This week, Mayor Ras Baraka is calling on the men of his city of Newark to hold court with him on specific streets; he’s calling it Occupy the Block.
The first Occupy the Block just started at 4:30pm at Clinton Ave and Chadwick today. Saturday at the same time, it will be Chancellor and Schley. Baraka plans to do this three days a week, staying for several hours. He’s thinking folding chairs and tables, shutting down any nearby illegal trade, talking frankly with whoever’s there about the city, about youth, about violence. Maybe play some chess. (Read his whole message here).
Have to say, I was vexed when I heard he was looking only to men. I know women in Newark who keep sharp eyes out on their street every day, grandmothers you wouldn’t want to mess with, and women teachers whose lifework is the lives of kids. But then I remembered something from a long time ago, from my block in the upper west side in NYC.
All kinds of people lived on my street. But on the avenues there were these young men who stationed themselves on the corners almost 24 hours a day. Every woman and girl skirted past those guys. They were loud, insular, sat on top of strangers’ cars and made noise 24 hours a day. Singularly, they were just guys; a knot of 15 of them was off-putting. One hot night, there was a blackout. And I was an adventurous kid, I wanted to get to midtown. When the guys saw me try to walk out, they fanned out and blocked me. What? “No girls … no women …off this street,” they said. “Go home.” Other direction, same thing. I was so pissed, until I realized what an idiot I was.
I might have skirted around those guys. But to them, I was one of their girls, and they were going to keep me from a danger zone whether I liked it or not. Sure, it’s sexist; it assumed my weakness, inability. But that’s not how they meant it. They were doing their best for me, and us, on their street. They were bigger. Stronger. Masculine. And they were taking responsibility.
I count on men to be protective. Even as I wish they’d get out the hell out of my way sometimes. Even when I think my judgment’s better than theirs. And this is why.
Much of the violence in Newark – like anywhere – involves and impacts men. And I think Mayor Baraka is seeing the men of Newark the way I had to be taught to see our men, on my block in NYC. Bigger. Stronger. Masculine. Protectors.