US Attorney kicks off gun violence education pilot in West Oak Lane

Almost 20,000 dots marked a map of Philadelphia gun violence displayed at the launch of a youth violence prevention program in West Oak Lane Friday.


Marcia Butler’s daughter, Shakuwrah Muhammad, is one of those dots.

On June 19, 2010, Muhammad was walking her friend to the bus stop when nine gunshots rang out. One bullet went through the left side of Muhammad’s chest. A second pierced her lung, liver and heart. She died later at Albert Einstein Medical Center.

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One dot among 20,000 victims of shootings and homicides in Philadelphia from 2001 to 2010 – dots that in some parts of the city crowd together so tightly they cover each other over in a mass.

The clusters are most dense in West Philadelphia, North Philadelphia, South Philadelphia and, to a lesser extent Northwest Philadelphia, with the overwhelming majority of those dots landing in Germantown and West Oak Lane.

United States Attorney Zane David Memeger called the numbers overwhelming. So much so, he said, that combating them can’t be done through traditional law enforcement alone.

“We can’t arrest our way out of this,” he told a group of students, parents, law enforcement officials and educators.

They were assembled at the Philadelphia Center for Arts and Technology for the kick off of “Voices of Youth,” a pilot program meant to engage young people who have experienced some of this gun violence by helping them to get creative about it through film.

More than 30 students from Hope Charter School, Imhotep Institute Charter High School, Martin Luther King High School and New Media Technology Charter School will work with the Village of Arts and Humanities and Well Productions in an eight week after school program to develop their own documentary films about gun violence in their neighborhoods.

Memeger said the Germantown and West Oak Lane neighborhoods have seen a 25 percent increase in shootings and murders in 2010. This, plus a history of good relationships with Northwest law enforcement and the community and school-based Northwest Community Coalition for Youth anti-crime effort, made these neighborhoods the right place to start a project Memeger hopes to take nationwide. He sees it as a way to bring law enforcement closer to local life around this critical issue.

The students will attend at least two classes a week at PCAT to learn about filmmaking. In May, their documentaries will premiere in a film festival.

“You are the future of our city, of our district, of our nation,” Memeger told the students.

Isabella Fitzgerald, co-chairwoman of NCCY, sees the effort as an important move in the war against gun violence, especially among young people.

“It’s allowing us to see what’s going on in their communities, as opposed to what adults see,” she said. “They can talk about the issues in a more realistic way.”

Students will draw from their experiences for the projects. One film maker, El Sawyer, of the Village of Arts and Humanities talked about possibly re-enacting some of the local crimes students are aware of.

Ty-Ron Washington, a 10th-grader at Hope Charter, was assaulted by students of another high school. He was advised by his counselor to participate in the project as a way to learn more about his encounter.

Though he knows violence exists in his neighborhood, he tries to stay away from it. His mother has made it clear he is to avoid guns in any respect, from water guns to digital ones in video games, yet he feels the program will be perfect for him.

“This will be a good experience,” he said. “I feel it was directed to me.”

Via Gary was in the audience with her son, Kyree Gary, 14, of New Media Technology Charter School. She was impressed by the project and thinks it should be implemented in all high schools to educate children about how to handle violence.

“It’s OK to stand up and say this is not right,” she said. “It will open the eyes of the kids. They see and hear everything.”

Even though her daughter is gone, when Marcia Butler heard about this program she knew she needed to show up Friday night, to try to get involved. She sees it as a way of honoring her daughter’s life if she can find a way to work with youth on this subject.

It would be gratifying, she said, “helping them in a way I couldn’t help my daughter.”

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