At 10:30 Saturday morning, dozens of survivors, family members, and activists gathered to ride in a motorcade through North Philadelphia to raise awareness around the epidemic of gun violence that has gripped the city over the past two years.
But for local politicians, it was also an opportunity to highlight new funding that’s available to address the causes and fallout of the shootings, many of them deadly.
The “Peace Ride” was organized by the office of Democratic State Sen. Sharif Street, whose district encompasses much of North Philly, a part of the city that’s been especially hard hit by shootings. He was accompanied by U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Pa.), State Rep. Donna Johnson-Bullock (D., North and West Philadelphia), and Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner.
Last year, 562 people were shot to death in Philadelphia, an all-time high in an already violent city, with thousands more injured. This year’s pace of killings has been similar, with 300 gun homicides recorded as of mid-July.
In interviews leading up to Saturday’s caravan for change, survivors attested to the incalculable toll of that loss.
“You’re talking about 562 statistical victims, but you haven’t accounted for the thousands of lives who were attached to them,” said Zarinah Lomax, who has lost close relations to gun violence and hosts I Am Thee, a radio show about processing trauma.
Given the intensity and breadth of those emotions, “you have to be on the ground, people have to see you,” said J. Desmond McKinson, a spokesman for Street. “We can’t be aloof in a high tower.”
Politicians were visible — and accessible — Saturday. Yet, not many bystanders showed up to interact with the motorcade along its route.
Street conceded that point. “People are tired of coming to events about gun violence, if something hasn’t actually happened today.”
But he said the purpose of the rally wasn’t to draw big crowds. Instead, it was to model the kind of community engagement — with music, food, and prayer out in the public square — that can help deter violence. That violence hit close to home last summer when a 21-year-old cousin of Street’s wife, April, was killed during a shooting at a Fourth of July cookout.
“Statistically, on a Saturday in July or August in this community, there are going to be shootings,” said Street. Community engagement like this, he claimed, helps jolt young people inclined toward violence off that path.
“People aren’t going to be around clergy, and hear speeches about not shooting people, and then go around and shoot people,” he said.
Cars assembled at Dr. Tanner G. Duckrey Public School, at West Diamond and North 15th Streets, where an eighth grader was shot and killed last April after leaving school, and made their way westward, stopping along the way at other sites of recent fatal shootings, where politicians and activists interacted with handfuls of community members.
Evidence of violence was unavoidable: The procession passed a Buick riddled with bullet holes at 19th and Fontain Streets.
The motorcade ended at Mander Playground in East Fairmount Park, where Street recently announced $105 million in new state funding for gun violence prevention as part of the state’s $45.2 billion budget Gov. Tom Wolf signed earlier this month.
“There are lots of things we should do on gun control,” said Street, “but that’s not feasible in this moment.” Instead, the money — which he described as the product of both grassroots pressure and bipartisan interest in Harrisburg — is meant to go to community efforts to suppress crime: programs for youth sports, dance programs, beacon centers, and the like.
Organizations can apply for that funding through the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency (PCCD), which the state chartered in 1978 to coordinate crime prevention efforts.
McKinson, Street’s spokesman, cited organizations such as the City of Dreams Coalition, Mothers in Charge, the NoMo Foundation, and PAL as the kind of organizations seeking to prevent crime in communities that could benefit from the additional funds.
For many antiviolence activists and survivors, that infusion of funds is bittersweet — much needed, but not nearly enough.
Tonya Johnson lost her daughter Amber Michael to gun violence in 2016. And while she said she appreciated the state’s efforts, she doesn’t trust that government alone will solve the problem.
“If they wanted to do better, the higher-ups, they would have done it by now,” she said.
Instead, said Johnson, the community itself needs to step up.
“I don’t hold the state, I don’t hold the government, I don’t hold anybody accountable for my neighborhood. And we have to take it back because they don’t live here. They go home to wherever they live and they feel safe. We are not safe.”
Many “Peace Ride” participants cited the ubiquity of the trauma of experiencing violence, and the cyclical effects that that trauma breeds, as a key cause of gun violence.
“There’s a lot of untreated trauma in our community,” said Lomax, the podcast host and a rape survivor herself, who refers to the community of people affected by violence as “co-victims.”
“So a lot of times these people are picking these guns up because they’re not dealing with what they’re shooting for,” Lomax said.
The Rev. Leroy West, leader of the Central Philadelphia chapter of Parents of Murdered Children, has made it a mission to engage with angry, desperate, and disaffected youth — a population that includes his own son.
“I have a 17-year-old right now who has so much anger in him,” said West. “And it takes nothing, the drop of a dime, for him to snap. And it’s all because of what he’s holding inside from losing his sister.”
West lost his 19-year-old daughter Robin to a serial killer in 2016.
He’s helped, in part, by coming to youth where they are. From 2016 to 2021, he worked as a security officer for the school district, including at Duckrey School.
“I see these young guys coming in who got chips on their shoulder. They’re angry. I started shaking their hands, each male that came into that school, I said, ‘Hey, how you doing?’”
Outreach and consistent mentorship, he said, go a long way toward making young men feel connected and grounded. But he believes the community could do more
— and federal lawmakers.
“I understand the NRA, how powerful they are, financially and politically,” West said. “But nobody is standing up to them. They say it’s OK to carry an AR-15. What? You’re not in Afghanistan.”
On Friday the House passed a ban on certain assault weapons. But the measure is likely to stall in the 50-50 Senate.