Is it a war?
That's what Philadelphia Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson calls it. Community activist Mel Wells agrees, there is a war going on in parts of Philadelphia. Both men are lifetime residents of Philadelphia. Both love their city deeply. One has enforced the law for 43 years. The other has broken the law a few times in his youth, but has since turned his life around and leads a community service organization called One Day At A Time.
Honestly, I rolled my eyes a bit when they first compared the killings and violence in Philadelphia (406 murders in 2006, more than 200 so far in 2007) and in other American cities to a "war zone." Too often people have thrown around phrases and words like "war zone" and "battlefield." I've seen war up close and there is no mistaking what's going on in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. War zones have a certain look. A certain feel. There's even a smell to it.
After spending several days in Philadelphia, I must admit there are striking similarities.
Just like in Baghdad, there are law-abiding citizens who are afraid to go outside at night or even venture too far away from their front door in the daytime. Just like Baghdad, there are law-abiding citizens whom we met that keep a gun close by when they take their children to school, go to the grocery store and when they close their eyes at night in their own bed. In Philadelphia they're not called "insurgents"; they're drug dealers and thugs. Oddly enough the Police Commissioner says "Philadelphia does not have a gang problem."
On the 2200 block of Percy Street in North Philadelphia, I met two mothers who've had a child murdered in some sort of drive-by shooting. In my 25 years as a journalist, I've never met two mothers on the same street who've had a child murdered. Eighteen-year-old Taheera Jones was preparing for her freshman year at Temple University. She worked for a local attorney over the summer to make money for school. She was the oldest child and the first in the family to go to college. She was walking home from work, a few steps from her door, when a shootout started up the street. As she fumbled for her door key, she was shot in the head. Dead. I asked her mother -- who still lives in the same house -- what she says to her younger children, "How do you keep them motivated? How do you keep them hopeful when their sister did everything right, but she was killed?"
"The first thing I teach them is how to be safe."
What? Be safe? What's that's say about society when a mother's primary lesson to her children is how to avoid being shot? How does a child dream in an environment like that?
On that same block, we found at least 10 houses that were abandoned and boarded up. You ever live on a street with condemned and boarded up houses?
Also in that neighborhood there are only three adult men of working age on a block with at least 40 families. Three men! Most homes are run by elderly grandparents or women. One of the men approached me: thick build, strong hands (like a brick mason). "We're the only men here," he told me. "Just the three of us," he said. "We look after the women and children as best we can." He said it with both a sense of pride and sadness.
Since 2001, there have been more than 10,000 gunshot victims in Philadelphia. Imagine that, 10,000 people? The Boston Garden can hold just over 19,000.
Many of the people we spoke with blamed the surge in shootings and death on illegal handguns. Commissioner Johnson made this observation: "Illegal guns are a big problem in Philadelphia and across the country. But guns are only a symptom of a deeper sickness."
By all accounts, Commissioner Johnson is a "cop's cop." He started his career as a beat cop and worked his way up the ranks to commissioner. He's familiar with every kind of crime imaginable. He says the real danger in Philadelphia is the rising unemployment and school drop-out rates, the collapse of families and the growing divide between the haves and the have-nots. "When people are frustrated they get angry, and anger leads to violence. Add in a gun and you a recipe for disaster."
Commissioner Johnson isn't alone in that view. We also spent time with Miami Police Chief John Timoney. Timoney's the former Philadelphia police commissioner and he started his career in New York. Like a number of police chief's across the country, Timoney is a harsh critic of the National Rifle Association and the NRA's influence over the gun lobby in Congress. He points out the recent rise in the murder rate of police officers across the country. Not only are there more guns on the streets of America; there are more powerful guns. "I faced when I was a young cop somebody with a Saturday night special, probably held together by tape," he told us. "Now we have these young kids going around with AK-47's with 30-round clips. They're spraying a (street) corner."
But Chief Timoney agrees with Commissioner Johnson the problem goes way beyond guns.
Mel Wells used to carry a gun. But the murder of a friend who died in his arms and time in jail changed his life. "God told me that could have been me, dead of a gunshot wound," Wells said. So he went to work for his father, Rev. Mel Wells, founder of "One Day at a Time." It's a social service agency in Philadelphia that helps former convicts, drug addicts and others get their lives back on track. Today the younger Wells is president of ODAT. The agency helps more than 55,000 people every year.
Wells agrees illegal guns are a major problem, but when I asked him if he could rule the world for a day, what's the first thing he'd do to end the gun violence in Philadelphia?
"I'd love the sinner," he said. "I'm here because someone loved me."
According to Wikipedia, "War is a prolonged state of violent, large scale conflict involving two or more groups."
The killings and gun play in American cities seems to meet at least part of that definition of war. We spent time with some of the young people engaged in that conflict in North Philadelphia. There were a few who seemed hard and cold and distant. Everyone I talked with agreed SOME of these kids should be in jail. I asked a 16-year-old boy who proudly displayed a tattoo of an AK-47 on his forearm and boasted of the knife wound that marked his other arm, what the future held for him. At first he seemed confused by the question. Then after some delay he said "just staying alive." But the vast majority of the young men I spoke with seemed more scared than tough - more hopeless than hard. Once we got past the bravado, these young men talked about lost dreams, absent parents, limited education and few prospects for the future. We met one 19-year-old who'd been in jail for shooting another teenager four times. He was released from jail because the kid he shot refused to testify against him or "snitch." The expectation was they'd settle it on the street someday. This kid had a teardrop tattoo under his right eye. A blank tear symbolizes a friend or relative had been murdered. A colored-in tear drop, the tattoo worn by someone who'd actually committed murder.
When asked about his future, this teenager said "dead or in jail."
Is it a war? To many of those involved, it sure feels that way.