Before opening the floor to discussion about neighborhood solutions, Sajda “Purple” Blackwell asked those assembled in the Church of the Holy Apostles and the Mediator in West Philadelphia to describe their feelings in one word.
The responses people shared included feelings of disappointment, confusion, and fatigue. But the two used most often were traumatized and numb.
Community meetings are hosted monthly by the Blackwell Cultural Alliance, where residents of the area are invited to speak freely, and then sit down together for dinner.
Thursday’s conversation followed several days of unrest, after the decision by Judge Wendy L. Pew to drop charges against Mark Dial, a Philadelphia police officer who shot and killed 27-year-old Eddie Irizarry last month. Some of the looting that followed damaged stores in West Philly.
Purple Blackwell led the conversation. “We have just dealt with another civil unrest, another riot … I live on the business corridor, and when I moved there I thought I was in a safe place,” she said. “Now after the third unrest in three years, where there’s cops and kids running down my street, I am traumatized.”
Others in the circle voiced distrust in law enforcement, an increase in vulnerability, and determination to prevent future incidents of looting en masse.
On the whiteboard, Blackwell circled the word accountability. “I heard that we need somebody to take some accountability. Why was this, another Black or brown boy shot again? Where’s the accountability from the police officers who were shooting, but [also from] parents and the kids who decided to react this way?” Calls of agreement filled the room, and Blackwell waited for quiet.
“Did you hear how many kids got arrested? Out of 49-50 people, how many? Three,” she said. “So what were the rest of them? ‘Grown-behind’ adults.” The average age of the first 52 looting suspects arrested by Philadelphia Police was 25. The oldest person arrested was 37.
Alfeia DeVaughn-Goodwin, an Army veteran and former Philadelphia Police officer, suggested restorative justice as a way for West Philadelphia’s business corridor to begin to heal and prevent damage in the future. “How do we get them to understand? This stuff has to be cleaned up — who’s supposed to clean this up, a ghost,” she said.
Tyrone Morris, a social worker and community leader, worried about what he called a “knee-jerk” response to disappointing rulings. “It seems like rage is the only way that we can kind of address that,” he said. “We’re all frustrated about a system where [violence] keeps happening. But at the same time we had to find an effective way to address it, because the anger and the burning [of] your own community hasn’t worked.”
The conversation concluded with a discussion of ideas surrounding investments in improving the quality of life for residents in the area. While no official plans were made, several in attendance suggested future discussions.
Tommy Blackwell, Purple’s husband, illustrated the dangers of looters destroying pharmacies, after several, including a Rite Aid at 53rd Street and Baltimore Avenue, were targeted across the city. “They don’t understand the importance if your grandmother doesn’t get that medicine out of that store that you just ruined … she could die tomorrow,” he said. “They don’t understand that because they don’t value life. They don’t value their own lives. We have to put value back into our community.”
If you or someone you know has been affected by gun violence in Philadelphia, you can find grief support and resources online.