Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Previous Grievances

        The chaos that was the "Puerto Rican Riots" left the details and origins of the events largely unknown to many. In my interviews with Gil Medina, Carl Poplar, and Joe Rodriguez, people heavily immersed in the riots, the actual name of "Horacio Jimenez" was never spoken and the details of that night when "Jimenez" was beaten into a coma were vague. That's not to say that they weren't experts in what happened in 1971, but this does show a sort of general aloofness about the trigger of the riots themselves. This past week, I've been looking through much the newspaper microfilm articles that I printed back at the Philadelphia Central Library. In order to fully grasp the situation in 1971, I read articles from both before and after, what I found was a fuller picture of the story.
        "Horacio Jimenez" was actually named Rafael Gonzales. He was a 40-year-old construction worker from Camden but lived in Penns Grove in Salem County, NJ about 30 miles southwest of Camden. On Saturday July 31 1971, Gonzales set out with Lesley Whitesall, a 17-year-old male, and had been drinking since 10:30 that morning, landing in Camden by 7:30 that night. According to Whitesall, they had consumed three six-packs of beer that day. "He could drink a case easy." Carmen Villanueva, Camden resident, claimed she witnessed the beating of Gonzales along with Angel Santiago and Elizabeth Santiago. It all happened on West and Stevens streets, just a few blocks from where the protests were held in front of city hall almost three weeks later. Mrs. Villanueva claimed that Gonzales and his passenger were double parked in front of her home speaking with her when officers Warren Worrell and Gary Miller, both 25 years of age the time, ordered Gonzales to move on. He proceeded up the street and parked along the curb at Stevens street. On January 30th 1973, Mrs. Villanueva testified in front of a jury of nine men and five women. She recounted the event quoting the officers in detail. "Okay, turn your around and put your hands on the station wagon." "Why are you searching me?" said Gonzalez with his hands in a questioning gesture."And that's when the cop starting hitting him..he had a little black thing in his hand and it must have been hard because he (Gonzalez) started to bleed."  In the rest of her testimony she explained how Gonzales fell to the gutter as the second policemen left the patrol car and joined in on the beating, "..and they started kicking him and hitting him with a night stick. He was bleeding bad and there was a pool of blood". A few weeks later, Gonzales died from the stomach injuries he sustained during that event.

Warren Worrell(middle) and parents
          Information on Gonzales was difficult to find. Even Carl Poplar, who represented Gonzalez, knew very little about him, only that he was a 40-year-old, Puerto Rican construction worker from Penns Grove. However, what I was able to find about the two officers was quite interesting. In August of 1966, the Camden Courier-Post  published an article called "City Youth, 20, Bids Dad Goodbye at Home." The youth was Warren Worrell and his destination was Vietnam. After being stationed in Korea, young Worrell requested a transfer to the combat-heavy Vietnam. His father advocated escation of the conflict in order to "get it over with" and Worrell, a machine gunner on a helicopter escort explained his anxiousness to do some fighting because "you can't do anything like that here." In 1973, Worrell's partner Gary Miller, who was 28 and had three children by then, was sitting in his living room in East Camden being interviewed by a Courier-Post journalist about his shooting of a 16 year "knife-wielding" youth. Miller's father had been a Camden police officer and so had his younger brother Ron. After joining the force in 1968, he was suspended for 18 months in 1971 awaiting the Gonzales trail. It was a nightmare repeating itself. He claimed he shot the youth to protect his partner, Worrell. Miller prayed that the young man would not die. Despite the problems Miller had on the job, he stated "I don't think I would be satisfied in any other job. There's excitement and something different all the time. You get to help people and feel you're doing something worthwhile."

           Certainly, the situation is a disturbing one and in the wake of the Trayvon Martin case and the unrest that followed the trial, the similarities are eerie. What seems apparent is that all parties in this case had holes in the credibility of their cases. Gonzales had been drinking, based on his comments and preferences, Worrell was not battle shy, and Miller had managed to get himself into trouble right after getting out of it. For all, it was truly the wrong place and wrong time. As the audience, it is difficult to not feel biased in one way or another, but the fact of the matter is that we do not know what happened. All we know is that something like this shouldn't happen. "A judge and jury have all the time in the world to make a decision but a policeman must make his decision in a split second," stated Miller. Whether what they did was wrong or right, this must be taken into consideration. As discomforting as this incident was, it is more discomforting to know that all the damage and chaos that came as a result of this could have been different. Mayor Nardi had time, as did Public Safety Director Yeager. They had the audacious opportunity to use the beating of Gonzales as a springboard to communication with the community and an investigation of the practices within the police department. But what happened was quite different and the city bore the consequences. Hopefully, we can understand this and know that what happened to Gonzales and what happened to Trayvon Martin are cases that no one wishes would have ever happened but our reactions to them, what lesson we gain from them, practical or abstract, is what matters from here on forth.

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