The stories have become routine. Shots fired in impoverished communities. Black men and boys as victims and perpetrators. Families devastated in the aftermath of it all.
The names of the fallen are of no consequence to those who live outside the cycle of such violence. And while the names of the perpetrators are often whispered in the streets, 60 percent of Philadelphia homicides never lead to arrests and convictions.
Like most Philadelphians, I’ve often felt disconnected from the violence that claims too many men and boys who look like me. Having worked hard to live in a community where the gunshots are less frequent, and to place my children in schools where academics trump street smarts, I’ve often told myself that gun violence is a distant foe.
That all changed Oct. 15, when I learned the identity of the 15-year-old South Philadelphia shooting victim whose death was covered in 65 words in an Inquirer crime brief the night before. His name was Zyqueire Echevarria, and he was my son’s classmate at a Philadelphia magnet school. Zyqueire wanted to be an engineer and an athlete. He wanted to make a difference in the world. He mattered.
That’s why I won’t allow Zyqueire’s life and death to be limited to two paragraphs. I have to do something, and I want black men and boys—the same group most likely to fall victim to gun violence in Philadelphia — to join me. Because here’s what I believe: If black men from all sides of the spectrum come together, we can significantly decrease the number of homicides in our community. But we’ll need to bring willingness to the table, and in doing so, we can provide younger men with the mentoring, accountability, resources, and consistency we’ll need to turn their lives around.
In a city where a 2-year-old girl was shot in the head in what police allege was a Kensington drug feud, and an 11-month-old was shot four times as his stepmother drove through the streets of Hunting Park, we can no longer sit still. We must act.
That need for action was seared into my consciousness as I stood over the boy’s casket with hot tears stinging my eyes, and anger burning in my heart.
I imagine that many of the 284 homicides that have occurred in Philadelphia this year stirred similar feelings in those left behind. Having felt it for myself, it’s no wonder the cycle of violence never seems to end.
But suppose we could change all that by bringing black men together in unity? Suppose we could say to brothers that no matter who you are or what you do, you’re needed in this moment? Suppose we could catch them before the gun goes off?
I believe it’s possible. Black men can mentor each other through tough decisions and hold each other accountable. We can offer each other the resources we need if we consistently show up to do so.
Could we reduce homicides by 10 percent if a black doctor talked to a young man who wants to be one? Could we reduce them by 20 percent if we helped a young brother get a job? Could we cut them by 30 percent if a boy filled with rage could talk to a black man who used to be?
I don’t know all the answers, but I do know this. We owe it to each other to try, because Zyqueire’s is not the only legacy we must protect.
There is also the legacy of John Conyers, a black former congressman from Michigan who died this week at 90 after decades of trying to get Congress to study the effects of slavery and recommend reparations.
But even as African Americans continue the push to collect on America’s debt to us, we can pay what we owe to ourselves. We owe ourselves the effort to stop killing in our communities. We owe ourselves the willingness to make a difference.
Black men have seen enough death to know how precious life is. Saving those lives is now squarely in our hands.