[ prevention ]
"This past Tuesday, two young men were shot," a 25-year-old man shouted into a megaphone on the corner of 22nd and Berks streets in North Philly, the site of the violence. "We're here to pay respects, and show that we will no longer tolerate these shootings. We have a problem in the city of Philadelphia. And the problem is senseless shooting and killing. My name is Brandon Jones, and I used to be a big part of the problem." Indeed, Jones has finished serving four years in prison for attempted murder.
The one-time shooters testifying at the vigil are part of CeaseFire, a path-breaking violence-interruption program pioneered in Chicago that is now being piloted in Philly's combined 22nd and 23rd Police Districts — a stretch of North Philadelphia, running from 10th to 33rd and Lehigh to Poplar, that suffers more shootings than any other city neighborhood.
The Chicago program has drawn national attention, and a documentary, The Interrupters, premières this weekend (see Sam Adams' review). CeaseFire conceives of violence as a disease whose transmission can be stopped, and in Philly, Temple University's School of Medicine runs the program.
Though violent crime has declined nationwide over the past two decades, poor black and Latino neighborhoods continue to suffer from rampant gun violence. Indeed, CeaseFire programs are also under way in the most violent neighborhoods of other U.S. cities, including Baltimore, Brooklyn, New Orleans and East St. Louis.
For this past Friday's vigil, a dozen community activists stood on the corner with the former felons, holding signs that read "Stop Shooting People" and passing out brochures.
"Do something, do something," shouted Almira Stansbury, a 65-year-old recovering drug addict who walked over to show her support. "I think that some people might be afraid. I think that some people are angry and sad. And I think some people just don't care."
A few heads popped out of rowhouse windows to listen, but most residents, if they were home, stayed behind shut doors.
"We were hoping to get neighbors out," said Atiba Kwesi, aka Jesse Johnson, who, along with other North Philly activists City Paper recently profiled ["Safe Haven," Daniel Denvir, July 21], now works for CeaseFire. Kwesi was released nearly 20 months ago after 27 years behind bars for armed robbery. "But this is a rough block."
Suddenly, the family of one of the victims emerged from a house halfway down the block and watched. The bullets that didn't pierce the bodies of the two young men flew into a house full of small children, one of whom was now outside. Carrie Gardner, a CeaseFire volunteer from Redeem Baptist Church, walked over to explain the city services available. CeaseFire had already met the victims.
"We talked to them at the hospital," said Terry Starks, who has served his own time. "One got shot in the legs, another got shot six times."
One day's shooting victim is at high risk of becoming tomorrow's shooter, so CeaseFire meets everyone they can as soon as possible — usually when they're still lying in a hospital bed. The two boys have agreed to not retaliate, said Starks, and will become CeaseFire clients.
In Philadelphia, police have community-relations problems ranging from incidents of excessive force to a "stop snitching" culture. CeaseFire is not trying to find the killer and bring him to justice, nor do they inform police about illegal activities: They are solely fixated on stopping the shooting.
"Ninety-nine percent of the time, it's someone of color, and someone young. But is it any wonder?" asks Kwesi, pointing to the grassy lots that mar half the block. "That lot used to be all houses."
CeaseFire cannot ensure adequate funding for poor people's schools, decent health care or, most importantly, good jobs. But the Chicago program has succeeded in stopping some shootings.
"If our people were killed by someone else, we would be rioting in the streets," yelled Kwesi. "But when we are killing each other, we're used to it."
Pastor Larry Patrick of Redeem Baptist Church led the group in prayer before they left to go home. "I'm going to be here week after week," said Patrick. "I'm not going anywhere."