39th District Peace Day organizers reflect on local street violence and emphasize need to ‘take our communities back’

Contrasting dark days and long nights marked by violence, Philadelphia Police officials and community leaders gathered at the 39th Police District headquarters last week to promote peace.

Sept. 21 was “Peace Day Philly,” a citywide initiative held in conjunction with the United Nations International Day of Peace, a day of ceasefire and non-violence that organizers note is observed by over 100 million people worldwide.

Now in its second year, the International Day of Peace observance began with a ceremony held on Friday morning at Love Park that culminated in a “global” moment of silence at noon, observed in all time zones across the planet, kicking off a weekend of peace-themed events occurring throughout the city and across the region.

Peace Day Philadelphia has been specifically embraced by the PPD, and each of the city’s 22 patrol districts had some form of peace-related or community-oriented offering for its residents.

The harsh reality of local crime 

Not long after the moment of silence in Center City, Captain Verdell Johnson, commanding officer of the 39th District, stood before dozens congregated at his Hunting Park Avenue headquarters and issued pointed observations about local street violence.

“This morning, up on Germantown Avenue, a 16 year old is being buried,” he began, referencing the fatal shooting of Darius Persons the week prior. He recalled other grisly murders that occurred earlier this year within the boundaries of his command, and relayed that he would be attending a memorial service that afternoon for slain police officer Moses Walker, Jr.

“These things, they continually happen, day in and day out,” he said. “Hopefully, we, as a community, can come together and get some solutions.”

While violent crime is evidently on the increase, arrests have dropped considerably. At present, Johnson said that the Northwest Detective Division’s clearance rate for shootings is 20-percent, a statistic which he labeled “atrocious.” Citywide, he relayed that the clearance rate for murders is approximately 40-percent.

“The people getting shot are not cooperating with us; the people that see stuff are not cooperating with us,” he said, imploring assistance. “If you give us a name, you can be darn sure we’ll be able to stop them, and maybe get that gun so they can’t use it again.”

He allowed that the above-cited statistics may be misleading in terms of intent: “The only reason they’re not murders is because they missed,” he said.

A proactive approach to peace 

Peace Day Philly originated in 2011 when members of the United Nations Association of Greater Philadelphia and the Alliance for a Sustainable Future talked about creating a local version of the International Day of Peace, according to Lisa Parker, coordinator of Peace Day Philly.

Parker, a native of the Germantown/Mt. Airy area and current resident of Devon, said that her organization’s efforts are designed to “create peace locally.”

But don’t let that word scare you: “It’s peace with a small ‘p,'” explained Parker, who said that the word “peace” can be inaccessible to many people. 

“Many people ask, ‘What does peace have to do with me?” she observed, so she suggests that people can participate simply by engaging in simple gestures of kindness.

“We can make peace possible in everything we do,” she said. “It’s accessible to everyone in small ways.”

Peace Day Philly is gaining support in city government. PPD Deputy Commissioner Charlotte Council said Parker approached the department last year about participating, where it was well-received.

“It helps us in our proactive efforts,” she said, and indicated that she hopes to expand efforts in the future.

Mayor Michael Nutter is also on board, saying in a statement that “Peace Day Philly’s message of unity and non-violence should be embraced by all Philadelphians, not just on Sept. 21 but year-round.”

‘All hands on deck’ 

Parker was optimistic about Peace Day Philly’s future, observing that in Philadelphia, “more people want peace than want violence in this city.”

At the 39th District, Majeedah Rashid, executive vice-president of the Nicetown Community Development Corporation, echoed Parker’s observation, and used Person’s funeral as a rallying point for further action.

“We’re having one of the highest numbers of shootings in this area and it’s really, really ridiculous,” she said, explaining that her usual jovial self was clouded by the tragedy. 

“I want to reinforce that this thing is real,” she continued. “We keep saying we’re going to do this, we’re going to do that; we really do have to do it. We have to take our own communities back… it’s all hands on deck.”

“Let’s get busy,” she told those present at Hunting Park Ave. “We have to – we can’t have any shame in our game. There’s a lot of work out here to do.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.