It’s not practical politics, but amateur performance art on civic themes.
Every now and then, for the sake of getting a little media attention, Charlotte Councilman Tariq Bokhari trolls the city with ostentatious, meaningless publicity stunts — often while exploiting vulnerable groups like people of color, workers, and the LGBTQ community.
Bokhari offers not policy solutions, but political burlesque, and last week he raised the curtain on his latest production.
A little backstory: In February 2022, city staff and officers with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department shut down an open-air flea market on the former Eastland Mall site in east Charlotte. The vendors’ lease had expired in September 2021, but the open-air market, which was mostly populated by Latinos, had continued to operate in the largely vacant space. The push to expel vendors earlier this year came after the city adopted plans to assist with the property’s redevelopment.
Since the market shut down five months ago, municipal officials have been working to find a new site for it.
Unhappy with the sluggishness of these efforts, vendors addressed Council at its meeting last Monday, imploring the city to step up its pace to help alleviate their economic struggles.
“It wasn’t fair the way they closed the flea market without giving us at least the opportunity to sell during that week,” said Jorge Castaneda, one of the market’s vendors. He told Council he has lost thousands of dollars since the market closed.
The vendors’ complaints were the cue for Bokhari to premiere his latest performance — with him cast in the role of rescuer.
“Jorge can’t wait anymore. You guys don’t need more lip service, you need action, and it isn’t going to happen around this dais,” Bokhari said at the Council meeting.
Then, last Wednesday, Bokhari and fellow Republicans running for seats on Council in the July 26 election announced at a rainy press conference held in an uptown parking lot that they had brokered a deal for the vendors to set up this weekend on vacant land near First Ward Park.
As a PR stunt, the gambit worked: Local media covered the announcement and gave Bokhari and his party the publicity they hoped to earn.
But as a solution to the real problem that Castaneda and his fellow vendors face, Bokhari’s announcement offered very little.
For starters, as Bokhari himself acknowledged, the offer of vacant uptown land was meant for only a single weekend. Even if the offer were made in good faith, it would barely qualify as a stop-gap, especially given that the vendors were provided with less than three days’ notice of the opportunity.
The lack of notice had the predictable result: no more than a couple dozen vendors showed up Saturday, and not all of them were among those displaced when the city shut down the Eastland location. (Bokhari announced on Twitter last Friday that more than 110 vendors had signed up. It’s unclear whether he was lying or if vendors who signed up didn’t show up. At its height, the Eastland market featured about 200 vendors.)
Also consider that, as reported by the Charlotte Observer, Bokhari acknowledged at his mid-week press conference that “the city is just a few weeks away from securing a permanent location.” Contrary to his excited utterance at the Council meeting, a solution is soon to come from “around this dais,” and Bokhari knows it.
As city staff have performed the decidedly unglamorous work of finding a real, sustainable solution and are on the verge of doing so, Bokhari decided to jump out of a metaphorical cake in a municipal teddy to garner attention for himself.
Consider, too, that the vendors were by and large uninterested in Bokhari’s fake solution.
As reported by Queens City Nerve, “Organizers who represent those vendors … called the announcement a ‘one-sided’ decision and [said] … that they won’t be attending this weekend’s temporary market in Uptown.”
Castaneda, who addressed Council earlier in the week, explained, “Us vendors, we are looking for a place to sell long-term. … We don’t want to move our clients to that place and it’s going to be only for one weekend, two weekends, one month, and then we have to move again.”
Queen City Nerve also reported that Hector Vaca, a local political organizer working with the vendors, asked Charlie Mulligan, a Republican candidate for City Council who attended the press conference announcing the Potemkin solution, to hold off until vendors had a chance to review the terms of the offer.
Explained Vaca, “The vendors decided that, thank you, but it wouldn’t work out to go this one weekend because it would confuse customers. … They want the long-term solution so their customers will know where to regularly go.”
Bokhari, Mulligan, and the others rebuffed the vendors’ request for a postponement and announced their intention to offer help they knew had been rejected by its intended beneficiaries.
In a statement released to the media, Vaca further explained, “It is unfortunate that the event is being promoted by some as a collaboration between the vendors and those who have made the space available for it, since it does not represent a decision made by the vendors themselves.”
Here’s the the bottom line: 1) A real solution to the vendors’ problems is imminent, as Bokhari himself acknowledged; 2) vendors rejected as unwise and unworkable the non-solution offered to them last week by Bokhari and other Republican candidates; and 3) these facts were completely irrelevant to the decision made by Bokhari and other Republican candidates to use people of color as props in a political stunt intended to garner good publicity in the weeks before a municipal election.
There is a word this: exploitation.
It’s not the first time Bokhari and his fellow travelers have exploited vulnerable people for their own political gain.
When Charlotte municipal bus driver Ethan Rivera was shot and killed in February 2022, Bokhari and other Republicans held a press conference to unveil what they said was a bulletproof partition that could be installed in all city buses.
The Charlotte Area Transit System said after the news conference that they had not been contacted about it and knew nothing of it until it occurred.
CATS also explained it had already been in talks with its bus manufacturer about the feasibility of installing bulletproof barriers.
As with the problem of finding a new home for the open-air market, while professionals behind the scenes were doing the real work to find a real solution, Bokhari and his GOP colleagues were raising the curtain on an unproductive, distracting sideshow — while using a dead civil servant as a political pawn.
Similarly have Bokhari and his allies sought to use the LGBTQ community.
In June 2021, as Bokhari knew city staff were working on a local non-discrimination ordinance to protect LGBTQ people, he published what he described as “a conservative NDO for Charlotte” and proceeded to trumpet the leadership he and fellow Republicans allegedly demonstrated on the issue of queer equality.
This is through-the-looking-glass stuff.
The entire reason Charlotte needed to adopt a non-discrimination ordinance in 2021 was because when the city previously adopted one in 2016, the Republican-controlled General Assembly not only invalidated it with the odious House Bill 2, but prohibited local governments from adopting similar ordinances until 2020.
His party gay-bashed from the halls of the legislature — costing the state billions of dollars, by the way — and still takes the position that gay people are deviant apostates who corrode the very foundations of civil society, but the councilman asked us to believe Republicans are the true leaders in the fight for gay rights.
Bokhari’s narratives are fictions and fantasies, tales of a fabulist and political street performer who will utter whatever lie necessary to advance his brand as an iconoclastic Republican in a Democratic stronghold — and one who, while doing so, never hesitates to exploit vulnerable people for his own benefit.