Holistic (& Not So Stupid) "Mass Shooting" Conversations
Each time a "mass shooting" flares up anywhere on Main Street America or in Any City, USA shouldn't automatically trigger the same tired, overused and unintelligent ramblings we've heard before
As predicted, Philadelphia lunged into yet another catastrophic warm weekend of mass casualty gun violence. The latest, however, has a different ring to it since it happened on the typically crowded and heavily marketed tourist-local mix attraction of Philly’s famed South Street - at one of the famed strip’s busier intersections where one can find everything from novelty shops to delicious hole-in-the-wall cheesesteak counters to music venues, coffee stops and restaurants. Three killed and 11 injured in one seemingly endless horror show of random and indiscriminate shoot-out is surely enough to rattle any city. However, what differentiates this recent event from others is that 1) it’s a place heavily promoted by Philadelphia to the world as one of its more unique selling points beyond Independence Hall and that fictional Rocky statue and 2) a lot of White people love to hang out there.
What this means now is that the conversation and official response to Philadelphia’s already high rates of gun violence are going to turn dramatically and rather dangerously in a different (and rather unproductive) direction. Much of the violence, in fact the vast majority violence, in Philadelphia is preventable. But, because we’ve now had a deadly mass shooting in a highly-trafficked and beloved public space that’s caught the national attention, as predictable as that violence will be the very ugly knee-jerk “do something!” scramble that follows any preventable event that societies failed to prevent. Yet, we could easily be going about this differently. Some thoughts …
First: let’s all step back and have a much more complete and holistic conversation about gun violence rather than pointing to the usual list of reasons why Black people are the overwhelming majority of gun violence victims (80 percent) in Philadelphia and the overwhelming majority of gun violence perpetrators (80 percent). This conversation is otherwise known, popularly, as “Black-on-Black crime” and it leads to equally unproductive claims that gun violence is out-of-control simply because of a lack of “personal responsibility,” lack of two-parent homes, and that all it takes to reduce gun violence is for “these people” to make the right choices. But, since all homicides, globally, are committed by people who are in close proximity to other people who look like them (White people are more likely to kill other White people, Asians more likely to kill other Asians, Arabs more likely to kill other Arabs and so on and so forth), there’s nothing special or extraordinary about “Black on Black crime” other than it’s stereotypical racist trash ideology that’s looking for as much cover for systemic racism as possible.
But, bottom line: while there is quite a bit of violence happening in Black communities in places like Philadelphia, the vast majority of Black people still don’t commit crimes, don’t kill people and don’t ever see the inside of a jail (even though we’re disproporationaly impacted by all of the above).
“Personal responsibility” conversations reflexively lead to more nonsensical public discourse about a wide range of other culprits … other than the actual sources and origins of violence, chaos and destabilization in American society. Within seconds, proclaimed experts will point to video games, “rap,” and “what the kids are wearing.” But, rarely do we have conversations about high illiteracy rates: 54 percent of the U.S. population can’t read beyond 8th grade while just 15 percent of Black 8th graders are reading at or above grade level and just 18 percent of Black 12th graders are the same - In Philadelphia, just 36 percent of all 8th graders are reading proficient. Nor do we get into underfunded and broken school systems. We don’t get into food deserts or unaffordable housing and rental pricing. We don’t talk about how the criminal violence is, naturally, high where there’s high levels of divestment and historic racial zoning, redlining, underfunding, pollution and segregation. People who ignore these factors are, for the most part, from backgrounds or places where they’ve never dealt with any of the above stressors, much less studied them. With these factors at play, how do you not predict rising violent crime?
But, funny enough: we keep having those same discussions on repeat every generation - and still haven’t found a solution, yet, have we? We had the “it’s video games and rap music” discussion 30 years ago during the last major wave of gun violence and look where that got us. Exactly: we didn’t solve any of the underlying problems and happened to arrive right back in the same place. Only difference is we have Internet, smartphones and cars with touch screens now.
Interestingly enough, rarely does the public conversation ever acknowledge that “hey, you know what? Places where there’s full investment in communities, basic services and schools (or where the kids aren’t starving and dealing with housing insecurity or utility cutoffs regularly or lack of amenities like air conditioning) don’t have any issues with high rates of homicidal violence.” But, exactly: places crumbling from years of chronic disinvestment and having none of those features above do.
There’s a Better Way …
In the wake of a tragic violence spree like this, frightened people are going to immediately grab for solutions. But, we’ve first got to figure out how we do that without relying on ideas that are 1) antiquated and weren’t working before and 2) don’t provide much of anything other than a security blanket. Here are some initial thoughts on that as we head in a better direction …
First: let’s stop jumping to the police as the only and most effective solution to gun violence in America. Recent events have shown us that not only are police not helping, but they - and they’re unions - are a large part of the problem. Yet, we keep on praising them for non-performance. Not only do Philadelphia police regularly and aggressively patrol South Street (in fact, shooters during Saturday night’s event were reportedly standing 10-15 feet away from officers), but the department is dealing with a 15 percent absence rate while officers just got raises and bonuses while they only solve 40 percent of homicides while many of them still refuse to get vaccinated for COVID. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia police department’s budget just ballooned to nearly $900 million in the recent fiscal year.
No one is saying get rid of police. We do need police - we just need police and policing that acutally work towards public safety (versus working on flexing muscle). We need to rid police departments of ineffective officers, purge them of racists and force them to perform the work they’re being paid (handsomely in some cases) to do.
Meanwhile: we need to stop putting all “mass shootings” under one umbrella. What happened on South Street was a mass shooting: but, it was criminal and community-based in nature. But, the types of mass shootings we’ve seen in Buffalo, NY and Uvalde, TX were acts of terrorism inspired or triggered by white supremacist and white nationalist ideology spreading online and elsewhere. Hence, there are two types of mass shooting: one ideologically-driven and other criminally-driven. Conflating the two prompts us to avoid recognizing the root causes and solving the problem.
Still: at the end of the day, the spread and increase of both forms of mass shooting presents a major national security threat that must be dealt with robustly and intelligently.
Which is why it’s not, stupidly, a “personal responsibility” issue. It requires a lot more depth than that and a broad range of multi-faceted solutions. There are quite a few out there.
Ultimately, all mass shooting roads lead to two common denominators: 1) the mass proliferation, availability and accessibility of guns in America, particularly military-grade assault weapons and 2) the acceleration of chaos and destabilization in America. Full stop. Hence, discussions in any community need to focus on how to reduce gun proliferation and how to stop destabilizing chaos. How do we reverse those trends?
Philadelphia should not be surprised that gun violence is happening, even less so when a mass shooting happens at a popular destination like South Street. Gun violence in a place like Philadelphia leads back to two common demominators, always: 1) Violence, especially at this scale, rarely happens in fully invested communities and 2) Violence, especially at this scale, always happens in communities decimated by disinvestment. How did you not think the latter played any central role?
More to come …