PHILADELPHIA — As gun violence continues to plague the Philadelphia region and the nation as a whole, two teens served by Catholic Social Services of the Philadelphia Archdiocese are providing an inside view behind the bullets.
The youth, who were adjudicated by Philadelphia’s juvenile court system to the Catholic agency for treatment, agreed to speak with CatholicPhilly.com, the archdiocesan news outlet, about their own experiences with gun violence and its tangle of risk factors.
The 90-minute interview, recorded earlier this year and edited as a CatholicPhilly.com podcast, was conducted under the supervision of Catholic Social Services youth care worker Gary Hill, whose own son had survived a shooting attack several years earlier.
Hill and the youths — who asked to be identified as L.A. and Omar and whose original language has been preserved — agreed that gun violence in the city has dramatically escalated over the years, with more bystanders becoming victims and fewer witnesses willing to cooperate in law enforcement investigations.
Having grown up amid guns, neither L.A. nor Omar were confident the solutions typically advanced to address the issue — such as legislation, enhanced policing and community outreach — will produce any immediate or lasting effects.
Because, they said, the issues are complex, interconnected factors spanning individual, family and community levels — all of which converge at the tip of the bullet.
The chaos of gun violence in Philadelphia is partly shaped by some unwritten but very real “rules” that seek to preserve territory and privacy, said Omar and L.A.
“I don’t know why cops think we just killing for no reason,” Omar said. “The world’s different now. It’s kill or be killed.”
Avoiding either fate requires a keen awareness of one’s surroundings and a deference to those perceived to hold power over them.
“Mind your business. Keep your head up, keep your feet moving,” said L.A. “If you not from there, don’t be staring. You don’t know what’s around that corner, so if you trying to be nosy and see what (someone is) doing, you turn around that corner and get your head knocked right off your shoulder.”
Heavily tinted car windows (often darkened well in excess of Pennsylvania’s approved levels) can — along with vehicle speed — be both a defense and a provocation, the youth said.
“You driving too slow and … you in a tinted car, you don’t know if they going to drop the window or not,” said Omar. “So shoot first.”
Pressure to “be down with gangs” and impress fellow members also is behind the surge in killings, he said.
Witnesses to shootings and related illegal activities on Philadelphia’s streets are silenced by the fear of “consequences and repercussions,” said Omar.
“They really live by that code (of) not ratting,” L.A. agreed. “Witnesses are scared. Let’s say an old lady see me shooting. She not gonna come to the court room; she live on my block. She see what I be doing all day, every day. She not coming to that court hearing. … Her grandbabies be over there; you feel me?”
On the street, revenge is forever, both teens said.
“People don’t let stuff go,” said L.A. “I’m not going to forget you shot me. … I’m going to remember your face. … If I see you again, you’re gonna die.”
But for all the so-called rules, in the end, “bullets got no names,” said Omar. “(If) you shot at, (then) you shot at.”
“They don’t be having no aim,” L.A. said. “They just shooting. … So don’t think they going to have mercy ’cause you with your mom or you with a little kid or something. … People don’t care about that no more.”
Bystanders, including babies, are “getting killed (who) got nothing to do” with the grievances — known as “beefs”–– that lead to pulled triggers, he said.
Such conflicts can start small and flare for “a whole lot of different reasons,” quickly drawing in “crews” that line up to do battle across the city’s neighborhoods, said L.A.
“You shoot one of us … we shooting at you, and people (are) dying,” he said.
Social media, rap music, video games, drugs and alcohol all fuel the fury, said Hill and the youth.
“Music is supposed to touch their soul, but it’s controlling their minds at this point,” Hill said. “The rap tells you, ‘Catch him coming out the store, hit his door.’ … The lyrics (say) it’s hip to kill you at the mall, it’s hip to kill you coming out your house. … It’s glorification.”
Rappers “be saying stuff we been through; that’s why we like (their music),” said Omar, while L.A. noted the lyrics “start getting in your head, (and) you start living that song.”
Against that soundtrack, Instagram and other social media platforms allow youth to project a fantasy image of themselves, stirring up rivalries and tempers.
Those who post pictures of themselves flaunting “nice designer stuff … money (and) jewels,” often pawned and bartered just for show, put themselves at risk of being robbed and killed, said L.A. and Omar.
In addition, drugs, alcohol and video games mask — and mar — reality, they said.
“I got friends (who) really do think it’s like a video game,” said L.A. “And you would never see them sober, ever. They can’t stand being sober; they got to be high because they done so much stuff and been through so much stuff.”
At the core of the city’s gun violence, said the youth, are wounds inherited and intensified with each new generation: scars inflicted by broken families, addiction, racism, poverty and unrelenting experiences of everyday violence.
“People got trauma,” said L.A. “They don’t just be trying to be tough or nothing. … I’ve seen people close to me get shot right in front of my face, (with) they blood on me. That mess with your head. … I used to think it was normal ’cause it’s all I was used to.”
With little hope for change, youth despair and conclude that “nobody got it good in Philly,” said Omar.
Parents and children alike are too often swept into a downward spiral, they said.
“I didn’t have my folks (in my life),” said L.A. “My pop is doing 22 years in jail. My mom was on drugs; both my grandmoms was on drugs.”
As a very young child, L.A. even “slept on the streets” with his mother; when he turned 8, “friends started dying,” he said.
The streets offer little protection, and even less opportunity for escape, said the teens.
Neighborhood businesses are reluctant to hire local youth, fearful their presence will make stores targets of gun violence, they said.
Asked if there were any places in which they felt safe, the teens shook their heads.
Asked if they had any dreams, the teens shook their heads again.
The teens were adamant that while ending gun violence was an essentially impossible task — “it’s not gonna happen,” said Omar — curative responses to the crisis should not come from “outsiders.”
Many proposals are simply naive and unrealistic, especially as gun violence increasingly breaks out in more neighborhoods at all hours of the day and night, added L.A.
But while gun violence seems inexorable, both teens said they and their peers ultimately know firearms can’t fill their deepest needs — and those cries of the heart provide clues as to what actually might help stop the bullets.
“I wish I had my dad in my life,” said L.A.
“I want to be happy with my family, ’cause my mom died and I got nobody; I’m just here,” said Omar. “I just want to know what my life would be like if my mom was still here. That’s all I want to know.”
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Editor’s Note: The CatholicPhilly.com podcast of the interview with L.A. and Omar can be found on SoundCloud at https://bit.ly/38XdzOb.
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Christian is a senior content producer for CatholicPhilly.com, the news website of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.