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Here Comes Keron Alleyne
How a special election to succeed Charles Barron in the State Assembly is an inflection point in the battle over East New York's political future
“We didn’t make Keron Alleyne, he made himself.” - Charles Barron
On a brisk Saturday morning in early October, at the Prince Joshua Avitto Community Center, the newest chapter in an epic saga of East New York politics would be written.
Inside the community center, displayed prominently on the right wall, rests a picture of Charles and Inez Barron, the iconic husband-wife duo who have served the neighborhood, both in City Hall and Albany, for the past two decades. The Barrons have consistently battled the political establishment, including (but not limited to) Andrew Cuomo, Shelly Silver, Ed Towns, and the Brooklyn Democratic Party - all whilst maintaining a rigorous commitment to Black Radical politics and socialist principles.
But on the outside, a changing of the guard was commencing. While Charles and Inez were both present, looking on happily, they were not the center of attention.
Front and center was Keron Alleyne, the next arc in a movement that dates back decades. Alleyne, a community organizer, gardener, and Operation POWER Co-Chair, is a longtime ally of the Barrons. Running to carry on the Black Radical vision of his mentors, Alleyne was launching his upstart campaign for State Assembly.
Last week, I sat down with Alleyne to learn more about him, his vision for the district, and the election that could define the future of East New York politics.
After 206 days, 14 additional pieces, and another calendar year, the Substack finally returns to East New York, where it all began. There’s a lot to catch up on.
I hope you enjoy !
For Keron Alleyne, East New York is the only home he has ever known.
His parents, both immigrants from Trinidad, settled their entire family in the neighborhood when he was three.
Alleyne credits “living with the village,” - alongside his grandparents, in addition to three siblings, two sisters and a brother - for his profound respect for elders. While his parents were away from home carving out a living for their family, Alleyne found a home at school, where his vast potential was often on display. After graduating Public School 202, Alleyne attended the illustrious Boys & Girls High School, “The Pride and Joy of Bed-Stuy”, led by legendary principal, Frank Mickens.
Surrounded by teachers and staff who, “looked like me and lived right here in the neighborhood,” Alleyne developed a prowess of the pen, beginning to write poetry. His teachers, many of whom were recent graduates of HBCUs, heavily emphasized Black culture in the classroom.
A standout in the school play, Alleyne fondly recalls a local council member at the peak of his powers visiting the school for the show, eventually shaking his hand after the performance. Though it didn’t fully resonate at the time, this would prove to be Alleyne’s first interaction with the illustrious Charles Barron.
Carrying these traditions to Utica College, Alleyne became one of the campus’s most active organizers, founding a poetry group, Open Moments, whose membership rose from having six people at launch to eventually hosting over one hundred students weekly for their Thursday Night meetings.
As President of the Student Senate, Alleyne ironically interned with Congressman Ed Towns, the longtime representative for East New York who habitually clashed with the Barrons.
“That experience almost turned me away from politics… I’ll leave it at that.”
When Alleyne returned home, he became a Program Coordinator for “Tomorrow’s Leaders NYC”, designed to help overage middle school kids with social, emotional and academic support. Given East New York had a history of high percentages of overage middle schoolers, Alleyne was given another firsthand look at how the greater community was failing the students.
As he went to work everyday at Junior High School 166, right next to Sonny Carson Park, Alleyne walked by the office of Charles Barron. Each time, Alleyne thought to himself, “One day, I'm gonna go into his office and have a word with him.”
“It never happened, I never worked up the gumption.”
However, Alleyne would soon get his chance.
Months later, he ran into Barron outside of P.S. 202 during voting. Alleyne, a little starstruck, forgot most of what he planned to say, but still got his point across, which amounted to something along the lines of, “How can I best get involved in the community?”
Barron gave him the simple, yet necessary advice to “start on your block”.
As a child, Alleyne would attend his local block parties on Montauk Avenue arranged by Emily Williams, whom the street is now named after. Yet upon coming home from college, the once vibrant block association was dormant, and the yearly block party was no more. Along with a few other community members, Alleyne helped revive the block association - hoping to return the favor not only to his elders, but to future generations.
Alleyne also delved into community gardening, hoping to “not only grow food, but community.” One of the City’s preeminent food deserts, East New York notoriously lacks reliable access to fresh food, with few supermarkets and the “United Nations of fast food” on Pennsylvania Avenue and Linden Boulevard. Through his passion for gardening, Alleyne hoped to cultivate a healthier environment for his neighbors.
Soon after, Alleyne was appointed to Community Board 5, chaired by AT Mitchell, the founder of cure violence program “Man Up! Inc”, and longtime ally of the Barrons. During his time on the board, Alleyne dealt with the controversial East New York rezoning, spearheaded by the De Blasio administration and Rafael Espinal, the councilmember to the north. Concerned about the rise of housing speculation in the neighborhood, Community Board 5, along with Councilmember Inez Barron voted against the plan. In spite of this, the rezoning was pushed through resoundingly in the council.
During this time, Alleyne first joined Operation POWER (People Organizing and Working for Empowerment and Respect), a grassroots organization founded by Charles and Inez Barron in 1997 that focuses on Black Radical politics.
Operation POWER is not your local Democratic club, and electoral politics oftentimes takes a backseat to issues of history, culture and community - all of which intertwine into a radical Black vision for racial and class liberation, founded upon socialist principles.
Every Saturday, Alleyne would join Charles and Inez Barron, Co-Chairs Joy Simmons and Tyrik Washington, and POWER’s other community members at 333 New Lots Avenue. Each week, he would be immersed in debates, leadership training, info sessions and workshops.
A few years out of college, Alleyne was also undergoing a physical transformation, eschewing his straightened hair - “I shouldn’t have to have this to get a job” - for a full beard and grown out dreadlocks.
“All of this was a part of me reclaiming my culture. Going to Operation POWER was a compliment to all of this.”
Percolating with new information, Alleyne was eager to tie it all together. He began working on Charles Barron’s campaign for state assembly, before landing a job as a staffer once the elected-activist made his way to Albany.
In the state capital, Alleyne was mentored by Barron’s Chief of Staff, Viola Plummer, a leader in the December 12th movement who had worked alongside Barron for decades. While feeding his curiosity, Plummer helped Alleyne navigate Albany’s pitfalls, showing him the corruption of Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver and former Governor Andrew Cuomo - whom she would repeatedly call a “thug”.
When he was not in Albany, Alleyne was back home protesting. During a time of heightened national awareness for police brutality, Akai Gurley, a resident of NYCHA’s Pink Houses in East New York was fatally shot by an officer patrolling the stairwell. For Alleyne, who spent much of his youth hanging out with friends at the neighboring Cypress Hill Projects, a five minute walk away from the shooting, Gurley’s tragic death hit particularly close to home. In the aftermath, Alleyne helped lead Operation POWER demonstrations and marches on the 75th police precinct, where he was consistently flanked by Plummer, Simmons, Washington and the Barrons.
This brings us to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 2020. In the blistering cold at Sonny Carson Park, Alleyne, now a few years removed from Barron’s office, announces his primary challenge to incumbent State Senator Roxanne Persaud.
“When I first went to Albany on staff, Mr. Barron put me in his seat and said ‘in a couple of years, this can be you’. Guess who tells me to get out of the seat? Assembly member Roxanne Persaud, ‘Only assembly members can sit there.’ That was our first interaction”
Persaud, a former Assembly member, was chosen by the Brooklyn Democratic Party to succeed State Senator John Sampson, who was forced to resign in disgrace following a corruption conviction.
The county committee, which is routinely filled with allies of the county machine, holds tremendous power in filling vacancies at the state level, routinely choosing which candidate receives the Democratic party ballot line in the ensuing special election - which almost always decides the race.
This process, which helped Persaud initially get elected, has been something Alleyne has frequently taken issue with:
“County rallies around their candidate, making it seem like its a community pick, when its not”
Citing Persaud’s lack of proactive leadership, Alleyne was determined to give Charles and Inez another ally in elected office:
“There is only so much that Charles and Inez can do with their one seat in the legislature, whether its city or state. If there isn't a groundswell of other electeds on the same page, there is only so much that can be done. We don’t need parcels and pieces of change, we need radical change.”
While Senate District 19 included familiar territory, like East New York, Brownsville, and Canarsie, it stretched all across Southeast Brooklyn, weaving through whiter, more conservative neighborhoods like Mill Basin, Bergen Beach and Sheepshead Bay.
Ultimately, over 300,000 people lived in the district, and Persaud had demonstrated she was a strong incumbent by handily defeating Mercedes Narcisse, now a city councilmember, in 2016. Alleyne was already facing significant obstacles as a first time candidate. Then COVID-19 hit.
Alleyne and his team immediately stopped fundraising and pivoted to mutual aid - performing health and wellness checks while distributing food to seniors.
In spite of the campaign being significantly scaled down, Alleyne remained proud of his effort, winning 6,642 votes (25%) - 3,003 of which came in the 60th Assembly District.
Alleyne knew this was would not be his last chance.
Given both Charles and Inez Barron have been a constant presence in this story, it is important to give some important context before we reach the present day. While the Barrons are revered in many East New York circles, they are no longer at the apex of their collective power. Over the past decade, many within the community have begun consistently organizing in opposition of the Barrons, slowly amassing strength.
Christopher Banks, the Executive Director/Founder of the East New York United Concerned Citizens Inc., emerged as the primary challenger to the Barron dynasty around a decade ago. Banks, a longtime neighborhood activist who served on both Community Board 5 and the County Committee, challenged the Barrons repeatedly: First versus Inez for Assembly in 2012, then Inez again for Council in 2013, and finally Charles for Assembly in 2014.
Despite losing all three times, Banks gained some traction, and has since remained a fixture of East New York politics. Along with Nikki Lucas, who also ran in East New York’s crowded 2013 City Council race, the two began targeting County Committee seats, slowly building a durable base of support within the neighborhood.
In 2020, their efforts bore fruit, as Banks and Lucas ran a County Committee slate against the Barrons’ allies, winning a majority of the seats and taking control of the Committee.
Thus, in the event of a vacancy to a state seat, the committee would select the Democratic nominee, an oft overlooked shift of power that would prove momentous.
Sensing the Barrons were vulnerable, many establishment forces, who were once wary of challenging East New York’s socialist dynasty, backed Nikki Lucas’ City Council run against Charles in 2021.
Lucas, who sits on the ENY neighborhood advisory board and founded the People First Democratic Club, is a longtime neighborhood activist and lifelong resident of Starrett City, the largest voting base in the district.
A close ally of the Kings County Democratic Party, and its embattled boss, Rodneyse Bichotte, Lucas enjoyed strong institutional support for her campaign. Many who had long sought to defeat the Barrons enthusiastically backed her, like Bichotte, Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, and ex-Congressman Ed Towns. Other pre-eminent figures like Maya Wiley, the UFT, and State Senators Roxanne Persaud and Kevin Parker rounded out Lucas’ coalition.
Barron prevailed with a solid margin - winning with 7,898 (53.72%) votes to Lucas’ 6,804 (46.28%) - yet it was the closest either Charles or Inez had come to defeat in the Council or Assembly since 2001. Though she lost, Lucas’ ability to coalesce institutional support planted the seeds for a future run.
With Charles' transition from the State Assembly to the City Council, and the official announcement of Inez Barron’s retirement, a State Assembly seat would lie vacant, and thus a special election would be needed to fill it.
Enter Keron Alleyne.
While Lucas and Alleyne are now poised for a showdown, a matchup in the special, on relatively equal footing, was not originally guaranteed.
It was an open and shut case that Lucas would be chosen by the county committee vote to run on the Democratic party line. Therefore, Alleyne and his team would be forced to gather 1,500 petition signatures - likely even more since they’d assuredly be challenged - during the height of Omicron.
Faced with the grim reality of potentially being left off the ballot, Alleyne already felt like he was counted out: “The machine was basically doing a victory lap.”
The county committee gave out their pick - a selection of Lucas - on Sunday, but that very Tuesday, Alleyne received a momentous endorsement from the Working Families Party, which, above all, allowed him to run in the special on their ballot line. The endorsement, which Alleyne called a “legitimizing moment,” was a breakthrough for the team.
“Getting the WFP endorsement also pushed those who didn’t want to cover us, to have to cover.”
Running solely on the Working Families Party ballot line, Alleyne could make history come Tuesday. While Tish James and Diana Richardson have both been elected exclusively on the WFP line, the circumstances were significantly different.
When James won her 2003 council race, she was still deemed a heavy favorite, boasting support from the Brooklyn Democratic Party and much of organized labor. Meanwhile, when Richardson won on the WFP line during her May 2015 special election to the State Assembly, the field of candidates did not include anyone running on the Democratic Party line.
If Alleyne pulls off the upset on Tuesday, this would be a groundbreaking triumph for the Working Families Party.
Win, lose, or draw - Alleyne may have more reinforcements on the way.
NYC-DSA is currently mulling an endorsement, where Alleyne could help be a bridge between the Black Radicalism of the Barrons and the class centered politics of DSA. The potential for a socialist coalition of that magnitude is tantalizing.
A win, or even a strong showing in a loss, could convince some big unions, who sat out the special, to bet on Alleyne come June. The WFP constellation of allied nonprofits may arrive as well. There is a lot riding on Tuesday’s outcome.
Lucas herself has retained her coalition, headlined by Jeffries, Bichotte, and 1199 SEIU - a formidable trio that could prove effective at mobilizing voters to the polls.
The defining narrative of this election can be spun many ways.
Is it the ultimate test of the Barron legacy? Can a candidate win from their movement without their illustrious last name?
Can the Working Families Party upend the political establishment and deliver a win exclusively on their ballot line?
Does the Brooklyn Democratic Party, Rodneyse Bichotte, and Hakeem Jeffries have the proverbial muscle to whip votes in a low turnout special election?
Or maybe… It’s a little bit of all three?
As of Friday morning, only 190 people have voted in total.
Given that both candidates have already received thousands of votes from the district in previous elections, and that this election will likely be decided in the hundreds, both Alleyne and Lucas each have many realistic paths to victory, and the voting base to pull from.
The overriding and determining question remains who will get their voters to the polls.
The election is right there for the taking.
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As my conversation with Alleyne winds down, I note the recent spike in media coverage he has received. After hardly being covered at all during his run for State Senate, Alleyne definitely has a chip on his shoulder, “they can no longer ignore us.”
“City and State, did this list of every single challenger. Yet we weren’t mentioned, nor didn’t write about our race. I felt like that was disrespectful.”
He relates the matter to a quote from Malcolm X, “If you are not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”
When I ask Alleyne about the concurrent appeal of both Eric Adams and Charles Barron amongst East New York’s predominantly Black, low income constituency - despite radically different ideologies - he delivers a thoughtful response:
“This goes back to the Black Panther Party. If you meet the needs of the people, they are willing to hear you when it comes to socialism and the ills of capitalism.”
“People aren’t as afraid of the word socialism as they think. When you talk about universal healthcare, universal child care, free schools - that's socialism. When people hear that they’re like ‘oh okay I can rock with that’. Once we do political education, that’s how a group like Operation POWER can exist with people all across the spectrum - from any age, location, and demographic standpoint.”
Gentrification, which has rapidly invaded many of Brooklyn’s Black neighborhoods, has largely been kept at bay in East New York. However, given the prohibitive strength and collective reach of the City’s real estate industry, such may not be the case for long. With reliable access to the A,C, and 3 trains, East New York could be seen as the next prime target for development. In a somber moment, Alleyne expressed concern about what will become of his beloved neighborhood if the radical political tradition does not carry on.
“If the work doesn’t continue, what will happen to the East? Will it look like Bed-Stuy and Harlem with gentrification? Spaces everyone used to come to, but now can’t afford. Now, people come to the East and want to be a part of what's going on here.”
Finally, I ask him what it will take to win.
“Getting to the people. If we do that, we have a real shot”
Next Tuesday could go a long way in charting the political future of East New York. Don’t miss it.
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