Members of the Richard Allen, Penn Town and Harrison housing communities held a 'Put the Guns Down' peace walk through their neighborhood in October 2020

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When Jermaine Tabb grew up in Philly’s Richard Allen Homes, he could do what kids in the community can’t anymore, he said. He and friends would roam from their complex, north to Harrison Plaza and south to Penn Town Apartments, and feel safe doing it.

“I’ve been in this neighborhood for almost over 35 years,” said Tabb, now 46. “But now, these kids from this neighborhood, they can’t even walk to Dunkin Donuts to get a coffee.”

The three adjacent public housing projects have been engaged in a violent, decade-long turf war that’s claimed at least 80 lives over the last five years. By the numbers, it’s getting worse. Shootings in this square mile of North Philadelphia’s Poplar area are up 400% this year compared to 2015. One particularly violent street corner in Richard Allen has seen at least 10 shootings alone.

On Saturday afternoon, dozens of concerned neighbors, anti-violence advocates and families of gun violence victims gathered at 10th and Thompson for a peace walk through the three feuding neighborhoods.

Tabb organized the event, calling on faith leaders and older men who grew up in what is now an epicenter of violence. They included Pa. Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, who is from Harrison, and city Managing Director Tumar Alexander, who spent his childhood in Richard Allen.

The organizer hoped bringing in these respected community leaders would appeal directly to the younger men he said are doing most of the shooting.

“If the kids can see all these brothers coming together for peace and unity,” Tabb said, “[it’s] like listen, young brother, you got to give yourself a chance at life.”

Saturday’s throng of peaceful marchers, women and children among them, chanted “Put the guns down,” and “We love you” to whoever was outside and would listen. Some neighbors on their stoops raised fists and voices in solidarity.

In Penn Town, young men smiled, laughed, walked away, and then sometimes returned as the large crowd moved by. Many did get serious when Tabb identified his deep connection to the community.

“I used to be a young brother like y’all, man,” Tabb said. “We gotta stop it. We losing too many.”

Stopping to talk over bullhorns on at least one corner in each neighborhood, speakers urged love, peace and unity. They called for resources and programs for young people, like the sports teams and after school initiatives that used to populate the Cunningham Rec Center on 11th and Wallace.

And they called on neighborhood residents to make curbing violence a personal responsibility.

“Ain’t nobody coming to save us,” said Rep. Kenyatta, whose 181st District includes the feuding communities. “WE gotta save us.”

Butch Mills was honored by his community for years of work at Cunningham Rec Center at 10th and Brown. He made a plea for an end to violence in the community. Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

‘There is no communities no more’

Cicley Brown, who goes by Ameenah, lost her 18-year-old son Randall Jacobs last December when he was shot and killed near 11th and Fairmount, less than a block from Brown’s home.

Brown now suffers from PTSD, she said. She attended Saturday’s peace walk, not far from where her son was murdered.

“For me, it’s still fresh,” Brown said about the loss. “I can’t describe it in a word.”

Brown linked up with Mothers In Charge and other victims advocacy groups, which she said have been helpful. In September, she celebrated what would’ve been her son’s 19th birthday with a family dinner.

“I’m just gonna keep standing for my son, until my last breath, because he can no longer stand for his self,” she said. “I’m just tired of seeing another mother fall down to her knees and scream and yell because she had to bury her child.”

Tyrone Singleton grew up with rally organizer Tabb. He attended Saturday’s walk just one month after his 21-year-old son Tymir Aquil Singleton was shot and killed on 10th and Thompson, where the father grew up.

“I’ve been around here long enough that I’m somebody that they need to see out here walking for peace, walking for better solutions,” Singleton said.

Like Tabb, Singleton remembers the time they’d cross neighborhood lines to play football, basketball, or visit friends and family. He said broken families and less community engagement are things he believes have contributed to the violence.

“The change is the communities,” Singleton said. “There is no communities around here no more.”

The peace walk moves through Richard Allen Homes Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Ending neighborhood violence ‘starts with us’

Poplar isn’t the only neighborhood suffering from a surge in gun violence. Homicides are up 40% around the city, with 371 people killed as of Oct. 10.

Philadelphia isn’t alone: In a study of 27 U.S. cities, researchers found homicides were up 53% across the country since the pandemic hit. But rates in Philly were on the rise for several years before coronavirus.

Brown, the resident who lost her 19-year-old son, does think the city’s lawsuit against Pennsylvania would help, as a court win would allow local officials to bypass the state and create or enforce its own, more stringent gun control measures.

State Rep. Kenyatta agreed, suggesting that helpful new ordinances could address the reporting of lost and stolen guns. He said government disinvestment has helped fuel the decline in many parts of North Philly.

“Nobody wants to come and rush the types of real resources that [these communities] need,” Kenyatta said. “Not just build a new rec center, but have programs and to hire people from the community to actually execute those programs.”

Part of Xavier Harris’ job is to coordinate direct, on-the-ground response to gun violence incidents around the city as or after they happen in his role as the community crisis intervention program coordinator at the Philadelphia Anti-Drug/Anti-Violence Network, or PAAN. A handful of PAAN reps were on site to engage with the community during the walk.

“The real thing that we’re trying to do is give them other options,” he said. “It’s a learned helplessness that we have as Black people in general, in these communities, to feel as though we don’t have anybody to lean on.

“But it starts with us,” Harris continued. “It starts with getting everybody out here on a daily basis. It starts with the people that are involved actually connecting with the young brothers and taking the time and being patient with the process.”

State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (second from right) and other community leaders at Saturday’s peace walk Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...