Protesters marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, on Monday as stars gathered for the MTV Video Music Awards

By Char Adams
August 27, 2019 06:00 PM

While the MTV Video Music Awards hosted its first show in the Garden State on Monday, demonstrators gathered outside the Prudential Center amid Newark’s lead water crisis.

“We want our water free, we don’t need no MTV!” protesters chanted outside the arena, according to the New Jersey Star-Ledger. Others held signs that read: “Get the Lead Out” and “Fix Newark Now.”

Police arrested several demonstrators who allegedly tried to enter an off-limits area of the event, Time reported. The Newark Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment from PEOPLE.

Protestors outside the Prudential Center during MTV VMAs

Newark has seen high levels of lead in its water supply for more than two years, forcing some residents to use bottled water while authorities attempt to fix the problem, Time reported. Decaying plumbing lines are to blame for the lead contamination, according to the publication. And CNN reported that some tests showed lead levels far higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s 15 ppb (parts per billion) limit.

The crisis in Newark, a city with some 285,000 residents, has been compared to the situation in Flint, Michigan.

“It’s once again a case of environmental injustice, a case of environmental racism,” said Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, whose research exposed the high lead levels in Flint. “It is once again a population of poor, predominantly minority people who are disproportionately burdened by contamination. Flint wasn’t the first example. Newark is not the last example.”

As celebrities prepared to hit the red carpet, social media users drew attention to the protests.

Protesters hold sign tht read “NEWARK IS BEING POISONED GET THE LEAD OUT”
| Credit: Karla Ann Cote/NurPhoto via Getty

“Newark residents don’t need the #VMAs,” one person tweeted. “They need access to clean water.”

Another added: “I didn’t realize the #VMAs are happening in Newark while they’re in the midst of a water crisis and the community in dire need of resources. Shout out to the people who are protesting because the community wants to be seen.”

The lead levels in the city’s drinking water are some of the highest recently recorded by a large water system in the country, according to the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. Even slight lead exposure has been linked to kidney problems, fertility issues, high blood pressure and more, according to the NDRC.

Photos and videos from the protests showed demonstrators marching, chanting and holding signs high in the air. Images showed police on horses, working to control the scene.

The same day, Gov. Phil Murphy and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka proposed replacing thousands of contaminated pipes within the next 30 months, NPR reported. In the new plan, the Essex County Improvement Authority would give $120 million bond to the city to replace the old pipes. The original plan would have taken about 10 years, but Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo said the money would cut the time down to 24 to 30 months, according to NPR.

“We all know that we have to work faster and harder and together, importantly, to restore residents’ trust in their water,” Murphy said, according to WCBS. “It goes without saying that this is a situation that none of us welcomed but which we are all committed to getting it right.”