In 1998, Joe Jaskolka was just 11 years old when he went to watch the Mummers practice on New Year’s Eve near his grandmother’s house on Fernon Street in South Philly.
That was when he was struck in the head by a stray bullet and collapsed into a pool of his own blood.
Jaskolka became one of the handful of people annually in the United States struck by bullets fired into the air to celebrate the new year.
“It freaked out my cousin Jeff who was with me. It scared him half to death to see his cousin drop to the ground bleeding from the head,” he said, looking back on the incident.
A bullet falling from the sky at terminal velocity can come down as fast as 200 mph, which can cause injury or death. A 2004 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said people are most likely to be hit in the head, shoulders, and feet.
Jaskolka was rushed to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia where he spent 11 days in a medically induced coma followed by 27 days in intensive care. The bullet lodged in his brain stem, leaving the right side of his body completely paralyzed.
“I couldn’t speak for six months after being shot. Eight months inpatient, the next two years outpatient, I’ve been in and out of the hospital,” he said. “I’ve had 37 brain surgeries and about 20-25 eye surgeries. I lost count at 17.”
Jaskolka’s life was never the same. He cannot walk and uses a wheelchair. He has undergone dozens of surgeries, costing his health insurance over $15 million. His family members have become outspoken advocates against gun violence in the city.
Police used a laser to get the trajectory of the bullet and determined that it was probably shot from a roof. Jaskolka said they searched rooftops on a two-block radius and found over 800 spent gun shells. The person who fired the gun was never caught.
Jaskolka urged those considering to shoot guns in the air at midnight to bang pots and pans instead, as it could save lives.
“Don’t participate in firing gun in the air because what goes up must come down,” Jaskolka said, warning the errant gunfire “may come down on someone you care about.”
Along with the Jaskolka family, one of the most outspoken advocates against New Year’s Eve gunfire in Philadelphia has been Ruth I. Birchett. She owns and operates the Heritage Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit she started out of her North Philly home that promotes civic leadership. Birchett has lost a brother, brother-in-law, and nephew to gun violence.
She said many in her community mark the New Year with firearms, which annually forces others to change their daily routines to avoid getting struck by gunfire.
Birchett is afraid to attend her yearly midnight church service. In the past, she said the gunfire started as early as 7 p.m. and routinely goes through the night.
“The last gunfire that I heard was at 5 o’clock in the morning. It’s changed the habits of people. It’s not safe to walk on New Year’s Eve to your church,” she said. “And it’s not safe for the churches to let you out to go home after midnight.”
Part of a larger issue
Philadelphia Police used to hold an annual press conference about the problem, but the city has not held one since 2016. At that press conference, police announced 132 reports of gunshots fired on New Year’s Eve in 2015.
Both Birchett and the Jaskolka family were regular speakers at the press events, but now, she and the Jaskolkas feel “defeated in terms of doing anything collaboratively with the city of Philadelphia” due to lack of interest from the city.
“We’re really at their mercy,” Birchett said.
Philadelphia Police did not immediately return a request for comment.
Earlier this month, the Philadelphia Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office launched a new initiative to secure more convictions for people arrested for gun-related crimes. Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw hopes it will help police “begin to understand why this [surge in gun violence] is occurring.”
Over the summer, the city launched the Group Violence Intervention program, an effort grounded in the fact that a small number of the city’s residents are responsible for shootings — less than half of 1%.
Birchett said the city needs to take more responsibility for ending the gun violence epidemic.
“They’re the ones who are able to draw the public attention to the issue and really are able to appeal to the citizenry from a legal standpoint to say, ‘This is dangerous to our citizens. Police will arrest you. The district attorney will prosecute you.’” But they haven’t reached out to her in years.
In 2020, close to 500 people were killed by gunfire in Philadelphia, a near record breaking number. More than 2,200 people were shot, a 53% increase over the same time last year, when Philadelphia recorded more than 1,450 shooting victims. Nationally, New Year’s Day is routinely one of the deadliest days of the year.
Birchett believes city officials would rather save face than discuss the serious problem with gun violence.
“I truly believe the city of Philadelphia is trying to skirt the image, but you can’t avoid the image and the reality that gunfire is a problem here in Philadelphia,” she said. “And celebratory gunfire is directly linked to the tragedy of gun violence that the city is experiencing.”
Jennifer Bennetch, an activist with Occupy PHA who also lives in North Philly, feels that stepping outside on New Year’s Eve can mean risking your life.
“Last year my son wanted to release balloons at midnight for his grandmother who died in September 2019. I normally don’t go outside at that time due to gunfire but thought maybe if we just go in front of the house,” she said.
Celebratory shooting gunfire rang out and shook her home.
“It was like we were in the middle of a war.”
She said she now knows “to be inside before 11 p.m.” and believes the NYE tradition is intrinsically tied to what she describes as the city’s failure to treat gun violence as a human issue, rather than “a theoretical abstraction.”
Bennetch said the city needs to “acknowledge the connections between poverty, education, housing, and gun violence and address the issue from the root.”
Birchett believes the problem can be diminished with more support from the city, and if community members start holding accountable those who fire their guns on New Year’s Eve.
“Most of the time, you know what neighbors do it,” Birchett said. “You can have those conversations during the year and begin to turn some heads.”
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