Activists say brawl at Newark City Hall a 'black eye' for anti-violence movement

By Dan Ivers | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on January 04, 2016

Abdul Muhammad, bottom, is pushed down to the ground by Tyrone Barnes, in the red jacket, after Muhammad was separated from community activist Donna Jackson when the two got in a heated argument. Violence breaks out on the steps of Newark City Hall during an anti-violence rally. Wednesday December 30, 2015

 

NEWARK – A group of activists involved in an anti-violence protest turned brawl on the steps of City Hall last week have issued a public apology, calling the incident a "black eye" for their fight against crime.

The Newark Anti-Violence Coalition, which had several members present at the Wednesday demonstration, issued a public statement the following day expressing regret "for the behavior of any one in our membership for their unintended role in that tragic event."

"We apologize to all attendees who had to witness this senseless incident," the group said. "Most importantly, we apologize to our young, who need a much better example out of all us on how 'not to let disagreement spiral so quickly, so destructively and so dangerously, into the senseless violence what we all saw yesterday and all feel terrible about now!"

The press conference, called by veteran activist Abdul Muhammad and Salaam Ismial, the co-chair of the New Jersey Study Commission on Violence, attracted a handful of reporters and a few dozen onlookers on the steps of City Hall.

When Muhammad began to accuse Mayor Ras Baraka of failing to have an articulated plan to combat violence, however, he was interrupted by fellow activist Donna Jackson, who accused him of abandoning his own efforts until recently. The confrontation quickly escalates into a screaming match, and other members of both groups close in before eventually resorting to fisticuffs.

Tyrone "Street Counselor" Barnes was among those caught participating in the scuffle, including holding Muhammad down by his neck. In an interview Monday, he said he had no intention other than to prevent the situation from escalating.

"All it is trying to restrain (Muhammad) from striking her, because he was in close proximity to striking her," he said. "It wasn't about anything else."

A former convict who has since built a presence working with youth in and around Newark, Barnes hired at-risk youth to work at his at his South Ward restaurant Mercy Wings Deli & Grill, and recently wrapped up a six-month stint as director of the Newark Community Street Team, a city-backed anti-violence program.

He said he was upset that his body of work was being overshadowed by the skirmish, and said he hoped he could join forces with Muhammad, Ismial and the NAVC in the future.

"It takes more than just NAVC, the mayor, Muhammad. It takes us a collective community to change the dynamics of the system that's going on out here with this element of crime," he said.

Muhammad has filed a criminal complaint alleging Barnes assaulted him during the melee, though both he and Ismial have expressed similar regrets that their intended message was obscured by the scuffle.

The apparent rift has exposed a rift between city activists who share a common enemy in violence, but apparently diverge on whether the blame should be placed at the foot of City Hall.

In its statement, the NAVC also defended its work in the community as well as Baraka, a founding member who representatives say has implemented "well-demonstrated, multi-dimensional strategies" to help prevent its spread.

"Let the record reflect that this Mayor has already displayed a hands on effort in two short years that dwarfs what former mayors Gibson, James and Booker executed during each of their entire tenures!" the group said.

Baraka issued a statement following the incident calling Muhammad the instigator of the confrontation and characterizing the press conference as an unsanctioned event that served to "discredit the efforts of so many who are committed to speaking out against violence in the neighborhoods and streets of both cities.

For his part, Barnes said his intervention in the heated argument between Muhammad and Jackson should not be interpreted as a political statement.

"That's not my function. Muhammad) has a constitutional right to speak," he said. "It's one man out here, which is the mayor obviously...he's going to face criticism. If I have an issue with the mayor or the city or anything dealing with the community, I hold meetings with the activists, as opposed to doing this whole grandstand thing."

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