We failed you. This city, its public officials, all the adults who are supposed to do whatever is necessary to protect you, we all failed you, its children.
And we keep failing.
But you know that already. You’ve known that for a very long time. And if you weren’t sure or were somehow holding out some hope that the grownups in the room would become less disappointing, all you had to do was sneak a peek (like I did) at the latest two-day emergency hearing on gun violence.
That’s all I could take, a peek — especially after I realized I’d just been to a hearing on gun violence in February. I couldn’t stomach another spirit- and soul-crushing marathon meeting, with so many of the same people saying so many of the same things that have mostly added up to nothing.
Look at the record number of people killed by gunfire in Philadelphia so far this year — more than 200 and counting. This isn’t up for debate.
Nobody needs another meeting to know it’s not fair or right or just for children to live in fear of being shot or killed year after year, generation after generation.
Even some of the people who participated knew that.
“I’m tired of hearing the same ‘thoughts and prayers’ and ‘this needs to stop’ after every shooting,” said Councilmember Jamie Gauthier. “I’d like to see us do more than say, ‘Gun violence is a priority for us.’”
A city full of grieving and traumatized citizens would like to see that, too.
But here we are. And it’s only getting worse:
More than 100 juveniles have been shot in the city so far this year.
In May, a 14-year-old was shot while playing tag in her Southwest Philadelphia neighborhood. Cianni Harris survived her physical injuries. The trauma will take much longer to heal. In July, a 7-year-old was shot while he played on his West Philadelphia porch. Zamar Jones – who dreamed of being a police officer – died after a bullet from a shootout between men on the street struck him in the head.
Innocent casualties of this city’s epic failure to reckon with its relentless gun violence. Inaction is action in Philadelphia.
And we should be ashamed of that. But shame has always been in short supply around here. If it weren’t, we’d be done talking, done holding hearings, done hand-wringing, and would finally come up with concrete, systemic responses.
Over the years, I’ve watched you, children so small that your legs hang from the hard wooden pews you’re sitting on, teenagers straightening their spines to put on their bravest face, pack into funeral homes and community vigils.
I’ve seen you try to not flinch as the wails of your dead friend’s mother fill the street.
I’ve heard you wonder if you’d be next.
I’ve watched you all but try to turn to stone in an attempt to protect yourselves while you walk down the street, on your way home or to school or even to the neighborhood park.
Beneath your protective masks are silent prayers that you’ll make it to your 18th or 21st birthdays. That you’ll make it out.
But even when you do, there’s a cost. Trauma comes in more shapes than a gun.
Too many young people in Philadelphia don’t have enough to eat, or a safe, stable place to live, or the kind of quality education or opportunities that might show them that it’s a big world out there, that there is so much more to fight for and live for beyond some city block.
(And that was before the coronavirus laid bare our limitations yet again, with a school system that can barely support its students when they’re in school scrambling to not leave even more children behind when they’re not.)
That’s our fault. All of it, it’s on us.
Because if you can’t see that you are loved and valued and worthy of so much more, if you aren’t consistently shown that, what are you supposed to believe? What are you supposed to strive for?
We whisper empty assurances while the streets roar. We peddle the promise of “something better” and offer nothing concrete in return.
We wear costumes of compassion and follow the script: Outrage. Pledges. “Roadmaps to Safer Communities” that mostly lead to paydays for more adults making more empty promises.
You see right through us. We’re fooling no one but ourselves.
You are who is left behind when we fail.
Left to live with the sound of gunshots your mothers used to tell you were fireworks until you got old enough, which wasn’t old at all, to know the difference.
Left to hear them inch closer and closer.
Left to sidestep the blood-stained streets to find your own way out.
I’m rooting for each and every one of you. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I hope you come back, for the children behind you, the next generation.