Newark’s Lead-Poisoned Water and the Contradictions of a “Radical” Mayor: How Do We Fight Back?
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, widely viewed as a “radical,” has worked to deny, suppress, and minimize the existence of this public health crisis.
“We need a movement that fights for clean water in Newark and demands the rich pay for the crisis they created.”
Newark, New Jersey, which has recorded some of the highest levels of lead-contaminated tap water of any major city, has now emerged as the “next Flint” in the US’s spreading lead-poisoned-water disaster. While the entire country’s infrastructure is in a decrepit state, it is particularly extreme in Newark, where some 29,000 residential units in this city of over 285,000 still have “lead service lines” that connect homes with city water mains and are a primary conduit of lead into the water system.
The US ruling class has presided over the dismantlement of industry and allowed the infrastructure to rot for decades in Newark, Flint, and other former industrial powerhouses. In the case of Newark this “class war from above” goes back to at least the 1930s, and was part of disrupting the urban-based working-class militancy and strike waves that had emerged in US urban centers, particularly in the 1930s and 1940s.
Thus, considering this long assault, Newark’s designation as the next Flint did not come as a total shock. But, what has been a surprise for many is the response of the city’s self-described “radical” mayor, Ras Baraka, the son of the late poet, playwright and activist, Amiri Baraka. The younger Baraka, who came to power in 2014 on the tide of a mass movement opposing the sell-off of the public schools by his predecessor Cory Booker, has worked to deny, suppress, and minimize the existence of the problem. Only because of a lawsuit filed by the environmental group the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) on behalf of the rank a file teacher-union reform caucus, the Newark Education Workers (NEW), combined with a growing grass roots protests, and increasing national press coverage, has Baraka and his administration backed off earlier, repeated reassurances that “our water is safe” and taken halting yet inadequate measures.
“Baraka’s first reaction was to suppress and minimize the lead water crisis.”
Baraka’s contradictory behavior is a product of his deep commitment to what Adolph Reed calls a “rent-intensifying redevelopment” agenda of increasing land values in which the local “real estate state” he heads, as Sam Stein has termed it, plays a central role. Like other big city Democratic mayors, “progressive” or otherwise, Baraka embraces, with evangelical fervor, the use of local state power to promote the “highest and best use” of land, i.e. the highest profits that capitalists can extract from their real estate investments. Thus, Baraka’s first reaction was to suppress and minimize the lead water crisis—itself a product of the contradictions of a development model based on starving public infrastructure and services—that threatened the image and therefore the value of existing and continued flows of new real estate investment into the city. At the same time, as part of his class juggling act, Baraka has to also appear to be addressing the needs of his mass, working class, popular base being poisoned.
How does a “radical” mayor manage these contradictions? How can a mass movement effectively fight back?
Charter Schools and Closing the Rent Gap
Cory Booker—Baraka’s predecessor, and one-time adversary—also equated rising real estate values with development during his seven -year reign (2006-2013). Indeed, in his new position as the junior US Senator from New Jersey, Booker continues to provide more tools for real estate state, and the larger FIRE sector (finance, insurance and real estate), to pump up land values. While attacking Trump for “empowering hate” to “divide the country” he enthusiastically united with his adversary to further enflame already displacement-raging urban real estate markets by sponsoring “Opportunity Zone” legislation that provides generous tax-incentives for investing in “distressed neighborhoods.”
As mayor of Newark Booker’s signature initiative was the privatization, along with the water system, of the public schools. Once taking office Booker worked with five major philanthrocapitalist foundations to establish the “Newark Charter School Fund” to “grow” the charter-school market. Then, after the election of Chris Christie as Governor in 2009, he formed a partnership with the then-rising Republican star to carry out, with the assistance of a $100 million philanthropic “gift” from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and cheerleading by Oprah, a shock therapy, mass privatization plan for the city’s public schools.
In addition to the Philanthrocapitalists and “edubusiness” sector, Booker partnered with the FIRE sector in his efforts to make Newark “the charter school capital of the world.” Beginning in 2005, Nicolas Berggruen, better known as the “homeless billionaire” because of his penchant for living out of luxury hotels around the globe, and his on-the-ground partner Ron Beit, began buying up a large chunk of a long-divested section of downtown Newark located near the new downtown Prudential Sports Arena that was then coming on line. Beit, Booker’s favorite local growth machine partner, who he lauded as the “the hardest-working man in all of development, . . . the James Brown of development,” redubbed the area, in a classic real estate rebranding game, “SoMA”—South of Market Street.”
“Booker administered privatization shock therapy to the public schools.”
Berggruen, Beit and their fellow investors scooped up the properties at the bargain basement rate of $20 a square foot while in “non-prime” areas of Brooklyn comparable properties were selling for $175 to $200 a square foot. The challenge for these speculators then became how to close what the late Marxist geographer Neil Smith called the “rent gap” —the difference between the rent a piece of real estate currently generates and what it could generate if “improvements” were made.
Central to their cashing-in formula has been the gleaming new Teachers Village “mixed use” complex in the downtown Newark SoMA foot print, that combines four charter schools, over two-hundred apartments, and street level shops. The project was built and managed by Beit’s RBH outfit, with financing coming from a group of investors that included Berggruen, Goldman Sachs and the city’s property-tax-avoiding corporate titan Prudential, along with over $100 million in tax credits and other forms of corporate welfare from the local, state and federal levels of the “real estate state.” In addition, other new, gleaming charter school buildings, such as the NorthStar Charter chain who set up shop in the former Star Ledger newspaper’s building, have gone up in the same area.
While all levels of the state were funneling resources for building new charters, Booker’s partner, Governor Christie, closed off the spigots for repairing and constructing new public schools while cutting state operating funding for Newark and other poor urban school districts. At the same time, the state-imposed school superintendent Cami Anderson —a long-time ally of Booker, a former head of the New York City Teach for America union-busting operation, and an assistant superintendent under the Michael Bloomberg/Joel Klein regime in New York City—worked aggressively to close public schools and break the power of the teachers’ union.
Upheaval and Containment: The Value of a Radical Mayor
Booker and Christie’s “civil rights movement of our day” struggle to privatize the city’s schools was met with Newark’s largest, most sustained popular movement in decades in the first half of the 2010s. Students, along with dissident teacher union activists, parents, and assorted community activists, carried out a variety of disruptive protests—ranging from mass student walkouts to turning school board meetings into mass demonstrations—to oppose the corporate school reform agenda.
As this movement began to take-off Booker took an early 2013 exit to the US Senate. In the ensuing 2014 mayoral race, the-then city councilman Ras Baraka convincingly defeated his hedge-fund backed opponent by championing the anti-corporate school reform movement.
While posturing as an ally of the mass movement defending public schools, Baraka also made it clear that he was no opponent of charter schools who were simultaneously draining the public schools of resources. To manage this contradiction, Baraka used his considerable political talents to channel the movement away from stopping privatization, to one for “self-determination” —returning control of the district from the state to the local school board.
“Baraka used his radical cred to successfully wind down the protest movement that brought him to power.”
Once in power he did engineer, with the assistance of a mass student walkout, a 2015 agreement with Christie to remove Cami Anderson—the hated state-imposed charter-school militant superintendent—and establish a three-year road map for a return of local control. At the same time, Baraka assented to Christie’s choice as the new superintendent—Chris Cerf—who was even more influential than his predecessor in the elite-led movement to privatize public education. Baraka further pleased his erstwhile opponents by using his radical cred to successfully wind down the protest movement that brought him to power, while simultaneously taking a number of measures—from having his planning board approve zoning changes to open a new charter school to collaborating with pro-charter forces to run a slate of school board candidates—that favored and legitimated charter schools and their own movement militants.
The centrality of charter schools to the rent intensification agenda made it impossible for Baraka, despite the radical proclamations, including his thinly veiled attacks on the inauthentic Booker for doing the bidding of Wall Street, to ever take any serious measures against them. Indeed, far from blocking their expansion under his watch, charter schools have continued to proliferate, now enrolling nearly nearly 40% of all students in the city.
Baraka and the Real Estate State
In addition to protecting charters, Baraka has championed, like his predecessor, the deployment of other forms of state subsidies and interventions to further drive up land values. He joined hands, for example, first with Christie, and then his successor, Democrat Phil Murphy, to offer $7 billion in subsidies in an unsuccessful attempt to woo Amazon to set up their second North America headquarters in the city. He has embraced the Booker-Trump Opportunity Zone tax-giveaway initiative, as his administration welcomed a nearly $1 million grant from the Prudential and Rockefeller foundations to pay for “a chief Opportunity Zone officer” to entice investors to the city’s thirteen opportunity zones. Indeed, Baraka was so enthused about the program that in May the city hosted, in collaboration with Forbesmagazine, an all-day national conference with an “amazing group of leaders across investing, politics, philanthropy and real estate” to discuss all the possibilities of the program. Among the attendees was former San Antonio Spurs basketball star David Robinson, whose private equity firm “runs a fund in San Antonio that builds charter schools and tries to revitalize distressed communities.”
But, as part of appearing to meet the concerns of his popular base, Baraka continually emphasizes that, despite his vigorous support for a rent-intensification agenda, long-time residents will not be pushed out. To allay fears of Newark becoming “another Brooklyn”, Baraka created a toothless “inclusionary zoning and anti-gentrification commission” composed of politically reliable non-profits and academics, as well as real estate interests, to advise him on housing and land use issues.
“Baraka embraced the Booker-Trump Opportunity Zone tax-giveaway initiative.”
Other supposed protections are a “inclusionary zoning” ordinance that requires new developments of over 30 units to include 20 percent set aside as affordable. But the definitions used for “affordability,” as other critiques of “inclusionary zoning” schemes have shown, leave out wide swaths of poor Newarkers, nearly 30 percent of whom have incomes below the poverty line. Furthermore, the new developments—most of which receive various forms of subsidies—drive up rents in the surrounding neighborhood and thus end up destroying more affordable housing than the paltry amount created by the neoliberal friendly “inclusionary zoning” measure.
While Baraka continually professes opposition to gentrification, he signed off on demolishing the Terrell Homes public housing development—the most reliable bulwark against displacement—situated along the city’s quickly gentrifying Passaic river front. For their part, the nine-member “Team Baraka” city council continually works to weaken the city’s rent control regime, another key form of protection for the 78% of city’s households who are renters.
Road Bump to Revitalization: Lead in the Water
By 2016 Baraka had pleased his elite governing partners by successfully shutting down the disruptive anti-corporate school reform movement while orchestrating an “anti-racist” return to local control that posed no obstacle to the continued march of the market. With messy protests out of the way, Baraka could concentrate on ground breakings and ribbon cuttings, from the privately-run, downtown Mulberry Commons Park to cop-loving, native-son Shaquille O’Neal’s luxury residential high rise, the first in decades. The “Newark Renaissance,” which the previous black and white mayors had long worked for, now seemed at hand.
Then, unfortunately for the radical mayor, reports of lead poisoned water began creeping up, marring the renaissance narrative. Of course, lead exposure through the soil and lead paint in housing has been a long-standing problem in Newark and other older cities. But lead in the water has been recognized by public health officials as well. The state Poison Control director, Dr. Steven Marcus, brought this to the attention of former Mayors Sharpe James as well as Booker, but without any action taken.
By the early 2010s water testing, as inadequate as it was (the state then only required the city to test 50 homes every three years, but changed the rules in 2017 to 100 homes every six months), did find elevated levels of lead in Newark—above the 15 parts-per-billion (ppb) “safe” level set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Yet, public attention was not drawn to the problem until 2016, when annual tests showed elevated levels of lead in 30 schools. At the time, the Baraka administration emphasized that the problem was limited to the schools, and assured residents that the city’s water was safe to drink.
“Lead in the water was brought this to the attention of former Mayors Sharpe James as well as Booker.”
After the lead crisis hit the schools, teacher-activists with the rank and file reform caucus, the Newark Education Workers (NEW), reached out to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a well-funded environmental organization that was involved in the litigation around Flint. Initially the NRDC attempted to work with the Baraka administration to address the problem, including the inadequate application of anti-corrosion chemicals to the water that was leading to lead leaching from the thousands of homes with lead service lines and fixtures. Then, in June 2017, the crisis spread, as the city acknowledged testing had found “actionable levels” of levels of lead in the city’s water—defined as 10% of tested homes registering levels above 15 ppb.
In September of 2017 the NRDC , along with ten local and state-based non-profits, sent a letter to Baraka and the head of the Water Department, to “convey our deep concern that not enough is being done to make the public aware of the severity of lead-contaminated drinking water in our City, and to respond comprehensively to the crisis.” The signatories requested the city take a number of actions, including educating the public on the extent of lead contamination, the health risks involved, and actions to replace lead service lines.
Non-Profits: What Are They Good For?
The Baraka administration took no real measures to address the concerns outlined in the letter. Instead, in the city’s 2017 Water Quality report, Baraka attacked the NRDC for “outrageously false statements about our water,” reassured residents of the water’s safety, and failed to inform residents on how they could protect themselves. Then in April of 2018, the city, while acknowledging high lead levels, sent out misleading robo calls, and placed posts on the city website, telling residents that “Newark's water is absolutely safe to drink.” While the city’s source may have been safe, the inadequate treatment of water traversing lead-laden pipes, as advocates had been emphasizing, was not.
At this point, facing no cooperation from the Baraka administration, the NRDC began preparations for a law suit to force the city and state to address many of the same issues raised in the September 2017 letter. Yet, the leading local nonprofits who had signed the letter all declined to join the suit. This included the Ironbound Community Corporation, a foundation-backed non-profit who claim “environmental justice” as one of their central missions. Even a group called “Clean Water Action,” who had an office in Newark, backed out! Clearly the local non-profits, the soft arm of the capitalist state, prioritize maintaining good relations with the local Democratic party officialdom, and most likely their funders, over serving the “front line communities” they include in their grant applications. In the face of this opportunism and cowardice, NEW then joined the NRDC as the sole plaintiffs in the suit against the city and some city and state officials, which was filed in federal court in June of 2018.
The Dead End of Single-Issueism
The law suit, public pressure, and expanding press coverage has combined to force the city and state to take further, yet wholly inadequate, measures to safeguard public health. In October 2018, after exceeding lead levels once again, the city began distributing water filters to an area of the city served by one of the city’s two water plants. Later, in August 2019, the EPA found the filters were not working to sufficiently remove lead and recommended the city distribute bottled water to residents. The city and state did, haltingly, begin distributing water, but only for residents with lead service lines though homes without them have registered high lead levels as well. In addition, after the EPA report and renewed national coverage, the county hurriedly passed a $120 million bond initiative to speed up the city’s earlier $75 million program to replace all the lead service lines in the city.
The NRDC law suit has clearly put the Democratic Party-run city and state on the defensive. But with NRDC’s leadership drawn from the political and corporate elite, and their $180 million budget largely generated from foundation grants and wealthy individuals, there are real class constraints on the demands and actions they can raise and mount. Chief among those constraints is demanding the billionaires pay for the crisis they created. Instead, the bond-sale “solution” put forward by Baraka and the reviled Democratic County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo—better known as “Deportation Joe” for the ICE concertation camp he runs for the Trump administration—will allow the rich to make a profit off of the misery of working class Newarkers.
A grass roots group not directly tied to the non-profit complex, the Newark Water Coalition (NWC), has emerged over the last year. They did hold a spirited demonstration of some 200 protestors on August 26 to draw attention to the water crisis during the city-hosted MTV Music Video awards gala. But the NWC—whose leaders, such as Anthony Diaz, have been prominently profiled on the NRDC website—and their unelected “leadership team” has largely followed the lead of the NRDC. The NWC’s demands on the city for an aggressive public education outreach effort, their own volunteer efforts to deliver bottled water, and lobbying congress for passage of the WATER Act of 2019, proposed by Democrat Ro Khanna, dovetails with the politics of their well-endowed allies. No where do they demand the billionaires pay.
“The bond-sale “solution will allow the rich to make a profit off of the misery of working class Newarkers.”
While lauding the local congressman, Donald Payne Jr, for meeting and working with them, they have harshly criticized Baraka, who has so far refused to sit down with the NWC’s “leadership team.” Diaz and two of his NWC comrades recently penned an editorial denouncing Baraka and other city officials as incompetent and called for their removal and imprisonment.
Baraka and his administration are certainly guilty of working to suppress rather than address the lead water crisis, which is rooted in his prioritization of real estate development over the interests of his working-class constituency. And clearly, despite Baraka’s continued ability to rally ministers and older activist groups and personalities, most prominently the Peoples Organization for Progress’ Larry Hamm, for political support, this movement has put the “radical mayor,” and the corporate interests he manages, on the defensive. At the same time the real source of the problem and solution lies beyond Baraka and Newark.
Fighting for the World We Want
The lead water crisis in Newark is simply one component of a larger ruling class assault that extends well beyond the city. Thus, to build an effective movement, one that can exercise real power, we need to get beyond our single-issue silos. We need a movement that connects the fight for clean water in Newark with a broader working class struggle for the world we want and need.
Central to building this kind of struggle is demanding that the rich pay for the crisis they created. We cannot make any progress on clean water, establishing free higher education, winning full citizenship rights for all, combatting climate change, or any other struggle, unless we begin taking back the trillions the ruling class has stolen. The Newark-based Jobs and Equal Rights for All campaign, who are running two independent socialist candidates for the New Jersey state assembly, have placed this demand at the center of their campaign. They are calling for a wealth tax on the wealthiest 1% of New Jerseyans—those with over $2 million in assets. This revenue, which would generate about $16 billion a year, approximately half the current state budget, would finance at the state-level a mass, democratically-controlled, direct-government employment public works and free public services program, open to all, immigrants and those born here. This program would rebuild not only the water system, but the rest of the crumbling infrastructure and public services.
“A wealth tax on the wealthiest 1% of New Jerseyans would generate about $16 billion a year.”
A movement centered around a demand for jobs, free public services, and equal rights for all, paid for by taxing the wealth and income of the top 1%, is one that could unite all our struggles. Among the leading ones is the current raging battle in New Jersey to end the “blood money” contracts local, Democratic-run county governments have with ICE to imprison immigrants. Officials defend the arrangements by arguing there is no other way to fund local services. This is a lie. In fact, the money is available, indeed much more than is generated through blood money contracts. What is required is a united movement of immigrants and the native-born working class to take back this wealth from the billionaires.
This movement cannot be limited to one state, but rather must become a national and international one. At a national level, the demand must include not only taxing the rich but ending their war machine and the trillions of dollars it consumes to wreck carnage and mayhem around the globe. With these resources we could provide equal and high-quality free education, health care, transportation, housing and clean energy that will also provide good jobs for all. This would be a big step towards a democratically run society that meets the needs of all—a socialist society.
Jay Arena is an associate professor of sociology at CUNY's College of
Staten Island and active in the Jobs and Equal Rights for All Campaign.
He is currently writing a book on the struggle over Newark's public
schools under the mayoral administrations of Cory Booker and Ras Baraka.
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