Updated 10:15 p.m.
A West Philadelphia neighborhood rocked by a weekend shootout that cut short the life of 7-year-old Zamar Jones is trying to figure out what’s next in what feels like a losing battle against a surge in gun violence.
Colwin Williams, a longtime anti-violence activist and street supervisor with the nonprofit Cure Violence, said he is tired of feed-good political speeches, and that the city is reacting to the problem instead of working to prevent it.
“Stop putting Band-Aids on something that needs surgery,” he cried before the crowd of neighbors who came out for an emergency meeting Thursday evening on the 200 block of North Simpson Street — not far from the porch where Zamar was playing when he was hit in the head by a stray bullet. The boy died on Monday at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
The Philadelphia Anti-Drug/Anti-Violence Network and Community Solutions CDC helped organize the meeting, which was also attended by City Council members, District Attorney Larry Krasner and Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw.
This gentleman with Cure Violence says the city is losing the battle against gun violence. He says he’s tired of the feel good political speeches. He wants to know what’s different this time? “Stop putting band aids on something that needs surgery!” pic.twitter.com/0yta9472gw
— Ximena Conde (@RadioXimena) August 6, 2020
Residents on the block say it didn’t have to be this way and many had mixed feelings about Thursday’s meeting.
A first for residents: meet your city leaders
People like Annette Powell, who’s lived on North Simpson Street for more than 25 years, said she had never seen her council member or any other city leader visit the block.
Powell said she recognized officials’ names from campaign literature and the news, but said she had “never actually seen faces until today.”
“For it to have to take for a child to be harmed for anybody to show up and appear, that hurts,” she said. “That hurts a lot because a lot of things could have been prevented.”
That’s because residents here say they’ve been sounding the alarm on violence for a long time and it’s well-known the block had a 24-hour police presence in 2017 in an effort to curb shootings.
More recently, a group of fathers tried to get speed bumps installed on the block in July, reasoning that they could deter car chases between people up to no good.
A Streets Department representative told Joy, a 17-year resident of the neighborhood who didn’t want to use her last name, and her husband their block wasn’t eligible because it was too small to meet primary requirements.
In emails shared with WHYY News, a Philadelphia Streets Department traffic engineer told Joy the best they could do for the 200 block of North Simpson Street was install “Drive Care Philly – Watch Children” signage. The block already has two of those.
“I guess a kid has to get hit by a car first,” Joy wrote back to the engineer, explaining the signs didn’t do anything for public safety.
Neighbors said they also need programs to keep the influx of children on the block busy.
While Joy said it was a shame it took the tragic shooting of one of those children to get the attention of local politicians, she’s optimistic they’ll keep the promises they made at the meeting of giving them what they need.
Joy and her husband were among those who spoke to Councilmember Curtis Jones, Jr., when organizers and politicians went door-to-door, talking to residents after Zamar’s shooting.
Joy said Jones promised he’d looked into the speed bump issue.
“Now that we know the resources to go to, hopefully we utilize them and hopefully they stick to their word and help us out,” said Joy.
Jones also told the crowd the city had to deal with the systemic problems of poverty.
“We got to get some jobs in this neighborhood so people get up in the morning and got something to do,” he said.
What’s different now?
Williams was more skeptical of local leaders’ promises for help.
“You tell them what they want to hear, you pass out some milk, you pass out some food for a day, make them feel good, you keep the police around so you give them a sense of security for a couple of days,” said Williams, who has seen this ritual play out in other neighborhoods wracked by gun violence.
Still, Outlaw said the difference now is “there’s a desire on the behalf of the community and the police department to see things move forward in a positive and a safe way.”
But she doesn’t see sticking police cruisers at the corner of the block as the way forward.
“We have to figure out that delicate balance to where we’re visible and we’re present and we’re close enough to where we can react in a timely manner, but we’re not over-policing underrepresented neighborhoods as well,” she said.
Justice for Zamar
One moment in the meeting that drew collective applause was when Krasner said Thursday evening that all three men arrested in connection with Zamar’s fatal shooting are being held without bail and will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
Banks and Jones turned themselves in to authorities on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively. Like Linder, who was arrested the day of the shooting, the two men face murder and attempted murder charges, among others.
Before turning himself in, Jones posted on Facebook where he admitted he was with Banks the night of the shooting, where he claims they were not looking for trouble, but “were in danger” and “targeted by an unknown man.” Jones also expressed remorse over Zamar’s death,
“I’m hurt because that young can’t grow up to enjoy his life, ” he wrote. “I’m not asking for forgiveness but I want you’ll to understand and hear me out.”
According to the most recent police data, 1,090 people have been shot this year — roughly a 36% increase from last year. Of these victims, a Philadelphia Inquirer analysis found almost 100 were under the age of 18 — 11 of these shooting victims died.
Zamar was the sixth child under the tender age of 10 to lose his life to gun violence in Philadelphia in 2020, according to the Inquirer.
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