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Wanted: Philadelphia leaders who are bold and brave and clear-eyed about gun violence | Helen Ubiñas

Crime is the most pressing issue facing Philadelphia, but City Council candidates don’t have good solutions to fight it.

Elisha Sharpe walks by photos of the victims of gun violence placed on the Art Museum steps in June 2017.
Elisha Sharpe walks by photos of the victims of gun violence placed on the Art Museum steps in June 2017.Read more--- Charles Fox / File Photograph

At least two of the panels in the drop-down ceiling of the multipurpose room at the East Passyunk Community Center are missing, and a half-dozen or so are stained yellow. One night this week, two hung at precarious angles near Philadelphia City Council candidates who had gathered to talk about crime and safety. These are the kinds of things that catch your attention when, except for a couple of bright spots, the people in front of you aren’t saying anything especially new.

That’s not a dig at the panel of advocates asking most of the questions — they were great. In fact, kudos to them for asking the same question in some form of the half-dozen candidates (out of 35) every time they failed to get an actual answer:

If elected or reelected, what are you going to do to prevent young people in Philadelphia from being murdered?

Pretty straightforward.

Crime is the most pressing issue facing the city, according to a new Inquirer poll, and with an increasing rate of homicides and a decreasing rate of arrests, that shouldn’t surprise anyone. I’m sure there were other candidate forums where crime was discussed, but I went to the one hosted by the National Homicide Justice Alliance because I’ve written about Aleida Garcia and Wilfredo Rojas, tireless advocates who co-founded the organization after their son was murdered in 2015.

I also chose this forum because families of homicide victims are the ones consistently pushing for answers. These are mothers mostly, who too often are ignored by some of the very people who run and win on pro-victim platforms. Note to criminal justice reform evangelists: There are victims on both sides of the broken system — those sitting in prison and those trapped in a prison of trauma and grief. Both deserve our attention and respect.

But back to other well-intentioned folks who, thankfully, all seemed to have a grasp of what is at the root of so many of Philadelphia’s problems — starting with deep poverty. They struggled to answer the question. As of May 12, more than 100 people have been shot to death in Philadelphia this year; more than 458 were shot, per the latest police information.

As a former cop, Lou Lanni had a backstory that probably resonates with some. Sandra Dungee Glenn seemed thoughtful and energetic. And, like her or not, Helen Gym is a force. Of all the nothingness that clearly frustrated the panel of questioners, including the founder of Mothers in Charge, Dorothy Johnson-Speight, I was intrigued by the idea of crisis response teams in schools advocated by Gym. Trauma is a constant among many of Philadelphia’s young people. It’s also what drives a lot of the violence in our city.

Let me be clear: These aren’t endorsements. I don’t do those. I especially don’t do them this close to the primary or with reservations — and I had many after listening to most of the panel stumble around for any concrete solutions. I don’t totally blame them. Not even the city’s Office of Violence Prevention, which led its own less-than-inspiring meeting recently, has come up with anything especially hopeful. I was glad to hear Councilman David Oh at least bring up the need to measure programs, something the city promises it’s working on as it continues to throw more money into pricey “could work” plans.

Wanted: leaders who are bold and brave and clear-eyed about what’s at stake.

Listening to the candidates was Yullio Robbins, whose son James Walke III was murdered in 2016 in broad daylight. His murder remains unsolved. After the discussion, she wanted to know if I’d heard:

On Mother’s Day, her son’s 54-year-old aunt, Janis Walke, was shot and killed while she sat in her car outside her home on North 13th Street. So far, her story ends the way too many in Philadelphia do: no suspects, no motive, no answers. Janis will be buried near her nephew.