The late Amiri Baraka, a Newark native and New Jersey poet laureate, acknowledged that he knew little about the fate of America’s ethnic working classes. In his 1984 memoir, The Autobiography of Leroi Jones, Baraka said of the white kids he lived among, “I often wonder what these guys and girls carried away from that experience with us and what they make of it.”
As he has made abundantly clear in these past few years, Baraka’s son, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, cares no more about those guys and girls than the media do. This past week, Mayor Baraka was busy unveiling a 700-pound statue of career felon George Floyd whose death in police custody made him an international sensation. The mayor said, “Hopefully when people walk by and they see it, and they participate, hopefully it inspires them to become active in the struggles that are happening right here in Newark and right here in New Jersey.”
The systemic racism against which passersby allegedly struggle is a fiction. If proof were needed, the 22-year sentence handed down to a white police officer for, at worst, misdiagnosing the self-induced stupor of a black man resisting arrest should have pacified the most vengeful of America’s social justice warriors. Spoiler alert: it didn’t.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In 2004, during his keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama promised a reset on America’s troubled racial past. “Now even as we speak,” Obama said in that night’s most memorable phrase, “there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.”
If any city needed Obama to deliver on his promise, it was Newark, Tony Soprano’s hometown and mine. The mayor’s father grew up in my neighborhood a generation before I did and went to my neighborhood high school, the then largely Italian Barringer High. The Newark the elder Baraka knew as a young man is the Newark I knew as a boy — a functioning, multicultural, working class city of intact families, helpful churches, and strong community bonds. By the time I turned 20, this had all gone up in smoke, much of it literally.
In 2008, when Obama was elected president, Newark was ripe for reconciliation. Under Cory Booker’s relatively benign stewardship, crime remained rampant, but ethnic tensions had cooled. Italians, Portuguese, Puerto Ricans, and African Americans each had their own festivals and their own heroes and largely avoided confrontation.
Italian-Americans took particular pride in an epic statue of Christopher Columbus located prominently in downtown Newark’s Washington Park. In 1927, the same year Sacco and Vanzetti were executed, Newark’s Italian community donated the statue to the city.
An unnamed author wrote on the Newark history site, “Newark’s Christopher Columbus was unveiled on Columbus Day, 1927, in front of a crowd of 30,000 to 50,000. Before the unveiling of the statue there was a parade where Italian Newarkers in costume and on floats enacted events from Columbus’ life.” Among the honored guests was New Jersey Gov. Harry Moore. At the time, Italians were a barely tolerated minority, and this was their gesture towards the “E pluribus unum — out of many, one” that Obama endorsed in his 2004 speech.
Fueled by a renewed sense of grievance that Obama, wittingly or otherwise, had helped stoke, the city’s black power elite decided that not all ethnic heroes were created equal. Laboring through the night a month after Floyd’s death, city work crews removed the Columbus statue without even consulting the Italian community.
Swept up in Newark’s Cultural Revolution, the author at the Newark history site amended his chipper earlier account with this groveling apology: “This statue was removed in June 2020 because of the many atrocities Columbus committed and what the Spanish conquest represented for the peoples of the Western Hemisphere. I agree with the removal and regret not discussing the absence of historical context in the Columbus statue when I first wrote this post.”
The media moved in quickly to provide cover for Baraka. The mayor decided to purge the Columbus statue, reported NJ.com, “to avoid the potential danger of people toppling it over.” Baraka said, “The statue will be kept in storage until the city decides what to do with it.”
Baraka claimed that the statue’s removal was “a statement against the barbarism, enslavement, and oppression that this explorer represents.” But, he insisted, “The removal of this statue should not be perceived as an insult to the Italian-American community.” No, of course not, mayor. How could anyone get that impression?
Salvatore Benvenuti, the executive director of the New Jersey–based UNICO National, the largest Italian-American service organization in the United States, wasn’t buying Baraka’s wolf tickets. “They came in the middle of the night and removed it,” Benvenuti said. “I don’t know the legalities and how they had the authority to do that without any due process.”
Legalities did not much trouble Baraka. Nor did he sweat his promise to keep the statue in storage. According to my source in Newark, the statue “was actually found dumped in an open field next to Route 280.” This was one of scores of Columbus statues nationwide desecrated during the 2020 George Floyd mania.
Italian-Americans do not roll over easily. In an article titled “Atrocities Against Our Heritage,” the editors of the New Jersey-based Italian Tribune proved to be the rare journalists in the summer of 2020 to call out for what they were the “angry and misguided individuals trying to rule with a mob mentality.”
“If the actions were not so dangerous and the inaction of local leadership so ineffectual, it would otherwise be pathetic,” the editors continued. “Instead, it rises to a level of hatred that targets statues which are a symbol of Italian American pride and condemns a great historic figure who is conveniently vilified by those with their own 21st century agenda.”
A day after the removal of the statue downtown, a second Christopher Columbus statue in Newark was taken down, this one outside a Catholic Church in an Italian neighborhood. “A city spokesman confirmed that the city did not remove the monument, and declined to comment on who actually took it down,” NJ.com reported. Although uncertain who removed it, the reporter included a video of the statue being lifted onto a flatbed truck by a crane.
If the media did not know, the locals did. “As a result of what happened in Washington Park,” my source told me, “a few older Italians who had some connections with a tow company had that statue removed so that the city couldn’t get its hands on that one and actually packaged that one up for safekeeping.”
Days after the Floyd statue was put in place in front of Newark’s City Hall, someone defaced it. It now enjoys round-the-clock police protection at the city’s expense. Had this “hate crime” happened somewhere else, I would have suspected a Jussie Smollett–style hoax, but in Newark, I cannot be so sure. One old Newark friend non-plussed by the vandalism said, “Just what continent did George Floyd discover?”
Meanwhile, to fill the Columbus void in Washington Park, Baraka recently unveiled a new Harriet Tubman monument. Still, one wonders what will happen when the local Red Guard realizes Tubman was a gun-toting Republican. Can the Mao Zedong memorial be far behind?
Jack Cashill’s latest book, Barack Obama’s Promised Land: Deplorables Need Not Apply, is now on pre-sale. See www.cashill.com for more information.