John Solomon leaned forward slightly and sat on the edge of his chair when he was being questioned by Josh Shapiro, the suit-wearing politician who was just elected to take over as the top law enforcement officer in the state. To a room of politicians and community leaders, Solomon told the story of the first time he picked up a gun.
“I wanna say I was about 11,” Solomon told Shapiro, flanked by some of the top elected officials in the city of Philadelphia, the district attorney and the police commissioner. “My friend had access to it in his home.”
There was no particular reason Solomon, who’s now 24, continued to carry a gun. It just seemed like the normal thing to do. In 2011, when he wasn’t even 20 years old, Solomon was sentenced to four years in prison for shooting someone in Philadelphia. He’s now been out for more than a year, and was one of about 20 community members who met with Shapiro and other elected officials including the City Council president during a community forum near 21st and Cecil B. Moore Tuesday.
Shapiro pressed Solomon on what drove him to pick up a gun the first time, and what led him to continue carrying.
“Did you have a moment where a pastor, relative, community leader, police officer or someone said ‘Hey put that down, you shouldn’t be carrying that?’ Did that ever happen?” he asked.
“No,” Solomon quietly responded. “That’s part of the reason why I continued down this path. I didn’t have a person, a man in particular, to come into my life who gave me that perspective.”
Community organizers and anti-violence advocates from across the city converged on the meeting Tuesday, organized by Shapiro, seeking solutions for gun violence in their communities. Shira Goodman, executive director of Ceasefire PA, pointed to a crowd of people jumping out of their seats to speak to Shapiro “because someone is listening.”
The resounding theme of what those groups need? Support. Specifically: Money.
Shapiro, a Montgomery County commissioner, will take over as the Pennsylvania attorney general in January and, in the lead-up to his inauguration, he’s traveling across the state to speak with small groups of community members about targeted topics. In the Lehigh Valley, he was meeting with community members to discuss solutions to the opioid crisis. In North Philly, it’s gun violence.
And while everyone in the room had a different opinion on what the root of the problem is — education, job opportunities, mental health, the availability of guns, a lack of positive role models — most of the activists agreed that organizations working closely with the most vulnerable individuals aren’t getting the financial support they need to do all the good they’re capable of.
Even Police Commissioner Richard Ross admitted that community members who grew up in the neighborhoods they’re working in are more likely to get through to a young person who’s involved in drugs or violence or guns than a police officer might be.
“You’ve got to see a man to be a man,” he said. “You’ve got to feel like you’ve got people who care about you. If you don’t have anybody in your life you feel like you’re letting down, what’s it matter?”
Darryl Shuler, an anti-violence activist in Philadelphia and Solomon’s uncle — who took him in once he got out of prison — said he’s talking to kids every day who come from broken homes. Most don’t have a father, many don’t have a mother. And he’s often using his own money, sitting down with those kids and providing an outlet.
There are also leaders like Reuben Jones, an organizer with Frontline Dads. He pointed out that tactics like stop and frisk that stigmatize the community don’t work. But he also said there’s a distrust of some elected officials because there isn’t enough cash to “empower people in the community to do the work.”
“That should be validated not just socially, but financially as well,” he said. “Those are the relationships we’ve got to lift up.”
Michael Daniels, an organizer with EDGE, said leaders in law enforcement can also focus on training, empowering and investing in effective policing before it turns into a dangerous situation. He told the story of an “Officer Kennedy” in his community who was in his living room telling him to shape up — and maybe, unknowingly at the time, changing his life.
“Officer Kennedy never looked at me like I was who I was,” Daniels said. “He treated me as if I was a little brother. It spread like a disease.”
Problem is: Everyone fighting gun violence needs resources. The district attorney needs more resources. The police need more resources to fight gun violence, specifically targeting the hundreds of guns every year that are stolen and then lost into the circle of violence. Chantay Love, an organizer with Every Murder is Real, said she’s found that some of the “powers that be” aren’t especially interested in partnering at the community level. Movita Johnson-Harrell of the Charles Foundation said at the end of the day, she doesn’t care who her organization partners with. They’ll work with anyone.
“We just want the homicides to stop,” she said.
There aren’t unlimited resources, and elected officials like Shapiro aren’t walking into a pile of money waiting for them that they can distribute out to organizations that need it. There are some discretionary funds at the attorney general’s disposal. But the pool isn’t vast. Shapiro acknowledged that. He said he’s taking what the community said Tuesday and will use it to look what he can do to use his bully pulpit to push the legislature to allocate resources to causes like these.
For him, it came back to John Solomon.
“At 11 years old when he chose to pick up that gun, we failed him as a society,” Shapiro said. “We failed him in the schools. We failed him in his home network… So it’s a societal failure that ultimately led him to pick up that gun. Now he’s gotten his life together and is going to be an example for others.
“But I don’t think that there’s any one clear answer.”