Class War at Newark Penn Station

“If there is going to be class warfare in this country,” Senator Bernie Sanders tweeted earlier this primary season, “it’s about time the working class won that war.”

But what does class warfare look like? When conservative Republicans invoke it, they mean any slightly increased marginal tax rates for the wealthy, which they absurdly present as an assault on freedom and a slippery slope to gulags and guillotines.

Democrats are less likely to mention class war, because as a party, they’ve also been complicit in waging it—against the poor, not the rich. The massive upward redistribution of wealth begun under Ronald Reagan through cuts to taxes and social services in the 1980s was continued under Bill Clinton in the 1990s, and the Obama administration showed more concern for bailing out banks than homeowners.

But these examples are structural. What does class warfare look like? I suggest it looks like a fence in Peter Francisco Park, put up without fanfare this past summer. In one set of spiked posts with a clear message, we can see class war in tangible form.

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This fence needs context. Two years ago, when New Jersey Transit changed its policies to require tickets to sit on the benches in the waiting room of Penn Station, the American Civil Liberties Union objected, rightly arguing that it was a thinly-disguised effort to remove homeless people and that the area fell under the definition of public space. But the policy stood, and NJ Transit insisted that there were still public benches in the back of the waiting room. They reaffirmed that by email in November 2019, claiming there are public benches to the left of the Raymond Plaza West doors.

Yet even after they wrote this, on a recent weekday afternoon, neither a security officer nor a transit police officer could point me to any public benches. I walk through this room regularly, at various times of day, and the benches are never full. They are merely devoid of visible homelessness.  Meanwhile, the waiting room door to Market Street was quietly transformed to exit-only, sacrificing accessibility for the sake of exclusion—or, “to enhance security,” as NJTransit absurdly explained it.

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As Penn Station became less hospitable, Peter Francisco Park outside on the Ironbound side remained a site of refuge for street folk. In mid-2018, a Luso-American Veterans monument was unveiled, with a large statue in tribute to Portuguese immigrants installed shortly thereafter. Both are nice works of art paying homage to critical historical legacies of the Ironbound, but together they also suggest an effort to fill in as much public space as possible in an area where homeless people visibly congregated.



from before it was walled off, when it still made sense as public art

Then last summer, the fence went up, surrounding the veterans’ monument. It insults the integrity of architect António Saraiva’s thoughtfully interactive design, which unfurls around small water spouts and squares with text facing all directions. One plaque reads “in memory of,” but the names of the soldiers honored are now unreadable without entering the monument.

A small fence in a small park is hardly headline news, but it signifies larger stakes as Newark, and particularly the Ironbound, gentrifies. Few consult homeless people for their political analysis, but they know what a spiked fence in public space means. On a recent chilly Friday afternoon, Shariffe and Tamir were part of a small encampment around the corner, underneath the train tracks on Edison. The fence “gives them an excuse to tell you you have to move out of the place,” Shariffe explained. “It’s blocking your freedom of walking and space,” Tamir added.

Councilman Augusto Amador’s office doesn’t dispute that the fence was intended to ward off the homeless. Some were using the monument as a restroom, I was told. This is a legitimate concern, with a clear solution: more public restrooms, which might even cost less than a fence and would have the benefit of not turning a nice open monument into hostile militarized space.

New Jersey Transit expelled homeless people from public space and can’t give an account that matches the observed facts. Now Newark is making a public park less hospitable, while barely a block away developers who have been given extensive zoning variances exploit legal loopholes to build luxury developments without on-site affordable units.

Then in November 2019, Councilman Amador announced a new plan to kick food providers out of the park—the same week ground was broken for the Ironbound’s first “boutique” hotel. We’ve seen this script before: in downtown Los Angeles when 1980s-90s business development meant “bumproof” bus benches, pointless sprinklers, and the removal of public restrooms; in Jersey City recently when shamefully cruel spikes went up to keep people from sitting around Journal Square; and everywhere from New Brunswick to Las Vegas. This isn’t about Trump’s America, it’s about capitalist America; for Newark councilman Amador, expelling homeless people from his district is a years-long dream.

This is what class warfare looks like: small, incremental changes accumulate until suddenly a qualitative change occurs, as if by nature. Homeless people’s lives are not improved, they simply become less visible. Newark becomes the next Brooklyn, or Hoboken, or Jersey City. It feels like it just happened somehow, but it was orchestrated.

The very idea of a democratic public sphere necessarily involves contact across lines of class, race, religion, sexuality, nationality, etc. That’s how we humanize one another, and how we build solidarity. Pushing homeless people out of public spaces doesn’t make anyone safer, it just paves the way for gentrification and eventually the displacement of working-class renters, too. That’s class war, it’s ongoing here in Newark, and we should recognize and resist it if we care about justice.

North Jersey DSA will be in Peter Francisco Park on Sunday, January 20, from 3pm to approx. 6pm, offering food and discussion about how to resist the social violence of displacement and reclaim our public spaces for the public good. Please join us there!



1 thought on “Class War at Newark Penn Station

  1. Pingback: Statement on the Newark Ordinance Prohibiting Feeding Houseless People – North NJ DSA

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