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Mayor Kenney’s refusal to declare gun violence an emergency is an act of cowardice | Helen Ubiñas

We need to stop coyly and cowardly debating the meaning and impact of declaring an emergency an emergency.

The scene of a triple shooting at the intersection of Keim and East Ontario streets.
The scene of a triple shooting at the intersection of Keim and East Ontario streets.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

On Monday, Mayor Kenney made it official: He would not declare a gun-violence emergency.

To those most impacted, his decision made something else official, too:

“He’s a coward,” said Deemika Brown, echoing a sentiment shared by many city residents I spoke with. “What is he afraid of?”

Last weekend, Brown and I attended the same gathering in Southwest Philadelphia for children affected by gun violence. Those include three of her grandchildren, ages 7, 4, and 3. Her 25-year-old son was shot and killed in Upper Darby last year near his home in West Philadelphia.

I thought of them as I went looking for Kenney’s weekend schedule. “No public appearances,” the official notice reports.

Must be nice, I thought, to get the kind of rest that families haven’t had since that fateful phone call or knock on the door. Rest eludes them while they are consumed with getting justice for loved ones, all the while being sick with worry over the safety of other family members. Almost everyone gathered had lost multiple friends and relatives to gun violence.

» READ MORE: Mayor Jim Kenney won’t declare a state of emergency over gun violence in Philadelphia

Kenney explained his decision in a letter addressed to Councilmember Jamie Gauthier — who for months has pushed the administration to declare an emergency. She called Kenney’s decision “an abdication of responsibility.”

“Together, we must all be working on solutions to invest in and heal communities hurt by gun violence and resist the temptation to issue statements that will not have the desired impact,” Kenney wrote.

“I’m asking for us to act like it is an emergency,” Gauthier repeated on Monday.

A big, mostly naive, part of me wished that Kenney was at the oasis of a community garden on Greenway Avenue on Sunday as kids clung to childhoods shattered by gun violence. But then, this kind of loss is everywhere in Philly, and that hasn’t moved Kenney to act boldly.

At the very least, Kenney could have met Linwood Bowser, the sweetest 10-year-old, named after the father he never knew but whose death in 2010 casts a large shadow over his short life. His 20-year-old father was shot and killed across from his grandmother’s house in Brewerytown.

Wood, as his friends and family call him, could barely hold back tears when he confided that the loss of his father, followed by the deaths of multiple relatives, made him fear losing his mother, too.

“What will happen then?” he asked, as his mother quietly tried to reassure him.

But how do you in good conscience reassure any child these days?

At a Nationals game in Washington on Saturday, an 8-year-old who was sitting with her parents and younger brother when shots rang out outside the ballpark chewed on her fingernails as she told a reporter:

“It was my second shooting. So I was kind of prepared ... because I always am expecting something to happen.”

In Philadelphia on that very night, a 1-year-old was shot by a stray bullet as her mother was shopping at a store at 50th Street and Haverford Avenue.

More than 10 people have been shot every day in Philadelphia so far this month – 16 were shot on Monday, the day Kenney refused to declare a state of emergency. Last year, 2,200 people were shot, 499 died by homicide — one death short of the highest total in the city’s history. We’re on track to set a record this year with more than 304 homicides and 1,264 shootings already recorded.

And yet, here we are, coyly and cowardly debating the meaning and impact of declaring an emergency an emergency.

“After serious consideration, I believe the simple declaration of some emergency or disaster akin to that signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo for the state of New York is not a solution that will demonstrably change conditions in Philadelphia,” Kenney wrote.

You know what else isn’t demonstrably changing conditions in Philadelphia? Just about anything his administration has done to address gun violence — and that includes many of the steps he touted in the letter:

* The millions of dollars thrown at unevaluated gun-violence programs, including an additional $68 million in new antiviolence spending in the budget that began this month.

* The Roadmap to Safer Communities 2.0, or 3.5 or whatever rendition we’re on since the first version was unveiled in 2019 and remains mostly a road map to nowhere.

Actually, that’s not fair. The road map does lead somewhere: To the homes of hundreds of Philadelphians impacted daily by inaction. To funeral homes and cemeteries filled with lost generations. To unaddressed and untreated citywide trauma.

When pressed in the past, Kenney has suggested that declaring an emergency could impose on citizens’ civil liberties. And in communities where discriminatory law enforcement policies and practices disproportionately affect people of color, it’s a consequential concern. It just shouldn’t be used as an excuse for failing to take necessary steps that might not always be politically palatable. To do your job.

Worried about civil liberties? Start by making sure your police department treats citizens lawfully and respectfully as it protects and serves.

“The idea of our city using ‘Black Lives Matter’ as a slogan, but not treating our gun violence crisis as a priority turns this powerful statement into a farce,” Gauthier said in a statement Tuesday.

Simply put: If “Black Lives Matter,” then we should do everything possible to save Black lives. The very communities that the mayor is claiming to want to protect are begging for a lifeline to live free of fear.

“So, if you’re not going to declare a state of emergency, what are you going to do?” wondered a frustrated Terrez McCleary. McCleary organized Sunday’s gathering. Her daughter was shot and killed in 2009.

“No one is safe, not women, not children, no one.”

For years we’ve wondered: What will it take? What will it take for those in power to act?

Anyone who has lost someone to gun violence knows the answer, McCleary said. For too many, it takes agonizing loss to land on their doorstep.

Except those who live with that pain every day wouldn’t wish that on anyone.