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Postcard from the End of America: Champ Ali in Camden

By       Message Linh Dinh     Permalink
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Camden, 2015
(Image by Linh Dinh)
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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.

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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."

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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."

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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 prostitute. Amanda shouts at me, "Hey you!"

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Linh Dinh's Postcards from the End of America has just been published by Seven Stories Press. Tracking our deteriorating socialscape, he maintains a photo blog.


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