11/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Harlem -- Night Before The Primary

The Harlem Committee for Ethical Politics hosted a candidates' forum at St. Mark's the Evangelist Church on 138th Street. My friends from Picture the Homeless were there in force: Lynn, Carlos, Cynthia and Premo. Mayoral candidate Tony Avella came, and Public Advocate hopeful Norman Siegel, too. As the Green Party candidate, I'm not on the ballot for the Democrat Primary, and was free to endorse Tony and Norman. A number of city council candidates were in attendance too, from districts covering the Apollo to Inwood. It was a night run with a disciplined hand by African-American mothers.


We felt an acute vacuum of incumbents. The Democrat machine ignored this gathering, on the night before the party vote. The absence of office-holding candidates (more than 95% of all councilpersons who run for re-election are re-elected) pulled on us. The open corruption of this year's election, with the politicians' self-dealing on term limits, created an evening where the speakers meditated on Democracy. There was mixture of sadness and of anger at the acceptance of such an obvious situation in New York City. And the impact on Harlem, the gentrification, the joblessness and homelessness, the loss of local control of communities -- was heartfelt in the applause, the sighs and shouts in the room.

I feel released to preach in Harlem, and honored to be there. If the corruption and victimization of that famous community is deeper than in many other neighborhoods, rooted as it is in the virulence of slavery itself, it is also true that the preaching and music and alternative worships and comedy -- resistance in a world of variety that comes up out of the streets of Harlem -- this makes a sturdier platform for a shout. For instance, Carlton Berkeley and Manuel Lantigua, candidates for City Council who were longtime police officers in Harlem, members of "One Hundred Blacks in Law Enforcement," were completely clear on the real estate speculators' impact on their neighborhoods. So policemen don't have to work for the developers? And they are not as astonished as I am at the bullying billions of Bloomberg. To Harlem, this administration is business as usual.

The upzoning of 125th Street, nearly unanimously approved by the current city council, opened Harlem's heart to big boxes and chains. Everyone who spoke last night at St. Mark's energetically opposed it. As I waited my turn to speak, I wondered about the sophisticated form that corruption has taken. Was what we were saying under the woven images of black freedom fighters -- was all this fully anticipated by the powers that be? Do we serve as mere proof for the establishment's advertisements that Democracy still does exist? We are colorfully strident, maybe, but surrounded by some kind of sound absorbent material that hangs over Malcolm X Boulevard.

A shout that cannot carry in the air, unhearable by fellow citizens who enter public space -- that is the phenomenon we must explore. The corruption has enlarged from the usual millions under the table, unchanged since Tammany Hall and beyond, to the modern era of marketing. It is the corruption of personal experience. The consumerizing of our moments of living. The fact that such Harlem shouts as I heard last night are folded back into the daily white noise -- that is the depth of the corruption.