NEWARK, NJ - As throngs of attendees in cocktail dresses and casual suits lined up around the Prudential Center Monday eagerly awaiting entrance to MTV’s Video Music Awards, Anthony Diaz blew into a megaphone.
“Where y’all from?” Diaz shouted. “We need clean water because we live here.”
Diaz, of the Newark Water Coalition, organized a protest of the celebrity-studded award show, leading a march of about 100 people from Newark’s Penn Station to outside “The Rock” demanding the city do more for residents impacted by the city's ongoing lead water crisis.
Newark’s lead water problem was catapulted into the national spotlight after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommended earlier this month that some residents drink only bottled water after water from faucets equipped with Pur filters still tested positive for high levels of lead years after the city first discovered the problem.
The mayor’s office has said only residents served by the Pequannock water system are impacted after lead leached into the drinking water through old service lines that connect to residential homes. The crisis impacts about 14,000 households.
The glitzy award show juxtaposed against the modesty of protesters chanting under the shadow of an arena named for a finance giant unveiled a tale of two cities: Residents who believe they come at the expense of a city trying to attract big-ticket events as a way to shed its bad reputation.
“We hope to accomplish major disruption because our lives have been disrupted,” Shakima Thomas said of the protest’s purpose.
Thomas said she lives in the Pequannock service area but that her home does not have lead service lines. Still, she said when they city came to test for lead in February, it found levels five times higher than federal regulations recommend.
On Friday, Greater Newark Convention and Visitors Bureau President Karin Aaron sent a statement to quell concerns about it hosting the VMA’s that was aimed at entertainers and visitors.
She assured that the city’s lead water issues did not impact area hotels and restaurants around the city’s business district where the award show was being held.
Aaron said on Monday the goal of the statement was to assure people who may have never been to Newark to not be scared away from the city. Aaron said the bureau recognized the lead water crisis was “personal” to residents.
Several protesters said the bureau’s message was out of touch and that it reflected a sentiment that the city’s priority is to make money first over fixing a major public health issue.
“I thought that was a slap in the face to the residents to say, pretty much, you peons don’t matter,” Thomas said. “I took it as an insult. It was disrespectful and unacceptable.”
Sabre Bee, another member of the Newark Water Coalition, said the city is facing a public relations problem.
“Structurally, the city does not have the people in place, the experts in place, to do this job properly,” Bee said.
Diaz said he organized Monday’s protest when he first learned the VMA’s were coming to Newark about three months ago.
Diaz said attracting major events such as the VMA’s, and the money it earns, comes at the expense of those who make Newark home.
“It’s another jab at the people that live here,” Diaz said. “We never see it trickle down.”