NEWARK, NJ — Like many local organizations looking to support the Black Lives Matter movement following the killing of George Floyd, the Newark Water Coalition (NWC) organized a march in the South Ward on June 12 tied to its mission of mutual aid, a form of political participation in which communities take care of their own through the exchange of resources.
But as the members of NWC, a group formed in response to Newark’s water crisis, set out to march from University High School to the 5th police precinct on Clinton Avenue, they soon were confronted by a group of local residents who had other plans for the marchers’ path.
Amiri “Middy” Baraka, Jr., Mayor Ras Baraka’s brother and chief of staff, at one point appears among the group in a video at University High, arguing with the marchers after they were forced to turn back and telling them that their advocacy is not needed in Newark.
“We have political power in this town already, go to another town to organize. They need your help, not us. We’ve got our town under control, we believe in our people,” Baraka said. “We believe in our mayor. The mayor just created an executive order to talk about the police department, to defund the police department. Nothing I’m saying is wrong. It’s all facts, Google it!”
NWC, along with the Natural Resources Defense Council and Newark Education Workers Caucus, is part of a federal lawsuit filed against the city in 2019 for its handling of the water crisis. The suit demands that the city deliver bottled water to residents in areas affected by lead contamination.
Baraka told TAPinto Newark that his aim was to educate the marchers, whom he states in the video are being “misinformed.”
“Local residents blocked the group of protestors from proceeding to the precinct and I spoke to them afterwards in front of University High School about the protests. I definitely wasn’t berating anyone,” said Amiri Baraka, Jr. “People should know that as people march for George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, for Black Lives Matter, and against police brutality, there’s really no room for hidden agendas.”
It was not initially clear why city officials and police who were present did not attempt to protect the marchers’ right to protest, as has been the case with other recent demonstrations in Newark. Newark Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose said police only intervene if public safety is at risk.
“Protesters requested no police escort for this event,” Director Ambrose said. “Members of our Clergy Ambassadors were present and did not observe nor report any incidents of violence. Heckling was observed, but that isn’t illegal. We respect the rights of the public to protest peacefully, and police will only intervene when public safety issues arise.”
Lamont Vaughn, a former member of the city’s Newark Anti-Violence Coalition who was convicted on federal drug charges in 2016, also appears in the video with Baraka, agitating the crowd and telling the marchers to “shut up or I’m going to rip it out” as he damages one person’s speaker.
The city spokeswoman said that Vaughn is not connected to the mayor’s office. Earlier during the march, a shirtless Vaughn continues to heckle the marchers and eventually rips a bullhorn away from Anthony Diaz, NWC’s co-founder. Other South Ward residents on the street also join in to tell the marchers to “go back where they came from.”
Vaughn could not be reached for comment.
NWC ultimately decided that it was not safe to proceed to the 5th Precinct and stopped the march short to avoid escalation.
“On our way (to the precinct), this group marched with us and heckling people in the crowd. The (community members) attacked us from all sides — psychologically, emotionally saying things about people’s parents and threatening us,” said Sabre Bee, a co-founder of NWC.
Diaz said that in addition to advocating for Black Lives Matter, the purpose of the march was to distribute donations of fresh produce, baby items and bottled water to the residents of the South Ward. While it was "disappointing" that his organization's right to protest was impeded, he said the real injustice was that they were not able to deliver mutual aid to the fullest extent they had planned.
“We’re doing this work to benefit the people of Newark, and if you’re going to show up, where are the resources you’re providing?” Diaz said. “You’re literally attacking people that had lettuce and diapers in their hands.”
Renee Shalhoub, founder of Mutual Morris, a partnering mutual aid organization and a sponsor of the March, set up a distribution table with her organization at the 5th Precinct, where they handed out donations and waited for the marchers to arrive. She said that ultimately, both her organization and NWC’s goal was to expand their holistic approach to community outreach.
“We really believe in empowering the people. I think (Baraka) framing this in such a way about police brutality is limiting and single-focused,” she said.