Much of Philadelphia’s street violence is perpetrated by young men with no regard for their own lives, much less anyone else’s.
I’d be lying if I said I understood the mentality that’s driving their dangerous behavior. I don’t.
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But I also don’t think a lot of city officials who are in positions to try to stop it really understand what’s driving them, either. A 12-year-old and a 15-year-old were shot in separate incidents Tuesday alone.
I reached out to two ex-offenders — both convicted killers — who created a grassroots group called Gaining Respect Over Our Worst Nights to keep youngsters from making the mistakes they did. I asked GROWN cofounder Donnell Drinks what he thinks is going on with the young men who are driving up the city’s homicide rate.
“They don’t have no hope.… They don’t see no seat at the table for them in this world,” said Drinks, 47, who served nearly 28 years for killing a man during an armed robbery before being released in 2018.
The group provides mentoring and outreach. During his one-on-ones with young men, Drinks often has flashbacks to his early years growing up in North Philadelphia. Even as a kid, he had to fend for himself and provide for his two younger brothers, since his mother was battling drug addiction and his father was absent. When he meets with youngsters today, their stories remind him of his own.
“When I look at them, I can usually relate to what they are going through. I don’t justify what they are doing … but I see the child committing the offense,” he told me. “I recognize the perpetrator, but I also see the child.”
GROWN cofounder Don Jones said he tries to see past the swag and street bravado that so many wear like badges of honor, and encourage them to get off drugs and work on themselves.
“Most of these guys … they don’t want to be in the streets. They want to be home with their families,” he said. “I had one guy said he wanted to get something to eat. I took him to get pizza, and we talked. He calls me all the time. He’s doing a little better now.”
Jones would have loved to have someone counsel him when he was younger.
“The mentors we had led us down the wrong path. Instead of telling us the right thing to do, they told us the wrong thing to do. They told us to sell drugs. They told us to carry the gun. They said, ‘If you get locked up, you’ll be straight back home, because you’re a juvenile. They can’t do nothing to you,‘” he recalled.
At 17, he and a friend robbed a store, and Jones shot and killed the manager. He served nearly 27 years before being released 15 months ago. He lived in a halfway house for four months before he moved in with his fiancee in Southwest Philadelphia. Jones, 45, is now an assistant coordinator for the Community Crisis Intervention Program and volunteers with GROWN, which is his passion.
I like what these former juvenile lifers are up to.
I like that unlike so many of us, they can still see the humanity in the shooters and others who are wilding out in the streets.
Instead of judging and condemning the way most of us do, they try to offer compassion.
“If a child is out there committing a crime or a shooting, we have to ask ourselves the why? … How and why we let it get to that point as a society,” said Drinks, who lives in West Oak Lane with his brother and works as an election protection coordinator with the American Civil Liberties Union. “Let’s not remove ourselves from the humanity part. We are obligated to each other.”