By Brenda Flanagan
As well-heeled delegates and guests lined up for the DNC concert “Camden Rising” headlining Lady Gaga at the waterfront BB&T Pavilion, Jose Leon burned branches in his backyard across town and talked about Camden’s rising murder rate.
“People popping up dead out of nowhere,” he said.
Leon recalled the lurid aftermath of Camden’s first murder this year: 13-year-old Nate Plummer Jr. shot multiple times in the back with a .38 caliber revolver on Line Street.
“It was horrible because first expression was he’s a little kid. Know what I mean? I got a 13-year-old,” Leon said.
Police reportedly traced the gun to 16-year-old alleged gang member Cashe Alford. She’s charged with Plummer’s murder. Alarmingly, Camden’s murder rate has more than doubled this year compared to last — from 12 to 25 — apparently putting the beleaguered city on track to match or beat its record: 67 homicides — a bloodbath that ensued after Camden laid off almost half its police force in 2012. And it’s puzzling, since the overall murder rate was cut in half to 33 and 34 a year, after a brand new, county-based police department started patrolling Camden’s streets in 2014.
“We never said it would be fixed overnight. We knew there would be bumps in the road. But where we are today, as compared to where we were four years ago — it’s night and day,” said Camden County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr.
Cappelli argued Camden’s overall crime rate is down — a position echoed by Police Spokesman Dan Keashen, who also noted, “The sample size is very small. Urban areas across the country have seen increases. The summer’s been very quiet.”
“Most of the uptick in crime is related directly to gang and drug activity. It was really the assassination of different drug dealers and gang members,” Cappelli said.
Politicians proudly point to new development like Holtec, Subaru and the 76ers facility rising on the waterfront that will spark a city renaissance, but critics say it doesn’t inspire hope on the hard streets. And gangs go back generations here.
“What we call gang members are simply family members and friends and people who live in the same neighborhood. So they may not look at it as we do. All this stuff that we see in terms of ‘Camden Rising’ really is just a mirage. It’s a crafted narrative,” said Keith Benson Jr., a teacher at Camden High School.
“I’m really frustrated about what’s going on,” said Shirley Peterson, founder of New Hope Temple.
Peterson runs a small Bible camp. She claims gang leaders often offers kids what the city doesn’t.
“He’s showing them the dollars and this is why they’re drawn to him. They go for him. … That’s why you have the gangs. Because they showing that love. Someone that care for them,” she said.
Parents in Camden’s troubled Whitman Park neighborhood sweep the street while keeping close watch on little kids at play. What’ll happen when they outgrow the bikes and backyard pools?
“There’s nothing in Camden for kids to do. They don’t have, like, they’re busy building dumb things. They’re not building recreation centers and more things for the kids to do. And that’s why kids are getting in trouble and getting to guns and drugs,” said Rita LaGuer.
“Violent crime is systemic from desperate people in desperate situations. It has to be addressed. The people need to be given the tools to get ahead in life,” said Ahmad Muhammad.
If Camden is rising, then residents say all the neighborhoods will have to rise together. Or else violence will unfortunately continue to mar this renaissance.