What’s In A Name? Brooklyn Speaks

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The Views On Gates Avenue

Should Gates Avenue have been renamed after Sonny Abubadika Carson?

That question recently dominated headlines when the New York City
Council was split primarily along racial lines in a vote that ended the
quest for the renaming. Key proponents of renaming were Council members
Al Vann, who introduced the proposal, and Charles Barron; Council
speaker Christine Quinn led opposition, denouncing Carson as

The controversy also created fissures among Black council members as
several abstained from voting, including Letitia James and Leroy
Comrie; the latter was also injected in the news when he demanded the
firing of Barron’s chief of staff who is reported to have directed the
word “assassination� at him.

But what do the residents along the four blocks of Gates Avenue in
question; nestled in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, think
of the proposal to rename the street after Sonny Carson?

The street-naming process begins with a recommendation from the
community board and is then presented to the city council. Although
Community Board 3, of Brooklyn, voted in favor of the renaming, Quinn
opposed the move and Carson’s name was removed from a list containing
51 others; ultimately, proponents forced a full city council vote to
have Carson’s name restored to the list—the measure was defeated by a
vote of 25 to 15, with seven abstentions and four members absent.

Some residents support Carson for the positive things he did after
serving time for a 1974 kidnapping conviction, while others unwilling
to forgive his past or other activist campaigns he spearheaded, were

“I heard about the,� renaming “like two years ago,� says a 28-year old
man, who would only provide his first name as Sonny. He adds that he
also signed the petition, but “Council members don’t want it.�

Sonny feels the white Council members that voted against the amendment
should “mind their business since they don’t give us anything.� 
To him, Carson was a Black activist fighting for “our rights and our
people—it’s fucked up.� He denounced the Black council members that
voted against the proposal, calling them “Uncle Toms – kissing ass
–they house niggers.�

A young man wearing jeans and a white shirt who referred to himself
only as “L� says, “Why can’t it be renamed after him? Everyone got
skeletons, even the president—they hate a politician that don’t follow
what they want—�

“Sonny Carson was against drugs in the Black community so he was
helping Black men get locked up, he tried to clean up the
neighborhood,� he adds.

Business owner, Paul Tyner, 61, of Paul’s Used Furniture Antiques, has
lived in Bed-Stuy most of his adult life. Although he did not know
Carson personally he says that the late activist’s opinions should not
have affected the street renaming decision.

“It would be good; a representative of the people in the neighborhood,� says Tyner.

Nonetheless, there are those who say Carson does not deserve a street renaming.

Elderly Ms. Exum, was seated on a wooden bench in her front yard with
her two daughters, Marilyn and Sandra, when she shared her views. She
has lived here for the past 40 years. Two months ago, she heard that
the quiet tree-lined avenue filled with one-family brownstones would be
renamed after Carson.

She wonders why there should be a renaming. “I like Gates Avenue.
Everyone knows Gates,� says Ms. Exum, 86.

Her daughter, Sandra adds: “I wouldn’t mind the name
changing but not to Sonny Carson. I didn’t know him personally but I
knew of  him – he’s not your ideal person.� She continues that
Carson was "a drug dealer, gangster and all that street stuff.�

Her sister Marilyn nods her head in concurrence.

“It’s not the pro-Black part—he’s not an ideal leader,� Marilyn, 64,
says. Streets renaming should be for someone you “look up to, not that
a person can’t change, but does� Carson “qualify for an honor - a
street name? I don’t think so.�

Her sister Sandra notes that, “When Stone� Avenue “became Mother
Gaston– no problems. When Reid Avenue became Malcolm X – no
problems.�  Although “Malcolm X was different because he was a
household name but who knows Sonny Carson? He had no followers,� she

Hers, and Speaker Quinn’s, are views that Councilman Charles Barron
(D-Brooklyn) would beg to differ with; he is perhaps the most vocal and
visible supporter of the Carson renaming campaign.

“It’s the right to self-determination – 100 signatures, Community Board
3 said ‘yes,’ the Chair of the Parks Department said ‘yes,’ Black
leaders said ‘yes’ who are the white speakers to tell us ‘no’? We
select our own heroes,� says Barron in a phone interview.

"I think the motive behind� the rejection “is pressure from groups that
had problems with Sonny Carson,� he says. “Members that abstained are
under pressure because of capital and expense money that is given at
the discretion of the Speaker,� of the City Council, Quinn.

“Only Inez Dickens said her family had conflict in the past with Sonny
Carson; I respect that although this more about self-determination,�
adds Barron, referring to Council member Dickens (D-Manhattan).

Barron also previously denounced Quinn for sponsoring a street renaming
for Al Jolson, famed for performing in Black face; he’s also pointed
out that there are streets named after Gates, Madison, Jefferson and
Monroe—all of whom were slave masters, he says.

Some of the other Black Council members who abstained from the vote, provided their rationale.

“I represent the views of the community and they are varied,� says
Letitia James (D-Brooklyn), in a phone interview. “I spoke to many
members of the district and they were very diverse—and so I chose to

She adds that the process was “filled with double standards,� and,
going forward, “There will be standards outlined to prevent the
appearance of double standards in the future.�

Leroy Comrie (D-Queens), whose name dominated news in the aftermath,
when he accused Viola Plummer of calling for his assassination for
abstaining, in a news release says “days before and during the heated
discussion there were those who sought to see the debate disintegrate
into a racial Armageddon.  In the end, I chose to abstain with

Speaker Quinn, who didn’t return a call from The Black Star News, had
previously said, “When we rename streets in the City of New York, we
make sure those individuals are people that sought to bring our five
boroughs together.  I don't think Sonny Carson embodies those core

Council member Al Vann (D-Brooklyn), who introduced the measure in the City Council, sees a silver lining.

He says the measure wasn’t just about Sonny Carson, but about “self
determination.� The back and forth has politicized and raised the
consciousness of the community over issues of empowerment, he says.
“The community is going to rise with Sonny Carson; we will subsequently
rise above this.�

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“Speaking Truth To Empower.

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