Camden violence demands a response

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A few weeks ago, Camden had its deadliest July since 1949. That was the year that Howard Unruh, America’s first serial killer, killed 13 people on one day. This year, 13 people were murdered over the course of 31 days. At the time, I commented on how differently the violence in Camden would be covered by the news media if it had been done by a single serial killer as opposed to many killers.

Amazingly, with the killings in the movie theater in Aurora, Colo., we see how gripping one killer of many is to the country. We also now have a case of domestic terrorism — and significant international news coverage — with the horrible killings outside a Sikh temple in Wisconsin this month. Both of these incidents were unimaginable tragedies that have sparked hundreds upon thousands of debates and even more news stories. Both have elicited outrage and even responses from President Obama.

Here in Camden, where more people were killed last month than in either of the tragedies in Colorado or Wisconsin, there has been limited outrage and media coverage. In fact, there has been more attention and news about the new medical school than there has been about the people that are dying right outside its walls in the streets.

Just recently, I had in my office a young man who was speaking of his grief about losing a friend last month to a shooting. This was his second friend in a year who has been shot and killed. The loss is real, the trauma of the violence is deep, and most alarming is the lack of moral outrage that accompanies the “domestic terrorism” visited upon the people of Camden.

Across the river, in State College, the crimes of Jerry Sandusky have been met with outrage. The outrage is not only about what was done to many young people, but the fact that so many people seem to have known or had some information about what was going on and chose to put Penn State’s image or football program first.

In Camden, murders are not being properly prioritized. Not only is our city being traumatized by ongoing, incessant violence and the trauma of losing life, but there is also a terrible public acquiescing that keeps it protected and perpetual. Such a lack of outrage is itself abusive. It “normalizes” the violence, making the unconscionable acceptable and continuing to wound the already wounded.

The question to be asked is, why do 13 murders in 31 days in a city of 77,000 find so little voice, so little reaction in our world today? A movie theater, a temple, and a football locker room all engender a response that the streets of Camden don’t seem to warrant.

Camden is facing escalating crime and death. And yet the outrage is muted, the TV networks don’t send news trucks, and no memorial is held. Indeed, Governor Christie asked that the flags be flown at half mast for the Colorado killings while no such action was taken on behalf of the people of Camden. It is the ultimate bullying: collusion with an abusive situation. In State College, such collusion is why Joe Paterno’s statue was taken down and why some officials may go to jail. As long as we continue to know and not act, the systemic and repeated abuse of Camden will continue.

The ongoing abuse and violence that is occurring in Camden needs to stop. The lack of action around this issue is an outrage.

Jesuit Father Jeff Putthoff is executive director, Hopeworks ’N Camden. E-mail him at jeff@hopeworks.org. A version of this essay was first printed in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday, Aug. 19.