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When it comes to gun violence, expecting change from leaders has become a distraction we can’t afford

When I see activists like Ryan Harris invest so much of themselves in making this city safer, what’s reflected back is a staggering indictment of the appalling inaction of our leaders.

A pair of sneakers and a breathing mask rest next to the curb along the 200 block of South Streets in Philadelphia, Pa. on Sunday, June 5, 2022. Three people were killed and 11 others wounded in a shooting late Saturday night.
A pair of sneakers and a breathing mask rest next to the curb along the 200 block of South Streets in Philadelphia, Pa. on Sunday, June 5, 2022. Three people were killed and 11 others wounded in a shooting late Saturday night.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Ryan Harris may not have gotten what he was looking for, but he’s grateful for what he got.

In April, I wrote about Harris, 35, the founder of the nonprofit youth organization As I Plant This Seed. Harris vowed not to eat until he and two other community activists raised enough money to help keep some of Philadelphia’s most vulnerable young people safe.

The trio stationed themselves at the intersection where Broad Street crosses Roosevelt Boulevard, and dollar by dollar, bucket by bucket, they collected money from drivers and other passersby to fund anti-violence programs they operate for the summer.

Their goal: $90,000.

After two weeks, the men raised a little over half of that, about $50,000 — a win by any definition.

And yet, I was disgusted.

The kind of commitment that Harris and his colleagues showed to the children of this city should have brought public officials out in droves, a giant check in hand. But then, everyday citizens putting their lives on the line to make this city better doesn’t seem to resonate too deeply with the people in charge around here.

Remember how it took Mayor Jim Kenney 26 days last year to acknowledge a constituent who was staging a hunger strike right outside City Hall in hopes of getting Kenney to declare gun violence a citywide emergency?

And that was only after another community activist, Sajda “Purple Queen” Blackwell, all but dragged the mayor there.

Kenney never did declare that emergency, despite a record 562 people killed and 2,331 shot in 2021. And here we are again, setting another horrific pace with at least 214 homicides and more than 900 shootings so far this year.

But those are my complaints. Harris has none.

There are certain maxims Harris has adopted in the decade he’s dedicated himself to his community. And the one he clings to most is that he has to be just as willing to fight alone as he would if he were surrounded by a throng of supporters.

Expectations can quickly turn into distractions, and there is no time for those.

So, Harris is as grateful for the hard-earned donations collected on that street corner as he is for recently being chosen, at City Hall’s recommendation, to participate in the White House’s Community Violence Intervention Collaborative. The invitation to join that effort — which offers training and technical assistance to grassroots organizations across the country — was a welcome surprise. Harris didn’t apply for the program; his and a handful of other city groups were recommended by Erica Atwood, senior director of Philadelphia’s Office of Policy and Strategic Initiatives for Criminal Justice and Public Safety.

It was a gesture that Harris certainly appreciated, even if it wasn’t asked for. Again, no expectations.

“If people do come, and they do support, I appreciate it for sure,” Harris said. “But I’m not expecting, I’m not waiting. The only thing I care about are the kids and getting them what they need.”

I found myself thinking about that after hearing the gut-wrenching words of Garnell Whitfield, a retired fire commissioner and son of Ruth Whitfield, 86, the oldest victim of the mass shooting in Buffalo, N.Y., last month.

“We do our best to be good citizens, to be good people ...,” Whitfield told reporters days after an 18-year-old white supremacist walked into a supermarket with a semiautomatic rifle and executed 10 Black people in a racially motivated attack, “... while the people we elect and trust in offices around this country do their best not to protect us ...”

My thoughts returned to Whitfield’s words 10 days later, when another 18-year-old used another semiautomatic rifle to slaughter 19 elementary school children and two of their teachers while police stood idly outside the classroom where the carnage occurred.

Whitfield came to mind again on May 25 when four people were shot while walking to a prom send-off party in West Philadelphia.

And then again just this Saturday night, when at least three people were killed and 11 injured after a mass shooting on South Street.

I applaud Harris’ no-expectations approach. But when I see activists like him and others invest so much of themselves in making this city safer, what’s reflected back is a staggering indictment of the appalling inaction from people with the audacity to call themselves leaders.

Politicians are still offering little more than thoughts and prayers. Republicans and Democrats vow long-shot attempts at change, and the president is asking, “How much more carnage are we willing to accept?” — when the answer is made clear every single day in this country, and in this city.

In Texas, families are burying their children in personalized caskets adorned with cartoon dinosaurs and superhero logos. In Philadelphia, after a Memorial Day weekend where 44 people were shot, 15 fatally, a mother is burying her husband and 9-year-old son, killed alongside his father in what police believe was a case of mistaken identity.

And now — after the South Street shooting — a whole city is trying to make sense of the chaos that erupted along a thoroughfare that has long been a popular gathering spot.

Meanwhile, in the basement of the Hunting Park rowhome where Harris will hold his summer programs, the recent calamities seemed to further fuel his vision of providing a safe harbor for Philadelphia’s children in the oncoming storm of summer violence. He and a friend, who runs a security organization, are soon hoping to offer safety classes at the center and at a nearby supermarket.

But during a recent visit, Harris wistfully imagined the whirlwind of activity to come. There, Harris said as he pointed to one corner of the room, was a little station where an instructor will teach aspiring beauticians how to do nails.

In another area stood a row of guitars where young musicians will be taught to play. At one point, Harris excitedly announced that a young person he used to mentor had volunteered to show kids how to build their photography skills.

For a moment, I felt a little hope in a world gone mad. Then, I caught myself: no expectations.

After all, even among those of us who have come to expect nothing, one thing is certain: Until this country finally chooses to protect people over guns, there will only be more bloodshed, while people like Harris valiantly try to do all they can to keep their small part of the world from bleeding out.