Image: Press conference highlights the need for emergency response to gun violence

 (L to R) Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, State Representative Rick Krajewski and City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart.

Shootings and murders are raging in neighborhoods like West Philadelphia and reaching historic new highs. Although the city is set to spend tens of millions of dollars over the next year to stanch this rush of violence, tensions are flaring between public officials over what more can be done.

City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier and City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart hosted a press conference on July 22 lambasting Mayor Jim Kenney and his response to the city’s rise in gun violence. The pair were joined by several other government officials and anti-violence activists, as they invoked the memory of the more than 300 Philadelphians who have been murdered so far this year. The group amassed at the corner of 51st and Haverford, where a 1-year-old baby was shot five days earlier.   

“As a city we need an emergency response to gun violence in this moment,”said Gauthier, whose West Philadelphia district has been an epicenter of the city’s spike in gun violence. “There’s no way that I can be the representative of the Third District and see massive amounts of violence and not do everything that I can to advocate, and the mayor is important in this because he controls all the operating agencies in the city of Philadelphia.”

Gauthier and Rhynhart were specifically asking that the Kenney administration accelerate the transfer of funds to community violence-prevention and treatment programs. Under the pair’s plan, which they described in a letter sent to the mayor, aid would be targeted in the zip codes with exceptionally high rates of shootings and homicides. The plan would also create a Gun Violence Emergency Response Team, which would work with all city departments.

“What Councilmember Gauthier and I outlined in the letter that we sent to the mayor this morning details specific action items of what we want from the operating departments in the 14 zip codes that are most impacted [by gun violence],” Rhynhart said. “We all know it’s an emergency and [Kenney] needs to act like it’s an emergency.”

The press conference was prompted by a letter that Kenney wrote to Gauthier on July 19, in which he rejected her pleas to declare an official city emergency over gun violence. The mayor said that an emergency declaration would be merely symbolic, failing to “demonstrably change conditions in Philadelphia.” Kenney pointed to regular meetings that he said he holds with city, state, and federal officials – as well as the $155 million being spent on anti-violence programs this year – as evidence that his administration is already committed to keeping Philadelphians safe.

Kenney’s refusal to declare a gun-violence emergency – an action that was endorsed in a resolution passed unanimously by City Council in September 2020 – provoked outrage. Gauthier accused Kenney of being callous to Philadelphians affected by shootings, and insinuated he was less responsive to their needs because they are predominantly Black.

“For the Mayor to offer such a flippant, tone-deaf response to our call for action after so much time has gone by, and so many people have been injured or killed, is simply unconscionable,” Gauthier said in a July 20 statement issued before the press conference.

“The idea of our city using ‘Black Lives Matter’ as a slogan, but not treating our gun violence crisis as a priority turns this powerful statement into a farce,” Gauthier added. “If this level of violence were happening in white neighborhoods, I am certain Mayor Kenney would move hell and high water to bring it to an end as quickly as possible.”

Rhynhart, who has had a mostly antagonistic relationship with Kenney since assuming office in 2018 – and who is rumored to be a potential candidate for the 2023 mayoralrace – said that she wanted to see the mayor take more of a leadership role. She said that the gun violence situation was unprecedented, noting that Philadelphia had the highest per-capita murder rate of the ten largest U.S. cities in 2020 and is on pace to see the highest annual murder toll in city history in 2021.

As the city controller, who is charged with auditing city government, Rhynhart claimed that that the mayor’s office could be working more effectively to prevent violence.

“The city has a good amount of money right now, we just got $700 million in [federal] stimulus money, the city is getting another $700 million next May,”Rhynhart said at the press conference. “This is about the commitment and the will to do it.”

Other speakers at the press conference took a similarly impassioned tone.

Movita Johnson-Harrell, a former state representative for West Philadelphia and a founder of the CHARLES Foundation, said that Kenney needed to work harder to protect marginalized people in the city. She said that the city urgently needed to invest in its poorer communities and organize evidence-based, anti-violence intervention programs – things that she has been fighting for in honor of her two late sons, both of whom were killed in acts of gun violence.  

“Our children can get an illegal gun faster than they can get a meal,” Johnson-Harrell said. “We don’t educate them, we don’t feed them, we don’t house them, we don’t support them, we don’t give them drug-and-alcohol treatment, we don’t give them mental-health treatment, but we put guns in their hands – so why are we surprised with the outcome?”

“March 5, I lost my son Donté Johnson, my last surviving son, and it’s only through God’s grace that I’m able to get out of bed and stay on the front line of this,” Johnson-Harrell added. “Your children deserve to live, your children deserve to be safe, and your children deserve the investment.”

Councilmember-at-large Isaiah Thomas also put the responsibility of preventing more deaths squarely on the Kenney administration.

Thomas, who coaches youth basketball, recounted how one of his players had directly witnessed a person get shot outside his home – and also noted that one of his interns was recently shot. He said that an emergency declaration from the mayor would combat the notion that Philadelphia is “lawless,” helping to limit these outbursts of violence.  

“I think it’s important to recognize that when we talk about this idea of semantics, right, that Philadelphia is lawless right now, people have the perception that you can do anything you want to do in Philadelphia and get away with it,”Thomas said. “So, we need semantics because semantics changes perception.”

“When a 1-year-old gets shot, something needs to happen, the community needs to be impacted, things need to be shut down,” Thomas added, alluding to the shooting that happened at 51st and Haverford at the site of the press conference. “We cannot continue to have a city where inhumane and reckless violence takes place, and everything goes on business as usual.”  

Some went farther in their criticism of the mayor. The Rev. Gregory Holston said that he now had to “question where [Kenney’s] heart is” and said that the mayor needed to symbolically demonstrate that he cares about gun-violence victims by declaring an emergency. Holston cited the message sent by the removal of the statue of former Mayor Frank Rizzo during last summer’s racial justice protests as an example of the power that symbolism could bring.

“You knew symbolically what it meant to the community to have [the Rizzo statue] moved,” Holston said. “Don’t you understand that same symbolism is here when you say ‘yes, it’s a state of emergency, I get it, I understand it, I know the pain you’re going through.’”

Other speakers argued that there was a discrepancy between how the Kenney administration has responded to gun violence and how it has responded to other crises – such as the COVID-19 pandemic and last year’s racial justice protests. State Rep. Morgan Cephas said that Kenney has to coordinate with state officials as he would in the midst of any other emergency.

“Do not tell me that we cannot respond like we did to COVID-19, like [we did to] the civil unrest we experienced in this country,” Cephas said. “There is no way we cannot respond with resources, tools, policy, legislation, to address this issue of gun violence.”

Melissa Robbins, an activist with North Philly Against Racism, said that if Kenney does not believe there is any more he can do, then he should resign.

“I’m a veteran of the United States Army, and when you fail to do the job that you’ve been called upon, you are relieved of your duties immediately because you are considered a liability to the country,” Robbins said. “So I say to you, you have gone AWOL, you have abandoned your ship, you have turned a blind eye.”

“You say that you’ve done all that you can do, and I believe you, now I ask you do the honorable thing Mr. Mayor, and if you cannot continue your job in the next two and a half years, move out of your post and let someone step in who can do the job.”  

Also attending the press conference were Councilmembers-at-large Katherine Gilmore Richardson and Helen Gym, and West Philadelphia State Rep. Rick Krajewski.

Although this row over the city’s gun-violence response was fomented by Kenney’s refusal to call a city emergency, Gauthier backed off her initial demand that the mayor make any formal declaration. Gauthier said that she wanted to see Kenney coordinate a more urgent response across city departments, in accordance with the policy recommendations she and Rhynhart set forth in their letter to the mayor.

“First of all, that’s a nonsense conversation, we have to just move away from that conversation about whether it’s going to be formally a state of emergency or not,”Gauthier said in response to a question about the need for a mayoral emergency declaration.

“I don’t think we have to focus on the formal emergency declaration if [Kenney] doesn’t want to do that, it’s the emergency response that is more important.”

A city spokesperson representing the Kenney administration took note of Gauthier’s statements deemphasizing the emergency-declaration controversy.  

“The Mayor is glad to hear the Councilmember is not focused on semantics, and that the recommendations she’s presented are closely aligned to the work the Administration is already undertaking to continue our response to the national public health emergency that gun violence presents,” city spokesperson Deana Gamble said in a statement sent to The University City Review. “The Mayor looks forward to continuing to work with colleagues on City Council to continue to respond to this crisis.”

The public debate over how to respond to gun violence comes amid record-setting spikes in homicide and shootings both in Philadelphia and across the country. The city saw 499 murders in 2020, just one shy of the highest total in city history – and the 318 murders recorded so far in 2021 puts the city on pace to exceed the 2020 total this year by 30%.

The current city budget includes an extraordinary amount of spending to address this unprecedented rise in violence – as much as $155 million, according to the city’s accounting figures.

And these funds are being supplemented by several federal initiatives to reduce gun violence and battle interstate gun trafficking, with Philadelphia joining the Community Violence Intervention Collaborative – a federal taskforce of 16 cities and counties designed to help local governments share best practices and implement community-based, anti-violence intervention programs.

It was clear at the July 22 press conference, however, that many Philadelphians are demanding that more immediate action be taken. Sharon King, a member with the anti-violence group Voices By Choices, told the UC Review that she supported Gauthier and Rhynhart’s efforts to compel Kenney and the city to do more. As the mother of a child lost to gun violence, King said she wanted people in the city to mobilize to try to stop the killing.

“Every day we turn on the TV it’s somebody getting killed, every day, and it’s not even in the nighttime no more, it’s at daytime, open daylight,” King said. “I’m just trying to say to people that we need to come out and we need to get together as a city – I don’t know what else I can say.”

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