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Why We Fight
Interstate 676, Camden, New Jersey. (Photo: Dougtone)

Why We Fight

Interstate 676, Camden, New Jersey. (Photo: Dougtone)

I park my car in the lot in front of the rectory of Sacred Heart in Camden, N.J., and walk through a gray drizzle to Emerald Street. My friend Lolly Davis, whose blood pressure recently shot up and whose kidneys shut down, had been taken to a hospital in an ambulance but was now home. I climb the concrete steps to her row house and ring the bell. There is an overpowering stench of garbage in the street. Her house is set amid other brick and wooden residences, some of which have been refurbished under Monsignor Michael Doyle’s Heart of Camden project at Sacred Heart, a Roman Catholic parish. Other structures on Davis’ street sit derelict or bear the scars of decay and long abandonment.

Lolly’s grandson, nicknamed Boom Boom or Boomer, answers the door. He tells me his grandmother is upstairs. I enter and sit on a beige chair in the living room near closed white blinds that cover the window looking out on Emerald Street. The living room has a large flat screen television and two beige couches with brown and burnt-red floral patterns that match the chair. There is a stone fireplace with a mantel crowded with family photos. Her grandson, one of numerous children from the neighborhood whom she adopted and raised, yells upstairs to let Lolly know I have arrived.

Lolly, 69, appears at the top of the stairs. Clutching the railing, she makes her way gingerly down the steep wooden steps. Boomer, who is 21 and recently completed a special education program at a high school, goes back to the kitchen, where he was making himself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Lolly’s two Chihuahuas, Big Pepsi Cola and Little Pepsi Cola, father and son who get into frequent growling matches, scamper around the room.

I have interviewed Lolly several times over the past two years for the new book,”Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt,” that I wrote with the cartoonist Joe Sacco. In the book, Joe, who also spent time with her, illustrates the story of Lolly’s life. Lolly radiates the indomitable and magnificent strength of the women and men who rise up in the pockets of poverty and despair we reported from, whether in Camden, Pine Ridge, S.D., the coal fields of southern West Virginia or the produce fields in Florida. They resist not because they will succeed in reversing the corporate onslaught against them, or even save themselves or their communities from poverty, but because it is right. They wake each day to defy, often in small, unseen acts of revolt, the intractable poverty, the despair and violence, by nurturing life. They often can do little to protect the lives, especially the lives of children, that are daily crushed and destroyed. But they refuse to bow before the forces of oppression or neglect. And in that defiance they achieve grandeur.

“The poor have to help the poor,” Lolly says, “because the ones who make the money are helping the people with money.”Camden’s plight is worse than that of Youngstown, Ohio, or Detroit, worse than that of east New York or Watts. It is a dead city. It makes and produces nothing. It is the poorest city in the United States and is usually ranked year after year as one of the most, and often the most, dangerous. Camden is one of our many internal colonies in North America beset with the familiar corruption and brutal police repression that characterize the despotic regimes I covered as a reporter in Africa and Latin America. The per capita income in the city is $11,967, and nearly 40 percent of the residents live below the poverty line.

Large swaths of Camden lie empty and abandoned. There are more than 1,500 derelict, abandoned row houses, empty shells of windowless brick factories and gutted and abandoned gas stations. There are overgrown vacant lots filled with garbage and old tires and rusted appliances. There are neglected, weed-filled cemeteries and boarded-up storefronts. There are perhaps a hundred open-air drug markets, most run by gangs such as the Bloods, the Latin Kings, Los Nietos and MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha). Knots of young Hispanic or African-American men in black leather jackets, who can occasionally be seen flipping through wads of cash, sell weed, dope and crack to customers, many of whom drive in from the suburbs, in brazen defiance of the law. The drug trade is perhaps the city’s only thriving business. A weapon is never more than a few feet away from the drug set, usually stashed behind a trash can, in the grass or on a porch, always within easy reach. Camden is a city awash in guns, easily purchased across the river in Philadelphia, where Pennsylvania gun laws are lax. The guns are kept for protection from rival gangs that send out groups to prey on rival drug dealers, stealing their drugs and cash. To be poor is to face the awful fact that nonviolence is a luxury that few on the streets can afford.

When Joe and I were working on the book in Camden a federal grand jury charged a local cop nicknamed “Fat Face” and some of his colleagues with planting drugs on suspects, bribing prostitutes with drugs for information, lying on police reports, beating up suspects and conducting searches without warrants. Three of the city’s mayors have gone to prison for corruption in the last couple of decades. The school system and the police department have been taken over by the state. The deeper the descent the more the criminal class and the city authorities become indistinguishable, a smaller version of what has been replicated by corporations across the nation. Camden may have an African-American mayor, just as America may have an African-American president, but the faces and races of political leaders are no impediment to the ruthless cannibalizing of the country by corporate capitalism.

* * *

Lolly was born over the river in Philadelphia, in the Nicetown neighborhood, in 1942. She was the youngest of nine boys and six girls in the family. Two brothers and one sister remain alive. All of her brothers would go into the military, fighting in the Korean or Vietnam war. Her father was a carpenter and her mother took care of the children. She hands me a photocopy of a photograph of her mother, a strikingly beautiful woman radiant in a sundress. Her mother, who had white, Cherokee and black ancestry, was nicknamed “Hollywood” because of her beauty and elegance. Her fair skin meant that at times she was mistaken for being white. The woman in the old black-and-white picture has dark curls. The promise of life is written across her broad, joyous face.

Lolly’s childhood centered on the First Century Gospel Church in Philadelphia. The church, which was racially integrated and had a white pastor, believed in the power of prayer to heal sickness. Members were not allowed to visit doctors, including eye doctors. No one in the church, no matter how poor his or her eyesight, wore glasses.

Lolly’s mother, born and raised in New Castle, Pa., lost her own mother when she was 5. Lolly’s grandfather remarried a year later, and the family moved to Bedford, Va. It was in Virginia that Lolly’s mother met her father, who was half black and half Cherokee. They lived in Virginia until 1936, when they moved to a black section of Philadelphia, in Nicetown. Her mother studied to be a nurse, but her father forbade her to practice because of the strictures of the church. Some of the whites, Lolly remembers, lived in large, fine houses on Erie Street.

“My mother corresponded with a church in Philadelphia,” Lolly says. “She had gotten sick. And so she had written the pastor and told him she was sick. This was the First Century Gospel Church of Philadelphia. They told her they would pray ‘round 12 o’clock and fer her to pray right along with ‘em, and she did. And my father came home that day and saw my mother hangin’ up clothes. And she said she was healed. They decided then to come up to Philadelphia.”

“My father and my mother were God-fearin’ parents,” she says. “We went to church every Sunday, and every Wednesday evening we was at church. I had a sister I was named after. Her name is Mary Lolly. She was 2 years old when she died. She come down with a bad cold. I guess it was penomia. We had two beds in the girls’ room. The boys’ room had two beds and a bunk bed, so ther was four beds in the boys’ room. When I came along I was at the end. Then my mother, she adopted a little boy. I raised him after [my mother] passed away the day before he turned 7. I was 19. It was the 30th of May and we had the funeral. She died of diabetes. My mother was 60 years old.”

“I left the church when I got older,” she says. “I couldn’t understand why you couldn’t wear glasses, couldn’t go to the doctor, but they went to the dentist. I’m thinkin’ [when] you go to the dentist and get a tooth pulled isn’t that medication?”

“I never knew my grandparents on my father’s side,” she says. “I never knew my grandparents on my mother’s side, except my step-grandmother. My father raised his sisters and his brothers. His parents passed away, but he never would talk about what happened. He never said nothin’ ’bout what happened to our grandparents on my father’s side.”

“The hardest part of my childhood was in the wintertime,” she says. “My father was a carpenter, but we never had our lights out; he always paid the bill. He saved when he worked in the summertime. He made sure he put money away to pay the rent and the public service bills. Food was the hardest. I ’member one time I was ’bout 5 years old. My sisters and brothers was in school. I come down and tell my mother I was hungry. And she said, ‘OK, wait, wait.’ So she made me some toast. I ate that. An’ then when my sisters and brothers came home from school that afternoon we had oatmeal. I ’member that night tellin’ my mother I was hungry, that that oatmeal didn’t fill me up. That was the first and only time I remember bein’ hungry. The next day was payday. My father came home and [had] bought food and everything, groceries and stuff. I had been near hungry, but that was the only time I can really say I was really, really bein’ hungry.”

Her father would travel in the winter to the Pocono Mountains and hunt pheasants, rabbits, groundhogs and even bear for food.

“We had groundhog many a day,” Lolly says.

When her mother became gravely ill, the family called the pastor to come to the house to pray.

“The pastor came up that Saturday to see her, and I had to read the Bible to us every night,” she says. “My mom had a black Persian cat. This cat had to have breakfast with my mom every day. Whatever my mother didn’t eat, the cat would eat it. When my mother would finish eating, she would take her cup of tea and pour a little in a saucer and feed it to the cat. One day I came in there and I took her plate. I went in the kitchen and heard this noise. I went back in the room, she had fell. I called my older sister [at her home], and I told her; I had a hard time getting [my mother] up, you know. My sister came over that day. She took my mother [to her home]. My sister said it’s too much for me to take care of the house, cook dinner for everybody and take care of my mother at the same time. When my father came home I had the suitcase packed, me and my little brother with me, and we went to my sister’s house. My mother said I was the only one who could lift her. Everyone else hurt her. When we go there my mother said, ‘I knew you would come.’ ”

“The night she died, I was sitting with her,” Lolly says. “I said mama you can’t talk, I said do you want some water, shake your head yeah, she shook her head yeah. So I gave her some water and then she died. The whole sky lit up, like fireworks. Goodnight, dada. Everybody up there know what to do. Somebody called the pastor.”

Lolly was left to care for her adopted 7-year-old brother. Her mother had taken in the boy after a neighbor told her that an infant was being left alone in an apartment all day while the mother worked. Lolly, her father and her little brother moved to Camden after her mother died in 1961.

* * *

“It don’t have to be blood all the time for someone to be your family,” she says. “And that’s what I tell my children. They don’t have to be your blood. I have one [Boom Boom]. … I’ve had him since he was three days old. My neighbor was talking about having an abortion. I told her, ‘Are you ready to stand before God and tell him the reason that you got rid of that baby?’ She said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Give the child to me.’ I never asked her for a penny after that, for anything.”

Lolly started working at Sears. She met a man named James Nipples, nicknamed “Nick,” who was in the Coast Guard. They fell in love. She and Nick had their first daughter in 1964. When Nick got out of the Coast Guard he found a job at Campbell’s Soup. They moved into an apartment together, an arrangement that ended when Lolly came home and found Nick with another woman. She moved to an apartment of her own on Washington Street in Camden. Eventually she and Nick reconciled, moved into an apartment together and had a second daughter, Tammy.

“Nick was scared to death of my father,” Lolly says. “My father was a tall man. He had big hands. That’s what Nick said. He was always respectful to my dad. They used to call him banana fingers. And my father was respectful to him.”

They planned to marry in September 1970, but Nick was shot to death on August 30 in the middle of a quarrel in a bar.

“I was pregnant with my last daughter, fourth daughter, when he got killed,” she says. “Baby girl, that’s Cheryl. His [Nick’s] mother, she said, ‘I was coming up for the wedding, … [instead] I come up and bury my son.’ ”

* * *

All of Lolly’s brothers came home from the wars struggling to cope with the violence they had seen or participated in.

“My older brother Gilbert, he was in the Army,” she says. “My second oldest brother, Wilfred, he was in the Army. He used to have a heart trouble, and they sent him home. My youngest brother, one I was next to, Virgil, he was in the Marines. He was in Vietnam twice. He went back. He came out the service. He says, ‘There’s nothing out here [in civilian life],’ and he signed up, and they sent him right back. He drunk himself to death I guess. My older brother, he died too, because of the liver. Mostly all my brothers were drunk.”

On May 13, 1975, Lolly’s 7-year-old daughter complained that her throat hurt and she could not swallow. Lolly rushed her to a hospital, and the child died there.

“I almost lost my mind,” Lolly says. “I would hear her laughing. I would look upstairs. I would see my daughter jump up on the bed. I knew she wasn’t there. You know what I mean? I thought, people gonna say I’m crazy. One night I was laying in bed. I always left the bathroom light on. That toilet would constantly run. Constantly run. I was praying. I was crying. But I never asked God why, I never asked him why, why my daughter had to die, I never asked him why. I heard my father, who had died six months before my daughter, just like I’m talking to you right now. My father said, ‘Didn’t I tell you don’t worry about her? Don’t worry, Tammy’s all right … she’s with me.’ And I believe he’s in heaven. Everything just got all light.”

“What time of the night was that?” I ask.

“Oh,” she says, “that gotta be like 1 or 2 in the morning.”

“I got up like it was a new day,” she says. “Like everything, like the sun just came up, you know, and everything was all right, my nerves calmed on down.”

* * *

“I took other people’s kids,” Lolly says. “My house, this is the quiet house I’ve ever had. This house is quiet compared to where I used to live at. Because, I never know, I wake up in the morning and come downstairs I never know who is in my house. I always have family move in, and they weren’t paying no rent. No nothing. I did everything for myself. I used to go junking, and I used to have little yard sales. I raised my brother Robin. … [My sister-in-law] had a daughter, and her daughter had four kids. I raised them from 1993 to going on 1997. Four boys. It was all in my house. I had six at the time. I was a baby sitter to two other kids. The young man that was here, I had him off and on since he was three days old. I raised him and his brother. His grandmother had custody of him. She sent for me and I went to see her. She had cancer. She asked will I raise them, and I said yeah. I rode over in the morning, come home, I would go by the house, get the kids, I would feed her dinner, nobody was there to help her. I would feed her dinner and everything, wash her clothes, do the dishes, all that. I’d take the boys, bring them home, help with the homework, wash their clothes at my house, hang their clothes. Next morning at 5 o’clock I would get them boys up, get them dressed.”

“I had two white kids,” she says. “Chris and Hope. They were my neighbors on Almond Street. Hope was a girl. Chris was a boy. Hope was older. They were 4 or 5. Their mother and father lived on our street. She started messing with this black guy, and she left. Well anyway, [their father] had to work, he had nobody to take care of the kids. I told him bring the kids on, I’ll take care of the kids. So then they started staying at my house. And finally he took them, he took them back to his parents. Four, five, six, seven, eight kids, nine kids. But I always had kids staying at my house, even the kids in the neighborhood. When they had problems with their parents they’d come to my house, I had to straighten everything out.”

Camden fell into grim decline in the 1960s as industries that had once provided employment, including a shipyard that at its height provided 36,000 jobs, packed up and left. The riots in August 1971 dealt Camden a near-fatal blow. The word spread among African-Americans as the city erupted that they should hang something red in their windows if they wanted their homes spared from arson attacks. Lolly immediately informed her white neighbors to hang red in their windows to save their homes.

“My brother came into the house, and told me, put red in the window because they’re going to firebomb the house,” Lolly says. “I said, ‘Oh my goodness! Oh, my goodness!’ I went across the street and I told my friend Gigi, ‘Look, y’all gotta put some red in the window.’ I said, ‘Y’all can’t tell nobody where you heard from, because they gonna kill me, you know.’ So they put [up a] red Christmas sock. I put my brother’s red underwear. I go tape [it] in my window, tape in my window.”

“Stores moved out” in the aftermath of the riots, Lilly says. “J.C. Penney left. … Five-and-10 closed up downtown. … All the supermarkets, we had Acme, we have an Acme no more.”

“Everything is gone,” she adds. “Camden went downhill.”

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