Rutgers Prof Calls Rolling Stone Camden Article “Poverty Porn”

He’s angry.

rolling-stone-camden-article

Stephen Danley is Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Administration at Rutgers University in Camden, and he has some serious issues with the Rolling Stone Camden article that came out on Wednesday.

stephen danleyBelow, a response that Danley (pictured) published on a Rutgers blog, republished here with his permission.

Poverty Porn In Rolling Stone
Exploitation in Camden.

One of the joys of my life is teaching about Camden while living and working in Camden. Students send me articles on the city, info on parades, or even invitations to local fashion shows.

But last night was not fun.

Last night, a student walked into my class with a printed out version of Rolling Stone‘s article: “Apocalypse New Jersey.” Why couldn’t they tell any of the good? she asked. They talked to all the wrong people, she asserted. They only talked to the bottom, not to the rest of us, she told me.

Around the class, my students buried their heads in laptops to read yet another article about how Camden had more in common with a war zone than the country it resides in. What they were seeing was what we had studied all semester, a real-time manifestation of the deep historical pattern of outsiders using Camden to the detriment of the city.

A few weeks ago, I flew a guest from New Orleans up to class. Jennifer Turner, known to my class and much of New Orleans as Mama J, told my class to heed the words of Richard Wright: not to despair.

Looking in the eyes of my students as they read Rolling Stone, I saw what she was talking about. The article, with its claims that “if Camden was overseas, we would have sent troops and foreign aid,” or “there’s no lesson in any of it, just a giant mess that still isn’t cleaned up,” doesn’t try to portray the city as it is, but revels in its darkest corners. This isn’t the tale of a city, it is poverty porn, and is abusive and exploitive like the real thing.

Rolling Stone‘s article is just the latest example of the national media obsession with using Camden this way. Sooner or later, every national publication comes to Camden to do their story on poverty and violence. Brian Williams did his special. The Nation titled its expose “City of Ruins.” And now the Rolling Stone.

The constant stream of pictures of addicts shooting up is almost impossible to look away from. It drives voyeuristic clicks, while feeding local despair. Imagine trying to explain where you live to someone who only knows Camden from these articles.

The Rolling Stone article could have been different. It could have been a story about how, as a former Camden beat reporter put it for my class, Camden residents are “resilient.” How they’ve lived with injustice but found sanctuaries in local groups such as the Sophisticated Sisters, the Settlement Music School or the Concerned Citizens of North Camden’s baseball league. But voyeurism drives magazine sales, not hope, and dope fiends make for better pictures than local community members trying to get by.

The pattern of exploiting Camden’s misfortune doesn’t start or end with the media’s “shocking” stories. It is deeply woven into Camden’s history. The surrounding region dumps its waste into a plant in the Waterfront South neighborhood and a horde of predatory businesses have left the neighborhood facing an epidemic of asthma and blight.

When not literally dumping waste, the suburbs have metaphorically dumbed their poor into the city by signing agreements that paid Camden to meet their affordable housing requirements, thus outsourcing their responsibilities to the poor (a now-illegal work-around to the famous Mt. Laurel case which prevented discriminatory zoning to make sure low-income families had access to the suburbs).

Rolling Stone could have written this story, a story of injustice. It’s right there in the text, how power takes advantage of poverty. Taibbi shows how Gov. Chris Christie used Camden for state and national purposes, violently slashing municipal funding, leading to the release of hundreds of police officers, to manufacture a crisis. Now that Christie has gotten his way with the “regionalization” of the police force, he can both claim to have “helped” the city recover (from a crisis that resulted from his policy choice) and also claim nationally that he broke the union and is fiscally disciplined. Everyone wins, except those in Camden who saw the violent results of having their police force slashed to win political points, only to be restored when the city agreed to give up control.

And this is what is so angering about the Rolling Stone article; this messianic myth of the Metro Police, this insistence that outsiders will save the city, it ignores the city’s history. It ignores each time a predator has taken advantage of Camden’s poverty. Now, these same predators want credit for trying to help the city, and expect local residents to happily cede community power so they can do it. Because it’s “good policy.” Because the city is poor. Because Rolling Stone said so.

Follow @SteveDanley on Twitter.

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