The first-floor windows of Kasim Shaw’s South Philadelphia rowhouse served as babysitter and teacher.
“As soon as I peeked out my window,” Shaw said, “I got a firsthand look of what was going on.”
From this perch, the little boy watched, soaking it all in.
Men — at least they looked like men to him, though they were probably no older than he is now at 20 — took to the streets.
The props helped: fancy cars, pretty women, drug money thick as bricks.
Fear or respect, they can look like the same thing to a child.
It all left an impression, even when Shaw’s mother moved him and his younger brothers from the home around Seventh and Cantrell Streets.
And just in time, she thought, as her oldest excelled in school and sports and was making plans for college.
“I knew what he was seeing in the neighborhood,” said Kasim’s mother, Izetta Shaw. “I was just praying that those things wouldn’t influence him, and when I saw that they might, I tried to save every bit that I made to try to hurry to get him away from that.
“But the things you see growing up stick to you.”
It stuck with Shaw, and sometime around his senior year, he began watching other things. How the electricity sometimes got shut off at home. How no matter how hard his mother worked in her nursing program during the day, or her job at night, he was left wanting. Angry.
He thought back to what he saw out those windows. And then, he became one of those man-boys, props and all. Until cops arrested him on multiple drug charges in 2017.
Shaw lucked out. It was his first offense, and a few months later he was granted admission into a diversion program called “The Choice Is Yours” that has helped keep him out of prison, earn his high school diploma, and will wipe his record clean, if he stays out of trouble.
But there’s no extra credit on the streets, and the very neighborhood where he nearly threw his life away was also where his 18-year-old half-brother, Hassan Kay, lost his life last year when he was gunned down.
Shaw was close enough to hear the crack of gunshots, so many it sounded as if an army had rolled onto the block. Another brother held Kay until police came, and put him in their cruiser in a vain attempt to save him.
Shaw draws in a deep breath. “I’m sorry, but that was my brother. … It gets to me.”
They shared a father who was mostly in and out prison, who is behind bars right now. But they also shared a bond strengthened by a love of basketball and each other.
“Even when we had nothing,” he said, “we had each other.”
If Kay hadn’t been killed, Shaw was certain he’d be among the large group to see him graduate. There was his mother, his brothers, ages 7 and 13, and his 3-month-old daughter he named Sevyn after the street where he made his mistakes and where he began to come back from them.
Just as the name of the program that helped him get there implies, Shaw said he’s made his choice.
“I am doing this in my brother’s honor,” he said.
As we get closer to calling Philadelphians impacted by gun violence to the Philadelphia Art Museum steps on June 11, I’ve been thinking a lot about just what that “impact” looks like in this city.
When we tell the stories, we often tell them through mothers and fathers. But the impact spares no one, especially the siblings. Sisters and brothers whose grief can sometimes be overshadowed, pushed away or deep down as they try to fill the void, to live up to two lives.
Brothers like Shaw, whose grief drives him to do better for himself, but also the younger brothers he knows are watching him just as closely as he once watched those men on his street.
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