MOMENTS AFTER I walked up to Saturday morning's Handbags 4 Peace rally at 53rd and Market streets, a male onlooker turned in my direction to point out all the other men in the crowd of about 100.

Looking around, I could see that about as many men as women were standing around, huddled inside heavy coats and listening to speakers outside the Tropical Heat nightclub, where Melissa Thomas was senselessly gunned down after a night of karaoke with friends.

It was good to see how many braved the frigid temperature and came out. Especially after the online brouhaha that broke out last week after I quoted an organizer of the march as saying she felt failed by the men. "Where are our men? Why are they not protecting us?" Tyema Sanchez told me. "Men are failing us. I feel as though we are not being protected."

Some Daily News readers reacted strongly, saying they felt unfairly stigmatized by Sanchez's comment. Others called the notion that men have a role in protecting women outdated and took offense. As my email inbox filled up with messages from irked men, it was clear that the proverbial pot had been stirred.

Frankly, some of their reactions surprised me. I'd been thinking about the two women who'd lost their lives because of their purses and the guy who was shot trying to get his girlfriend's bag back from a thief - and they were taking issue with a Daily News headline that asked: "Are men failing our women?"

Sanchez said what she said because she feels let down by a male-dominated political system - not to mention the men who are up to no good. It wasn't an indictment of all men. Sanchez wasn't talking about all the good men, some of whom cleared away snow and ice for Saturday's demonstrators.

"There were a lot of men who thought that the finger was pointed directly at them," Mannwell Glenn, a political consultant, said after his Facebook rant about the homicidal purse thefts had helped galvanize Saturday's rally.

"If you felt guilty or you felt played by the media, you actually played yourself," Glenn told me yesterday. "The paper never mentioned race."

He added that as a black man, he understands why people are hypersensitive to perceived racial slights, but that this time the criticisms were off-base.

"Hopefully, this will now be like a nice ice-breaker where we can have a serious discussion in our community about relations between men and women," Bilal Qayyum, president of the Father's Day Rally Committee, said as he watched Saturday's activities.

He and others I spoke with at the rally said they sensed a lessening of respect between the sexes, as evidenced in part by a breaking of the old street code that provided a veneer of protection for women and children.

"What she [Sanchez] said was right," Qayyum added, as the demonstration wrapped up. "We've got to have that discussion. There are certain things we can't sugarcoat anymore."

From what I could hear of the speeches, there wasn't a lot of sugarcoating as attendees took turns expressing outrage at the purse killings, the latest of which took place about 2:35 a.m. on Feb. 2. Two hooded men dressed in sweatshirts confronted Thomas and her friend, took their handbags, then opened fire, killing Thomas and injuring her friend.

"I don't even know why a man wants a handbag," said Philadelphia state Rep. Ronald G. Waters, taking his turn at the microphone. "Go buy your own handbag. If you're a real man, take it home and give it to your mother or sister and dare somebody to take it."

On Jan. 19, Amber Long was walking with her mother in Northern Liberties to retrieve her car when thieves approached them. Amber resisted when they tried to take her purse and wound up with a fatal gunshot to the chest.

Amber's mother, Stephanie Long, bravely addressed Saturday's crowds.

"This guy didn't want her purse. He wanted to kill somebody," she told me after the rally. "How can that be acceptable in any society?"

Meanwhile, the Fraternal Order of Police has doubled its share of the reward for an arrest in Long's killing to $20,000 - if the arrest is made by midnight Sunday. That amount is in addition to the $26,000 that the city and Citizens Crime Commission are offering and is payable immediately after an arrest is made. After Sunday, the FOP's portion of the reward offer goes back down to $10,000. Tipsters should call 215-686-8477(TIPS).

"We're trying to put a bounty on their heads. This was such a horrific crime," FOP president John McNesby told me last night. "That poor girl was only 5 feet tall and weighed less than 100 pounds. They shot her for no reason. . . . Somebody knows something."

On Twitter: @JeniceArmstrong