COLUMN NINETY-SIX, SEPTEMBER 1, 2003
(Copyright © 2003 The Blacklisted Journalist)
NEWARK MOURNS SHANI BARAKA
DOMESTIC ABUSE BLAMED
IN KILLINGS OF 2 WOMEN
A WEEPING AMIRI BARAKA JR. AND HIS DISTRAUGHT
BROTHER RAS (IN WHITE SHIRT) LEAVE NEWARK'S
METROPOLITAN BAPTIST CHURCH AT THEIR SISTER
(Photo by Patti Sapone for the Newark Star Ledger)
Newark police blocked off
South 10th Street between Madison and Clinton Avenues on Saturday,
August 16, enabling the limousines to triple-park in front of the home of my
dear friends, world-renowned poets and civil rights activists Amiri and Amina
The waiting escort of four
police motorcyclists was only one indication of the greatest display I've seen
in their home city of the power and importance of the Baraka family. Tragically
enough, this greatest display of Newark's reverence occurred on the occasion
of the greatest grief and pain ever suffered by the Barakas---the funeral of the
baby of their family, 32-year-old Shani Isis Makeda Jones Baraka.
The night before the
funeral, when I entered Newark's ultra-modern Metropolitan Baptist Church,
bedecked with floral wreaths, for the viewing, I found myself in a slow-moving
line of mourners that immediately kept lengthening until it extended out the
doors of the church and started circling the block as Newark's black community
came to pay its respects.
The line became so long
that it ended up taking four hours for everyone in it to pass before Shani's
open casket, which lay under floral arrangements made to look like basketball
backboards with basketballs and rims. Next to Shani's open casket was that of
her best friend, Rayshon "Ray-Ray? Holmes. The two women had been found shot
to death on Tuesday, August 12, in the Piscataway, New Jersey home of Shani's
half-sister, Wanda Wilson Pasha, Amina's daughter by a previous marriage.
As Amiri has pointed out,
Newark is now mostly "a black and brown city? and the slow-moving line that
passed before Shani's bier included not only relatives, friends, neighbors and
the curious but also tearful teenage members of the athletic teams Shani had
coached to victory and sobbing students she had taught at Newark's Vailsburg
middle school. It took four hours for the
line to pass before the two open coffins, where Amina stood sobbing as she held
the clasped hands of her murdered daughter.
"I stood there for four
hours holding her hand," Amina told me afterwards, "and it felt as if she
was squeezing my hand, too."
The murders not only
devastated Amina, Shani's five older brothers, and Ray Ray's family but the
killings were especially painful to Amiri, still tortured by the 1983 rape and
murder of his sister, Kimako, a Broadway dancer, actress and choreographer.
"It's like you got a
curse like the Kennedys," I told him.
"But without their
money," he replied.
As if standing guard at
Shani's coffin were her five older brothers, all overcome with grief. I
noticed that the face of one of them in particular---Ras, a Newark
deputy mayor---was as much full of anger as sorrow. In his tribute to his slain
sister in the church at her funeral the next day, Ras broke down as he told of
the time Shani comforted and instructed him when he himself was a basketball
coach. But he pulled himself together and proved he was as effective as his
talented father in stirring an audience with his oratory. With his face wet with
tears, Ras condemned domestic abuse and asked:
"Does anyone know why
this happened? Can anybody explain why this happened? Has anyone seen my baby
sister? He killed my baby sister! My God, he killed my baby sister!"
There was no doubt in Ras? mind or in that of any member of his family as to who the killer was. At Shani's wake in the church the previous night, rapper and film star Queen Latifah, a friend of
Why didn't the police arrest Wanda's estranged husband after he held a gun to her head?
the Barakas, also blamed
domestic abuse for the murders. Urging women not to waste time in getting out of
abusive relationships, she said that their families didn't fail Shani and Ray
Ray but that "It was the system that failed them."
Amiri was especially distressed
by the inability of the Piscataway police to arrest 35-year-old James Coleman,
aka Ibn El-Amin Pasha, Wanda's estranged husband after Coleman entered
Wanda's house last June 15, pointed a handgun at her head and said, "I
should kill you!"
'they said they
couldn't find him," Amiri told me. "All they had to do was to look for him
in Newark City Hall."
Amiri said Coleman
could've been found at his job there, where he worked as a $29,000-a-year
Newark health investigator, a position gotten for Coleman by Amiri's youngest
son, Amiri Jr., often referred to as "Little Amiri." An aide to Newark Mayor
Sharpe James, Amiri Jr. was unaware of his half-sister's domestic problems.
The mayor, by the way, was one of the dignitaries who spoke to the more than
1,000 mourners at the Friday evening wake.
Disdainfully referring to
Coleman as a "Republican," Amiri told me his entire family had been left
unaware of Wanda's domestic problems.
"If she'd only told
us," he said, "I coulda done something."
Coleman had the reputation
in Newark's black community of being a 'showboat." A would-be rapper, he
once operated a hair salon and also staged fashion shows at a hotel in the area.
After pleading guilty to drug possession and distribution charges in East Orange
in 1989, he served two years in prison. Following his parole, he started
organizing black unity rallies. And then got involved with Cleveland Browns
football hero Jim Brown's organization, Amer-I-Can, which helps parolees rejoin their communities.
According to Amiri,
Coleman left the organization "under a cloud" and the Coleman
family spokesperson, Shahid Watson, is being sued by Brown for unauthorized
reprersentation in New Jersey as a franchise of Amer -I-Can.
Wanda married Coleman three
years ago and put up with Coleman's abuse until last January, when she threw
him out of the Piscataway house. After which, according to Amiri, Coleman fired
bullets into Wanda's outdoor swimming pool. According to Amiri, Coleman began
stalking Wanda. He followed her to a friend's house in Newark and while she
visited inside, he set her car ablaze. Wanda subsequently obtained a restraining
order against Coleman, installed floodlights on her property and got a pit bull
as a watchdog. Shani, who had been
staying with Wanda, at that point stopped coming to her house.
It was on Tuesday, August
12, that Shani, accompanied by Ray Ray, returned to the house to get some of her
things. Wanda, who was staying with a friend in Las Vegas, had made arrangements
with a neighbor's kid to feed and walk the pit bull. When the kid entered the
house the next day, August 13, he noticed a body lying in a downstairs family
room. Immediately, he telephoned Wanda, who, in turn, notified Piscataway
police. Learning that the police had been called to Wanda's house, Amina asked
her sister, Sheila Johnson, to find out what was going on.
Sheila said she couldn't
get any closer to the house than the police cordon around it. At first she was
told that there were two deceased male bodies inside. It was only later that she
learned the dead persons were female. Eventually, she identified a photograph of
Shani that the police brought to her. Shani had been shot through the heart. Ray
Ray, lying dead next to Shani, had been shot more than once.
At the Friday evening wake,
Amiri and Amina exchanged hugs with Ray Ray's family. Amina, consumed with the
thought that Ray Ray was murdered only because she was with Shani, collapsed,
"I'm so sorry, I'm so
sorry. I apologize to the family. Honest to God, I am sorry."
Addressing the mourners, an
angry Amiri demanded:
"Bring him in! That was
my baby and he killed them! He needs to be locked up."
The next day, when I
arrived at his house for the funeral, Amiri told me he didn't want his sons to
be vigilantes and have to go to jail for avenging their sister's murder. At
the church that Saturday morning, he addressed the mourners, saying:
'those boys are sitting
here with smoke coming out of their ears, but we going to let you do your jobs.
But I'll tell you this, officials. If you don't find them quick, if you
don't bring them into that precinct, if you don't find him soon, you know he
will be found!"
The day after the funeral, on Sunday August 18, Coleman, accompanied by an attorney, surrendered to Piscataway police. ##
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