An anti-violence rally in March 2021 at Philadelphia City Hall Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

After Mayor Jim Kenney doubled down on his decision not to declare a gun violence emergency for Philadelphia, the local anti-violence and criminal justice community is mixed on whether it would actually help, on-the-ground advocates said — mostly because no one seems to know what it means.

Longtime activist and community leader Anton Moore thinks an emergency declaration might give communities a false sense of hope.

“What is a state of emergency? What does it look like? If it’s just something symbolic just to say… that does nothing for our neighborhoods,” Moore said.

The confusion about what an emergency declaration is and would look like in Philadelphia is “potentially problematic” to Juwan Bennett, who is pursuing a PhD in criminal justice and also co-founded and directs Temple University’s Urban Youth Leadership Academy, an initiative looking to curb violence through higher education and early intervention.

“I think where things get interesting for me is this semantics of around with emergency means,” Bennet said. “Why [don’t] … politicians seem to know what happens after an emergency is declared?”

The mayor has made similar points. Two weeks ago, Kenney said there were “a whole range of legal and practical questions that need to be answered,” about declaring an emergency.

Councilmember Jamie Gauthier introduced a resolution in July 2020 calling on the mayor to make such a declaration. It was adopted by Council in September of last year and sent to Kenney with some specific action suggestions:

  • Quicker, more frequent evaluation of the efficacy of the strategies being carried out as part of the city’s safety “roadmap”
  • Improved coordination of every city department with the goal of reducing gun violence
  • Enhanced resources to neighborhoods impacted by gun violence
  • Leveraging funds and coordination from the private sector, nonprofit, academic institutions, and healthcare organizations

Instead, the mayor has emphasized his 2018 declaration of gun violence as a public health issue.

Bennett, the criminal justice scholar, questioned Kenney’s emphasis of a public health approach in the absence of robust fundraising efforts like those seen with other public health crisies — breast cancer research and heart disease prevention, for example.

Strategies like ticketed fundraising walk/run events, private and nonprofit philanthropy raise hundreds of millions of dollars annually for those causes. “They collect so much money each year around research and bringing people together to fight this very hard disease,” Bennett said, referencing cancer.

“For some reason, when it comes to gun violence … we want to march our way out of the problem. We want to ‘community conversation’ our way around the problem,” he said. “But nobody’s talking about, if this is a public health issue, where is the money?”

Vanessa Garrett Harley of the Managing Director’s Office said Wednesday at the city’s bi-weekly gun violence press briefing that Philadelphia does pursue anti-violence fundraising, often in the form of seeking grants at the state and federal level, and via philanthropic organizations like the Philadelphia Foundation.

Philadelphians demanding more resources to combat gun violence speak on Broad Street in March 2021 Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

‘We aren’t hearing about it in these briefings’

For everyone who spoke with Billy Penn, the slow distribution of anti-violence funds reflects what they say feels like a lack of urgency.

Mayor Kenney and Garrett Harley also said the city is still in the process of creating a request for proposal for organizations eligible for some of the $20 million dollars budgeted for community gun violence initiatives. The city hasn’t provided a timeline for when that money will go out.

An hour before Wednesday’s briefing, three teenage boys were shot, two killed, in the Haddington section of West Philly.

The day before, a 1-year-old baby in its mothers arms was shot while she stood in line at a corner store less than a mile away from Wednesday’s triple shooting. The child is expected to live.

Bennett, of the Urban Youth Leadership Academy, said he was in a South Philly barbershop this March when three gunmen sprayed the block.

“When we have an opioid crisis or when things like Sandy Hook happen… it seems like there’s a visceral response, like ‘We gotta figure out how to do something,`” Bennett said. “But it seems like when it comes around Black issues, it’s like there’s nothing that can be done.”

There have been more than 1,200 people shot and 311 people killed as of Wednesday afternoon, putting the city on track to surpass last year’s record-breaking numbers.

Philadelphia Police Department Commissioner Danielle Outlaw was on the briefing call Wednesday, and called each incident “gut wrenching.”

Kenney started the regular briefings after activist Jamal Johnson went on hunger strike to bring widespread attention to Gauthier’s Council resolution. He said he felt “betrayed” by the mayor’s refusal to declare an emergency.

“We’re saying that every aspect of this city is being touched — economically, medically, you name — it is being touched by this gun violence,” Johnson said. “So how come we aren’t hearing about it in these briefings.”

The mayor became visibly emotional Wednesday after being asked repeatedly about whether gun violence was an emergent crisis in Philadelphia. “I carry a lot with me both on my back and in my heart and these kinds of things do affect me whether any of you think they do or not,” Kenney said. “Whether you believe me or not, it’s hard.”

For on-the-ground workers like Moore, there’s no waiting for either city resources to come down or emergencies to be declared.

“If the funds come, great,” said Moore. “If they don’t, it is what it is because at the end of the day, you got to go out and make a way and save some of these young people, no matter what.”

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...