I’ve been to two town council meetings this summer that were so disheartening I had to explain—to myself—why I bothered going. Typically, very few residents go to these meetings and it’s no mystery why. Everything is decided beforehand between the seven Council members and the Mayor’s administration. There’s no debate, items on the agenda are rarely explained and are always unanimously approved. Usually, residents only get to speak in a “public comment” section at the end of the agenda, with three minutes per person, strictly enforced if the comments are critical.
Two meetings I recently attended were not like that, however. They were worse.
In June, I attended with over 200 residents to demand that Council Member Kapil Shah apologize for a campaign flyer he and two other office holders, Nitang Patel and Kalpesh Patel, circulated during the June primary elections. Their flyer accused opposition Democrats of being part of “a radical group led by Atif Nazir trying to overturn town government.” The flyer was paid for by the election fund of State Sen. Bob Smith, circulated by the wife of Mayor Brian Wahler, and translated into Gujarati to target a key voting bloc.
OK, this is New Jersey and politics are rough. But this is also dog-whistle hate speech, targeting and potentially endangering Dr. Nazir, a very respected Muslim-American leader—as was pointed out in a Star-Ledger editorial, and by the numerous Hindu and Muslim officials from across the state who attended the Council meeting. Dr. Nazir, a former school board member, is not a ringleader, he is a progressive leader who has joined with many others to run against machine candidates in the past three years. Our group is not radical, but it challenges the machine’s closed-door decision-making, its patronage system, and now, its willingness to divide the community on religious and old-world nationalist lines.
But after two hours of impassioned appeals and protests, Council Member Shah did not apologize, nor did any member of the Council join in condemning the flyer. They left the chamber to the chants of “shame, shame, shame,” but apparently, they have none.
The August Council meeting was far more subdued, but equally dismaying. Last winter, Food and Water Watch started a grassroots campaign to get the township and residents into a clean energy bulk purchasing plan, with the goal of all renewable energy by 2035. Under the NJ Faulkner Act, we submitted petitions with 1,500 signatures, supporting an ordinance that the Council was required to vote on this August.
During that meeting, there was an unusual opportunity for residents to speak to the Council about the plan, citing towns like neighboring New Brunswick, which passed the same ordinance last year and has already moved toward 50% renewables, while reaping annual energy savings of around $100 per household. We spoke to the Council about their chance to lead the way forward in a time of unfolding climate crisis, to counter the environmental travesties being perpetrated in Washington. We spoke of their chance to impact our local air quality, which regularly rates an F from the American Lung Association. We spoke about our moral obligation to the next generations to take decisive action now.
The Council members each professed to be on the same page, then tabled the resolution. They didn’t meet during the prescribed review period to reconsider the ordinance, so it has died. Several Council members cited the need to do more “due diligence,” even though they had been given the resolution six months earlier at the start of the petition drive. Mayor Wahler was present and did not say a word. One can only surmise that he doesn’t want to be accountable to any ordinance about converting the town to renewable energy providers. Maybe it would affect campaign contributions. Maybe he thinks we have plenty of time left to deal with climate change.
Thankfully, the Faulkner Act allows us to take the proposal directly to the voters as a referendum on the November ballot, since it wasn’t passed by the Council. Rest assured, we will work hard to get out the vote and pass it. As one activist said at the August meeting, “if representative democracy doesn’t work, we’ll use participatory democracy.” Radical.
I left both those meetings with great respect for those who stood up, but also with deep dread for the prospects of American democracy in the harsh times ahead. Two phrases from my activist youth have haunted me. Martin Luther King’s quote: “For evil to succeed, all it needs is for good men to do nothing.” And the Sixties movement saying "if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”
These Council members appear to be pleasant, concerned, well-educated citizens. They’re all moderate Democrats who don’t like Trump. They are racially diverse, though uniformly middle class and middle-aged. I’m a bit older at 70, a retired middle-class white woman who should fit right in. Yet sitting at these meetings is like watching a low-budget horror movie unfold. We discover that our Council members live in a bubble of complacency and self-satisfaction. We discover they belong to a social club of relatives and business cronies who have run the County Democratic machine for three generations. We discover that a handful of white male politicos are micro-managing every decision that gets made in town government. We witness the deep culture of mid-century liberal paternalism, unfazed, two decades into the 21st century.
Our Council can’t see the forest for the suburban trees lining our neat streets, even though there are massive fires raging not far away. Literally, in the Pine Barrens, just to our south, to say nothing of the Amazon. They don’t notice we have air quality alert days whenever the temperature gets above 90, which is now half the summer. They don’t blink about permitting massive diesel truck depots all along our congested interstates, and giving them tax breaks that bypass school funding. They put up candidates for the school board who never before attended a school board meeting, and who certainly aren’t questioning those tax breaks now. Council members don’t reply when we’ve asked them to activate the Environmental Advisory Commission, or the ten other advisory commissions the town has on paper that never meet. Just like they’ve found it too “legally complicated” to make Piscataway a sanctuary city, although we are a town filled with immigrant families—and lawyers.
Our good men and women of the Council think that the issues we’re raising—hate speech, air quality, climate crisis, school funding, human rights, democratic participation—are the conjurings of wild-eyed malcontents playing for political advantage. For them, it’s politics as usual and they’re just defending their side of the local power game, the only game they know, or want to know.
And that is what’s so deeply disturbing to me. We may vote Blue, but our town government is not offering any defense of democratic values, or social solidarity, or environmental stewardship. Our town government sees no urgency or imperative for change. I’d like to think that the Trumpian reactionaries spouting hierarchy, ignorance and hate are in their violent death throes, before ceding power to more enlightened generations. But enlightenment is not a guide in this part of middle America, where narrow self-interest regularly prevails over any notion of the common good or a different future.
I got involved because the only way to defend democracy is to practice it. But I see how hard it is to move this one little place forward, how much effort, talent, time and civic courage are required just to raise these issues or run for local office—even how much faith it takes to suffer through a Council meeting. I’m thankful I belong to a growing community of progressive activists and concerned neighbors who share these democratic values. I’m hopeful we can help make a difference in 2020, here and nationally. But clearly, it will take a lot more than defeating Trump to move middle America forward.
Ann Bastian is a retired teacher and a member of the Piscataway Progressive Democratic Organization. The meetings cited here can be viewed on Facebook at Central Jersey Progressive Democrats, thanks to PPDO members who video them on their own cell phones, and the ACLU, which helped us overturn a Council ban on recording open meetings, contrary to NJ sunshine laws.