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In Philadelphia, a 'disturbing' black murder rate

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 13, 2007



PHILADELPHIA

The three teens are in good schools, college bound, and full of adolescent bravado. Each also knows someone who was shot and killed on the streets of Philadelphia.

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That kind of up-close encounter with violence and murder is not the norm for teenage America. But this is Philly, which has the highest homicide rate for African-Americans among the nation's biggest cities – and a place where the risk of being killed is especially high for blacks under age 18.

The possibility of a short life and a violent death weighs on African-American teens like Andrea Williams, Sierra Daniels, and Christopher Fuller, though they seem to shoulder the burden as if it's just an extra load of books. Andrea worries most about her younger brother and sister, afraid one of them will get hit by a misguided bullet fired by someone bent on revenge or protecting turf or just venting anger.

"Sometimes I hate to walk down the street with them, because I couldn't live without my little brother and sister," she says.

Nationally, the murder rate for African-Americans is more than three times the average: 19 black murder victims per 100,000 people versus five for the general population.

In Pennsylvania, the disparity for black homicide is even more pronounced: 30 per 100,000, or six times the national average, according to a study released last month by the Violence Policy Center (VPC), a gun-control research group in Washington.

Those numbers are "disproportionate, disturbing, and undeniable," says the VPC report, which analyzed crime data from 2004 in its study. Moreover, almost 80 percent of black murder victims in the US were shot and killed with guns, the study found.

Philadelphia follows the pattern. The vast majority of black murders in the city – 3 in 4 – are from gunfire, according to police.

Overall, murders have been on the rise – 406 last year. Of those, 317 were gun-related, compared with 233 four years ago. And it's the city's black residents and neighborhoods that feel the effects most acutely.

"We all want it to change, but how is the hard part," says Margo Davidson of the Caring People Alliance in North Philadelphia, where Andrea, Sierra, Christopher, and other teens can spend their afternoons after school. "We do the thing that we know how to do: We have a safe place for kids to come after school. We do family therapy and counseling, help people with [finding] jobs. But it's not enough. There are too many guns on the street and not enough jobs for young people."

Too many young people, says Ms. Davidson, are milling around after school with nothing to do except what the streets offer: guns and drugs.

That's one thing everyone – residents, police, and social workers – agree on. Another is that there's a subculture in "the 'hood" in which guns play a major role. They're used for protection, to generate income, to give a sense of power, and, all too often, to settle slights and disputes. As Andrea and others attest, their prevalence also infuses fear into a community.

"If you're in the 'hood, as long as you have a gun you can get some money," says Joselynne Jones, who helps run the Caring People Alliance. "You can stick someone up, sell the gun ... protect somebody for money. It's a vicious cycle that starts with a gun."

In the face of these grim statistics, the funerals, and the mourning, there are signs of a fresh determination to break that cycle and protect Philly's youths from stepping down that violent, gun-riddled path. The people, joining with police and city leaders, are pushing back.

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