Crime continues to be an epidemic plaguing the Black community, especially among young people. A report released earlier this year by the Violence Policy Center found that among the 50 states, Pennsylvania has the largest number of Black homicides.
“We want our study to be a tool for people to use to talk about effective ways to address gun violence,” said Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the VPC. He said the study also helps to identify where the violence occurs.
Each year, the VPC, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., that works to stop gun violence through research, advocacy and education, releases a Black Homicide Victimization study in the United States, which is based on the most recent Federal Bureau of Investigation’s unpublished Supplementary Homicide Report. This year’s VPC report was based on 2007’s homicide report.
Pennsylvania was found to have a Black homicide rate of 36.36 per 100,000; followed by Missouri with 34.82 of 100,000; Indiana with 30.89; and Nevada and Wisconsin tied with 29.83 per 100,000. States with cities that have a large Black population, such as Maryland and Michigan, ranked number 10 and 7, respectively. New York ranked 31.
This is the third year out of four that Pennsylvania ranked number one with the highest rate of Black homicides. In 2007, Pennsylvania had 485 Black homicides, 440 were Black men and 86 percent of the victims were killed by a firearm. The most contributing cities toward the rate were Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
Sugarmann says that while other states are moving in the right direction when it comes to gun policies, Pennsylvania is going in the wrong direction. He said that many cities within the state are trying to pass laws to protect their citizens but find it hard due to opposition from lawmaker and groups like the National Rifle Association.
J. Whyatt Mondesire, president of the Philadelphia Branch of the NAACP, said his organization has been working with various community groups and holding marches, workshops and numerous conversations to bring attention to gun violence. One of the organizations Mondesire has collaborated with is Mothers In Charge, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit consisting of mothers, grandmothers, aunts and sisters who have lost loved ones to gun violence. Dorothy Johnson-Speight started it in May 2003 after her 24-year-old son was shot seven times and killed in December 2001 over a parking space. Johnson-Speight’s son was a college graduate and had recently been accepted to a master’s program.
“After another young man had gotten killed, it was like the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was a way to do something with my anger and deal with the grief,” she said. “Our organization offers grief support, violence intervention and has implemented several mentoring programs.”
Mothers In Charge has several programs which work with women who are incarcerated and mentors to juvenile men under 18 who are serving time in an adult jail based on their crime. They also had a Smart program, which partnered with the Philadelphia School District to allow children who had gotten in trouble in school to attend Saturday school in lieu of suspension. The students would attend various workshops. Due to a lack of funding the program was not able to continue, but Johnson-Speight said she hopes it will begin again next year.
“Our goal is getting people involved. There are too many guns in the hands of teenagers and people who should not have them. The government needs to do more to make sure they are not getting into the wrong hands,” she said.
Like Mothers in Charge, One Vision One Life, a Pittsburgh based nonprofit organization, is working to combat violence in the community. El Gray, program director for One Vision One Life, said they bring attention to community violence through their violence responses and prayer vigils, which usually take place at the site of the homicide.
Gray believes that in order for things to get better, there needs to be more government and community reform. As far as government, Gray said there needs to be more community relations between police and residents, less money spent on incarceration and more on education and more job training, re-entry programs and more jobs. And on a community level, more involvement. “Our communities are being silenced and residents are in fear of retaliation. There needs to be a collective effort. The elders of the village have to take responsibility. “Now you cannot say anything to someone else’s child without the parents going off, and sometimes the parents are worse than the kids. There was a time when that was different,” Gray said.
“It is not pleasant to see Pennsylvania number one. Our state is still not even responding to this issue. The problems of parenting, equal opportunities for employment, the lack of quality education continues to plague us. Then there is the problem of recidivism in our correctional system. It is known as the Department of Corrections. Instead we house citizens and do not rehabilitate,” Pennsylvania state Rep. Joe Preston Jr. said
Although it takes a community effort, community groups cannot do it alone. Special agent Jeff Killeen, of the Pittsburgh Federal Bureau of Investigations, said, “Gun violence and drugs are significant problems in the Pittsburgh area. We are aggressively pursuing this issue and hitting it hard from our agency. We have had some success, especially in the last three years, but we are far from done.” He added that one of their biggest problems is that when they take one person off the street and prosecute him, by the time the process is over, someone else has taken his place.
Nils Frederickson, a spokesperson for Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett, said the Attorney General and his office continue to do things to address the issue of gun violence. Through state funding, his office, along with the Philadelphia police and the district attorney, have collaborated on a gun violence task force. It is working to decrease gun violence and keep guns off the street. He said they are working on cracking down on straw purchases—individuals who buy guns for those who cannot legally buy them.
“Before it was a high profit, low risk (of getting caught) type of crime, now we are turning it around and making it a low profit, high risk. Individuals who do these crime are just as responsible as the gunman and will be prosecuted,” Frederickson said.
The attorney general also has a gun violence education program, which is free and available to anyone in the state. It teaches about the impact of gun violence. Interested parties can either have someone conduct the workshop or send for the materials to do their own, which can be found on the attorney general’s website.
The commissioner of Philadelphia, Charles Ramsey, did not respond and The Pittsburgh Bureau Chief of Police Nate Harper, did not respond before press time.
No matter which organization is doing what, this issue is going to take a collaborative effort from all sides. As Gray said, “It is a WE thing not a ME thing.”