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NEWARK, NJ — Social justice activists in Newark recently picked an unusual target for a protest: a charity benefit event for a nonprofit arts center.
On Saturday evening, dozens of people gathered outside the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), deliberately timing their rally to coincide with the nonprofit’s annual spotlight gala fundraiser.
This year, the event took place virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic. But that didn’t stop activists from rallying to demand the removal of Anne Evans Estabrook from the NJPAC board.
"Ms. Estabrook is regularly recognized for her philanthropic endeavors and career is celebrated on the NJPAC website, but her business practices run counter to notions of social justice and equity that NJPAC promotes," activists charged.
Estabrook, a longtime community leader and prominent member of the New Jersey business community, is the chairperson of the Elberon Development Group, which owns the building that houses the Elizabeth Detention Center.
For years, Elberon has leased the building to CoreCivic, one of the largest for-profit prison contractors in the nation. In turn, CoreCivic contracts with ICE to hold hundreds of undocumented immigrants awaiting deportation at the Elizabeth Detention Center.
The facility was recently accused of being one of three “inhumane” prisons in New Jersey, and has seen ongoing protests from local civil rights activists.
See related article: Vigil Held For 1-Year-Old Who Died After Being Held By ICE
See related article: 36 Jewish Activists Arrested Protesting ICE In Elizabeth
In July, Elberon announced it plans to cut ties with CoreCivic as a tenant, a decision that activists cautiously cheered. It wasn’t clear when CoreCivic's lease agreement with Elberon ends, or whether the prison will close or relocate, multiple reports said.
On Monday, an Elberon spokesperson confirmed to Patch that the company still plans to review the lease and determine "the earliest termination date."
The spokesperson wrote:
"The past weeks have brought attention to our family business based on the business conducted by a tenant. While we do not have any role in the operations and procedures of our tenants, we do understand the concerns of those who have written and called us. We took some time to really listen, to do our own research and to reflect on who we are as a family and as a long-standing business in the community. We have shared with CoreCivic our plan to end our relationship. We have asked our attorneys to determine how to accomplish this in both a legal and expeditious manner. As supporters of many important educational, social service and religious organizations in the community, we want our values mirrored in our work. We believe that each business has the right to determine its own path forward. We now have shared ours."
“Elberon’s move toward accountability is a good start,” North Jersey Democratic Socialists of America (NJDSA) member Whitney Strub said in July. “But the layers of complicity run deep in New Jersey, from Democratic county governments that contract with ICE, to Prudential Financial in Newark, a major shareholder in the private prison and detention center industry.”
“This is a victory for the grassroots, but we will not stop until people are released from detention,” agreed Kathy O'Leary, NJ region coordinator for Pax Christi.
#ThePeoplesGalaNewark outside @NJPAC on the same night as @NJPACwomen's Spotlight Gala. #AbolishICE #FreeThemAll #FreeEDC #decarcerateCOVID19 pic.twitter.com/lkpiN3PhcI
— Pax Christi NJ (@PaxChristiNJ) October 3, 2020
ACTIVISTS TO MURPHY: 'SIGN PRISON BILL'
During Saturday’s protest, activists also put pressure on one of the event’s honorees, Gov. Phil Murphy, to release more prisoners amid the COVID-19 crisis.
Protesters accused Gov. Murphy of dragging his feet on a bill that now sits on his desk, S-2519. If Murphy signs it, the bill would award eligible inmates and parolees four months of “credit” for every month they serve during a public health emergency such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
Supporters of the bill say it could speed up the release for thousands of inmates nearing the end of their sentences amid a viral outbreak, improving safety for correctional officers and prisoners alike.
See related article: Stuck In Jail During A Pandemic; Coronavirus Hits NJ Prisons
See related article: Coronavirus Prison Deaths Rise In NJ: 'They Stole My Baby's Life'
“We will not let Governor Murphy shirk his responsibility to incarcerated people whether they are jailed by the state or by ICE,” said Karl Schwartz, a Newark resident and an organizer with the NJDSA who helped to spearhead Saturday’s protest outside the NJPAC.
“We also won’t stand for institutions that claim to support civil rights while they turn a blind eye to board members who profit from putting people in cages,” Schwartz added.
Patch contacted NJPAC via email seeking comment about Saturday's protest. We’ll update this article with any reply we receive.
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