NAACP president and CEO Cornell Brooks came to Atlantic City on April 20 for the public launch of a campaign to prevent the privatization of the city’s public water system.
Brooks spoke in support of the campaign to protect the civil rights of city residents as a result of last year’s takeover law, and tied it to his group’s advocacy for water justice in Flint, Michigan. “Water rights are civil rights, and civil rights are human rights,” he told the audience.
The NAACP has joined a coalition of over 40 state and national organizations, led by Food & Water Watch, the ACLU of New Jersey and the New Jersey Appleseed Public Interest Law Project, to support a citizen-led campaign opposed to the state takeover of Atlantic City. Residents fear the Chris Christie administration will use the state’s powers to strip the publicly-owned municipal water system from public control and hand it over to one of the private water corporations in New Jersey.
The Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act gives the state government the power to dissolve local authorities, eliminate collective bargaining agreements that protect public workers, and sell assets like the water system. It has been opposed by labor groups across the state. The city’s firefighters, who have suffered severe budget cuts as a result of the state takeover, were on hand to support the water campaign, as were leaders from the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) and the state AFL-CIO.
The petition drive opposing the state takeover, which kicked off earlier this month, seeks to prevent the sale of the water system by demanding a referendum and public input. Renee Steinhagen, the Executive Director of New Jersey Appleseed and the lawyer for the committee of petitioners opposing the takeover, pointed out that residents of any other New Jersey municipality have the right to challenge the sale of a publicly-owned utility. She told the City Hall audience that citizen drives have stopped water privatization schemes in other cities around the state.
For opponents of water privatization, the possible sale would have immediate, negative ramifications. As Food & Water Watch research has shown, privately-owned water systems in New Jersey charge an average of 79% more than publicly-owned water systems.
That message resonates with Atlantic City residents. "Water privatization is a short-sighted and fiscally irresponsible approach to filling the city's budget deficit,” said Carol Ruffu of the Chelsea Neighborhood Association. “It will not address the underlying issues that created the shortfall, and it will lead to higher rates while relinquishing control over a service essential to public health and well-being. Atlantic City residents deserve to have a final say on any plan to sell our water system to corporate interests."
"The NAACP is for the public ownership and control of water. Public ownership is the best public policy result the best civil rights statement and gives the best public health outcomes,” said Kaleem Shabazz, president of the Atlantic City NAACP.
Food & Water Watch's Mary Grant discusses the history of water privatization.
In addition to many Atlantic City community groups and neighborhood associations, the AC Citizens Against the State Takeover campaign has been endorsed by statewide organizations like the New Jersey Working Families Alliance and the New Jersey National Organization for Women, labor unions like AFSCME, AFL-CIO and the Communication Workers of America, as well as national groups like the Center for Constitutional Rights and Color of Change.
Governor Christie, as luck would have it, was in town for another event, and he sounded cautious about the state taking control of Atlantic City’s system. This is a change in tone, for sure, but it does not mean anything is off the table. What is clear is that the local campaign to save Atlantic City's water is already having an impact. And it’s just getting started.