Newark Residents Pepper Sprayed at Council Meeting

Several residents were pepper sprayed by police and one was arrested during a City Council meeting in Newark N.J., on Tuesday night.

Attendees of the meeting grew upset and rushed the dais when Mayor Cory Booker voted to appoint Shanique Speight to the council. Police pepper sprayed members of the crowd, including Service Employees International Union President, Rahaman Muhammad, who was arrested.

The power struggle began after Rep. Donald Payne died earlier this year. His son, Donald Payne Jr., Newark’s councilmen at large, succeeded his father in Congress, leaving an empty seat on the council.

Sparks flew Tuesday when Booker voted for Speight to take Payne’s seat. Residents say Booker never attends council meetings and had no right to interfere in the voting process. They also weren’t pleased with his choice of Speight, who sits on the Newark Public Schools Advisory Board.

Many members of the community wanted  John Sharpe James, son of former Newark Mayor Sharpe James, to fill the empty seat.

Angry residents began shouting at council members as Speight began to be sworn in.  Members in the crowd began chanting, “Cory must go!” They quickly swarmed the dais, leading police to try to control the crowd.

When residents would not back down, police proceeded to pepper spray the audience.

Muhammad was sprayed and handcuffed before police escorted him out of City Hall. He’s charged assault, starting a riot, resisting arrest and disturbing a public meeting, he said. The union president attempted to prevent Speight’s swearing in by slapping the bible on which her hand rested.

Residents and council members gather outside of City Hall after ruckus. Brittney M. Brown | The Bridge

Council members Ronald C. Rice and Ras J. Baraka, who opposed Speight’s appointment, voiced their disgust to residents outside of City Hall.

Rice, who represents the West Ward, said he intentionally boycotted the meeting. His absence meant an uneven number of council members would vote, making it unnecessary for Booker to take part in the process.

He said his colleagues and Booker hid their intentions to vote Speight onto the council, and he knew nothing about her.  Residents of Newark were denied democracy, according to Rice.

“This is anti-democratic totalitarianism type action,” said Rice. “And that cannot happen.”

“It’s interesting to me that they mace and took out the loudest voices who are here every month beating on the mayor, asking him to come before us,” he said. “Why are they the most vulnerable ones to take out of here?”

Speight, Booker and the police department declined to comment.

The political process and police management of the angry crowd outraged those in the audience. Yvette Abdullah, a Newark resident who attended the meeting, said the incident added fuel to the fire to the political and racial tensions already happening in the city.

The community has a bad relationship with the police, according to Abdullah. Residents feel they are mistreated by police officers and are targets of racial profiling.

“You bring all these cops down here and we’re talking about our right to have a choice,” said Abdullah.

Residents believe the number of police at the meeting was unnecessary.

“Police should’ve had a better way to get this under control,” said Abdullah, adding that officers should not have used pepper spray. “They better pray this city doesn’t go up in an uproar, that we don’t have a riot.”

Council members who supported Speight’s appointment said they expected an angry response from the crowd, but gave residents exactly what they’ve been asking for, more black representation.

Council members did the right thing by supporting a black woman to sit on the council, according to Augusto Amador, the East Ward councilman.

The demand for a democratic process didn’t seem to faze the councilman. When questioned about residents’ anger that Speight’s appointment was done so illegally, he said the issue was a “matter of semantics.”

“It’s the mayor’s right to decide when there are matters like this,” said Amador, referring to Booker casting a vote.

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