Black voters in New Jersey were critical to Gov. Philip Murphy’s ascent to the state’s highest political office. The former Goldman Sachs banker and Democrat had never held public office before. And a majority of whites —53 percent — voted for his opponent, former Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, in New Jersey’s 2017 gubernatorial race.
But 94 percent of black voters pulled the lever for Murphy.
Now, the United Black Agenda Group — a coalition of black progressives with a rising profile in Trenton politics — is pressing Murphy to deliver on the racial and social justice issues he campaigned on.
In a state where black youth are incarcerated at 30 times the rate of white youth, the coalition has made the transformation of the youth criminal justice system a signature issue. The black-white disparity in incarcerations is also an issue candidate Murphy said he wanted to address as governor.
But last month, the United Black Agenda Group fired off a letter to the governor — and the media — warning Murphy he would face “substantial community opposition” if his administration moved forward with plans to build a new youth prison in Newark, the state’s largest city.
Andrea McChristian, a criminal justice reform advocate with the Institute for Social Justice, a civil rights group that helped form the coalition, said she learned that plans for a new youth prison in Newark's West Ward were discussed at a meeting of state juvenile justice officials. The Institute worked with the prior administration of Republican governor Chris Christie to eventually shutter two youth prisons. The group has been working with Murphy, who signed an executive order to create a youth justice task force, to design community-based facilities to keep the juveniles closer to home.
“New Jersey does not need any more youth prison beds,” the United Black Agenda Group's letter said. “Our state has 11 non-secure youth residential community homes, and these facilities are at less than half capacity.”
Murphy has yet to publicly acknowledge — or deny — that such plans exist. Spokeswoman Alex Altman declined to answer whether a prison is being planned.
However, the governor did release a joint statement with Newark Mayor Ras Baraka saying that "a small number of juveniles engage in serious, violent conduct, and we must find a safe, secure way to house them – one that ensures public safety while also departing from the more punitive practices of the past.
“We look forward to the opening of smaller regional centers to allow young people the ability to be closer to their families and home communities. These regional sites will provide a secure residential setting for young offenders while providing treatment, rehabilitative services, and community space."
The issue has garnered headlines and is indicative of the coalition's more confrontational approach to getting its agenda passed. It has planned a May 18 rally in Newark to protest any new prison construction.
Murphy, who often reminds constituents that he served on the board of the national NAACP, campaigned on a promise to address racial disparities through education funding, creating jobs, free community college tuition and money for prison re-entry programs. In a statement to WNYC, Murphy said he strongly supports the work of the coalition, including racial and economic justice, criminal justice reform and expanded voting rights.
“Since day one, we’ve focused on building a stronger and fairer economy for all New Jersey families, especially the African American community, which was disproportionately impacted by the Great Recession and years of systemic economic and racial inequities," he said.
Still, Ryan Haygood, who heads the Institute for Social Justice and is a founding member of the coalition, says the racial disparities the group is trying to overcome are all rooted in racist systems. He said changing them calls for disrupting the status quo.
“Even the most progressive-sounding politician will do as much as he or she is pushed to do,” Haygood said, “because even progressive-sounding politicians are keepers of the status quo.”
The coalition’s approach mirrors a trend seen nationally, where grassroots progressives who originally formed in response to the conservative Trump presidency have turned their attention to their own local representatives and parties. The nation’s most famous shake-up of the status quo was Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s takedown of Queens party boss Joe Crowley. But there was also actor Cynthia Nixon, who pushed a progressive agenda in her primary challenge of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo has shifted to a more progressive stance on issues like marijuana legalization.
And in Albany, progressive Democrats ousted State Sen. Jeff Klein and all but two members of the Independent Democratic Conference — a breakaway group of Democrats that formed an alliance with Republicans and helped the GOP control New York's senate for most of the past decade.
In New Jersey, Rev. Charles Boyer heads Salvation and Social Justice and is a founding member of the United Black Agenda Group. He said the group is also focusing on state legislators, not just Murphy, and is mindful that all 80 seats in the state Assembly will be open this November.
At a recent organizing rally at Bethel A. M. E. Church in Paterson, where Martin Luther King Jr. once preached, Boyer said it’s time black voters demand that politicians deliver policies and actions that will improve the lives of black people in New Jersey and not take their votes for granted.
“No longer will political figures show up at our churches in our neighborhoods only during election time, give a few preachers and people an appointment and call that progress,” Boyer told an audience of college students, white Unitarians and families.
Boyer said the group is not singling out Murphy.
“Whether Republican, Democrat, progressive or conservative, when you do things that we would deem right and moral and just in light of our agenda, we will stand with you. But when you do things that would harm our people and our view, we will stand against you.”
Boyer said the group is strategic and organized, and where black groups have been criticized for not being able to work together, he said they are unified.
Among other members of the group are the Association of Black Women Lawyers of New Jersey, the state NAACP, New Jersey Black Issues Convention, and Fair Share Housing.
They outlined a list of demands, including funding for public schools and a public advocate’s office, and placing blacks on boards and commissions. They also called for building black wealth and expanding voting rights to 100,000 citizens in prison.
Ironically, it was a meeting with Murphy about six months after his November 2017 election that birthed the coalition. Haygood said about 15 community leaders joined Murphy around a long conference table, hoping to hear his plan for improving the lives of black people in the Garden State.
They shared some statistics with the new governor. Black net worth is $5,900, compared to nearly $300,000 for whites, Haygood said.
Murphy threw out a figure of his own.
“He turned and said, ‘You know, I got 94 percent of the black vote,’ ” Haygood recalled. And it raised some fundamental questions.
“Black people are the most reliable voters when it comes to voting for the Democratic Party in almost every election,” said Haygood. “What do black people get ... in exchange for that fierce loyalty?” He said they wanted more than campaign promises.
The leaders in that meeting did something they’d never done before; they banded together to create the United Black Agenda Group. Then they launched a campaign known as the Movement for the 94 Percent to hold Murphy accountable for his promises.
One of their first actions came just a few months after that meeting with Murphy. Haygood publicly chastised him in an opinion piece published in NJ.com, saying he was not moving fast enough on their youth justice agenda.
“Nine months into his administration, the governor has not focused on these or the starkest racial disparities affecting New Jersey: its shameful youth incarceration system,” he wrote.
The group followed up a month later with a rally where hundreds of people marched through the streets of Newark during a storm, and called on Murphy to fix the youth justice system.
Murphy heard them loud and clear.
In October, he signed the executive order creating a task force for the Continued Transformation of Youth Justice, aimed at reshaping a juvenile justice system they said has scarred black youth.
The United Black Agenda Group has also joined with other progressive groups, like the Brennan Center of Justice and American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey on common policy goals.
Last year they helped fend off a Democratic redistricting plan that civil rights groups feared would dilute the black vote.
In January, after months of pressure from the various organizations that make up the United Black Agenda Group, Murphy signed legislation to give the state Attorney General the authority to investigate cases where a person dies in police custody.
Murphy’s attorney general, Gurbir Grewal, a former Bergen County prosecutor, opposed the bill, saying that handing cases to the state would slow down investigations. Murphy’s signing of the bill came weeks after the death of 27-year-old Jameek Lowery, a Paterson man who went to the police station seeking help, but later died in the custody of Paterson police.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, who sponsored the independent prosecutor bill and that controversial redistricting bill, said he thinks the group should hold Democrats accountable.
“They should. The black community like every other community in this state needs to step up and speak out when they’re not being treated fairly if they’re not being treated with respect.”
Laurie Beacham is the spokeswoman for the Institute for Social Justice, and a former media director for NJ11 for Change, a grassroots group that campaigned against former Republican Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen after he voted to kill Obamacare.
Frelinghuysen decided not to run for re-election. He was replaced by a Democrat, Mikie Sherrill.
Beacham said the country is in a moment in which people are demanding more from their representatives.
“The big message really is the same: Listen to us. Represent us. We’re not going away,” Beacham said. “There are these deep and systemic biases in the power structures, that some voices get heard more than others, that policies are bought and sold by powerful interests and people really have had enough."