The lead problem in New Jersey’s largest city can be traced back as far as 2010, where testing in schools consistently showed lead levels above the federal action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb). It was 5 years later when Sabre Burroughs, co-founder of the Newark Water Coalition, learned that the city’s schools were putting caution tape around water fountains.
“After a while, I stopped hearing about it. I figured it was over,” Burroughs says.
Then she found out the city was being sued by the National Resource Defense Council, the same group that sued Flint, Michigan for not taking action on dangerous levels of lead in its water supply.
‘We took the opportunity to be loud and it put a target on us.’
Burroughs talked with Anthony Diaz, a friend from high school. “We said, ‘If this is true, where’s the outcry in the streets right now? Because these numbers are scary.’”
Twenty percent of tests done in 2017 contained lead levels above 15 ppb. There is no amount of lead considered safe in drinking water and the results indicated the need for further monitoring and water treatment. But the city didn’t make testing information public until it was sued. Two years later, individual homes reported lead levels in drinking water as high as 953 parts per billion.
Lead is a neurotoxin and experts have emphasized that even low levels of exposure can cause irreversible damage in children’s development, lead to miscarriages and cause health problems in otherwise healthy adults.
Burroughs and Diaz started the Newark Water Coalition (NWC) in 2018 to inform their community and distribute clean water and filters. They’ve also collaborated with local universities to conduct independent testing. NWC normally hosts weekly distributions of bottled water but since the COVID-19 outbreak, they have begun delivering to residents’ homes.
This month, NWC organized a “Mutual Aid March,” connecting their activism with the recent protests against systemic racism.
“We wanted to not only march and say ‘Black Lives Matter’ but say ‘Hey, do you need this resource? I have it for you,” Diaz explains.
“Unemployment is high and we’re entering a depression like we’ve never seen before,” Burroughs adds. “We know that poverty breeds violence. So we’re meeting our neighbors, gathering in numbers, so we can support each other. We’re saying, ‘Here are where the food pantries are, here are the local farms.’”
As of April, unemployment in Newark has reached 14.9 percent. The city has an average yearly income of $35,000 and a 28 percent poverty rate. The extra $600 weekly federal unemployment benefits implemented in response to COVID are set to end next month. Add that to a lead crisis that has put residents’ health and futures on the line.
Supporters of the Mutual Aid March donated diapers, baby supplies, vegetables and bottled water.
The march, set to go from Newark’s University High School to the 5th Police Precinct, was cut short. A block away from the cop station, where volunteers stood at tables handing out donated supplies, a group of individuals linked arms to block the road. One man grabbed Diaz’s megaphone and began to yell at marchers to leave.
Victor Monterrosa, an attorney and former Newark City Council candidate, was one of the marchers who was physically confronted. He recounts being threatened, doused with water and struck in the head.
During our #MutualAid march we were met w aggression. This is what they want. They want us turning on eachother while white supremacy wins. We want to #AbolishPolice because we believe the solutions are community based & we are always abt #BlackCollectivePower pic.twitter.com/lS4s2891ht
— NewarkWaterCoalition (@CleanWater4Nwk) June 15, 2020
“Police and government officials watched less than two dozen violent agitators suppress a march of hundreds, curtailing First Amendment rights to freely assemble and speak publicly against the local failures of the criminal justice system,” Monterrosa said in a press release.
“Whether the agitators opposed the political message about the school to prison pipeline or the mutual aid distribution is unclear,” Monterossa added. “The violence exhibited during this event must never happen again.”
Videos show that city employees were present at the event, including Mayor Ras Baraka’s brother and chief of staff. They did not appear to intervene as marchers were pushed and yelled at. Police were largely absent from the protest, except as traffic control.
When asked about the discord that occurred at the march, the mayor’s press office noted that “So far the city has had at least six protests, one numbering tens of thousands of people, without an arrest, damage to property or confrontation between protesters or police.”
Activists turned the march around to avoid further conflict and while the event ended early, all donated supplies were distributed.
This is not the first dispute between NWC and the city. The organization helped stage a protest when the MTV Video Music Awards came to Newark last summer, drawing national attention to the lead crisis, which the mayor claimed was under control. The award ceremony was held a week after Gov. Phil Murphy declined to declare a state of emergency in the city over its water quality.
“We took the opportunity to be loud,” Burroughs explains. “And it put a target on us.”
Newark’s Public Safety Director described the VMA protesters as “out of towners” but both Burroughs and Diaz are each Newark born and raised — and both are currently running for Essex County Freeholder seats. While Diaz now lives in South Orange, he credits Newark with forging his identity and says his campaign for elected office is about serving it.
— NewarkWaterCoalition (@CleanWater4Nwk) May 11, 2020
“Everything I am is because of this city,” he says.” That’s the city that I love. This is not about me, it’s not about Ras Baraka, it’s not about the NWC. It’s about getting resources to our people. At the end of the day, our people are suffering. I’m here doing work.”
“You want to talk about outsiders?” Diaz adds, “Let’s talk about the gentrification going on in Newark, the Whole Foods that’s downtown.”
Newark is the largest city in New Jersey, with 280,000 residents, 50 percent of whom are black, 34 percent Hispanic or Latinx. It’s the former city of Sen. Cory Booker, who was replaced by as mayor by Baraka in 2014.
In June 2018, the National Resource Defense Council and public school teachers with the Newark Education Workers Caucus sued Newark and state officials for violating the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. Their case referenced the city’s failure to prevent water corrosion and properly monitor water quality, as well as to inform residents of dangerous lead levels.
The city is currently working on its plan to replace all lead service lines within two years, with help from a $120 million loan from Essex County. So far, 12,000 out of 18,000 lines have been replaced.
“They have done tremendous work on replacing the lead service lines,” Diaz says. “But we need more testing. They’re telling people everything is fine once they replace the lead service lines. That is a problem. You have to test these homes before and after.”
Despite tests that showed lead levels continuing to exceed 15 ppb, the director of Newark’s Department of Water and Sewer Utilities issued a statement in April of last year saying, “We reiterate that Newark’s water meets all federal and state standards and that this issue is confined to a limited number of homes with lead service lines.”
The city has distributed over 36,000 water filters since the suit and began to hand out bottled water last summer after tests showed that filters were not working properly. Water distribution is now limited to pregnant women and families with children under the age of six who can pick up two cases every two weeks. Residents have reported being denied filters and bottled water when attempting to obtain them.
“I don’t think this administration is vile and corrupt, but part of a system that puts the oppressed against the oppressed,” says Burroughs. “In my own home, where I grew up, the water is poisoned. I have a water filter at my sink, underneath my sink, at the point of entry, and I’m pouring it into my pitcher. No one should have to live like that. Our state has the highest property taxes in the nation and our fucking water is poisoned.”
Burroughs and Diaz say they have reached out to meet with the mayor but have not received a response. They plan to keep distributing supplies with NWC and to host more events in the near future.
“I’m not afraid. I know what we’re doing is right,” says Diaz.
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