From one end of Philadelphia to the other, virtually no neighborhood — from Society Hill to Grays Ferry and from University City to Strawberry Mansion — is exempt from the senseless violence that seems to have a vice-like grip on Philadelphia.
According to law enforcement experts, among the top ten cities in the nation, Philadelphia’s homicide rate remains among the worst, with young Black males between the ages of 17 to 25 consistently being the majority of the victims and perpetrators. After a 20 percent decline in homicide over the last three years, the numbers are starting to inch up again. To put the figures in context, there have been 183 murders in Philadelphia as of Tribune press time. By contrast, one U.S. serviceman was killed in Iraq in 2012. In 2011, there were 324 murder victims in Philadelphia, again, mostly Black males. In Iraq for that same year, 54 U.S. servicemen were killed.
The numbers illustrate the glaring and frightening reality that a young Black man is safer in Iraq fighting insurgents than he is walking around the streets of Philadelphia’s African American neighborhoods.
The contributing causes of what drives the senseless violence in Philadelphia seem to defy the best efforts of lawmakers, community leaders and anti-violence advocates to curtail it. Mentoring has been shown to work, but is there enough funding to sustain a major effort to reach the at-risk population? The at-risk population needs living wage jobs, but statistics show that most of the perpetrators of the violence are high school, or even junior high school dropouts with long records of arrests and incarcerations. Then there are the illegal guns. The Gun Violence Task Force has confiscated thousands of illegal weapons since its inception, and still the violence continues. Over and over the refrain is heard from residents and government representatives alike – “We must do something about the violence in our neighborhoods.”
The question is what?
At the ninth Annual Summit on Race, Culture and Human Relation, Mayor Michael Nutter put the issue in context when he compared the country’s reaction to Black on Black crime and its response to terrorism.
“Black men are becoming an endangered species in America — locked up or dead,” Nutter said. “Crime also breeds upon itself. After serving their time, many of the individuals who are released from our prisons cannot find work, and do not have the training or literacy skills to keep a job. In the United States today, one in three African American men will have contact with the criminal justice system at some point during their lives. Of the 316 people who were murdered in Philadelphia last year, nearly 75 percent of those killed were Black men. Around 80 percent of those doing the killing are Black men. Black on Black crime is not an isolated problem. It affects every member of every community. This is a national problem with national implications, and there needs to be a national conversation.”
In 2004, on the morning of Feb. 11, 10-year old Faheem Thomas-Childs was caught in the crossfire of a gunfight at the T.M. Peirce Elementary School in North Philadelphia. The killing of Thomas-Childs touched off citywide outrage - and he was only one of 330 people killed that year in the city.
During military operations in Iraq from 2007 to 2012, 1,482 American service members were killed. In Philadelphia for the same years, 1,654 people were killed — mostly Black males. To color that number even more, according to Philadelphia Police Department figures, 645 Black males between the ages of 17 and 25 were murdered in Philadelphia during those years. By contrast, 27 Black males between the same ages were fatally shot by police officers in the commission of their duties.
“There are combinations of different causes behind this senseless bloodshed,” said Philadelphia City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson. “Many times these are petty disputes that rise to the level of violence. Some of the reports I’ve seen indicate drug turf wars in some instances, but all of it has a negative impact on the community, and most of the victims are young Black males. The reality is that we cannot give up and just sit on the sidelines; we have to keep working aggressively to change the mindset of these young men.”
Chad Lassiter, president of Black Men at Penn, said a major part of the problem lies in young Black men returning to their communities from prison and finding limited or no resources in helping them secure living wage jobs.
“We’re not doing nearly enough from an economic standpoint, and we have to truly level the economic and educational playing fields. In both areas, we see what we can almost define as a kind of apartheid,” Lassiter said. “We have major corporations here and major sports franchises - but no training programs to move workers into employment within them. Also, there’s not enough being done in the construction industry in terms of apprenticeships. Are there mentoring programs? Attorney General Eric Holder giving $3 million to hire twenty five police officers doesn’t excite me. I’d like to see that money used to target and prosecute the traffickers of illegal guns.”
Bilal Qayyum, Executive Director of the Father’s Day Rally Committee, Inc., said his organization is in the planning stages of setting up a national level conference on Black on Black crime. Call to Action: Black on Black Violence Conference will be hosted by St. Joseph’s University and will take place from August 10 through August 13. The purpose is to bring African American leaders together from across the country to see what works and what doesn’t, and how to apply successful anti-violence approaches in their cities and communities.
“What works in Baltimore might not work in Philadelphia. What works in Philadelphia may not work in Newark. We are 13 percent of the population of America, but cause 50 percent of the homicides - and we’ve been trying to get a hold on this for years. It requires a response on the national level. What we hope to achieve with the conference is create a national movement to help end the violence. We need to look at fresh models and create a national network of groups to work on the problem,” Qayyum said.