Ten years ago, New York City councilman and former Black Panther Party activist Charles Barron was something of a curiosity. A Nehru-jacket-clad “pan-Africanist,” gleefully defending causes long abandoned as indefensible, Barron found a mainstream media niche: He was the professional extremist, saying gaspingly outrageous things to amused cable news hosts. In 2002, when Fox News’ Sean Hannity mistakenly introduced the councilman as “Congressman,” Barron quickly interjected that this would be his “next job,” running for the seat of Brooklyn Congressman Ed Towns “when he retires.” Four years later, MSNBC host Tucker Carlson made the same mistake, with Barron offering the same quip: “That’s my next job.”
When the 77-year-old Towns announced his retirement in April, after 30 years representing New York’s 10th District, it became clear that Barron wasn’t kidding. On June 26, he will square off against Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries in the Democratic primary for Towns’ seat. And in this progressive-heavy Brooklyn district, it’s a safe bet that whoever wins the primary can start packing his bags for Washington. (In the 2002 general election, Towns beat his Conservative Party opponent by a Saddam Hussein-like margin, grabbing 97.8 percent of the vote.)
In his tenure as an assemblyman, Jeffries supported the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, positioned himself as a stern critic of the NYPD’s “stop and frisk” program, and offered qualified support for charter schools. In his decade on the city council, Barron has defended Hamas, identified former Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi and current Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe as his political “heroes,” called Thomas Jefferson “a pedophile” who “raped an African child,” and proposed that Huckleberry Finn be “banned.”
Although Jeffries has been flagged as a “rising star” (New York Times) in the liberal firmament and “Brooklyn’s Barack Obama” (Washington Post) and has banked piles of campaign cash from the state’s traditional Democratic power brokers, Barron is still proving a formidable opponent. He’s a skilled debater, at times clever and beguiling, but always casuistic and willing to hit below the belt. His occasional geniality and undeniable political skill, though, can obscure a deep illiberalism and contempt for democracy, an almost pathological hatred of Israel and fondness for dictatorship.
While Barron might not be an anti-Semite on the order of Louis Farrakhan (a man for whom he frequently professes admiration), he is obsessively hostile to Israel—a country whose founding he rejects as historical crime. After a 2009 trip to Gaza with British MP George Galloway’s anti-Israel group Viva Palestina, Barron told reporters that the Gaza Strip was a giant “concentration camp.” Considering this description a touch understated, he traded Dachau for Auschwitz, comparing the Palestinian territories to a modern “death camp.” Israel, he added, “deliberately cause[s] the death of innocent children” and is guilty of “genocide.”
Barron routinely conflates Jews and Israel, decrying the influence not of an “Israel lobby” but of the “Jewish lobby,” a distinction that even Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer considered important. In 2003, Barron cast the only dissenting vote after the City Council tabled a resolution denouncing anti-Semitic remarks by former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad: “I will be voting against any resolution pro-Israel [sic] in this council until this council has the heart to be fair with the Palestinian cause and come up with a [similar] resolution.” For Barron, a condemnation of Mohamad’s claim that “the Jews rule the world by proxy” amounted to an endorsement of Israeli policy.
At a pro-Qaddafi rally in Harlem organized by Farrakhan, he happily shared the stage with second-string anti-Semites like New Black Panther Party Chairman Malik Zulu Shabazz (“Who is it that has our entertainers … and our athletes in a vise grip? The Jews!”). Barron has also declared his admiration for Khalid Muhammad, the viciously anti-Semitic Nation of Islam leader who said there was “no evidence” the Holocaust happened and thundered against the “hook-nosed” Jews who control the “Jew-nited Nations in Jew York City.” When Muhammad died of a brain aneurysm in 2001, Barron was on hand at his memorial service.
These troubling metrics, plus the traditionally low turnout in congressional primaries, have so terrified Jewish Democrats like former Mayor Ed Koch, Congressman Jerry Nadler, and Assemblyman Dov Hikind, that they recently organized a press conference at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan to remind voters of Barron’s extremism. “People are not familiar that there’s an individual who’s running, who we all know very well, who is an anti-Semite, who’s a hate-monger and who’s a bigot,” Councilman David Greenfield told the media scrum. “I think it’s very important for us to educate the public and let them know who this individual is.” (In a stunning blog post, the New York Times described the press conference as “A lot of white people condemning a black person.”)
Barron’s effusions about Israel are part of a larger, even battier, vision of foreign policy. He is still one of the few elected officials to publicly proclaim his love for former Libyan tyrant Muammar Qaddafi. After Qaddafi was killed during the Libyan revolution, Barron summoned his comrades to a restaurant in Brooklyn to eulogize the “lion of Africa.” Apparently unconcerned by Qaddafi’s demented racism—on display in the ur-text of Qaddafism, The Green Book, which bemoans the “lassitude” of blacks—Barron figures that if Americans were facilitating a war in Africa, the pan-Africanist knew which side he was on. Indeed, in 2009 he denounced President Obama for killing Somali pirates who had hijacked an American ship. “How dare you go to Africa,” Barron bellowed, and “kill three Somalians [sic] for trying to protect their water.”
If Barron is elected to Congress, he would surely be the House of Representatives’ only enthusiastic supporter of Robert Mugabe’s brutal regime in Zimbabwe. Despite its abysmal human-rights record and disastrous economy (the country abandoned its currency in 2009 due to hyperinflation), Zimbabwe is, according to Barron, “one of the most stable countries in Africa.” Along with a few of his acolytes, Barron went on a “fact-finding mission” to the country and later hosted a reception for Mugabe at City Hall. Criticism of his Potemkin trip to Harare, he barked to the New York Times, was motivated by racism. In 2008, the Times remarked that those angered by the City Hall reception for Mugabe were aware of the “third-rail potential of a racially sensitive issue, [and] acquiesced with their silence.”
Despite this spotless record of fanaticism, Barron has in the past managed high-profile endorsements from the liberal mainstream, like former Mayor David Dinkins and the New York Times editorial page. And this time around, he’s getting the support of the man he intends to replace, Towns. “We need to have someone that’s going to be involved in a direct fashion, none of this wishy-washy stuff,” Towns said at a press conference endorsing Barron. Amazingly, he has also snagged the endorsements of DC-37, New York City’s largest municipal public employee union, and AFSCME, one of the country’s largest labor unions and the biggest outside spender in the 2010 midterm elections.
Barron’s class-war rhetoric might have seduced organized labor, but New York’s 10th district is also home to one of the fastest gentrifying ZIP codes in America, which saw its white population jump from 19.7 percent in 2000 to almost 50 percent in 2010. This might pose a problem for a militant black nationalist like Barron, but in 2006, when he made his first, half-hearted run in the 10th district Democratic primary, Barron performed surprisingly well with what one analyst called “whites in brownstone Brooklyn.” This despite famously telling a crowd of sympathizers that he sometimes wanted to slap a white person, “just for my mental health.”
In his current campaign, Barron has been careful to downplay his support for dictators—he barely responded when, during a television debate, Jeffries joked that he “certainly can’t compete with Charles Barron for the pro-Qaddafi vote”—and thus far has largely avoided the subject of Israel. And he has all but ignored the stinging criticism of Jewish Democrats like Koch, Nadler, and Hikind, dismissing it as “a distraction, because my campaign is gaining momentum.”
Indeed, he is gaining momentum. And unless the forces of reason within the New York Democratic party can mobilize primary voters against him, Barron will be afforded the great opportunity to transform himself from local embarrassment to national disgrace.
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