Newark community activist disputes charges that he threatened the city’s mayor, says he is holding the leader accountable for displacing Newarkers

9 mins read

A confrontation between an activist and city leader ends in an arrest. The contentions have been long-standing.

A night at a Newark, New Jersey neighborhood sporting event ended in the arrest of community activist, Thomas “Afrika” Ibiang. His charges, making terroristic threats against the city’s mayor, Ras Baraka.

Ibiang was detained Tuesday evening, on August 15, following arguments with Mayor Baraka and his chief of staff, Amiri “Middy” Baraka Jr. at Branch Brook Park. Middy Baraka is the mayor’s brother. 

Reports of the incident began to make its rounds after Ibiang and his wife, Patience Roberts, released a video montage of the incident on multiple social media platforms.

“I did not make any threats against Ras,” Ibiang declared. “He was mad that I taped him so that the people can really see who he is . . . a sellout, bootlicking Uncle Tom to his people.”

In a statement to Ark Republic, the City of Newark’s Press Secretary Susan P. Garofalo said the following:

“Per Newark Public Safety Director Fritz G. Fragé, following a verbal altercation at Branch Brook Park on Tuesday, August 15, 2023, Thomas Ibing, 44, was arrested for making a terroristic threat against Mayor Ras J. Baraka. This incident remains under investigation. No further information is available.”

Ark Republic obtained the complaint summons listing Ibiang as Thomas Ibing. It stated that the complaint was filed by a K. Wright Jr., who is unknown at press time. 

More revealing, the document lacked signatures of an arresting officer, though one was shown to be a female law enforcer in Ibiang and Roberts’ released footage. However, officers J. Pinzon-Rodriguez and R. Greenway signed the personal property form, which is a report of the belongings of the detainee when taken into custody. 

The mayor’s office did not address Ark Republic’s inquiries regarding the summons, complainant identity or missing information. When asked, Ibiang said his last name is spelled incorrectly on the summons, and he does not go by Thomas Gunn, as initially reported by a local outlet. Since then, a correction has been made to the article.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka visits Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) attendees in July 2023. Photo credit: City of Newark Press Office

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Ibiang told Ark Republic that Mayor Baraka became upset when he publicly criticized him at the playoffs for the Neighborhood versus Neighborhood summer basketball league. Namely, Ibiang, a captain in the New Afrikan Black Panther Party (NABPP), expressed disdain about the severe housing crisis in Newark. “It’s not personal, it’s not because I don’t like him, [or] I don’t like his family . . . it’s because of their actions,” Ibiang said.

“[Look] at the material conditions that they have people going through, they’re gentrifying the community and I am not the only one who’s saying it, it’s national news . . . they’re pushing people into the street. These people are the enemy of the people . . . and people act like they don’t see it and say that I’m the crazy one.”

According to Ibiang, challenging the mayor was far from his mind that day. A community organizer and mentor who uses basketball coaching as a way to reach local youth, he was called at the last minute by a summer league staffer with a request. A team playing in the city-sponsored games lacked uniforms, so Ibiang agreed to donate some loaner gear. 

After dropping off the apparel, Ibiang saw Mayor Baraka in attendance, so he approached the city official who was standing by basketball courts where the games were located. At the time, Mayor Baraka was surrounded by security detail.  “I walked up to him and said, ‘Yo, that’s terrible what you [are] doing to the people in the city, man. That’s some savage shit. Everybody’s out here homeless now.’”

Known to be very vocal about city governance, Ibiang told Ark Republic he accused Mayor Baraka of betraying Newark citizens. “He made campaign promises to deal with gentrification,” said Ibiang. “[Today], when you go outside, you see people all in the streets then [city officials] act like they don’t know they’ve sold the buildings [and] gave out tax abatements.”

Ibiang started to video record his interaction after the two began exchanging heated words. Quickly, the argument turned into epithets. In the encounter, Ibiang alleges that the hip hop mayor told him to “Get the fuck out of here,” threatened to fight him and called him a rapist. That is when Ibiang’s responses intensified.

Footage shows Ibiang yelling at Mayor Baraka, asking why he called him a rapist. “Say that shit on video cause you a fucking clown … you a fucking bitch … a fucking sellout nigga.” 

Mayor Baraka is seen on his cell phone, not responding to Ibiang. When Ark Republic asked about the rape allegations, Ibiang denied them and said that it has been a tactic by affiliates of the Baraka Administration and the city manager to try to “dehumanize” him. “They make me look crazy, so they can discredit then remove me.”

Roberts, who was in the car waiting for her husband with the couple’s daughter, said that they have been some of the most open critics of the way the city runs. “For the past 15 years of working in the community, we’ve always had problems with politicians. We’ve confronted many of them,” explained Roberts. Ibiang’s longtime partner is the co-facilitator of their initiatives through their organization, Ma’at Youth Services.

For well over a decade, they have worked with hundreds of young adults in sports-centered programs that assist them in improving academic performances, enhancing life skills and taking political education courses. As well, this is paired with youth volunteering in different activities throughout the city such as cleaning up distressed and abandoned properties. As of late, they assist with the weekly food pantry program given by the NABPP and members belonging to organizations that fall under the multi-racial coalition they’ve been working with for several years.

“Because we’re coming at them, we’re coming at the establishment and status quo, you’re coming at their money. The first thing they do is try to . . . attack your character. This is nothing new,” she stated.

While Mayor Baraka has put out a battery of programs to address the lack of affordable housing, Ibiang claims the city leader is one of the key figures responsible for causing the issue. “You’ve got a prestigious university in the state [that] did a whole report pointing the finger at city officials, city hall people . . . in the [Rutgers] CLiME report, it said the city officials were responsible because of policies that they made.”

In May 2022, Rutgers Center of Law, Inequality and Metropolitan Equity (CLiME) released findings from a study showing how predominantly Black neighborhoods in Newark experienced a dramatic spike in “rising rents, decreased homeownership, higher barriers to affordable housing production goals, [and] renter displacement.” When the issues were tracked, researchers discovered that four entities had purchased “almost half of all real estate sales” from 2017 to 2020, thus destabilizing housing. While affordable housing occurred before the Baraka Administration, the purchases made by institutional buyers happened during Mayor Baraka’s tenure. Since, the city has agreed to a list of recommendations by the City’s Equitable Growth Advisory Commission.

| Watch: Newark has one of worst housing crises, dismantled Black middle class Rutgers CLiME Report reveals 

Top photo: New Black Panther Party food giveaway program takes place every Wednesday. This giveaway on July 27, 2003. Bottom left: Former Councilwoman Mildred Crump gives Afrika Ibiang a smooch. Bottom center: Afrika Ibiang and partner Patience Roberts. Bottom Left: Supporter a case involving four brothers called the Rodwell-Spivey case: Photo credits: Thomas Afrika Ibiang’s Facebook page

Bad Blood

Ibiang says his relationship with Mayor Baraka started off differently. In fact, he used to work with the mayor on youth initiatives in the city. He even volunteered for his campaign, along with the young men in his program. However, he split shortly after Mayor Baraka’s 2018 win when he disagreed with the way select city employees ran a program he co-developed with the city leader. “I saw that these programs were not really set up to help the people. They were money grabs where they put people in place who didn’t know how to run the programs and didn’t even care if they helped the people.”

One major flaw Ibiang pointed out was that he interacted with city workers who appeared to be largely unqualified, uncaring or inept in the positions that they were hired to carryout. Another issue, he worked with youth, but never went through any background checks, nor saw that as a mandate for others prior to engaging with local minors. 

For him, the encounter with Mayor Baraka at the basketball games on August 15 was part of a succession of attempts to hold him accountable for serious issues impacting the most vulnerable of the city. In the midst of Mayor Baraka’s and Ibiang’s exchanges, one of chief magistrate’s security detail attempted to de-escalate the situation by talking to Ibiang. “You can’t say you’re going to knock him out,” said the security officer to Ibiang in the video.

Ibiang explained that the footage did not capture Mayor Baraka initiating threats of physical violence. After the elected official said he would fight him, Ibiang responded in a similar kind. 

During the guard’s actions to cool down the tense moment, a male community member also interceded. Eventually, the guard made efforts to escort him to the perimeter of the park. Once Ibiang told Mayor Baraka’s security detail that the park was a public area and he didn’t have to leave, the guard suggested that the two have a conversation on calmer terms. Ibiang responded that he had attempted to speak with Mayor Baraka numerous times, but has been repeatedly rebuffed. At the time, the mayor’s security nor nearby police officers indicated any terroristic threat was made.

Roberts added that they were only at Branch Brook Park to drop off the uniforms, but were enroute to see their son play at another park across town. When Ibiang made it back to the car, they drove off to their son’s tournament game. To them, it was another butting-heads moment in their years-long political disagreements with the Baraka Administration. They were wrong.

Later on, when Ibiang returned to Branch Brook to pick up the uniforms he provided to players, he was phoned by someone in the park who asked if he could speak to him about the earlier dispute. “We didn’t know Baraka was still at the park, but Afrika went over to the guy,” said Roberts.

The man wearing a black and white shirt in the released video by Ibiang and Roberts was the caller who is also a retired police officer. While Ibiang spoke to the former cop, Middy Baraka walked toward them and confronted the political advocate, which resulted in another verbal quarrel. This is where Middy Baraka also said he would fight Ibiang.

Swiftly, more city officials, law enforcement and security walked toward the scene. At some point, a female police officer comes into the video frame and states that she is arresting Ibiang for making terroristic threats against Mayor Baraka. 

By this time, Roberts and her daughter had already started filming the commotion while simultaneously contending with a growing group of men in support of the chief of staff and Mayor Baraka. Roberts and Ibiang’s son also began to lodge complaints at the way the situation was handled.

“I believe whenever we hold these politicians accountable, they use whatever tools they have, and in particular, weaponize the police and court system, to shut us up,” reflected Roberts.

Ibiang was detained until about 2:30 the next morning.

Mystery of inequity

One of the activist couple’s staunchest public battles between Mayor Baraka and the city council is housing, and in particular, the Garden and Spruce Spires Apartment complex. A resident for over two decades, Roberts was one of hundreds of tenants who filed complaints or spoke at city council meetings about the conditions of the place over the years. In 2018, Omni America, a New-York based firm, bought the real estate from First King Properties with promises to totally renovate.

Two years later, the $172 million rehabilitation project was complete. The buildings were promoted as a mark of success in affordable housing by state, federal and city officials including Mayor Baraka, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), and the late Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver (D-NJ). The renewal initiative also gave Omni America a 30-year tax abatement. One year following the celebration of the finished renovations, tenants began reporting that issues such as rodent and bug infestation and mold persisted. Plus, building managers began locking out tenants from their homes.

| Read: Tenants at a Newark apartment building already battling evictions after Supreme Court decision shutters federal housing moratorium

Roberts became so incensed by Garden Spires management, she began organizing tenants. It was through her many talks with neighbors that she saw an ineffective tenant association not speaking for the interests of those who lived there. As well, she took note of forced evictions with jumps in rent, and shoddy paperwork given to residents by management. 

Roberts’ organizing resulted in bumping heads with building supervisors. Eventually, she too was evicted. In perfect timing, it was months before Omni America sold all of its 12,000 affordable housing units to Nuveen, an asset management company. Estimated to manage $1.1 trillion, one of its biggest clients is the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America (TIAA).

The issue at Garden and Spruce Spires is part of a larger, multi-generational problem in the city. As gentrification ensues, those most vulnerable are being pushed out. Indeed, the Baraka Administration has launched several housing programs and collaborations with non-profits such as the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America (NACA) and the Urban League of Essex County. But many are asking if any of these initiatives have had any significant impact, or are properly being assessed for outcomes.

Kaia Shivers covers news, features and the diaspora.

For Ibiang, it is a definite no, which has been why he targets a city official he once joined forces with years ago.

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