In State of the City speech, Baraka outlines Newark's future with anti-Trump overtones

Mayor Ras Baraka has denied any wrongdoing in his response to city attorney Willie Parker's allegations Credits: File Photo

In a speech dominated by the themes of development and public safety, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka found time in his third State of the City address to use rhetorical fire to roast President Donald Trump.

"Because of the turmoil and uncertainty nationally, we must have a solid local strategy that is inclusive and focused," said Baraka to a crowd of over 500 people at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) on Monday night.

"This country has just elected a man who is more comfortable being advised by white supremacists and anti-Semites than he is by his own intelligence communities," Baraka said.

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The sharp rebuke of President Trump came on the same day that the Trump administration released a list of law enforcement agencies in so called sanctuary cities that refuse to detain jailed immigrants beyond their release dates so that the federal government could try to deport them. The Newark Police Department was on the list of law enforcement agencies that would not honor an U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainer.

As he called on all Newarkers to unite in the face of policies promoted by Trump that he believes will hurt urban America, Baraka called out one prominent Trump administration member by name, linking to him to one of the most infamous Southern white protagonists of the civil rights era. 

"We oppose 'Bull' Connor and [White House chief strategist] Steve Bannon," Baraka said to applause, underscoring his opposition to Trump's immigration policy as well as the President's attempts to impose a travel ban to the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries. "We are a sanctuary city, because it is who were are." 

Baraka muted his oratorical offensive as he turned to issues affecting Newark that are more exclusively local: development and public safety. He noted the approximately $2 billion in development underway in New Jersey's largest city, pointing to recent successes such as the opening of the upscale Whole Foods supermarket inside of the renovated Hahne's and Co. building in the middle of downtown Newark. Baraka also noted plans to create additional park space along the Passaic River and build mixed-use, retail and residential projects such as Mulberry Commons, formerly known as Triangle Park. also in downtown. 

But Baraka also noted that 90 jobs for Newarkers were created when Whole Foods opened downtown, part of the city's efforts to improve a job ratio in which only about 20 percent of the jobs in Newark are held by city residents.

And for those who find the term 'gentrification' to be not just a harbinger of growth but the engine of displacement, Baraka noted the city's efforts to spread development throughout the city's five wards by refurbishing long-abandoned properties and buildings on lots left empty after the 1967 civil disturbances that cut Newark to the bone, as well as working toward the passage of an ordinance that will promote the construction of affordable housing units as part of the new residential projects. 

"We are focused on affordable housing in Newark," Baraka said. "So when somebody tells you that this in the next Brooklyn, you say, no, this is the next Newark."

Baraka admitted that while Newark has suffered from "intractable and stubborn crime" for decades, he also pointed to 2016 statistics that demonstrate crime on the downward slope in the city, with a 13 percent reduction in overall crime, including homicides.

The statistics, which back up the city administration's claims that crime is now at the lowest level in Newark in 50 years, will hopefully improve as Newark prepares to train and hire more police officers in the coming months, Baraka said.

"In 2016, we graduated 80 officers from the [police] academy," Baraka said, pointing out the city police force was still rebuilding after losing approximately 400 officers to layoffs, transfers and retirements dating from 2010, equaling about one third of the city force. "A second class of 23 will graduate this month, and a third class of 216, the largest ever, will begin in August with a scheduled graduation date of December 2017."

While Baraka repeatedly noted that continued public-private partnerships will be critical in ensuring that Newark's revitalization continues, he called on both sides to do better in the days to come to ensure that the benefits of redevelopment spread throughout the city. 

"The public sector cannot, and should not, be tasked alone to democratize our economy, to make wealth inclusive," Baraka said. "And I cannot say that you are a good neighbor in our city unless you are helping not just to develop buildings, but also the people that live here. It is not enough to find new people to come to our city, even though we have plenty of room. We must also find upward mobility for those that have been struggling for decades."

In closing, Baraka implied that the with the Trump administration in place, Newark cannot look to Washington for help in its struggle to rebuild and redevelop the city. Instead, throwing another verbal jab at Trump, he reminded the crowd that it is up to them to make Newark great again.

"No matter how much they come up with alternative facts, God is with our city, and Newark is moving forward," Baraka said. "It is time to become the architects of resistance by creating a city that flourishes, that shines its light in a sea of darkness. This is our time to show the world what we can do." 

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