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Former Berkeley Mayor Gus Newport, global social justice activist, dies

Eugene “Gus” Newport, a cherished progressive organizer, international social justice activist and two-term Berkeley mayor, died Saturday evening, according to his family.

He passed away at the age of 88, after being admitted to the intensive care unit at a local hospital last week, his son, Kyle Newport, announced.

“We witnessed a peaceful transition fit for the man that he was,” Kyle Newport shared on Facebook. “A single tear gently rolled down his cheek and I couldn’t help but think that it was for the multitude of friends, coworkers, projects, and events that he was leaving behind. But then again it could be for the family and friends that he will (soon) reunite with in the next chapter.”

For six decades, Gus Newport dedicated his life to melding mobilization on the local level with diplomacy on an international stage.

Along the way, he befriended a host of political visionaries in his role as a community leader and elder statesman, including Harry Belafonte, Angela Davis, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Danny Glover, Bernie Sanders and Malcolm X — the latter who he traveled with just days before his assassination.

His introduction to civil rights activism and politics started while growing up in Rochester, New York, following in the footsteps of his mother and grandmother. After Rochester police invaded a Black Muslim Mosque in 1961, he helped defend several congregants who were attacked and arrested during worship, working as the leader of the Monroe County Nonpartisan Political League.

In 1964, he helped found the Organization of African American Unity in Harlem, New York with several other Black nationalist leaders, promoting reconnections to African heritage with economic independence and self-determination in the United States.

While Gus Newport was still relatively unknown in Berkeley at the start of the 1979 mayoral campaign, he narrowly beat eight-year incumbent Warren Widener for the city’s top spot by less than 900 votes, becoming the second African American to lead the city of roughly 100,000 residents.

The victory marked the first successful mayoral election for a candidate backed by Berkeley Citizens Action — the city’s progressive front that was bitterly divided against the more conservative Berkeley Democratic over rent control, neighborhood development and economic reform.

During his tenure of public service in Berkeley, Gus Newport served on the Police Review Commission, Planning Commission and the BCA Steering Committee.

He also led the push to establish Berkeley’s Rent Stabilization and Eviction for Good Cause Ordinance, helped the city become the first to divest from companies that supported apartheid in South Africa and extended benefits to same-sex domestic partners of city employees — only a few years after becoming one of the first U.S. mayors to ride in a Gay Freedom Day Parade in 1979.

After serving as Berkeley’s mayor from 1979 to 1986, Gus Newport directed his attention to other communities in need across the US.

In 1984, he became director of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in Boston, Massachusetts, which helped the impoverished community use eminent domain to purchase large properties so its residents could afford to buy homes in the neighborhood. After Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005, he also helped community land trusts preserve and rebuild traditionally African-American neighborhoods.

On Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee said in a statement that she was deeply saddened by the death of “a dear friend and a courageous fighter for world peace.” His history of radical stances included supporting Lee’s sole Congressional vote against authorizing war in Afghanistan after 9/11.

“I have known Gus for many years as a brilliant and compassionate human being,” Lee tweeted. “He has spent his life fighting for justice and liberation, and the world is a better place because of him. He is a true friend and an inspiration to us all. May he rest in peace and power.”

Gus Newport’s lifelong focus on social justice extended beyond international borders.

In between time spent in war zones in El Salvador or impoverished communities in Cuba, he also served on the US Conference on Apartheid, the Committee on The Question of Palestine, the World Peace Council, the National Council of Elders and the Berkeley-based Middle East Children’s Alliance, which he helped establish.

The New York Times reported in 1982 that some disgruntled Berkeley residents dubbed him “Galloping Gus” for his international trips — an attitude shared by some of his more moderate colleagues.

“I take issue with the mayor’s frequent and long absences which prevent him from providing leadership on local issues,” then-Councilwoman Gilda Feller said. “He doesn’t seem to care about the nuts and bolts of running a city.”

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But Berkeley’s current mayor, Jesse Arreguín, affirmed that Gus Newport’s legacy is still felt across the East Bay and beyond.

“He serves as an inspiration to me and so many generations of leaders,” Arreguín tweeted Tuesday. “He was a unabashed radical and visionary leader. As a progressive but also as a bureaucrat, he felt his role was to use his voice and his office to make change within, while also calling for broader change outside of City Hall.”

For his part, Gus Newport was the first to declare there was only one reason he would stop striving to make a difference for the next generation:

“Everybody tells me I have to slow down,” he told The Progressive Magazine in 2020. “I tell them death will have to catch me — I am not going to sit and wait for him!”

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Former Berkeley Mayor Gus Newport, global social justice activist, dies


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