[5/2/21 Rajesh Barnabas greeting Tom Upson on Avalon Drive in the Meadowbrook neighborhood. Always opening their door, Tom and Meg Upson are frequently canvassed by candidates, see The early birds get the worms; Signature gathering in Brighton]
Over the years, we’ve met Rajesh Barnabas many times: in 2013 during a RCSD telephone interview with Tavis Smiley, in 2015 when discussing the Charlotte carousel issue as the Green Party candidate for Monroe County Executive, in 2016 at the Rochester Badminton Open and in 2017 at the Activism Fair organized by Athesia Benjamin.
Most recently, I ran into Rajesh at the Liberty Pole Way. I had not seen Rajesh since he returned from a year teaching in Florida, miraculously surviving man eating alligators, life threatening heat and humidity, and deadly hurricanes.I learned Rajesh is running in the June 22nd Democratic primary for Monroe County Legislator in the 24th District. Rajesh is also on the Working Families Party line for the November general election. Albert Blankley is the other Democratic primary candidate.
Last Sunday, I joined Rajesh as he met voters in my Meadowbrook neighborhood. I was struck by Rajesh’s easy engagement with canvasees and passersbys. [See our interview below as well as other electoral roads at end.]
Rajesh chatted with a mother and daughter who were taking free curbside glass vases and carafes. Rajesh thought the vases perfect for flowers, chiming in with his own story of successful “curbside shopping.” Of half-Indian descent himself, Rajesh spoke with an older Indian gentleman out for his evening walk. Mentioning his own ancestry, Rajesh asked the man’s name. The man warmly responded, using the Indian term, “Uncle.” Indians commonly refer to elders as uncle or aunty regardless if they are blood-related. Rajesh nodded in friendly recognition, and I could tell the two had bonded. Rajesh bantered with a canvasee wearing a “Chess Is Not A Game” shirt, a reference from the film War Games (1983). Rajesh and the man shared favorite scenes.More significantly, I saw how Rajesh especially connected with parents with children in the Brighton Central School District. With a background in education and with three children himself in the BSCD, Rajesh is very much a forward looking, multi-generational thinker.
Rajesh likes to invoke the Seventh Generation Principle based on an ancient Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) philosophy that decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future.For Rajesh, this means imagining and creating an environmentally sustainable future where the excesses of corporatist capitalism are curbed and its fruits more broadly shared. Rajesh explained the fundamentals of his canvassing strategy:
The plan is for 1000 door knocks a week for the next 6 weeks, I might not have monetary advantages, but creativity and old school pavement pounding may thwart the machine.
I can’t reveal all my tactics, of course. The activist in me does not tip his/her/they’re hand.
Talker: Tell us about your personal and professional lives.
Erica Bryant, then a Rochester Democrat and Chronicle journalist, and my path crossed in NYC during a protest in the summer of 2004. I was there with the Poor People’s March, part of a broader multi-week protest against the Republican National Convention and the re-election of George W. Bush. Erica was trying to catch up with the Rochester protesters and she asked me what the numbers written on my arm were. They for those who had volunteered to stand in front and be arrested. I ended up not going up front and never got arrested because I was talking to her.
I knew of Erica’s work at the D & C, and always admired her writing style, opinions and topics she chose to cover. She also played a pretty good game of tennis so was automatically accepted by my family on that skill alone. We got engaged in Miami on the night after attending a Prince concert.
On June 7, 2008, we married, which we learned later happened to be Prince’s birthday. Ironically, our final song that night was Purple Rain. In recent years, we started an “Anniversary Cup,” playing a set of tennis on June 7th at our old courting courts at Genesee Valley Park. We have 3 kids: Seneca (4 years), Naomi (7 years) and Noah (12 years), students in the Brighton Central School District.I have been more the career hopper, working as a journalist early on, an instructional designer at Element K (now Skillsoft), then a teacher in the RCSD, then a media producer at Rochester Community TV, before spending a year teaching film at Tampa Prep in Florida last year. Erica was a steady journalist for the D & C but this past year started writing for Vera Institute of Justice. Many of the facts in my platform and speaking engagements come from her research. So in some ways, I would argue the voter will get two for one, if they elect me. Talker: We first met at the Frederick Douglass Campus in 2013, Tavis Smiley joins the conversation with Northeast Prep media students, where we collaborated on a call-in radio interview with Tavis Smiley.
In 2016 Rochester Open a smash hit., we played badminton at the 2016 Rochester Open. Are you still playing? How are the knees holding up?
Rajesh: My knees are good (knock on wood). I am not playing badminton because I have avoided indoor sports during Covid. I have been playing tennis outside once a week at least with my dad, who is a tennis fanatic. I am also training on the track, almost daily, to get in shape for the soccer season in which I will be joining the 40 and over Premier League team the Melchester Rovers. Playing soccer has mentally and physically gotten me through the pandemic; it is my first love outside of politics.
Talker: Were you an activist in high school and/or college? What schools of thought/writers have influenced you?
Rajesh: I took interest in history classes and politics from a very early age. My parents encouraged us kids to throw objects at the television when Ronald Reagan came on. I attribute most of my passion for politics to my Irish-American mother Carole Barnabas, who was bold enough to date and marry my dad in the 1960s when interracial marriage was outlawed in 31 US states at the time, and only became legal in the US in 1967. That is why you don’t see many bi-racial people older than 40. It just didn’t happen much. Bruce Lee was the other Asian in that era who broke barriers in this regard, and a hero of mine – like my dad.
My parents were always advocating for the underdog, or as some of my socialist friends expand the concept, “third-world justice.” Visiting India, essentially my “fatherland,” in my senior of high school completely changed my trajectory. I had no interest then of attending college or following the formal beaten path. I wanted to start a rock band, I wanted to go into the military and had no interest in studying more after 12 years of it. But seeing the level of poverty in my father’s home country, in his neighborhood, and yet the humble gratitude people exhibited even with what little they had, shook my soul. It was a formative time to go, but I do believe that once you go to India, the place never leaves you.
I came back more aware of my hyper privilege and that I had to do something to give back to India at some point in my life. It’s ironic that as I write this, India probably needs more help than ever, suffering the worst of any area on the planet from the pandemic. The promise that I made to myself back in 1994, still remains unfulfilled. I have not done Jack for India.
I became a political science major at Geneseo University where I thought the skills I gained could directly shape-shift reality, via politics. I worked on several political campaigns, including Geneseo history professor 1998 Bill Cook’s run for US Congress and my mother’s 2001 run for Webster Town Board.
When the Iraq War broke out in 2003 I became active in the anti-war movement, organizing rallies outside the INS Detention Center in Batavia to protest wrongfully accused “terrorists.” In this War on Terrorism era of paranoid and expansive racist policing, I was wrongfully detained, questioned, harassed by law enforcement on every level, wherever I went.
All of this backdrop sets up for why I took the over policing of Black and brown people more seriously. Seeing the indifference among legislators to address the matter substantively, I decided to run for office.
From an intellectual standpoint, I am inspired by Revolutionaries, mostly because they didn’t just theorize and talk about changing the world, they put their bodies into motion and acted upon their ideas in a material way: mostly Marxists, including Karl Marx, Lenin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Che, Castro, Malcolm X, MLK Jr., the Black Panthers, Stokely Carmichael, Frederick Douglass (although not explicitly a socialist, Douglass was a contemporary of Karl Marx). These revolutionaries were able to move the masses, to wake up the potential of the the underclass to fight for their freedom and presented a direct threat to capitalism — with capitalism being the greatest lie of the past 200 years, the ruling elite’s philosophy and practice of expanding greed in plain sight.
Talker: When we met at the Liberty Pole, you said that your current candidacy is part of a “lifelong effort to unite the progressive activist tribes of Rochester.” How so? You mentioned that you feel comfortable running as a Democrat after Bernie Sanders moved the party closer to your views. Can you elaborate? Specifically, how can that program be implemented at the local and state level?
Rajesh: I was in the trenches in my twenties, organizing activists on many fronts. This often meant attempting to put out fires between activist leaders that often distracted from coalition building. As a writer and videographer for Rochester Indy Media, I was part of a collective that brought attention to issues and organizations on the left that were ignored by the mainstream press. In my work at Rochester Community TV, this space again became a meeting ground for activists and also a place to get media assistance in producing alternative and anti-corporate/capitalist content. Through this work I gained a broad birds-eye view of the activist community in Rochester and spent countless hours and great emotion trying to amplify and unite our shared goals.
I joined the Green Party in 2015, after being disillusioned by the Obama Administration and the capitalist nature of the Democratic Party. Obama advertised himself as a revolutionary candidate back in 2008, and I ignored all my socialist and activists friend’s warnings about him, supporting him wholeheartedly. Then to realize — in his orchestrated destruction of the Occupy Movement, in his acceleration of the War on Terrorism in Afghanistan, in his stepped up Drone Wars, of his invasion of Africa (Libya), in his complete ignorance of the lynching of Black people by cops — Obama proved to be a counterrevolutionary force.
Only with the rise of Bernie Sanders and AOC within the Democratic Party did I see the potential for the party to evolve into an opposing force to greed and imperialism. In so far as the Democratic Party is loyal to the principles of empowering the underclass and not conducting wars against them, I will be loyal to the Democratic Party.
Defunding the police is close to my heart. The language is necessary to use because it is not some abstraction like “Black Lives Matter.” Anyone can say “Black Lives Matter,” but there is no material measurement of whether they do or they don’t. But defunding the police is a very specific policy change, hence the great resistance to the expression.The third rail of politics is opposing the police or the military. Both are the last layer of defense between the masses and the minority population, the 1% ruling class, making the masses life miserable. The police and the military serve essentially as personal bodyguards to the 1%. So it is very important that this layer of offense (not defense) be defunded — part of a larger abolitionist movement against the police in so far as they are the direct producers of mass incarceration.
This is a county problem. For example, while the jail population has decreased over the last few years by 25%, the budget for Monroe County Jail has actually increased. This could be justified if the money was spent on rehabilitation programs and education for inmates, but this is not happening. It is essential that we remove those funds from the Sheriff and jail’s budget and divert those monies to mental health response teams and rehabilitation programs for current and former prisoners.
The other three issues I am prioritizing are ending education apartheid, fully funding the arts, and implementing a green new deal for Monroe County with sooner target goals for lowering emissions and becoming Carbon Zero by 2030. For more information on how this can happen go to electrajesh.com
Talker: You have long advocated for community and citizen journalism. What advice would you give such journalists? Is there a role for government to play in supporting their efforts?
Rajesh: Once you are paid to write, you are somewhat compromised. The holy grail of modern journalism as objective is a myth, not existing now and never did. Just the other day, a journalist from the local mainstream press derided and looked down his nose at citizen reporting, calling it “unprofessional.”
When Angela Davis spoke at the University of Rochester in 2016, she discussed about the need for “alternative citations and sources” to what’s considered scholarly work in academia.By this she meant alternative black newspapers and journalists are as relevant and valuable to knowledge creation as the professor’s peer-reviewed paper. [See Rajesh’s radio show episode for WXIR on Davis’s talk.]
[On November 9th, 2016, political activist and author Angela Davis addressed a crowd of over 1,200 people during an event titled “An Evening of Empowerment” at East High School, also attended by Rajesh. Video taken by local photographer Erica Jae from Remembering April 4th, 1968 and the Civil Rights Movement at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Highland Park]
If any town should understand the importance of citizen journalism, it should be the home of Frederick Douglass and the North Star.
Just as there should be publicly funded elections, there is a role for government to provide funds for alternative media. Leaving democracy up to whoever can afford to run for office, and the chroniclers of democracy only to those who can afford to publish, is not a democracy at all but an oligarchy – a dictatorship of the 1%.OTHER ELECTORAL ROADS