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For some Black men and teens in Philly, relying on guns has become commonplace

The reasons young men give for illegally carrying guns includes showing off and protecting their safety.

Greg Thompson (left) and Marvel Thornton-Cruz, in May at a Southwest green lot that has been transformed into a memorial park for area residents who have died. Thompson, 60, employs Cruz, 28, in a city-funded landscaping program.
Greg Thompson (left) and Marvel Thornton-Cruz, in May at a Southwest green lot that has been transformed into a memorial park for area residents who have died. Thompson, 60, employs Cruz, 28, in a city-funded landscaping program.Read moreMensah M. Dean/ Staff

One in an occasional series, “Under Fire,” about Philadelphia’s unchecked gun violence.

Marvel Thornton-Cruz first carried a gun on the street at age 14.

“I was young,” said Thornton-Cruz, now 28. “I just wanted to be cool. Pretty much most of my family was in the street.”

By his mid-20s, Thornton-Cruz had been arrested and jailed several times, the last for drugs and for shooting someone, for which he served just over three years. He was paroled in December.

Thornton-Cruz grew up and still lives in the Eastwick section of Southwest Philadelphia. He said he has lost count of the friends and acquaintances who’ve been gunned down along the way. Three of his brothers have been fatally shot — the first his 17-year-old brother when Thornton-Cruz was 14, about the time he started carrying a gun.

Each death rocked him but didn’t overwhelm him, he said. “At the end of the day, I know they’re in a better place,” he said.

The Inquirer interviewed community organizers, academics, and more than two dozen young men impacted by gun violence in Philadelphia, most of whom didn’t want to be quoted. The on-the-record accounts paint a portrait of a city where guns are an everyday fact of life in many areas, with the reasons young men carry them including showing off, personal protection, and retaliation.

Thornton-Cruz, however, said he has not rearmed himself since being paroled, and is trying to stay on the right side of the law by working as a landscaper for the city-funded Same Day Pay program, which specializes in hiring ex-offenders.

» READ MORE: Philly gun arrests are on a record pace, but convictions drop under DA Krasner

That puts him outside the norm where he’s from, Thornton-Cruz said, as he puffed on a cigarette during a break at a Southwest lot where he was working with his boss, Greg Thompson, to set up chairs and tables for a candidates’ forum.

“Southwest is full of violence and guns. It’s not one person you’re gonna come across that don’t own a gun. Especially if he’s in the streets,” said the father of two. He said he has no hope that gun violence will abate and the streets will become safer anytime soon.

“These boys out here protecting themselves,” he said, pointing to a key reason many young men have guns.

Those who do carry a gun illegally in Philadelphia currently face a greater risk of getting arrested. Thousands more people are being arrested — three times the pace of 2017 — but their chances of being convicted in court have fallen by nearly a quarter, according to an Inquirer analysis.

For those who do take their chances, Thornton-Cruz offered another motivation, one that had nothing to do with protection. “You got some people out here with guns that’s just carrying it for the show, carrying it to try to impress people and show off.

“You see these celebrities. We’re imitating off of what we see. We see Lil Wayne, we see NBA YoungBoy, we see DaBaby, we see Meek Mill portraying guns in their videos. What you think these young boys gonna do?”

Referring to young men in his circumstances, he noted: “Somebody’s gonna die every day from gun violence, because this is how our mind is registered. We don’t know no other way out. We have no structure.”

» READ MORE: In West Philly, best friends were shot over an Instagram feud they had nothing to do with

Thornton-Cruz has reasons for his pessimism.

Since 2015, more than 10,000 people have been shot in Philadelphia. Three out of four have been Black males, according to City of Philadelphia data analyzed by The Inquirer.

The median age for shooting victims is 26. More than 80% of homicide victims in Philadelphia last year were Black men, according to the data. The vast majority died from gunfire.

Black men and teens, ages 15 to 34, composed just 2% of the nation’s population but were fatalities in 37% of all gun homicides in 2019, a death rate 20 times higher than that of comparable white males, CDC data show.

“There is a great deal of hopelessness, and most of all fear,” said community activist Thompson, Thornton-Cruz’s boss. “These guys who are carrying these guns are walking around acting tough. But most of them are very afraid that their lives are going to be taken. And that is what is motivating them to take up arms against each other.”

‘Now we’re just killing each other’

Kyle Williams is just 14, but he is already keenly aware of the fragility of life growing up in West Philadelphia.

“You could get shot just walking down the street for anything. Somebody could just walk up to you and shoot you for no apparent reason. That’s why people carry guns,” said Williams, a Discovery Charter School student.

“I’m from a lit neighborhood,” he said, shrugging. “We got beef with the 8th and the 3rd,” he said, referring to 58th and 53rd Streets. “A lot of people really want to kill me.”

Although he does not have a gun, he said, he’s not opposed to getting one. You must be 21 to carry a weapon in Pennsylvania. In Philadelphia, you also must obtain a license to carry a firearm, whether concealed or open carry.

Even so, he explained, “You can’t settle beefs. They don’t stop. I just stay away from it. As long as you don’t touch me, I don’t have to do something.”

Even if someone isn’t part of a crew and steers clear of street beefs, that sometimes is not enough protection from Philadelphia’s unchecked gun violence.

That’s the case with Dajuan Williams, a Northeast High School teen, who was 14 in September 2019 when he attended a peace rally with staff and fellow students of New Options More Opportunities (NOMO), a North Philadelphia-based youth mentoring organization. Some in the group then moved on to Marcus Foster Memorial Stadium on Straub Street between Germantown Avenue and 16th Street to watch a football game between Simon Gratz High School and Imhotep Institute Charter High School.

While waiting in line to buy his game ticket, Dajuan, who had never had trouble with the law or anyone else, heard the crackle of gunfire. He dropped his phone.

“As I go to pick my phone up I see my shoe, and blood is coming. So that’s when I started to feel real weak in my foot, and the next thing you know, I take my shoe off and my foot is drenched in blood.”

» READ MORE: As shootings in Philly have surged, law enforcement has failed to deliver justice

Dajuan, who is now 16, has no clue who shot him in the foot nor why the gunman opened fire. The inexplicable nature of the shooting, like so many others, is a hallmark of the city’s gun-violence surge, he and others have observed.

“I never thought that I would be shot, but then again, I live in Philadelphia, so anything can happen. A lot of people die every day. So, I’m thankful I was shot where I was shot instead of somewhere else on my body,” he said.

“Whether you’re five months or 50, they don’t care who they shooting. They don’t care why they shooting. They just shooting ‘em,” added Dajuan, who said friends ages 16 and 17 were killed by city gunfire between 2018 and 2020. One in cross fire, the other stemming from an argument, he said.

Like the victims in most of the city’s shootings, the vast majority of the shooters are also Black men and teenage boys.

Keith Boyd, 16, a Simon Gratz High School student, said he shares a West Oak Lane home with his mother and a relative who was shot in the leg about five years ago and who regularly arms himself with a gun when he heads out the door.

“I’ve seen the gun before. It’s a pistol. I don’t think nothing of it. It’s normal,” said Boyd of the relative’s weapon. He, nevertheless, says he won’t buy a gun until he can do so legally. He has strong feelings about the city’s gun violence.

“I think it’s kind of sad and disappointing to see lives wasted, and a bit ironic because Black people have always been defending our civil rights going back in the Sixties,” he said. “Now we’re just killing each other and the white folks don’t have to do it for us.”

Daniel Hayes, 33, used to spend his time selling crack cocaine, starting at the age of 12, robbing people and gunning for street rivals, he said. His crimes put him in state and federal prison for nine years. In his most serious case, he and an accomplice pleaded guilty to shooting two drug rivals, both of whom survived.

“I shot people, robbed people, hurt people,” he admitted.

Now on parole until 2033, he said his business ventures keep him from thinking about returning to street life. He sells custom T-shirts he designs and facilitates what he calls “Bloom Talk,” nightly discussions on entrepreneurship, networking, and street crime on his Instagram page, CEO_Bloom_LLC. With themes like “Shoot cameras, not guns,” Bloom Talk typically attracts more than 100 mostly teens and young adults, he said.

He gives a grab bag of reasons as to why gun violence is increasing in some of the city’s Black neighborhoods, including the shooters’ impulsiveness, pride, jealousy, drug-hazed minds, poor upbringing, and desire for revenge.

“Pulling a trigger is easy … It wasn’t hard for me and it ain’t hard for them,” he said. “I tell the younger guys, basically, before you pull that trigger go lock yourself in the bathroom for 23 hours and see if you can bear it,” he said. “In prison, I seen young guys hang themselves.”

Thompson, 60, the director of Philadelphia Peaceful Surrender, which helps fugitives turn themselves in to police, also works with Kingdom Care Reentry Network and Don’t Fall Down in the Hood, two programs with goals of keeping teens out of prison.

He said he has never seen gun violence in Philadelphia so deadly.

“We’ve never seen it so bad where the shooter isn’t really concerned with finding the actual target, they’re just concerned with inflicting pain and carnage on the other side,” he said.

“We’re losing a sense of respect for human life, period. If the kids are outside, if the women are outside, it does not matter now. We’re going to let the bullets fly. We are living in dangerous times.”

‘What we will and won’t stand for’

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said when the department identifies people who it believes are at risk of being shooters, or being shot, it sends their names to the city’s Office of Violence Prevention.

This effort is part of the city’s Roadmap to Safer Communities plan. It’s built on the assertion by city officials that a small number of individuals contribute to most of the gun crimes in so-called hot spot neighborhoods — 2% of known individuals accounting for 80% of the gun violence.

In passing along the names, Outlaw said, “We say, ‘Look, there needs to be some form of disruption here … Whatever you do to intervene — whether it’s through services, pulling what levers that exist, speaking with their families, jobs, or whatever it is that would connect with this very demographic that we’re talking about — please do that.’ ”

This program is part of Mayor Jim Kenney’s updated Roadmap to Safer Communities, which includes more funding for the city’s five-year safety plan and for expanded summer services for youth. The plan states: “Structural racism and inequality are at the root of gun violence. Unemployment, poverty, under-resourced schools, and lack of educational attainment remain drivers of violence.”

Outlaw, the first Black woman to lead Philadelphia’s police force, said she believes progress is being made at reaching armed men and boys. “I am starting to see communities galvanized and recognize that this is far more than just a police problem, this is far more than just a city problem, quite frankly,” she said. “Communities are stepping up and taking their neighborhoods back, they’re taking their blocks back. They’re being far more vocal.”

Pastor Carl Day, of the Culture Changing Christians church, with locations in North Philadelphia and Montclair, N.J., said the nature of the city’s gun violence, so often fueled by retaliation and rage, is such that police cannot be expected to stop much of it, but merely respond to the aftermath.

“We as a community have to hold each other accountable. We have to be more vocal about what we will and won’t stand for in our communities, and we as Black men in Philadelphia need to support our communities by standing for civility and peace.”

Kyle McLemore, youth mentor and job development coordinator for NOMO, the North Philly youth mentoring program, shares Day’s belief that payback motivates many slayings.

“A lot of these things first started through robberies, they started through little beefs about this or that,” he said. “But now, once one gets killed, his friends feel they got to kill the other guy’s friends. So a lot of this violence is being fueled by vendettas that came out of materialism.”

In the glut of shootings, some make headlines for the audaciousness of the gunmen’s brutality and proficiency.

Ameen Hurst, 16, was arrested in May and charged with four killings since December, including those of two men killed in a quadruple shooting in March in Overbrook Park, and the March death of Rodney Hargrove, 20, gunned down near the front gates of the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility. Hargrove had just been released on bail. Hurst’s motives have not been made public by law enforcement officials.

In June 2020, Steven Williams, 26, was charged with killing four men between September 2018 to May 2019. Williams, according to prosecutors, allegedly was a well-paid hit man.

Such unbridled crime is why many of his friends arm themselves, said Santino Fanelli, 15, a Swenson Arts and Technology 10th grader from Point Breeze.

He said some of his friends have bought guns online using the Tor browser, which allows users to search the web anonymously. “I seen people flash guns, and shoot them, too. I never got robbed, but I know people who have got robbed,” said Fanelli, who added that he will wait until he is 21 to buy a gun legally.

Still, he said the city should think twice before trying to disarm young men who illegally possess guns. It’s a question of survival for many, he said.

“Don’t take them away, because people need them. It’s two sides to a story, to a coin. It depends where you’re from. They are not bad to me because I live with them,” he said of his armed friends. “They are not criminals. They might be to you.”

‘A difficult conversation’

This spring, professors and specially trained students from four historically Black universities began interviewing Black males between the ages of 15 to 24 who have gun possession histories.

The researchers will probe to learn what influenced them to carry and use guns, with the end goal being to gather research and documentation that can be used to support communities and law enforcement to prevent and fight crime, said Dr. Johnny Rice II, a Coppin State University assistant professor of criminal justice, who is heading the research project at the Baltimore school.

CORRECTION: This story originally used the wrong photo for assistant professor Johnny Rice II.

“I think this research is very significant because we’re not making assumptions, but we’re actually speaking to Black men that are most affected by this violence,” he said. “Some of them may be victims of this violence. Some of them may be perpetrators of this violence. Some of them may be from both categories.”

The two-year study, funded by a $1 million grant from the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, also includes research teams from Delaware State University in Dover, Jackson State University in Mississippi, and Texas Southern University in Houston.

The research follows more than a century of academic and governmental studies that attempted to understand the nexus between poverty, racism and violence in Black America — from W.E.B. Du Bois’ seminal 1899 “Philadelphia Negro” study, to the 1968 Kerner Commission report ordered by President Lyndon B. Johnson. That report concluded that poverty and institutional racism were driving inner-city violence, creating a nation “moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”

Rice, a Baltimore native, said it has been well documented that some Black men who act out violently in their own communities do so when they feel a lack of respect — respect they’ve already been denied in the larger community.

Because he and his fellow researchers are coming from historically Black institutions, he hopes they will gain greater trust from their study subjects that leads to a deeper understanding about their plights.

“We should do everything we can as a society to provide an off-ramp or a pathway to change to those young Black men who want to change,” Rice said.

“The tough question for the Black community,” Rice posed, is: What to do with the young men who are capable of change but reject the pathway?

“That’s where we’re going to have to have a difficult conversation as a community, because they’re the ones who are destroying the community.”

Staff writer Dylan Purcell contributed to this article.