As Philadelphia’s murder rate soars, officials are grappling with ways to contain the violence, which has claimed more than 300 lives this year.
“How come as a city we are not in an outrage?” asked Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who this week held a roundtable to discuss ways to end the problem. “We have to get to a level of activism that we take back the city.”
The event, held Wednesday at city hall, drew participants from local universities and hospitals who couched talk of the epidemic of violence in terms of public health. In addition to Johnson, council members Curtis Jones and Dennis O’Brien also attended.
This year, 316 people have been murdered, putting the city on track to break previous records. Murder is only one measure of violence. According to Ralph Taylor, a professor of criminal justice at Temple University, for every one murder, there are 94 other incidents of violence, a fact that pushes violence in Philadelphia to epidemic levels.
The vast majority of those incidents involve African Americans.
“If you take it in context, all of the African Americans killed by other African Americans - it is more than all of the lynchings by the Ku Klux Klan in the history of the organization,” said Jones.
Experts gathered around the table agreed that the solution to the problem lies in the community.
Violence begets violence, creating a vicious cycle that perpetuates itself.
“Exposure to violence and stress and trauma has an effect,” said John Rich, chair of health management and policy at Drexel University’s School of Public Health.
People who are repeatedly exposed to violence often exhibit symptoms similar to those of soldiers in war. In reaction, they get jittery, often begin self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, and they arm themselves because they don’t feel safe.
“They develop many of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder,” Rich said.
The cycle will only continue as long as children are exposed to violence.
“Philadelphians will not be safe until their children are safe,” he said.
While lauding Johnson for hosting the event, Charles Williams, a psychologist from Drexel, said the problem cannot be legislated or policed away.
The epidemic will end only when the community steps up, children realize they have a future, and the city’s leaders get serious about solving the problem.
“Politicians need to say ‘We can’t do this alone. It’s 50/50. You have to meet us half way,” said Williams. “What we have to do is be honest with the community.”
That is often politically unpleasant.
Williams pointed to the fact that Philadelphia has more Black leaders than most other cities in the country, yet deep rooted problems in the African-American community persist.
“We have the highest dropout rate, the highest crime rate, one of the highest HIV/AIDS rates, one of the highest teen pregnancy rates,” he said.
This week’s roundtable was part of a larger effort spearheaded by Johnson that includes monthly gatherings where he, other council members and people from the community can exchange ideas.