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Immigrants Protest Demolition of NJ Public School for $750 Million Robert Wood Johnson Cancer Center

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We go to New Brunswick, New Jersey, to look at the fight to save the largely immigrant Lincoln Annex public school from demolition to make way for the Robert Wood Johnson Hospital’s $750 million cancer center. Democracy Now! co-host Juan González lives in New Brunswick and has been active in the campaign. We also speak with Juan Cartagena, president and general counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF, and attorney representing parents, students and taxpayers who oppose the demolition.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

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

While the world is on lockdown, the struggle continues. Today, we end, looking at that struggle, in the fight to save a public elementary school in New Brunswick, New Jersey, from demolition to make way for a $750 million new cancer treatment center, that’s an addition to the Robert Wood Johnson Hospital. The Lincoln Annex public school serves a mostly immigrant, working-class student community. But the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, the New Brunswick Development Corporation and Rutgers University want to buy the land it sits on, and tear down the school to build a cancer pavilion. They say it will come at no expense to taxpayers. But just a few days ago, Middlesex County freeholders voted to use $25 million in public money toward the project. Parents are also concerned the replacement school could be built on a contaminated site in one of the city’s industrial areas.

Well, Democracy Now!'s Juan González lives in New Brunswick, where he is a Rutgers professor of journalism and has been active in the campaign to save the Lincoln Annex. This is an excerpt from a report on the issue produced by one of his journalism students, Madhu Murali. We hear from activists Charlie Kratovil, editor of New Brunswick Today, and Lilia Fernández, also a Rutgers professor, as well as Juan's wife. They’re followed by Christopher Paladino, president and CEO of DEVCO, the New Brunswick Development Corporation. The piece starts with a protest in New Brunswick before the lockdown.

PROTESTERS: [translated] Lincoln Annex is not for sale! Lincoln Annex is not for sale! Lincoln Annex is not for sale!

MARIA JUÁREZ: I don’t want to fight with anybody. We’re not here to stop a cancer Institute. It’s very important. Cancer is very important for every parent here. But my daughter’s education is also important, so I really want to speak to that.

DAVID HUGHES: We are a public university. What do we stand for if we are going to destroy a school?

CHARLIE KRATOVIL: We have a cancer institute. They’re doing great things there. I understand that they want to expand, and that doesn’t need to be rendered impossible. We just want our school system to be able to continue, too. These are not mutually exclusive things.

LILIA FERNÁNDEZ: The idea of displacing 760 children who come from working-class, low-income, immigrant, largely undocumented families, and sending them to school in a warehouse building that was not originally designed to function as a school, disrupting their education, sending children to another site that was not in the neighborhood and to a school that was not going to be built first, that absolutely was appalling.

CHRISTOPHER PALADINO: There’s a little bit of an inconvenience. But when we’re done in three years, we will have one of the best cancer facilities in America, we will have a brand-new school with all of the modern necessities, and at no cost to New Brunswick taxpayers, because the cancer center project will pay for the school.

CHARLIE KRATOVIL: That doesn’t make a lot of sense. We just put $22 million to open it.

LILIA FERNÁNDEZ: It absolutely defies logic that these actors would continue to pursue this project right now, at the time when we really are facing a truly global crisis with the coronavirus pandemic.

CHARLIE KRATOVIL: It’s a legitimate consideration that Robert Wood Johnson’s priorities may have shifted, and though it seems they still want to go forward with this, their ability to fund not only their project, but the new school, you know, by the time this is all over, may be depleted, may not be what it was. So, it would not be a good time to move forward with a deal that depends on a promise from Robert Wood Johnson to allocate funds for future school construction.

AMY GOODMAN: Among those voices, Christopher Paladino, one of the developers who wants to tear down the Lincoln Annex public school in New Brunswick, New Jersey, to make way for the Robert Wood Johnson cancer pavilion. We did invite someone from Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital on, but they didn’t respond. Just last night, there was a contentious New Brunswick Board of Education meeting on this issue, which Democracy Now!'s Juan González attended, virtually. There was also a press conference Tuesday where activists discussed several lawsuits, some of them spearheaded by our guest, Juan Cartagena, who's president and general Counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! Juan, if you could set the stage — Juan González? This is an issue that is very close to you physically, in New Brunswick, New Jersey. But the significance of this now as we are in the midst of this pandemic? What is happening to this hub of the community, especially the Latino community? Now we’re talking about what? Two lawsuits and a complaint to the state.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes, Amy. Well, this battle has been developing now for over six months. And there was a huge movement that had developed, hundreds of people coming to Board of Education meetings. And understand, this is a city that is more than 50% Latino, mostly Mexican and Central American, a huge percentage undocumented. So school officials and the elite of New Brunswick understand that it is a vulnerable population. Ninety-four percent of this school, of the 760 children, are Hispanic. And this is part of the continuing gentrification efforts that have occurred, not just in New Brunswick, but all around the country, pushing out poor communities from the central business districts and the most lucrative and the most valuable land, pushing them further out into the outskirts of towns. And it’s occurring all across the country.

But now with COVID, the ability of communities to continue to hold their elected officials accountable has been reduced. All the meetings are now held, whether it’s the City Council or the Board of Education or the county freeholders — are held in telephonic phone calls, where the community does not have the ability to participate as vigorously as it would in normal times. And yet they’re proceeding as if there’s nothing happening in the rest of the world. They continue to proceed and move forward. That’s why the community had to resort in the past week now to a series of lawsuits and complaints to the state to try to stop this move.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Juan Cartagena, you are president and general counsel of LatinoJustice. If you can describe these two lawsuits? You were out at the news conference in front of the school as you socially distanced. What are these lawsuits? And why did LatinoJustice take this on?

JUAN CARTAGENA: Thank you, Amy, and good morning.

Yes, the parents at the Lincoln Annex school in New Brunswick and supporters of those parents have been communicating with LatinoJustice for months now. And we just filed a lawsuit yesterday in Middlesex County Superior Court. It’s called Juárez, Maria Juarez, et al. v. New Brunswick School Board of Education. It actually seeks to stop the sale of the land on which the school sits on. It also asserts procedural violations, that I’ll get to in a minute.

But the land issue, Amy, I think, is fascinating. We brought this lawsuit legally, because when the church, Catholic Church, deeded the land to the New Brunswick Board of Education, it did so with a restriction: that the property can only and solely be used for a public school or public administration. And here, less than six years from the sale, less than four years that the school has been operating, a brand-new school, relatively, New Brunswick Board of Education wants to sell it, and in violation of that covenant. So, that’s our main claim.

The second lawsuit was filed about 10 days ago. It was filed by Charles Kratovil, the gentleman that you heard on the tape that you played before. He’s the editor of New Brunswick Times. He’s also an activist and organizer. And he brought a separate claim alleging violation of the open meetings law in New Jersey, again in state court, for two meetings that the Board of Education held, the most notorious one being in February, where they cleared the room after people were protesting because they heard for the first time the Board of Education describing what would happen to their school — that is, it would be demolished; children would have to go to a temporary space in warehouse for three years. When they heard that, they demanded to speak. The Board of Education cleared the room, the auditorium, adjourned the meeting, came back half an hour later to an empty auditorium, and then passed a resolution to start the amendments that led to — that will lead to a sale, unless it’s stopped.

So, that lawsuit is pending. Ours was just filed yesterday. And as you mentioned before, there is also a complaint that Juan González has also asserted to the state commissioner of education to deny the approval of the amended plan that both demolishes, on the one hand, the school, Lincoln Annex school, and seeks to establish or create a new school to replace it. Those plans were never made available to the public. Those plans have not been vetted by the planning board. And there’s a state claim there that Juan González is personally pursuing on behalf of the Coalition to Defend Lincoln Annex.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan, in this last minute, we just got a statement, as we went to air on this story —


AMY GOODMAN: — from Robert Wood Johnson. It essentially says, with New Jersey consistently ranked in the top 10 for cancer incidence, it’s imperative the residents of our state and region have access to a world-class inpatient and outpatient cancer care facility such as the new cancer pavilion. And it ends by saying, “Cancer can’t wait.” Your final comment, Juan González?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I think the thing to understand is that Robert Wood Johnson-Barnabas is an 11-hospital chain, one of the largest chains of hospitals in New Jersey. The last time I looked, there were 18 executives of Robert Wood Johnson-Barnabas, all of whom were earning salaries of over a million dollars a year, beginning with the chairman, Barry Ostrowsky, who earns $5.6 million a year. This is a chain of multimillionaire executives, that is a so-called nonprofit chain, and yet they are trying to bulldoze a community of low-income immigrants, who are making $5,000, $10,000, $15,000 a year and don’t even have the ability to vote to try to be able to affect the education of their children. This is a David-and-Goliath battle. And we know what happened with David and Goliath. We’ll see what happens with this cancer Institute.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Juan, thanks so much for that. Juan Cartagena, president and general counsel of LatinoJustice, we also want to thank you. representing parents, students and taxpayers in New Brunswick, New Jersey, who oppose the demolition of the Lincoln Annex public school.

That does it for our broadcast. Democracy Now! is working with as few people on site as possible. The majority of our amazing team is working from home. I am Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us. Be safe.

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