With extraordinary museums, nearly unparalleled cuisine, a bottomless wealth of history and a perfect location of just a few hours’ drive from both the Big Apple and Washington, D.C., Philadelphia could very well be a world-class city.
Instead, Philadelphia is working overtime to develop a different reputation.
More than four hundred people were murdered in the City of Brotherly Love in 2007 and, while the pace this year is decidedly slower (for now), almost 70 homicides have been recorded in the first three months of 2008.
Yesterday, just before 2:30 in the afternoon, a 36-year-old Starbucks manager looking forward to his upcoming wedding was savagely beaten by four black youths on the Market-Frankford subway platform a block away from City Hall, and died less than an hour after the attack. Three of the attackers got away, but according to The Philadelphia Inquirer, 16-year-old Kinta Stanton was taken into custody and told police that he and three friends had skipped school that day and had targeted Sean Patrick Conroy at random and decided to beat him up not to rob him, but just for the hell of it.
The increase in violent crime in Philadelphia has been blamed on poverty, on racial disconnect, on guns and on government. Tonight’s local news will likely show Stanton’s 32-year-old mother or 48-year-old grandmother sobbing and telling the rest of the city how Kinta was “a good boy,” was “turning his life around,” and how he was just a victim of Philadelphia’s class warfare, or sub-standard educational system, or criminal justice system, or whatever else can be thought of in order to avoid placing blame on themselves and a community that embraces violence, “stop the snitching,” and a thug mentality.
Excuses will be made and the three remaining attackers will continue to elude police, perhaps long enough to commit further crimes and perhaps kill somebody else. With 68 homicides already in Philadelphia this year, the already-swamped police will still battle quieted witnesses and apathetic community members who wear “Stop Snitching” t-shirts while asking news cameras why police cannot stop the violence.
In the end, Sean Patrick Conroy is still dead. His fiancee will see no wedding, his family will forever have an empty seat at their dining room table, his co-workers and faithful customers will forever look at the stairs leading to the subway station and remember how he was murdered — all because some punks decided to ditch school in favor of living the thug-life dream fed to them by friends, by television, by the hip-hop culture.
What is the answer for Philadelphia?
How does a city so mired in violence and a thug mentality that its citizens actually work against police recover from an obvious lack of respect for life?
Some people think that the answer lies in tougher gun legislation.
I took this photo with my Blackberry on the way into work this morning (I was stopped at a traffic light, I swear). The only effect that tougher gun laws will have on the face of this city will be changing its elected officials. I see three distinct problems with gun laws as an answer.
First, I don’t expect those who have already resigned themselves to robbing, raping or killing somebody will pay much attention to new legislation. Those 400-plus families still grieving the loss of loved ones killed during 2007 grieve because the life of their mother, brother, father, son, or sister didn’t mean enough to spare. Last year, children were murdered, grandmothers and grandfathers were murdered, and the lives of infants even were snuffed out in cold blood because a certain segment of the population does not value or respect life at all.
The man who, after being hit with an errant snowball back in February, produced a gun and shot a kid at point-blank range on his 15th birthday obviously has no respect whatsoever for human life. The killer was hit with the snowball, went into his house, grabbed the gun, returned outside, and snuffed out that boy like he was nothing. He didn’t care about the consequences of killing that child, and I somehow doubt that he’d care about the consequences of having an illegal gun.
Enacting new, tougher gun laws does nothing but acknowledge the apathetic transfer of blame from people to inanimate objects. It blames the silverware for obesity. Guns do not go off by themselves — one of my guns could be sitting out on a park bench and, untouched, pose no threat to passing pedestrians. Somebody must pull the trigger, somebody must dismiss the moral conflict, somebody must undervalue life, and even the most strict legislation does not address that human–inhuman–element.
Secondly, passing new legislation making it more difficult for both criminals and law-abiding citizens to obtain and own firearms denys the opportunity of responsible people to protect themselves. If, for instance, only one house on a particular street does not have a “Protected by ADT” sign in the front yard and a little alarm control panel visible through the window, that house will be the first choice for someone intending to break in.
If guns are so unequivocally evil, why do the vast majority of mass killings take place in so-called “gun-free” zones, and why aren’t there more shootings at gun shows, were literally thousands of guns and millions of rounds of ammunition are within reach?
When seconds count, the police are only minutes away, and knowing that their next victim might be armed and capable may cause a criminal to think twice. Sean Patrick Conroy, thinking that his life was in danger, would have been perfectly within his legal right to draw a legally-owned and legally-carried handgun and shoot each one of his attackers dead, right there on the platform.
Instead, we’ve got a promising young man and future husband dead, and four scumbags for the taxpayers to house and feed for what hopefully will be a very long time.
Finally, all of the gun laws in the world would not have prevented Sean Patrick Conroy’s death. These punks were not armed with handguns. They simply and unconscionably chose, at random, to physically assault Conroy and essentially killed him with their bare hands.
Gun laws will not stop this thug mentality. Without a gun, they will use a knife. Without a knife, they will use their hands. In the grand scheme of things, firearms are a recent technology. Cain didn’t shoot Abel. Genghis Khan didn’t use artillery. Take away the guns, and people will still die so long as somebody else is willing to commit murder.
Others propose that “hope” is the answer.
I took this photograph at approximately 2:35 p.m. yesterday, after seeing a bunch of police officers run into the subway station that I had just passed by. At the time, I didn’t know that Sean Patrick Conroy was breathing his last only a few yards away; At the time, I only knew that something had happened, that this city was in deep, deep trouble, and that mere hope has never, ever saved a single life.
The problems that strangle this city starts from within. Kinta Stanton and his four worthless friends should have been in school yesterday, rather than on the platform at 13th & Market killing a man who worked hard every day toward dreams of success and family instead of whining for handouts and dreaming of one day being discovered by the 76ers or picked up on a record label as the next Akon.
Hope will never foster good school attendance. Hope will never convince a 15-year-old girl that she is too young to have a child. Hope will never make a good parent. Sure, we can hope beyond hope that some day, kids like Stanton and his murderous friends wake up and realize that life is worth something, but hope alone will do nothing without action, without work, without resolve.
There is no single answer, but there are things that can be done on a number of levels.
The government can help, by putting more boots on the ground and exchanging impersonal patrol cars for walking beats. Having the police presence in the neighborhood change from a machine that stops only at traffic lights as it weaves through a particular area to a police officer with a name, a face and a story can only help to bridge the gap between law enforcement and the people. Kids used to look up to police officers, used to want to be police officers … not shoot at them.
Mostly, however, the answer lies within the people, and success absolutely, 100 percent depends upon them. The answer lies in picking ourselves up, in coming together and deciding that the steady decline in the quality of life in Philadelphia must stop, in deciding that we all should be able to walk our neighborhoods at night and our subway stations by day. We must all decide on our goal. We must all commit to achieve it, and we must then secure the means.
After-school programs, college scholarships and other social devices are all essential catalysts for the kind of transition and recovery needed so desperately by the city of Philadelphia and her people. These programs, however, cannot be forced upon people through government action and even government funding. Change cannot be mandated — it must be a product of desire, of commitment, of a yearning for a better way of life.
After-school jobs can help as well. Bi-weekly paychecks can not only help a child’s family gain extra income but can also fund the gaming consoles and the shoes and the CDs and the rims that would otherwise come from drug money or somebody else’s wallet. I had a job at a local feed and seed store and spent many days after school hauling fertilizer or doing landscaping. If local restaurants claim to have no dishwashing, bussing and kitchen jobs available, and if local businesses claim to have no need to hire warehouse personnel, perhaps we should look into enforcing our immigration laws.
If the unions would allow, perhaps the city itself could put kids to work after school. Pay them to pick up trash, to paint shabby-looking buildings, to restore pride in their communities. Working together with neighbors, working alongside city officials and police officers and with other people in the community might also work to close the divide and give the victims of violence names and faces. The people of Philadelphia are numb to the violence that grips the city — anything that can be done will only bring people closer together and make the problem more personal.
The city cannot change overnight, and no amount of rehabilitation can bring back her dead. The reasonable, responsible, God-fearing people of this city can and will take it back when they’re ready to have an honest, difficult discussion of the problems and subsequently work out and commit to solutions that will benefit everyone involved.
Philadelphia can be a world-class city, but her citizens must first prove themselves to be world-class people.