When I first met Nasir Livingston, he had two years to live.
He was 15 years old, with a serious expression that belied his age, and growing up in the heart of a street war decades older than he was. We spoke in 2015 while I was reporting on the latest of the endless back-and-forth shootings between young people who lived blocks from each other on 27th and 31st Streets in Grays Ferry.
In a neighborhood that can sometimes feel like a bell jar, Nasir and his friends dealt with an extra layer of claustrophobia, a deadly one: 29th Street was the border. Cross it, and you were courting a bullet.
At 15, Nasir stood on that precipice. His mother was dead from cancer. His brother, in the 27th Street crew, was in jail. Already, he kept a tally in his head of deaths. He told me about how he tried to look after the younger kids. About the endless shootings that only begat more. “It’s just how it is,” he said.
I would never see him again.
Six days before Christmas in 2017, two masked men ambushed him in a Chinese takeout.
He was shot in the head as he pressed his weight against the door. There was a group of young children in the store, who screamed as he lay in a pool of his own blood, the store’s emergency gates closing them all in.
He had posed on social media with guns and in rap videos with lyrics that boasted of shooting rival gang members. Nasir earned a nickname since we’d met, one that investigators say spoke to his new status in the 27th Street crew: “GOAT.” Greatest of All Time.
He died at 17, another kid on the edge whom we failed to wrap our arms around.
Last week, two men were charged with his murder. The arrest came as part of a sweep of the two gangs, led by a city and state Gun Violence Task Force.
Among the eight arrested in connection with Nasir’s murder and three other shootings were two women, who police say lured two men to a shooting ambush in North Philadelphia in retaliation for Nasir’s murder.
The indictments offer a glimpse into the staggering weight of the gang warfare on a single community: In the 13 months between January 2017 and February 2018, the tit-for-tat violence led to 43 shootings, with 35 people hurt and three killed. That’s more than three shootings a month. Most of it exploded in a tight swath of blocks around South Philly, though, worryingly, some of the feud has spilled into other neighborhoods.
The violence in Grays Ferry stands apart for its pettiness. It’s not an all-out battle over drug corners or money, investigators say, but a generational feud whose origins are long obscured. Now it rages on in social-media threats and simple slights, and consumes a new generation of kids. Investigators there say that sometimes, the shootings are not targeting specific crew members. Just whoever’s around.
“Just knowing someone can make you lose your life,” said Jackee Nichols, whose grandson, Rasul Benson, was shot and killed while pumping gas for cheesesteak money at a neighborhood gas station in October. Police said the gas station was targeted because it was where kids from 27th Street hung out.
Rasul would have turned 16 next week. “He didn’t deserve to die at the age of 15 for that," his grandmother said. "I won’t get the dance, the prom, the graduation. He never had a chance.
"It’s mass terror.”
She felt relieved at the recent arrests, even if none of them were for Rasul’s murder. At least it was proof that someone cared.
Caterina Roman, an associate professor of criminal justice at Temple, says the city must do a better job — as others have — at helping younger kids in the years before the violence reaches them, kids touched by the trauma but not old enough to join a crew.
“The issue is, how do we move the needle back? Why isn’t there a strategic initiative to focus on these kids that aren’t walking into street life" but are traumatized nonetheless? she asked. Like the children who witnessed Nasir’s murder.
Tyrique Glasgow, a former gang member who mentors neighborhood kids for the city, was with me that day in 2015 when I met Nasir. Glasgow’s still in the neighborhood, trying to instill worth in the kids who have begun to measure their value in social-media beefs, in the few squares of sidewalk where they’re from. The day he introduced me to Nasir, he told me so many people had already given up on the kids here.
And then, he said, as Nasir tagged along next to us, “they get to a certain age, and you lose them.”