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Everyday gun violence goes unchecked, even as high-profile massacres capture the nation’s attention

We can’t accept the asymmetrical way people look at shooting victims based on race.

Loved ones of unsolved murder victims who want the city to remember that while two people have already been arrested in South Street shooting, they await justice. The group was together at the Art Museum steps in Philadelphia on June 8, 2022.
Loved ones of unsolved murder victims who want the city to remember that while two people have already been arrested in South Street shooting, they await justice. The group was together at the Art Museum steps in Philadelphia on June 8, 2022.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Within a few days of the mass shooting on South Street, two people were already in custody.

Two days later, two more.

And almost immediately came a familiar appeal from the loved ones of murder victims whose killings remain unsolved:

Where was the full-court press to identify suspects and make arrests in the deaths of their family members?

Where was their justice?

In many ways, the shooting on South Street was not unlike countless other shootings in the city: a senseless loss of life. Grief-stricken family and friends. Our community traumatized yet again.

But the gunfire that rang out on June 4 differed in one important way: it occurred in one of Philadelphia’s most popular gathering spots in the wake of a mass shooting in Buffalo that left 10 people dead and another in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and two teachers were killed.

After the shooting stopped on South Street, the nation’s grim toll from gun violence expanded by three deaths and 11 injuries. All told, there have been nearly 20,000 gun deaths in the U.S. so far this year.

Those who have lost loved ones to gun violence in Philadelphia understood better than most the pain that followed.

But what many of them couldn’t understand — what they couldn’t accept, and shouldn’t accept — was the asymmetrical way people in this country, and in this city, look at victims of gun violence.

Those who study shootings have long determined that a clear racial disparity exists in the treatment of victims of gun violence. One sociologist found that the kind of gun crime that affects people of color in cities is often portrayed as a sign of immorality and personal failings. When gun violence affects white people, though, the incidents are more likely to receive public attention and the assailants viewed as an anomaly or someone living with mental illness.

Sound familiar?

We see this play out every day in Philadelphia, where violence disproportionately affects communities of color and residents endure higher poverty levels, lower life expectancy, and fewer economic and educational opportunities overall.

A recent Inquirer analysis broke down the consequences of such stark inequity. Since 2015, there are 57 city blocks where 10 or more people have been shot. Blocks where the poverty rate is nearly double the city’s average and people are expected to die at least three years earlier than the state’s average life expectancy. In one part of the Strawberry Mansion section of North Philadelphia, residents were expected to live 14 fewer years than the state average.

It was with those kinds of bleak statistics in mind that I first called on Philadelphians impacted by gun violence to gather at the Art Museum steps in 2016 in an effort to turn some of the focus to the daily death toll in our city. “Fill The Steps” would go on to become an annual event.

I thought I had retired the gathering as I considered other ways to bring attention to gun violence, but in a city where most shooting deaths go unsolved, I issued another call recently to Philadelphians who were still seeking justice, asking them to join me on the Art Museum steps.

There were a lot of familiar faces:

Yullio Robbins who has prayed the same prayer since her son was killed in 2016: that she lives to see someone answer for his death.

Margie Dillon, who has slept in her son’s bedroom since he was killed in 2018.

And others whose stories I’ve shared in this column over the years.

But there were some new faces too, including Ayesha Williams, whose 29-year-old son, Aamed Glover, was killed on June 13, 2021, nearly a year to the day before she joined the small group at the museum.

“I’m furious,” she said. “Furious, that for a lot of Black and brown kids, how much people care about your life and death depends on where you live and die.”

There is a well-worn script after mass shootings around the nation: thoughts and prayers followed by vows of change, usually with very little actual change behind them. (This is where I’m supposed to take special note of the bipartisan gun-safety bill in Congress that is admittedly more than we’ve had but still so much less than we need.)

But there is also a script for the gun violence that has long plagued this city: Beleaguered police and city officials insist that they are doing all they can while simultaneously pointing fingers at members of the community for not doing their part by coming forward as witnesses or supporting police.

It’s always struck me as an appalling abdication of responsibility by elected officials and law enforcement when so many mothers all but become amateur detectives in an effort to help solve their own children’s murders.

And even when witnesses come forward, the city doesn’t always have adequate protections in place to keep them safe. To help rectify that, City Councilmember Cherelle L. Parker has proposed increasing funds for witness relocation by a third in the city’s next budget.

“People are fearful of their lives when they witness something,” Parker told me in a recent interview. “So while the slogan ‘See Something, Say Something’ is very easy to say, it is very difficult for anyone living in the neighborhoods of Philadelphia not wealthy enough to just pick up and move.”

Parker has also put forward a plan to provide more money to the city’s forensic lab, so that if someone does see something and say something, the case doesn’t just rest on their word, potentially making them a target.

When I spoke with District Attorney Larry Krasner back in April about the unwavering work of his assistant district attorneys in one recently solved cold case, we talked about the “lucky breaks” so many loved ones hope and pray for.

But between my conversations with Parker and Krasner one thing became clear: Luck is often made — and budgeted.

At one point, Krasner said, if detectives were really lucky “we’d have a $50 million lab that would actually do modern forensics at a scope that would drive way up the rate at which these cases are solved.”

Back at the Art Museum, as I scanned the signs held by loved ones on the steps, I lingered on the one held by Cherie Ryans for her 18-year-old son, Terence, and his best friend, Darren Norwood, 19, who were both gunned down in 1990.

Alongside photos of the young men — two teenagers frozen in time — were the words : “Grew up together. Played together. Graduated together. Died together.”

Hers is a different kind of heart break. Five men accused of killing the teenagers as they left a West Philadelphia movie theater were arrested and tried, but after four trials not one of them was held accountable.

Not one.

Yet, in Philadelphia, that is more justice than most families who know the pain of losing a loved one to gun violence will ever receive.