Every day, buried in the Local Section of the Philadelphia Inquirer, appear notices of those shot and often killed the night before in the streets of Philadelphia. Much of the time they are young black men, occasionally a woman, from North or Southwest Philadelphia. Even children, hit by a stray bullet.
Often at the end of the paragraph, usually not mentioning the victims’ names, is a sentence: “Police reported no arrests.”
These continual murders of human beings are horrific. What happens to the families of the victims and the killers? Is there no hope for young black men other than to pack a gun and kill or be killed? These human beings wind up dead or in jail. What if you were one of the parents of these young men or women?
Why are we solving our conflicts with guns? What can we do to change this? What kind of hope can we offer to young black males who are so vulnerable? We can complain about their violent lives, but do we know anything about them? What if you were born into a situation where selling drugs was the only job that is available to you?
While serving as a chaplain at the Philadelphia Prison, I had the opportunity to meet with survivors of crimes. During one of these encounters, I met the mother of one of these young Black men. Victoria’s son Emir, just 21 and an expectant father, was shot seven times in the back by a friend, “Randy.” Victoria shared with me her reaction to this horrible news in a way that was both tragic and insightful.
For me it was devastating. I did not want to live anymore. I was suicidal. It was very frustrating waiting for the police to catch the perpetrator. I was trying to hold off my son’s friends from taking any action of their own. I told them I didn’t want anyone else murdered. I didn’t want anyone going to prison. I said, ‘Let the police handle it.’ It was hard, as the days went on, to keep calm. The police knew who it was.
When nothing really happened from the police end, I switched from sorrow to anger. I thought: I know where “Randy” hangs out. He was walking around the community and that was upsetting to me. He’s walking around, and he’s killed my son. So, I can get a gun too. Just go where he hangs out and kill him. I didn’t care about my life. I didn’t even care about going to prison.
But it came to me that I had four daughters, and my mother was still alive. My daughters had already lost their brother. My mother had lost her grandson. She was grieving. This was a turning point for me. They would really be done if I did that. That’s when I decided to live. I said how dare I take my own life when my son didn’t even have a choice? He was murdered. How dare you take a life and cause more pain and suffering and misery? At that point I (was) going to try to live the best life I can live. Life is so fragile.
I went to speak at a prison with my daughter. She is a policewoman. Some of the prisoners were lifers. Some who were there for murder were interested in their victims’ mothers, but were not allowed to contact them. I said, “I just don’t understand how someone could kill someone, unless it’s self-defense. I just don’t understand killing someone over money or drugs. I just don’t understand it.” So one of the guys said, “Miss Greene when you’re out on the streets selling drugs, all you think of is stuff, material things, what you want to have. When you become like that, you cease to be human. And when you cease to be human, you can murder.” And I’ve never forgotten that. Materialism … stuff … to fill in the emptiness.
To help heal our pain and do something with our anger, my four daughters and I go around telling our story. We go to youth facilities trying to make an impact. We established The EMIR Healing Center — “Every Murder Is Real” — named after my son, Emir, where we serve and support families and communities who have been affected by homicide and violence.
One of the things I learned from these young men who come to our groups is this: The homicide of young black men is the direct result of racism. The racism has truly worked well. Young Black men live in a society where they are looked upon as a danger. They learn: “You’re dangerous, you’re hopeless, you won’t be successful. You’re a loser. Your life doesn’t really matter. Whatever problems you have are your fault.”
If you live in that kind of a society, your self-esteem is crushed. So, they think: “My life doesn’t really matter. And if you’re Black, your life doesn’t matter either. So that’s why I can kill ya. Your life doesn’t matter, my life doesn’t matter, and nobody cares about us.”
So, it’s really internalized racism. They internalize what the larger society says about them, and they believe it. And that’s why they will kill because, “Oh he disrespected me.” I believe they have taken in this racism, this lack of self-esteem, not feeling loved or nurtured. It is killing them and us.
Victoria’s insights are powerful, and a key to changing our approach to our city’s scourge of killings, up 37% this year so far. Victoria’s view that much of black-on-black killing comes from internalized racism — could help all of us examine our consciences. Whether we are white or black or brown, how might any of us be contributing to a belief that young Black lives don’t matter? And how might you and I take concrete steps to heal this now? A few ideas follow:
1) Notice how you might unconsciously think of young Black men: dangerous? violent? untrustworthy?
2) Try to make contact with some of these young men at a supermarket check-out counter, a gym, at your child’s school/university event, or even a nod as you pass them by in the street.
3) Try to read one of these reports of another killing with the eyes of a Black mother, father or sibling. Contact EMIR and visit them. (EMIR, Every Murder is Real, 59 E. Haines St., Philadelphia, 19144)
4) Read about their lives, including many who wind up in prison, with a book such as “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stephenson.
5) Pray that you might treat them with the respect God has for them, even if they don’t quite believe this themselves yet.
Father Paul Morrissey is in residence at St. Augustine Parish, Philadelphia.
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