US senator James Florio stands before a crowd of people in Jersey City, NJ in the year 1985. The weather may be nice but the faces of the people in the crowd betray how they feel about whatever promises they may be receiving at the moment. This crowd was out here to demonstrate about the problems at the PJP landfill. This landfill, located by the Pulaski Skyway, had been the site of toxic dumping in the previous decade and had since been the location of prolonged underground fires that regularly spewed smoke into the surrounding community and upwards onto the bridge. This image shows three main things about the community surrounding the PJP landfill. It demonstrates that the community was aware of the seriousness of the problems, they were active in trying to fix the problems, and their opinions of those public officials who hadn’t been able to fix the problems was low.
The crowd Florio was speaking to in this image gathered in April 1985, presumably for a rally the senator was holding to gather support from voters in Jersey City. A month prior there was a rally held by the residents of Jersey City in the nearby Lincoln Park about the dangers faced by the community and calling for more official action to be taken to protect the community. Sen Florio was among the speakers at this event and is quoted as saying, “There is no site on that list that has a more adverse effect on air pollution than the P.J.P. Landfill. What we’ve got to convey is clean up the toxic pollution here. Do it now. No excuses.” As we will see later these promises didn’t placate the community. While there isn’t much official information about why this image was produced, some inferences can be made by its composition. While the senator is the largest individual in the image he is placed off to the side, with the crowd forming the majority of the image. The photographer was also on stage with Florio and took the image from this perspective, when he could have been standing anywhere. These details were no accident, and were likely done to produce both an image of the sen Florio being visible at a public rally and of the crowd doing everything they can to make themselves heard by officials.
In this moment the community was well aware of the problems they faced, the very nature of the crowd attests to that. The size of the crowd shows how many people were concerned about the contamination and fires taking place at the landfill. The fact that an out of towner was able to draw an impressive crowd in a local rally also speaks to the concerns of the community, how they were willing to go after anyone who might be able to improve their situation. The community had also clearly prepared for this event. Many signs are visible in the crowd along with certain members wearing surgical masks, one even wearing a gas mask, to signify the problem with air pollution. This wasn’t an impromptu gathering, this demonstration was deliberate and pre-planned on the part of the community.
The tactics used by the community seem to have been carefully crafted to leave the most impact on Florio and whoever else might have been watching the rally take place. Judging from the sign that reads, “Disinfection before re-election” it can be inferred that Florio has an election coming up, meaning this would be the perfect moment for members of the public to apply pressure. Politicians are typically most susceptible to public pressure when they are on campaign, because that is when the reality of them being replaced if they displease the voters is most prevalent in their minds. Along with the political pressure, the community is using emotion to influence politicians. Placed in the front of the crowd, directly before the speaking platform, is a group of children. Some of these children are holding a sign that reads, “We speak for the children” to really drive the point home. Others are holding balloons or wearing small toy hats, other clear indicators of youth. The community is communicating that these children are being directly negatively impacted by the pollution at the landfill and in the air because of the fires in an attempt to influence the senator.
The crowd was very clearly displeased at the moment the picture was taken. If the community was happy with the promises Florio was making in this moment we would expect to see something along the lines of clapping, cheering, or maybe even a smile. Looking at the crowd, however, shows that none of this was happening. The faces of the people in the crowd show a group of people that was not happy. The body language of the crowd shows people standing stiff, many with their arms crossed or with hands on hips. What we see in the image is exactly the type of behavior we would expect to see from people that are displeased. People that are skeptical of promises made by politicians, of people that don’t exactly trust that this senator is capable of helping them, even if his promises are sincere.
The size and preparation of the crowd demonstrates how the community was aware of the problems they faced. The political pressure of targeting politicians specifically by saying they won’t get reelected if they don’t help them along with the emotional tactic of using children to gather sympathy demonstrate how the community was active in trying to fix these problems. The behavior of the crowd demonstrates that their opinion of this senator, and likely other officials who failed them, was low. All of this is important to the larger context surrounding the site because it shows how the community was active in advocating for themselves during the 80s and how that activity led to some progress for the community. The underground fires were finally extinguished the same year these rallies happened but they were only successfully in dealing with the surface level problems, with the cleanup of the actual toxic materials not coming until the 2000s and 2010s.
Pollution, Soil, Parks, Business, Community