A 13-year-old Grays Ferry boy spent nearly three days in custody and now faces criminal charges over what adult supporters are calling child's play with a toy gun.
Neither the Philadelphia Police nor the District Attorney's Office will discuss the case because it is playing out in closed proceedings in Family Court. There, eighth grader Zahiem Salahuddin is accused of pointing a $3.50 plastic handgun replica with an orange muzzle tip at a younger boy and pulling the trigger, unleashing a little orange plastic ball that allegedly struck the boy.
Zahiem is charged as a juvenile with simple assault, reckless endangerment, and possession of an instrument of crime.
The teen says the police officers who stopped him near his home that July evening told him the alleged victim had pointed to him as the shooter. But Zahiem, an athlete who fears the charges could hurt his aspirations to play high school football, and his mother, Zakiyyah Salahuddin, 43, contend that he is innocent.
Others question how the case has been handled and whether the boy's race is a factor. Zahiem is black; the alleged victim is white.
"As our system is rigged, we know if he wasn't this color this wouldn't even be in the system," said Charles Reeves Jr., a Southwest Philadelphia community activist.
"Black children are seen as menaces, while white children are seen as children. That, obviously, is extremely racist," said Fran Gilmore, a volunteer with another group, Mothers in Charge.
To hear Zahiem tell it, when officers approached him, he instinctively knew not to reach for the toy gun clipped to his waistband, even when a Philadelphia Police officer asked him how to unclip it.
"I wasn't gonna touch it," Zahiem said in an interview, citing the highly publicized shootings of black males by police officers nationwide.
He said one officer told him: "'You just shot the son of a police officer.'"
A Philadelphia Police Department spokesperson declined to confirm whether the victim was a police officer's son.
Mandy Nace, spokesperson for the Defender Association of Philadelphia, said the boy allegedly was hit once in the stomach with the plastic ball and did not require medical attention.
In Zahiem's version of the incident, he and a few friends with plastic toy guns had interacted with the alleged victim, and one of them may have shot the boy, who he said is 7 or 8 years old. He said he didn't see the alleged shooting.
The police did not buy that story, and placed handcuffs on Zahiem, who had never been arrested, his mother says. He spent the night in a cell inside the First District police station at 24th and Wolf Streets. Police next moved him to the Youth Study Center in West Philadelphia, where he spent two more days before being released into the custody of his mother.
Since then, his mother says, he has been on home detention and is permitted only to go to school and to participate with his neighborhood football team, the South Philadelphia Hurricanes, for which he is the star running back.
Zahiem, an eighth grader at Universal Vare Charter School, hopes to play for Neumann-Goretti High School next school year, but even his coach acknowledges that a cloud now hangs over him.
"This is blown out of proportion," said Joseph Rose, the head coach of the Hurricanes. "Did [the alleged victim] go to the hospital? Was there any bruising, any bleeding? We're here because they were playing with a toy gun that was sold at a corner store. We're trying to make sure he does not get a police record at this young age over kids' play."
Zahiem's mother and other adults say they are concerned that race may be a motivating factor for the Police Department and the District Attorney's Office to criminalize what might otherwise be seen as child's play.
A plea offer from the DA's Office would have required her son to serve six months' probation and would have expunged his record after that. The record would be expunged in five years if he went to trial and was found guilty.
"He's a good football player," Salahuddin, who works as a trolley driver for SEPTA, said in an interview Friday inside the Family Court building. "His next step is Neumann High School. From Neumann, he will receive something, whether it's a full or partial scholarship. I don't want anything to tarnish his record."
Salahuddin was supported by about a dozen people in court last Friday when her son's case was scheduled to be heard. The trial was postponed until November after the DA's Office opposed a request by Zahiem's public defender to open the proceeding to the public and the media. Common Pleas Court Judge Robert J. Rebstock is expected to rule on the public access motion in November. In the interim, he appointed child advocates to look after the interests of Zahiem and his alleged victim.
"This justice system does not want eyes on it. It doesn't want a spotlight or any kind of illumination. They want to do what they're doing alone, in private, in courtrooms," said the Rev. Harrod E. Clay Jr., of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Glassboro, who was among Zahiem's supporters in court.
"How come the police didn't take the young man to his mother, then take the young man and his mother to the other young man's mother and resolve this?" asked Clay, who also runs a crisis prevention and intervention program. "How in the world are we here today?"