By Michael D’Onofrio
PHILADELPHIA — The unofficial start of summer begins Memorial Day weekend.
The summer also historically heralds a surge in gun violence on Philadelphia streets.
Philadelphia is already in the midst of historically high levels of gun violence, with homicides and the number of shooting victims up 38 percent and nearly 37 percent, respectively, over the same time last year. Gun violence here has mirrored upticks in U.S. cities during the coronavirus pandemic.
After 2020 saw the worst gun violence in the city in three decades, some Black anti-violence activists had differing views about what is in store for the summer.
Anton Moore, founder of the anti-gun violence group Unity in the Community in South Philadelphia, said he hoped the loosening of coronavirus pandemic restrictions coupled with the reopening of the city’s economy and activities could stem the traditional rise in violence seen during the summer.
“More things are going to be taking place for kids to be involved in,” Moore said. “People’s time is going to be occupied with something else.”
The Kenney administration lifted its outdoor face mask mandate on Friday for vaccinated people. Moore said he believed that also could help reduce shootings by drawing attention to those wearing masks.
“Because somebody looks suspicious walking around with a mask on looking to do something,” he said.
Moore said he was expecting to launch a 15-week pilot carpentry program for at least 10 at-risk teenagers starting in June. The participants will be paid a stipend and get to keep the equipment.
Others were skeptical that gun violence would abate.
Some longtime community activists maintained gun violence here was the result of decades of institutional failures and white institutional racism at nearly every level that has left Black and brown communities with few job opportunities, poor educational access, and entrenched in deep poverty.
“When you lock folks out of participating in opportunities in society, then you create the negative behavior,” said Bilal Qayyum, president of the Father’s Day Rally Committee.
Stanley Crawford, head of the anti-gun violence group Black Male Community Council of Philadelphia, expected the violence to increase this summer because city officials have failed to address those institutional shortcomings.
“It’s very illusionary to put this violence on the coronavirus,” Crawford said. “That’s asinine. … The governmental system is not living up to its responsibilities — safety and protection for the citizens of Philadelphia.”
Crawford said his group was attempting to create a safe space during the day at Nicetown Park this summer for children. He said the group has yet to raise the $130,000 needed for the effort.
Philadelphia logged 199 homicides as of Friday and 793 shooting victims as of Wednesday, according to the police department’s website and Philadelphia Shooting Victims Dashboard.
The city had a violent 2020. Homicides reached 499, a figure not seen since 1990 when 500 homicides were reported. Homicides also had their highest year-over-year increase in 2020 since anytime dating back to at least 1960.
Black Philadelphians are the overwhelming majority of shooting and homicide victims.
Solomon Jones, WURD Radio host and founder ManUpPHL, said his anti-gun violence group was working with at-risk young Black men this summer to listen to their ideas around what is driving violence and potential solutions. The program will pay them a stipend and help them find employment.
“Quite frankly, somebody my age or even 10 years younger, doesn’t necessarily know what’s happening in the streets,” Jones said. “Too many of us, I think, in my generation are acting like we have all the answers — and we don’t.”
Qayyum said he held out hope that the proposed influx of $500,000 for a grant program for community groups combating violence could begin to reduce violence sometime next year.
Qayyum said the city’s current anti-violence efforts were not effective and called for at least a $10 million investment from the city for anti-violence community organizations.
Without providing resources and opportunities to individuals, Qayyum said the city’s anti-violence efforts would continue to fall short.
“You can’t ask a drug dealer to stop selling drugs if you don’t have an alternative way for him to make money,” he said.
Jones warned that unless the city’s anti-violence efforts go beyond funding in order to better reach at-risk individuals, the current level of violence could become the new normal.
“I don’t think money is the issue; I think it’s approach,” Jones said. “It comes down to reaching people where they are and trying to figure out how to lift them up rather than how to keep them down.”
Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.