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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Camden - Falling Again

"I see a city invincible" Walt Whitman's words that are etched on the facade of city hall in Camden. Yet no one in Camden believes this anymore. The national media is having a feeding frenzy on the story about Camden laying off half of its police force yesterday and a third of its fire fighters. The doom and gloom rose to a fever pitch when someone compared Camden to Fallujah!

The mayor is warring with the unions on concessions. The police and fire personnel won't give and the mayor won't cry Uncle! So the layoffs occurred and the residents are quoted in the news as being frightened for their safety and lives. The drug dealers see this as a potential stay-out-of- jail-free card and drug sets are appearing with greater frequency, openness, and bravado. It's only a matter of time before gang wars erupt in the finest tradition of capitalism, sparring for customers using gunfire.

Many pundits have suggested that the citizens of Camden arm themselves since the city does not see fit to provide an adequate police force. I imagine the citizens of Camden in that scenario like the citizens of Mexico or the Alamo - neither has a good ending.

Many people criticize the unions for being greedy, but no one has railed against the elected officials for not making ANY sacrifices. Do the Camden Mayor and City Council members take furlough days or pay cuts or make concessions to their pensions? Does Governor Christie do likewise? Is their security detail curtailed in proportion to the layoffs? Doubtful on all counts. The unions have a fat contract and should give. But so should the Mayor and Council. Why do we need parking meter-maids but we don't need police? Lay off the planning staff before the police. If it comes down to a one-to-one decision on personnel, then make it. Trying to make an example of the unions is childish and does not provide leadership. Meanwhile the city will burn...

Camden is a victim of circumstance - industry left, people left, and the suburbs continue to dump all the social responsibilities of the region on Camden - drug treatment, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, drug sales - yes, the average drug buyer in Camden is white and from the suburbs...If it weren't for Camden, social ills would creep into the bedroom communities! But the people of Camden do not behave as victims, but more like a captive. They can't get out, they have Helsinki syndrome and are blinded to an exit, and they think they can win over their captors - poverty, unemployment, poor education. It is a crushing blow when people discover reality.

Camden is an entrepreneurial place - people make money as best they can. There is a reason the drug dealers don't go to the suburbs, even though they would be closer to their customers - the cost of doing business is too high. They'd be out of business pronto. In Camden, they have a strong likelihood of staying in business. Meanwhile, the rest of the citizens have to share the streets with these entrepreneurs and hope they are not caught up in their negative externalities a.k.a. bullets. Someone suggested in a comment to a news story that citizens take up crime watch. Do I look like the little Dutch boy? Putting my finger in the dike will not save the town.

So I would like to ask - where are the constitutional officers of this state and why are they not fulfilling their constitutional duty - which is to uphold the laws? If Camden lays off its police force, then why isn't the state or county providing protection? If Camden leaders make bad financial decisions, then why are they allowed to stay in office? They are not fulfilling their oath of office? I say this somewhat tongue-in-cheek because I know the answer. But at the end of the day, who is responsible?

Here we are at the crisis that was foretold by all the experts, including me. I don't have a simple answer. I'm not sure I have a complex answer. I can point fingers with the best of them, including the Mayor and the unions. At the end of the day, though, this is not about political rhetoric and positioning. It is about people's lives and children's futures. It is life and death. I guess that doesn't mean much anymore. Kind of like Walt Whitman's immortal words..."I see a city invincible..."

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