Tell a story enough times, and it has a way of becoming true — especially when that “truth” is a convenient one.
On June 16, a raucous outdoor party at 12th and Courtland streets in the city’s Logan section ended abruptly when, at about 9 p.m., gunfire erupted and pandemonium ensued. The 100 to 200 partygoers scattered in different directions. Double-parked cars blocked police cars and ambulances from approaching. When the smoke cleared, four people had been wounded by gunfire: three men and a 2-year-old girl, who was hospitalized in critical condition.
Four days later, police announced a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest. Weeks went by; still, nothing.
Then another story emerged, in which the 2-year-old was a victim not just of an unknown shooter, but of Philly’s notorious “stop snitching” culture, which had caused neighbors with knowledge to clam up.
On hand to tell this story were some of the city’s top officials.
In a lengthy article in the Daily News (it ran in different mediums under two headlines: “Little Girl Was Shot: Why Will No One Talk?” and “200 Witnesses Saw Philadelphia Toddler Shot, but None Will Talk”), Philadelphia managing director Rich Negrin and public safety director Michael Resnick railed against area residents for failing to “come forward.”
Resnik described a “total apathy” on the part of neighbors, “plus, maybe, an acceptance that this is the way it is.” He was sure, he added, that “word’s out on the street” as to who committed the crime.
Negrin was even more blunt. The lack of information was “inexcusable on the part of that community,” he told the Daily News. “Everybody there knows who the shooters were.”
It was a sound bite that could easily have come from the playbook of Mayor Michael Nutter, who has routinely pointed a finger back at the Philadelphia communities where violence has occured. Following several violent “flash mobs,” Nutter berated parents and told their kids to “pull up your pants,” saying they had “damaged your own race.” Nutter called the alleged perpetrator of a July 4, 2012, shooting an “asshole.”
Last week, Daily News columnist Stu Bykofsky weighed in. “If they don’t care about their community, why should we?” he began, leaving the they/we distinction to the imagination. He concluded, “I can understand why people who live in civilized communities might want to wash their hands of those who have thrown in with the thugs.”
An entire neighborhood unwilling to come forward even to find justice for the shooting of a little girl — it’s a harsh, provocative story, a real teaching moment.
Except there’s almost no evidence it’s true.
Some elements of the story disintegrate under even the mildest scrutiny. There’s the assumption, for example, embodied in the headline, “200 Witnesses Saw Philadelphia Toddler Shot, but None Will Talk,” that many partygoers did, in fact, “witness” the shooting. But (as the Daily News itself reported) the gunfire erupted after dark, was first mistaken for fireworks and sent people running for cover. “You [couldn’t] even tell where it’s coming from,” a neighbor told the newspaper.
Then there’s the hazier notion that the residents of the block know who’s responsible — that “everybody there knows who the shooters were,” as Negrin put it — but that they’re holding back.
But that narrative suggests that neighbors knew about the party and/or knew the (200) people attending it — an assumption neighbors told City Paper is dead wrong.
CP interviewed seven residents of the block in three separate interviews in one afternoon (five of the seven interviewees gave permission for their full names to be used). All asserted that the party had been thrown by one resident, that the revelers were mostly from somewhere else and unknown to the neighborhood, and that actual residents had mostly been inside when the incident happened.
“It was a young lady … who was on the Internet and said, ‘Come here for a Father’s Day celebration’ — and all those people showed up,” says Toni Walker Ross, who lives down the street from where the shooting occurred. “We don’t know who they were, we didn’t know the little girl — most of us were in our [own] house[s].”
Indeed, Philadelphia police officials confirm this version of events. “It’s true, it was on the Internet,” says Northwest Detectives Captain Winton Singletary. “A lot of the neighbors did stay inside their house. It wasn’t like a lot were outside.”
Residents with whom CP spoke were mystified — and outraged — at the assertions that they were “clamming up” or being silenced by a “stop-snitching culture.”
“I would have called. I could use $10,000 — I’ve got kids all over the place!” said Anthony Overstreet, whose wife Edith is the block captain of the 4600 block of North 12th Street. “Shootings do happen, and you hear things — but this one, you didn’t hear nothing.”
Negrin’s and Resnick’s comments, he said, amounted to “stereotyping.”
In response to several emails regarding the residents’ accounts of the situation, Negrin called the story “unworthy of substantive response.” Resnick acknowledged that “many people may not have seen anything,” but that “the resounding silence of the community” — which “community” he meant wasn’t totally clear — “is sad.”
Later, CP also received a call from Deputy Police Commissioner Thomas Wright.
“Although it was dark, I believe someone on that block saw,” he said. “At least one person knows who was involved.”
Everybody, one person — what’s the diff?
Of course, there’s a big difference.
One narrative paints the community as participating in a kind of mass conspiracy of silence; in the second scenario, the city and police are blaming an entire neighborhood for knowing as little about the crime as they apparently do.
“Stop snitching” may be a real problem for police, but it’s also a potential way to redirect responsibility.
In this case, say some Logan residents, it’s unfair.
“I was raised with the value that you do come forward. That’s a big deal to me and my parents,” says Andre Mason, 21, who grew up in front of the scene of the shooting and who was recently accepted to Widener Law. Mason takes the allegation of failing to step up personally.
His brother, he says, was killed in a violent incident. And it was his family that attempted to care for the bleeding 2-year-old inside their house before an ambulance arrived. Mason’s father (who declined to give his name) continues to be troubled by the recent news articles.
“Nobody knows who did what,” he says, visibly upset. “And they won’t let it die, saying this is ‘Don’t snitch.’”
The younger Mason says city officials and a certain Daily News columnist ought to have spent more time talking to him and his neighbors before airing accusations of withholding information. He guffaws upon learning that Bykofsky had relied on NAACP president Jerry Mondesire for community perspective.
“See, that’s the punch line: You weren’t out here,” Mason says. “You weren’t walking the beat.”
“I don’t want to get too political,” the lawyer-to-be reflected. “People in power have no idea what’s going on. They see demographics and they say, ‘Oh, that’s what’s wrong.’”