in the Daniels shooting was cleared by a grand jury and returned to active duty. Baraka realized that day that holding police accountable in Newark was going to be a long, tough battle.

“For years, there’s been two types of justice,” Baraka says today. “Justice for everybody else and justice for the police.”

The next year, he ran for a city council seat and lost. He tried and lost again in 2002, but this time he turned heads after gaining 13,000 votes. Mayor James noticed and promptly made him deputy mayor. Baraka again gained attention two years later, when he helped broker a truce between the Bloods and the Crips gangs in Newark. That year, he also made his maiden pilgrimage to the National Political Hip-Hop Convention and has attended every year since.

Poetry: ‘Black Girls Learn Love Hard’

In 2005, he was appointed to fill a vacancy on the city council. That same year, he published his first collection of poetry, “Black Girls Learn Love Hard,” dedicated to his sister, Shani Baraka, who was murdered in 2003. As a councilman, he remained an outspoken critic of police misconduct.

In 2013, Baraka decided to run for the office Mayor Cory Booker was leaving prematurely after winning a special election for a U.S. Senate seat. Amiri Baraka’s health was failing, but he was firmly on board. After all, Baraka Senior had become a political organizer after the ’67 Rebellion, and orchestrated the election of the first Black mayor of Newark, Ken Gibson.

But the father knew it was a perilous path his son was taking, and all the pitfalls therein. “Don’t lose your poetry license,” he often told his son. On Jan. 9, 2014, Amiri Baraka died. More than 3,000 people jammed Symphony Hall for his funeral.

‘Because he chose to fight here, so do I’

“He never sold out. He was unbought. He was unbossed,” Dr. Cornel West said at the service. “The Baraka family is revolutionary royalty and Black nobility and they will never forget where they came from.”

Then, poet Jessica Care Moore posed this poignant question about the city’s most famous poet: “He created this fire,” she said. “Who’s going to keep it lit?”

Credit: (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)
Jan. 18, 2014: Ras Baraka delivered a eulogy at the funeral for his late father, poet-activist Amiri Baraka.

During his emotional eulogy, Ras Baraka responded: “He supported me, not just because I am his son, but because we are right … My father loved this city of ours. He was a Newarker to his core … Because he chose to fight here, so do I.”

Four months later, Baraka won the election convincingly.

“Yeah,” he said in his inaugural address, “we need a mayor that’s radical.”

(Special thanks to the Newark Public Library for its research assistance.)