The easiest part of writing this column was the beginning — finding the most up-to-date examples of the gun violence in Philadelphia that has steadily risen since the start of the pandemic and has lately spiked again, in the long hot summer of 2021.
Just hours earlier — at 1 a.m. on an unseasonably muggy Thursday morning — a man bounded onto SEPTA’s Nite Owl bus on Broad Street near Chestnut, in the beating heart of Center City, and started shooting, critically wounding a 29-year-old man and utterly terrifying the 15 other passengers onboard. Just a few hours earlier, a car chase in the city’s Logan section had ended with a gunman from one car shooting and wounding two teenagers, aged 19 and just 14, from the other car after it had crashed into an SUV with four occupants. At roughly the same time in West Philadelphia, an unrelated shooting wounded a 15-year-old and 13-year-old.
Go back to the night before, or the night before that, and you’ll find similarly grim stories: Philadelphia teenagers — their names, along with their stories and their humanity, rarely identified — wounded or even killed by the latest burst of gunfire. Of the more than 1,200 people shot so far in Philadelphia in a year that’s barely half over, more than 100 have been children. With 297 people murdered so far, there’s a more than decent chance that the so-called City of Brotherly Love will pass its all-time homicide record of 500 back in 1990. This is a human-rights crisis in America’s sixth-largest — and founding — city.
And yet, as many conservatives and mainstream-media contrarian types have been so quick to point out, rising murder rates — occurring right now in most American big cities — haven’t been a front-burner for the political left in 2021. Indeed, there’s been a habit, at least on social media, of tsk-tsking the problem by pointing to “if it bleeds, it leads” media sensationalism (a real thing) or noting that overall crime rates, including the violent crime category, haven’t really spiked and remain near historical lows. This seems prompted by fears that making urban gun violence a top-tier issue will both hurt the movement against social injustices like police brutality and mass incarceration, and also distract from other issues on the progressive to-do list.
On the same day that doctors were treating those life-altering wounds to four Philadelphia teenagers, progressives were hailing the first payments under the ambitious, up-to-$300-per-child-per-month tax credit enacted by President Biden and the Democrats in Congress. It’s a huge political and social breakthrough, but that investment is worthless for a child who won’t live to be 18, and it’s hard for any kid to reach their full potential growing up in fear of the next fusillade. People on the left want a world in which human rights are respected and everyone has a shot at happiness — so is there a more progressive cause than curbing gun violence?
Instead of shying away from the homicide conversation, I’d love to see the left take ownership of it. That means a) making sure people know the facts about crime in America and b) taking the lead on pushing solutions that will bring real public safety to urban neighborhoods, rather than ducking, and allowing conservatives to repeat the insanity of the same over-policing and mass-incarceration regimes that have failed us for so long.
The naysayers are absolutely right: There is no new crime wave in the United States, as most broadly defined. In 2020, property crime fell nationally and violent crime, which includes murder but also other offenses, rose by a minimal 3%. But the same stats show a significant rise in homicides in 2020 — up about 25%, according to the preliminary numbers — and 2021 is running even worse in many places. America is clearly experiencing a murder crisis, especially by gun.
John Roman, a senior fellow with the National Opinion Research Center research program of the University of Chicago who lives in the Philadelphia region, said the steep rise in gunplay is almost surely tied to the disruption of the pandemic. “You have a dense cluster of young men with nothing to do — that’s a spark for violence,” Roman said, noting that many city teens and young adults weren’t going to school or work, and lost access to everything from community centers to contact with trusted mentors. “These are places,” he added, “with deep-seated trauma, and long-standing beefs.”
To make matters worse, the 2020 arrival of the coronavirus sparked a manic gun-buying binge. The FBI shattered its all-time record for background checks, and by some estimates 8.5 million Americans bought a gun for the first time last year. Roman said more guns will lead to more stolen guns, a key source of urban shootings. To again paraphrase Anton Chekhov, America placed a gun on the table in Act 1 of the pandemic, and now these firearms are being used in the climax of far too many of our personal dramas.
These very real problems are derailing what was — all too briefly — a serious conversation about diverting city resources away from over-policing and into more appropriate interventions, from mental-health workers to unarmed traffic enforcers, as well as spending more on social services. Instead, political opportunists like New York City’s all-but-certain next mayor, the former cop Eric Adams, are invoking tired and counterproductive ideas like the return of an NYPD anticrime unit that led to many civilian complaints and some police shootings. The Democratic Party’s older leaders, trained to cower while coming of age during the Nixon/Reagan “law-and-order” years, are terrible at seizing the initiative. We need bold idea from the left side of the spectrum.
“I think anyone who thinks that the way to improve public safety is to invest in law enforcement is just pushing us further down the path toward a police state, where the only public safety we have is purchased and maintained through force and coercion,” Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York, told a recent forum.
Butts, Roman, and other experts agree that the best long-term solutions to gun murders involve both somehow getting guns off the streets but also in increasing social services and reducing poverty in the neighborhoods most plagued by crime. Of course, these elusive goals have been discussed for decades, and forward steps — things like the new federal child tax credit — take time to make a difference. So what can be done in the short term to address the political clamor and, much more important, at least reduce the number of shootings?
Progressive-minded criminologists like Roman or Butts are boosters of community antiviolence intervention programs such as the Cure Violence model, in which more mature people from the neighborhood work as “violence interrupters” and seek to mediate disputes or defuse tensions before they get out of hand. Roman noted that too many cities fund and support these programs in a kind of haphazard manner, instead of integrating this spending with the police budget as part of a thoughtful and comprehensive strategy. Experts would also like to see more evidence about what community approaches work well, to promote best practices.
Butts also says that more guardians in higher-crime neighborhoods can help — that this, “whether they have on police uniforms or bright orange outreach jackets or something else, helps keep things under control.” That reminds me of Minneapolis’ sluggish efforts, after the police murder of George Floyd, to replace its police department with a new public-safety unit to better orient responses toward services that could help citizens. Cities with allegedly progressive leaders — yes, I’m looking at you, Philadelphia — need to try radically different approaches to public safety, and then share their successes with everyone else.
In this fraught time for America, I’ve watched with pride as the left has led the fight for toddlers who were ripped away from their parents at the southern border, and so more young people won’t succumb to senseless police violence as Tamir Rice and Elijah McClain did. It’s time to do battle with the same ferocity for teens to be able to walk safely down a street in West Philadelphia. If you call yourself a progressive and you’re not fighting for this, you’re doing it wrong.
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