"There is no such thing as a bad soldier, just bad generals."
Those were the words that echoed within me as I crossed the Benjamin Franklin Bridge back into Philadelphia this past Monday. That morning, I was able to meet with the individual who had quoted Napoleon Bonaparte and left me with this food for thought, Gil Medina. Today, Gil is the vice president of brokerage services at CBRE, the world's largest real estate company. Certainly, Gil is not a man short in ambition. Back in 1971, he was an outraged Puerto Rican student at Rutgers University. But before I continue, I should explain what happened on that fateful year.
On August 19th, 1971, the plaza outside of city hall was packed with hundreds of disgruntled protesters, including women and children, calling for the suspension and culpability of the two police officers who were accused of beating a 40 year old Puerto Rican man into a coma. As negotiations continued between the Mayor, Pubic Safety Director, and community leaders such as Gil Medina, who helped put together the protests, the situation became even more tense and the crowd would not disperse. It was at this point that Camden faced a crucial juncture in its future. It is usually in hindsight that we can say whether a decision was right or wrong but, according to Mr. Medina, the subsequent decision to confront the protest, which he claims was festive more than anything else, was a "foolish thing" and also one of the reasons why the riots began. Rather than push the crowd out from one side, William Yeager, the Public Safety Director decided to challenge the crowd from both sides with tear gas, dogs, and batons. What resulted was four days of utter chaos. Over a hundred stores were burned or looted, a curfew was set, gasoline and alcohol sales were blocked, and although the monetary damage was not as high as in places where other riots occurred around this time such as Detroit or Newark, the psychological harm done to the city is incalculable. As I sat with Gil Medina for breakfast, now over 40 years after the riots, he recounted his experiences of what happened that year. When I asked Gil about the decision made by Yeager to confront the protesters, he stated:
"That was complete tactical incompetence or the intention was to precipitate a confrontation to punish the community. It had to be one of the two. Back then I thought it was malicious. Today, knowing how many people I know in government, I would say it was stupidity, incompetence. The city paid the price; the citizens who were hurt paid the price, the policemen who had to spend 3-4 days dealing with the situation with their lives on the line too."
As I crossed the Ben Franklin Bridge that Monday morning with a melancholy eye on Camden, it was hard to believe that a city's fate, however influenced by other factors, could have come down to one decision by one leader, a "bad general". However dim things may have seemed to the residents of Camden in 1971, I would like to believe that their ultimate sentiment was one of promise rather than despair; a people who were willing to protest were a people willing to negotiate. Throughout the years leading up to the riots of 1971, the Puerto Rican community had dealt with many cases of alleged policed abuse, significant under-representation in the police force and city government, a lack in bilingual education, and little to no communication with the mayor's administration and the police department. Ultimately, they communicated to those who wouldn't listen to their calls for cooperation in a way they could not help but hear, see, and feel. They burned their city down.