I spent some time at the Philadelphia Art Museum this week talking to a curator about an upcoming public performance that reimagines a day when we "Bury Our Weapons, Not Our Bodies." Only a couple of hours later I was reminded that every day in Philadelphia we bury our young, not our weapons, when during a news conference police announced that two teenagers were responsible for gunning down an 18-year-old.
So far this year, at least 102 people 18 years of age and under have been shot in the city, 18 of them fatally.
One of those killed was Kristian Marche, a track star from Imhotep Institute Charter High School who was headed to college before a 16-year-old boy shot him Aug. 13, police say, after trying to break into his West Oak Lane home. Marche died the next day — the very day he was supposed to drive to Penn State to start his freshman year.
The next week, another teen was shot in North Philly. This time it was a 14-year-old boy left fighting for his life after bullets tore into his face and neck. He died around the same time that police were announcing the names of the two suspects accused of killing Marche.
The pictures posted on social media of the 14-year-old are heartbreaking. He was a baby. But there's this photo of Marche, the runner, making the rounds that just guts me. Because of so much stolen potential, sure. That goes for any kid who is killed, star athlete or not. But also because that victorious moment that captured Marche holding a baton as he overtook another runner, his face beaming, reminded me of so many other young people trying to outrun what they perceive as their destiny. The streets. Jail. Death.
In that photo, Marche had made it to a finish line that I'm sure was just one of many his future was to hold.
The 14-year-old had reached a finish line, too.
A couple of months before his death, Davida Garner, a local antiviolence advocate whose cousin was murdered in 2017, noticed the boy trying to get on her Broad Street Line train at City Hall.
He and a SEPTA employee were getting into it as the boy tried to explain he'd made some mistake with his Key card.
Garner, who runs the nonprofit Erase the Rate, stepped in and paid the fare.
The boy was quiet for a while, then he started talking. He had this beautiful smile, she recalled. He bit his nails.
He told her that he had just graduated from eighth grade, that he loved basketball and shopping.
He told her he'd lost friends to the streets.
The streets are crazy, she recalled him telling her.
Before they parted ways, she told him: Stay safe.
A couple of months later, she was scrolling through social-media apps on her phone when his picture popped up. She gasped. She'd know that smile anywhere.
The way she sees it, he is another casualty of a community that shows more solidarity for celebrities than children. It's why she is partnering with other groups on Sunday, Aug. 26, at 5 p.m. to hold a community walk for peace from the School District building to LOVE Park. They want adults, parents especially, to show up and walk side by side with their children as a show of support that they might not always feel from the grown-ups around them. A message that they have their backs.
The groups want to do it the weekend before school starts because some students have to walk into buildings without the friends they walked out with in June.
I like the idea — efforts like these and so many more are why I have no time for the tired tropes that the people in the communities hardest hit by violence don't care or aren't doing anything about it.
Many people try their best, every day. But I had to admit to Garner that I'm at a loss. Especially when we continually ask members of a community buckling under the crush of poverty and mass incarceration and systemic racism and negligence to heal themselves. And then blame them when the long-festering wounds inflicted on them prove fatal to some of the city's most innocent.
My mind went back to the Art Museum and the conversation about the public performance, which will include a ceremonial burial of weapons. I'll tell you more about that another day, but in the meantime …
A world where mothers and fathers didn't bury their children.
Where families didn't celebrate their loved one's birthdays at cemeteries.
Where kids didn't learn their RIPs before their ABCs.
The problem is that to imagine anything, first you have to dream, and for far too many young people in Philly, they don't even dare dream making it past their teens because all around them, every day, people don't.
Last week, I came across a story about a teenager who had just celebrated his 17th birthday. The teen was from Missouri, but his story mirrors so many in Philadelphia.
"I made it to see 17," Armond Latimore happily announced on Facebook.
An hour later he was shot and killed.