Councilmember Jamie Gauthier had just left the We Embrace Fatherhood banquet at the Mantua Civic Association Center at 37th and Melon Streets last Saturday around 5 p.m. and was getting in her car when gunshots suddenly rang out.
De’Wayne Drummond, one of the group’s cofounders who walked out with her, yelled for Gauthier to get down. She ducked inside of her city-owned vehicle as low as she could get.
“I was scared that the bullets would pierce the car, but there was nothing else that we could do,” she told me. “I didn’t know which way the bullets would come. When the shooting subsided, De’Wayne was like, ‘Go, go, go! Drive away.’”
“There were so many shots,” Gauthier said. “I thought we were going to die that day. But all I could do was pray and wait for the shooting to stop. And by the grace of God, we were unharmed and managed to drive away.”
Afterward, a police captain told her that several shooters had been involved but no one was injured. Still, the experience rocked her. Gauthier spent the next day and a half regrouping at home. As she did, the West Philadelphia representative thought about how some of her constituents experienced what she did that afternoon all the time. Gauthier spoke out about what happened during Thursday’s Council meeting.
“I was able to get in my car and drive away. But many others live in this community,” she said during her presentation. ”Our precious community members live on these blocks in Mantua and on blocks like it throughout our city that have been the backdrops for gun violence over and over again, especially over the last two years. And what I hear from residents and that I have now experienced firsthand is that things are out of control in a way we haven’t seen before. It doesn’t matter if it’s the middle of the day, if it’s a Sunday, if there are kids around — shootings are happening anyway.”
When I caught up with her later that day, Gauthier reminded me that a year ago around this same time, she and I were on the phone discussing this same subject after a triple shooting at a playground in her West Philly district.
I remember watching a nighttime video posted on Facebook from the Christy Recreation Center at 728 S. 55th St. where 16-year-old Kahree Simmons from Cobbs Creek had been fatally wounded. Two other teenagers — a 15-year-old girl and a 15-year-old boy — also were injured. They had been playing basketball before the shots rang out. It was one of a number of incidents in Philadelphia involving young people being shot or fatally wounded while playing basketball.
Now, here we were on the phone again, this time discussing how she had been the one caught in gunfire. Unfortunately, not much has changed in the last year for residents in neighborhoods besieged by gun violence.
Drummond, who returned to the banquet after Gauthier was safely out of harm’s way, told me: “For a lot of people, it has become normal, and it shouldn’t be like that.”
Before her own brush with danger, Gauthier understood that the sound of gunfire is ubiquitous in too many neighborhoods. In September, an Inquirer investigation revealed that there are 57 city blocks where 10 or more people have been shot since 2015. Much more emphasis needs to be targeted on these neighborhoods where residents are constantly being exposed to danger.
She spent two years pushing the administration to declare a state of citywide emergency and to treat gun violence as a public health crisis. Mayor Jim Kenney declined to do so on the grounds that it wouldn’t “demonstrably change conditions in Philadelphia.”
Meanwhile, Philadelphia reached a record level for homicides last year, and more people — 115 — have been killed in Philadelphia so far this year than by this time last year.
Gauthier has ideas about how to stem the violence “that could include everything from policing but also a broader set of resources like trauma support and violence interrupters that are on the streets 24 hours in those areas,” she told me. “Or safe youth activities for as many hours as we are able to during the day ... or programs that offer stipends for young men not to shoot and make it financially worth people’s whiles to get out of the cycle of violence. There are so many things that we could do and so many resources that we have as a city where we could really direct those resources to blocks in need, but I just don’t see it happening.”
It’s not just her. Councilmember Cherelle L. Parker has called for 300 additional community police officers, among other measures. The Philadelphia Police Department earlier this year launched a new unit to investigate nonfatal shootings, which is key to deterring violence.
Shortly before Gauthier was caught in the crossfire, she presented an award to anti-violence activist Jamal Johnson, who recently renewed his call for Philly residents to join him in making neighborhoods safer and would like to see the National Guard get involved. Then she stepped outside and almost became a statistic. “We could have possibly been out there with her,” Johnson said.
What kind of city is this in which an elected official — or anyone else — has to duck for cover to avoid being shot? It’s not normal, and God help us if we get to the place where we act like it is.