A Riot Is the Voice of the Unheard

by Trina Scordo, MSW
Executive Director, NJ Communities United

Recently, NJ Communities United members living in Asbury Park approached me to request a letter voicing support for the ballot initiative to change Asbury Park’s form of a government to a ward system. This prompted a larger discussion about what is driving the effort. Not surprisingly, the conversation turned very quickly to the economic disparities in Asbury Park, largely around housing, redevelopment and displacement – issues that are top priorities for NJ Communities United members across the State.

It is no secret that when redevelopment occurs in working class communities of color, it is the most vulnerable who lose. Driven by the very real fear of being uprooted from the community and forcibly displaced, the primary concern is the affordability of housing.  Asbury Park, despite its small size, faces the same struggles as Newark and Camden when it comes to safe, affordable, family-sized housing options, especially for renters. 

A_Riot_is_the_Voice_of_the_Unheard.jpgBut these issues have not dominated the public discussion about the ballot initiative to change Asbury Park’s system of governance to a ward-based system. Instead, the public narrative has focused on divisions and machine politics, and accusations that residents who signed the petition did not understand what they were signing. Sadly, these distractions dismiss the anger, frustration, and legitimate fears that communities of color are expressing regarding the need for safe, affordable, family-sized housing. What is being willfully ignored is the fact that redevelopment is driving economic inequality in Asbury Park, and the redevelopment process itself is exposing the mechanics of power that influence decision-making. It is not the ballot initiative that is fueling political division in Asbury Park – it is the well-founded fears of displacement that working class and poor communities of color are experiencing in response to a redevelopment process heavily influenced by wealth, power, and political access.

As a statewide organization that uses direct action as a tactic to highlight crises in working class, communities of color, any of our members – no matter what city they call home – would articulate the issue in the same way.  This is not about the ballot initiative; this is about a housing crisis that has been growing for decades in Asbury Park which has not received the urgent attention it deserves from policy makers and elected officials. The nature of housing crises - in Asbury Park, in New Jersey, and across the country – continue to be ignored. And the powerful corporate interests who are driving redevelopment continue to become wealthier with increasing political influence.

Fortunately, NJ Communities United members possess a keen political analysis and a demonstrated history of fearless-ness and courage. In Newark, East Orange and Essex County, NJ Communities United members have played key roles demanding divestment from the entities like Wells Fargo, which invests in and profits from displacement. Our members secured redevelopment policies to protect working class communities from redevelopment and displacement that includes a plan supported by Newark Mayor Ras Baraka that will allow the city to seize underwater mortgages and reset the terms of the mortgages to reflect true market value, free from the predatory features peddled by the big banks. 

The Asbury Park ballot initiative is yet another tool which reveals the deep dissatisfaction working class communities feel about municipal governments and elected officials who refuse to tackle, and feel powerless to tackle, a crisis and a system that precedes the current city administration.  If residents used the power of protest and civil disobedience during the height of the summer to highlight inequity in housing, they would be told it is not the right time because it sends the wrong message to the summer tourists.  If residents disrupted a city hall meeting or a zoning or planning board meeting, they would be told that it is not the way to have a conversation, that it is inappropriate, or simply not the right venue. 

But NJ Communities United members see beyond those arguments and embrace their collective power despite the discomfort it generates for those who hold power.

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stated, “A riot is the voice of the unheard.” 

People may disagree with the ballot initiative to change Asbury Park’s form of governance to a ward-based system, but instead of making claims that a ward-based system would create chaos, those people in power should consider the chaos that families on the west side of Asbury Park have contended with for decades: the economic chaos of being excluded, marginalized and displaced from the community called “home”, while wealthy and politically influential developers build luxury housing, pocket unimaginable profits, and toss a few crumbs to the working class residents of Asbury Park.

Whether or not the ballot initiative prevails, there is now a growing movement of supporters who have demonstrated that they are fed up with being ignored and dismissed by their city government. The significance of the initiative does not lay within whether it succeeds or not; the significance is in the number of residents who are mobilizing to  ensure the issues of housing, displacement and redevelopment are heard over influential developers who drive redevelopment policy.

Trina Scordo, MSW is the Executive Director of NJ Communities United, a statewide, membership-based community organizing group rooted in the belief that the collective action of traditionally marginalized communities can transform the institutions and processes that control decision-making and the distribution of resources that determine the social outcomes in the communities we call home.

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