Going from Philly to Camden, I take a train across the Ben Franklin Bridge, then get off at Broadway. In 1969 and 1971, fire bombs were thrown, shop windows smashed and businesses burnt and looted all around this area.
The 1969 riot was sparked by a false rumor that a black girl had been beaten by a white cop. An unknown sniper then killed white policeman Rand J. Chandler and a 15-year-old black girl, Rose McDonald.
Days later, 125 heavily armed cops raided the Martin Luther King Memorial Center and arrested Charles “Poppy” Sharpe. The Associated Press reported that “a half dozen machetes, and quantities of switchblade knifes, bows and arrows with ‘killer tips,’ home-made axes and spears, a shotgun and a .22-caliber pistol” were confiscated. Also seized were “43 bags of heroin valued at $500 and three ounces of marijuana.”
As a young man, Poppy had his own gang, the Monarchs. Later, he founded Black Believers in Knowledge and Black People’s Unity Movement. BPUM hijacked a school board meeting and tried the same with city council before being thwarted by a pistol-waving white councilman.
Poppy openly acknowledged inciting the 1969 riot and relished the time he spat on a police commissioner. In 1972, several Camden cops testified that those bags of heroin had been planted, however, and there were other frame-ups. As Camden turned from white to black, Poppy became part of the establishment, but he never achieved a higher post than head of the Mayor’s Youth Council.
Poppy on his beginning, “I was a tough guy. I had an enormous criminal record.”
On his gang, “We fought for prestige and bragging rights. Today they fight for the right to take your life.”
On his power, “I think my tongue was just as deadly as their bullets. They couldn’t handle it. I’d get in their face and point my finger and they couldn’t move. I think their souls left them.”
On his legacy, “They talk about history. It’s not his-story. In Camden, it is my story. I put the faces where they are today.”
One of those mugs was Angelo Errichetti, Camden’s last white mayor. He was jailed three years for corruption. After Errichetti came five blacks and one Latino to mislead this post-industrial, post-white flight disaster of a city.
Milton Milan was convicted of numerous crimes, including extortion, taking cash from the Mafia, laundering drug money and using campaign contributions to take vacations in that island of enchantment and “sun-washed backyard of the USA,” Puerto Rico. Milan was put away for nearly seven years. In 2011, his 24-year-old son decided to give the Milan brand another try. Announcing his candidacy for city council, the young man shared, “I believe my father…was pretty good. Some negative things happened.”
Arnold Webster was snagged for wire fraud and sentenced to six months’ house arrest. Leaving office, Webster sneered, “They are talking like somebody’s mismanaged something. There isn’t anything here to mismanage.”
To be fair, Webster did manage to snuff out Mischief Night. Like Devil’s Night in Detroit, Camden had its rash of arson fires on the night before Halloween. The worst was in 1991, when an army of firefighters fought 133 fires over two nights, and abandoned houses weren’t the only structures targeted. Grass, trash, cars and businesses were also lit up. After nine years on Haddon Avenue, Krazy Discount was burnt down. The Camden Courier Post quotes Sook H. Lee, its Korean immigrant owner, “It’s all gone. Business was good. I like this neighborhood. Some people are bad but not all of them. I want to rebuild as soon as possible. Before Christmas,” and she has. Her store is still standing in 2015. How much is Lee’s insurance, I wonder? Trying to save Camden from burning to the ground, firefighters became targets for bottles, rocks and bricks lustily hurled by “teens” and “youths.”
Year in and year out, Camden’s rape and murder rates rank among the worst in the country, but it also spends much more per student in its abysmal public schools. This shouldn’t surprise, since it’s costlier to handle undisciplined and violent kids, of which Camden is abundantly gifted. For 2014, 23 of its 26 public schools rank among the bottom 70 for all of New Jersey. Addressing state representatives, Chris Christie held up three fat fingers, “How bad has it been in Camden? How ‘bout this—Last year, only three students graduated college ready.”
Chris Hedges on Camden, “The only white people visible daily on the city’s streets are the hookers.” Though certainly not true, it is a memorable statement that’s akin to Paul Theroux’ “Since arriving in Albania I had not seen a straight line.” Crossing six-laned Martin Luther King Boulevard, I spot two Caucasians, only one of whom is a literal whore. Amanda shouts at me, “Hey you!”
“Do you have a couple of bucks?”
“I have to see this guy first. I’ll see you later. ”
When I saw Amanda just three months earlier, this once-beautiful woman was already a mess, but she’s much worse now. There’s a black spot on her diseased gum and her yellow teeth have rotted further. Like old, leaning gravestones, they’re ready to be knocked from their foundation. A crusty black scar oozes from her right shoulder blade. Old scars from two stab wounds are hidden by her dirty tank top. Living on the streets since 2011, she’s been raped, beaten and stabbed. Locked up twice, for eight and six months, Amanda was rather safer inside, but it was much harder to score behind bars because, well, she couldn’t put out.
Twenty-nine-years-old, Amanda is from Brownville, NJ, population 2,383 and 74 miles from Camden. Amanda got married at 16, then at 19, she tried to join the Army. After scoring 92 on her Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test, Amanda discovered that she was pregnant, however, and so her military career had to be aborted. Amanda then became a nurse for eight years, “I was a good nurse too.”
When Amanda was 24, her four-year-old son died of leukemia at Children’s Hospital in Camden. He was her only child. An intern nurse had injected the boy with an antibiotic to which he was allergic. “Mommy, I’m going to die, my son told me. I don’t want to die, he said. I kept hearing that over and over and over, and that’s why I got on drugs, because when you’re high, the pain goes away.”
“How long have you been on heroin?”
“So you only got on it when you came to Camden?”
“Did you do drugs before? Did you do coke?”
“I only smoked weed. I tried coke but I don’t like uppers.”
Amanda said she needed money for a bus ticket to go see an aunt in Toms River, so I gave it to her. An hour and a half later, though, I still saw her wandering up and down Broadway.
“I thought you were going to Toms River!”
“I bought food. I hadn’t eaten in three days.”
“There’s The Cathedral,” a soup kitchen. “You know about that. Come’on.”
“That’s where I just went, on Friday.”
“You don’t starve for three days. You can always go to The Cathedral.”
“I couldn’t go.”
“I was too busy that day.”
“Getting high,” she said rather sheepishly. We cracked up.
“You’ve got to get your priorities straight!”
“I know.” Then, “Hey, are you going to take pictures of the President?”
“No. Obama is in town?”
“I didn’t even know. Why is he coming here?!”
“I don’t know.”
“He’s coming here to hang out with you!”
“Where will you take him?”
“Somewhere where I can pick his pockets,” Amanda laughed.
“You should put him in a headlock.”
“Yeah, right. I’m going to fuckin’ have the fuckin’ secret service fuck me up! Beat down my ass!”
“I just heard a black woman say, ‘Obama is sexy as hell!’”
“Fuckin’ no! He’s fuckin’ definitely not!”
“You wouldn’t fuck him?”
“No, he has gray hair, and I don’t go with black guys.”
I laughed. “You don’t like black guys? But he’s half white.”
“I don’t care. There’s still the other half.”
All around us, black people were walking back and forth. Later, Amanda repeated, “I don’t like black people.”
“But you’re in Camden! There’s nothing but black people here.”
“You should go to Toms River and chill. Get out of this shit. Your luck is going to run out.”
“My luck is going to run out.”
“One of these days, you’re gonna be, you know, dead. This city is so fucked up.”
“It doesn’t matter how tough you are.”
“You ain’t tougher than a gun or a knife.”
“Some crazy motherfucker! Some loser!”
“Desperation is a motherfucker!” Then, “You know what you should do? You should write a story. You should write about three different girls and make it a book. Sex sells.”
“I just want to hear stories of how people are getting by.”
So that was on May 18th, 2015. Appearing at a community center, Obama declared:
“I’ve come here to Camden to do something that might have been unthinkable just a few years ago — and that’s to hold you up as a symbol of promise for the nation. (Applause.) Now, I don’t want to overstate it. Obviously Camden has gone through tough times and there are still tough times for a lot of folks here in Camden. But just a few years ago, this city was written off as dangerous beyond redemption — a city trapped in a downward spiral. Parents were afraid to let their children play outside. Drug dealers operated in broad daylight. There weren’t enough cops to patrol the streets.
So two years ago, the police department was overhauled to implement a new model of community policing. They doubled the size of the force—while keeping it unionized. They cut desk jobs in favor of getting more officers out into the streets. Not just to walk the beat, but to actually get to know the residents—to set up basketball games, to volunteer in schools, to participate in reading programs, to get to know the small businesses in the area.
Now, to be a police officer takes a special kind of courage. And I talked about this on Friday at a memorial for 131 officers who gave their lives to protect communities like this one. It takes a special kind of courage to run towards danger, to be a person that residents turn to when they’re most desperate. And when you match courage with compassion, with care and understanding of the community—like we’ve seen here in Camden—some really outstanding things can begin to happen.
Violent crime in Camden is down 24 percent. (Applause.) Murder is down 47 percent. (Applause.) Open-air drug markets have been cut by 65 percent. (Applause.) The response time for 911 calls is down from one hour to just five minutes. And when I was in the center, it was 1.3 minutes, right when I was there. (Applause.) And perhaps most significant is that the police and residents are building trust. (Applause.) Building trust.”
Wow man, that sounds pretty damn good, with murder down 47 percent and all, but is that true? Here are the figures:
2015 as of August 31st—57 murders
From 2005 to 2014, this city of 77,332 people averages 43.7 homicides a year, but Obama took 2013, which has the second highest murder rate in the last decade, and compared it to 2014, the second lowest, and triumphantly declared a 47 percent reduction. T here are still four months left to 2015 and Camden already has 57 murders, one of the highest ever. Will Obama come back next year and celebrate the doubling of Camden’s murder rate from 2014 to 2015?
As for violent crimes being down, the local head of the NAACP has suggested that the police is downgrading many aggravated assaults to simple assaults to brighten the grim statistics. If you’re whacked across the forehead with a tire iron in Camden, perhaps it’s only recorded as a high five gone bad? Maybe a drive by shooting is just a transit strike? A slug through the heart is an emphatically enhanced love tap?
Neighborhood Scout just ranked Camden as the most dangerous city in the entire country, a crown it’s well familiar with, so if Camden is our “symbol of promise for the nation,” it’s best we visit our local firing range more often.
To get a longer perspective on Camden, I’ve here today to chat with Jamaal “Champ” Behnett Ali, owner of Total Car Care. First, though, I must get into a jabbering mood, so I slip into Off Broadway for two bottles of Yuengling. The afternoon crowd is a bunch of middle-aged farts like myself. This bar has signs everywhere prohibiting just about everything. “ANYONE LEANING ON MIRROR WILL BE ASKED TO LEAVE IMMEDIATELY” is one I haven’t seen. On the jukebox, the O’Jays bark, “What they do!” Then croon, “They laugh in your face / All the time they want to take your place / The back stabbers.”
I follow Champ into his spartan office. He’s only been open since February. “OK, Champ, so you were born in Camden?”
“Yes, born and raised, and I’m 62-years-old.”
“You never lived anywhere else?”
“OK, so you’ve seen all the changes in Camden…”
“Yes, I have.”
“You think it’s getting better or worse?”
“Wow, really? What do you mean?”
“The policing is better. The mayor is better. There are fewer drug sites. If a neighborhood had 50 drug sites before, now it’s down to five or six.”
“No, fifty! Fifty or sixty!”
“Fifteen is bad enough, but 50?!”
“Yeah, but now there are much less. Camden’s no longer an open air drug market.”
“But the demand is still there.”
“Yes, but they’re making it a lot harder for the drug dealers. The police have a new method. I don’t know exactly what it is, but they’re there. Their presence makes a difference.”
Hanging on the wall is a large dinner table-sized rug showing a young man with long, thin dread locks framing his mild face. It’s Champ’s only son, Jamaal “Scoot” Barker. His size 12 black sneakers rest on the windowsill. Champ also wears dread locks. Though bear-thick, imposing and with huge hands, Champ exudes gentleness.
“Champ, I want to ask about your son’s name. Your last name is Behnett Ali, but his is Barker…”
“In some circumstances, the children take their mother’s name, and not the father’s name because, uh, it might not be the father. I’m not saying that’s the case with him.” Champ looks over his shoulder towards the rug. “That’s how you keep your lineage.”
“Because you know for sure that’s your mother, you know what I’m saying?”
“But you know that’s your son, though.”
“I know that’s my son, yeah, and he was in the process of correcting his name also.”
“The first time I met you, you said you wanted to open a halal store, so I thought you were Muslim.”
“So you’ve changed your name?”
“No, I didn’t, I corrected it. All I did was add a title to the end of my last name.”
Ali means “elevated.” Plenty of folks in Camden are elevated, of course, night and day. To get elevated, Amanda has become a borderless body. Hundreds pass right through her. Raised as a Jehovah Witness, Champ first became aware of Islam at age 15, but his conversion was gradual and he only fixed his name at age 47.
“My mother died when I was twelve, and I got sidetracked for a while, for maybe ten years. After that, I started to get conscious again. I was confused. My mother was a good person, and I blamed God for her passing. It’s because of my lack of knowledge.”
“Did she get sick?”
“She had cancer.”
“Where was your dad?’
“He raised us.”
“So he was around?”
“Yeah. I have three brothers and eight sisters.”
“Wow, that’s a lot, that’s twelve kids! What kind of work did he do to raise so many kids?”
Champ tilts his head back, laughs.
“That’s insane, man,” I continue.
“Yeah, he’s old school.”
“What kind of work did he do?”
“He did labor work. He worked for the American Dredging Company, then he started his own business. He had what’s called these days a bodega. At one point, he had three of them.”
“That’s pretty good!”
“Yeah, he was one hell of a dude, man. He was an entrepreneur. He was also a mechanic. He owned houses. He had 15 or 20 of them.”
“So you got that from him, your business sense.”
“You learnt how to handle money from him.” (I know a Vietnamese businessman who had his young kids count wads of cash, so they wouldn’t be intimidated by money, he said.)
“I don’t know about that,” Champ chuckles, “but I do have a lot of skills. I went to Pennco Tech to learn how to be a mechanic.”
“How many businesses have you had?”
“This is my biggest endeavor, but before that, I had a towing business. I also did cleaning. If a business went under, you know, we’d go in and strip everything, get it all out. You just keep at it, man.”
There are half a dozen cars and vans in Champ’s garage. As we talk, his employee Bill, around 50-years-old, is busy working on one.
“You mentioned old school.”
“I’m old school now.”
“Yeah, I met the guy at the Universal Tonsorial Parlor…”
“He’s also old school.”
“This is a funny question, but I feel that old school values are slipping. Would you agree?”
“Yeah, but it’s the way this thing is set up, man. Poverty is set up by the gun. That lack of control is part of it. If you can’t do what my parents did for me when I was a kid to keep me in line, then you’re going to lose control of that kid, and that kid is going to start disrespecting people and…it just boils over.”
(When I talked to Russ Farmer seven months earlier, he stated, “The world that I knew has been taken from me, simply because they’ve erased all the existing boundaries that were created for me. You see, I had boundaries in my life. I had limitations. I knew where to go, what not to do, what to do. My parents created boundaries. The neighborhood created boundaries. All those boundaries—have been erased. I didn’t know kids killing their parents, or parents murdering their children. Education was always quality education. Everything was in place. Where are the boundaries today?”)
“But, but, what do they gain by breaking down this discipline?” I ask Champ.
“It’s a business, man, it’s a business. It trickles down. It’s the court system….For instance, if you get locked up for something stupid, if you’re a kid and you have some marijuana on you or something, what’s your chance of getting a job when you get out? You ain’t getting no job.”
“Your life is ruined.”
“But Champ, what does society gain from this breakdown?”
“It’s money, man, it’s money. You can look at it this way: If you’re in poverty, then there’s going to be more crimes, and I’m going to have more control over you, because you’re going to come back and see me again anyway. You ain’t gonna have no means to be self sufficient, so I’m gonna get paid for housing you, for feeding you and you’ll have to buy what you need off of me. It’s the whole nine…It’s just like what they’re doing in Missouri now. They changed it. They were making it so people couldn’t even pay a ticket. If you don’t have all the money, they’ll lock you up!”
“But Champ, I’m genuinely…I’m baffled because I see a kind of decay in many cities, and even in many small towns, so there’s a social breakdown.”
“OK, all right. They’ve got a war on opiates now, but in the 60’s and 70’s, it was an epidemic, and they didn’t have no war on it then. They’re having it now because it only affects people that look like me.” Junkies do come in all colors, however. Champ sees this as an accident, “The heroin wasn’t intended for them. It was intended for us, to keep us down.”
“OK, Champ, I want to talk about your son. He seemed to be doing all right in high school, but after that, he got in trouble quite a bit.”
“Well, my son, ah…he got my DNA. Like I said, we’re entrepreneurs, but what actually changed my son was…we had a home invasion. Some guys came in and it was him, his daughter and his daughter’s mother. They pulled guns on my son and announced a robbery, whatever, and that changed his outlook on life.”
“How old was he when that happened?”
“So did he decide to become a tough guy?”
“Well, you don’t lay down like that. That’s when he said, ‘That ain’t gonna happen to me no more.’”
“So did he get a gun or something?”
“No, I never seen him with a gun but, you know, kids are kids…I never seen him with a gun.”
“But this home invasion changed his whole personality?”
“As far as the street, yeah. As far as the street because, ah, my son was a rapper. He did music. He wrote lyrics. He was like that, that was his thing. I used to tell him, ‘Hey man, I don’t like some of the stuff you write,’ and he would say, ‘Dad, it’s like going to the movie. This ain’t real. It’s like you go to a movie, you watch the movie and then you leave. That’s it!’ So I said, ‘OK, as long as you don’t act it out.’ It’s just kids having fun, you know.”
Online, there are 14 tracks by Scoot and Ty of the Young Legends crew. Among the titles are “Homicide,” “Want War,” “Now It’s A War” and “I’m Rich Bitch.” “Cannon” is punctuated throughout by gunshots and here are snatches from “Life Getting’ Crazy”:
“I ball without the jersey and wristband…I play the block like I’m 6-10…Working on my million, living each day like it’s my last ‘cause niggas are killin’…Camden is where I’m from, and it’s the realest / You gotta feel it, motherfucker, it’s the Murder Cap…Life is getting’ crazy now / Every day is getting’ worse and the day is gettin’ shorter now…Bitch, just one shot, I get him murdered.”
It sure ain’t Fats Waller with his “I don’t stay out late / Don’t care to go / I’m home about eight / Just me and my radio,” or even RUN DMC with their “We are not thugs (we don’t use drugs) but you assume (on your own) / They offer coke (and lots of dope) but we just leave it alone.” Homicidal hip hop is no more intrinsic to black culture than, say, Miley Cyrus, Honey Boo Boo and the Jerry Springer Show are to white. Who want it this way? Who benefit?
Scoot rapped the above at age 21. For two years before that, he warmed the bench for a division II basketball team in, of all places, Oskaloosa, Iowa, population 11,555 and 93.3% white. Scoot didn’t like William Penn University very much. Back in Camden, he ended up in and out of jail for drugs, theft and forgery. Champ only remembers the theft charge, for which Scoot got 20 months. It was just his son being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Champ explains, “He didn’t have anything to do with it. The people who did it picked him up, then the cops pulled their car over.”
All of Scoot’s anxieties, dreams and troubles were emphatically dissolved on November 30th, 2011 when he was shot 15 times by a 27-year-old drug dealer, Daron Trent. Scoot left behind two daughters, Adaiye and Asiya, by two different women.
Champ never went to the trial, “If he got twelve or a hundred years, it’s not going to bring my son back.”
Most curiously, there’s a “R.I.P. Scoot ‘Jamaal Barker’ Public Figure” FaceBook page with entries from the dead man himself:
October 27, 2012 •
Loving and missing my two beautiful girls adaiye and asiya,daddy watching over you. Mom i love you, your the glue that’s keeping this family together while I’m gone. YL/E.O.S/G.M.E keep making me proud i hear yall niggas.
December 3, 2011 •
DADDY’S LITTLE PRINCESS ADAIYE & ASIYAH!! DADDY WILL ALWAYS LOVE YALL. NOTHING OR NOBODY WILL EVER CHANGE THAT.IM NOT GONE I JUST GREW BIGGER WINGS TO PROTECT YOU.
December 3, 2011 •
GETTING MONEY ENTERTAINMENT (G.M.E) WISH WE COULD OF THIS SHIT TOGETHER IT WOULD OF BEEN FIRE. KEEP YA HEAD UP BOYS DON’T WORRY ABOUT ME IM CHILLEN LOOKING DOWN ON YALL.
December 3, 2011 •
YOUNG LEGENDS ..I LOVE YOU GUYS I DIDNT LEAVE YALL I SIMPLY TOOK MY TALENTS TO HEAVEN. SETTING UP A “STU” WAITING FOR YALL TO JOIN ME.
With rappers dropping left and right, there must be so many stus in the beyond, bless us all, blasting the nastiest rhymes. Make sure you wear industrial strength headphones in your coffin.
Champ, “My son was the sweetest kid. If he saw you talking to me just once, he’d do anything for you after that. He helped me with my towing business. My son knew how to get down and dirty. He was a family man. He loved his daughters.”
Often, people are the worst judge of what’s closest to them, whether it’s a parent, child, spouse or hometown, but why should this surprise, since we’re also nearly always the worst at assessing our own talents and character.
“All right, Champ, one last question…Do you think old school values can be recovered?”
“No?!” I guffaw.
“No, nothing stays the same, bro.”
“That doesn’t sound good. I’m talking about basic stuff like family and discipline. The new stuff is not doing anyone any good!”
“The new stuff ain’t been around that long. You never know how it’s going to turn out.”
“When did you get married, by the way?”
“1985, when I was 32.”
“And you’ve only had one wife?”
“That’s rare these days. That’s what I mean by old school. You don’t believe in, like, dumping your wife if you see somebody better.”
“But that concept is gone, bro. It’s not coming back. That’s not how they do it now. It’s done.”
“Would you like it to come back?”
“Yeah, but there are too many reasons why it ain’t gonna happen.”
“What are the reasons?”
“People don’t have no respect.”
“But that better come back too. Self respect. Respect for each other.”
“Listen, none of this is important. It’s just a test. The important thing is you pass this test. God gave us a blueprint to live our lives by, and you have to follow it to the best of pour abilities, but if you don’t do that, if you don’t attempt to that, then old school ain’t coming back, bro.”
“So you think God is important as a foundation?”
“Yeah. If you pray five times a day, you don’t have time to think about bad stuff, do you?”
“Do you do that every day?”
“I try to the best of my abilities.”
“But your son didn’t do that. He wasn’t Muslim.”
“Yes, he was. He took his shahada.”
“OK, Champ, one last question…Camden used to be more mixed, but now it’s almost all blacks and Hispanics. There’s something about the segregation of this society, you know, that’s overlooked.”
“Yeah, and that ain’t going away. Even when they were here, it was segregated. When I first moved into South Camden, it was an Italian neighborhood, and Whitman Park was Polish.”
“Race has been in the news a lot lately because, you know, Ferguson and…the shooting just yesterday, so are you optimistic about racial relations as we move forward?”
“Like I was saying, it don’t have nothing to do with race. If you follow God’s teaching, then it don’t make a difference what color you are, but if you start making your own rules, then all of this stuff happen.”
“OK, one last question…You said they want it this way. They want this confusion, right?”
“If you want to call it confusion, yeah, but it’s a plan. There is no confusion, bro.”
“But who are they?”
“Ah man, I don’t know if we have time for this…It’s the people who run this country, bro, the one percent. They want it this way. Nothing is gonna change.”
“So you’re not optimistic about the country’s future?”
“No, but I don’t even care about it. I hate to put it that way, because my grandkids are coming behind me, but they already know that Allah is where it’s at, so they ain’t got nothing to worry about either. This is nothing. What I’m doing here is nothing. It’s just something to keep me focused and out of trouble, but it’s nothing.”
Camden’s most famous resident ever is Walt Whitman, and in 1888, our egalitarian bard opined to Horace Traubel, “The nigger, like the Injun, will be eliminated: it is the law of races, history, what-not: always so far inexorable—always to be. Someone proves that a superior grade of rats comes and then all the minor rats are cleared out.”
Quite a few people can be categorized as minor rats these days, and they are certainly at the mercy of the superior rats. Unable to reach or even identify these superior rats, billions of minor rats are left to fight over scraps of garbage and tear each other apart. This carnage will only get much worse.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on August 31, 2015, on State of the Union, a website featuring commentary and photography by Linh Dinh. It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Dinh.