Black, young and dying

Roundtable examines Philly's rising gun violence issue and how race plays a key part

Gun roundtable
What is the reason for rampant gun violence in the city? From a lack of identity, hip hop and the culture it appears to create and even single mother households were all on the agenda among local leaders to took an intrinsic look at Philly’s rising gun violence rates. | Image: Sarah Ahmad

“I heard everybody’s dying in the summer, so pray to God for a little more spring,” sang Chance the Rapper, an artist familiar with gun violence in his hometown of Chicago.

This notion of violent summers has been a reality in major cities across the United States as homicide rates tend to spike in Summer months. Philadelphia is no exception. Some 44 homicides took place between May 18 and June 14, the deadliest 28 day period in Philly since May 2012, according to police department records.

Gun violence is not a monolith, it is a societal issue as complex as the society that forged it. In an attempt to understand the uptick in shootings and gun violence in Philly, community activist Ant Brown and the City of Dreams Coalition set up a roundtable discussion on gun violence for Philadelphia Weekly.

Brown is a rapper and anti-violence advocate in West Philly. His brother was a victim of gun violence. The roundtable also included Jarue Lawson, a Mike Lee Fellow, previously incarcerated for being a perpetrator of gun violence, activist Serita Lewis, and Sister Taleah Taylor, the founder of the City of Dreams Coalition. 

Not once during the roundtable were the police mentioned as a solution to gun violence. Half of the aforementioned “most deadly 28 days in Philadelphia” took place while the Philadelphia Police, State Police and National Guard occupied the city. 

The primary topics discussed were opportunity and identity. 

“I got my first gun when I was 14 years old, I was selling drugs. My best friend at the time was 13 and we bought our guns together,” Lawson said. “I asked, ‘Where does a 14-year-old get a gun?’ and the room laughed at my question.” 

Sister Taleah Taylor, founder of the City of Dream Coalition, speaks during a recent roundtable on gun violence. One of her beliefs is that gun culture stems from the playback of what kids are listening to. | Image: Sarah Ahmad

Brown explained, “If you grow up around it, it’s normal. I remember when my older brother used to sleep with a gun under his pillow. I was young, damn near a toddler. I’d just see it; it’s normalized to us.” 

When Brown says “us,” he is referring to young Black men living in Philadelphia.

Race is at the root of the gun violence conversation in Philly. 

“Approximately three-fourths of firearm homicide deaths occurred among non-Hispanic Blacks, one-fourth among people 20-24 years of age, and 95 percent among males,” according to a 2017 report by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, Medical Examiner’s Office.

“If such and such around the corner has a strap and is getting turned out to the streets, and now he’s the one shooting. It’s not like a shock when you grow up and you see it so much. It’s all a product of systemic racism, it’s set up. Go to Ronald Reagan and the crack in the communities, mass incarceration breaking up black families, then you get these men raised by moms and grandmoms, now they feel like they need a gun,” Brown said. 

Philadelphia remains visibly segregated from housing practices that began in the 1930s. In America, home ownership is your ticket to financial stability and the bedrock of generational wealth. Segregation practices robbed generations of Black families the opportunity to establish wealth in these communities. Where you grow up directly correlates with your likelihood of success in life. “Firearm homicides clustered in neighborhoods with lower income levels,” per the Philadelphia Department of Health study

“Are you being taught how to take advantage of your opportunity? Are you being taught that you are worth the opportunity in front of you? Opportunity could be laying everywhere,” Lawson said. Lawson said he spent 20 consecutive years incarcerated for charges related to drugs and gun violence. “The elephant in the room that needs to be addressed is racism. It’s a systematic and institutional thing.” 

Mass incarceration, along with segregation practices, have burdened generations of Black men to create an identity for themselves.

“Nobody wants to be impoverished, nobody wants to be poor, and nobody wants to skirt the system. When you skirt the system, typically you’re looking for fairness or parity you’re not getting otherwise” added Lewis. 

“Identity is the problem. Most of us don’t know who we are,” said Lawson. Several times throughout the roundtable, both Brown and Lawson stressed the importance of having Black men as role models for Black boys. 

“Nobody wants to be impoverished, nobody wants to be poor, and nobody wants to skirt the system. When you skirt the system, typically you’re looking for fairness or parity you’re not getting otherwise.”

Activist and gun reform advocate Serita Lewis

Lawson explained, “Once I got to 15 or 16 years old, all the love, sensitivity and intelligence my mother taught me went out the window when I was out on the streets with other dudes. … A mother alone can definitely raise a son, but when it gets to that point when he has to understand who he is as a man, she can’t explain that to him.”

Brown is an artist and rapper, and a conversation about the recent death of rapper D4M Skiano is what prompted this roundtable discussion. 

Sister Taleah started on the influence of rap music and said, “It has an influence on the kids. Music is raising these children in the street.” 

Brown followed, “I agree with that. I have been on Shade 45, I’ve been there with people aware of what’s going on in the culture. But it’s about what sells. If you wake up in the morning and all you see is chaos and negativity, eventually you’re going to start to like it.” 

Lawson added, “Life imitates art, but art imitates life first. Art comes from life and whatever is going on around you. Hip-hop has an influence, but it is not the cause of the problem. It is not the reason why we’re doing what we’re doing, but hip-hop came from a real place. Life creates the art.” 

I asked, “It’s like a circle?”

“Exactly, and then it starts to perpetuate itself after that. Once the music is out there, it becomes the lifestyle and what’s going on,” responded Lawson.

“This is the crazy thing to me and where I do blame music. Me running around with a gun selling drugs, robbin’ in a nice car is not what makes me authentically Black. Please put that in there. We believe we have to wear a costume to be authentically Black, but we come in a variety of shades,” he continued.

The discussion of poverty, and the lack of identity that stems from it where all on the agenda during a recent roundtable that discussed the rampant gun violence in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. | Image: Sarah Ahmad

Struggles with identity combine with the stress of poverty to build a shared anxiety. Sister Taleah said, “I was out in the streets by myself, now I’m going through PTSD.” 

Lawson added, “When she says PTSD, you can have PTSD from being paranoid about the color of your skin.” 

Mental health services are inadequate across the country, but are especially inaccessible to poor communities and the uninsured, according to a study by the National Council for Behavioral Health.

“Someone who feels dead inside can take someone else’s life,” explained Brown. A societal stress brought on by lack of opportunity and systemic racism then echoed through media has created an environment where gun violence has become normalized. 

“Once I got to 15 or 16 years old, all the love, sensitivity and intelligence my mother taught me went out the window when I was out on the streets with other dudes. A mother alone can definitely raise a son, but when it gets to that point when he has to understand who he is as a man, she can’t explain that to him.”

– Gun reform advocate and Mike Lee fellow Jarue Lawson

In a phone call following the roundtable, Brown told several stories of when he had been threatened with guns. Each story as astonishing as the other, Brown was once robbed at gunpoint twice in the same night. 

“They put the strap in my friend’s face. I started saying ‘chill homie chill, we just got robbed down the block,’ and they just left us,” he said. 

Petty neighborhood feuds turn into deadly shootouts that only further grow out of hand.  

“What gun violence does, and a reason why a lot of us get involved in it, we have no other way to show that we mean anything,” Lawson said. “The fact that we hate each other will cause us to point at each other. To us, the only way we can show that like ‘I’m here’ is that epic feeling of pulling out a gun, of shooting at each other, of having a gun at all times.” 

Halfway through July, there had been 224 homicides in Philadelphia. This year is on pace to be the deadliest year in Philly in more than a decade. Gun violence is a problem embedded into American society through economics and culture. 

“Where do we start? We start young. By 9 years old, if kids that look like me don’t see people who look like them doing things that are successful, they’ll start checking out of school at 9 years old,” Lawson said. 

Sister Taleah and the City of Dreams Coalition provides skills-based programs and hosts events for Black youth. Brown transitioned from a battle rapper to promoting positivity in his community and has started a nonprofit called the ABRO Foundation.

After 20 years in prison Lawson is working to keep people out of prison. Summers of death won’t dissuade a will hungry for change in Philadelphia. Countless organizations and community leaders continue to fight for peace in Philly’s streets.

As Chance the Rapper wrote:

It just got warm out, this the shit I’ve been warned about.

I hope that it storms in the morning, I hope that it’s pouring out.

I hate crowded beaches; I hate the sound of fireworks.

And I ponder what’s worse between knowing it’s over and dying first.

Cause everybody dies in the summer.

Wanna say your goodbyes, tell them while it’s spring.