‘Some of these killings are for the dumbest reasons’: What’s driving Philly’s bloody summer?

From poverty to the pandemic, observers say a variety of factors are behind the violence

By: - August 17, 2021 11:00 am

State Sen. Sharif Street, center, and his wife, April, third from left, stand among officials and community activists outside City Hall on Tuesday, 7/6/21 (Image via The Philadelphia Tribune).

By Dwight Ott

PHILADELPHIA — It was all wrong.

It was the Fourth of July and the gun blasts from the four shooters popped like fireworks in West Philadelphia.

But this was no Independence Day for Philadelphia — not from gun violence homicides. In less than two weeks the city would hit 300 gun deaths, the highest number ever reached in the city by this time of year.

While sparklers and firecrackers lit up the night sky, gunfire saluted the darkness below on 60th Street near Walnut. A video clip obtained by police showed the gunmen leap out of a dark sedan and unleash over 100 bullets that sparked through the night air, obliterating the hopes and dreams of two up-and-coming go-getters, while also injuring a 16-year-old girl.

The hail of bullets left behind so many shell casings and ballistic fragments that police ran out of evidence markers to track the killings. Meanwhile, the unforgiving bullets had snatched away two budding Black entrepreneurs who were attempting to carve out a future for themselves and their community amid the city’s unceasing violence. The men were 23-year-old Sircarr Johnson Jr., a new father; and 21-year-old Salahaldin Mahmoud, a young man with “big ideas.”

Johnson, who hosted the event, was celebrating the success of his store, Premiére Bande, at that location, while Mahmoud — a friend of Johnson and cousin of the wife of state Sen. Sharif Street — had recently started his own towing service and had just bought a tow truck.

Philadelphia officials demand more action to reduce gun violence

Far from being a celebration, the bullet-riddled night raised the ongoing question. Why was this bloodletting continuing to spike in the City of Brotherly Love not just on the Fourth, but seemingly night after night?

Gunfire in Philadelphia — a city sometimes called “Killadelphia” by detractors — had taken on a life of its own, clocking a pace to exceed the record year of 1990 when 499 corpses were reportedly left behind by bullets.

At least for the time being, the city had become the one with highest per capita killings of the nation’s largest cities, temporarily surpassing Chicago (though not in total numbers of killings).

Mimicking gang ‘lifestyle’

A former inmate, who requested anonymity, said he believed some Philadelphia shooters were deliberately attempting to drive up the numbers to imitate the Chicago gang culture popularized online and by various rappers.

“They’re trying to bring that (Chicago) gang lifestyle here. They’re mimicking that lifestyle,” he said.

He said his 22-year-old son had been fatally shot as a result of the local gun violence. The middle-aged man standing outside the scene of a double shooting recently, said he was a former military veteran. He said he believed his son may have been shot because he knew how to use his hands and didn’t need a gun on the streets. The former veteran said he couldn’t help but become enraged nowadays whenever seeing posts on Instagram in which a poster talked about “running up the score” as “if (killing) was a game.”

Local police said they had begun monitoring social media because of the threats posed by social media on the streets.

“Overall, the PPD (Philadelphia Police Department) has noticed a trend in homicides and shootings that point to disputes via social media and social media playing an increased role in violent confrontations between individuals,” Cpl. Jasmine Reilly said recently.

‘No organized structure’

Dawud Bey, co-founder of Put it Down, a nascent violence interruption group, said modern shooters didn’t answer to any gang authority as they did in the past. There was no more structure or tradition, he said.

“There’s no more honor among …” he said. “Part of the problem is there is no organized structure anymore. Everybody is doing anything they want.”

“It used to be about ‘cops and robbers.’ And ‘cops and robbers’ means do something and don’t get caught,” Bey has said in the past. “These guys commit a crime, go straight on social media, and say, ‘Hey man, that’s my work right there. I killed those two, three people over there. Wassup? I ain’t hiding.”

He added:”Those kinds of admissions can quickly trigger a retaliatory shooting. And with the speed of modern technology, the interaction can take place in a matter of seconds,” he said. “It can be like zero seconds.”

Bey said some of that can be attributed to how fast technology is and how ingrained social media is in people’s lives. Insults can be hurled in an instant and fired back just as fast, creating the potential for a dispute to turn deadly in no time at all.”

‘The dumbest reasons’

Capt. Nashid Akil of the 22nd District, who has a front-row seat to the violence, agreed with that perspective, adding: “There’s a new style of criminal on the street for which you need a new approach.”

Akil added: “Some of these killings are for the dumbest reasons … Ego … or they’re ‘in their feelings,’ so they want to shoot somebody.”

No matter how revealing these insights may be, the actual killings have sent shockwaves through an historic city — a city where credos like “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” and “promoting the general welfare” were born.

Philly to open 3 youth resource centers in effort to stem gun violence

“There is no reason (my son) should be dead,” said, Sircarr Johnson Sr., whose son — killed at the 60th Street cookout — had used Instagram to share his success with the world and invited his neighbors to join a cookout to celebrate.

The situation in the city had gotten so bad that some were calling on Mayor Jim Kenney to implement a gun violence disaster emergency like the one declared in New York state, particularly since New York City was having trouble recruiting police officers to fight the gun violence.

New York’s emergency declaration “treats gun violence as a public health crisis, using short-term solutions to manage the immediate gun violence crisis and reduce the shooting rate, as well as long-term solutions that focus on community-based intervention and prevention strategies to break the cycle of violence. The disaster emergency allows the State to expedite money and resources to communities so they can begin targeting gun violence immediately,” according to the declaration that was made July 6.

‘Not enough cops’

“(There are) not enough cops out there,” said Fraternal Order of Police leader John McNesby in an interview with a local news outlet. “Right now the city’s not safe.”

The Philadelphia Police Department is reportedly 300 short of a full force of sworn officers, despite a $58,000 starting salary (after the initial academy temporary salary of $56,000) and benefits.

Pamela Ownsby, the mother of Sicarr Johnson Jr. — one of the dead men — told a reporter that she believed there weren’t more officers due to the fact that “people are scared to become cops because of stuff [like the killings] going on out there …”

“These people are cruel,” she said of the shooters. “I knew they were going to take my baby.”

“Officers have gone through a very difficult time in the last year-plus,” Kenney told reporters. “Many have decided to not do this job anymore.”

Kenney has since refused to declare a gun violence emergency, saying it was not necessary.

Poverty and racial injustice

Meanwhile the relentless refrain of “why” continued in the nation’s former capitol. Philadelphia is the poorest of the 10 largest cities in the United States, which is already listed by the Pew Trust Foundation as having the most opioid deaths in 2017, in addition to its soaring gun violence numbers.

Poverty and racial injustice always ranked high on the list of reasons for gun violence in the minds of local residents, activists and elected officials.

Ernest Owens, an editor with Philadelphia Magazine, was of that opinion.

“If you were to look at a map of our shootings,” he wrote recently, “it would align with a map of the deepest poverty … Areas with high poverty are more prone to gun violence.”

Those usually Black and brown communities in these impoverished areas became that way, he said, because issues in those communities were often neglected because of race.

Some have said this longstanding neglect and disinvestment have made gun violence mushroom into a racial justice issue. The gun violence of Black-on-Black crimes has long been one of the issues allowed to fester for decades in these minority enclaves where gun violence was normalized.

But, like most Black-on-Black crime, it did not set off immediate alarms requiring action. The canary in the mineshaft was ignored.

Owens’ opinion is one view in a long list of hypotheses and explanations of the “root causes” of gun violence. Much like a political Rorschach inkblot test, the views of the origins of gun violence depend on who you ask.

Anarchists, COVID-19 pandemic or access to guns

Some conservative Republicans have blamed anarchists, antifa and Black Lives Matter for the gun violence. They claimed the activists had stirred up violence during protests against police brutality. They also blamed lenient local Democratic leaders pushing police and court reforms. To them such leaders were coddling and encouraging criminals and were weak on “law and order” and weak on backing cops.

On the other hand, Democratic local leaders blamed the ripple effects of the pandemic, which they said sprinkled salt in the wounds of the city’s already racially-beleaguered and impoverished low income Black and brown communities.

As for officialdom in the city, both Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw and District Attorney Larry Krasner pointed to easy access to guns in the city, poverty, racial inequality, the recession and unemployment as the causes.

Outlaw and Philadelphia Mayor Kenney denied direct blame, but said they were responsible for fixing the problems.

One national expert, Shani Buggs, assisstant professor with the Violence Prevention Research Program at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health put it succinctly in a Washington Post interview: “The pandemic exacerbated all of the inequities we had in our country — along racial lines, health lines, social lines, economic lines. All of the drivers of gun violence pre-pandemic were just worsened last year (2020).”

In most large cities, before the pandemic, violent-crime rates remained under what the level had been in the 1980s and early 1990s for a period. But later, gun homicides began an epic upswing in those same areas in spring 2020.

In Philadelphia, the upsurge began its climb about that time when COVID-19 closings began and in-person schooling was halted.

Some experts argued that the concomitant timing of lockdowns and the upsurge reinforced overall evidence that the shutdowns contributed to the shooting upsurge. Other experts claimed it was difficult to make a direct correlation.

Here in Philadelphia, there was more certainty. Researchers at Temple University found a link between measures taken by the city of Philadelphia to combat COVID-19 and the surge in gun violence. The team, led by Dr. Jessica Beard, assistant professor of surgery and director of trauma research at Lewis Katz School of Medicine, traced the huge spike in gun violence patients to the timing of coronavirus shutdowns.

“It was in March actually that we saw a significant and sustained increase, nearly double … our violence in the City of Philadelphia,” she said recently.

Researchers found the correlation using data from the Philadelphia police from January 2016 through Nov. 26, 2020.

“This research pretty empirically shows that the increase or the uptick in gun violence happened following the enactment of the containment policies,” said Beard said in February at the time of the report.

“One could imagine that policies that affect the social-economic status of people in the city are going to affect the poorest people in the city the most,” Beard said.

Many lost jobs in Philadelphia and elsewhere due to the lockdowns. It further inflamed a situation in which the COVID-19 dominoes kept falling, especially in low-income communities already in perpetual dire straits.

The fallout from the pandemic shutdowns forced neighborhoods and lives to grind to a halt. The pauses fueled a national recession and unemployment that virtually imprisoned low-income communities in restrictions and hardships that sparked anger.

Mandatory self-quarantine brought about a kind of human hibernation, which is said to have stoked anxieties, depression, gun abuse, accidental shootings, drug use and furthered risky behaviors. According to police and residents, increased reliance on social media added lighter fluid to the situation, generating more frequent personal and gang-related disputes, which in turn, sparked gunfire like the dead leaves on the floor of forest sparked wildfires out West.

Gun violence echoed in streets and alleyways amid the maddening shutdowns in brown and Black communities. Guns, illegal and legal, flowing into the city, or already in the city, began to explode like the opening of a civil war. Such weapons easily accessible to teens, adults — and even to babies, whose parents improperly stored the weapons — became casualties of the war.

As the flow continued into the city, the proliferation of gun violence seemed to reach a crescendo. The fever ignited by guns and pandemic meant that angry citizens now had cover and the opportunity to settle scores.

In the midst of it all, anti-gun violence prevention programs and nonprofits like Ceasefire Philadelphia, were hobbled because of reduced in-person interactions. Prisons were emptied out because of CDC requirements. Courts were paused, keeping accused and repeat gun abusers on the streets longer.

And most concerning of all, a kind of “moody blues” hit the city’s police department because of low morale and high sickness in the wake of anti-police protests, the surging pandemic, and “blue line” overwork due to civil unrest. As a result, cops were less plentiful when gun violence was most plentiful.

The claim by researchers that gun violence — with its endless Hatfields and McCoys-like retaliations — “begets gun violence” was being put to the test.

The gun violence did in fact spread like a contagion. Even as communities reopened from the shutdown, the violence seemed to continue.

Either way, the long-ignored legacies of racial injustice and poverty were now in full view and screaming for attention.

“When we think about gun violence, it’s been ravaging Black and brown communities for decades. But it wasn’t until mass shootings started impacting predominantly White communities that people really started paying attention,” Cassandra Crifasi, deputy director at John Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.

Marla Davis Bellamy, director of CeaseFire Philadelphia, echoed that view telling the The Philadelphia Tribune recently that C. Everett Koop, surgeon general during the Reagan administration, had years ago spoken of violence as a public health issue.

“No society, including ours, need be permeated by firearm homicide,” Koop said at a 1985 public health workshop. He and others suggested an “interdisciplinary” approach to the problem back then — a public health approach, not just a criminal justice approach. But it never seemed to gain traction.

“Gun violence has for the longest time been a public health crisis in the Black community,” epidemiologist Ed Clark of Florida A&M University’s Institute of Public Health said in a USA Today report. The gun violence expert said a “holistic approach” is needed to reduce gun fatalities and injuries.

“That should include really viewing gun violence as a public health issue. The business of public health is population wellness — looking at how we can decrease the disease burden or the threat of injury to the population at large,” Clark said. “And gun violence is definitely a problem that should be looked at through that lens.”

During a virtual City Council meeting in June, Councilmembers Derek Green, Curtis Jones and Kenyatta Johnson conceded that there is an “inextricable link” between poverty, gun violence and systemic racism.

In Philadelphia’s case, they blamed lack of economic development due to longstanding racial policies like redlining and disinvestment in some gun violence “hotspots.”

“Racism has to be addressed for the city to move forward,” activist Bilal Quayyum said during a Zoom meeting addressing violence.

Officials, at this meeting, had been encouraged that the solution to the gun violence problem and pandemic might be at hand with the recent passage of Biden’s American Rescue Plan, the funding from which, might provide the needed “shot in the arm” for urban areas like Philadelphia and the rest of the country.

“Opportunities disrupt pathways to violence,” said Erica Atwood, senior director of the Office of Policy and Strategic Initiatives for Criminal Justice and Public Safety. She also said young Black men and women need relief from having to run a daily “gauntlet” of gun violence to achieve their dreams, look for employment and care for their communities.

“Gun violence is a symptom of discrimination and being shut out,” she said.

Some have called the situation a “perfect storm” of problems. Others a “witches’ brew” of swirling trauma.

Whatever one calls it, said one of the speakers, “We must come up with solutions.”

Dwight Ott is a correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared

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