Like Philadelphians all across the city, I am struggling to make sense of the persistent gun violence and loss of life that is ravaging our community. A month ago, our city experienced 19 shootings, killing five Philadelphians, in a single weekend.
In times of fear and confusion, it is easy to call for more police in the streets. But our communities have learned the hard way that we cannot arrest ourselves out of this problem.
Gun violence is a symptom of poverty, and the despair and hopelessness it leaves in its wake. And poverty can’t be ameliorated by police or prisons. As organizers working to end mass incarceration, we’ve learned from our neighbors, from our own experiences, and from data that caging and leashing thousands of people struggling with poverty, addiction, and mental health challenges doesn’t stop violence, it causes it.
When we resort to mass incarceration, even for a few days, we destabilize Philadelphia’s communities by ripping people away from their children, families, jobs, and neighborhoods. It strains our entire city, creating instability in our schools, increasing the number of kids in foster care, and causing people to lose their jobs — the very things that prevent violence.
City leaders , from District Attorney Larry Krasner and Chief Defender of the Philadelphia Defenders Association Keir Bradford-Grey, to City Council members and other elected leaders locally and nationally, are responding to facts and turning away from draconian mass incarceration. But too many elected officials still resort to debunked, racist, and violent policies that increase policing and incarceration. Instead of doing that, we can take action to honor the lives of people we’ve lost and the communities that are living with the trauma.
Specifically, I would like to talk about the life and legacy of one of my comrades, TA Williams, a brilliant organizer who worked to end racism, violence, and mass incarceration in our city before his tragic death in December of 2017.
TA was a leader in the #No215Jail Coalition and the Youth Art & Self-empowerment Project, and spent hours in meetings at jails, churches, and rec centers, building relationships and crafting solutions with communities where lives were changed by violence and mass incarceration.
TA’s legacy with #No215Jail has grown, even as his life was ended. #No215Jail’s efforts discouraged the city plan in 2015 to buy land for a new jail, and our work has been a part of vital initial moves toward reducing cash bail and pretrial incarceration in Philly.
Those moves have borne fruit: we’ve reduced our jail population by over 42% since 2015, with a combination of massive efforts by criminal justice system partners and organizing from groups like ours. When District Attorney Krasner reduced the number of charges that would require bail, data suggest this move didn’t increase new arrests or violence.
These changes make our communities safer, more stable, and more economically vibrant. Now we need larger-scale change. We must divest from policing, jailing, and over-prosecution, and invest resources in our neighborhoods, including programs that address drug addiction, mental health, poverty, and structural racism.
Our city and our officials must commit to not rewinding the clock to a tragic time in our country where a war on drugs ravaged a generation of black people and left all of us less safe.
We can start by immediately targeting the city’s five zip codes with the highest rates of gun violence with additional resources. We can show these communities that we have not forgotten them by opening the rec centers and libraries for extended hours, by giving youth in these zip codes guaranteed summer employment, and offering counseling and conflict mediation every day.
In order to heal our city, we need to further invest in the schools, jobs, housing, health care, and human rights that have proven to address the causes of violence. A review of 264 cities spanning over 20 years found that every 10 programs focusing on crime and community life in larger cities reduced the murder rate by around 9 percent.
Let’s work together to create a city that would make TA, and all those we’ve lost to violence, proud.
Hannah Sassaman is the policy director at Media Mobilizing Project, an anchor member of the #No215Jail Coalition and a founding organization of the Coalition for a Just District Attorney.