Monday, July 29, 2013

"End of Days"

     End of Days: that's the title of my research project. Perhaps a bit dramatic, but after looking through some of the images of, seemingly, war-torn Camden, it seemed appropriate. Since arriving back here in Chicago, I've gotten a chance to peer through all the research data I've collected and look at the bigger picture of what it is that I'm examining. Overall, I'm seeking to understand the role and circumstances of the Puerto Rican community in Camden, NJ in 1971. By doing so, I hope to expose the idea that, although the Puerto Rican community may have been viewed as the catalyst of the riots of 1971, the circumstances leading to the riots were much more complex than that. Ultimately, it was a series of decisions and lack of comprise on the part of city government and law enforcement that culminated into the city's most dire situation. Detroit, another deteriorating city with similar issues to those of Camden, has a population of over 700,000. Camden, on the other hand, is home to just about 77,000 residents. The issues that Camden faced were connected to one another so intimately that the effects of poverty and lack of services suffered by one demographic could not be honestly ignored by another.
        As a part of this internship this summer, it is my responsibility to put together a meaningful essay that shows the product of my research. Not always the most entertaining assignment to work on during a warm summer day, this paper has truly become a focus that is constantly rewarding for me. I've learned so much thus far and I only seem to be headed in the right direction. This week, I was able to complete a 21-page draft of this project which includes 18 sources: 4 original interviews, 5 newspaper articles, 1 original report, 4 censuses of population, 2 censuses of manufactures, 1 Department of Labor report, and 1 book. Now, it may seem like that's an excessive amount of sources for a draft but in order to support claims about the city's history, events, and people, it was quite necessary but also pretty fun.
        An important section for any written piece of history is the historiography, as previously explained to me by my mentor Dr. Michelle Nickerson. Most simply, this section is the history of the history. I didn't expect to enjoy writing this section as much as I did. Perhaps it was because there wasn't much to cite or, more likely, because it allowed me to put this story into a current context of the academic side of it all. The reporting done by the Camden Courier-Post during the time surrounding the riots is certainly the best source of information on the unrest. In Camden County, New Jersey: The Making of a Metropolitan Community, 1626-2000 (2001) by Jeffrey Dorwart, a historian at Rutgers University, the riots covered just about two pages of his ambitious work. Howard Gillette, a leading historian in the history of Camden, briefly mentioned the riots in Camden After the Fall: Decline and Renewal in a Post-Industrial City (2005) by touching on the main points but not delving into much detail. To my knowledge, there is no published book dedicated to the riots, leaving them in a state of vagueness, as a footnote in the history of Camden. And that's exactly what makes this venture so exciting; the opportunity to discover knowledge and create it by bringing all the perspectives I can together into one piece. This work has become much clearer since I first began about 4 weeks ago. It has expanded from reporting events to investigating characters and finally into delving into the nature of they city and it's culture. After completing my first draft, I look forward to making this unfinished product into something I can truly be proud of.

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.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Adios Camden

Philadelphia City Hall
       It's been quite a warm week here in Philadelphia. As I type these words, it is not without a feeling of melancholy knowing that this will be my last post corresponding from Camden. The work I have left to do, which I am excited about sharing in coming posts, no longer requires me to be here. Although my field work is now over, it has, without a doubt, been a success. I was able to get my hands on census tracts, manufacturing data, primary archival information, and much more in addition to the eyeopening interviews which I was lucky enough to attain. The next step is the synthesis of my research which will produce the most thoughtful research paper possible. These past three weeks have been ones of discovery and emotion. I've grown a certain attachment to Camden and it's residents. As I walk through it's streets and glance across a landscape of gutted buildings and street blocks, I can't help but fill in the lost space with the splendid metropolis that once stood here. But this city is more than what it has lost. It is much more than four days of terrible chaos that stripped it of whatever vitality it had left at the time. Camden is Dominic Petulla. It is Joe Rodriguez. It is a city of perseverance for, although it has lost everything it's had, it continues to survive with an eye fixed on the future while embracing the present.
Everyone I encountered emitted a feeling of genuineness and embraced me with smiles on their faces. Certainly Camden has a long way to go in order to become as prominent as it once was. But what I have learned here is that it will never be the Camden of old. Whatever it does become will be a product of the efforts of those with a vision on the future, of a new Camden. Since 2001, this city by the Delaware river has become the new home of the Adventure Aquarium, Campbell's Field, the Susquehanna Bank Center, and the USS New Jersey Battleship. In 2009, the River State Prison in the North Camden was closed down and the ground on which it stood is the subject of redevelopment. Revitalization is happening. Certainly, the city still has it's share of issues that continue to plague it and that should not be ignored: severe poverty, drug use, crime, poor housing. But a step in the right direction has been made. Revenue is coming in and hopefully the trend of political corruption that has been a stain on a city trying to regain its footing will end.
       In my last moments in the city, I decided to visit my new friend Mr. Petulla. On a 97 degree day, he was in his business with nothing to cool him but an industrial fan in the corner of his workstation. I greeted him and after a adjusting his glasses, I received a huge smile and a strong "Hey, kid!". After a short chat, Mr. Petulla returned to his work and I returned to my life not knowing if I would see him again. We don't know what the future brings. Whatever hope we do have is gained from whatever good we see in someone or something. There is no other way that I can explain it better than saying that the smiles I received in Camden give me hope. I believe. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Judge

View of City Hall from US courthouse
      Throughout this research process, I've become well acquainted with many of the names that were involved in these riots. Among those names, one that has continually stood out was that of Joseph Rodriguez. In my interview with Gil Medina, Gil spoke about Rodriguez with the utmost respect, expressing that he was a person he trusted because he knew right from wrong, a person with a "strong moral compass."  When I spoke with Carl Poplar, he simply described Rodriguez as "the man". Among his many accolades, Rodriguez was the the first Hispanic Lawyer in Camden, he was inducted into the American college of trail lawyers, became the chairman of the board of higher education, chairman of the state crime commission, was the state public defender and advocate, and was appointed by the governor to the federal bench, where he's been for well over 20 years. Obviously, I had to see what all the fuss was about for myself. 
      Yesterday, I made my way to the US courthouse in Camden to interview the Federal Judge. As I stood at the top floor of the court building, I looked into the hallway with a view that overlooked the city and a felt proud of the fact that a son of Hispanic immigrants made it this far. When I walked into the chambers, I saw a stoic 82 year old man sitting with a youthful, energizing smile. There was Joe. Son of a Cuban father and a Puerto Rican mother, Rodriguez was born and raised in Camden. From a young age, he had a strong yearning for helping people, a sentiment instilled in him by his father. In 1971, he was an attorney and the titular leader of the Hispanic community in Camden, so when he learned of what occurred to Horacio Jimenez he knew that something had to be done and became the main liaison of negotiations between the community and the mayor and his public safety director. The mayor at the time, Joseph Nardi, was one of Rodriguez's best friends. They had attended the same high school and had been friendly rivals their whole lives. Nardi was the godfather of one of Rodriguez's children and Rodriguez was the godfather of Nardi's children. When the riots were at their peak and a bullet was shot through the Mayors window on the 17th floor of city hall, Rodriguez looked at Nardi and said, "Joe, did you think when we were in high school that we would ever be in a situation like this?"  

    Rodriguez understood the dire situation and tried his best to quell the riots. He and other community leaders imposed a curfew on their own communities in an attempt to calm the chaos.He also understood the position of the mayor even though he didn't feel that he handled it in the best way. "He was trying to do his job and I was trying to do mine." Ultimately, Rodriguez communicated to me how important he feels it is to understand that many of these people were just asking to be heard, asking for an opportunity to do better in life. Along with his brother Mario, Rodriguez has committed his life to the advancement of this forgotten city. He exuded power in the form of commitment and spoke of Camden with hope and an eye fixed on the future. As long as Joe, and people like him are around, I'm convinced that this city still has a strong chance of invigoration.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

"A lawyer, a gymnast and a Jew"

       Since my last post, I've been able to synthesize much of the information I've compiled in order to create a narrative of the roots of the riots. It's a satisfying feeling to learn and to subsequently produce. I was also fortunate enough to conduct an interview with Carl Poplar at his office in Cherry Hill, NJ. The first thing the 70 year old attorney, who characterizes himself as a "lawyer, a gymnast, and a Jew," said when I promptly stood up to greet him was "relax". I took his advice and the rest of our conversation went smoothly. Carl was the attorney who represented the family of Horacio Jimenez, the Puerto Rican man who was beat to a coma and, ultimately, died. Back then, he was a youthful, up and coming, attorney working in legal services. "I had wall to wall people with no money...I was a busy young guy." With serene posture, Carl related the events, as he recalled them, in a very orderly manner from the night he walked out of his office and knew something was wrong, to the negotiations regarding the suspensions of the two officers, which he attended. One of the interesting stories Carl told me dealt with the decision to keep Jimenez on life support in order to keep the riots from escalating. It's difficult to put yourself in the position to ask a mother whose just lost her son to think of the greater good, but she did. The complexity of these riots are augmented when you realize how many angles are involved. The more I learn, the more remarkable the story becomes.

   My last stop of the week was the Camden Historical Society. I couldn't have been more happy with my trip there. Not only did I find a immense plethora of information on Camden including census tracts, manufacturing statistics, maps, and other forms of city data but I was also taken back by how much information Howard Gillette, a retired history professor at Rutgers, left from his own research. The historical society has many Special Collections. Among them is the Gillette Collection which features twelve full boxes on research data he's collected over the years. Not only was this helpful, but it was also quite inspiring for me. The dedication Mr. Gillette put forth in his work truly shows his passion for history. Someday I hope to be able to do the same: to contribute to my field by doing what I love, to dedicate myself to fulfilling my dreams, and to spark a fire in the heart of at least one person. The only thing that is certain at this point is that there will be no rest for me until I achieve that dream.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Bad Generals

"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."

Camden City Hall
     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. 

Saturday, July 6, 2013


     Over the last few days, the Philadelphia Central library has been my home. It has been a week full of reading but, in a way, more casual than not. In order to get a good understanding of the riots and grasp the immensity of the events as they unfolded, I decided to head to the newspaper archives. What I found there was both exciting and confusing. The former can be attributed to the fact that I had access to all the newspapers, along with the dates, that I needed: The Camden Courier-Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Evening Bulletin, all from 1971. The latter was due to the fact that I was very unfamiliar with the format in which they were to be accessed(microfilm) and how to work the machine that allowed me to view them. Luckily, the Central library is full of helpful people. The gentleman in charge of the archives was kind enough to walk me through all the steps that I needed to know in order to proceed.
      I went about reading the newspaper as if, well, as if I was reading the newspaper. I read day by day, page by page beginning with August 20th, 1971, the day after the riots began. I could not be more happy with the amount of detailed information present in the articles pertaining to the riots. One of the articles that struck me the most was titled "Red Banners Used for Protection". In my last post, I mentioned a man who led me to Dominic Petulla. That individual also spoke briefly about his experiences regarding the riots, stating that many families had to hang red flags on their doors to protect their homes. Immediately, I was reminded  of the Jewish Holiday, Passover, in which the Jewish People ate the lamb and posted its blood on their doors for protection from the angel of death. As I continued to read through these articles, the actions depicted in them became less interesting and more disturbing. It is difficult to fathom what could bring a people to burn a city to the ground but it is just as difficult to imagine what they had to experience in order to get to that point. Suddenly, I was reminded of why it is that this work is so important to me. Poverty is the plight of our generation. The  first step in eliminating it is to not ignore it. Perhaps if those in charge of leading Camden in 1971 concerned themselves with the vast number of impoverished and underrepresented persons in their city, things may have been different. Today, as I walk through Camden, there is no ignoring the poor living conditions in which the majority of the city lives. Undoubtedly, the angel of death has done its work in this forgotten city.

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Trail

Today was a rainy day in Camden, New Jersey. It was also the first official day for this internship, or rather the first day in this journey. The project is called the "Camden Riots". The goal: to find out as much as I can about the events that occurred in 1971 from which Camden has yet to recover from and to bring a voice to those in the center of it who have been generally silent in the narratives surrounding the event. The alias for the riots is the "Puerto Rican Riots",  for in large part they were the rioters, and that's exactly where my trail began. Early this morning I arrived at Rutgers-Camden and began looking through the Camden census tracts to get a feel for the demographic of city and how it's evolved from the 1950's to the 1980's. What I found was quite interesting but also a common symptom of Rust Belt cities: white flight. As the white population sprawled into the southern New Jersey suburbs, minority populations grew in Camden with a particular spike in Puerto Ricans during the 1960's and 70's. Soon, I used these census tracts to track down the Puerto Rican neighborhoods in the city and was on my way to find anyone I could talk to in those neighborhoods that was present during the riots.
As I made my way there, I found a gentleman in the Charles "Poppy" Sharp(a central figure for later posts) Community Center who then led me to the Puerto Rican Progress center where I got a lead for an individual who might be of interest to me but, even more important to me at the time, he also led me to one of the oldest stores in Camden where I found my first interviewee in Dominic Petulla, certainly Camden's oldest cobbler.
In the midst of what would seem to be insurmountable odds, with decades of economic and social decline characterized by the loss of thousands of jobs and a severe increase in drug use, Gold Star Shoe Repairing is still in business and will continue its run as long as Mr. Petulla is around. A soft spoken son of Italian Immigrants, Mr. Petulla is now 77 years old and although he has not lived in Camden for about 45 years, the love he has for his craft is his motor. Not to mention, to put it in his words, "I'm a native". In our first twenty minute conversation, he provided me with key information about Camden before and after the riots. I'll be sure to visit him again very soon.