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  • Guidelines for SquattingConcerned Citizens of North Camden, 1978–1990
  • Mercy Romero (bio)

On Friday, September 14, 1979, the New Northeast Elementary School in Camden, New Jersey closed early. The children and the teaching staff were sent home by midday so that the building could be fumigated, especially the kindergarten classrooms. Fleas were biting the children; the fleas (and their companion rats) were breeding in the vacant houses surrounding the school. The city's response coupled fumigation and demolition, ordering the school's fumigation and the demolition of a Byron Street vacant house, located some six blocks away and believed to be the source of this "rodent problem." When thirty local residents, organized as part of the grassroots advocacy organization Concerned Citizens of North Camden (CCNC), met with the mayor about the flea infestation, they cast doubt on the success of the fumigation (as fleas build tolerance) and requested medical treatment. They also pointed out that the English-only informational pamphlets given to residents were not "readable." These documents were inadequate to their community's needs and its literacies:

"And we need readable pamphlets—preventative information that everybody can understand—including our Spanish-speaking neighbors," Benson said, pointing to a leaflet distributed by the Camden County Department of Health. It reads: "Fleas form an isolated order of wingless external blood-sucking parasites of mammals and birds…. The larvae do not live on the host's body, but in the dust and debris of its nest or lair."

(Jankowski, "Fleas Infest City School")

The city's pamphlet describes the biology and habitat of fleas, yet avoids describing the real geographies of Camden's vacant houses and the complex lives of Camden's schoolchildren (the "host bodies"). Beyond the call for bilingual or Spanishlanguage information, the bureaucratic information was insufficient to this particular community, as it evaded the causes, symptoms, or treatment of a ruined [End Page 586] landscape, a place that residents critiqued as a "dying neighborhood," given its concentration of poverty, the effects of disinvestment, and uneven access to resources and opportunities.

Responding to the missing context for fumigation, an article in a local newspaper about CCNC's response conveys a dramatic protest of structural inequalities that made infestation possible. In this account, CCNC members transported a bag full of fleas to the Mayor's office. The collection would have been easy. The fleas were not isolated as indicated in the pamphlet in the "nest or lair" of the vacant houses' debris, but rather they were swarming people outdoors: "'We took a bag of fleas and put it on the mayor's desk and asked him if he wanted to live like that,' said Carlos Collazo. 'The next day, there were more officials there than people who lived on Byron Street'" (Jankowski, "Citizens Battle Bites, Blight, and Bars").

Between these stories, appearing in the local newspaper two years apart, fumigation follows a response to the neighborhood's organized abandonment, where people and homes slowly disappear and other life forms resurge and thrive. Behind the rush and scurry of "officials" on Byron Street, the exchange of bureaucratic communication intensified between government and private extermination and demolition companies. Print and broadcast media, from newspaper reporters and cameras to Camden County Department of Health pamphlets, covered the scene. We can also understand CCNC's theatrical protest, a hand-packaged and spectacularly delivered message (the bag of fleas) that turned on the tragicomic, as a form of publicity that widened recognition of the relationship between "bites, bugs, and blight."1 Fumigation was widely used as a public announcement of eventual demolition, and it served as a profit-generating solution to infestation.

Ebony Coletu defines biographic mediation as the functional use of life writing required by institutions to determine who gets what and why. Biographic mediation is "invested in altering or depicting the trajectory of a life to justify the distribution of resources, diagnose social problems, or develop new markets" (384). As an institutional technology, biographic mediation enables us to appreciate the "full range of value transactions routed through the disclosure of identity, experience, and ambition" (384). Following Coletu's definition of biographic mediation, we can understand how CCNC's direct action used biographic mediation...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-1456
Print ISSN
0162-4962
Pages
pp. 586-609
Launched on MUSE
2019-12-11
Open Access
No
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