By Rann Miller | AC JosepH Media Guest Blogger

Whenever I hear Quincy Jones’ Summer In The City, I think of Summers in Camden.

Summers in Camden usually means seeing the elders enjoying the summer sun and breeze sitting on their stoops and porches. It means hearing your favorite song through the speaker of a car that’s passing by. It means block parties born from family barbecues because the residents of on that block have become a family over the years. Growing up, summers in the city meant bike rides to the corner bodega, relatives coming to visit, two-hand touch in an abandoned field and playing basketball on the nearby telephone pole with a milk crate nailed to it.

Summers in the city also meant hearing the faint sound of an ATV grow stronger until the reach of its cacophony met you face to face; only to be ignored by the awe of watching the driver pop a wheelie so high he appeared to drive both vertically and horizontally simultaneously. Some of those young men were magicians as they maneuvered through those Camden streets and like the prides of African, these young lions too traveled together. Whether it was on 28th and Thompson or Norris and Van Hook, I heard them and I saw them. It all looked cool.

It also looked dangerous.

I get why Senate Bill 1852 (enhances penalties for illegally operating a snowmobile or all-terrain vehicle) was introduced. Illegal ATV use poses a risk to drivers, pedestrians and other motor vehicle operators. They’re also a nuisance to everyone else not riding on them. I’ve heard residents complain about ATVs and an assumed disregard for others on the part of the riders of those ATVs. Also, according to Mayor Frank Moran, there were 3 ATV related fatalities last year. One such concern has to do with the dangers ATVs pose to children who are in their vicinity.

But to be fair, according to the most recent Consumer Product Safety Commission report, between 2007 and 2016, there is an overall decrease of 33 percent of estimated numbers of emergency department-treated injuries for children younger than 16. The same report shows that New Jersey has one of the lowest ATV related fatality rates in the nation since 1982.

My trepidation is not with the reasons for the proposed legislation i.e. safety concerns and ridding a public nuisance. Rather, it is with the one-sided nature of this S-1852; only one side wins because only one side proposed the bill. There are already laws on the books that discourage illegal ATV use. This bill is not preventative; it’s punitive. It is meant to punish and not preempt. What’s the recourse for ATV riders? Ride or be punished? Folks will still break the law. 

As an educator, one of the most important things that I must do to maintain discipline and order is to provide my students with the opportunity make a good decision. Young people make better decisions when you provide them options rooted in compassion and common sense. In this particular case, it means offering ATV riders with a trail, track or a dedicated space to operate their vehicles. Camden rising should just be about corporations enjoying Camden’s resources. Residents should have the opportunity to do so as well – that includes offering ATV riders appropriate recreational space to ride. If you wish to stop illegal activity (which I agree should be a goal of government), you must create a compassionate and common sense legal alternative.

Not only that, this seems like a job for city council and not the state legislature. While the bill would cover the entire state, these penalties target Black and Latinx citizens disproportionately. Both sponsors of the bill represent Camden and Trenton. I am unsure if there are any city ordinances on the books for ATVs in Camden; maybe they are but need the strength of the legislature to secure municipal aims. It seems unjust that, rather than resident voting on the ballot or city council passing an ordinance, the state legislature creates a law that takes anywhere from $750 to $1750 plus towing and storage fees from residents where the median household income is $26,105 and a poverty rate of 37%.

One might say, “If people weren’t riding illegally or not ride at all, they wouldn’t have to worry about fines and fees.” That statement assumes that Camden residence are undeserving of access to ATVs. If you feel that way, I ask why? Is it because you believe Black and Latinx folks shouldn’t be spending their time and money on riding an ATV? Is it because ATV riders embarrass the city? Is that because Camden rising really means gentrification? Camden has an unfortunate history of outsiders trashing the waterfront but it has never stopped concert from happening. Pollution has always filled the South Camden air but those factories remain in place.

Camden residents have the right to own an ATV like anyone else throughout the state of New Jersey and they also have the right to have access to a space to operate those vehicles. I agree that riding an ATV on the street can pose a danger. What I don’t agree with is creating laws impacting Camden residence outside of its municipal jurisdiction without providing them a legal alternative to an illegal (not immoral) activity. Public policy invention must be a collaboration between the lawmakers and all the people impacted by the policy. Public policy is ineffective if it’s created in isolation of the people where all impacted do not walk away with something. 

This bill is designed to disproportionately punish Black and Latinx folks under the guise of maintaining law and order. That doesn’t sound like Camden is rising to me. Politicians, editorial boards and the business community all from outside of Camden have had their say for decades on what should happen in Camden. We should provide all residence with common sense public policies for a change. That can start here.

Bio: Rann Miller directs the 21st Century Community Learning Center, a federally funded after-school program located in southern New Jersey. He spent years teaching in charter schools in Camden, New Jersey. He is the creator, writer, and editor of the Official Urban Education Mixtape Blog. Follow him on Twitter: @UrbanEdDJ.  

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