Camden rally prompted by Missouri shooting itself sparks dissent

Posted: August 30, 2014

Chants of "Hands up! Don't shoot!" went up in Camden Thursday, in apparent solidarity with residents of Ferguson, Mo.

But the rally, organized by the local NAACP and a number of area union locals, itself sparked dissent.

As plans for it became known, some in the union ranks felt it was prematurely and unfairly targeting the white Ferguson police officer whose fatal shooting of a black teenager sparked days of unrest in the Missouri town this month.

The tension within Communications Workers of America Local 1014, which represents Camden County's 911 dispatchers and helped host the protest, was evident Wednesday night on Facebook, where one dispatcher posted a picture of the union's symbol upside down and wrote: "My local union CWA 1014 is an absolute joke and embarrassment to all hard working blue collar workers across the country. They should be ashamed of themselves."

Local 3249, the Camden County union of the International Association of Fire Fighters, which was not one of the rally organizers, sent an e-mail to its 120 members Wednesday night that, near the top, read, "Please Do Not Protest Until All of the Facts Are In."

"There's nothing to protest yet," Keith Kemery, president of Local 3249, said Thursday. He said he learned of the rally around 8 p.m. Wednesday.

"There is an unfortunate circumstance, and I'm sure everyone involved already feels bad enough," he said of the death of Ferguson teen Michael Brown. An investigation needs to be completed, he said, before people start condemning police in Ferguson and officers in general.

The rally was attended by about 50 protesters, who gathered outside City Hall and chanted enthusiastically as the midday sun beat down.

CWA Local 1014 President Karl Walko said he was aware of "a certain amount of blowback" from members, but said critics were missing the point.

The rally, he said, was not meant to condemn the officer, but to criticize the militarized police response to the protests that followed, and to encourage dialogue among officers and residents in Camden, a city wracked with violent crime.

"We're looking to lower the temperature level," Walko said. "Not elevate the temperature level."

Among those at the rally were some longtime Camden residents, including Faheem Lea, 43, who said he has lived in the city since he was 4.

He compared the problems facing some young black men in Camden - such as absent fathers and a lack of jobs - to a garden of weeds. People can fix the weeds or ignore them, he said, but looking the other way won't make them go away.

"We've got tens of thousands of Michael Browns walking the streets right now," he said.

Camden County NAACP president Colandus "Kelly" Francis said some Camden residents had become desensitized to the violence and poverty around them.

"They've been beaten down," Francis said, adding that such a mentality makes it hard for residents to feel their voices matter.

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