By Kevin Powell
"Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power."
And the drama of Congressman Charlie Rangel continues to unfold with 13 charges of misconduct, even as I type this essay: Mr. Rangel faces a range of accusations stemming from accepting four rent-stabilized apartments and misusing his office to preserve a tax loophole worth half a billion dollars for an oil executive who pledged a donation for an educational center being built in Mr. Rangel's honor. In short, Mr. Rangel, one of the most powerful Democrats in the United States House of Representatives, has given his Republican foes much fodder to attack Dems as the November mid-term elections quickly approach.
While this saga continues, two questions dangle in the air: First, where did it all go so terribly wrong? And, second, did Mr. Rangel begat the lack of ethics also present in the career of his colleague, friend, and staunch ally Congressman Edolphus "Ed" Towns of Brooklyn, New York?
To answer these questions I think we must go back to the 1960s and the Civil Rights Movement's waning days. Dr. King was still alive, but his popularity had plummeted, which explains why, to this day, many people do not know his writings or sermons from those latter years. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. of Harlem (Mr. Rangel's predecessor) was clinging to his seat amidst ethics battles of his own. The streets of Black America were on fire, as urban unrest became the language of the unheard ghetto masses. And in majority Black communities like Harlem and Brooklyn, Black leaders, emboldened by Civil Rights victories, chants of "Black Power," and a once-in-a-century opportunity for power, rushed through the kicked-in doors, into politics, into business, into film and television, into book publishing and magazines (or started their own), and into colleges and universities heretofore shuttered. It was the best of times and it was the worst of times. The best because many really believed "change" was on the horizon. The worst because some Black movers and shakers were so happy to get inside that they came with no vision or a plan whatsoever for their followers.
Clearly very few even bothered to read Dr. King's landmark essay "Black Power Redefined," which sought to push Black leaders toward a programmatic agenda that included the poor and economically disenfranchised.
And if there were any communities in Black America to test Dr. King's vision, they were Harlem and Brooklyn. Brooklyn has Black America's largest concentration of people of African descent. But Harlem, in particular, was the symbolic capital of Black America, and it was there that the now famous Gang of Four--Percy Sutton, Charlie Rangel, David Dinkins, and Basil Paterson--planned and plotted a course for their community, and themselves. Rangel replaced Powell in Congress and became the dean of New York politics. Sutton would first be a successful politician himself, then eventually start Inner City Broadcasting, a major person of color owned media enterprise; Basil Paterson would be, among other things, New York State Senator, Deputy Mayor of New York City, and New York Secretary of State; and David Dinkins, of course, became the first Black mayor of New York City.
Truth be told Mr. Rangel and his colleagues had an incredible vision and really did nothing differently than their White predecessors had been doing for decades in America: they saw an opportunity for a taste of power and they took it. (And at least the Gang of Four brought an economic empowerment zone to Harlem, something Congressman Towns pretended to want to do in the mid-1990s for Brooklyn, then mysteriously backed away from, instead endorsing then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's re-election bid, with Brooklyn never hearing about that zone again.)
Indeed, as I was coming of age as a student and youth activist in the 1980s, and as a then-reporter with various Black newspapers in the New York City area, I remember well hearing their names mentioned often. And, to a lesser extent, the names of their Black political peers in Brooklyn like Al Vann, Major Owens, and Sonny Carson. It was awe-inspiring, because I did not know that Black folks were leaders in this way. The pinnacle of this Black political ascension in New York City, without question, was the election of David Dinkins in 1989. For New York was the last of the major American cities to produce a Black mayor.
But something stopped during Dinkins' years in City Hall. Black New York was unable to shake off the catastrophic effects of the 1980s crack cocaine scourge, or Reagan-era social policies. Meanwhile, Black leadership in New York, rather than nurture and prepare the next generation of Black voices to succeed them, did exactly what their White forerunners had done: they dug their heels deeper into the sands of power and have instead become leaders of what I call "a ghetto monarchy." In other words, the community-first values of the Civil Rights era have been replaced by the post-Civil Rights era values of me-first, career first, and control and domination of my building, my block, my housing projects, my district, my part of the community (if not all of it), my church, my community center, or my organization, by any means necessary. For as long as possible. And often for as much money, privilege, and access to power as one can get with a "career" as a Black leader or figurehead.
And that, my friends, is what leads us, again, to the sad spectacles of the two senior most Congresspersons in New York State: Charlie Rangel of Harlem, and my representative in Brooklyn, Congressman Edolphus "Ed" Towns.
For it is so clear that the leadership path of Congressman Rangel begat the leadership path of Congressman Towns. Both may have been well intentioned at the beginning of their careers. Both may very well believe in the goodness, as I do, of public service for the people. But something has gone terribly wrong, the longer they have stayed in office (40 years now, for Mr. Rangel, and 27 long years for Mr. Towns); something that, I believe, has sapped them of their ability to serve effectively. That has sapped them of sound moral, political and ethical judgment. That has led both to be disconnected from the very people they claim to serve, both younger and older people alike.
And you see this pattern with old school Black political leaders nationwide. For ghettos exist wherever you see Black city council or alderpersons. Ghettos exist wherever you see Black state senators and assemblypersons. And ghettos exist for most of the Congressional districts, too, represented by Black House members. 40-plus long years of Black political representation, in record numbers, in fact, but it seems our communities are worse off than even before the Civil Rights Movement.
Now I am very clear that systemic racism has done a number on these communities from coast to coast, from how financial institutions have treated urban areas, to the deterioration of our public schools when White flight became real in the 1960s and 1970s, to loss of factories, and other job incubators, to the often combative relationship between our communities and local police. And let us not begin to talk about the effects of gentrification on urban areas across America the past decade and a half.
But if a leader really has any vision, she or he figures out some way to help the people to help themselves. You simply do not retreat to what is safe, secure, and predictable in terms of your actions, or lack thereof. Doing that means you simply have given up. Or, worse, you just do not care.
For me, no clearer evidence than the other day when I was campaigning for Congress in the Marcy Projects in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, the Marcy Projects made famous in the lyrics of hip-hop superstar and Brooklyn native son Jay-Z. The 60-year-old Marcy Projects is so huge a housing complex that it swallows whole Myrtle and Park and Flushing Avenues between Nostrand and Marcy. It consists of 27 buildings, over 1,700 apartments, and approximately 5,000 residents. And except for areas like Fort Greene (excluding its own projects), Clinton Hill, Boerum Hill, and parts of Dumbo, Bed-Stuy, East Flatbush, and Canarsie, most of Mr. Towns' district is as impoverished, under-served, and as forgotten as Marcy Projects.
There is the sight of several elderly women sitting on benches in the middle of this aging complex, frustrated with the state of their lives, their meager incomes, the bags of garbage strewn about them, and the rats that have created dirt holes so big around each building that a small human head could fit through most of them. When I ask these women where the nearest senior citizen center is, so they could have some measure of relief, they say, in unison, "Right here, outside, where we are sitting now, these benches. This is the safest place we got."
There is the sight of children, pre-teens and teens, running, jumping, over piss-stained asphalt, scraping their knees on the ground filled with broken bottles and broken promises. There also is no community center open in Marcy any longer. Why that is the case, no Marcy resident can tell me. What they do tell me is that Marcy Playground is being renovated. And indeed it is. But the residents feel it is not for them, that it is for "the new White people coming into the area, and the new Black people who have some money."
There is the sight of all those Black and Latino males standing on this or that corner, in front of this or that building, the hands of their lives shoved deep into their pockets, their hunger for something better fed by a Newport cigarette, a taste of malt liquor or Hennessey, a pull on a marijuana stick. And then the ritual happens: a police car shows up, males and females of all ages are asked for identification, are thrown up against a wall, against the squad car, or to the ground, asked where they live, where they are going, why are they standing there, what is in their shoes, in their underwear. Or they are accused of trespassing for going from one building to another, even if they are simply visiting a relative or friend.
This is not just life in Marcy Projects, Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. This is what ghetto monarchs like Congressman Towns and Congressman Rangel preside over in Black communities nationwide. Perhaps, once more, they really cared at one point--maybe they really did. But circa 2010, Charlie Rangel's problems are Ed Towns' problems because the apple does not fall very far from the tree. Yes, cite Mr. Rangel's litany of indiscretions, but let us not forget Mr. Towns' own timeline of indiscretions while overseeing his district (see the timeline below for Mr. Towns), for nearly three decades, with, among other things, some of the bloodiest violence in America, the highest HIV/AIDS rates in America, the most under-achieving schools (with a few notable exceptions), and vast disparities between the haves and the have-nots. Right here in Brooklyn, New York.
Is it little wonder that as I travel this Congressional district, meeting with Jewish folks in Boerum HIill, Chinese folks in Williamsburg, West Indian folks in East Flatbush and Canarsie, or African American and Puerto Rican folks in East New York, I hear the same things time and again: "We never see Mr. Towns except maybe when he needs our vote," or, "I have never seen Mr. Towns in my life," or, "I have called Mr. Towns' office many times and never gotten the help I need," or, "I just do not trust any of these politicians at all. They all lie."
This is why voter turnout is perpetually low. This is why incumbents get to stay in office decade after decade. The formula is very simple for electeds like Congressman Ed Towns: Identify the loyal voters and only cater to them (helping them get election poll jobs, or regular jobs, helping their children get into schools, paying for trips out of town to some casino or amusement park or cookout). Stay out of sight of all the other registered Democratic voters, banking on them simply pulling the lever for "Democrats" every election cycle without any fuss or questions. Never debate an insurgent opponent for fear of being exposed for who you really are, and for what you have not done for the community. Turn your political seat into a business, one where your family member and circle of friends and colleagues benefit from the powerful reach of your position.
So why would you want to give that up? Why would you even bother to do more than is absolutely necessary when you are able to enjoy the perks of a long political career without much effort, without much sweat equity at all? Why would you even think that taking on the values of political corruption are unethical at all, if there has been no one to hold you accountable for so very long?
And why would you see that Brooklyn, and the Brooklyns of America, are broken, so very terribly broken, even though it is clear as day to the people in your community?
Kevin Powell is a 2010 Democratic candidate for the United States House of Representatives in Brooklyn, New York's 10th Congressional district. You can contact him at www.kevinpowell.net