This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Local high school students expressed their fear, sadness, and frustration Friday at a meeting with state and local officials, where they shared gruesome stories of gun violence and the subsequent trauma felt by individuals and communities in Philadelphia.
The afterschool program Mighty Writers hosted the anti-violence forum at the Friends Center in Center City because “almost every young person we work with has been affected by violence in an immediate way,” said Shanise Redmon, Mighty Writers program manager. “We believe in uplifting our student voices at all costs.”
The purpose of Mighty Writers is to help students express themselves through writing to better understand and cope with circumstances in their lives.
Redmon has felt the impact of violence personally. Her uncle was murdered when she was 11 years old, and her cousin was murdered when she was in high school.
Shamsa Belgrave, a student who attends Mighty Writers, asked, “Where in Philadelphia can I feel safe?”
State Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell, a Philadelphia Democrat, responded: “To be totally honest, I don’t know if there is a way to stay safe. That is just the reality that we live in. People get killed driving down the street. We can’t go to church, we can’t go to mosque, synagogue, we can’t go to school, the movies, we can’t go to a show. Gun violence is everywhere.”
Johnson-Harrell, a West Philadelphia native, said that her father, brother, and son were all murdered. “I was diagnosed with PTSD at 10 years old,” she said.
Johnson-Harrell’s commentary was especially powerful. She captured the full attention of everyone in the room as she described the traumatic experiences she had been through. After losing her son to gun violence in 2013, she started the nonprofit CHARLES Foundation in his name to advocate for gu- violence prevention.
The students at the forum said afterward that her story made a particular impact on them.
“I think it was very powerful,” said Bintou Fofana, a senior at Upper Merion Area High School. “When you are speaking from the heart, it sounds like poetry. It shows that they really care and that they are really here to make a difference.”
During the forum, one young woman broke into tears, saying, “I work with kids in the summertime, and there was this one predicament where they were playing basketball and they started fighting. And I got in there and told them to chill, and one of them was like ‘Yo, if I had a gun, I would kill you.’ This is the normality of the situation.
“I love these kids so much, and I don’t want to see them die.”
Holding her cousin in her arms and speaking to the panel from her seat in the audience, another young woman, Shanice Taylor, said of her cousin, “She is the face of a child who has to grow up without a father. Her father was murdered when she was only 15 months.”
Taylor and her family members are trying to start a community center called Last Jab, which they hope will be a place where people can receive free counseling.
Others shared their heartbreaking stories as well (some of their full stories are recounted below).
Celestine Adjaglo, a 14-year-old student with Mighty Writers, said she had witnessed a shooting.
“I can barely go to my local corner store without seeing teddy bears and candles on the ground,” she said, referring to memorials that spring up on-site to commemorate slain family and friends.
The students and officials discussed the impact of gun violence and how people “self-medicate” with drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with the trauma of witnessing family members brutally murdered in front of them.
Philadelphia City Council member Curtis Jones was walking with a young girl one day when she was shot and killed. He was only 16 at the time. “I was in my 10th grade of high school, and I medicated myself through the rest of the year,” Jones said.
‘They don’t care about black kids dying in the streets’
Johnson-Hurrell said that her brother self-medicated after he saw his father dying. “He was never properly diagnosed, never properly treated, self-medicated with drugs and alcohol. Wound up in and out of adult correctional facilities, and then was murdered over a girl.”
She said that our children are growing up in “active war zones,” causing internal, unseen damage.
The students demanded that the leaders work for solutions. Fofana challenged the lawmakers: “How many more people have to die before you step up?”
State Rep. Donna Bullock, a Philadelphia Democrat, talked about some of the difficulties facing gun reformers. Partisan politics is among them, she said, as she described a visit to rural Pennsylvania to try to form connections with her legislative colleagues.
Bullock said the representative whose home she was visiting holds a gun in the pictures on her campaign handouts. “That is how she wins votes in her district. Guns are that important in her community. … They don’t understand or see the human impact of the way that gun violence impacts our community.”
Johnson-Harrell spoke more bluntly about the resistance in Harrisburg to gun control, saying: “The reality is that a lot of people up there do not care about our community. They don’t care about black kids dying on the streets.”
One way to reach across the aisle, she suggested, is by talking about the issues affecting rural communities and highlighting their commonalities.
“While [the Republicans] may not care about black kids in urban communities dying in the streets, they care about middle-aged white men in urban communities dying by suicide. So we need to change the conversation,” she said. Suicide accounts for two-thirds of gun deaths in the country as a whole.
The legislative leaders mentioned actions they have taken to counteract gun violence. City Council member Jones has introduced legislation that would allow law enforcement to confiscate someone’s gun after they have made a threat to someone else’s life.
“In those declarations, we should be able to serve out a warrant to a judge to temporarily remove those firearms from that known resident,” he said. “You have the right to bear arms, but you do not have the right to terrorize others.”
Curtis also mentioned a program he has been involved in called the Rock the Block Porch-Poppin program. This program, he said, teaches young men and women carpentry skills and pays them a stipend to fix porches in their communities. This gives the participants valuable professional skills and money, and it removes blight from communities. He also said that they are working with the Philadelphia Housing Authority to repair houses in their “scatter site inventory” and then put them into a lease-to-own program. The point of all of this is to help mitigate the underlying causes of violence, including job loss, poverty, blight, isolation, and hopelessness.
Johnson-Harrell, with help from Gov. Wolf, has been working on starting a gun violence research center. She thinks society needs to better understand what the underlying causes of gun violence are and also what the indicators, or “social determinants” are, which can be used to identify people who are most likely to become violent. She said that in the case of her son being killed, the homicide detectives told her “while Charles is a pure victim, these boys were going to murder somebody. We knew it. We had him in and out of juvenile and prison. One of them used to kill cats.”
Johnson-Harrell said with frustration, “That is the situation right now with our children. We don’t educate them, we don’t house them, we don’t feed them, they have parents on drugs, they have nobody to look up to, we don’t give them jobs. What do we expect!?”
Notably, around the country, many programs like the one of which she speaks have been successful. Community policing in Chicago, for example, reduced violent crimes there by nearly 50% from 1991 to 2002 during the course of the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy program. In Boston, Operation Ceasefire, also known as the Boston Miracle, reduced youth homicides by 63% by involving community groups, including church leaders, who listened to the people causing trouble on the streets at night and saw them as partners in the fight against violence, according to Jefferey Brown, one of the church leaders involved in the program.
The homicide rate in Philadelphia has been decreasing fairly steadily since the 1980s, according to data from city-data.com, but it is still placed in the 94th percentile among U.S. cities, according to the site.
After the event, one of the panelists – Adé Fuqua, the former chief of staff at the Office of the Managing Director of Philadelphia – said he hoped the event would restore students’ faith that public officials are trying to address problems, like deep poverty, that breed gun violence.
Beyond that, he said, “This is not a racial thing; this is not an old-young thing. If you are in an area where violence has taken over, you are not even able to … engage your neighbors. We cannot let violence imprison our communities.”
Here are three stories that were told during the forum:
Shanise Redmon is the Mighty Writers South program manager. She said: “My uncle was murdered when I was 11, a few blocks from Mighty Writers, where I work, so I go past the location all the time. My cousin was murdered when I was in high school around the corner from my house, so I see it every day. I lost my best friend while I was in college because he committed murder. And during high school, I contracted kidney disease and I didn’t know where it came from. There is no history of it in my family and I was getting into a lot of trouble during my senior year. I had to go to anger management and all of those things.”
Council member Curtis Jones was one of the local officials on the guest panel. He said: “When I was 16 years old, I was going to a party. I was coming from the bus stop and a person came out of a driveway, shot and killed the young lady I was with. That is not something I read in a book or watched in a movie. That is something I live with. I was in my 10th grade of high school and I medicated myself through the rest of the year. Self-medicated, if you know what I mean [with drugs and alcohol], because I was guilty feeling that I could have done something different to keep her alive.”
After he was elected, he said, “I was called because a young child who was with his father got shot by accident at Tustin Recreation. I go to the rec center and I am doing my thing in my official capacity and I look in the crowd. I saw the twin of the young lady I [had been] with. She seemed just like a ghost, and we were reliving it. We said, ‘This is generational.’ Here we go again, living this over and over again.”
State Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell, who was also on the guest panel, said: “On Easter Sunday 1975, my father was murdered in front of my family. I was 8 years old. In July 1991, I lost my only brother. He was stabbed in the throat over a girl, and his 5-year-old son watched him bleed out on the floor. On Jan 13, 2011, after leaving Philadelphia to protect my children from gun violence, my 18-year-old son, Charles Andre Johnson, came to Philadelphia to pick up his sister to make sure she was safe, and two boys had a beef over a girl the day before and they thought my son was the boy coming back to retaliate and they put four bullets in my son. My son didn’t even know these people. So one conversation that we need to be having — that we do not have often enough — is that we talk about what is happening external to us, but we do not talk about the internal injuries that are going on with our young people, the stuff that you cannot see: us living in these communities and our children seeing dead bodies in the street and then they are expected to go to school.
I was diagnosed with PTSD at 10 years old. I then began to develop endocrine problems and I spent my childhood in [Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia] and they could not find out what was wrong with me. What was wrong with me was trauma. I internalized seeing my father gasping and gurgling his own blood because he was shot in the chest with a double-barrel shotgun. In that moment I lost my mother and my father and my only brother because my brother then became mentally ill, had behavioral problems, wound up in juvenile. You all know this story. I’m not unique. He was never properly diagnosed, never properly treated, self-medicated with drugs and alcohol. Wound up in and out of adult correctional facilities, and then was murdered over a girl.”