War and Peace in Newark

On my way into the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, an agent of the U.S. Diplomatic Security Service made me take my camera out of my bag.

“It’s a common ruse to pack C4 into a camera,” the agent told me, inspecting the device.

Ruses in Newark are becoming increasingly common. Last November, a tight budget compelled Mayor Cory Booker to lay off over a tenth of his police force. A crime wave began one Thursday the next month when nine people were shot. So far this year, murder is up 100%. Carjackings are way up, too. A lieutenant for the attorney general was carjacked. In response, Booker invited His Holiness the Dalai Lama to preside over the “Newark Peace Education Summit: The Power of Nonviolence.”

Famous speakers included Edward Norton and Russel Simmons. Seminars included “Community as Healer,” “Fierce Compassion,” “The Ghandi Effect™,” and “Return of Sacred Elements to the Their Places of Origin” with the Kogui, Arhuaco, Kankuamo, and Wiwa peoples of Gonawindua.

Outside the venue, token locals—lumpens, in Marxist terms—wearing torn do-rags and saggy jeans loped around, glancing into car windows and chewing on chicken bones. In the bathroom of the train station, two men shaved their heads with Bic razors while one insisted to someone on the phone that he owned only one chain and one ring.

Moments before the guard checked my camera, I watched the Dalai Lama exit the Best Western hotel across the street. A cavalcade of black Cadillac Escalades brought him between there and the venue, a distance of seventy yards. They idled in front of the hotel for twenty minutes before he came out. As they sped away, an agent with an AR-15 glared from the window of his vehicle, his eyes wide and darting over each person in the crowd.

The first day of the summit, I went to Deepak Chopra’s seminar, “The Neuroscience of Enlightenment.” Chopra delivered a monologue about Hilbert space, use-dependent synaptic neuroplasticity and Plank-level space-time geometry. He guided his audience through a five-minute meditation, rewiring our brains for enlightenment. That night, somewhere in Newark, someone was shot four times in the leg.

Saturday morning, Booker addressed the assembled alongside His Holiness, Goldie Hawn, Martin Luther King III, and the CNN reporter Soledad O’Brien. Four of the black-suited agents flanked them. That morning, he said, another of his constituents had been immolated.

During one of the panels, while I listened to a Nobel laureate rant about the failures of our society, a cell phone rang in a row behind me. The man with the phone wore a leather coat and slouched. I judged him to be local. Booker had insisted that a handful of local lumpens attend the summit, where they stood out from the activists and Esalen types making up the rest of the audience. The lumpen answered his phone. A bourgeois moved away from him, glaring. An usher bent to the lumpen and ordered him to take it outside. The man waved the usher away angrily, and then kept fooling with his phone, which kept beeping.

I went to a workshop called “From War to Peace: An Encounter with Ishmael Beah and Dashaun ‘Jiwe’ Morris.” The condescending quotation marks around Morris’ street name promised an awkward dialogue, I thought. Jiwe had been a gangbanger in Phoenix and Brick City, and Beah had been a child soldier in Sierra Leone. After the two answered some questions from the anthropologist Aldo Civico, and a still-practicing gangbanger performed a rap titled “Pray For Me,” the audience lined up to talk to them.

Suddenly, a woman named Donna Jackson, who has been unemployed for seven years, began screaming towards the crowd from the back corner of the room. “The Dalai Lama?” she screamed, her face red. “I don’t even know who he is!”

Some of the bourgeois in the room turned around and watched her silently.

“We had two school kids shot to death right down here on Chambers street!” Jackson continued. “You think Cory Booker gives a shit about them?”

“Corry Booker is a monster!” she screamed. A pair of reporters in black suits circled her, taking notes.

The bourgeois were silent. When Jackson said that Cory Booker had authorized the expansion of school classes to 65 students each, one of them gasped. “65 students?” the bourgeois said.

“$350?” Jackson then said incredulously, indicating the amount some guests had paid for admission. “Some of you well-heeled folks in here need to get out of this room and start seeing what’s really going on out there.” Then she dared them to spend an hour on a nearby corner.

“She’s right!” a bourgeois said.

Jackson said Corry Booker was in Manhattan with Mayor Bloomberg, “his new girlfriend, since he’s not a woman-lover, he’s a man lover.”

“Well, we’re okay with that,” a bourgeois said.

I remained equanimous while Jackson was screaming. Having been rewired for enlightenment, my neurons delighted in the tension of the scene. On my way out, a friend said that there is always someone at these kinds of things who takes it upon herself to scream the elephant in the room. I thought of what Beah had said during our encounter: “This event is wonderful, but where are the people who could benefit from it?”

Nathaniel Page is a writer who lives in Brooklyn.