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  • Column: Parody Play: Is This a Watershed Moment for Cory Booker?
Column: Parody Play: Is This a Watershed Moment for Cory Booker?
Contributor
Written by
Ann Lineberger
August 2019
Contributor
Written by
Ann Lineberger
August 2019

The New Jersey State Senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Cory Booker traveled to Newark on Sunday. His visit is being called the most disastrous political stunt in recent campaign history.

Booker went to the Brick City in response to the Environmental Protection Agency's mandate of bottled water distribution. Echoing Flint, Michigan’s water quality debacle, Newark has been trying for three years to correct its water quality. The filters it recently distributed may be faulty.

For Booker to return to the city at this time is a natural fit. He was the mayor of Newark for seven years and has emerged as an advocate of safe water. Additionally, Booker has made environmental protection a central tenet of his social justice platform in his bid for the nomination. 

“Booker’s intentions were good,” said Newark’s Mayor Ras J. Baraka. “The problem was in the execution.” 

Booker and his team came to the city in royal blue buses and pickup trucks with the message “Put a freeze on drinking tap water” printed on the sides of the vehicles. They were dressed as the Marvel character Mr. Freeze in sleek light blue spandex unitards and clear plastic helmets.  In the back of the pickup trucks were giant yellow catapults filled with thousands of eight-ounce bottles of Poland Spring water. The water had been stored in a freezer in error by several of the staffers who believed they were meant to be frozen given the costumes.

A football stadium was one of two of the locations of Booker’s simultaneous distributions.

“We knew nothing about the catapults or dressing up as villains,” said Newark High School Principal Akbar Cook. “We were told Booker’s staff was going to pass out water dressed as a popular Marvel character.” 

"Pass out," he repeated with a shake of his head. “Not catapult frozen missiles at our children.” 

While the Newark High School marching band played Live and Let Diethe giant catapults sent the water bottles forty feet into the air over center field. The bottles came down fast, knocking out most of the brass instrument section as well a large portion of the opposing team’s cheerleading squad. While the remaining band members and cheerleaders ran for cover, a mass exodus ensued in the stands.

“It was sheer chaos,” said bake sale volunteer Sheila Morton. "We thought it was some cartoonish terrorist attack.”

Even before the mini bottles of frozen water started flying through the air, the children seated in the stadium were reportedly terrified by the costumed staffers. 

“There must have been about fifty of them,” said Newark High School Guidance Counselor Gail Letts, “slinking through the bleachers like the actors in Cats.”

A Kia dealership on East Cleveland Avenue was Booker’s other distribution location. There, the catapulted bottles of frozen water dented hoods and roofs and shattered nearly thirty windshields. Amazingly, only a few adults were hit even though there were over two hundred attendees at the event.

“It was a nightmare, but it could have been much worse,” said Kia Ferret Manager Erin Menschen. “We had advertised the petting zoo and clowns hired for the event. Almost everyone who attended was pushing a stroller or wearing a Baby Bjorn.” 

Menschen credits the ninety-two-degree day with keeping the customers safe. 

“The animals and most of the clowns were inside,” said Menschen. “The only people injured were a few of the juggling clowns.”  

Attendees describe a terrifying scene of shattered glass, fallen clowns, and multitudes of grown men dressed up as Mr. Freeze trying to gain access to the interior of the dealership. 

“We locked all the doors once the bottles started to fall,” said Kia dealership owner Will Ferret. “And that’s when fifty men in unitards swarmed the outside of the building. I thought Blue Man Group was invading us." 

Menschen was the one who recognized Booker through his plastic helmet as he banged on the front door. She is a native of Newark and had grown up seeing him pass out ice pops in the summer and shovel sidewalks in the winter

“Booker has always loved a good photo op,” she said. “Around here, he’s as much a celebrity as a politician.”

Before news could spread of the good intentions of Booker’s water distribution, footage of children in band uniforms and cheerleading outfits knocked unconscious, exploding windshields and costumed men banging on glass spread like wildfire on social media. Within hours, the amateur video clips were being played on international news stations, adding the necessary levity each program includes.

According to critics, Booker pulled the stunt to get out in front of the inevitable connection between the current water crisis in Newark and one that left a black eye on his time as mayor. 

When Booker was mayor, there was mismanagement and corruption by the board members and employees of the Newark Watershed Conservation and Development Corporation (NWCDC). Booker presided over the organization but never attended one of its meetings. The NWCDC is responsible for overseeing the 35,000 acres of upstate forests and reservoirs that provide Newark’s running water. The current problem with water quality in Newark is with infrastructure, not distribution, but critics say the millions of dollars mismanaged by the NWCDC could have been redirected to improve infrastructure. 

Lead poisoning can be devastating, especially for young children, irreparably damaging the brain.  

“Having a water quality crisis surface in Newark now is a disaster for Booker,” said Newark’s Star-Ledger reporter Kopin Brown. “But his watershed moment may come from this poorly executed publicity stunt."

"I feel for the residents of Newark and the clean water crisis it's experiencing," Booker said later in a released statement. "Everyone deserves clean, safe water. It's shameful that our national crisis of lead-contaminated water disproportionately hits poor black and brown communities like my own.”

One hundred and eight high school students and seven clowns were treated at area hospitals and then released.

 

 

 

 

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