As a one-time New Jersey resident, I can't say that I am surprised by the bizarre "punish Fort Lee by causing gridlock" tactic perpetrated knowingly by top staff of Governor Chris Christie, with the complicity of their friends at the Port Authority. That's just a typical example of what I learned during my tenure in the Garden State; it's called New Jersey Stuff -- and if those outside of New Jersey have trouble understanding it, so much the better, as the locals see it.
As for the New Jersey style of retaliation, that has not changed too much over the years, either. In the late 1960s, I was appointed the first chairman of the business administration department of the fledgling Atlantic Community College in Mays Landing, New Jersey, not very far from Atlantic City and other South Jersey Shore communities. It did not take long for me to realize that all sorts of abuses were taking place right under the noses of local and area officials: wages for hotel and restaurant workers were way below what was being paid elsewhere, particularly for women; old hotels got away with numerous health and safety violations which put customers and staff at serious risk; drugs and prostitution were rampant and unchecked; violent crime was taken as a matter of course -- the list seemed endless.
Along with some other Atlantic Community College faculty and a group of community activists, I decided to try to set matters right in South Jersey. We wrote letters-to-the-editor of the Atlantic City Press, staged demonstrations, went to many meetings and spoke out forcefully on issues, and generally became pains in the hindquarters of the establishment. What I did not realize at the beginning was that crime syndicates from both Philadelphia and New York were very much involved in Atlantic City and Atlantic County shenanigans, and were "dipping their beaks" into the area. Hey, things like that only happened in the movies -- at least, that was what I thought, as I shrugged off warnings from South Jersey natives that I was headed for trouble.
I began to take this sage advice seriously after cars started driving slowly past my house in Brigantine with the lights off, and even more seriously after the house was raked with gunshots. Then I had to change tires on my old Cadillac and found that drug packets had been planted in the hubcaps; that was lucky, as otherwise the local police would probably have managed to find them. One day, while my mother was visiting, she asked if I had taken up fishing, and I responded in the negative; she replied that someone with an accent had called and said that I was going to be "fishbait." Then, my college dean warned me that I was embarrassing the institution and needed to mute my efforts.
By then, it was 1968 and a Democratic Congresswoman from New York, Shirley Chisholm, was running for president, the first Black woman to ever do so. My group devised a whole new strategy; Ms. Chisholm was the keynote speaker to the New Jersey Education Association that year, and her presentation would be made to tens of thousands of New Jersey teachers. We sent the good Congresswoman a list of our demands, and she expressed a willingness to present them during her speech; we met with her just before she was to go on stage, to update some of the material, and -- lo and behold -- after her presentation, the NJEA voted overwhelmingly that they would not return to Atlantic City until the list of grievances which Ms. Chisholm presented had been corrected, as monitored by objective NJEA representatives.
This was indeed a great victory, and one my group celebrated long into the night. The following day, however, my dean told me that the Atlantic Community College Board of Trustees had held an emergency meeting and my contract as associate professor and business department chair was not to be renwewed. I appealed to the college president, who stated specifically that I was a "troublemaker" who needed not only to leave the college, but move out of the area also. Nor was I alone, three other colleagues at the college -- also "troublemakers" -- were non-renewed. I still have a cartoon which appeared in the college student newspaper, depicting all four of us on the side of "Mount Shushfour."
Ironically, I had already decided that I wanted to join the War Against Poverty -- after serving on the board of the local Atlantic County community action agency since moving to that area, I thought it was time to put my activism to better use than I could do as a professor. So I was happy to accept an offer to become executive director of an antipoverty agency in upstate New York. Making it a bit easier to buy a home in my new location was a substantial financial settlement which Atlantic Community College offered to ease my pain over their contract non-renewal. I have always wondered whether any of that settlement came from funds which criminal elements were skimming from Atlantic City.
Sure, all of that was a long time ago. But, as the French say, the more things change, the more they stay the same, at least in New Jersey. The State's governor prides himself on his rugged, rough, and ready style of governance. But he cannot pride himself on his spiteful, petty, crude blocking of lanes on the world's busiest bridge in order to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, a Democrat, for failing to endorse the Republican Governor's re-election bid. If the Gov did not know what his staff were doing -- in his name -- he certainly should have known, as that makes him incompetent. If the Gov did know what his staff were doing, that makes him worse than incompetent, it makes him petty, spiteful, and unfit for office -- particularly the higher office of President of the United States, to which the New Jersey Governor seems to aspire. Chris Christie's presidential aspirations are likely to have died on the George Washington Bridge, in the wake of this atrocious abuse of power. But, hey, it's just New Jersey stuff, after all.
Eugene Elander has been a progressive social and political activist for decades. As an author, he won the Young Poets Award at 16 from the Dayton Poets Guild for his poem, The Vision. He was chosen Poet Laureate of (more...)