Look at their smiles.
The playful cock of their heads.
The adolescent bravado that they probably thought masked their insecurities, but mostly hinted at the hopes and dreams they had set their sights on.
Look at the light in their eyes, extinguished forever for one dumb reason or another – if there even was a reason.
No motive. No suspects.
How many times are those two sentences included in alerts by police, an abrupt punctuation to the premature end of a person’s life? Of the 26 teenagers shot and killed so far this year, arrests have been made in just 9.
These aren’t just the faces of Philadelphia teenagers who lost their lives to gunfire this year.
This is potential, lost. Futures, lost.
Not just for these young people, but also for the city. A city that continues to be mostly indifferent to the fact that its future is intricately linked to the future of its young men and women. Men and women who too many treat as throwaways because maybe they’d gotten into some sort of trouble, because that’s not my neighborhood, those aren’t my kids.
Because I don’t have to care. Not really.
We have reached a depressing marker in Philadelphia, and the year isn’t even over. As of Tuesday, 26 kids between the ages of 13 and 19 have been shot and killed; 27 teens were killed by gunfire last year. Teenagers whose blood spilled on streets they hardly had a chance to grow up on, whose families are left behind to bury their children, to grieve mostly on their own.
Every once in a while, a death will break through the numbing apathy, and we again pound our chests and ask ourselves: What’s it going to take? What will it take for our collective attentions to focus on the epidemic of gun violence, even as our attention is elsewhere.
I wonder all the time about what it will take. Maybe if I tell the stories differently? Maybe if I concentrate on the financial toll instead of the human one? We spend millions on anti-violence programs and we have little to show.
Maybe, maybe, maybe…Though if we’re being honest with ourselves, we already know what it takes:
If they are killed over the city line, if they are killed in a fancy neighborhood — if they are killed alongside a white person. Then, attention is paid.
The shooting deaths of Salvatore DiNubile and Caleer Miller were heartbreaking — two innocent 16-year-olds shot and killed in an instant, supposedly over some dispute between two groups of teens. But what went unsaid and mostly unnoticed is that the week before and the week after, the deaths of black teenagers, who had the misfortune of dying alone, barely got a mention, let alone the covers of the city’s largest newspapers. And what of Kierra Johnson, the young black woman and art student whose strangled body was found in the river?
Any of them might actually have gotten some attention — if they died from a heroin overdose and not from a bullet, but there, too, most weren’t the right color. Of course the opioid addiction that is claiming a generation of its own should command national attention, but not while turning a blind eye to the daily epidemic of gun violence claiming the lives of black and brown children.
There’s something obscene about the hierarchy of hurt — not just in this city but across our country, and it’s based not only on color but on celebrity.
I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we took to the streets for the countless black and brown young men the way hundreds recently did for Meek Mill.
If instead of the ubiquitous billboards screaming, “Stand With Meek Mill,” we all stood for David, Samir, Tyrese, Sybrii, Tyshiem, Bashir, Tymir, Tymier, Irell, Rajae, Hassan, Asla Marie, Hakim, Kenneth, Jai, Rodney, Messiah, Antione, Khalil…
The racial disparity in our judicial system is real and deserves attention, but imagine the attention these deaths might get if the celebrities and athletes who showed up on our streets to protest a famous rapper’s prison sentence showed up for these children?
There, in the winter coat, is Khiseer Davis-Papther. He was 13.
Markquez Houston was 16. He was a triplet.
Jahmir Simmons was 18, but he still got a kick out of trying to beat his mother at a game of spades.
Dimere Allen, 19, loved horses.
Sean Jones, 16, had been in Philadelphia only for a handful of months from Jamaica before he was shot in his father’s convenience store.
Look at their faces.
And then ask yourself: What if these were my children?