Newark, NJ—One by one they stepped forward, men and women who have suffered in silence, the victims of sexual harassment and abuse at the hands of employers, colleagues, clergy, friends and family members.
One woman told of being sexually abused as a young girl by a prominent city figure, while another—a man in his 50s—was sharing his story for the first time.
“I was a victim of sexual abuse between the ages of five and 16,” said Newark resident Thomas Ellis. “I thought it was only right to speak out for the men and women. I’m standing before you and shaking telling this story. I know what it’s like to be sexually abused. I know what it’s like to keep it bottled up, and I know what it’s like to finally speak out. You can live another day.”
Other victims recalled their personal experiences of abuse and harassment, urging the city council to pass a sexual harassment ordinance introduced in December by Central Ward Councilwoman and mayoral candidate Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins.
Newark residents turned out at Tuesday’s council meeting in support of the ordinance—the first of its kind in the city—which was passed unanimously by the city council.
Residents stood up and cheered upon passage of the ordinance that will offer greater protection to city employees who have been victims of sexual harassment, ensure that victims of harassment can come forward without fear of retaliation and calls on city council members to be notified of accusations brought forth by city employees.
The ordinance also mandates that City Hall staff and elected officials be required to participate in sexual harassment training, along with the formation of a five-member task force that would publicly review current city hall policy on the issue of sexual harassment and investigate sexual harassment claims brought forth by employees. The claims would then be brought before an independent review panel.
Last month, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka proposed an amendment to the legislation which sought to protect Newark residents from sexual harassment by a municipal employee while obtaining a service from or doing business with the City of Newark.
Chaneyfield Jenkins initiated the conversation around sexual harassment last year when she asked council members to vote on drafting the ordinance. At the time, Chaneyfield Jenkins raised allegations of City Hall employees being forced to have sex in order to secure or keep a job.
“This ordinance is about protection for men and women,” Chaneyfield Jenkins said, noting the collaborative efforts of her council colleagues, the city clerk's office and the city's corporation counsel. “This legislation was not done because of a video or because of election season. This wasn’t for Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins, this was for the people. For us not to admit there’s harassment going on in this city is being complicit.”
Councilman-at-Large Eddie Osborne thanked those who stepped up to the podium to share their stories.
“Your testimony did not fall on deaf ears,” he said. “I admire your bravery.”
Council colleagues commended Chaneyfield Jenkins for initiating the legislation.
“This is personal to me,” said Councilman-at-Large Luis Quintana, whose mother was a young victim of rape. “It’s not about politics—on my mother’s name I stand. I have to put that on the record.”
East Ward Councilman Augusto Amador said the city was far behind the times in passing the legislation, noting that ordinances to protect employees against sexual harassment were standard in other spheres.
“This is a no-brainer if you’re a human being and care about life,” Amador said. “It’s mind-boggling to me that we’re so far behind the times than what the private sector is doing and it’s our fault. I have to commend Gayle for bringing it up.”
Council President Mildred Crump lauded the legislation.
“It was important for me to hear the stories from the men and women and I said to God, ‘Thank you, God, I don’t have a story,'" she said. "Today is one of those days where we should all say, ‘never again.’”
Former Newark councilwoman and current council candidate Bessie L. Walker turned to the residents who shared their stories and promised her unwavering support.
“We’re here, we’re going to stand with you,” Walker said. “People are coming out of the shadows all across this earth. This is not something to play with. This is people’s lives.”
Former North Ward Councilman and current council candidate Hector Corchado called the legislation courageous.
“This legislation begins to scratch the surface on the tyrannical culture that exists in our city government,” he said. “We must continue to push for laws that protect all who feel threatened and unable to speak for fear of losing their jobs. Let this day mark the beginning of being acknowledged, knowing you have a voice and that it will be heard.”
Newark resident Jody Pittman cited sexual abuse allegations by former city employee Dannisha Clyburn—also known as "Queen Hatari"—against City of Newark Director of Recreation Obalaji Baraka, older brother of Newark Mayor Ras Baraka.
“There’s been no suspension, no investigation, no nothing from City Hall," Pittman said. “It is time we stand up. The women in this city must be afforded the same swift action we are seeing across this country. Gayle stepped up and introduced this ordinance. This will change so much in this city. It’s very rare to find a woman of color in this city who doesn’t have a story.”
Pittman stood up for a second time to address the ordinance after a city employee, sitting in on the council meeting, denied that Clyburn had been assaulted.
“Ain’t nothing happened to her,” he shouted out from his seat in the back.
“This is why we need this ordinance,” Pittman said. “A city employee just said he didn’t believe it happened. It seems that in this space we call City Hall, it seems there is an attitude that’s pervasive for a man to say, ‘we don’t believe that.’”
Chaneyfield Jenkins noted her involvement in fighting sexual abuse back when former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie endorsed Donald J. Trump in his bid for the presidency.
“We stood on the steps of the Statehouse in Trenton in October 2016 and said to then-Gov. Chris Christie that he should be ashamed of himself for supporting Donald Trump," she said. "This is not a political ploy, this is not a political stunt--this is a convergence of history in this time. This is reality.”