In 2020, amid calls to defund the police, progressive politicians in many US cities embraced the view that law enforcement is a problem, not a solution. The results seemed to speak for themselves, with crime spiking in many blue cities; some local governments that hastily opted to slash funding for policing soon reversed course. One noteworthy exception to all of this was Newark, NJ. The city’s left-wing mayor, Ras Baraka, made headlines at the height of the George Floyd protests when he dismissed defunding the police as a “bourgeois-liberal” idea. His words came on the heels of a dramatic moment: Despite fears that protests would trigger a resurgence of the rioting that had ravaged Newark 53 years earlier, residents and observers were struck by the absence of looting, violence, or destruction. As then-Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose told me, “we were very conscious of not going back to 1967.” 

“Such a feat was hardly spontaneous.”

Such a feat was hardly spontaneous. It was the result of painstaking strategic planning by Baraka in cooperation with the police department, Office of Violence Prevention, the Newark Community Street Team, and local activist organizations. This spirit of strategic problem-solving and collaboration has come to define Newark’s approach toward public safety ever since the city began implementing a federal consent decree and civilian review board in 2014, leading to a major drop in theft and violent crimes and instances of police corruption and brutality

Across the river in New York City, things look very different. Gotham continues to struggle with crime prevention and the management of its police department. In 2023, the city saw jumps in grand-larceny, stabbing, and slashing rates, as well as a rise in felony assaults on the subway. To be sure, Newark’s smaller size and population—currently around 300,000 residents—make it easier to manage than a megalopolis like New York. Yet a brief glance at statistics over the last six decades proves how miraculous Newark’s transformation is: Labeled a “war zone” in the 1960s and ranked the sixth most dangerous city in the country as recently as 2013, it wasn’t even in the top 100 by 2023. 

Newark owes these improvements in public safety to many factors, but these came together under the leadership of the 54-year-old mayor, the son of the late poet Amiri Baraka (formerly known as LeRoi Jones), for decades one of the country’s most controversial radical black activists. Having grown up in Newark while his father was heavily involved in city politics, Baraka was well-acquainted with its history and the various factions that hold sway over its public life. After studying at Howard University, he returned to Newark to teach in its public schools, eventually joining the city council and serving as deputy mayor to Sharpe James, with a stint as principal of Central High School. Baraka also made a name for himself in the city’s arts scene for his poetry and rapping, garnering attention for his appearances on albums by Lauryn Hill and the Fugees.

For those who have followed his career, Baraka’s brand of communitarian progressivism is far from surprising. And while deviating from his father’s antagonistic methods, Baraka demonstrates the extent to which he has been schooled by the self-determinist leanings of the black-nationalist tradition, with its emphasis on grassroots solutions and prioritizing the immediate needs of ordinary citizens, rather than by identitarian “anti-racists” who place their hope in diversifying bureaucracies. As cities try to learn from Newark’s example, they would do well to pay close attention to the populist and localist inspiration behind the mayor’s methods. 

The 1967 Newark riots, initially set off by the beating of a black cab driver by two white police officers, laid waste to the city and accelerated its decline. A great deal of hope was invested in the 1970 election of Kenneth A. Gibson, Newark’s first black mayor, but violence continued to escalate over the subsequent decade—including violence instigated by law enforcement. Exacerbated by white flight into the suburbs and the destruction of once-vibrant neighborhoods to make way for highways and multistory buildings, the city’s crime rate hit a record high in 1973. 

In the 1980s and ’90s, the police department suffered from a lack of professionalism and vision. Corruption and brutality ran rampant, and the department’s superiors failed to put forward evidence-based strategies to counter mounting criminality. Anthony Ambrose, who became an officer in Newark in 1986 and later served as police director and then public-safety director, told me: “Back when I started, we had no computers. Everything was done manually. We weren’t proactive. … We just reacted to crime. On top of that, our supervisors were rarely held accountable for corruption.” 

Ambrose acknowledged that racial bias played a role in many cases of police brutality, but emphasized the degree to which poor organization and general incompetence and low morale of officers were to blame. “Citizens complained about how difficult it was to call in to report crimes,” he said. “Our phones were broken, and our communications staff depleted, with many abusing their time on sick leave.” It wasn’t until Joseph Santiago was appointed police director in 1996 that the city saw major improvements in policing, thanks in part to his institution of the COMPStat approach to tracking crime. Nonetheless, incidents of police brutality continued to outrage residents, notably the 1999 killing of Earl Faison; meanwhile, criminal violence also continued to surge. 

The institution of Newark’s consent decree in 2016 resulted from the efforts of grassroots organizations like the People’s Organization for Progress, or POP, which has advocated on a variety of issues and created community educational forums since the early 1980s. The POP, chaired by 70-year-old Newark native Lawrence Hamm, a protégé of Amiri Baraka, collaborated with the American Civil Liberties Union to collect information on police abuses, then sent it to the Justice Department. The consent decree was issued days after Ras Baraka was elected mayor, in July 2014. He immediately got to work with New Jersey Attorney General Peter Harvey to implement the decree, which resulted most notably in the founding of a civilian-complaint review board, as well as numerous reforms within the structure of the police department and its method of policing. When Baraka appointed him chief of public safety in 2015, Ambrose aimed to take a “balanced approach” to implementing the consent decree while being tough on crime. 

One of his major moves was expanding the use of COMPStat. “You need to use it every day,” he said, not just when there is an issue. “You need to watch out for slippage in crime rates.” Excessive force, illegal searches, and profiling, as he saw it, were the result of lazy and imprecise arrest methods. He added: “Success cannot be measured by the number of arrests or tickets. We can’t arrest our way out of this.” Rather than “going out and grabbing everybody off the corner” at the site of a crime, he opted to make use of ShotSpotter technology to hone in on major areas of violent crime. “The worst crimes tend to happen on the same 20 streets,” Ambrose noted. “If you can target them, you can curb a significant portion of crimes in the city.” 

Another of the major deterrents of violence—by both civilians and police—was the expansion of community policing. Ambrose recognized the value of assigning the same officers to the same zones to foster greater familiarity and trust between them and local residents, as well as changing the times of their shifts, so that they could encounter a wider array of the zone’s residents. Officers would also host gatherings for residents, ranging from safety workshops about installing Ring doorbell cameras, to block parties and school-supply giveaways. Such attempts to build trust within the community, according to South Ward Councilman Patrick Council, aim to invest residents with a sense of their own agency, urging them to take ownership over the safety of their neighborhoods. They also aim to draw more locals into the police force: Precincts began hosting open houses for students to visit the office and learn about careers in the department. 

On public safety, Baraka has attempted, as Ambrose put it, to “bring everyone to the table”—including politicians, the police department, social workers, civilians, activists like Hamm, and the newly instituted Street Team and Office of Violence Prevention. This pragmatism was by no means to be expected, given the mayor’s parentage and background in radical politics. But it has earned him praise from activists and police alike. Hamm told me that the mayor’s collaborative approach has allowed the city to make substantial headway in curbing police brutality. For his part, Ambrose told me that real change requires being willing to “put relationships together” to identify and address the root causes of a problem and get the job done, reiterating the need to treat the department “like a business.” 

Ambrose recognized that criminal justice doesn’t come down to policing alone, but he insisted on the need to hire more police officers to avoid the burnout that leads to declines in competency and professionalism. “People forget that we’re the only government department that works 24/7, including the holidays.” That said, “12 to 25 percent of the calls the police department receives can be resolved by non-police.” Ambrose cited the contributions of social workers and the Street Team, which played a crucial role in keeping the peace in 2020.

“The police need to do their job,” Hamm concurred, and not jobs that should be handled by civilians. “We’re far past the times of the police officer serving as a local constable. The police are armed … they’re militarized”—thus the need for civilian oversight and separation of powers.

“Pragmatism overrides the utopian posturing so common among progressive activists.”

Hamm is often labeled a “radical,” but he is hardly a conventional one. As with the mayor, his pragmatism overrides the utopian posturing so common among progressive activists. When we spoke, Hamm recalled how a confrontation with members of Mothers of Murdered Sons and Daughters (MOMSAD) at a protest helped him realize that advocates against police brutality needed to collaborate with those demanding to bring perpetrators of violent crimes to justice. After the protest, Hamm invited the MOMSAD members to attend POP meetings. They continued to do so for more than 20 years.

On March 12, Mayor Baraka hosted an audience of politicians, law enforcement, journalists, community organizers, and residents—most of whom were African American—at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, located in the heart of Newark’s Arts District, for his annual State of the City address. After the singing of both the “Star Spangled Banner” and “Lift Every Voice,” a performance by a gospel choir, and prayers led by an imam and a rabbi, the mayor took the stage to uproarious applause. 

Between touting several statistics that point to his successful management of city affairs, he slipped in his intention to run for governor of New Jersey, after which he was showered with even more applause and rhythmic chants from his confreres of Alpha Phi Alpha, the oldest historically African-American intercollegiate fraternity.

“Baraka continues to invoke the black radical rhetoric passed down from his father.”

Baraka continues to invoke the black radical rhetoric passed down from his father. During the speech, he reminded the crowd of how his father’s head was “split wide open” by a Newark police officer during the “rebellion” of 1967—ostentatiously avoiding the more commonly used term “riot.” But the younger Baraka’s version of black-power politicking is fundamentally about making progress for Newark’s black residents. His reforms to the police department, his campaign to boost homeownership among black families, and his initiatives on behalf of local business owners in the face of gentrification—all of these demonstrate his localist sympathies. His dismissive attitude toward symbolic progressivism is driven not only by his realism and pragmatism, but by his deep ties to the particular city he governs and to its people. “This city is all I am,” he told me after the State of the City address.

Christopher Lasch warned in 1979 of those who clamor for social causes du jour, whose narcissistic ploys for affirmation may “make for success in bureaucratic institutions” but ultimately “discourage the formation of deep personal attachments.” He went on to comment later, in 1991, that the “capacity for loyalty is stretched too thin when it tries to attach itself to the hypothetical solidarity of the human race.” 

When announcing a new set of policies to address gentrification in 2022, Baraka lamented that “in cities and even suburbs across America, institutional investors are eroding the American dream of homeownership as they convert owner-occupied homes into corporately owned rental units. In Newark,” he continued, “where we have worked hard for years to expand homeownership, we will do everything possible to combat this dangerous trend,” expressing his intention to work to foster “coordinated state and local policy to address the effects of large-scale corporate ownership of private homes” and “to ensure that residents share in the growth of our city.”

The “bourgeois” activists dismissed by Baraka have no skin in the game and can only propose “hypothetical” solutions to concrete problems—at best. Having been born and raised in the city, taught in its public schools, made art and written poetry about it, Baraka’s roots are firmly planted in Newark, whose ins and outs he knows—and loves—intimately. “How beautiful is our city, despite the pundits, those that cry from outside the arena.… They are all wrong!” he shouted to the enthusiastic crowd. “By God’s grace, we will always stand tall.”

Stephen G. Adubato is an Intercollegiate Studies Institute editorial fellow at Compact and writes on Substack.


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