Addressing Gun Violence Means Looking Beyond PolicingRoundup
tags: guns, violence, policing
Menika Dirkson is a Philadelphia native and visiting assistant professor of history at Loyola University Maryland.
In response to the 2020 protests following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, the Philadelphia City Council announced that it was reducing the police department’s 2021 budget by $33 million to finance a police oversight commission, body cameras and implicit-bias training for police, and to install therapists to assist police in mental health crisis emergency calls. The budget also appropriated approximately $26.35 million toward health care, affordable housing, anti-poverty initiatives, job training and the arts.
Expanding these social services is essential to solving the problem of racial violence in policing and addressing the wave of gun violence rocking Philadelphia and so many other cities. In fact, in Philadelphia, government officials have long overfunded police and underfunded social welfare programs, resulting in high rates of poverty-induced crime and incarceration, while delivering neither safety nor opportunities for low-income, Black and Latino Philadelphians.
Over the past 50 years, “juvenile delinquency” and gun violence have been persistent issues in the neighborhoods of Philadelphia. A half-century ago in North and West Philadelphia, blighted neighborhoods were in free fall as poverty, inequality and gang violence exacerbated the stresses of urban life. Like other cities, Philadelphia was hit hard by post-1960s deindustrialization, depopulation and a dwindling tax base. In 1969, the city was named the “gang capital” of America, while also being among the largest cities in the country with a poverty rate above the nation’s average of 12.2 percent.
As inequality, blight and violence destroyed the lives of Black and Latino families, Philadelphians debated what kinds of solutions would actually address the root causes of the problems. In the 1970s, community activists argued that they needed investment in education, recreation, job training and access to mental health care for troubled youths. Sociologists like Lewis Yablonsky agreed that these kinds of programs would best help end poverty and curtail gun violence.
The city experimented with this approach. Safe Streets, for example, was a bipartisan, community organization created in 1969 by Philadelphia District Attorney Arlen Specter (R) to rehabilitate young people from gangs such as Zulu Nation and the 8th and Diamond Streeters, instead of incarcerating them.
From 1969 to 1976, the mission of Safe Streets was to be a “one-stop juvenile center” where police officers, former gang members and community activists worked together to teach teenagers “responsibility and concern for themselves and society.” The organization chose North and West Philadelphia as locations for its centers because gang activity was most entrenched in those poor and working-class neighborhoods of color.
In its early stages, Safe Streets saw 35 to 50 young people come daily to each center, where they met with youth workers and developed one-on-one relationships. They also gained access to resources like academic tutoring, job training, neighborhood cleanup projects, sports and training in newspaper writing and publishing. Willard Scott, a Black businessman who volunteered to teach gang members how to be mechanics at his West Philadelphia garage, immediately saw how his mentorship shaped the boys’ behavior and work ethic: “I couldn’t believe how nice they were, how hard they’d work.”
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