Camden residents just won a huge victory in the ongoing efforts to get a vote on whether their school board should be elected. Here’s some of the details from my piece at Blue Jersey.
The nitty gritty is this: in 2010 the MRERA (the legislation that created a municipal take over of Camden, but also provided $175 million in funds for redevelopment in the early 2000s) was amended to include a city vote in 2014 on whether the school district should elect its board of education. As Dr. Keith Benson, a local educator, parent and now the president of the CEA has noted, when the time came for that vote, the state (alongside the district and state) used education resources to fight against that vote in court.
That sounds bad. And it is. But it’s also a pattern in Camden. In 2002, Camden faced a municipal takeover — and its residents lost the ability to vote. In 2012, Camden disbanded its city police department — and its residents lost the ability to vote. In 2013, Camden faced a state takeover of its school district — and its residents lost the ability to vote. We already know that this intersects directly with race; Oluwole and Green (2009) have shown that such takeovers happen disproportionately in communities of color. We’re now learning that these some of these Camden takeovers illegally stripped people of the right to vote. First, the NJ Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal to deny Camden residents the ability to vote on the dissolution of its police force though the ruling came too late to put the issue back on the ballot. And now, Camden residents have won a similar victory — that they should have had the right to vote on whether their school board is elected.
Let’s be clear. There are genuine debates to have about policy in cities such as Camden. But this is a fundamental justice issue. No community should be systematically stripped of its ability to vote along racial lines. This was done with impunity by leaders here in Camden in ways that courts have now repeatedly struck down as illegal.
You can read the whole thing here as well as some thoughts on what comes next.
Here, I want to briefly talk about both the ugliness and beauty of this. The ugliness is simple. Even those who claim to be helping Camden are willing to suppress the democratic rights of the city to do it. That is disgusting, and only possible because of the extreme power that allows those in office to break the law to facilitate their own ideas without worrying about consequences.
But there is beauty in this as well. From the beginning, there have been residents working on this issue. I’m thinking of the NAACP, who early on believed the courts would play a critical role in righting this injustice. Of folks like Dr. Keith Benson, Sean Brown, Ronsha Dickerson, Gary Frazier and others who collected signatures on this issue for years and ran into road blocks that we now know never should have been there. Of my friends at New Jersey Communities United (hi Vida, Mo’Neke, Emily, Dava and more) who kept the fight going through direct action.
The people of Camden knew that it could not be right, legal or just to strip this community of its right to vote. Years later, and the courts are finally catching up to what residents knew all along.