David Moriah has been active in politics going back to the ’60s. But the vitriol that surrounded last year’s presidential election was something he said he’s never seen before.
“I’ve always watched the Republicans and Democrats go back and forth,” he said. “I just assumed that was part of democracy. This election was really different from my perspective. It was not a simple turnover of power to the other party back and forth.”
But he and his wife, Deborah, were inspired, and after attending January’s Women’s March together, they sat down to think of ways to bring Lawrence residents together to discuss the environment, women’s issues, democracy, health care and voting rights. They put out a notice on a community Google group and hosted a meeting at their home shortly after the march, and the Lawrence Citizen Activists organization was born.
They expected a handful of residents to show up, not the 30 that crowded their living room.
“We had an agenda that we didn’t get through because we probably spent almost an hour just introducing ourselves,” Moriah, 66, said. “We quickly learned that there were a lot of different passions and concerns that were driving people.”
The group, as part of the Central Jersey Coalition for Justice, will help host the Day of Service, Learning and Unity on Sunday, Oct. 1, a sister event to the Washington, D.C. March for Racial Justice that will be held the day prior. The event starts at 2 p.m. and will features speakers, music, service tables and more.
Beth Morgan, 67, was one of those at the first meeting, and she’s become one of the group’s most active members. Morgan grew up in Ohio with a Republican family and a great grandfather who was a state congressman. She embraced Democratic ideals when she moved out at 18. Morgan marched against the Vietnam War in the ’60s and says her passion for politics was reawakened during the 2000 election. She still keeps track of Ohio politics, too, and regularly corresponds with the state’s Republican senator Rob Portman.
Morgan said at that initial meeting, many attendees talked about what they could contribute to an activist group. Some are attorneys, while some volunteered to host meetings. Others wanted to write letters to officials or to go door-to-door in the community. Morgan herself is a retired graphic designer and offered up her skills for things like flyers and business cards.
Her husband, Steve Lestition, joined the group for reasons similar to Moriah’s.
“It came out of the election feeling like American values weren’t being talked about the way they’ve been talked about,” he said. “It’s a nonpartisan issue.”
Lestition’s father was a “working class guy” and union member who labored hard his whole life, he said. When he died, his pension didn’t last long, and Lestition’s mother was living off of social security and ended up in hospice care. Lestition, an academic administrator at Princeton University, couldn’t afford an assisted living facility.
‘There is an active, involved citizenry that’s paying attention and concerned with these issues.’
“The whole welfare state, New Deal commitment to the social network in this country, I saw it all of my life,” he said. “I don’t need it the way most people in the United States do, but the whole debate in the United States disturbed me about undoing that, letting people fend for themselves. If you don’t have money, you don’t get healthcare, you don’t have retirement savings. The callousness toward each other in the country is disturbing.”
Moriah watched something similar to happen to his mother-in-law, who passed away over the summer at 103. He and Deborah eventually had to cover the aides who came to her house after she ran out of resources. She was able to live at Greenwood Nursing Home in Ewing because of her Medicare coverage.
“She spent her last year with some level of dignity because that social benefit was there,” he said. “To hear that it is being threatened is gut-wrenching and appalling to me.”
The group meets every two weeks, sometimes three if there’s a holiday. LCA has hosted a talk with congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, as well as training events with other similar groups from around the county, the first of which was held May 21. Around 65 people came to the Lawrenceville Presbyterian Church to brainstorm about six key topics: health care, immigration, wealth and inequality, voter registration/suppression/gerrymandering, human rights and the environment. Most of the group’s progress and action has centered on immigration.
Lestition, 68, is particularly passionate about the issue. He grew up surrounded by European immigrants as a child in Buffalo, New York and, like many, is the grandson of immigrants.
“We saw the displaced people that came in,” he said. “The whole rhetoric around immigration and bans, not fixing immigration policy, not even thinking through what’s a fair, rational track to citizenship? To say we’re not going to have any new citizens, it’s kind of like, ‘I would have not been here.’”
At the May meeting, he spoke to some members of a Hopewell group, who said they reached out to their mayor and town council members to learn about the town’s immigration policies.
Lestition put that together with an American Civil Liberties Union webcast about immigration he and other LCA members watched, and it got him thinking about what the Lawrence Police Department’s policies were. He and three other members met with Mark Ubry, Lawrence chief of police, and Kevin Nerwinski, town manager, to talk about police procedure in June.
“It was a great meeting,” Lestition said. “They were very friendly. They were describing what they were doing. They thought that a lot of our concerns were very sensible. They didn’t think it would clash with what the police department wants: to keep its man power working with the community to feel that it’s fair and welcoming toward all citizens that have police needs.”
“The information we got was really encouraging to us about how the community here, the authorities in the community, are addressing the immigration issue,” he said. “It seems like it’s in a compassionate way and following the letter of the law. That’s encouraging, but I think it’s also important for them to know that there are citizens in the community who are paying attention to them. And they appreciated that. There is an active, involved citizenry that’s paying attention and concerned with these issues.”
For more information about Lawrence Citizen Activists, visit facebook.com/lawrenceresistance. Learn more about the Central Jersey Coalition for Justice and the Oct. 1 event at centraljerseyjustice.com.