In Point Breeze, a protest over play guns gets quick results

Protesters gathered outside a corner store over the sale of airsoft guns. The owner agreed to stop selling the toy. (Jenice Armstrong/Staff)

WHEN SEAN Williams noticed three school-age boys playing with what looked an awful lot like large-caliber semiautomatic handguns Saturday in Point Breeze, he pulled out his cellphone and started filming.

"Where did you get that jawn from?" Williams asked the youngsters.

The boys turned and pointed at Point Save Super Market, a corner store on Point Breeze Avenue at Latona Street. "What are you going to do?" one of them asked nervously.

Williams responded: "You're cool, young'un. It ain't about you."

Residents of the South Philly neighborhood had been buzzing in recent days about incidents involving airsoft guns that shoot hard plastic balls: One kid's eye reportedly was injured and another kid allegedly had some sort of encounter with police. Most of all, they're scared that a child might make the potentially fatal mistake of brandishing one at a cop or someone else who might mistake it for the real thing.

Just last month, a black man in Cincinnati was fatally shot at a Walmart while holding a BB gun he had picked up in the store. And of course there are the highly publicized cases of unarmed black teens who were fatally shot: Trayvon Martin in 2012 in Florida and Michael Brown this summer in Ferguson, Mo.

Williams, who grew up in Point Breeze, got busy posting his video online along with a flier urging community residents to join him in a protest at 1 p.m. Monday outside the market. It quickly went viral. As of last night, it had been shared on Facebook nearly 3,000 times.

By 12:30 p.m. on Labor Day, neighbors were milling about outside the store. They brought hand-lettered signs and chanted, "Stop selling BB guns." Crowd estimates ranged from 50 to almost 100 protesters in the sweltering heat. Over and over, they urged would-be shoppers not to go into the store. The shop wound up closing early - a move that the residents applauded.

"Even when they locked up, we stood out there for another three hours," said Anton Moore, who runs a nonprofit called Unity in the Community. "Our goal was to send a message."

"What if you were a cop and you see someone reach for a gun? You don't have time to determine whether it's real or fake. . . . All they know is their lives may be in jeopardy and you have to act fast," he added.

Aside from their bright-orange plastic tips, the guns look frighteningly realistic.

"If you take the orange top off or you put tape around it to make it look real, you're cool," Moore pointed out. "They idolize things like that."

When I stopped by the market yesterday, the store's owner, who identified himself only as Alejandro, told me he was no longer selling the guns.

"Somebody asked me to stop selling," he said in broken English. "We don't sell them no more.

"We are done with that."

They had damn well better be. The rule in Philly is: "No person shall sell, offer for sale at retail, or use, or possess with intent to use, any air gun, spring gun, or any implement not a firearm which forcefully impels a pellet of any kind."

Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, a lifelong Point Breeze resident, told me that a Licenses & Inspections rep stopped by the store yesterday and saw no evidence that the guns were still being sold.

Score one for the residents of Point Breeze. I'm so proud of them. I wish I could high-five them all. Neighborhoods everywhere could learn a few things from this one.

Neighbors didn't just sit on their stoops and wait on government officials to swoop in and protect their precious children.

Nah, they acted like grown folks used to do back in the day and straightened things out themselves. And it didn't take them forever to organize.

In a second video available online, Moore verbally went in hard on the store owner about endangering the lives of local kids by selling play guns. Typically mild-mannered, he didn't ask - he demanded that they remove them from store shelves. Moore was like a papa bear protecting his cubs.

Monday's protest was the talk of the neighborhood as passers-by checked in with organizers.

"The community stood up and said, 'We are not going to stand for this, and in a peaceful way took the power of the purse . . . and said we will not patronize this store," said state Rep. Jordan Harris, D-Phila., another lifelong Point Breeze resident. "The most fundamental thing that a community can do is protect its children, and that's what this was about."

Kids shouldn't be playing with any kind of guns. I wish residents had demanded that the store also get rid of the water pistols and the other cheap toy guns it sells.

"We're not trying to put them out of business," said Nakia Carr, a longtime neighborhood resident and one of the protest organizers. "But if you don't have the respect for our children to sell guns in our community then it should be."


On Twitter: @JeniceArmstrong