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Elementary School in NJ Latinx Community Fights Displacement by Robert Wood Johnson Cancer Center

StoryFebruary 28, 2020
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In New Jersey, hundreds rallied at the New Brunswick Board of Education meeting Tuesday night against plans to demolish a public school to make way for Robert Wood Johnson Hospital and Rutgers University to build a new cancer center. Protesters included families and more than 30 children, who held signs reading “Save our School!” and “Stop Gentrification.” If approved, 760 third-through-eighth-graders at Lincoln Annex School would be moved to a former warehouse building on the outskirts of town as they await construction of a replacement school. Even worse, the proposed new school site is located on a “brownfield site” with possible contamination from hazardous chemicals. We speak with Democracy Now! co-host and Rutgers professor Juan González, who has been following the fight closely.

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StoryJun 30, 2020NJ Latinx Parents & Students Fight Robert Wood Johnson Plan to Demolish Public School
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We end today’s show in New Jersey, where hundreds rallied at the New Brunswick Board of Education meeting Tuesday night, protesting plans to demolish a public school to make way for a Robert Wood Johnson Hospital and Rutgers University to build a new cancer center. Protesters included families and more than 30 children, who held signs reading “Save our School!” and “Stop Gentrification.” If approved, 760 third-through-eighth-graders at Lincoln Annex School would be moved to a former warehouse building, converted into a school, on the outskirts of town, as they await construction of a replacement school. Even worse, the proposed replacement school site is located on a “brownfield site” with possible contamination from hazardous chemicals. This is one of the parents at Tuesday night’s school board meeting.

PARENT: [translated] Since September, we have been in this fight. We don’t want our schools up for sale. It’s our school. It’s our kids. It’s our community. … And if we want to leave New Brunswick or for our kids to go to school far outside the city, we want it to be of our own accord, not because we are being pushed out. … Our dignity, our school is not for sale.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Organizer Sherry Wolf with the local Rutgers professors’ union blasted the plan as “racist gentrification.”

SHERRY WOLF: We understand that the students of New Brunswick are our future students. We have skin in this game. We pay taxes here. We live and work here. And at levels much higher than the rest of the American population, we vote here. …

And I am going to make you a promise: We will do everything in our power as a union — we are well resourced — to help organize politically and on the ground the community, in solidarity, to stop this destruction of a thriving school, to stop the racist displacement of a Latino community, under the pretext of a cancer institute.

We have no beef with the cancer institute. We do have a beef with racism. We do have a beef with gentrification. We do have a beef with lying. We do have a beef with people saying they are doing something in the best interests of children, and then ignoring the children and their families. And the performance earlier of throwing people out, who simply want to speak, is precisely the kind of arrogance that is going to win you even greater opposition.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Rutgers organizer Sherry Wolf. After closing off the public comment at Tuesday’s New Brunswick school board meeting, members of the board went into a closed session, after much of the public had left. They came back into public session and voted to begin the process of closing down the Lincoln Annex School, the New Brunswick elementary school, and moving forward with their plan. Juan, you’ve been deeply involved with this story. Can you talk more about it?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, Amy. I think what is important to understand is that this is a community battle that really has national implications, because all over America, in lots of urban areas, there are healthcare institutions or universities, whether it’s the University of Chicago or Columbia or NYU or Johns Hopkins — all these universities and these health institutions located in downtown areas are always seeking to expand and to grab more land and more territory.

And in this particular case, this is a David-and-Goliath battle that has erupted, and it’s going to get even bigger in the weeks to come. And it’s just erupted in the last few weeks, where you have a poor immigrant community — the city of New Brunswick has 50,000 people. Half of them are Latino, most of them Mexican immigrants. And they occupy the downtown area of New Brunswick, right around Rutgers University and the healthcare industry — Robert Wood Johnson Hospital, there’s St. Peter’s Hospital. There are all of these hospitals and healthcare institutions right around. And, of course, New Brunswick is the corporate headquarters of Johnson & Johnson, which is also downtown.

And so, last summer, suddenly, Robert Wood Johnson and Rutgers announced that they’re going to build a new $750 million expansion, a new standalone cancer center. But they didn’t say where they were going to build it. They announced it in June. And the president of the New Jersey Senate was there, the president of the Assembly — all the political forces of New Jersey made this grand announcement. Then, only a couple of weeks ago, after parents kept saying, “Hey, our school is across the street from the hospital. Are you going to take our school?” And they kept saying, “No, no. Those are only rumors. It’s not going to happen.” Suddenly, the mayor came out with an announcement saying, yes, the hospital wants to buy the Lincoln Annex School, 750 children, 94% of them Latino.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s really a center of the Latino community.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Right, and it’s the best-performing school in the city of New Brunswick. And it’s a school that the city just spent $22 million to renovate and reopen a few years ago. So it’s only been open for three-and-a-half years now. And now they want to sell it to Robert Wood Johnson, close it down, send the kids a couple of miles away to a converted warehouse on the outskirts of town for several years, while they wait for a new school to be built. And, of course, the site for the replacement school, as we mentioned in the lede, is on a contaminated brownfield site.

So the parents started organizing. And they said, “What are you doing? You know, we love our school. Find another place to build your hospital expansion.” And they’ve been marching in the streets. There have been protests in downtown New Brunswick. They’ve been appearing at Rutgers Board of Governors meetings. They’ve been appearing at the Board of Education. No one is listening.

So, what’s happened increasingly now is that the entire Rutgers University community, which is how I got involved, the faculty are behind the parents. All of the student organizations — the Muslim students, the Mexican students, the NAACP chapter of Rutgers — all of them are behind the parents. And they’re going to continue this fight to insist that the healthcare industry find another place to build this hospital.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet the school board voted to sell the school.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the school board’s not listening.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what happens next?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, what happens next is that they’re going to continue to fight, because it’s not done yet. LatinoJustice, the civil rights group, has gotten involved. There are going to be lawsuits, and there are going to be even more escalating protests over the next few days.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Rutgers University Professor Juan González, thank you so much for that analysis. And, of course, Democracy Now! co-host.

That does it for our show. Tune in Tuesday night for Democracy Now!’s Super Tuesday live special broadcast with The Intercept, from 7 p.m. Eastern Standard Time to midnight, right here at democracynow.org and on many stations around the country.

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NJ Latinx Parents & Students Fight Robert Wood Johnson Plan to Demolish Public School

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