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We cannot hold our heads high
I’m inspired to write in after reading the bold and brave truths spoken in the July 16 entry by Amiri Bradley entitled “Do Not Be Surprised by Racism in Montclair.” Something I believe many people know intimately, but many more need to be told explicitly.
Since moving here from The Bronx six years ago, I was enchanted by the familiar and widely told stories of N.J. locals about Montclair being a shining beacon of progressivism and inclusion — a place where the ideals of the nouveau-hippies of the ’90s with their bicycle lanes and farmers markets and independent bookstores and food co-ops existed peacefully and enthusiastically just west of the Hudson. A place that conservative politicians and op-ed writers derided puckishly as “The People’s Republic of Montclair.”
While much of this is true, and it brings me great joy to brag to people that Montclair is a place where you can get Ethiopian food, see an independent film and demonstrate for nuclear disarmament all on the same block and on the same day, by only gesturing towards these obvious positives we are falling into the same social pitfalls which any liberal coastal city in America finds itself today.
Portland, Oregon, is openly mocked for its social justice advocacy, but is currently having protesters kidnapped by federal agents without warrants. San Francisco and Los Angeles are struggling with huge spikes in homelessness while granting tax abatements for private developers to build unaffordable housing. Miami is sinking and will soon displace its vibrant Caribbean communities once insurers no longer grant policies to multimillion-dollar waterfront condos.
My former home of New York City is rapidly losing any reputation it may have had as a welcoming and progressive place under the current mayor, who refuses to redistribute any of the NYPD’s $6B per year budget while they gleefully sell off the city and its skyline block by block to Realtors as the city’s poor (myself included) keep getting pushed out.
Once you know it as closely as I do you can very clearly see Montclair as a smaller-scale replica of these places, with many of their same problems. I have seen my white neighbors call the police on black men on my block for reasons as mundane as needing a car moved, and I have seen those same police stake out low-income housing as though it were a Taliban stronghold.
I have seen the glaring brawn of the MPD descend onto my block for victimless crimes of poverty and I have seen those same people and their families affected by that poverty strewn to parts unknown as their landlords attempt to turn a profit by shoddily “renovating” former voucher-applicable housing to rent it out for twice as much to only slightly more well off people.
I have seen these very same landlords kick and scream and threaten to sue the town over a temporary ordinance telling them they cannot raise rents during the middle of a pandemic that has left millions without income.
I have seen wealthier Upper Montclarions who never set foot in the Fourth Ward use their political power to disingenuously stop a supermarket and more housing being built where it is the most sorely needed in the name of “historic preservation” and “parking.”
When abandoned train sheds and a place to put your Tesla mean more to the wealthy residents of Montclair than the food and housing needs of their predominantly Black and brown neighbors in the Fourth Ward the idea of Montclair being a progressive safe haven is sickening.
Towns like Montclair exist all over America, but we currently find ourselves at a crucial junction as to whether we want to live up to our reputation or to simply become another deranged caricature of neoliberal aesthetics, waving a Pride flag in June only to vote “No” on rent control in November.
Do we continue to submit to the misplaced fears of those with money in the “good” zip code while committing acts of racialized state violence and contributing to the continuing food desertization on those in the “bad”?
We in Montclair cannot hold our heads high and proud and proclaim that “Black Lives Matter” or “Hate Has No Home Here” unless we make an absolution of very real issues via actual policy measures that disproportionately affect people of color and contribute to racialized discrimination.
We need rent control. We need a supermarket and affordable housing for the Fourth Ward. We need a reduction of the police budget. We need official township recognition of a tenants union. We need transportation solutions for all modes and abilities of movement over simply “more parking.”
We can and must make the correct economic and moral judgments here, lest we dismiss entirely the purpose and momentum of the second civil rights movement happening right in front of our eyes. The time is nigh to put our money where our mouth is more than it will be for a great long while, if ever again. It is time to legitimize the pride of being able to call Montclair home.
Advice for schools reopening
As the Montclair school district considers options for reopening, I’d like to offer a few suggestions.
If we are able to reopen at all, it will be under a hybrid model. Social distancing within the classroom and keeping students in “batches” so that they don’t interact with too many of their peers during school will limit the number of students who can be in our buildings on a given day. Given this, students will likely only be allowed to attend school two or three days per week, with remote learning on the other days.
For many of our district’s families, this will create an impossible situation, in which many working parents, particularly those of limited financial means, will face job loss if they need to stay home with their children on remote-learning days.
The district and township should do everything in their power to address this by quickly developing partnerships to create safe, adequately staffed centers for school-age child care on remote-learning days. Each center would maintain significant social distancing, mask-wearing and other best practices to mitigate health risks. Depending on available government funding, parents might have to pay on a sliding scale (based on income) to support their child’s participation in a school-age child-care program.
Centers could include large school spaces that might be unused by schools, such as gyms and cafeterias (CDC guidelines suggest that different groups of students should not congregate or cycle through these spaces, so they might be usable for child care for a small number of students each).
We could also mobilize houses of worship, the Ys, Van Vleck House, the art museum and the library, among other spaces. Staffing would be similar to that in an after-school program — enough trained staff to ensure children are safe, engaged in remote learning (Wi-Fi will be needed at each site), and receive outdoor time as much as possible.
In addition, the district should strongly consider having high school be fully remote for the start of the school year. High school students are mostly old and mature enough to be home alone (so their parents can go to work). High school student courses also mean that there is no way to “batch” students into groups of 15 or fewer for an entire day; as students move from course to course they will be encountering dozens of their peers in different classes.
Fully remote high school is hardly ideal, but nothing about this pandemic is. The space freed up at the high school could also be used to support school-age child care. And if the district budget permitted additional staffing, the extra space could be used to put additional teachers in place so that our youngest students — perhaps grades K through 2 — could go to school every day, as might those with the highest needs, including some students with special needs, second-language learners, and students with housing instability.
Pushing for affordable textbooks
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed major flaws in education affordability that must be addressed as universities nationwide transition to online learning. Throughout the last two months, Montclair State University has begun releasing its plans to resume instruction this upcoming fall. These plans center around a variety of instructional modalities, the most prominent of which is online learning.
According to the College Board, the average student spends well over a thousand dollars each year for books. Before the pandemic, it was difficult for students to afford such a hefty price, and in the midst of a recession, while transitioning to online learning, it will be harder than ever for students to have access to the resources they need to succeed.
Student PIRGs, a network of student-run and funded organizations, have brought this issue to the forefront in our Make Textbooks Affordable campaign. This campaign works to educate our campus communities on the impacts of expensive textbooks, encourage faculty to transition to open textbooks, and establish permanent funding and campus policies that promote open textbooks.
Colleges and universities are meant to be spaces for students to learn and grow; however, the ongoing constraints associated with expensive educational resources continue to hinder higher learning institutions’ ability to create this type of space. It is more important than ever for universities like Montclair State to invest in student resources, and textbook affordability must be at the top of the list.
The writer is a student at Montclair State University.
Wise words from an ex-chief
Congratulations to Montclair Local for bringing a breath of fresh air to our area. The letter of former Chief Tom Russo in the July 9 issue is an example for all fair-minded citizens to follow.
Chief Russo, whom I have known since the turbulent 1960s, addresses legitimate concerns with real practical, hard-earned expertise, and at the same time warns against the perils of tolerating rioting, looting, destruction, burning and death.
Our great nation was founded only 244 years ago, a baby in the history of the civilized world, and is still growing very nicely, with a lot to learn. But a heck of a lot fairer and better than all nations that came before. Let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water.
Daniel L. Martin
Give families options on schooling
I have a child at Montclair High School. I would be very grateful if the district could offer an option this fall that would allow students to take most of their instruction remotely, only coming to the building for activities that require specialized equipment or the environment of being physically present together, and only for activities that are very difficult to replicate online.
Specifically, I would like my child to go to the high school to do the labs for his lab science classes. For band, if they can meet outdoors and stay widely spaced while playing together, that would also be a reason to come to the building.
For all other instruction, including the non-lab portions of his science classes, I would prefer for my child to work remotely from home.
By offering an option that limits the in-person interactions to a very small number of activities, and mostly keeps my child at home, I believe he will be able to have a good educational experience while also doing his part to minimize community spread of the virus.
I recognize that it will be complicated to find solutions that work for all families and teachers and for the complex set of needs for the many students in our district. I hope that the district will be able to offer a few different options to our families, and that this will be one of the options.
Dr. Amy Rabb-Liu