Somewhere in the middle of Lisa Espinosa’s victim-impact statement Wednesday morning, I figured she wasn’t going to be joining other Philadelphians affected by gun violence at the Art Museum later that day.
She was one of the first people I’d asked to speak at Fill the Steps, a yearly gathering at the iconic museum to call attention to the seemingly impenetrable violence in this city. But that was before she stood in Courtroom 1107, in front of the man convicted of killing her son in 2016, and spelled out, in agonizing detail, what the last three years have been like for her and her family, including her dead son’s only daughter, who now visits her father at the cemetery.
“My new norm,” Espinosa said, struggling to get the words out. “Agonizing, heart-wrenching pain that feels like my chest is on fire.”
I’ve written about her in the past -- a mom who relentlessly pursued justice for her 26-year-old son, Raymond Pantoja, determined that he not become one of the city’s mounting unsolved murders. I’ve shared many of the details of what she and her family have endured since he was gunned down outside a nightclub. But Wednesday morning was a sobering reminder of how much pain families like hers carry, no matter how much time passes. We count up the number of murders in the city; they count the minutes and hours and days they are without the ones they love.
It’s one of the reasons I started to call people to the Art Museum steps four years ago, to put faces to the epidemic in Philadelphia.
Everyone has a different reason for coming out. I have my own, including the hope that as people stand shoulder to shoulder they will realize that’s how close the impact of gun violence is to all of us. But that’s also how close the support and possible solutions are. Our elected officials must be held accountable.
But the answers aren’t all in City Hall.
When Espinosa accepted my invitation to speak, she said she wanted to remind people how the pain and trauma linger. But I could see the hearing drained her — especially after a computer virus shut down the court’s computer system, delaying a case that by her count had been continued more than 30 times. When I didn’t see her at the Art Museum steps later that night, I told the people introducing the speakers not to expect her.
But then I got a text.
“Here if you need me.”
And there she was, at the top of the steps, holding a picture of her son.
I waved her down and watched her walk to the lectern.
As the rain clouds threatened, she told those gathered that friends and family had advised her not to come. She should go home and rest.
“Guess what?" she said. "No! Because there is another victim that will be put to rest tonight. There is another family that will cry over their loved ones. There is another mother and father who will have to identify their loved ones.
"And that is not acceptable.”
Friday morning, she was back in court, though not for her son’s case — she’ll have to wait until next week for that. She was there to support a woman whose brother in 2016 was caught in the crossfire in front of their mother’s home.
Just like Espinosa had days earlier, Carmen Pagan addressed a judge and the young man convicted of killing her brother. Like Espinosa, she spoke of the pain, and how she turned it into purpose by speaking up against gun violence. She talked of young men who claim streets that don’t belong to them only to be claimed by those same streets long before their time. She looked at the young man awaiting his sentence, and asked the judge to sentence him accordingly.