I spent a lot of time on a schoolyard basketball court when I was growing up. My buddies and I would play even in freezing temperatures. We cleared snow off the court if we had to. We used to think that more basketball courts in inner-city neighborhoods would solve a lot of problems. That was before these basketball courts became killing fields.
Of all the tragedies that afflict poor minority neighborhoods, the fact that kids aren’t safe playing basketball is one of the cruelest. Too many kids doing nothing more than practicing their jump shot are being murdered. Hey, I know it doesn’t matter where the shooting happened if you’re dead. Dead is dead. But there’s something sinister when a place where communities bonded — where kids found safe haven — suddenly becomes about gangs protecting their turf. It’s more than sad, it’s infuriating. Look it up. Search “shootings on basketball courts in Philly”. You’ll be horrified. If we can’t protect our kids while they’re playing basketball, where can we protect them?
Homicide rates are outrageous in this city. Guns are everywhere. Yeah, the city can buy back guns. That’s a good thing. Hold a press conference. Pile the newly-purchased guns on a table for the TV cameras to see. But gun bybacks are like old King Canute who tried to empty the ocean with a bucket. The guns keep flowing into the city from Georgia and the Carolinas and elsewhere. Non-stop. So, yes, buy back guns. Just don’t kid yourself that it’s some big solution.
You can convince yourself that the violence has increased because of the pandemic. The pandemic will be over soon. The killings will diminish, you think. Besides, Philadelphia isn’t the only big city that’s having the gun problem. So is New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, Detroit. The misery-loves-company argument. Other types of crime are down, you tell yourself.
Sociologists and criminologists and every other kind of “ologists” tell us that violence is the fruit of poverty. Pervasive poverty. The kind of poverty that has Philadelphia at the top of the list. Well, at least we’re No. 1 at something.
We all have our scapegoats. In my old neighborhood, they’ll tell you they’re Kenney and Krasner. It’s like the mayor and the district attorney got together and planned a string of killings themselves. Easy but inaccurate answer. Trips off the tongues of our folks in two-part harmony. But Kenney and Krasner aren’t running all the other big cities that have the same freaking problems. Even smaller cities such as Louisville and Milwaukee are seeing homicides increasing like no one ever dreamed of.
Mayor Kenney has been forced to hold weekly press briefings. For Kenney, weekly press briefings seem as much fun as kidney stones. Especially when the murder stats keep going up and he has no solutions. Actually, no one has solutions. Just a recitation of what we all know. Things are getting worse.
I’m not picking on Kenney. No one anywhere seems to have a realistic solution. Getting more gun laws passed is about as likely as Carter Hart stopping an Alex Ovechkin shot. And what good do those laws do if a state such as Georgia remains a safe haven for gun purchases that wind up killing kids in Philadelphia playgrounds?
We’ve been talking about fixing poverty since I was in diapers. You can name all the culprits behind the cycle of poverty, but the poverty doesn’t go away. Maybe we need a new war on poverty. The relief bill recently passed by Congress (or should I say “Democrats”?) will supposedly raise half of our kids out of poverty. City officials are ecstatic. Council President Darrell Clarke said the other night (with uncharacteristic candor for a politician) that without the money in this bill, Philadelphia’s budget would have been dead in the water. It appears there was no Plan B in Philly if that relief bill hadn’t passed. As it is, the money will provide a two-year lifeline for the city. Is there any faith that the money will be well-spent? Faith is in short supply in this city.
The problem of increasing gun violence seems to need some out-of-the-box thinking. Someone has to step up among the city’s political leaders. The in-fighting here is terrible. Shouting rather than discussion rules most Council meetings. The mayor just discovered he has to communicate with the public more often. Law enforcement appears to be a dysfunctional mess with the mayor, the DA, the police commissioner and the police themselves not on the same page. The police union acts to frustrate any chance of dealing effectively with rogue cops. We’re in the most difficult of times. And frankly, our leaders haven’t been up to the challenge. It’s not like they don’t care. They’re overwhelmed. Without answers. The project that was instituted in 2020 — the one that was supposed to deal with the city’s homicide problems — obviously hasn’t and isn’t working.
It’s early evening. There’s still enough light to practice a few moves around the hoop. The sound of a kid bouncing a basketball is as familiar as adolescence itself. A car suddenly races by the small neighborhood playground.
That’s when the shots ring out.
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