While Taylor Swift, the Jonas Brothers, and Miley Cirus took the stage at MTV’s Video Music Awards at Newark’s Prudential Center Monday night, protesters confronted attendees outside and clashed with police, hoping to draw attention to the city’s ongoing struggle for clean drinking water.
Officers on horseback and a police blockade thwarted activists from reaching the Prudential Center where an outdoor pre-show was taking place, but dozens of activists rushed a public plaza alongside the venue and heckled people waiting on line to get in.
“This is a huge event for the city, but you can’t have that with this under-story of poison water,” said Anthony Diaz, with the Newark Water Coalition, a group that has been delivering and distributing water to residents who haven’t been able to get it from one of the city’s four distribution sites. “I don’t care if we’re an inconvenience to you; fix the water.”
The protest came several hours after Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, Essex County Officials and New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy announced a new plan to replace the city’s around 18,000 lead service lines, which connect the city’s water mains to private residences, in less than 3 years at no cost to homeowners.
“This is big news for the City of Newark but also sets a precedent across the country about how New Jersey is stepping up to the plate to address water infrastructure challenges for its residents,” Baraka said. “We look forward to going door-to-door with our tremendous volunteers to help residents participate in our Lead Service Line Replacement Program in the coming days.”
An earlier plan was supposed to take a decade and cost up to $1,000 for each homeowner. Essex County will loan Newark $120 million, which the city will have to pay back over the course of 30 years, county officials confirmed. Essex County freeholders are expected to vote on the proposal Tuesday evening.
Attorney Dimple Chaudhary with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is suing the city in federal court over its handling of the lead crisis, called the funding a “step in the right direction.” But, she said, there’s a caveat.
“Given the city and state’s ongoing mismanagement of this crisis, federal court oversight of Newark’s pipe replacement program is critical,” she said. “It remains to be seen whether the city will in fact deliver on this promise, or yet again fall short.”
Lead levels in Newark’s water spiked in some areas with lead pipes in 2017, when chemicals meant to prevent lead from leeching into the water supply stopped working at one of the city’s two water treatment facilities. But the city downplayed the extent of the issue for months, telling residents the water was “absolutely safe to drink” (in a now-deleted press release), even though they had been warned about the risks by a team of outside experts months earlier, according to NJ Advance Media.
Listen to Gwynne Hogan's report on WNYC:
Protesters outside the Prudential Center Monday evening echoed the concerns of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“Why would I believe in a person who said for so long there is no problem, and I’m expecting that you’re going to do the right thing now...We’re skeptical,” Diaz said. Diaz brought up other fits and starts as Newark has tried to handle the issue. “Every plan the mayor has he fails to execute. He said…, ‘Oh we’ve given out 38,000 filters.’ There are people in this crowd who are listed as having three or four filters and never got them. There’s people in this crowd that qualify for filters but don’t get bottled water.”
On August 9th, the Environmental Protection Agency requested Newark begin giving out bottled water to some residents earlier this month, following tests on three water filters the city had given out, that found two of them weren’t working. In the following days the city scrambled to provide cases of water to residents, setting up four distribution sites for those who qualify to get free cases, leaving a patchwork of volunteers, activists and clergy to try to deliver bottled water to those who can’t get to them.
Meanwhile, Mayor Baraka said on Monday the city is now conducting follow up tests on 225 homes that use the water filters to see if the earlier results were a fluke or if the filters are ineffective. Until that’s sorted out, residents with lead service lines in the affected areas—the city’s West Ward and parts of the North, South. and Central Wards—will have to drink and cook with bottled water indefinitely.
Another protester Shakima Thomas, whose five-year-old son was recently found to have elevated lead in his blood, said she was there Monday to send Newark’s leadership a message.
“To let city officials feel the pain and suffering that we've been feeling since we've been lied to and going through this public health crisis,” she said. “I don't understand how they can party while our kids are dying.”
Correction: Dimple Chaudhary's last name was updated to reflect its proper spelling.