George Lane, 15, lost his brother to gun violence. Shahydah Merritt, 17, worries that her friends may not show up to school the next day because they could get shot. And Kylee Pearson, just 9, said it’s tough to play outside without thinking about becoming the victim of a shooting.
Hundreds of young people converged on City Hall on Tuesday — just after a particularly deadly holiday weekend in Philadelphia — to call attention to gun violence in the city, and to demand better.
“I witness people, every day, experience the same trauma, every day,” said Lane, 15, a freshman at Sankofa Freedom Charter School. “No mother or father should have to go through the feeling of burying someone they gave birth to and raised up for all their lives.”
Tuesday’s rally was the culmination of months of work by nine Philadelphia charter and traditional public schools. The students’ “Enough is Enough” gun violence campaign surveyed students about their experiences with gun violence, and collected ideas about how to stem the crisis.
The results were sobering. At just one school, Strawberry Mansion High School, 59% of students have seen shootings in their neighborhood and 42% have family members in jail because of gun violence. A staggering 66% have had family members die of gun violence.
Njemele Anderson, an English teacher at Mansion, was caught in the middle of a shootout leaving school this year — her car was trapped between two people shooting at each other. Anderson escaped harm. But the school has been rocked by gun violence, like so many across the city. Mansion student Kanye Davis, 16, was killed this year.
“You can’t even walk on the street,” said Marquis Colon, a Mansion 11th grader. “You can’t go to the store or ride your bike without worrying about getting shot, or having your head on a swivel.”
Of the 1,300 students surveyed by the coalition, 95% said they could not name an organization in their neighborhood where they could go to talk about the impact of gun violence. Nearly 80% said gang involvement was a reason for gun violence.
The young people recommended mandating a gang prevention curriculum in every Philadelphia middle school, better collaboration with block captains, and suggested social media be used to amplify resources available to young people. They also asked for funding to increase the availability of support groups and other resources for the parents of school-age victims and perpetrators of gun violence.
City Councilmember Isaiah Thomas said this weekend’s violence hit home particularly hard. In one incident, an elementary-school-age boy and his father were killed in a drive-by shooting. The father and son were nearly the same age as Thomas and his son.
“It hit home totally differently,” Thomas said. “The gun violence in the city of Philadelphia is worse than we’ve ever seen.”
Youth have the power to help solve the crisis, and it’s incumbent on adults to listen in a way they haven’t in the past, Thomas said.
“None of us went to high school during the pandemic,” he said. “I don’t know what it means to be sitting at home for months. I don’t know what it means to have to bring a gun to school because someone’s going to get me after school.”
With chants and drums, with poems and heartfelt testimony, young people expressed grief and anger.
Kylee Pearson, the 9-year-old, read a powerful spoken-word poem that had some elders wiping their eyes and others nodding in assent.
“I don’t want you to kill me,” Kylee said, her voice loud but calm. “I want to live.”