The Riot of 1971

Much has been written about the riots that occurred in Camden in 1969 and in 1971. With just about everyone who has commented and is commenting to this day on the subject already starting out with pre-conceived notions of the events, I'm of the opinion that just about everything one might read will be colored by the author's intent to assign blame, justify misbehavior, and denigrate or enhance the reputations of person or persons involved at the time.

All that is certain is that one man died, government tried to throw two policemen to the mob, and many homes and businesses were destroyed. This was the singularly worst event to hit the city of Camden until crack cocaine hit the streets in 1985-1986. The riots of 1969 and 1971 left Camden mortally wounded. Crack cocaine was the coup de grace.

I'll post news articles and pictures relating to the 1971 riot. Feel free to e-mail me with nay comments or questions. I don't know if I'll have the answers, but never say never... even in Camden.

Phil Cohen
August 2008

Camden Courier-Post - February 1, 2007


Courier-Post Staff

Politicians may call it civil disturbance, but to the people who fled in terror from shattered glass and firebombs in Camden's downtown in 1969, it was a riot.

Like other cities that had seen manufacturing shut down and middle-class white families flee to suburbs, Camden was struggling to maintain its tax base. Some small retailers were holding on, but they were losing their customers to malls.

On the day after Labor Day in 1969, unfounded rumors spread that a young black girl had been beaten by a white police officer. At dusk, about 300 people gathered several blocks for Cooper University Hospital.

Shots rang out, killing rookie police officer Rand J. Chandler and Rose McDonald, 15.

For two days, the city went wild. No one was charged with either killing, which investigators attributed to a sniper.

Tempers cooled and those living and working in Camden tried to forget about the violence.

The cool-down lasted almost two years, until July 30, 1971, when the beating by police of a Hispanic motorist, a former Camden resident who had moved to Salem County, stirred the city's Hispanic population.

Six days after the beating of Rafael Rodriguez Gonzales, who identified himself to police as Horacio Jimenez, a group of Puerto Rican leaders complained the beating was unprovoked. They called for the suspension of two officers involved.

Mayor Joseph M. Nardi took no action. Two weeks after the beating, Camden Police Chief Harold Melleby charged officers Gary Miller and Warren Worrel with atrocious assault and battery, but they stayed on the job.

On the night of Aug. 20, 1971, more than 15 fires were set and three people were shot; 87 people reported injuries.

Camden's 328-member force was supplemented by 78 state troopers and 70 officers from suburban departments.

A mediator was appointed by Gov. William Cahill and met with representatives of city government and the Hispanic community. He recommended suspension of the two police officers.

Nardi conceded.

Within hours of the city's announcement that the police officers were suspended, crowds dissipated. Assault charges against Miller and Worrell were upgraded to murder when Jimenez died. The charges were downgraded to manslaughter and both were acquitted by a jury.

Camden Courier-Post - February 1, 2007


Courier-Post Staff

Carl D. Poplar, now one of the most respected defense attorneys in New Jersey, whose clients include legislators, corporations and law firms, was starting his practice in 1969.

He had left Camden Regional Legal Services, which provided legal representation in civil matters to South Jersey's poorest residents, and was often an attorney to dissidents, including Poppy Sharp, head of the Black Peoples Unity Movement.

"They wanted community development in Camden, and they'd be screaming and ranting but they really were very non-violent," he said of the BPUM. "It's just that their rhetoric was intense. People assumed they were militant and they exploited that to get movement from the city.

"They didn't want violence. They wanted things to get better," he said recently.

Poplar remembers meeting with "young lawyers and other professionals" in his office at 530 Cooper St. on an August night in 1971. They were planning the gubernatorial campaign of Assemblyman Jim Florio.

"I remember it was a Thursday night. I came out of my office and recognized something irregular was going on. Windows were broken. We hadn't heard anything from inside, but Friday morning I found out about the Jimenez incident," the beating of a Hispanic man in Camden by two city police officers.

The next day, Poplar said, Jimenez's family came to him, hiring him to represent them in a possible lawsuit.

"That night, I got a call, either from Joe Rodriguez or Joe Nardi. They knew I represented Jimenez. They were aware he was in the hospital, on a respirator. Their view was if word got out that he was dead, it would escalate the riot, and we made a decision to keep him alive."

It was Poplar's duty to talk to officials at Cooper Hospital on behalf of the Jimenez family to ensure Jimenez remained on life support.

"I remember having to walk through an area of tear gas. From there, I went to City Hall and became involved in the meetings" that were aimed at resolving the differences between the Hispanic community and the city government.

"Gunshots were being fired. The governor (William Cahill) was in communication with the mayor. Cahill got a mediator, and they decided on a secret meeting at a secret location.

"I was there. I may have been a go-between for the two groups, or I may have just been someone to get them coffee," Poplar said.

The mediator arrived at the Cherry Hill Inn in a state police helicopter, greeted by news photographers and reporters who had learned of the planned secret meeting.

"We spent an hour looking for a round table, because this was the time of the Vietnam peace talks and the theory was to use a round table. It was all very cosmetic. We finally got some oblong tables and placed them so we had a circle of sorts," he said.

Attorney Frank Vittori had been hired to represent the two police officers at the center of the turmoil, Gary Miller and Warren Worrell. "He came into the meeting, screaming, demanding they not be suspended. Police were headquartered at Woodrow Wilson High School and they refused to go back on the street if the officers were suspended. It was all very animated," Poplar said.

But the group reached an agreement to suspend the officers and to appoint members of the Puerto Rican community as street marshals, to spread the news to calm everyone down.

While Poplar was on the street, with Mario and Joseph Rodriguez, members of an anti-war group that became known as the Camden 28 were breaking into the Post Office building on Market Street. Several of those arrested by the FBI that night had Poplar's business card.

Poplar couldn't be reached and the Camden 28 reached out to his law partner, Joel Korin, who represented them the next day, a Sunday, at an arraignment in U.S. District Court.