I’m currently reading Fortner’s controversial Black Silent Majority, which examines the politics of Harlem and support from certain segments of the black community for increased enforcement of the drug trade. It’s a deeply contested book, but it gets at a dynamic I’ve been trying to put my finger on in Camden: the support for policies such as the *war on graffiti*, increased code enforcement, crackdowns on ATVs, and opposition to legalized marijuana or local dispensaries.
I entered the Moran administration in Camden with a fair bit of optimism. While Moran is certainly a member of the local political structure here in the city, he also has a reputation for having worked for decades in different city positions, and was purported to have a genuine interest in the daily (and often less political) elements of running a city. It seemed like a potentially fruitful marriage. After the large, structural (and controversial) changes of the previous administration in education, policing and economic development, I was hopeful that the Moran administration would stick to the basics. There was little to be done about those structural challenges — it’s almost impossible to put the toothpaste back in the tube — and there was a lot of daily work to be done to ensure a better functioning city.
In one way, that is how it’s played out. There haven’t been any policies that are as structural as the previous administration’s. But I didn’t expect the thrust of the day-to-day operations of the city to be instinctually punitive and protective. And I’ve been looking for others writing and thinking about why that may be happening.
In Fortner (who was briefly my colleague at Rutgers)’s Black Silent Majority, the dynamics in Harlem are familiar and reflect many of the same instincts that I’ve witnessed here in Camden. The book is deeply contested, as perhaps best evidenced by the exchange between Murch (1) and Fortner (2) in the Boston Review, and the use of “silent majority” is politically loaded. But as I dive deeper into that Harlem history, the political dynamic is familiar. There is support for a politics that distinguishes between residents that are trying to do it the right way (homeowners, working poor) and those who are not (in Harlem, drug users or sellers, though in Camden it extends to ATV riders, graffiti artists, and sometimes renters).
This has been the core governing thread to the Moran administration. Those residents who are “doing it right” ought be protected from those who “are not.” That has all kinds of implications that are worth diving into re: politics, what it means for the next generation of Camden politicians (many of whom took oaths of office yesterday) and beyond. But the most basic take is this. Policies like the war of graffiti, the increased punishments for RV riders, increased code enforcement, and others are a way of actualizing of that philosophy. They attempt to protect residents (particularly homeowners) who are seen to be at risk from these other behaviors, by increasing penalties for what are seen as undesirable behaviors such as graffiti, riding ATVs, or not keeping up one’s home.
Note: I’m now using footnotes because I’m transition to making the Local Knowledge Blog Facebook Page the primary outlet for the blog. That’s where most of the readership is! And the links there don’t function well.