“We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers,” Bayard Rustin, social and civil rights activist, said in the late 1940s. “The only weapon we have is our bodies, and we need to tuck them in places so wheels don’t turn.”
“If you people can’t afford to live in our town, then you’ll just have to leave,” was the response of Bill Haines, mayor of Mount Laurel Township in 1970, when a class action litigation was brought against the township.
“You people” referred to the impoverished community members of Mount Laurel, N.J., who lobbied a class action suit against the township (and its Planning Board and Municipal Authority) for improprieties in the town’s zoning, which excluded affordable housing opportunities for the poor residents living there.
The township hoped to bring in wealthier occupants, and to do this, officials rewrote zoning laws to move out some (poor) residents who had called Mount Laurel home for generations (giving them no place to go).
This raises an interesting ethical question: do the poor have rights (particularly, housing)?
The poor Mount Laurel community certainly felt they did. They brought their case to the New Jersey Supreme Court. Were the countless community members and volunteers acting as angelic troublemakers, or were they fighting for a right that they were not entitled to?
Officials in the municipalities seemed to think the latter, despite the state supreme court ruling that required the town to provide affordable housing. Between 1975 and 1983, many refused to implement the decision. Some met for many years, hoping to overturn the decision.
When the town re-zoned the land for affordable housing, they re-zoned on wetlands (a distance away from public water and sewer). The land had been intended to be a transit stop in an industrial park and contained many cost-generating factors that made development essentially impossible.
Did those classified as “you people” deserve to be treated as social piranhas, cast out of their homes so the community could bring in wealthier occupants?
What if it was you being cast out of your home?
These are the questions we need to ask ourselves. If you feel that it is an injustice, then I challenge you to become an angelic troublemaker. Bring an awareness to your friends and family by taking a stand for human rights. Do you think the poor have rights? Or do you see them as easily cast aside?
By Lyndsi Petitti