Philadelphians demanding more resources to combat gun violence march down Broad Street in March 2021

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The hundred or so people who rallied Friday afternoon on City Hall’s north apron brought a unified message: Elected officials have a responsibility to do something about Philadelphia gun violence.

“We know that the mayor cannot do it all alone, but the resources start there,” said event co-organizer Zahirah Ahmad.

Speaking to the growing crowd, Ahmad recalled a moment one year ago today, when City Council moved to earmark $85 million for COVID relief. That legislative move came about two weeks after Philly recorded its first local coronavirus case.

“Every time we step to you [about gun violence], it’s always the budget, the budget, the budget,” said Ahmad, of Nicetown. “You have money to allocate for the things that you need. But you can’t put the money and resources back into the communities.”

The purpose of the rally was twofold. Organizers from a group called Not On My Watch wanted to show support for activist Jamal Johnson’s previous accountability protesting, which included two separate hunger strikes urging Mayor Jim Kenney to take more action on gun violence.

Protesters and event organizers also gathered to underline the idea that the mayor, city councilmembers, and other government officials have the power to affect what some call “neighborhood” or “community gun violence” — even if they don’t work in law enforcement.

“Before you can eliminate violence, we got to help eliminate poverty,” said Ahmad. “So we have to put the resources out here for both the children and the families.”

Rally co-organizer Zahirah Ahmad, a North Philly resident and member of the Not On My Watch movement Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Renee McDonald attended the protest holding a photograph of her 19-year-old nephew Marcel Core, who was killed in 1996. Twenty-five years later, his death and the deaths of the thousands since have residual mental health effects that government funding could assist, said McDonald, who is a member of grassroots anti-violence organization Mothers In Charge.

“The people that are doing the shooting, a lot of times they are victims of trauma themselves,” the West Philadelphia native said. “We don’t have trauma care in our neighborhood.”

Activists, researchers, and community members have been saying similar things for years. Stakeholders have spotlighted strategic private and government disinvestment in majority Black and Latino communities especially as one of many gun violence root causes.

Recently, leaders have called loudly on officials to reallocate government resources into community programs.

That’s what is meant by the Black Lives Matter movement’s call to “defund the police,” said Germantown resident and Philly Unfiltered podcast host Eric Knight. “They just wanted to redirect the funds that normally would go to the police to social services. Put it into helping the homeless. Put it into mental therapy. Give the kids something to do.”

Germantown resident Eric Knight joined activists at the rally and march Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Can pumping funding into education, mental health initiatives, and other social services actually help curb crime and violence? A number of academic sources say yes.

A 2018 National Bureau of Economic Research study found that opening additional mental healthcare and substance abuse facilities could reduce a county’s social cost of crime by $4.2 million a year.

Education also has a measurable effect. In 2004, researchers determined that “schooling significantly reduces the probability of incarceration and arrest” because of changes in individuals’ criminal behavior.

Even spending by city offices that ostensibly don’t deal with crime, like the Streets Department or Licenses and Inspections, can make a difference. A 2019 study that focused in part on Philadelphia found cleaned and greened outdoor space had a positive effect on reducing violence. Researchers added that “city governments and communities are empowered to support these interventions.”

Rally organizer Ahmad said she thinks city government hasn’t made big enough moves on funding education, trauma, and anti-violence programs because “they don’t care.” Even though they work in the city, she said, “they have removed themselves from the situation because it’s not at their doorstep.”

West Oak Lane resident Yahmir Johnson, 14, said he keeps to himself so he doesn’t get killed Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

One of the march’s younger participants was Yahmir Johnson, 14, who joined the protest with his aunt and grandmother. It had been one month since his cousin, 18-year-old Jabree, was shot and killed.

“That just really touched me right there,” said Johnson, of West Oak Lane. “We been should’ve got the guns off the street before that, but that just really hurt me right there.”

Throughout the afternoon, speakers repeated the refrain that Philly children need well-funded, accessible extracurricular activities, and that the city’s physically deteriorating schools need more resources. “We are robbing our children of a childhood,” said Ahmad on the bullhorn. “And then you want to know how come the world is the way it is. Because we didn’t protect them when they were children.”

What does 14-year-old Johnson think he needs? “I don’t know what I need,” he said. “I just need family, that’s all.”

The teen can’t speak for his peers, he said, because he doesn’t know them. Johnson stays to himself on purpose. Having friends? “That’s how my cousin got killed.”

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...